August 31, 2012

MOVIES: Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)

Compliance begins on a bad day for fast-food manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). Someone didn't close the freezer last night, so she's lost $1,400 of inventory, and the warehouse can't replace the bacon; some of her staff are out sick on the busiest night of the week; and the ones who have shown up aren't her most reliable employees.

But things get much worse when she gets a prank phone call from "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy), who explains that one of her cashiers, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen some money from a customer. She's been under surveillance, Daniels says, for other crimes, and his surveillance team can verify the theft; they're busy searching her home at the moment, though, so Daniels needs Sandra to take custody of Becky and strip-search for to find the money. Sandra is skeptical at first, but Daniels has an answer to every objection, and pushes all the right buttons -- flattery, intimidation, fear -- to convince her to go along.

From there, the movie becomes a Milgram-esque study in how far ordinary people will go to follow orders, even when they have no evidence that the person giving those orders has any authority to do so. Watching how easily Sandra and Becky, and the others who are pulled into the situation, can be manipulated is a chilling experience.

The principal performances are superb. Ann Dowd is one of those middle-aged character actresses who work steadily in small movie roles and TV guest appearances without ever being noticed, and she is spectacularly good here, trying to balance her own sense of decency and propriety with the desire to be a good citizen and employee, always finding a way to distance herself from the things she's being asked to do.

Dreama Walker, whom you might recognize from the sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, plays Becky as a young woman who's a bit sheltered and naive, and lacks the quickness of mind or the self-confidence to protest against what's happening to her; you can see her deliberately willing herself into numbness, and it's painful to watch.

There will likely be arguments over whether the movie, which is certainly about exploitation, crosses the line into being exploitative. I don't think it does. It's true that Walker is naked, or nearly so, for much of the movie, but director Craig Zobel does not use that nudity for titillation, and the most degrading parts of Becky's ordeal are shown to us indirectly. What we imagine is worse than what we actually see.

The scariest thing is that the movie is based on actual events. Similar fake phone calls were received by over 70 fast food restaurants over a period of several years before a suspect was finally arrested; he was never convicted, but the calls did stop after his arrest.

Compliance is not always an easy movie to watch. There were moments when I found myself turning away from the screen, not because it's physically graphic, but because it's so emotionally raw and intense. But it's a powerful experience, with a tight screenplay -- there's not a wasted word of dialogue -- and some of the best acting you'll see this year.

August 30, 2012

MOVIES: ParaNorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell, 2012)

The story of ParaNorman is admittedly not particularly original -- it's a sort of hodgepodge of adolescent misfit story, zombie flick, The Sixth Sense, and The Crucible -- but the stop-motion animation is gorgeous and the voice cast is superb.

Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an 11-year-old who doesn't quite fit in with anyone, in large part because everyone thinks he's crazy, which tends to happen when you're the only kid in town who can see (and talk to) ghosts. Given the history of the town's founding, which involves a witch's curse, you might think people would be a little more accepting, but that history has mostly been kitsch-ified and turned into a colorful way to attract tourists.

But it turns out that the curse is real, and when Norman's uncle dies, his ghost (John Goodman) explains to Norman that it's now his responsibility to keep the curse at bay. Things go wrong, of course, and before you know it, the town is being overrun by zombies (well, OK, maybe seven zombies doesn't count as "overrun") and the witch is threatening to destroy the place entirely.

The voice cast is impeccable, and a lot of them are playing against type. Elaine Stritch is the sweet-natured ghost of Norman's grandmother; Anna Kendrick is his boy-crazed sister; Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the school bully; Casey Affleck is a teenaged bodybuilder (and that character is a spectacular creation, sort of a male Barbie doll, balancing massive pecs over a twig-like waist).

The animation is beautiful, featuring the most expressive faces I've ever seen in stop-motion. There are some genuinely scary moments as Norman and his Scooby Gang race through the night to find the solution, and the ominous storm clouds that form as the witch's power grows are spectacular.

True, the story is a bit familiar (though it will be less so to the kids in the audience), but it's told in entertaining style and with a touch of wit, and the quality of the film-making was more than enough to keep me happy.

August 17, 2012

TV: Oh Sit! (CW, Wed 8)

I don't know that TV really needed a game show in which musical chairs is turned into a comic contact sport, but if we must have such a thing, the CW's Oh Sit! is less ghastly than it could have been.

