Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Batman Begins (2005)

Let's go back in time a bit. It's 2004. It's been 7 years since George Clooney and Joel Schumacher took Batman, one of the most iconic superheros of all time, and gave him a fluorescent makeover complete with his very own absurdly niche-market credit card. His most worthy opponent had been reduced to a mute, brainless, walking slab of ground chuck in a luchadore mask, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the King of The Awesomely Bad One-Liners, was unable to utter a single sentence that didn't physically hurt. But while the pain of Chris O'Donnell whining about wanting a Robin-Signal in the sky has finally begun to fade, still, there is a lingering sadness hanging over nerd culture.

Oh, true - "Spiderman 2" was still being fawned over by pasty comic book geeks everywhere, at least whenever they could spare a moment to stop arguing over important things like if they got Peter Parker's hair parted on the correct side. But for every "Spiderman" movie that didn't make nerds want to bludgeon things to death with their mint-condition Spider-mobile, there were movies like "Daredevil." Movies like "Catwoman." Movies like "The Hulk." And soon would come movies like "The Fantastic Four" and "Superman Returns." Truly, this was a time for some despair.

And beneath it all, that lingering sadness remained. Beneath everything else, hitting harder and cutting deeper than any other betrayal was that one sad, heartbreaking fact: They had done it. They killed Batman.

This paid for the funeral.

Then we start hearing things. They're bringing him back. Instant fear seeped down the pant leg of many a nerd as the 'Nam flashbacks of Alicia Silverstone donning the Batgirl costume rushed back, threatening to drive many to madness. I know that I was one of them, rocking back and forth in the corner of my room in the fetal position as echos of Clooney's fourth-wall desecrating line "This is why Superman works alone" bounced around in my head.

But then we started to hear other things. Things about this guy barely anyone had heard of named Christopher Nolan. The only thing anybody seemed to know about him was that he was "that one guy who made that one movie that went backwards, or something."

Well, I for one knew exactly who he was, and the name of that movie was "Memento." He had also done a movie with Al Pacino and Robin Williams called "Insomnia." I had seen both of those films, so I looked at "Batman Begins" with a new sense of hope, because after seeing those two films, I knew that Nolan was a guy who knew what the hell he was doing. And as more information came out, it became clear that finally, at long last, they were taking Batman seriously again for the first time since 1989.

I just going to come out and say it, "Batman Begins" is the best superhero origin story ever made. Period. Now, some may argue that the first Sam Raimi "Spiderman" was the best. I would say that while it's true that "Spiderman" was a great origin story, I have to give it to "Batman Begins" simply because to me, it made the most sense out of any origin story I'd ever seen. Most of this came from the first part of the film showcasing the often forgotten fact that Batman is, in fact, a ninja.

For all of you blowing a gasket at that, think about it. Bruce Wayne is trained in the mountains by people, who as we plainly see, are ninjas. He employs diversion, mind games, and stealth to take out enemies without being seen. He wears black and stays in the shadows whenever possible. He throws shurikens for crying out loud. Oh, true, he calls himself "The Batman" instead of "The Ninja-man," but if it looks like a ninja, moves like a ninja, and fights like a ninja, odds are it's a ninja.

No, nothing ninja-esque about this dude at all...

What that does is make Bruce Wayne a more realistic and interesting superhero. Let's compare Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne.

Peter Parker is a normal kid. Whether or not he's really super smart depends on the movie you watch (I'm not up on my comics, so I don't know what he's like in those), but for all intents and purposes, he's normal. Then he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and hey presto he has superpowers. These powers are just heaped on him without him really having to work to get them. Oh true, he has to fall off an occasional building before he masters his web shooters, but all of a sudden, he's doing back-flips and kung-fu battling villains like a madman, despite him never learning how to fight. He can just do that now.

Because spiders are natural warriors?

You wouldn't think it, but this dude holds 3 MMA championships.

Bruce Wayne trained his ASS off. There was not a single "power" he has that was given to him. He worked for every single bit of skill that he has, and every cut, every broken bone, every concussion, every single injury he sustained was willingly taken out of his obsession with stopping the crime that took his family away from him. And at the end of the day, he's human. And more than any other superhero, the physical strain that he goes through is clear to see. He's not a superhero, he's just an exceptional man who has no special powers to fall back on when he's in trouble.

For my money, this is a far more interesting character to follow than someone like Peter Parker, or god help me, that goody-goody two shoes Clark Kent. I've just always loved the fact that Batman has to leg sweep a guy once in a while, you know?

"My plan? Well, I was thinking about flying really fast and picking something up. It's all I seem to do."

More than any other "Batman" films, the Nolan series starts off by showing what Bruce Wayne actually went through to become Batman. Every other time it was just the prerequisite "dark alley gunshots" and Mr. and Mrs. Wayne lying on the wet sidewalk in a flashback/dream sequence. In this movie, his struggle seems more poignant because we see the buildup to those struggles, which is something the other films all lacked entirely.

