Saturday, July 21, 2012

Love: The Dark Knight Rises

[Major spoiler alert: It’s almost impossible to effectively discuss this film without leaking information.]

Perhaps you’ve heard the popular internet theory which posits that director Christopher Nolan is a sort of genius magician, that he works in trilogies, connects the twisted dream logic of his films, and outlined his process while introducing the steps to a magic trick in The Prestige.  According to that theory, the first step is the Pledge (we’re shown something ordinary), the second is the Turn (the ordinary thing disappears), the third is the Prestige (where the ordinary object is brought back, but the secret isn’t revealed).   With the Batman trilogy, there’s a ring of relevance.  In Act I (Batman Begins) we watched a very good but ultimately quite ordinary origin story about a very good but seemingly unexceptional playboy.  In Act II (The Dark Knight), the ordinary nature of the film gave way to something quite daring and exceptional while, in a plot parallel, the ordinary hero became legend and, accordingly, was forced to disappear following the complicated death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).  It only follows that in Act III must feature a return to the ordinary object.  For better or worse, this is precisely what Nolan manages in The Dark Knight Rises.  It’s an exceptionally well-crafted comic book adaptation, but one that feels more in line with the genre standard.  Our hero returns, our city is in danger, the situation is gritty and grim, but the megalomaniacal tension that transformed 2008’s The Dark Knight from ‘Batman movie’ to ‘ultimate crime film’ simply isn’t present.
 That’s not to say that it doesn’t try.  The Dark Knight Rises is, in many ways, a potentially dangerous film.  In the weeks to come, the unfortunate events surrounding its midnight premiere will give way to a deep media risk assessment.  As has always been the case with superhero stories (Batman in particular), this is a tale of good and evil, of violent acts of out-and-out terrorism and sideways societal commentary.  There’s a psychological violence that’s always seemed more present in the Batman universe than in others, and Nolan specializes in dragging the lunatics out of Arkham Asylum and throwing them into a hyper-real milieu.  When the city goes awry, it’s the fault of flesh and blood humans; of citizens, psychopaths, and a buzzing desperation that leads to a madness without hope.  At its cheesiest, there’s always been a burned up darkness at the edge of the Batman mythos, and in pop cultural big-screen depictions we may have gotten freeze rays and batnipples, but they’ve always come with mass murderers, genocidal geniuses, and the easily influenced mere mortals who’ve fallen into step beside them.  The Dark Knight Rises offers us a villain oft discounted by the casual observer: Bane (Tom Hardy).  Was Bane the right choice in the wake of Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the Joker?  Perhaps not.  There’s a logical progression in choosing him, sure.  The Scarecrow was quick, but not quick enough.  The Joker was brilliant and deranged, but physically fairly weak.  Bane?  He’s the whole package: the villain smart enough to outwit the Bat, and strong enough to earn recognition as the ‘man who broke the bat’ by comic book aficionados.  The problem? He’s not the most screen-friendly of villains in the DC galaxy.   
 The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight.  Batman has taken the fall for the death of Harvey Dent in order to allow the city to pass a bit of legislation that has all but wiped out organized crime.  It’s peacetime, and Bruce Wayne has sequestered himself (Howard Hughes style) deep in a wing of Wayne Manor.  All it takes to pull him out, however, is a minor robbery under his very nose.   In investigating Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), his bewitching burglar, Bruce stumbles upon a bubbling uprising in Gotham’s sewers, where Bane has corralled a small army of disposable street toughs in his slowly building insurrection. 