A dozen players start the game, and two or three are eliminated in every round until three are left to fight for the final chair. That chair is located on Chair Island, which is surrounded by a 10-foot moat of icy water. Three different bridges, each designed to be wobbly and unstable in some way, connect Chair Island to the main track. The circular track features three obstacles (in the style of your average Japanese game show), each of which is also designed to dump the contestants into the water.

When the music begins, the players race around the track, collecting money for each obstacle they complete; when the music stops, they have to get to Chair Island. One or two players will be eliminated for lack of chairs, but that's not the end of the eliminations. Each chair has a secret dollar value attached, which is added to the money the player won for that round's obstacles; lowest total is eliminated. At the end of the game, the "last player sitting" (and good lord, does the show love that phrase, which it believes to be the height of wit) takes home whatever money they've won; everyone else goes home with nothing.

The show's sense of humor is relentlessly juvenile. Each contestant is assigned a cutesy nickname at the beginning of the show ("The Babysitter," "Mr. Marine," "The Beard"), and hosts Jamie Kennedy and Jessica Cruikshank leer at the attractive contestants and mock everyone else.

The show is entertaining in precisely the same way, and to almost exactly the same degree as ABC's Wipeout, and if you enjoy watching people pummelled by foam rubber mallets and falling into chilly water, this will fit the bill nicely. It's not my cup of tea, but there's certainly an audience for it.

TV: Animal Practice (NBC, Wed 8)

So let's say you're a TV network hoping to get a lot of people to watch the first episode of a new sitcom. Wouldn't it be clever to tack it on to your night's Olympic coverage? Sure it would!

But if you want all of those people to absolutely hate your sitcom when it shows up? Why, you do what NBC did with the premiere of Animal Practice: You air it in the middle of the closing ceremony.

If there's good news for NBC out of that little fiasco, it's that the show is so uninvolving that most of those angry people probably weren't going to like it much anyway. Animal Practice stars Justin Kirk as veterinarian George Coleman. George is the Dr. House of the veterinary world; he's a gifted doctor, but doesn't much like people.

The new owner of the animal hospital is Dorothy (Joanna Garcia-Swisher, adding to a long list of mediocre shows in which she's been the best thing), who inherited it from her grandmother. She is also, conveniently enough, George's ex.

Tyler Labine and Bobby Lee are on hand as George's fellow vets. Lee walks the Asian stereotype line very delicately, usually managing to stay just barely on the right side of it; it's a performance that is consistently uncomfortable without ever quite being racist. Labine plays the one character in his repertoire, a lovable shlumpy doofus, and although it's a shtick he does very nicely, it's starting to wear thin.

The other principal member of the ensemble is Crystal, a monkey -- you might recognize her from The Hangover Part 2 or from her portrayal of Annie's Boobs on Community -- who plays Dr. Rizzo. She's a talented little critter, with better comic timing than some of her human co-stars.

The show's best joke is a visual gag. The animal hospital is large and busy enough that it could just as easily be the set for a new version of ER. Sadly, the dialogue doesn't have nearly that much wit. George's misanthropy is a harder sell in a sitcom than it would be in a drama, and Kirk doesn't have the inherent warmth or charm that might make it palatable.

The show premieres in its usual Wednesday timeslot on September 26, and it will most likely be gone by the end of October. And with any luck, Joanna Garcia-Swisher will go on to a show worthy of her talent.

August 16, 2012

MOVIES: Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012)

Hope Springs is not the light, bouncy comedy that the advertising has worked very hard to suggest. Instead, it's a fairly somber drama about a marriage of quiet desperation, and the attempt of two people in their 50s to restore sexual intimacy to their relationship.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are Kay and Arnold, an Omaha couple who've just celebrated their 31st anniversary. He's an accountant; she's a housewife (and as retro as the word is, it's the only one that fits). Their days fall into a predictable rut, from her cooking his breakfast (one egg, one strip of bacon) to him falling asleep in front of the golf channel. They haven't had sex in at least four or five years -- neither of them can remember exactly -- and haven't shared a bedroom for longer than that.

Kay has reached her breaking point, and signs up for an intensive couples counseling session, for which she and Arnold will have to go to Maine; he reluctantly joins her, and they begin their work with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).

Streep is particularly good here. Kay is a woman used to being in the background, to not being noticed. Her voice is quiet and breathy; her gestures small and tentative; when she nods or shakes "no" in response to Dr. Feld's questions, the motion is barely noticeable. She's frustrated by the slow death of their marriage, and even more, she's hurt by Arnold's unwillingness to admit that anything is wrong.