I love Christian Bale as an actor, but out of everything I've seen him in, I think his turn as Batman is going to be what people remember him for, which is a good thing. I liked Michael Keaton as both Bruce and Batman, because he was the only guy to play Bruce Wayne like he was crazy enough to dress like a bat and fight crime. I even thought Val Kilmer was a great Bruce. He just wasn't great under the mask, frankly. But Christian Bale is the first guy who's played a good Bruce Wayne while still looking like he could be Batman physically. The way he carries himself and the way he is crazy ripped leaves little doubt that he could actually do these things. You look at Val Kilmer as Batman and wonder if he's worried about his hair getting messed up under the cowl.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, it's only one cast member away from perfect. Having Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgen Freeman, my unapologetic man-crush Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, and even frigging Rutger Hauer in "Batman Begins" basically makes it a movie composed of a respectable chunk of my favorite actors. And then there's Katie Holmes. Her performance is tolerable enough I suppose, but when she's on screen with actors like Michael goddamn Caine, it's like watching Homer Simpson boxing Drederik Tatum: the best she can hope for is her corpse still looking vaguely human after he pounds into a meat-flavored pile.

"Now den. Oym gonna 'it ewe wiff dis bat, an' ewer gonna take it. 'Cause oym Muwhyco Caine."

Oh, quick side note, be on the lookout for future royalty on the streets of Gotham. 

Psychotic, inbred future royalty...

If there was a short coming with "Batman Begins," it was probably that I felt that it waffled slightly when it came to the question "Who is the bad guy in this?" Now, this is simply a matter of the movie pulling some twists on us, obviously, but it did feel on occasion that there was no central villain for the good middle hour of the film. And I must say that I was upset that Cillian Murphy's villain, The Scarecrow, was essentially made a non-issue about forty minutes after it appeared that he was the main bad guy. Of course, they work him into the main villain, Ras al-Ghul's plot, but he's really just a pawn in a bigger scheme. And he has what is undoubtedly the least dignified and most unsatisfying send off for a Batman villain that I remember seeing. Getting tasered in the face by Katie Holmes? Really? That's the resolution of that one? Lame.

I also wasn't a big fan of how the effects of Scarecrow's "fear-gas" were implemented. The visions that people are seeing when they are under its effects really don't seem that terrifying. I mean, most of the time, other people are just appearing as having glowing eyes. I suppose when Scarecrow sees Batman while suffering its effects it kind of works, but really all Batman looks like is a drooling gargoyle. Not really that scary. Now, if they were rotting, decaying, grotesque corpses or something, that I can see being scary. But how far could you push that and keep a PG-13 rating? Who knows.

Those little nitpicks aside, I loved "Batman Begins." I had been a fan of Christopher Nolan before, but his rescuing of The Dark Knight earned a spot in my favorite directors file.

And to think, we thought he knocked it out of the park on this one. If we only knew...


THE BOTTOM LINE - This was more of a retrospective than an actual review, I know. This is mostly because honestly, if you haven't seen "Batman Begins" yet, what the hell are you doing? It's one of the most important comic book movies ever, being the beginning of what I would call the best superhero trilogy ever made. Very Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Intruders (2011)

In what I can only chalk up as a total fluke, "Intruders" was the second movie I watched in two days that had Spanish subtitles. Weird.

One of my favorite things about perusing the new titles that come out is finding films that nobody has ever heard about. Mostly this is made up of straight-to-DVD schlock starring Robert Englund or Val Kilmer, and while those do have their place and possess their own special kind of entertainment value, every once in a while I will come across a quality movie that flew under everyone's radar for reasons that I seriously couldn't tell you. "Intruders" fit the bill as far as that goes.
 
I hadn't heard a darn thing about this film, and to be honest, upon reading the back of the case, I was skeptical. It described a monster called "Hollowface" that was terrorizing two kids who lived in different parts of the world, because he wanted their faces. That sounds lame. "Hollowface?" Really? That just sounds like the villain in a really bad slasher movie, you know? Added to the low bar I had set for this was the fact that it stars Clive Owen, an actor I'm not overly fond of. So I went in not expecting much.

At this point I should mention that another one of my favorite things is being surprised. This was pretty freaking good.

The first thing that struck me about "Intruders" is that it's very Neil Gaiman-esque, although the true scope of how similar in tone this is to Gaiman's work isn't fully relieved until the second half of the film. It has a wicked "dark fairy tale" thing going on, which only gets more pronounced the further it progresses. It reminded me a bit of "Coraline," Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," or Terry Gilliam's sublime "Tideland."

 Few things are as horrifying as the mind of a child.

