Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fear Looms; Warners delays Gangster Squad

I haven't written about the horrible events that took place in Aurora, Colorado for a few reasons.  One, perhaps, because of sensitivity to the tragedy, it feels more appropriate in some ways to keep quiet, for fear of adding fuel to a fire.  Secondly, because movies and movie houses are sacred, in my mind, and nothing should ever deter one feelings of being safe, instead just entranced by the awe and splendor of the cinema.  The fear part, I worry, not just for my sacred home away home, but for an industry that likely no not of what's ahead.

The first causality comes in the form of Gangster Squad, the new noir\crime thriller that stars Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone.  The violent mob thriller was slated for release this September and features a climatic bout with guns blazing inside a movie theater.  The movie's misfortune had it's trailer on most prints of The Dark Knight Rises that fateful midnight.  The trailer has since been removed, and Warner Brothers is placed in the tricky, unenviable situation of playing damage control at the possible expense to art.  The film is now being pushed back for an early January release with plans to re-shoot the climax.

One feels a tremendous sympathy and anguish over events like these.  However is interminible news coverage and sacrificing the integrity of another film really the answer?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

It's difficult to know exactly where to begin on terms of The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman saga.  There's a seeping of legend-- not just to the cinematic craftsmanship, nor the bravura epic seriousness of a comic book superhero movie-- but an almost longing and painstaking emotional investment to Nolan's trilogy.  Taking the realms of a series that felt both long in the tooth and in a sad display of self-parody, Nolan created a sturdy, realistic and nearly horrifying world in his Gotham City, a partial political ode to post-9/11 angst mixed with expected summertime bombast.  Whatever it was, it was something special, complete with Hans Zimmer's rousing orchestrations and a leaner, more complicated character at the helm, played, again with reticence and a canny sense of danger and unease by Christian Bale.  Following Batman Begins, a sturdy origin tale of man and superman, and The Dark Knight, which has it's own piece of legend and iconography, not just in the cinematic sphere, but in the pop cultural lexicon, a lot is clearly at stake in the third and final take, and Nolan, the showman, the puppeteer, the quizzical adventurist pounces, throwing everything on the line in The Dark Knight Rises.  Engaging and ever rousing, if a bit overstuffed and a lick too on the nose, his conclusion is a worthy send off to a truly special trilogy of films.

There's something else at stake, more so than anything that appears on screen and that involves the series legacy once the final credits have rolled.  Nolan's Batman is angry and moody, and more removed emotionally than any previous conjuring, and his take is bleak, even downright depressing.  What's rousing is also slightly meditative, and a near antithesis to the norms of contemporary summertime thrill ride.  Complain if one wishes about political messaging or murky encoded themes to Nolan's vision, there's a heft and gravitas that's unshakable, and never a moment of the candy-colored superhero features of, say this summers gargantuan The Avengers.  Nolan sets his fantasy and dour fun in a real world veneer, provoking and nearly transgressing the whole superhero genre, while simultaneously driving it and feeding it much needed nutrients.  The Dark Knight Rises is loud and blistering, full of action and effects and striking vistas that would make many awe in its splendor.  There's enough bombast to keep one amused, but it's the dignity and grounded fundamentalism of Nolan as a filmmaker that's riveting.  His focus on in the camera effects, use of mis en scene, appreciation for the unwaveringly, yet beautifully flawed evocative power of film.  And his noted distaste from third dimension distractions.  Whatever flaws come out of The Dark Knight Rises-- and it is admittedly messy in it's splendor-- the powerful filmmaking gifts of Nolan, and his incredible peak, overcome almost all.

Set eight years after The Dark Knight, with Batman a fugitive in the name of justice, and Bruce Wayne a reclusive, limping note of gossip.  Gotham City, however, is a safe haven.  Its denizens unaware of the actual fate of idealist Harvey Dent's undoing, are thriving in a world free of the underground crime rings that rotted Gotham and the newly instated Dent Act has, while under false pretenses, achieved wonders.  Of course Nolan, nor his eager audience, are interested in peace time, and a storm is brewing, as the ads promise, in the form of a new villain to the canon setting his sites on raising hell in Gotham City.  Bane, played with massive authority and imposing Hulk-like physique by Tom Hardy is the new reckoning on Gotham, and  Batman, that is if you can understand him--Bane's line readings correctly remedy any complaints that may have been voiced at Batman's ADR in the earlier films-- it's arguably the films worst stroke.  In reshaping the Dark Knight mythology (one that may have felt completely different had Heath Ledger still been around to thrill) the film at times feels a tad awkward and tenuous to the way the prior films unraveled, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately feels appropriate in how it reconnects to Batman Begins, with a mission to right what may didn't succeed the first time.