Carell is the movie's weak spot. He's completely gotten rid of the smirking irony that is his usual strong suit, and he's right to have done so, but he hasn't quite figured out what to do in its place. All we're left with is bland sincerity in search of a personality.

It's a good movie, not a great one, and Jones does struggle a bit in the movie's more broadly comic moments. But a movie like this -- a thoughtful, reasonably intelligent drama about the sex lives of middle-aged married people -- is such an anomaly for contemporary Hollywood that I almost feel obliged to encourage you to see it in theaters, if only in the hope that success will encourage the studios to produce others like it.

August 15, 2012

TV: Major Crimes (TNT, Monday 9)

TNT's Major Crimes isn't a spinoff from The Closer so much as it is a direct continuation. Gone are Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson and Detective David Gabriel, off to work in the District Attorney's office (leaving them close by for the occasional guest appearance).

Taking over as the new head of the LAPD Major Crimes Unit is Sharon Raydor (Mary McConnell), and none of the returning detectives are thrilled with her by-the-book approach. Even worse, the city is insisting on a new approach; getting confessions is being downplayed in favor of making deals, because plea bargains are cheaper than trials.

Two new cast members join the old Closer crew. Kearran Giovanni is Amy Sykes, an ambitious young detective who's just been assigned to Major Crimes; she doesn't get enough to do in the first episode to give us much sense of the character. Graham Patrick Martin is Rusty, a homeless teen who Raydor takes into her home for safekeeping before he testifies in an upcoming murder trial. That's a risky plot, and Rusty could easily become the Cousin Oliver of crime dramas, but Martin and McDonnell have a sharp chemistry, and the producers have enough residual goodwill with me from the seven season of The Closer that I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Given that 90% of the cast and the setting are the same, the differences between the shows come down mostly to the differences between former lead Kyra Sedgwick and new lead Mary McDonnell. By the end of its run, The Closer had taken advantage of Sedgwick's scattered, frantic energy to turn Brenda into a marvelous comic character; some episodes of the show bordered on farce.

McDonnell, on the other hand, couldn't do scattered to save her life, and her chilly laser focus brings a very different energy to the show. She's not without humor, but her style is less about broad dialogue and physical comedy, and more about impeccably timed reaction shots and droll understatement.

In part because of the change from Sedgwick to McDonnell, it looks as if Major Crimes will be a darker, less broadly comic series than The Closer was. But then, The Closer began as a more conventional crime drama and only gradually developed its comic edge, so it's possible that Major Crimes will lighten up over time, as the writers get the hang of writing to McDonnell's strengths.

Major Crimes is a perfectly safe and seamless continuation of the franchise, and there's no reason it shouldn't run just as long as The Closer's seven seasons.

August 14, 2012

MOVIES: Celeste and Jesse Forever (Lee Toland Krieger, 2012)

Celeste and Jesse Forever opens with the title couple (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) spending a day together, running errands and driving around Los Angeles. They have an easy rapport, share lots of inside jokes, and seem spectacularly comfortable together. He drops her off at home before heading to the beach to surf; she reminds him to be back in time for their dinner with friends that evening.

So it's something of a shock when we find out during that dinner that Celeste and Jesse are separated and in the process of getting a divorce. They still consider themselves best friends; he lives in her guest house; and they seem entirely happy with their new status as best buds/soon-to-be exes.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that because they seem like so perfect a couple, we desperately need to know why they've split up, and we never really find out. Oh, Celeste grumbles at one point that "Jesse doesn't even have a checking account. Or dress shoes," but those things were surely true when she married him in the first place, so what's changed? We don't know. And since their current status is so utterly inexplicable and arbitrary, it's hard to have any interest in where they wind up.

Which is a shame, because there are some talented actors here. Jones and Samberg are both delightful. He's a particular surprise; nothing he did on Saturday Night Live would have led me to expect this kind of real acting. Will McCormick has a laid-back, dry charm as the local pot dealer; Emma Roberts is funny as a not-so-dumb pop star; and Chris Messina is carving out a very nice niche for himself as a 21st-century Ralph Bellamy, always playing the brother, the best friend, the Other Man, and so on.

Elijah Wood is less successful as Celeste's boss, who wants desperately to be her Sassy Gay Friend, a joke that isn't made any funnier by having him explicitly comment on how desperately he wants to be her Sassy Gay Friend. (And how much longer do we have to keep pretending that Wood has anything to offer other than those creepy Keane-moppet eyes, anyway?)

It's a movie with a lot of interesting moments, but the great gaping hole in the narrative is so distracting and frustrating that it's hard to enjoy them as much as you'd like to.