A lot of this has to do with children being put in terrifying situations, but they also all have a recurring theme of imagination, often coming from innocence, leading to very dark and horrific situations. Perhaps it is this innocence that the darkness is coming from that makes it so chilling. What is fascinating to me, however, is that in these films, the children don't seem to fully comprehend the darkness as something to be feared. They spin their creepy stories, travel down their dark passageways, totally rolling with the horror that surrounds them when an adult in the same situation would freeze and panic, and deny what they're seeing as impossible to be true. In a way, their adaptability is what is scary for us as adults, because we know better. Perhaps that makes us weaker.

Oddly enough, while it was plenty creepy. I don't even know if I'd call this a horror film, to be honest with you. And that's not because it wasn't creepy, which it was. Good lord was it creepy in spades. "Intruders" did an incredible job of slowly building up a situation, and presents you with unique and horrendously scary images which are presented very matter-of-fact, without overblown theatrics or horror movie cliches. It honestly does scary stuff far too well to be considered much a modern horror film. If you're looking for stuff to jump out of the shadows to try and shock you instead of scare, this ain't the movie for you.

And thank goodness it's not. I hate that crap. Jump scares are the bane of the horror genre's existence, and it's so refreshing to see a movie that isn't afraid to NOT use them at all. Seriously, I don't think there's a single jump scare in the entire film, and what do you know, it still manages to be scarier than any other movie I've seen this year. Oh it may be true that my heart wasn't pounding from the adrenaline being rocketed into my veins due to the fake-out 9,000 decibel orchestra sting playing as a kitty jumps out of a closet, but I can assure you that the skin on the back of my neck was crawling like mad through nearly the entire film, usually from a scene with barely any music at all.

 Well.I guess I'M not getting to sleep tonight...

What movie sounds like the more legitimately scary experience to you?

The dark situation that is occurring in "Intruders" is a bit difficult to explain without giving away ridiculous spoilers, and trust me, this is not a movie you want spoiled. I shall do my best to describe it while got giving anything away. Just know that it's actually far more interesting that I can adequately describe in these circumstances.

The description on the case that rang so hollow is basically accurate. Clive Owen and Carice van Houten's (Hey! Melisandre from "Game of Thrones!") daughter, played quite well by Ella Purnell, is living in what I'm guessing is somewhere in the U.K., and new comer Izán Corchero plays another child who I'm guessing lives either in Spain or Mexico. It's never mentioned to my recollection, but it's somewhere Spanish-speaking. They are both being tormented by this creature they name Hollowface, who attacks them at night. Why they are both being haunted, and what Hollowface wants with them, is a mystery.

What the description doesn't tell you is that the way these two stories interconnect, and you're spending the whole movie trying to piece together what on earth the stories have to do with each other, is so masterfully executed and revealed that I have to put it up there with the most shocked I've ever been while watching a movie. And it's not only shocking, but also a lot of fun to finally see all the pieces fit together. And like any good twist, it changes everything about what you've seen up to that point. Scenes that were just kind of weird or confusing at first now make total sense, and previously unseen layers appear to make the story much richer and interesting to think about and dissect.

This is the reason to watch "Intruders." The lead in, while interesting and engaging, isn't quite so memorable as the payoff of the final 15 minutes, which are insane. In fact, the final 15 minutes of the film changes things up in such a significant way that it is enough to make one think of "Intruders" as an artsy film that is functioning as a metaphor, as opposed to a horror film about a monster. Yeah, that's right, we're going into "The Fountain" territory here.


Of course, when a movie is more of a metaphor than anything else, that's when the story can start breaking down a bit in terms of sense-make, because there are some things that really didn't add up at the end. But while it may not make a whole lot of sense when you sit back and think about it in any great detail later, the overall tone and mystery of the film is so all-encompassing that it really doesn't matter that much.

Part of me feels that, although the film does a shockingly good job of linking these two stories together by the end, it's almost as if this isn't supposed to make sense. It's more about conveying an otherworldly tone. And when a movie does that this well, it's easy to let slide some things that I would otherwise nitpick to death. When a movie reaches a certain level of vagueness, I can't really be mad when not everything is neatly explained, you know what I'm saying? At that point, I'm willing to let a lot of stuff go.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Intruders" is one of the most unique, genre bending experiences I've seen in years. Coupled with the Neil Gaimen-style tone, an ending that is probably the most blown away I've been with a twist since "Fight Club" or "The Sixth Sense," and the fact that there was not a single point where I called anything to happen the way it did, this gets my seal of approval. I even liked Clive Owen in it. Who would have thought a movie with a villain called "Hollowface" could be so damn good? Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Oh Will Ferrell. Will, Will, Will. You are such an enigma to me. On one hand, I can't stand you. I loathe your films. I find you painfully unfunny. Your schtick of simply yelling very loudly at inopportune moments like some over-caffeinated, borderline mentally handicapped man-child in an attempt to be humorous causes me physical pain.

