Friday, July 20, 2012

House of Bane: “The Dark Knight Rises” Concludes Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy in Glorious Manner

Boy does Batman, and Bruce Wayne for that matter, have a lot of rising to do. After the events of “The Dark Knight” Batman branded a criminal on the run after taking the heat for the crimes of Harvey Dent, who was acknowledged as a hero in a cover-up that ended up actually cleaning up Gotham City into a state of peace. But that certainly won’t last very long as this third dip into the Batman well by director Christopher Nolan has something so epic and gigantic in store for Gotham I’m surprised the entire world doesn’t explode in proper Michael Bay fashion. It’s amazing how well Mr. Nolan stages intense action without ever once making it seem just loud and obnoxious. Sure it’s loud, but it’s not headache inducing. The last hour of “The Dark Knight Rises” is so intense and action-packed and thrilling I’m amazed at how swiftly it actually moved along. This is a defining film in a groundbreaking series that will certainly go down in history as one of the finest motion picture trilogies of all time. And I’m not even a big fan of “Batman Begins.”

As we learned from Randy in “Scream 3” about movie trilogies, the third chapter is always about going back to the beginning. Which “The Dark Knight Rises” does a lot. A strong background in the previous films is sort of a must, but not necessarily a requirement. Everything that I sort of found rather dull and lifeless about the first film is luckily brought back here with excitement and intrigue. We know that the supposedly deceased Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) had created the League of Shadows with intent on destroying Gotham City. Enter Bane.

Bane, a disturbing, hulking criminal mastermind played with bulky authority by Tom Hardy, has plans to turn Gotham completely upside down. After a breathtaking opening sequence featuring a jaw-dropping aerial stunt, Bane is released with intent on causing chaos in Gotham. He attacks the Gotham City Stock Exchange putting not only the city but Bruce Wayne in financial crisis and even takes over his science division and all his fancy gadgets one of which he turns into a nuclear weapon of mass proportions. He even goes as far as taking the ENTIRE CITY hostage, cutting millions of people off from the outside world (where the President says they have a strict no negotiating with terrorists policy) and creates an anarchic police state where all the policemen are trapped in a tunnel and all the criminals are let out into the street. Oh and Bane severely cripples Batman in some hand-to-hand combat and locks him in away in a foreign prison that is virtually impossible to escape from. But fear not Batman fans, Batman makes just enough appearances that will make you swoon with excitement. His vehicles and gadgets this time around are even more fun and exciting, and unlike the previous films, you feel as if things are way more at stake, which makes the film even more thrilling and exhilarating than you could imagine.

This movie is dark and depressing sure, but Christopher Nolan has created an anomaly: because this movie is so much freaking fun. It’s just as gritty and violent as “The Dark Knight” with strong echoes of other gritty crime dramas inspired by the Martin Scorseses of the film world, yet it’s completely his own. The film is further boosted with the appearance of cat burglar Selina Kyle, moonlighting as Catwoman, who has a great talent of taking things that don’t belong to her. Anne Hathaway plays her fiercely and as cold and calculating as she can be, she’s actually quite a likable character. She boosts the film with a much needed sense of fun. And a sense of hope is boosted with the appearance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake a young cop who Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) promotes to Detective after suffering an injury from Bane. The first half of the film has much to do with setting up the chaos that will occur in the film’s stark second half, which can be a bit muddled at times – as someone who doesn’t quite get Wall Street politics and financial stuff – which is just more slightly confusing, which isn’t so much a criticism as it is a personal observation.

Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan from a story by David S. Goyer has laid everything out on the table with this one. Nothing is off limits here. There are plenty of great surprises for fans of the series and even if the film doesn’t feature the scene-stealing work of Heath Ledger’s Joker, this film has just as much, if not more, to offer. It has such a crowd pleasing and altogether satisfying ending, I’m truly amazed. The film has such great camera work featuring beautiful IMAX photography, a deliciously bombastic score from Hans Zimmer, and truly outstanding stunt work and effects. It’s certainly the reason we escape to the movies in the first place.  GRADE: A

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Last Boy Scout: “Moonrise Kingdom” is Filled with Wes Anderson’s Trademarked Weirdness

Wes Anderson is one of more talented auteurs working in the film industry today. However, he’s not exactly everyone cup of tea. And that includes me. You can look at a single frame from one of his films and be able to identify who directed it. He has an original and quirky style. He feels like the hipster version of early Tim Burton. But as original as his films are, they sometimes have an overwhelming sense of pretentiousness behind it which always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. His sets, camerawork, characters, and dialogue, especially in his latest endeavor “Moonrise Kingdom,” all draw way too much attention to themselves, as if to say, “Hey look at me!” Having said that, fans of Anderson’s peculiar style will no doubt be in awe at the originality and dry sense of humor proudly put on display here.

