DVD Mini-Reviews: The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1, Nobody Walks, Smashed

While I haven’t been making it to the theater as much lately, I have been catching up on last year’s DVDs. Here’s another batch of mini-reviews for recent releases:

The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 [2012]
The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 [dir. Jay Oliva]
If you thought The Dark Knight Rises featured an old and broken down Batman, wait till you see The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1. From the very first scene, Batman (voiced to perfection by Peter Weller) is near unrecognizable. Now donning withered, gray hair, Bruce Wayne is retired and trying to keep a low profile. It has been ten years since Batman last made an appearance, and now Gotham is rampant with crime and debauchery once again. The return of the maniacal Two Face — now with a completely reconstructed face — convinces Bruce to bring out the black cape and try to save Gotham.

Outside of Two Face, the main villains of the film are the gang known as the Mutants. Their leader is an exceptionally large brute who gives Batman a real run for his money. He’s a worthwhile adversary, and there’s no guarantee that Bruce, now 55 years old, can match him blow-for-blow. He is aided by a newly introduced Robin — just how many of them are there?? — though this character isn’t fleshed out too much. Still, the conclusion sets up part two fantastically, and I can’t wait to get my hands on that DVD. 8/10

Nobody Walks [2012]
Nobody Walks [dir. Ry Russo-Young]
In this disappointing drama, Olivia Thirlby stars as Martine, a young artist who stays with a Silver Lake family in hopes of finishing her filmmaking project. Thirtysomething Peter (John Krasinski), a sound engineer and the father of the household, is helping her with the mixing, and he is instantly attracted to the young, carefree guest. The film quickly turns into a “will they or won’t they” drama, and this extends into the rest of the family. Peter’s wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a therapist who is tempted by one of her clients (Justin Kirk). Their 16-year-old daughter, Kolt (India Ennenga), is infatuated with Peter’s assistant, David (Rhys Wakefield), and he is more interested in the age-appropriate Martine. Oh, and there’s Marcello (Emanuele Secci), Kolt’s sleazy Italian language tutor who keeps hitting on her.

The film presents all of these potential relationships and flings in a hopelessly dull manner. None of the characters are given any real development, and none of them, save maybe Julie, are even remotely likable. This is due to an incredibly poor script (co-written by Lena Dunham, surprisingly) that gives the generally strong cast nothing to work with. I like most of the cast — especially Thirlby — but this is an incredible waste of their talents. The film’s brief 83-minute running time still manages to feel like a chore, and the end result is a pointless effort all around. 3/10

Smashed [2012]
Smashed [dir. James Ponsoldt]
Alcoholism is a tricky subject to portray in film, but Smashed offers an interesting perspective — what if an alcoholic attempts to get help, yet their significant other makes no effort to cease their own drinking? This is the case with Marie (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a school teacher who hits rock bottom and realizes she needs to get help, fast. It turns out that her colleague, Dave (Nick Offerman), has been sober for ten years, and he brings her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She finds a sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), and begins the road to recovery. However, this begins taking its toll on her marriage, as her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), has little interest in stopping his heavy-drinking ways.

The relationship between Marie and Charlie is believable, and the two talented young actors have good chemistry. Winstead, in particular, delivers an amazing performance, one that could very well be career-defining. Occasional bits of humor break up the bleakness — Offerman’s character has the line of the movie, natch — but this is a drama by all means. It’s a shame that this one flew under the radar last year, as it’s well worth seeing for the performances alone. 8/10

Have you guys seen any of these? What did you think of them?

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises [2012]

The Dark Knight Rises [2012]

The Dark Knight Rises [2012]
Directors: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman
Runtime: 164 minutes

Note: I tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, but you may want to tread lightly in the comments/feedback.

Eight years is a long time. After the wanton chaos and destruction in 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s hard to imagine Gotham City remaining in a peaceful state for eight long years, especially without their legendary protector, Batman.

The man behind their hero, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), has also gone missing during this time. Now a recluse with a bum leg, Wayne spends his days locked inside Wayne Manor. It’s not until a run-in with master jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) that Bruce musters up the will to do anything meaningful. Quickly he learns about the recent appearance of a monstrous villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), who is on a mission to destroy Gotham. Despite warnings from his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Wayne once again suits up as Batman to save his beloved city.