On the other hand, "Anchorman" and "Stranger Than Fiction." What the hell, Ferrell? Every time you get me this close to boycotting you, you come out and make an incredible film that injects some hope into me that perhaps, if I dared to have the audacity to believe, you might actually start making good movies. Then another 3 or so years go by, you make a dozen movies that are all crap, and just when I've just about given up all hope again, "Everything Must Go."

Why do you continue to make me suffer through all your crap to get to the good stuff, Ferrell? Don't get me wrong, I'm overjoyed whenever you give me a fantastic movie like "Everything Must Go," but the horrible, horrible things you make me suffer through to get to that point, man! It's just outright cruel. And the worst part is when I can see the vast dip in quality ahead of me, right when I'm coming off of one of your good films.

Before seeing "Casa de mi Padre," "Everything Must Go" was the last of your movies I'd seen, which had left a pleasant, minty aftertaste on my palette. Now, in front of "The Dark Knight Rises," I see the trailer for "The Campaign," staring you and one of the only people I find more irritating than yourself, Zack Galifianakis. And that movie looks ATROCIOUS. That looks "The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" bad. Is this the start of another 3 to 4 year long streak of terrible for you? WHY DO YOU MAKE ME SUFFER SO?!?!


I guess I can't really blame him too much. He keeps making these movies because, well, why the hell wouldn't he? People love them. A Will Ferrell comedy is pretty much guaranteed money in the bank. And despite the fact that he is a shockingly good dramatic actor, when he does serious stuff, it bombs. Such is life. It just makes me sad when I see talent so wasted. I really do want to like Will Ferrell, because the things I like him in, I really like him in. Seriously, some of the roles he's done I consider Oscar worthy. I keep coming back to it, but his performance in "Everything Must Go" was unforgivably ignored in the 2011 Academy Awards. At least a nomination. Something to encourage him to continue making quality films.

So finally getting to the point with today's film, "Casa de mi Padre." I was cautiously intrigued by this film simply because of the fact that it was different, or at least appeared different. And of course, based on his track record, different is usually better for a Will Ferrell movie. The fact that it was entirely in Spanish I felt was a ballsy move that, perhaps, would mean that it was one of those better Will Ferrell films.

Oh, by the way, it's completely in Spanish with subtitles and everything. You 90% of the American movie-going public who whine and complain and refuse to watch a movie based on that fact alone can just stop right here and not watch it. Just know that I don't really think less of you for refusing to read subtitles. I just feel sorry for you.

Sorry, that's my snob moment for the day. Might not happen again till the next time.

Nice high horse you got there, Will. I gots me one o' dems, too.

Anyways, although I respect the hell out of Will Ferrell and the makers of "Casa de mi Padre" for even making a film like this, I can't in good conscious say it was worth it. "Casa de mi Padre" was just not good. In fact, I'd call it outright bad. This is not, however, for the reason most people would assume. The fact that it was in Spanish didn't kill it, although it may have hurt it a little. No, what killed it is the fact that it's another one of those "half-way" comedies. It's a movie that isn't funny enough to be a comedy, but is too goofy to be a drama.

Let's talk first about the comedy. Most of the gags are one of two jokes: either the film draws attention to the fact that it's really cheap, or things take an inordinately long time to end, such as people laughing over a stupid comment for far too long, or ending a tense conversation by saying "goodbye" for like 5 minutes. There's also a weird running gag where Will Ferrell is terrible at rolling cigarettes. What is funny is subjective for everyone, I realize that, but that just seems to me to be the laziest kind of humor, especially the "low budget" kind.

"Oh look. They are obviously in front of a matte painting. How hysterical. You going to do anything with that? Make a comment about it? Acknowledge it? It's just there? What's the joke? That's it's cheap? That's not funny in of itself. There needs to be a joke associated with it."

There are two examples I can immediately think of for movies that did the "cheap equals funny" thing right. The first one was "Black Dynamite." Now that movie was a parody of notoriously cheaply/poorly made movies, specifically "Dolomite," and there were scenes where they acknowledged the cheapness. Now, they didn't go all forth-wall obliterating with it, they would just have maybe a moment when Michael Jai White would have a boom mic get a bit too close to him, get in frame, and he would spare a quick, annoyed glance at it. That also fits into the infamous "wandering boom mics" so prevalent in "Dolomite."

See, that's a joke. It's not side-splitting, but it's an actual joke. If they had just had the boom mic drift into frame, it's not really funny, is it? It's just pointing out that the production value is in the toilet. If, because of the cheapness, it affected their acting or something, then it moves into the "gag" territory.

