The Dark Knight Rises (A-)
U.S.: Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., 2012
A visual marvel and a hellaciously exciting action movie, a show also full of doom, gloom, violence and unexpected poetry and emotion -- and very little humor of any kind -- The Dark Knight Rises is the latest movie incarnation, and one of the most numbingly spectacular, of the adventures of Bob Kane's legendary caped comic-book crime-buster Batman, a.k.a. rich guy Bruce Wayne. It's Batman as interpreted by Christopher Nolan, and, very simply, and despite flaws, he just burns up the screen with this movie
Also aboard for this $250 million roller-coaster ride is a fine troupe of actors (some new to the series, some not), including Christian Bale (as the damaged and reclusive Bruce Wayne, alias The Batman), Anne Hathaway (as saucy cat burglar Selena Kyle, alias The Catwoman), Tom Hardy (as the brutal, wire-faced terrorist-killer Bane), Michael Caine (a real treat reprising his role as the Wayne Mansion's majestically sage butler/chauffeur/philosopher Alfred), Morgan Freeman (as the Wayne Industries mastermind Lucius Fox), Gary Oldman (as the integral and vulnerable Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as John Blake, the good cop and Batman fan), and Marion Cotillard as the woman who might be Wayne's savior (and more, if he's willing), Miranda Tate.
Everything becomes jaw-droppingly magnified in the images -- from the mid-air nightmare that begins the movie (a James Bond-style skyjacking episode, with the plane's nose sheared off and pointed skyward while villains climb the hull), to Bruce Wayne's nerve-jangling ascent in the pit where he's imprisoned by Bane, to the all-out terrifying terror-assaults by Bane on the Stock Exchange, the New York City bridge system and the NFL (Gotham City's team are the Rogues), and to the super-inflated, rip-roaring street races and chases, some of which look like The French Connection on steroids.
The plot is, at bottom, standard super-hero comic book stuff: Boy Meets Villain. Villain Bests Boy. Boy Bests Villain. (The fate of the world may or may not be hanging in the balance, depending on how ambitious the visual and special effects people are.) Here, Bruce Wayne is just about to emerge from eight years as a Wayne Mansion Howard Hughes-ish recluse after his loss, in The Dark Knight, of his beloved Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and after the death of Two Face, lawman/criminal Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and the pariah status Batman received because of it. But hell is about to stalk Gotham's streets once more, foaming at the mouth, spreading wanton destruction.
Here, the Boss Villain is Bane, the ultimate terrorist, a bulked-up super-wrestler wearing a strange steel-wire-looking lower-facial contraption that makes him look like an insane hockey player -- a cold-blooded murderer with eyes like chainsaws, heavy artillery at his side, and a voice like Darth Vader, gargling. Bane is employed by a bunch of Wall Street wolves, hot to take over Wayne Industries, but Bane is an unreliable employee and his larger plan is to plant a nuclear bomb somewhere in Gotham, and otherwise wreak havoc.
It's a great comic book movie. But how many comic book movies do we really need? Wouldn't it be better, or just as good, artistically and maybe even financially, to try to make more movies like the greater and more realistic and more humane movie epics of the past? Movies with spectacle and scripts, action and ideas, adventure and humanity? Anyway, if we get many more comic book movies, and we probably will, it's obvious that people like Nolan and company) should be making them.
U. S.: Chris Butler/Sam Fell, 2012, Focus
ParaNorman, a.k.a. Norman Babcock, mini-hero of the entertainingly creepy stop-motion animated feature that bears his name, not only has three dimensions but a sixth sense to boot. He sees the dead -- and also talks to them, watches sleazy zombie movies with them, plays with them, and tries to understand them and protect them from those occasionally obstreperous and definitely zombie-phobic creatures known as living, uh, human beings. ParaNorman, or ParaNorm for short, is a kind of a macabre kid, but he's also an adorable one -- with his teensy vulnerable, 11-year-old stop-motion physique, his toothbrush-bristle coiffure, his glum but winsome voice (charmingly supplied by Kodi Smit McPhee) and his big, sad, dark cartoon-movie kid eyes.
ParaNorm lives in a Stephen King-ish New England town called Blithe Hollow, which 300 years ago, was the site of witch hunts and a witch trial, and a hung witch whose swaying likeness now is part of the Blithe Hollow's hard-sell witch self-branding (with streets full of witch cafes and witch shoppes and witch memorabilia, and maybe a take-out coven or two) -- and which also inspired the annual witch school plays, written and directed by the fruitily theatrical Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein), with a pilgrim part for Norm.