The Dark Knight Rises [2012]

That is a summary of the plot in its most basic form, but at a sprawling 165 minutes, there is a lot to digest. Bane’s planned destruction of Gotham is at the forefront, but a number of minor characters are introduced into the chaos, all of whom are tied into this in a variety of ways. Newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt has an especially crucial role as rookie police officer John Blake, a clever lad who acts as a bit of an understudy to Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) while also discovering Batman’s identity on his own. Two other newcomers play important parts in this ever-encompassing saga: Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who has a very complex relationship with Batman/Wayne, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist investor with an interest in Wayne Industries.

All of these characters, and many old favorites, are seamlessly interweaved together to create a grand feature that can holds its own against the rest of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. A strong case could be made for any of the three to be the “best” of the bunch, and right now I would put this a close second to The Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight Rises [2012] -- BANE

A big reason why this film succeeds is because of its main villain. Every good superhero movie needs a badass adversary, and Bane is one of the best yet. Menacing and physically dominating, Bane is frightening nearly every time he is on screen. As I witnessed the destruction of Gotham City first hand, I was wondering just how the hell Batman and/or the city would make it out in one piece. Bane is as intimidating as I have seen any villain in recent years, and his bizarre face mask only adds to his daunting persona. There were a few moments where his mask would make it hard to understand his dialogue, and his audio did seem unnecessarily louder than others, but these are mere nitpicks. The dude is impressive, and he is a more than worthy rival to our legendary hero.

For a film pushing three hours in length, there really isn’t a lot of “fat” here. Everything happens for a reason, and most plot devices are explained in depth for newcomers (or those who need a quick refresher). There are definitely moments in which a certain amount of suspension of disbelief will be required, including the much-discussed ending, but that is to be expected in a fictional universe like this. Taken on its merits, The Dark Knight Rises works exactly as it should.

The Dark Knight Rises [2012]

Is this a perfect film? No, not exactly. The weird audio problems with Bane are a little too noticeable, and I found occasional bits of dialogue from others that irked me the wrong way. There is one cop early in the movie, a very minor character, who has maybe three lines of dialogue total. Even though he was incredibly minute in the big picture, I winced every time he was on screen. Each line was forced and unnecessary, and it felt strangely out of place while in the middle of an epic car chase. Again, I am really nitpicking here, but that stuck with me for some reason.

Regardless, tiny complaints aside, I couldn’t ask for a better conclusion than The Dark Knight Rises. The story, the cast, the characters, Han Zimmer’s score. All top quality. This is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen, and I would be hard pressed to find a better summer blockbuster this year.

9/10

Poll Results: Best Oliver Stone Film + Bonus Weekend Roundup

There was never any doubt this time. The poll winner for Oliver Stone’s best film is:

Platoon [1986]

THE RESULTS:
– Platoon: 12 votes
– JFK: 6 votes
– Natural Born Killers: 6 votes
– Born on the Fourth of July: 1 vote
– The Doors: 1 vote
– U Turn: 1 vote
– W.: 1 vote
– Wall Street: 1 vote

It seems like I should have allowed two votes here since the winner was never really in question. Still, interesting to see a two-way tie for second, as well as a handful of scattered votes for other films. This also serves as a reminder that I need to revisit Natural Born Killers at some point.

This Week’s Poll: Well, we all know what’s going on this weekend, and this week’s poll fits in with the summer’s biggest film event. The winner of this poll is likely already a given, but I’m holding out hope for a surprise or two. Instead, of asking what the *best* Batman film is, I want to know what your *favorite* is. If you enjoy getting drunk with your buddies and watching Batman & Robin more than anything, then by all means go ahead and vote for that. What Batman movie do you come back to the most?

WEEKEND ROUNDUP:

As a new addendum to the weekly poll results, I am going to start including a brief weekend roundup. I have been meaning to add more of a “personal” feel to The Warning Sign, and this is as good of way as any.

Friday: After grabbing some pizza with friends, I headed over to a local bar for a movie blogger meetup. Ryan from The Matinee was visiting from Toronto, and he was cool enough to set up a gathering of Chicago bloggers (including the creative minds behind Cinema Romantico, Duke & the Movies, All Eyes on Screen, Commentary Track and Film Yarn) for some beers and a movie. It was a lot of fun meeting everyone, and it felt great to shed that bit of anonymity that communicating online provides. Plus, you can’t ask for a better nightcap film than freakin’ RoboCop on the big screen! Never get tired of that.