The second example, probably a better one, would be "Monty Python and The Holy Grail." I don't think I even need to remind you of coconuts. See, there they worked the cheapness of the movie into an entire bit that is one of the most memorable in a film where nearly every line could be etched in stone as a monument to comedy. Not only did the other characters acknowledge the fact that they were using coconuts to substitute horses, but it lead to an entire discussion about where in Mercia they would have possibly gotten their hands on tropical coconuts in a temperate zone.

God, I wish I was watching " ¡Three Amigos!"right now.

The second kind of joke in "Casa de mi Padre," the thing about taking way too long on something, or extending a gag way past the point of absurdity is for me a pretty tricky thing to do right. It's really only worked a few times that I've seen, one of which is the gag which pretty much started the whole thing: Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes on "The Simpsons."

That was a masterful bit of comedy, and really is the best example of the "slightly funny becomes annoying becomes confusing becomes absurd becomes hysterical" thing, which is the basis of the whole gag. "Mystery Science Theater 3000" also had a bit in their "Devil Fish" episode when Mike and the Bots mockingly laugh over the end credits to the point of hyperventilation for what seems like a good 2 minutes straight, and it's quite infectious. And while I hate to give credit to a show I despise, Peter grabbing his knee on "Family Guy" was great. Seeing what happens after the evil laughter peters out in the first "Austin Powers" movie is also brought to mind.

It really doesn't work here, for some reason. While seeing Will Ferrell and his friends laughing over some really really unfunny statement for a very long time does have a certain instinctual effect of eventually putting a smile on your face, it's really just like spreading a yawn. It's not that you necessarily want to, it's just that you can't help it when someone next to you does it. I think the reason it works in the other examples was that it was taken so far over the top that the absurdity of it hit with much greater impact. "Casa de mi Padre" keeps those jokes relatively low key, which was probably a mistake.

I also have to bring up the fact that while I appreciated them making a film in Spanish, I think it may have hurt the comedy a bit. Timing is a really import thing in comedy, if not the most important thing, and if you have to read something, no matter how fast of a reader you are, the timing is going to be a bit off. It may not matter greatly in every case, but it's a tricky thing that, while it may not have hurt always, it certainly didn't help. Just food for thought on that one.

I'd also like to address tone for a minute. It was really surprising to me that for a comedy, this has some obscenely dark stuff in it. In keeping with the style of the Spanish soap operas which they are parodying, there is a whole lot of violence and killing going on, and I don't know if it's supposed to be funny or not. If it is supposed to be taken funny, they sure could have cut back on the drama and tragedy a bit.

Oh that's hilarious...

There are scenes which could have been spliced into "The Godfather" with how dark and brutally violent they are, especially a scene where like 30 people get mowed down with machine guns at a wedding, all in operatic slow-motion, with blood spraying everywhere. It's actually a very horrible, emotional scene which in a legitimate drama would have been quite powerful. And of course, let's not forget about the flashback where you find out that, as a child, Will Ferrell accidentally shot and killed his mother while trying to save her from two rapists.

You know? Funny!

That scene is played for serious, by the way. I don't care whether or not it takes place in front of a cheap backdrop - they have a dim-witted but well meaning 5 year old shoot his mother with a rifle as she's struggling to escape two men trying to rape her. No amount of cheap set design and sepia-tone filters to make it look old-timey can make that funny. I really question this film's sense of priorities when it comes to tone, because that stuff bummed me out, man, and I have a dark sense of humor.

While I've said a lot about "Casa de mi Padre" sucking, there were two things about it that I really liked. The first thing was a character trait Diego Luna gave to Will Ferrell's brother Raul, which was that he is constantly drinking and smoking. And I mean constantly. There isn't a moment where he doesn't have a drink in his hand, which is always changing in between shots.

 This guy was awesome.

While that doesn't sound necessarily funny, when he reaches into the aether to pull out a whiskey on the rocks in the middle of an intense gunfight, takes a drink, and then starts shooting again, I had to laugh. Even when he's in the middle of his death scene, doing his best Willem Dafoe from "Platoon" impression as bullets carve him up in slow-motion as operatic music swells, he is still taking sips from his glass, being sure not to let it spill. It's pretty hysterical.

The other thing I really liked was a scene that had me laughing really hard. It happens right as some coyotes are about to fight a stuffed white lion (don't ask). The movie suddenly stops, and in a very "Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked have been sacked" moment, a letter from the second assistant director appears on screen to apologize, because while what they filmed was the most amazing footage they'd ever seen, they can't legally show us. The apology goes on to include coked-up tigers and people getting eaten. It's a great bit of writing, and it was the only part in the entire movie where I was laughing out loud. A lot.

Funniest part of the film.