Bane's mission is to destroy the city from inside.  Creating a horrifying turn of events in order to get to the city to crumble from within.  Fear-mongering Gotham to attack the rich, the establishment, and thus become reborn.  Hardy, with his immense physical might is terrifying, and his performance looms with intensity-- his brawls are natural and unwaveringly brutish, and his tone and demeanor are all business.  It's a partial shame, that in the midst of setting up The Dark Knight Rises real world, seemingly Occupy Gotham-inspired relevance, that his character development gets squandered, even in a mighty running length of two-hours and forty-five minutes.  The action doesn't disappoint for adrenaline junkies however, as an entertaining (if ponderous) James Bond-style prologue sets the mood, and a centerpiece bout, with an earth-shattering, and edge-of-one's-seats style sound design, punctuates that Batman is in real trouble.  Bane still remains a mystery however, at least to the non-comic book devotee.

There's other challenges for Batman\Bruce Wayne as well, as a nubile cat burglar enters his realm, as well as him home in the form of Selina Kyle (played with a playful, tough-minded grace by Anne Hathaway.)  The ever serious (at times, perhaps a tad too much so) Nolan engages a more playful, and humorous take on his version of Catwoman, and Hathaway's game performance is striking, not just in that's so markedly different from prior takes, but because of the grounded humanity that shrouds such a cartoon-y character.  Kyle adds a notch in the sense of the political sculpting of The Dark Knight Rises, warning Bruce of the dangers and living so large while so many others suffer below.  There's a few other newcomers to the journey-- a jaded, but ever hopeful young cop, played with a refreshing ease by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a comely philanthropist with eyes for Mr. Wayne, played by Marion Cotillard.  Surrounded by the sturdy support team of Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, The Dark Knight Rises seeks to cover much ground, yet still manages to highlight the the solid ensemble-- the relationship between Wayne and his dutiful servant Alfred has never been so poignant before, and the conscience of Oldman's Commissioner Gordon never quite so raddled.

Nolan's world is near legend at this point, but his legacy on such an indelible piece of American fiction will rightfully remain intact due to his scope, power, and grandeur.  The Dark Knight Rises, even without an indelible imprint like that of Joker hanging towards the end of The Dark Knight should be seen as a worthy final chapter to an incredible and over-achieving reboot.  To the next auteur who tackles the Dark Knight, good luck. B+

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Man of Steel" teaser (x2)

For those you braved The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, you were treated to the teaser of next summers big time superhero reboot-- that being Zack Synder's Man of Steel.  However, which version did you see.

Visually identical, the same pretentious, almost seemingly Tree of Life-like pacing- but with different voiceovers that provide an altogether different mood.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Take This Waltz trailer

Sarah Polley's follow-up to her Oscar-nominated debut feature Away From Her, starring Michelle Williams.  Opens in limited engagement July 6th.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Every once in a while a film has the power to take you off guard, utterly enthrall and engage in the motion of the possibilities and magical proponents of the medium.  And if not permanently, then for a brief time and space open up the idea of what makes cinema special, powerful and potent.  It would be hard pressing not to have thoughts of profundity while watching the captivating and strange new feature Beasts of the Southern Wild.  A bold and uncompromising, nearly utopian film that tackles a world, a journey and a fantastical realm of possibility; in short the film provides a special cinematic place because it travels a land that's never been seen before.  The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival, and the Camera D'Or (Best First Feature) at this years Cannes Film Festival, and while it may be difficult to explain its wonder, it's easy to relish its vision and scope of field while experiencing such a difficult, nondescript piece of artistry and gumption.  While the accolades and acclaim may feel daunting, and may ultimately be the film undoing as it slowly widens into territories outside the art house, one thing is certain-- Beasts of the Southern Wild will retain a magical place in the heartbeat of independent American cinema.

Brazenly and acutely directed by first time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, Beasts establishes a time and place so sufficiently, as well as a mood that's nearly defiant in its tonal optimism.  Set in an outsider community off the coast of New Orleans, a safe haven-- exodus perhaps-- that treads outsides the norms of convention.  The locals refer to their home as "The Bathtub."  The most enchanting dweller is a six-year-old named Hushpuppy, and is played with singular, naturalistic grace by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis.  A strong, independent searcher-- she's utterly enchanted by the heartbeats of her family animals.  Strong willed, if but one that's feared and lost more than any little girl should.  Her father is Wink (Dwight Henry), a loutish boozy whose anger and seemingly abusive behavior belie a sensitive, if misguided soul whose motivations, while sinister, are nothing but to nurture and develop the strength that Hushpuppy needs to survive, not just in The Bathtub, but in life.