There are echoes of the Occupy Wall Street movement that can’t be ignored, and the film pulls a politically divisive punch and posits that there are, essentially, enough folks in the 99% angry enough to run with a nuke wielding villain and ‘take back their city’ from both government and wealthy folk alike (is it a statement on the occupiers or a statement on the tea party? Discuss).  It’s an immediate, relevant, and threatening premise that should read that way on screen, but never quite makes it.  The problem with the scenario, as I read it, is the exact problem with Bane himself.  Namely: everything is tempered by the mask.  Tom Hardy is a menacing screen presence with the ferocity of an angry badger (see: Bronson), but when 2/3 of his face is blocked by a mask like a muzzle, he loses a great deal of his ability to emote.  Ledger’s Joker was frightening because we could see the madness behind his eyes, because he smirked when he stabbed you and called attention to his own mutilation.  Bane has the voice of a cartoon gentleman and a jaw that never seems to move, even as he announces his terrible intentions. There’s a distance created that separates voice and body, threat and follow-through, and it’s one that the film’s own PG-13 reluctance echoes.  The Dark Knight was raw.  Even if the camera cut away when the pencil broke skin, you felt its impact.  In Rises, you don’t.  The most shocking images and set pieces, the ones that truly allow for a sense of dread (and a need for a hero) are all delivered at an actual distance.  Hanging bodies are specks on the horizon, broken necks happen entirely off-screen, and even as the city is plunged into the bleakest pits of hell, there's too much left to inference.   
 In a way, the focus seems split in too many directions.  We start to wonder what The Dark Knight Rises is actually about.  Is its subject Batman?  Certainly not.  Christian Bale’s ‘Gran Torino’ voiced hero is more of a lurking presence than an on-screen protagonist.  The story depends on him, but doesn’t give him to us.  Instead, he’s more of the symbol philosophized about in the previous film.  Gotham city needs him, the viewer needs him, but we like the idea of Batman more than the moment he shows up for his high speed chase.  Just as the film isn’t about Batman, though, it’s not about Bane.  Bane’s a lurker in the opposite direction, and the eventual phasing out of his character comes too quickly and too easily.  Why did we need him at all?  Catwoman?  She’s alright, but not the center.  Commissioner Gordan (Gary Oldman)? He gets more play, but so it is.  Newbie hero cop Blake (Joseph Gorden Levitt)?  Oh, wait, yeah.  Maybe the film actually is about him.  In a way, there's a sense that this a story generally themed around the idea of resurrection, a grand, operatic discussion of power with an entry point (Batman) to its generalizations.  Heroes must fall to rise, cities must fall to rebuild, and everything needs to go to shit in order for ordinary citizens to stand up and take their place.
 In large part, The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent action film.  As good as Batman Begins?  Yes.  As The Dark Knight?  Meh.  It’s enjoyable popcorn viewing with smartly choreographed sequences and big set pieces that never dwell too heavily in the realm of dizzying CGI.  It’s also well worth noting that Nolan gets some surprisingly positive results from a couple played-out characters, and for all my doomsday speculation on the casting of Anne Hathaway, she works.  Comic fans will be relieved to hear that the Cat (only referred to as Selina here) gets her due: she’s a tough, complicated antihero who sometimes slips into sexy come-ons, but in a way that seems all-too aware of how offensive they are to her own strength and intellect.  While I still assert that Eva Green could have done it better, watching the tricky ethical relationship between hero and Robin Hood figure is rather a treat -especially after the boring boring depictions of Rachel Dawes in the previous films.   