I've talked a lot about a movie that I really didn't like much at all, so I guess that's a victory in my favor, since I actually found something to discuss. I think the worst thing about it is that while I respect Will Ferrell for doing something different, the fact that this movie not only failed to make its money back in the States but also sucked leads me to believe that it will be even less likely he'll take more chances. And taking chances is usually what results in him making a decent film. Damn.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Casa de mi Padre" is a very weird film, and I respect it for being unique. I respect the hell out of it. But it wasn't good. It's not funny, with the exception of that one bit with the apology, and it's overall way too dark to even be charming. And as a drama it would fail because of the goofiness, despite the grim subject matter. Perhaps you need to be a huge Mexican soap opera fan to really "get" it, but somehow I doubt that would help much. Skip it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

I'm going to forgo my normal lead-in of nonsensical rambling and cut straight to the chase with this one, because "The Dark Knight Rises" is something of a special case. It's no exaggeration to say that the hype needle for this movie is pegged firmly at critical mass, and it's probably safe to say that of all the movies coming out in 2012, this is probably one of, if not the most important one. For that reason, it's difficult to come up with irreverent tripe to ramble about. So verily shall we sally forth.

There is little about the Christopher Nolan Batman films than can be said, or exposited further on than has already been said. It's arguably the most groundbreaking and best superhero movie series of all time, and saved a classic character, turning the death blow of the late 90's and George Clooney into a mere forgettable mishap most people are happy to ignore. It took the story of Batman and looked at it from a mature, dark, and philosophically challenging perspective that even the excellent Michael Keaton era Batman movies were lacking in.

Arriving finally at the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's story, it's a bit of a scary thing. On one hand, I couldn't wait to see how it all wraps up. On the other hand, could this film possibly stand up to the mammoth task before it: Being as good as, or inconceivably, topping "The Dark Knight?" For that reason, I had a fair bit of trepidation as far as choosing how excited I was going to be for "The Dark Knight Rises."

In the end, I was hopeful that it would live up to Christopher Nolan's signature level of quality (and honestly, that's a pretty safe bet to make), but I wasn't expecting to be blown away by it like I was with "The Dark Knight." After all, that's one of the best movies I've ever seen. It would be unfair to hold it to that standard. So I went in expecting to be impressed, but not demanding to be floored.

"Why Bane, your hands are surprisingly soft..."

Fortunately, that was a very safe mindset to go into "The Dark Knight Rises." To say the least, I was impressed. This is an outstanding conclusion to the trilogy, and more than lives up to the hope that surrounded it.

This is another one of those really tough to talk about movies. And it's not because there isn't much to say, because there is, but like "Prometheus," there is just so damn much to talk about that you don't even feel like getting started, because you'll write a novel. So I'll make this as brief as I can.

Walking out of the theater, the first thing that struck me was how utterly, absurdly BIG this film is. I don't mean that just in terms of running time, although at just under 3 hours, there certainly is a lot of that. It's long, and it feels long. But it's that good kind of length that isn't tiring, because it's so all-engrossing that there isn't a moment during it that you aren't completely engaged in the story. In that way it's like "Lord of The Rings." The reason it's long is because there is just so much story to tell that it needs to be 3 hours.

Now could some of that have been cut? Sure. Not every frame needed to be in there, but I think there would have been too much lost in terms of tone and atmosphere had they taken much out. Nothing in "The Dark Knight Rises" felt superfluous, which I can't even say about "Lord of The Rings." (Liv Tyler, anyone?)

When I say "big" it's that there is just so much story crammed into this thing that it can't really be easily summarized, another problem with writing a review of it. The basic idea of "The Dark Knight Rises" is that Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion after the events of "The Dark Knight" 8 years previously. Batman is now a wanted criminal after taking the fall for the death of Harvey Dent. A new threat emerges in the form of Bane, a genius mercenary who is Batman's mental equal, and his physical superior. Leading an army from the sewers, he plunges Gotham in a chaos that would make the most diabolical Bond villain green with envy.

Which, if he were Bond, would make the Batsuit the equivalent of Batman's tuxedo.

That's the 25 cent tour of a $500 film. There's so much more going on than that, including ghosts from Bruce's past coming back to haunt him, a looming apocalypse over Gotham, character's fall and redemption, and sacrifices of the noblest and vilest kind, all set to a backdrop of what it is to truly suffer, and what the meaning of hope really is, and how it can both break and save you. It's a lot to take in.

The Christopher Nolan Batman series has been very lucky to maintain a constant source of talent from the cast, all of whom have stuck with the series from the beginning. Christian Bale as Batman may very well go down as the definitive version of The Dark Knight, whether or not you are a fan of the Bat-Voice. As much as I liked his performances in the other two films, "The Dark Knight Rises" may well be his shinning moment for the character. Of all three films, this film shows him going through more emotional turmoil than ever before, and Bale plays it magnificently.