Don't be deceived by his temporary Blithe Hollow stardom. ParaNorm is a picked-on little outsider locally famous as the kid who sees spooks (which nobody else can, of course), still watches TV with the greenish ghost of his grandma (Elaine Stritch) and is fussed over by the rest of his family, the Babcocks -- fat macho papa Perry (Jeff Garlin), protective mama Sandra (Leslie Mann) and ditzy, dismissive older sis Courtney (Anna Kendrick). And he's otherwise made miserable by a gallery of "normal" Blithe Hollowites which includes toad-faced school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the flamboyant Mrs. Henscher, plus the abnormal and overfamiliar Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman).
Then there are the Dead themselves, which include the persecuted witches and the judges who persecuted them and a tragic little girl. In all this comically grisly stew of the living dead and the obnoxious alive, Norm's one faithful chum is his tubby, congenial schoolmate Neil (Tucker Abruzzi). Neil, however, comes with a hunk-dumbo and definitely Norm-unappreciative older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), the not-too-swift heart-throb of not-too-sharp Courtney.
You can see that writer Chris Butler -- who also co-directed with Sam Fell (Flushed Away) -- likes big casts. (There are even more dead and live ones here we haven't mentioned.) That's all to the good, and it endows ParaNorman with that feel of boisterous life that many of the best recent animated features have -- and most of the big live action movies don't. It's also a wonderful-looking movie -- with the living-doll-or-toy likeability, depth and fullness that the best stop-motion puppetry can endow -- from George Pal to Ray Harryhausen to Nick Park and Wallace and Gromit to the great underseen Jiri Trnka.
The town is funny itself, a kind of All-American gothic New England dark joke, and all of the people and creatures in it have lots of personality -- both the voice performances and the character animation.
The movie's mixture of the genuinely macabre and the adorable (and funny), makes for a pleasant, smartly cute (and cutely smart) entertainment, probably as much of a ghastly treat for adults as it is for kids.
Step Up Revolution (D+)
U.S.: Scott Speer, 2012, Summit Entertainment
You don't have to be a nincompoop to want to see something like Step Up Revolution, but it probably helps. The fourth in the Step Up series, which gave the world Channing Tatum in its first outing, and this time settles for male model Ryan Guzman (as hunky Sean) and dancer Kathryn McCormick (as lissome Emily), this is a ludicrous example of what you might call the "Hey Kids! Let's put on a flash mob, and get it on You Tube!" musical, a slick-quick-and-dumb-as-a-brick movie, shot in Miami, that has no apparent rationale except to get a bunch of buff kids, led by Guzman and McCormick, slithering and hopping and flash mobbing and dirty-dancing away to recorded music by talent like J.Lo, M.I.A., M83 and Far East Movement.
Excuse me, I completely forgot the revolution. Simultaneously, in the midst of all this hopping and slithering and deejaying, the movie tries to justify itself to picky (or gullible) audiences and critics by including an allegedly socially conscious plot. All those (gifted) buff jumpers and butt wigglers, led by Guzman and his chum Eddy (Misha Gabriel) in a Miami Beach group and flash mob they call The Mob, are actually staging dance-protests to prevent the destruction of their neighborhood by Mr. Anderson (Peter Gallagher), a greedy real estate developer who wants to build a huge hotel complex over the ruins -- and then maybe build himself a Miami home modeled on Buckingham Palace or Elsinore -- and who conveniently turns out to be Emily's dad and gosh, you know, not such a bad guy after all.
Oh, excuse me, I completely forgot the love story. In the midst of all this class warfare, Sean and Emily meet at the local resort, where he's a waiter, and she's daddy's daughter and she wants to be a star dance student and dancer and thinks the Mob can teach her a few moves, and he wants to put on a few moves himself. It's Romeo. It's Juliet. It's, I don't know, fate. She's a rich girl. He's a poor boy -- who just scrapes by on his waiter's salary, enough to afford a huge loft, all kinds of elaborate electronics equipment (including video), and whatever they pay (or don't pay) the rest of the Mob, and their choreographers, and their designers, and whoever plans their schedules so they can run around dancing at traffic jams and disrupting speeches by Gallagher the developer and the mayor.
It's sometimes said that if you put a hundred (or maybe a million) monkeys on typewriters (computers now) and monitored the results, eventually they'd come up with the complete plays of Shakespeare, or at least Neil Simon's first five. I'll go a step further (up). I think all those monkeys, on their very first try, could have written a better script than this, even if they could only manage zzzzzzzzzzzzz, repeated a million times.