Saturday, July 21, 2012


While Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" may not be the tightly constructed masterwork its predecessor was, it's a fully rewarding and all encompassing closing chapter to the director's truly accomplished Batman trilogy. It is a dark, brooding and uncompromising piece of filmmaking that asks bold questions about morality weaving in broader social and cultural relevance that is shocking. No superhero movie has gone to such levels of depravity and hopelessness. Nolan and his team take us there and manage to make "The Avengers" look like child's play. Pummeling its audience at a whopping 164 minutes full of doom and gloom with only a small circle of light at the end of the tunnel, this grandiose spectacle doesn't forget its obligation to thrilling comic book entertainment. It delivers. Recalling to mind not only "The Dark Knight" but also "Inception," the most anticipated movie of the year is the anti-blockbuster blockbuster of our time.

It's been eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, and the caped crusader Batman has been in recluse ever since. The billionaire behind the mask, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), has been mostly absent, as well. Hiding within the walls of his mansion, Wayne lives in permanent bachelorhood with his lifelong butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). The faithful butler is thankful Wayne has decided to end his Batman days but also longs for him to move on with a new life. There's been no need for Batman due to his public blame for Dent's death but also because organized crime in Gotham has nearly been eradicated. That, of course, can only last for so long.

Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a muscled villainous man forced to wear a muzzle-like mask, whose only desire is to watch Gotham destroy itself and turn to ashes. There were sound issues with Bane's altered voice, and while new sound mixing makes him easier to understand, it's not perfect. Because the mask doesn't allow you to see his mouth move, his booming and bass-filled voice feels almost disembodied. And yet, this strange  phenomenon works to emphasize Bane's notion of representing a threat greater than himself. Tom Hardy's performance here is limited to physical gestures and expression through his eyes, both of which he puts to great effect. The voice he creates, too, is haunting with pseudo-sophisticated inflection and a Darth Vader-esque artificiality.

Now, Heath Ledger's Joker can't be beat. His villainous reign of chaos and anarchy in 2008's "The Dark Knight" echoed the times of post-9/11 and terrorist threats. Bane, however, represents something more abstract: vague references to the occupy Wall Street movement and the financial crisis. For the first time, the city of Manhattan is used to represent Gotham, further eliciting scary topical relevance that Nolan masterfully draws out of the comic book lore. Bane's plan for Gotham includes two terror-filled set pieces involving an assault on the Stock Exchange and a series of explosions that not only trap the city's law enforcement underground but cut off Gotham from any outside aid.

There are a handful of new characters with Bane and, of course, returning ones including Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne's go-to for all updated Batman gadgetry and vehicles, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) who's always been at the forefront of support for Batman. After Bane crashes the stock market, Wayne Enterprises consequently goes bankrupt. This introduces a wealthy board member named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to take the reigns. She must protect what once was a reactor meant to be used as a clean energy source for the city against Bane who seeks to turn it into an unstable, mobile nuclear bomb.

Initially luring Bruce Wayne out of seclusion is the sly, sexy thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who slinks into Wayne's mansion to steal his late mother's pearl necklace, along with his fingerprints. The moral ambiguity of Hathaway's Catwoman -- never actually referred to as Catwoman in the film -- is intriguing, and the actress plays it up with sinister glee. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the script based on the story from the director and David S. Goyer (who penned the upcoming "Man of Steel"), and they cleverly weave Selina Kyle's character into the story. She becomes an integral part of the concluding saga both helping and thwarting Batman. Seeing these two together in action sequences is also a real show.

An unexpectedly solid new character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's street cop John Blake. He's fully aware of Batman's existence, knows Bruce Wayne is behind the mask and is a resourceful product of the Wayne Foundation's orphanage for boys. There's a sort of kinship there, and a lot of screen time is granted to Blake and the likes of Commissioner Gordon when Batman is imprisoned by Bane in a literal hell hole beneath the earth. After a blood-curdling fist brawl between the two masked figures, Batman's heroic frailty surfaces. The fact that a majority of the second act is void of Batman makes his triumphant return to the screen all the more visceral, powerful and emotionally potent also thanks to Hans Zimmer's continuously pounding score.