Of course Michael Caine steals every scene he's in as Alfred, but that's to be expected since that's been par for the course throughout the series. The much lauded "Some men just want to watch the world burn" speech from "The Dark Knight" is given a bit of a run for it's money here, with Caine given some frighteningly good dialogue, among the best in a movie chalk full of it. None of it is quite as chilling as Alfred's story from the previous film, but they are all much more emotional as Alfred is struggling with what to do with Master Wayne, often on the brink of tears. It's a great example of why Michael Caine is one of the greatest actors of all time.

Some people were upset with the casting of Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle, AKA Catwoman (although the name "Catwoman" is never used once in the film), and I suppose if you just plain don't like her than you won't like Anne in this. To be honest, I'm just lukewarm on her as an actress but I found her Catwoman to be just fine. She was definitely rocking the femme fatale with a great sense of style, although I'm not sure if I prefer her or Michelle Pheifer. Either way, at least I'm enjoying a great view.

Is it sad that it took me about halfway through the film to realize that her goggles, when raised up, made the "ears" of her suit?

Marion Cotillard was honestly the weaker of the two female leads for me, although her part is quite meaty, deceptively so considering how she appears for most of the film. She just didn't connect as much for me as Anne did, although to Marion's credit, the character is pretty boring until a pretty shocking development at the climax. Then she gets to show off a bit.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was something of an enigma for me for the majority of the film. While his acting job is just fine, in fact he's quite good in it, his performance is constantly overshadowed by that nagging question that was in the back of everyone's mind: "Are they going to make this guy Robin?" So that was a bit distracting for me.

Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman were also magnificent, of course, but the real big news for this movie, as is always the case for movies like this, was the villain. I had to say that I was worried about Tom Hardy as Bane, due to the fact that he was really hard to understand under that mask, at least in the prologue that I saw. He sounded like a broken drive-thru speaker. I'm pretty sure they cleaned that up, however, because at least for me, I had no problem understanding him in the final product. After I got used to it, his voice rang through crystal clear, and the only thing that made it weird was his latin/gypsy accent.

And it's a good thing he was understandable, because despite Alfred getting some great lines, the real gems in the dialogue department were saved for Bane. Nearly every line he says is completely, 100% badass and chilling. And he talks a lot. My favorite speech in the film is the one that is featured in the trailer, the one where Bane says "When Gotham is ashes...then...you have my permission to die." There is so much more going on during that speech though, about the true nature of pain and fear and suffering.

 "Come at me, bro."

He talks about how there can be no pure despair without hope, that horrible bit of hope that keeps you going, keeps you suffering, and only causes your pain to be that much deeper after your hope does you no good. It is among the most beautifully evil and monstrous things I've ever heard a villain say to a hero. I didn't think they could one up Heath Ledger's masterful read of the whole "Madness, as you know, is like gravity" bit, but man did they top it here. Not taking away anything from Heath, but that monologue was incredible and chilling to the bone.

The rest of the move is almost irrelevant, since it's revolving around these great characters. In many ways, it's a lot like "The Dark Knight." It's a fast paced film, despite it's length, and is really going a mile a minute the whole time. There isn't a whole lot of time for breathing, and makes for a very intense movie going experience. And as far a tone goes, if you thought "The Dark Knight" was dark and grim, "The Dark Knight Rises" could school it in terms of bleakness, which is a good thing, otherwise it wouldn't seem proper.

If there was any kind of problem I had, it was really only two things, and they both happen at the end of the film. And don't worry, I'll be spoiler free, but if you've seen it you'll know what I'm taking about. The first involves a certain character who has...shall we say...a bit of a twist at the end. They start talking, explaining what their deal was, and shedding a ton of light on a ton of stuff, and basically standing the entire plot on its head. It's beautifully done, and had my jaw firmly planted on the floor.

Then that person keeps talking. And talking. And talking. It's not that they aren't saying anything interesting, because they are, but at a certain point I started getting a little antsy with it, saying "Ok, you've shocked us all, now move on with the action!" A bit more brevity could have been utilized is what I'm saying.

The only other thing I had a problem with was how the whole Bane issue was resolved. Again, I won't say anything about what actually happens, but the way it finally resolves for good is a little jarring and seemed a bit cut short.

To close, I also learned something about myself watching this film, and it happened when it got to the end. Now, here's where I HAVE to get into spoiler territory. I won't be descriptive, but if you read this, some pretty big shocks WILL be ruined.

OBSCENE SPOILER WARNING. FOR THE LOVE OF CROM, DON'T READ IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES."


Now, I generally consider myself a fan of bleak endings. Typically it's because I appreciate a movie that has the balls to do something that is unexpected or against the grain. Killing off Batman would have definitely been just that. But when the sacrifice is made, I have to admit, I was a little upset. There was a part of me that said "Wow. What a great and fitting ending" while another part of me, the bigger part, said "What? No! You can't do that! Noooo!"

And by god if they didn't sell the hell out of that concept. I really thought they were going there. And then we find out what we find out, Alfred nods and it was like a weight lifted from my shoulders. It's not the happiest ending, but it's the happiest one Bruce could ever hope for. And it's enough to make me a little choked up.