“Moonrise Kingdom” takes place on a remote New England island in the 1960s. Anderson’s films are always presented as if they a story unfolding before us. A young boy named Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) is a khaki scout but he’s sort of done with them. He decides to run away into the woods with a girl named Suzy (another newcomer Kara Hayword). The two had become pen pals and are eager to run away from society. Sam is an orphan, and his foster parents don’t really want him anymore. Suzy comes from a family in which she’s become less important than her three younger brothers. And her bullhorn wielding mom (Francis McDormand) appears to have eyes for the local police captain (Bruce Willis).

A search party is deployed to find the missing youths including Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and the other boy scouts, all of whom have particular and appropriately weird personalities. A few of the boys build a tree house in a tree nearly five stories high. The boy scout camp is run as if it were a youth centered boot camp. The film does focus a lot on Sam and Suzy’s “escape” and how Sam uses his knowledge as a scout to help them survive in the woods. In true hipster fashion, Suzy brings along her portable record player so she can listen to her favorite album.

Like Wes Anderson’s films, the humor is brought out through the odd characters and strange situations they find themselves in. This is the type of movie where characters will get struck by lightening and survive. And animals will be killed by a bow and arrow. Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola, have a crafted a cute central love story between to young budding adolescents. They have done a good job at successfully recreating the awkwardness of that time and place. They two youths are great and fit naturally into a quirky semi-real fantasy world with oodles of bizarre characters including Tilda Swinton who’s simply referred to as “Social Services.”

This is certainly a Wed Anderson film through and through. He’s crafted an interesting film that is certainly his own, and all the actors do a great job of fitting into his world, but its weird style and slower pace is not something that will satisfy all tastes. He manages some decent laughs that come about from the sheer weirdness on display, but those who aren’t strict fans of his oddball style will certainly feel alienated and turned off. It’s not one of the most entertaining films of recent memory but it’s certainly one of the strangest.  GRADE: C+

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Roman Holiday: Woody Allen’s Whimsical “To Rome with Love” is Lighthearted Fluff

Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love” feels a lot like his “earlier, funny movies” but isn’t quite as successful. At least it doesn’t reach the overbearing pretentiousness of his previous entry, last year’s Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris.” Luckily, this time you don’t have to be an English major to get the jokes. It’s certainly a lighthearted confection and even though Allen himself finally shows up in front of the camera - for the first time since 2006’s underrated “Scoop” - something is still just missing. “To Rome with Love” is Allen’s fourth stop in his European filmmaking tour (after having made films in England, Spain, and France), and as beautiful as the surroundings are he still feels rather uncomfortable in a foreign location. The film tells four separate stories that are intercut with each other but unrelated, which sort of makes the film feel like the Italian version of “Paris, je t’aime.” All of the stories have some kind of silly or whimsical element which was jarring at first yet encouraging as Allen knows how to handle this type of material well. If the storylines managed to be a whole lot funnier then it would have been an even greater success.

The first story involves Woody Allen as Jerry traveling to Rome with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) Roman fiancé Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). As you can imagine the two families sort of clash at first, especially when Jerry, who is retired from the music industry insists that Michelangelo’s father is a brilliant opera singer when he hears him singing in the shower. This leads to one of the film’s more silly situations which finds the guy performing onstage while showering. Allen has some great trademark Woodyisms, but he must share the film with three other plotlines which severely limits his screen time.

Another storyline involves Jesse Eisenberg as Jack an American pursuing an architecture career and living with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). He meets John (Alec Baldwin) who Jack recognizes one day as a well-known American architect. He invites him over for coffee and then John proceeds to show up, like a spirit or something, whenever he feels like it to offer advice to Jack. Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page) flies to Rome to move in with them and causes a slight rift in Jack’s relationship. Monica is sort of the fiery young thing that usually gets awards attention in Woody Allen films, but the character isn’t wild enough to get much notice and Page reduces the amount of pep she usually infuses her characters with.