August 10, 2012

TV: Go On (NBC, Tue 9)

NBC is taking advantage of the Olympics to offer sneak previews of a couple of their new sitcoms. This week, we got a first look at the Matthew Perry vehicle Go On, which will premiere in its regular Tuesday night time slot on September 11. (EDIT/Sep 7: Last minute schedule change from NBC; the pilot will air again on Monday, September 10, with a new episode in the show's usual Tuesday timeslot on the 11th.)

I will not be the only one, I'm sure, to note that the structure of the pilot episode is virtually identical to that of the Community pilot: High-strung professional gets booted from his job until he completes some task which he thinks is beneath him; doing so throws him into a group of semi-random strangers who will eventually become his support system and surrogate family.

Perry is Ryan King, sports radio host whose wife has recently died; his boss (John Cho) refuses to let him come back to work until he's attended ten sessions of group therapy. (It's already clear that the office stuff is going to be far less interesting than the group stuff; don't be surprised if it's slowly phased out to the point that Cho doesn't survive to the end of the season.)

Ryan winds up at "Transitions," which isn't specifically a grief group -- it's for people dealing with "life changes" -- where he meets his gang of lovable co-stars. At this point, I don't remember any of their names, and they've only got one or two character traits each, so we'll just shorthand them. There's Widowed Lesbian (Julie White), Elderly Blind Black Guy (Bill Cobbs), Young Black Guy with Brother in Coma (Tyler James Williams), Asian Control Freak (Suzy Nakamura, and if they mentioned the specifics of her "life change," I didn't catch it), and Creepy Stalker-y Guy (Brett Gelman, and ditto on his specific trauma).

Laura Benanti is the leader of the support group, despite the fact that her experience and training consists of leading a few Weight Watchers groups. (Which makes me wonder why this group was on Ryan's work-approved list of therapy groups in the first place. Which makes me wonder if an employer even has the right to require an employee to seek therapy before returning from bereavement leave. Any HR people in the room?)

There are a lot of talented actors here; in particular, I'm always happy to see Julie White and Bill Cobbs. And the central role is a pitch right over home plate for Perry, who could play this sort of lovably smug not-quite-an-asshole in his sleep.

An obvious question is how the show continues beyond a single season. People don't stay in "life change" group therapy indefinitely; the show could get away with rotating supporting players in and out around Perry and Benanti (she could, theoretically, be replaced by a new group leader herself, but I assume the show has long-range romantic couple goals for the two of them), but how do you keep Ryan coming back to the group every week over two or three or six seasons?

The even bigger question is what direction the show takes from this point on. Clearly, the gist of the narrative will be that Perry's insistence that this is a waste of time and we all need to just get on with our lives will be good for the group, and Benanti's insistence that the process is important will be good for him.

But does it do that by really exploring the darker and more difficult side of grief -- does it delve into the painful parts of these characters' psyches in the way that (since it's already an obvious point of comparison) Community does? -- or is it content to be a cheerfully glib sitcom about a bunch of people who are stumbling wackily through recovery? There are moments in the pilot that suggest the show isn't afraid to get dark; the funniest scene finds Ryan leading the group through a "whose problems are worst" tournament he calls "March Sadness."

If the show stays at the usual superficial sitcom level, it'll probably be a harmlessly entertaining half-hour; if it has the courage to dig deeper, though, it could be really interesting.

August 08, 2012

BOOKS: The Troupe, Robert Jackson Bennett (2012)

The Troupe is a horror-tinged fantasy set in the world of vaudeville, where 16-year-old George Carole works as the house pianist in a midwestern theater. He's only in vaudeville for one reason, though; he's waiting for the Silenus Troupe to come back to town. The Troupe is led by the mysterious impresario Heironomo Silenus, whom George believes to be the father he has never met.

When George does find Silenus and his company -- puppeteer, exotic soprano, strongwoman, and mute cellist -- he discovers that they are connected to a mysterious and ancient battle between good and evil, in which nothing less than (you guessed it) the very existence of the universe is at stake. And you will also have guessed that as a descendant of the Silenus line, George has a key role to play in that battle.

The Troupe could stand to be edited by 50 pages or so. It runs nearly 500 pages, and the cycle of danger resolved by some convenient, but heretofore unmentioned, bit of magic or folklore gets rather repetitive.

But the characters are charming and vivid, and Bennett is excellent at creating a mood of creepy dread. The prose flows easily, and is slightly formal and heightened without being overly florid or poetic. The horror elements are genuinely scary, and never tip too far into mere gore for gore's sake.