With his "The Dark Knight Rises," Christopher Nolan gives humanity to the superhero and delivers thrills that have substance, depth and implications of a harsh reality. Yes, it's bloated and exhausting, but it's hugely ambitious and accomplished, making a solid claim for this Batman trilogy to stand tall among the best film trilogies in history.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

TED Review

Seth MacFarlane, creator of the Fox animated mega-hit "Family Guy," enters the realm of filmmaking with his first feature debut, "Ted," which turns out to be a live-action "Family Guy." It's defiantly what you expect going into it. The same trademark MacFarlane humor with wisecracking pop culture references, unabashed vulgarity, sexual raunch, joyous political incorrectness and random cameos from celebrities who really have no business showing up. These cameos are actually pretty great, though, so keep your eyes peeled. MacFarlane co-stars in the movie he wrote and directed providing the voice of the fun-loving, foul-mouthed teddy bear come-to-life, Ted, who even makes the joke that his voice doesn't sound THAT much like Peter Griffin's. Spoiler alert: it does.

On one fateful Christmas morning, young John Bennett receives an enormous stuffed teddy bear. He's thrilled with the present but also wishes the bear could come to life and be a true friend forever. Wish granted. The now walking, talking bear becomes an overnight sensation, a celebrity appearing on the likes of the Johnny Carson show. But just as the narrator explains, giving examples like Frankie Muniz and Corey Feldman, all fame eventually fades. Years pass, and the now 35-year-old John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) has lived with Ted as a roommate and best friend his whole life sitting on the couch watching TV, getting high and prolonging adolescence.

Against all odds, John has an extremely attractive and successful girlfriend of four years. Her name is Lori Collins (Mila Kunis), and while she has put up with Ted all this time, a new point has been reached where she wants Ted to finally move out. That way, Lori and John can finally take their relationship to the next level.  This immediately turns the plot into a bromance vs. romance dynamic, which has been explored countless times in comedies before. The one-note joke of the buddy of this particular buddy movie being a stuffed bear does last but not forever. Eventually the material wears thin as do the laughs. A creepy father (Giovanni Ribisi) and his chubby son start stalking Ted and attempt to kidnap him, creating wild tonal shifts into a cheap thriller.

And yet thank goodness for the always surprising and talented Mark Wahlberg who plays the ideal lovable slacker with his Bostonian drawl he does so well. Kunis, likewise, is cute as a caring and concerned girlfriend who does her very best to play this relationship straight when there's a teddy bear in the mix. As hard as they try, though, Seth MacFarlane's "Ted" isn't nearly as funny as it should be. And what, pray tell, is his crazy, fan boy-like obsession with the 1980 sci-flick "Flash Gordon," which he relentlessly refers to throughout the movie's entirety?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


It is certainly debatable whether or not we needed a reboot of the "Spider-Man" franchise ten years after the first film and just five years after the most recent one. But if we are going to receive a "Spider-Man" reboot, then I'm glad it's this one. From director Marc Webb (fitting last name, right?), "The Amazing Spider-Man" is essentially a remake of Sam Raimi's original "Spider-Man" (2002). But that's to look at it in the most basic sense, which wouldn't do Webb's version justice. He presents a re-imagining of the web-slinging hero's origin story, a more emotionally invested and comprehensive back story as to what happened to Peter Parker's parents and what ends up motivating him to don a mask and start fighting against criminals. And while Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" (2004) is the best of the Spidey movies, this one comes in a close second.

Peter Parker is played by Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network," "Never Let Me Go") whose name is going to blow up after this movie. After being mysteriously left behind by his parents, he comes into the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, played exquisitely by Martin Sheen and Sally Field as loving parental figures. Peter stumbles across his dad's old briefcase filled with brilliant scientific work, a clue into his past and why he fled. The documents lead him to a skyscraper housing Oscorp, your everyday comic book science corporation working on potentially dangerous cutting-edge technology. There Peter meets a genius scientist, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his dad's old lab partner. Together they were working on cross-species interbreeding, hence the availability of a toxic spider to bite Peter and change his life.

Even after Peter's transformation, the movie is smart to keep focusing on his personal story for a solid hour, especially focusing on the blossoming first love between him and his female classmate, Gwen Stacy, played by the always delightful Emma Stone ("The Help," "Easy A"). Gwen's father is the police captain (Denis Leary) who's skeptical of Spider-Man busting crooks. Gone are the days of civilians submitting photos of Spider-Man to the local newspaper. Now to catch a glimpse of him, all you have to do is watch a viral video on the internet. Peter is still a photographer, yes, but it's more of a vintage hobby. It's a cultural update that makes sense. But even with video evidence of Spider-Man serving the people, the police captain is not convinced.