Another story involves the once hot commodity Roberto Benigni as an ordinary family man who becomes famous one day for no apparent reason. The paparazzi and reporters begin following him around 24/7 to watch him shave and ask him what he eats for breakfast. Woody Allen explored this concept a while back in his film “Celebrity” and it’s perfectly cast as Benigni had his fifteen minutes of fame back when he won an Oscar for “Life is Beautiful” and as quickly as he came he was nearly forgotten about. Although that could have been “Pinocchio’s” fault.

And lastly that leaves us with a story about two Italian newlyweds Antonio and Milly who become accidentally separated one day while in Rome to meet the in-laws. Penelope Cruz plays an Italian hooker named Anna who shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time so Antonio temporarily passes her off as his fiancé. Meanwhile, Milly becomes infatuated with an Italian movie star and we wonder if Milly and Antonio will ever find each other again.

It’s made quite clear that these four stories pretty much have nothing to do with each other except that they all take place in Rome, but that’s ok. The point is that Allen has attempted to make a comedy in another city he’s not quite familiar with. And a majority of the film is actually in the native language, which makes it feel more authentic. It’s not his funniest or sharpest or most original film he’s ever created, but it has a fun and lighthearted tone. For a guy who’s almost pushing 80, you can’t really fault the guy whatsoever.  GRADE: B

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

A Bear to Remember: The Hilariously Subversive “Ted” is Irreverent Comedy Gold

Ted is about a talking teddy bear. Yes, a real teddy bear that walks around and talks. And people interact with him as if it were completely normal. This is a high concept film if there ever was one. And yet the film tries, seemingly effortlessly, to let you buy into it. And it works. It really, really does. And on top of it, it’s endlessly hilarious. It was directed and co-written by Seth MacFarlane, the usually irreverent yet hilarious guy who brought you “Family Guy.” He’s the type of creative artist who doesn’t always follow the rules and in so doing always breaks the mold and comes up with things no one has eve really seen before. I’m not a huge fan of “Family Guy” but what I have seen is fun, original, and delightfully tasteless at times. He brings all of that here to his first live action feature where he introduces us to Ted, the very much alive teddy bear companion of Mark Wahlberg’s character. It’s sometimes ridiculous and even touching yet always hysterical. And just because a movie features a talking teddy bear doesn’t make it kid friendly. Get a babysitter.

“Ted” begins as if it were going to be a serious drama as it’s narrated by the British Patrick Stwart, but the laughs begin almost immediately. A young boy named John has trouble making friends so one Christmas he wishes for his new stuffed teddy bear to come to life. This is one of those movies in which a child’s wish comes true. His new friend Ted becomes his best friend, much to his parents initial horror, but Ted becomes something of a celebrity. He makes appearances on talk shows with Johnny Carson, which employ some Forrest Gump-like impressive effects. But like most instant celebs his fifteen minutes of fame end and John is stuck with this talking bear right up through adulthood. Now, decades later Ted is a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking  stain in John’s life, but they’re actually still best buds. Of course it makes John’s relationship with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) rather strained.

There’s not much going on here plot-wise (except for a slightly strange yet funny third act plot point involving a very creepy Giovanni Ribisi) which is probably a good thing. The film would rather spend time getting to know these characters and how they go about their lives. You really get a good sense of John and Lori’s romance and how Ted has started to affect their relationship. John is essentially a giant man-child, someone who’d fit right at home in a Judd Apatow production. But this film is way more foul-mouthed and ridiculous. In the best way possible, of course. The film features plenty of Family Guy style asides and references to pop culture and even features a significant plot device revolving around the film “Flash Gordon.” And bonus points for that amazing “Airplane!” reference. There are plenty of fun celebrity cameos which also add to the fun. The film ultimately feels like a big budget sitcom packaged as a summer comedy, but that’s not really an insult. The laughs are earned and warranted and there’s just enough emotional connection with the characters to make the humor even more funny and relatable.