Bennett's depiction of the era's less enlightened social attitudes is appropriate without being gratuitously offensive; his use of one character's homophobia, in fact, is quite striking in the way it sets up a major plot point, keeping that character from recognizing the true nature of one key relationship.

An unexpected pleasure.

BOOKS: Broken Harbor, Tana French (2012)

4th in French's series of loosely linked novels about the Dublin police.

The loose linking comes from the fact that the main character of each novel was a supporting player in the previous one. This time, our narrator is Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy," homicide detective, who is assigned to a group of murders -- dad and two kids are dead, mother's barely alive -- in a new housing development called Brianstown.

When Mick was a kid, the land that is now Brianstown was a sleepy beach town called Broken Harbor, and that's where the Kennedy family took its summer vacations, so he has strong memories of the place. They're not all pleasant memories; this is where his mother died, and he's always assumed that her death is at the root of his younger sister's emotional problems, which are still disrupting his life.

But at the moment, Dina's problems have to take a back seat to the murders of the Spain family. A likely suspect crops up fairly quickly, and when the guy confesses, Mick's ready to wrap things up; his partner, rookie detective Richie Curran, is a lot more skeptical of how easily this seems to be going.

French's usual strengths are on display here. In particular, I am (as usual) impressed with how well French uses dialogue to define relationships among characters. There are a lot of interrogation scenes in this one, and through them, we learn a lot about Mick and Richie, and the working relationship that they're developing. Mick is at first surprised, then impressed, by how quickly Richie takes to the job; Richie's got an intuitive understanding of the differences between the two of them, and how best to play those differences to ingratiate themselves with any given interview subject.

I was slightly disappointed with the final act. There are two inevitable plot points in this sort of book -- the moment when Mick's personal and professional lives come horribly crashing together, and the moment when we realize that the person we've been led to believe is guilty isn't (hardly a spoiler, that happens in every police procedural) -- and while I admired the way French tied those two moments together, I didn't find the plot twist very convincing.

In fact, the personal story this time around is much less interesting than usual for French -- Dina is something of a garden variety crazy woman, and feels like a less well thought-out character than anyone else in the book -- but the crime story more than makes up for it. This isn't French's best work, but that just means it's a solid B instead of an A+. Still worth reading, as (even more so) are the earlier books in the series.

August 07, 2012

MOVIES: Ruby Sparks (Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton, 2012)

Six years is a long time for most directors to go between movies, but that's how long it's been since Little Miss Sunshine. Now Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are finally back with a follow-up, Ruby Sparks.

As the movie opens, we meet Calvin (Paul Dano), who published a spectacularly successful novel as a 19-year-old high school dropout. But that was ten years ago, and aside from a few short stories, Calvin's had a severe case of writer's block.

A writing assignment from his therapist (Elliott Gould) proves unexpectedly inspiring, and Calvin finds himself churning out pages about his perfect girlfriend, whom he names Ruby Sparks. Then one morning Calvin wakes up, and there in the kitchen, cooking him breakfast, is Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the movie).

His natural reaction is to think he's going crazy, but when it turns out that other people can see Ruby, he's not sure what to do. He can control Ruby's behavior by adding to the pages he's written about her, but is hesitant to do ("I want to make her love me without making her love me"). But as Ruby goes on living, experiencing life that Calvin didn't write for her, she begins to change and have her own reactions to things, and the relationship doesn't always go where Calvin would like it to.

Kazan's screenplay is very smart, going for understatement and relative subtlety instead of broad laughs and rom-com cliches. She and Dano are both excellent here, and when they finally have the big confrontation that the movie is inevitably building to, it's a beautifully tense and painful scene to watch.

The supporting players are uniformly well cast: Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin's mother and stepfather, Chris Messian as his brother, Steve Coogan as a pompous rival author.

Very much worth seeing; a delightful surprise.

August 06, 2012

MOVIES: The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)

The Queen of Versailles is a documentary about David and Jackie Siegel, a spectacularly wealthy Florida couple whose lives crumble when the family business is hit hard by the financial collapse. They find themselves teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, having to shop for Christmas presents for the 8 kids at Wal-Mart, and at risk of losing the massive 90,000-square-foot mansion they're building. That home is called (and inspired by) Versailles; it's got 10 kitchens, a grand ballroom with a balcony large enough to hold a full orchestra, and a separate wing for the children.