Saturday & Sunday: I worked more than anticipated this weekend, but I was able to squeeze in a few films (all on DVD or streaming). I finally saw last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which unfortunately didn’t connect with me the way I hoped. I had little interest in any of the characters, and the film’s methodical pacing didn’t help. Gary Oldman, however, was incredible, and certainly deserving of his many accolades for that role. I also caught Rampart, which had a strong Woody Harrelson performance but the film itself wasn’t nearly as good as other likeminded films such as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Finally, I saw Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This film had a really interesting subject, but quite frankly should have not been stretched into a 90 minute feature. I feel that it would have benefited from a 3D viewing, however.

Outside of RoboCop on the big screen, my movie viewing weekend was a bit of a dud. How about you guys? Did you see anything good over the weekend? Any thoughts on the poll and/or results?

Poll Results: Favorite Batman Actor

Batman has been played by a lot of people over the years, but the race for favorite actor pretty much came down to two men. After a push near the end, there was no doubt who the winner was:

Christian Bale as Batman

THE RESULTS:
– Christian Bale: 9 votes
– Adam West: 6 votes
– Michael Keaton: 2 votes
– Val Kilmer: 2 votes
– George Clooney: 1 vote

I don’t know if there was a better choice than Christian Bale to play Batman in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Bale has been an absolute force in the last decade, and it seems like a lot of you are pretty big fans fans of his portrayal of Bats as well. I don’t know about you guys, but this poll has made me want to revisit the pre-Nolan Batman films. It has been a looong time since I saw any of them.

Have a great weekend everyone, and make sure to vote in this week’s new American Reunion-themed poll.

Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360 and PC)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: October 18, 2011

It was just last month that I finally played through Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady’s breakout hit from 2009. That game totally blew me away and removed any pre-conceived notion I had about superhero titles lacking in quality. After completing Batman’s first PS3/X360 effort, I immediately picked up last year’s sequel, Arkham City.

Whereas Arkham Asylum focused primarily on a plot against the Joker, Arkham City showcases several prominent villains. After former warden Quincy Sharp is elected mayor of Gotham, his first order of business is to clean up the streets. His solution? Turn the slums of the city into a maximum security prison — its own metropolis, blocked off from everything else. Naturally, this is a terrible idea, as that means all sorts of evil masterminds are put together in one location. All hell breaks loose, and it’s Batman’s job to restore order against the likes of Hugo Strange, Two Face, the Penguin, and the Joker, among many others.

The biggest difference between the two games is Arkham City’s venture into a larger open world. The city is five times bigger than the asylum, and it allows Batman to have free reign in a massive urban environment. With the ability to use a grappling hook from building to building and rooftop to rooftop, you really feel as if you are Batman himself. The sheer freedom that the city provides is awe-inspiring, and it helps to be controlling such a badass character.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

The core gameplay is the same as before, a strong mix of combat, stealth and exploration. The combat system still uses the same attack/countering method that is so simple yet amazingly well-executed. Batman has some new gadgets this time around, many of which help during battles. Smoke pellets can be dropped to disorientate enemies and allow Batman to more easily escape harm’s way. A taser gun can be used to shock enemies, and it also restores power to generators. There’s even a new freezing gadget that can be used to toss ice grenades. All of these new toys are used throughout the game, often at critical points.

Stealth is largely the same as before, but the exploration aspects have drastically increased. If you couldn’t get enough of Riddler’s challenges before, you will love Arkham City even more. This time around there are a whopping 440 trophies to acquire, and all of them are scattered throughout the huge in-game world. There are also an increased amount of side missions, many of which introduce other villains not otherwise found in the main story. The Riddler himself has a side quest that has Batman stopping Saw-like puzzles to save innocent victim’s lives.

What’s great about all of these new quests is that once the main campaign is completed, everything is rolled over into a “New Game+” mode. That means that you can pick up all of the side quests you missed the first time around, but with all of Batman’s upgrades already included. I loved having this functionality, as I am the type of gamer that usually tries to finish the story first before digging into the supplementary features.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Also carried over from Arkham Asylum is the expansive Challenge mode. This feature pits Batman in a series of increasingly more difficult combat sequences, with the goal being to string together awesome combos in order to achieve a high score. A new twist to this mode is the ability to tweak the settings in order to make combat even more challenging (or easier, if you are so inclined).