Still, this film just doesn’t have the same impact.  It’s complex, it’s dark, it aspires to great things, but it never quite pulls them off without feeling heavy handed or overly grandiose.   In a way, I can’t fault Nolan for this.  He’s chosen a tricky skyline for this incarnation of Gotham, and his subject matter treads dangerously close to something you probably couldn’t have gotten away with making just a few years back (if you know what I mean).  It’s probably best that he stepped away from the gory details and gave us something just a little more comic book that doesn’t harness that same power, especially now.  We need the ordinary thing to return, we need normalcy to have been restored, but...we know what could have been.  The Dark Knight Rises is as dark in thought as the last film but it doesn't have that technicolor bit of electricity at its core.  It's the resolution to the trick, but we’re left wishing it had been the old sleight of hand part repeated.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Love: The Amazing Spider-Man

So, they went and rebooted Spider-Man. It's a move that many have opted the deride as a money-grabbing attempt by the studios, which seems fair considering that the first two Sam Raimi outings are frequently cited as among the very best comic book adaptations ever put on screen.  Yet, I'll be perfectly honest: while I liked the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, I never loved them.  There were too many elements that just didn't gel with me, and I was fully on-board for a new take on Spidey.  The Amazing Spider-Man seemed like a logical step: upgrade the effects, pick up a slightly darker timeline, replace the weak Mary Jane with the much-loved Gwen Stacy, and reboot the series the way Christopher Nolan had with Batman.  I'm sure everyone behind The Amazing Spider-Man thought that was exactly what they were doing, and while in some aspects they've certainly succeeded, in others the film falls disappointingly short.  Spidey's biggest problem is this: if you've never seen the Raimi films, this origin story is perfectly fine.  Good, even. You'll probably enjoy it and it has enough to offer.  If you're familiar with the "old" ones?  Well, this is alright but a little unnecessary, entertaining but not enough, and likely to leave you with an overall 'meh'.   
I've been trying to sort out my feelings on The Amazing Spider-Man for a week now and for every element that I really liked there's one I didn't particularly enjoy at all.  As mentioned, this is sort of my feeling on the Raimi series as well, but when the slate has been wiped clean, it seems more pressing that the errors haven't been completely corrected in the retread.  Ironically, the place where The Amazing Spider-Man is generally the strongest is in its basic origin story.  Andrew Garfield makes a great Peter Parker.  He probably fits the role better than Tobey Maguire ever could have, in fact, and for the first hour the story spends its time establishing the relationships between this slightly awkward kid and the most important people in his life.  Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) are given more dimension in this retelling. We get to meet them as flawed influences who are trying desperately to be the best version of the accidental parents they've become, imparting small bits of knowledge at the same time that they don't quite know how to deal with Peter's sudden recklessness.  And he is reckless.  We're introduced as much to Peter's potential for accidental amorality as to his general good nature, and it's interesting to see him not as the castrated geek he was to Mary Jane, but as a troubled, well-intentioned kid whose outsider social status is perhaps more related to his own quiet self-esteem issues than anything else.  This is the Peter Parker who swipes some kid's chance at an internship simply so he can meet his dad's former colleague, the guy who egotistically taunts the cops and who spends his time beating up all the wrong small-bait criminals in an attempt to get one particular guy.      
Try to disregard the dreadful scene in which Peter skateboards and chain swings to a moody Coldplay song (it's not like the music in the other films is any better), try to completely suspend your disbelief when teen boy Peter quickly pieces together his spandex suit, and if you can do that then you'll see the drawing of Peter the person is stronger here than it ever was in the Raimi pics.  The love story, too, is superior.  Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is generally the preferred lady in the Spider-Man mythos, and she's a great match for him here as well.  Gwen has brains and personality in addition to those comic-book looks.  She's not a self-centered damsel in distress, but an accomplice and willing partner in crime, which is great to see after all of MJ's mopey-eyed mishaps.  Stone and Garfield have natural chemistry, and though they're both quite a bit older than the teens they're playing, they read on-screen as fairly innocent and somehow surprised by the things they're feeling.  It's cute.  What's not so cute?  Oh....yeah, that would be the Lizard.
Had The Amazing Spider-Man continued to be simply a story about a boy named Peter Parker, it would have been solid.  Eventually, though, it has to give you your money's worth and amp itself up to the constant web-slinging, villain-battling Spider-Man story you came to see.  When it gets there, it's largely a mess that feels dramatically rushed in contrast to the film's first half.  Pacing is a problem, as we spin suddenly away from any semi-logical place towards out-and-out genetic chaos.  In a flash, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) turns away from decades of helpful scientific research and promptly loses his mind.  Anyone who saw the trailers should be able to tell you that this is the guy who transforms into the Lizard: an absolutely ridiculous looking monstrosity with CG that sets the film's technology back to the 2004 sequel.  Why'd they go for the Lizard?  I have no idea.  As a villain, he completely overrides everything the story works towards and provides a deus ex machina of an enemy.  It seems that it was simply too late to bring anyone in from the outside or to allow Peter to simply focus his energy on small time crooks, so they decided to rapidly create something out of nothing.  Had they allowed the Lizard to merely exist as a menace, perhaps that would have worked.  The film does not, however, and instead invents a ludicrous premise that places the entire city at risk.  It's a frustratingly desperate move that should have been left for the sequel, and unfortunately it's also what you leave the theater carrying.  As the credits roll, you're left wondering whether you actually liked what you saw.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

RIP: Ernest Borgnine

Academy Award-winning actor Ernest Borgnine, most famous for playing beloved lonely man Marty, passed away today at age 95.  Over the course of his six decade career, Borgnine was an exceptionally prolific performer recognized as much for his personality off-screen as his on-screen range.  From tough guys in From Here to Eternity and The Wild Bunch to comedies like "McHale's Navy" to the animated Mermaid Man on "Spongebob Squarepants",  Borgnine did it all.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Love: Ted