Neither of the Seigels coms from a wealthy background. David built his business -- he's the "king of time-share resorts" -- through obsessive devotion to it, largely at the expense of his family; Jackie is his third wife, and his son acknowledges that their relationship is purely a business one. Jackie's 35 years younger, a former Mrs. Florida with a computer engineering degree and a Botox-frozen face.

It would be easy to make the Siegels monstrous villains, but director Lauren Greenfield gives us a more nuanced portrait. Yes, the Siegels are spoiled and greedy, and David has built his fortune by taking advantage of people who can't really afford the wealthy lifestyle he's offering them, but they do acknowledge that the employees who are being laid off and losing their homes are suffering far more than they are.

And Jackie, in particular, comes off mostly as naive; this kind of wealth is new to her, and while she doesn't relish the thought of losing it, and says some painfully embarrassing things ("I never would have had so many children if I didn't think I'd have the nannies"), she also comes across as a deeply loving mother and wife.

Ultimately, what we're left with is a sense that the Siegels, like their time-share customers, are trapped in the American cycle of always wanting more, always aspiring to a bigger, better home than they need or can afford. We're a society for whom there is no such thing as "enough." It's a problem that's destroying lives, and while it's tempting to laugh when we see that happening to the ridiculously wealthy, the laughter's undercut by the realization that the consequences are a lot more severe when you step a few rungs down the economic ladder.

August 05, 2012

MOVIES: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

Well, let's start with the good things about The Dark Knight Rises. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, though he isn't given anything interesting to do as a young Gotham police detective, is professional and competent, and doesn't embarrass himself; and Anne Hathaway, as Selina Kyle (never specifically called "Catwoman" in the movie), is charming, with a light grace and ease that the movie could use more of.



Let me think...

Nope, that's about it. The rest of the movie is pretty damned boring. The problems start with something as simple as voices. Christian Bale's Batman voice still sounds as if Bruce Wayne is a nervous 19-year-old putting on what he thinks is a real man's voice. And while Marion Cotillard's English has gotten good enough that you can understand the words, she still has a tendenCY to put the emPHAsis on all THE wrong sylLABles.

And then there's Tom Hardy's villain, Bane, who speaks through a mask in an electronically altered rasp that is frequently incomprehensible, and for whatever reason, it gets worse whenever the dialogue is at its most expository and you really need to understand him. (And physically, Hardy is so freakishly bulked up that he barely looks human anymore.)

The movie plods along for more than 2 1/2 hours, and could easily be pruned down to under 2; the biggest time-waster is a long sequence involving Bruce Wayne trying (over and over and over) to escape from an underground desert prison.

Not only is the story padded to ridiculous length, it's also a seriously conservative political statement. Bane's rhetoric (and Selina's, in the early going, before she abruptly switches to being Batman's ally) is very much inspired by the Occupy movement, with lots of talk about how the little people need to fight back against the oppression of the wealthy, and a violent attack on the Gotham Stock Exchange.

The movie argues that the end result of the Occupy movement is violent anarchy from which we can only be saved by the generous actions of the wealthy, here represented by billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman. Everyone who claims to care about the future of the little guy, or of the planet, turns out to be a villain; the wealthy are their innocent victims.

Even technical things that the earlier movies in the series got right don't work here; Hans Zimmer's score is a loud percussive assault, and the movie is ugly to look at, with fight scenes that are impossible to follow.

Sad way to bring the Nolan/Bale Batman era to an end. Maybe at least the spinoff movies that are painstakingly set up in the final act will be an improvement.

MOVIES: The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012)

Finally caught up with this and wasn't all that amazed. As much as I like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, they are (even by Hollywood standards), waaaaaaay too old to be playing high school students. And at the other end of the spectrum, Martin Sheen and Sally Field are too young-looking for Uncle Ben and Aunt May; Aunt May is supposed to be a gray-haired old lady, dammit.

(Garfield is about the same age that Tobey Maguire was when he did his first Spider-Man movie, but he looks several years older; Sheen and Field are roughly ten years younger than the more age-appropriate Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris were, and Field in particular looks even younger than that.)

Rhys Ifans is a dull villain and Denis Leary's police chief is no substitue for J.K. Simmons' Jonah Jameson. And the special effects have the same overwhelming problem that distracted me through all of the Maguire movies -- whenever Spider-Man starts swinging, there's no sense of him having any weight on the end of that line. It's just a massless object swinging across the screen.

Most of all, it's just too damned soon. Let us forget about the last version for a while before you shove a new one at us.