Zeitlin presents Beasts with a documentary-style flow, an ease that implores a sense of watching and listening without judgement nor finicky earnestness.  The joy of life in The Bathtub is presented in a serene beatific prologue that constitutes that everyday is treated as a holiday, that life shall be lived and loved-- a montage of sort that would likely make Terrence Malick proud, and perhaps a bit jealous.  But a storm does start to brew-- either a statement, an artistic commentary of pre- or post-Hurricane Katrina life, an indictment of eco-fragility, or both, or neither, Beasts of the Southern Wild is more a film to be savored in mood and temperament than preachy, prickly encoded messages.  The weather does get rough and nearly destroys The Bathtub, while drunken Wink doggedly tries to weather the storm, and intrepid Hushpuppy defiantly makes her own decisions.  Most of the power and charm comes from Wallis' utterly magical performance-- she's the real beast and deserving of whatever unholy acclaim this role gets her.  B+

Thursday, July 5, 2012

2012 Halfway Point

Wow, 2012 is already halfway over...where does the time go?  It's often wondered, cinematically, if it was a good year or not, and while the first six month usually offer little to nil in answering that question, the first half of 2012 has seen two films gross north of $400 million dollars, at least one indie sensation and some a few highs, and more than a few lows.

BOX OFFICE (The Top Ten Thus Far)
  1. Marvel's The Avengers- $607.2
  2. The Hunger Games- $403.8
  3. Dr. Suess' The Lorax- $213.2
  4. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted- $184.1
  5. Men in Black 3- $170.1
  6. Snow White & the Huntsman- $146.9
  7. 21 Jump Street- $138.4
  8. Brave- $131.1
  9. Safe House- $126.1
  10. The Vow- $125.0
Two other films have also grossed north of $100 million- Prometheus and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

  1. Moonrise Kingdom- $130,000 (4 screens)
  2. To Rome With Love- $$72,00 (5 screens)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild- $42,00 (4 screens)
  4. Marvel's The Avengers- $47,000 (4,000 screens)
  5. The Hunger Games- $36,000 (4,000 screens)

  1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
  2. Jeff, Who Lives at Home (The Duplass Brothers)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  4. The Kid With the Bike (The Dardenne Brothers)
  5. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)

What are your favorites?  Has this been a good year or a bad one so far?

Your Sister's Sister

In the small indie chamber piece, Your Sister's Sister, nothing overtly groundbreaking cinematically takes place, but a there's a brief refrain from the bombast of summertime popcorn thrill and a smart, terse and highly enjoyable small-framed group of characters at the root.  Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, whose 2009's Humpday deftly and smartly tackles straight guy randiness with similar tenderness and adult humor, proves herself a fine carpenter of characters and non-fuss artisan in making everyday comedy and tragedy both relatable and entertaining.  Within those deceptively simple confine, Your Sister's Sister smallness sharpens a larger scale of open-mindedness and optimism for the state of American independent quirk and a quiet place for underrated actors to shine with characters of dimension, warmth and wit.

Jack (an ever improving Mark Duplass) plays Jack, a Northwestern sad sack, still mourning and in despair over the death of brother; he's been gone a year now, but Jack is still disconnected and slightly raging.  His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), in a moment of movie-land interventions offers her family's cabin in the woods for solace as a gesture to get his act together.  Jack agrees and arrives to find Iris's sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) using the rustic old-timey home for the same reasons.  She's recently left a longtime relationship.  The one indie-quirk that slightly corrupts Your Sister's Sister is Hannah's outside characteristics.  She's a lesbian vegan-- either for laughs, optimal quirkiness or indie cred.  Fortunately, DeWitt is a gifted performer who jells such misguided convention and Hannah becomes a real person in a short space of time.

The action, which feels like a bad word for a talky dramedy, begins as a late night of drinking and kvetching between Hannah and Jack turns carnal, only to be surprised by an early morning arrival from Iris.  The tension between the three grows tenuous and, for a short time slightly silly-- that is until the real life union of feelings and past desires are confronted and Your Sister's Sister becomes a quietly substantive film with utmost humanity.  It helps that the three leads are superb-- Blunt hasn't been as sharp or endearing since The Devil Wears Prada and DeWitt hasn't been this brittle since the joyous Rachel Getting Married.   If Your Sister's Sister does nothing more than giving the three leads another stab at a nuanced character or Shelton another stab at directing, Your Sister's Sister can not be viewed as anything other than a success.  B

Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh, the raw and experimental auteur, who helped spark the late 1980s\early 1990s American independent film boom, has always been a serious-minded filmmaker, whose provocations sometimes get overlooked by the his mastery with actors and penchant for 70s-era visual verve.  Even at his most seemingly crowd pleasing, he finds ways to undercut with either a transgressive stance (Erin Brockovich) or off beat stylization (the Ocean's films.)  Point in case, he's never exactly been a light filmmaker.  Counter that with Channing Tatum, a young, Teen Beat-hearthrob whose made a nice little niche career for himself making young ladies swoon puppy love sappy far like Dear John and The Vow.  In Magic Mike, a partial semi-taken from life story based on Tatum's early days as a male exotic dancer, there's a clear and opposing disconnect between auteur and leading actor, and in a strange sort of scenarios, it may appear that Magic Mike, an over-stylized piece romp of abs and camp, needed more of Tatum's puppy dog flair than Soderbergh's over-reaching intensity.

Tatum, an actor of uber-ubiquitiy this year and champion in his own right for his surprisingly nimble dumb-dumb act in this spring's 21 Jump Street, does his own story a certain degree of justice.  He strips, and dances, and gyrates with panache, selling himself in role and spirit with every off-kilter line delivery or half naked kick step.  There's an instant likeability, if not quite nearly enough creditability, to his take on Mike, the headliner at a sleazy Tampa male strip joint.  He's also a construction worker, womanizer and aspiring furniture maker, but it's when his on stage that Tatum, the actor showcases a never-before-seen sense of showmanship, and nicely modulated command for an admittedly nondescript character and slight movie star ease at execution, even with a treacly, uneven, and at times terribly awkward script, written by Reid Carolin.  Mike takes on a project, a young, nearly waif-like subject named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), and takes him under his wing and into the circus of the male exotic world.  The story starts out as a nearly social piece of young day-laborers and quickly turns into the male equivalent of Showgirls, while maintaining a riff on All About Eve, all with Soderbergh's favored 70s style yellow filters.  The unfortunate thing is there's more over-bloating to come.  Soderbergh can't seem to settle on a light romp, and infuses unnecessary darkness, while also piling on a second rate romantic story to the mix.

A shame, and bummer for those who turn to Magic Mike for a rarefied chance to see unapologetic male beefcake on the big screen.  Or those looking for a raucous small piece of cheese in a summer movie season dominated by aliens and superheroes.  There's but small, but nearly divinely package to the stuffed Magic Mike that nearly compensates some of the more unnecessary distractions, and it comes in the form of something most may never expect.  Matthew McConaughey plays Dallas, the owner and master of ceremonies.  Like a potent and glossily greasy mix of the Emcee in Cabaret and Burt Reynolds' porn entrepreneur in Boogie Nights, McConaughey is expertly on point, delivering a performance of such potent cheese and nearly feckless charm, one just wishes the movie were riding on his wave instead of the many discordant ones it does.  In a near perfect union of character and actor, Dallas plays to McConaughey's strengths-- a glossily vain charmer whose actions are undone by narcissism, and a penchant for not wearing shirts.  Dallas is a true believer sorts, one who by regaling false hopes, can rabble rouse his hunky troupes, even while his duping them in the process.  Had Carolin's script or Soderbergh's direction been more on the nose in consistency of tone, McConaughey would have been a rightful choice for cheese or saga.

There's a buoyancy and lightness of touch during some of the funnier, sexier bits of male strippers dancing their hearts and clothes away, but there's way too many draggier bits.  The film can't settle for bouncy, unadulterated fun, for Mike's story needs redemption, as his methods for income need a sense of judgement.  All of which comes courtesy of Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam's overprotective older sister who latches on to something in Mike.  As Adam spirals all over the map as his stripping improves (he goes by the moniker "The Kid."), Brooke becomes more and more of a pain, relegating the unneeded sense of judgements that appear not be just taken out on Mike, but perhaps, the audience, who mostly came for the ogling of half naked men.  Their subsequent, somewhat "meet-cute" courtship is draining and boring, mostly because Horn, all sneers and stink eyes, plays her disagreeable and snarky character with finicky discomfort.  Strangely, this ugly romance was staged by the same director who presented the courtship of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez with such aplomb so gracefully in 1998's Out of Sight.