It’s quite disturbing how much you get sense of how codependent John and Ted are with each other. There’s actually a quite interesting character study going on here masquerading as a silly foul-mouthed guy comedy. There is certainly no joke too offensive ALS group has already criticized the film for an on going Lou Gehrig’s disease joke used in the film. Usually anything goes when it comes to comedy, and Ted pushes it to comedic new heights. What also helps sell this fascinating friendship amongst the potty humor is the terrific GCI animation. Ted is extremely lifelike, and much like last year’s single titled comedy “Paul,” features a wonderful central animated performance (voiced by MacFarlane).

“Ted” is certainly one of the funniest movies to come out so far this year and it features some terribly subversive humor. Those who love to laugh and are not easily offended will find themselves having a surprisingly enjoyable time. It’ll have you roaring with laughter and leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.  GRADE: A-

Eight Legged Geek: “The Amazing Spider-Man” Spins a Web of Spectacular Fun

Should it really be impossible to compare this new Spider-Man “reboot” to the original trilogy that ended just five years ago? It kind of is. This new version, from the director of inventive director of “(500) Days of Summer” Marc Webb, tries to spin webs around its original inspiration and it pretty much succeeds. What we have here is a much more deep and fleshed out origin story of geeky Peter Parker’s transformation into web-slinging superhero Spider-Man. Sam Raimi’s take in the original 2002 film was fun and fresh and dazzling, as was his follow and the much maligned closing chapter (which I found as entertaining as it was flawed). Even if “The Amazing Spider-Man” has a slight whiff of “does this need to exist?” it succeeds admirably with a stellar story, great performances, and exhilarating action sequences.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” was born after plans for a fourth Spider-Man film fell through. The studio decided to back to the basics and even if this is a story we saw being told ten years ago, it’s different enough to warrant a second go round. It follows the “Batman Begins” formula by starting over from scratch with a new cast and director after a critically slammed previous entry. Call it “Spider-Man Starts,” if you will.

Here everything that should be old and familiar feels fresh and invigorated. Peter Parker is now played by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield (can someone please cast this guy in a “Psycho” reboot already?) who actually fits the role much better than Tobey Maguire. He feels more like an outcast from the get go even if the actor himself is himself a rather good looking dude. He’s lived with his Aunt May (Sally Field ) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) ever since his parents abandoned him when he was a kid. In a prologue sequence we see that Mr. Parker is in some sort of trouble, which begins the film’s overall mystery story arc.

Meanwhile, as the high school Peter begins digging deeper into his parents’ past he ends up in the high rise corporate tower of the Oscorp company where his father’s former college works Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans). It also just so happens to be where his beautiful crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) interns.  Parker is led to a room filled with “genetically altered super spiders,” to borrow a term from the original film, where he’s promptly bitten and begins gaining spider-like abilities. Comic fans will rejoice knowing that once he begins to hone his new superpowers, Peter constructs his own man-made web slingers which help him leap from building to building. Peter’s development of power is handled way much more in-depth here as opposed to the traditional montage format. Peter’s newly developed powers are wonderfully balanced with his growing romance with Gwen. Stone and Garfield have such a palpable chemistry and Webb uses his indie rom-com cred to maximum effect. I also enjoyed much more screen time for Uncle Ben and Aunt May at Peter's home. Sheen and Field are simply excellent here.

But what do people really want in a Spider-Man flick? How about some amazing high-flying web-slinging action? This movie certainly delivers in that department with a few really cool uses of 3D technology. Seeing Spider-Man soar through the sky (aided by a wonderful James Horner score) will never get old, even if this is the fourth time. Spider-Man’s action scenes involving Curt Connors, after he incidentally turns himself in a giant CGI lizard after experimenting on himself, are pretty awesome. But the movie isn’t all just cool computer graphics. Plenty of practically effects are utilized and the characters are extremely well drawn. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who brought such great character depth to David Fincher’s Zodiac, is in top form here, as are Alvin Sargent who worked on the original films and Steve Kloves who wrote most of the Harry Potter films.

It’s hard to imagine a better “Spider-Man” film that this. Everything here just simply works. The fact that there have already been three Spider-Man films in the past decade doesn’t even really matter. If you loved the original films you’re bound to love this and if you hated the original films you’re bound to love this anyway. “The Amazing Spider-Man,” not surprisingly, just simply amazes.  GRADE: B+