Ted picks up the overgrown man-child themes of the last decade of Apatow-owned comedies and gives them a plush body of their own to wreak havoc with.  It's a familiar story: thirty-something year old underachiever has a successful love interest who's getting pretty tired of watching her boyfriend waste his time smoking pot, partying like it's college, and geeking out about some token element of pop culture.  We know what has to happen next.  It's time to man-up and conform to the socially acceptable definition of 'adult'.  Yet, in giving immaturity a physical manifestation and making it an actual character, Ted manages to complicate a cliche discussion in a way that's rather admirably clever. After all: it's one thing to try and demand that you set aside childish things to come to their work function, but, how do you tell a teddy bear to grow up?  And, how on Earth can you separate a grown-ass man from the walking, talking, defenseless living creature who has been his constant companion for nearly three decades?  
Spoiler alert: you can't.  Not really. Or, well, you could, but no one would want to see that movie.  Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is at the helm of Ted, and the film plays out with the jumpy, vignette-style of a particularly sweet-natured episode of that cartoon.  True, the jokes are politically incorrect, the raunch factor is high, and our teddy bear smokes a lot of weed, drinks a lot of booze, and somehow manages to pick up a lot of ladies; but, the framework is that of a subverted children's story.  Ted opens with the magical Christmas morning that young John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) receives an oversized teddy bear and immediately picks him up as a confidant.  John is a friendless child, but a chipper one, and when he wishes his teddy bear could actually converse with him, some strange bit of magic makes it come true.  Instead of keeping it a secret, Ted becomes a news sensation and minor celebrity, a story that renders him able to carry out a public life as the two age together.  Ted isn't an imaginary friend, a secret, or a representation of John Bennett's id.  He's just a non-negotiable part of his life, and unfortunately one with the time and barrier-less proximity to leap into bed between John and his long-term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) at the first sound of thunder.
It's an endearing premise that allows for a natural balance between heart and crudity.  Even when the film hits its darkest, most depraved moment, the laughs Ted earns are still the result of novelty. There's something naturally quite funny about watching your childhood playthings act with all the dignity of a Jersey Shore castmember, and MacFarlane milks the joke for all its worth.  Wahlberg, too, is somehow the ideal counterpart for a talking bear.  He's got no problem playing the tough guy, but he does the surprised, excitable every man even better.  You don't question it.  If Mark Wahlberg says he's best friends with a teddy bear, he is.  Plain and simple.  He's perfectly normal, sane, and actively present in every scene where someone like, for example, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, or even Leonardo DiCaprio would suggest something very very different (see: Wilfred).  

Generally speaking, it works.  Ted is an entertaining diversion packed with enough successful laughs to keep it going.  Yet, just because it can keep going doesn't mean it should.  Past a certain point, the joke starts to wear thin and the plot isn't original enough to sustain its run time.  While the adaptation of the "manchild" comedy is remarkably clever, and (to his credit) MacFarlane manages to sidestep the 'domineering bitch' tropes that would plague the Lori character in the hands of a different writer/director, when the story starts looking for a complication late in the game, things become a little tiresome. Ultimately, Ted is just another arrested development romantic comedy that happens to be appropriately disguised as a super-crass overgrown kids movie.        

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Love: Magic Mike

The opening statement on this (and perhaps the only one necessary) is that when I saw Magic Mike I did so on a Friday afternoon.  As we know, Friday = a standard workday.  The afternoon = matinee hour oft populated by old folks and small children.  My friends and I expected a few scattered groups, sure.  We were even alright with the elderly man walking past telling us to "behave ourselves in there."  We did not anticipate stepping into a crazy-packed, nearly sold out house.  Every type of lady from 17 to 75 was there with her girl gang, and at the first glimpse of Channing Tatum's bare backside, the place erupted in leering cheers and shouted comments.  "I like the looks of that!" someone hollered in the direction of our leading man's ass.  Have no doubt: Hollywood hit a main vein of endless dollars when they tapped into their reserves of what some might call "man candy" (I feel gross just typing that).  It was clear that the audience in the 1 PM showing had rolled in for one thing and one thing only: Dancing. Nearly. Naked. Dudes. They received them, sure. Behold the undulating abs of Joe Mangianello!  The pretty boy stare of Alex Pettyfer!  The spastic muscle control of Channing Tatum's relentless floor-hump!  And yes, the gaping turtle mouth of Matthew McConaughey!  But alas, even Showgirls had a story.  It can't all be assless chaps and man thongs, much to the apparent chagrin of the "lawbreaker" audience.  