In the end, it's really difficult to see what was supposed to be made of Magic Mike.  While the moments of campy pleasures of flesh on display are delivered with silly goofiness, the romantic subplot is wan and uninteresting.  While there's a underworld of sin corroding the exteriors of Mike's life, one involving drugs and deals gone bad and business ethics, there's little actual deft to Mike's interior life, or anyone else.  While Tatum is cruising on star-in-the-making overdrive, Pettyfer is nearly catatonic as his protege.  And finally, while Soderbergh might think he has something to say about sex and unabashed desires as potent as Boogie Nights before it, he's really just made a pretentious romp dressed up as art.  It's almost a literal case of the Emperor having no clothes.  C+

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Amazing Spider-man

Ten years and two months ago, the first Spider-man reinvigorated the superhero film, debuting, to at the time, the biggest opening weekend box office in movie history and igniting a regeneration of a film genre that Superman and Batman built decades before.  While the franchise, under the fastidious helm of Sam Raimi and starring a perfectly cast nerd in waking Tobey Maguire enjoyed three insanely successful stabs at the famed Marvel comic, the diminishing returns of the third film left a salty aftertaste.  Leave it up to creatively drained studio executives to establish, that a mere five years later, a reboot must commence to bring back the good name and hopeful returns to the lucrative Spider-man name.  Here comes The Amazing Spider-man, a competent re-staging, this time under the leadership of director Marc Webb, he of the inventive 2009 indie sensation (500) Days of Summer.  What's striking about the reboot is the staggering feeling of what's new is old, and while The Amazing Spider-man, this time starring Andrew Garfield, is fine for summertime popcorn fun, it never seems to settle, to catch on, to fully entice with the promise of the something new, fresh and bold.

Garfield plays Peter Parker, high school misfit, one of a troubled youth and stammering social gestures.  He's smart, for sure...a whiz for scientific whatsits, but he's longing.  For what, the film distills a bit too on the nose.  Peter was abandoned by his parents and raised by his aunt and uncle-- this time portrayed by Martin Sheen and Sally Field-- and seeks answers for the sudden dishevel of his youthful existence.  He's plagued at school by the jocks who continually harass him and hides a secret crush for comely peer Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone.)  Does anything sound familiar?  The annoying tick behind The Amazing Spider-man is that it tracks the same beats Raimi tackled a decade ago, giving off an aura of been-there-done-that deja-vu.  Through a set of circumstances that bridges Peter's past with his destiny, he, but of course, meets his maker and becomes a powerful vigilante of sorts.

There's certainly something to the origins of Spider-man that make it a such a palpable piece of pop cultural entertainment.  For ever nerd, every marginalized person, a sense that a greater power and sterner sense of self can be established when strength is handed to you.  There's a certain joie de vivre, in life, and more so in movies, when a geek finds the strength to summon up his inner hero, but there's a haphazard, seemingly by-the-numbers routine in Webb's creation, despite the meticulous bells and whistles that a big studio superhero production can afford.  The Amazing Spider-man lacks the same sense of wonder, or pop thrill of the intoxicating pleasures of showcasing the wonder of someone who seems week discovering his power.  Part of this most come from that deja vu sense, one of such that perhaps the filmmakers felt that dwelling too much into the origins of man and superman would take away from the pyrotechnics of the wizards at the special effects department.  Either by lack of trust by the tale they were telling, or the realization that starting from scratch was a sketchy idea from the start, The Amazing Spider-man never settles in to enjoy the small pleasures of Peter's awakening.

Garfield himself seems a bit out of sorts as well.  A young actor with immense charm, who in recent years has proven a solid range in differing pictures like The Social Network and Never Let Me Go is better when he's able to channel the charming, playful witty banter of superhero speck, but struggles when the gawkier, shyer Peter Parker is on screen.  The stammers feel forced and a bit more Inside the Actors Studio-y, more like a faux representation of awkward youth.  Stone, however carries a moxie and spirit that nearly matches Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane in the original film, and seemingly carries the weight in those exchanges, owning each scene.  However, unlike the first Spider-man, where the romance felt stronger than the villiany antics, The Amazing Spider-man gives ample screen time to the machinations of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and his transformation into the slimy Lizard.  While Ifans makes an interesting villain-- there's a full circle turn as Connors connects Peter to his father's disappearance-- the film as a whole is more interested in setting the stage for a laser show come the climatic bout than building tension or character.

And let it be said, the technicians and wizards at work in the effects team of The Amazing Spider-man are truly amazing.  What sparks in the innovation and splendor, the visuals take more away on the un-sturdy development of character and wannabe franchise motivations.  There is a pleasure in the sight of the geek soaring the Manhattan skyline, strong and capable, while his delicate internal life is messy and awkward, however, there's a suddenness and sad lack of magic to The Amazing Spider-man reinterpretation of the Peter Parker saga.  C
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