Yet another new addition to the game is the ability to play as an entirely different character, Catwoman. Unfortunately, she can only be used if you buy the game brand new, or if you are willing to cough up $10 extra for used copies. This is a seriously shitty move on the part of the publishers, as Catwoman was clearly already built into the game and therefore should not be considered as something akin to downloadable content. I had considered paying the $10, but from what I have heard, her campaign is very short and only lasts about an hour. That’s not worth it to me, and I am disgusted that it is not included as part of the main package.

Still, Catwoman or not, Batman: Arkham City is an incredible experience that is an absolute must play, especially for those that loved its predecessor. The dark, gritty visual style is back and better than ever, and the soundtrack feels like it could easily belong in one of Christopher Nolan’s terrific Dark Knight films. With a staggering amount of gameplay depth, this will last a LONG time. An easy contender for 2011’s Game of the Year.

9/10

Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Batman: Arkham Asylum
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, Windows and Mac OS X)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: August 25, 2009

I am not a big comic book or superhero guy, but I have always had a soft spot for Batman. I remember buying Batman trading cards (based on Tim Burton’s 1989 film) when I was a kid, and I even watched the ultra campy (but fun) 1960s TV show when it aired on daytime television. After some poor movie sequels in the 90s, Christopher Nolan revitalized the character with his acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy. This success has translated to the video game world, where we have Batman: Arkham Asylum, easily one of the greatest superhero titles ever made.

Arkham Asylum is gripping from the opening moments, as Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) escorts the Joker (Mark Hamill) to the eponymous institution. The Joker is restrained by handcuffs and surrounded by armed guards, but there is still that sinking feeling that shit is about to hit the fan. Sure enough, his accomplice Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) is there to override the security system, allowing the Joker to escape. Now it is Batman’s turn to regain control of the asylum, while also thwarting the Joker’s plan to create an army of Titans that threaten Gotham City. All in a day’s work for ol’ Bats, right?

Fans of the comic books (and TV shows and films and so on) will be pleased to see several recurring characters show up. Bane, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy are just a few villains that our caped hero runs into, and there are references to several others as well. In fact, for those who could use some refreshers on the series, there are dozens of newspaper clippings scattered around the game’s environment that can be picked up to learn about backstories for each character. Even non-fans will find it easy to get sucked into the world of Gotham.

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Arkham Asylum’s gameplay consists of a mix of brawling combat, stealth and exploration. The combat, at first glance, seems almost elementary in execution, as just one button is used to attack. However, this “Freeflow” system is surprisingly well-crafted. Along with standard attacks, Batman has the ability to “stun” an enemy, as well as counter an opposing punch or kick. In order to string together long combos (which boost the overall score), he must flawlessly maneuver between each function, dodging enemy attacks while fighting back at the same time. High scores are eventually rewarded with XP, which can in turn be used to upgrade Batman’s gadgets. Many of these can be used in combat as well, such as the Batarang and Bat-Claw. The amount of depth that this simple brawling system has is outstanding.

The stealth aspects allow Batman to hide in the shadows and use his grappling hook to fly from pillar to pillar. Evasion is important in areas where enemies are rampant, particularly when they are carrying guns. Utilizing a healthy mix of brawling and stealth is the way to go to achieve maximum success.

For those who enjoy exploration, the game offers plenty to whet the appetite. There are countless items scattered throughout the environment, many of which give insight to the game’s backstory (as mentioned earlier). Most intriguing is the addition of a whopping 200+ riddles left behind by the Riddler. In every new area, the puzzle-obsessed villain leaves behind a riddle for Batman to figure out. Many of these are tricky and benefit greatly from the use of Batman’s impressive Detective mode. This well-designed feature highlights objects of interest and allows limited X-ray vision on anyone in sight.

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Quite frankly, there is not a shortage of quality gameplay in Arkham Asylum. As an added bonus, there is even a separate Challenge mode that offers bite-sized levels to boost combat and stealth skills. The amount of options and replay value is staggering.

Although Arkham Asylum is now over two years old, its visuals still hold up well today. The game’s environment is very dark and gritty, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s films. This presents a sense of realism that is very welcome, and this is aided by a stellar voice acting cast. Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn are all played by their voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, and the other roles are filled by more-than-adequate veterans on the scene. In terms of aesthetics, everything screams high quality.

I won’t go so far as to say Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game ever made, as many have, but it is certainly up there. The gameplay is near flawless, the story is a worthy entry to the canon, and the presentation is superb. You don’t have to be a fan of the series to appreciate what this game has to offer. As a bargain bin title today, there really is no excuse to miss this.

9/10

Now, onto Arkham City, which I am VERY eager to play.