While it's enjoyed a surprisingly warm critical reception, the dead silence of the otherwise raucous crowd toward the tail-end of Magic Mike was the prelude to the Tweets and status updates to come.  There is a simultaneous disappointment in the depth of the story at the heart of our nice guy stripper tale, and an apparent disdain for the fact that the film had...well...any plot at all.  There are any number of jokes or stupidly misplaced 'double standard' comments that could be made about the similarities between the loudly lascivious ladies and a stereotypical dude being bummed out on the amount of 'story' between sex acts in his porn, but I'll leave those to you. The key to Magic Mike is merely that it's a semisweet bit of indie-style entertainment that doesn't pretend to be as important as Boogie Nights and has no problem playing to its strengths.  As such?  It's a pretty damn good little movie. 
 Since announcing his 'retirement' from filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh has released three movies, each a thematic departure from the last.  For him, this is par for the course.  Soderbergh has always seemed comfortable dabbling with genre. He approaches each new story with the intention -or so it would seem from our side of the screen- of showing us something almost natural.  Each film is stylized, but minimally so, and lately it seems that his own expressed willingness to eventually leave the game has allowed him to take on riskier experiments.  He's a director who can pull an insane A-list cast for a simple bit of disaster horror (Contagion), or, use big names as backup to a real-life action heroine without a trace of acting ability.  We shouldn't be surprised, then, that when Soderbergh shoots the tale of a bunch of male strippersit's sort of a casual affair somewhere between Erin Brockovich  and the Step Up series.  Something about Magic Mike feels like a feel-good, slightly sleazy slice of documentation.  While it may gloss over behind-the-scenes elements of the business (as the multitude of 'real life strippers comment on this movie' articles will tell you), its characters earn their keep not through relentless grinding and costume changes, but with big personalities and intriguing personal predicaments.  

The film turns the usual "I'm just doing this to pay for college" shtick of the level-headed movie stripper on its ear and gives us entrepreneurial, hard working Mike (Tatum).  Mike's a construction worker by day and an exotic dancer by night, sleeping minimal hours before slogging through the Tampa heat all over again.  He's trying to pull in enough money to start his own custom-design furniture company, and seems to have come to terms with the upside of being seen nightly as a sex object.  Still, Mike's a good guy.  He's got goals, he's a people person, and when he sees a struggling slacker kid (Pettyfer) he tests his mettle and gives him a chance to live every 19-year old boy's dream: girls, money, and parties galore.  As the Kid experiences this cheerful underworld on his own, Mike tries to keep him focused and afloat.  He looks out for the Kid and befriends his recalcitrant sister (Cody Horn) as well, slowly forming a bond with her as a regular, responsible person that becomes hard to ignore.  It's a very simple backstage plot, and one that's been echoed time and again in showbiz dramas of nearly every variety.  The fact is that Magic Mike can't really separate itself too far from all the cliches without taking a trajectory that no audience would want to watch.  We don't want to see the nice guy screw everything up.  We don't want to see him fail.  And if we see the nice guy's friends get in trouble by proxy, we don't really want it to be bad enough that we lose faith in our nice guy.  For better or worse (I vote the former), Magic Mike doesn't step into a role it's too cheerful to assume.  Soderbergh keeps everything in focus and gives us just the right touches of all the little things we need at the periphery, but he seems most interested in just managing something entertaining. 
Of course, while Soderbergh is at the helm, most of the credit should be given to the men bold enough to gyrate to "It's Raining Men" for half of America.  These guys put on a good show, and Channing Tatum's real-life stripper past seems to add a strange integrity and believability to his role here.  While his skills as a dramatic actor may not be the best in the business, Tatum has won me over this year with his straight-up comedic performance in 21 Jump Street and the genuine, warm humor on display in his just-being-himself turn as Mike.  It's hard not to like the guy, and while that may not be the best argument for leading man charisma, it undoubtedly helps sell a film about naked men dancing to the part of the audience who is interested in hearing the dialogue.  While most of the floorshow doesn't share quite as much screentime as Tatum, it's worth noting that Alex Pettyfer steps out of his tabloid 'jerk' persona long enough to convince us he's capable of being adorably naive. I will also reluctantly confess that though I generally do not enjoy Matthew McConaughey, his booty-shorted manic performance as club ringmaster Dallas was really quite wonderful.  If ever there was a role he was born to play, it was this one.  Magic Mike captures the true, sleazy, 'alright, alright, alright' essence of Matthew McConaughey - or, at least how I've always seen him - and that's a hilarious, terrible thing.  In the Magic Mike backlash of people unwilling to admit they went willingly to a movie about strippers and kind of liked it, many will bash the rigid, 'real person' performance of Cody Horn, though in many ways the things that she lacks as an actress are undoubtedly aspects of the reason Soderbergh cast her in the role.  This is a surprisingly gentle, occasionally comedic, enjoyably entertaining movie about people with jobs that interfere with their lives. If you just came for the dancing?  You know where to find the real thing...

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