Soon a larger threat than just petty criminals emerges. Dr. Connors, desperate to grow back his missing arm, experiments with lizard genes and gives himself a disastrous transformation. He morphs into the ultra-strong and violent-minded Lizard who seeks to make all men equal in the worst way possible. Lizard proves a formidable villain, but he feels limited to being, well, simply a large, angry reptile. The action sequences to follow are all well-choreographed, easy to follow and make sense for the narrative. The effects are great, and the CGI is never overdone. Watching our web-slinging hero swing through the Manhattan skyline is breathtaking with swirling camera angles and stunning lighting. Some purposeful 3D shots are used such as a first-person Spidey view, which are a fine touch, but as usual the technology makes an otherwise vibrant picture too dark.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" will wow audiences in terms of its spectacle, its moving grace and swift blockbuster appeal, but what audiences will most take away from it is the experience of a first-rate romance. This is only Marc Webb's second feature, which is an impressive feat all its own, his first being the indie love story, "(500) Days of Summer." With that experience, he's able to infuse the Peter/Gwen relationship with quiet magic and a hint of modesty to let his actors shine.

The chemistry between real-life couple Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone is lively, effervescent and adorable in all of its teenage high school shyness. Stone gives Gwen a compassionate and charming allure while Garfield's awkward skateboarding Peter is a creation all his own with perfect nuance. This includes when he's in Spidey mode being smart-mouthed and snarky with criminals much like in the original comic. The actor's spindly limbs and slim yet sturdy frame, as well, are an ideal fit to the limberness and agility of Spider-Man. Individually these two gifted actors make their characters something wholehearted. And together? They're an absolute dream.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


"Beasts of the Southern Wild" provides a mythic and uncompromising world to get lost in. It's deeply rooted in post-Katrina imagery taking place in a tiny dirt-poor but lively community aptly called the Bathtub. It's a tiny spot of marshland south of the levee in New Orleans easily prone to mass flooding. The dwellers here live an eclectic if not dangerous life in improvised shacks that second as boats if the waters rise. And rise they will as a catastrophic storm heads their way and threatens their entire existence. Meanwhile, prehistoric aurochs -- the beasts referred to in the title -- have thawed from melted ice caps and are summoned by the cataclysm. Arriving from nowhere and receiving a Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance, this debut feature from Benh Zeitlin is an invigorating rush of magical realism.

The story centers on Hushpuppy played with amazing charisma and vigor from tiny little actress Quvenzhane Wallis who was just six years old during shooting. Her performance as the downtrodden but undeniably strong Hushpuppy ranks among the best in female protagonists we've seen on screen this year right alongside Katniss Everdeen and Princess Merida. She is nearly orphaned with her hard-drinking father, Wink (Dwight Henry), whose parenting style could be considered quite abusive and neglectful if viewed in a different light. But here, Wink is only teaching her daughter how to survive in a harsh environment, one he plans on never fleeing even when their entire home goes underwater.

This community is staunchly dedicated to their homes. Even when the hurricane comes crashing in and a mandatory evacuation brings them north of the levee to safety and solitude, they refuse. In such, they're refusing consumerism and the meddlesome good intentions of the government. Taking pride in a multicultural self-sustaining microcosm, they live on their own island where there is no threat of modernity.

Benh Zeitlin worked on the script with Lucy Alibar who penned the play, "Jucy and Delicious," upon which the movie is based. It's a work of homemade collaboration (the actors were all local), and as an established work of art and a miniature miracle, the film is getting heaps of critical praise and awards. It's a challenging movie but one that is ultimately rewarding in its thrilling exploration, sensory joy and allegorical prowess.

"Beasts" shares a kinship with Malick's "The Tree of Life" in that it's a small story that reaches out to themes much greater than itself. This is much like Hushpuppy who looks beyond her own immediate surroundings into the makings of the universe and what it means to take control of one's own life against the most profound adversities. Zeitlin embeds the script in the distinct idiosyncrasies of the region, the people and a colorful lifestyle and in observation achieves a level of high originality and stunning scope. For my money, "Beasts" is a better and more accessible movie than Malick's, one that isn't afraid to pack an unabashed emotional wallop.  It's also the very best film so far this year.