I guess there's a part of me that's a big softie. At least for The Goddamn Batman.

END SPOILERS

Sup.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Dark Knight Rises" is a fantastic film that is an amazing ending to an exceptional series. I think these three films will stand for a long time as the apex of the comic book movie. In terms of holding up to the others, although this was a great movie, I would probably watch the other two before I watched this one again, mostly based on run time. That being said, I would rank it (just) above "Batman Begins" but (just) below "The Dark Knight." They're all pretty much equal in terms of quality, and it's easy to think of them as one big film. This is certainly making my Top 10 of 2012. Very Highly Recommended.

Lockout (2012)

Hoo boy. Where to start with this one. I remember that I was looking forward to this film, partly because A) It came right the hell out of nowhere, so it had the element of surprise going for it, B) It looked interesting enough, what with a prison in space, and C) I like Guy Pearce.

Well actually, that last part isn't 100% accurate. I am not irritated by the presence of Guy Pearce. I really don't have anything negative to say about him, but neither do I gush over his performances. He's kind of the definition for me of an "average" actor. He gets in front of the camera, says his lines in a competent but very "straight C student" manner, and at no point am I really buying what he's saying. But it's never bad enough to tear down my suspension of disbelief. 

If I see him on the box, I say to myself "Oh. Guy Pearce. I didn't even know he was in this. Cool." Then I set the case down and reach for the newest Val Kilmer movie.

Movies like "Lockout" are not helping my neutrality on Guy Pearce. If there was going to be a movie that made me jump on The Pearce Express, if such a thing existed, this ain't the one. And again, much like Guy himself, it's not that "Lockout" is overtly bad so to speak. It's just so damn "straight C student" average that it's difficult to care. Although this is where the analogy breaks down a bit, because honestly, "Lockout" isn't pulling a C average. This is like the C student getting wasted the night before finals, sleeping through half of them, and subsequently getting his GPA pounded into the D range.

You know it's on when The Guyster turns his gun all ghetto-grip.

The idea of "Lockout" is that there is a prison that has been built in space to hold the world's most vile criminals, the world's only "Ultra-Max" prison. The point of that is, of course, that the prison is escape-proof, because there's literally nowhere to go. For some reason that I honestly forgot by the halfway point (it doesn't matter) the President's daughter, played by mobile landing strip...er...forehead...er...actress...yeah we'll go with that, Maggie Grace, goes to the prison along with some secret service guys in order to interview some prisoners for some reason.

I think it had something to do with uncovering an EEEEEEEVAL corporation's plans to use prisoners as test subjects for the effects of cyro-freeze for long term space travel. Why the corporation using them as frozen test subjects is EEEEEEEEVAL when the prisoners were frozen in stasis anyway is a bit hazy, especially considering they are all mass murdering psychopaths. It seems to me that using these criminals (in a manner that doesn't hurt them in the least, by the way) to do some good for the betterment of mankind, like the exploration of freaking space, is something of a noble idea. Weyland-Utani these guys ain't.

Bitch please...

Anyway, of course the pooch gets predictably screwed when one of Maggie Grace's secret service idiots does a titanically stupid thing and winds up inadvertently arming and setting loose one of the inmates, who promptly frees every other inmate in the prison. This takes him about 34 seconds, by the way. This scene is so bone headed for so many reasons that it really helps sum up why this movie kind of just sucks.

1) Before the interview, the secret service guys are told to relinquish their weapons. Of course, the one guy is a freaking idiot and keeps the gun he has in his boot on him. What a pro. But besides that, are you telling me they didn't have to go through a metal detector or any security screening whatsoever? They just took his word for it? This is supposed to be "THE MOST ADVANCED PRISON EVER MADE," and it's easier to bring a gun through its security than it is to get through a TSA checkpoint?! More on the advanced nature of the prison in a bit.

2) Why, of all the prisoners there, do they trot out the most insane, clearly psychotic, uncooperative, dangerous inmate they could possibly find for the President's daughter to interview? This guy is like if you took SID 6.7, crossed him with The Joker and gave him "killing Tourettes" where he has a clinical need to murder something every 14 seconds. This guy actually knows the secret service guy has a gun because he smells it on him. Oh yeah. that sounds like a great person to talk to: The guy who can smell guns. Let's get Barbara Walters on this!

A more trustworthy face you couldn't hope to find.

3) Why in the sweet hell are the secret service guys even on the same side of the glass as the criminal? Aren't there prison guards for that? You know, people TRAINED for it? People who wouldn't, say, bring a gun into the room with the ridiculously dangerous man? But nope. Not a prison guard in sight.

4) THE GLASS ISN'T BULLETPROOF?!?!?!?

5) There are no security countermeasures in place at all? No bulkheads being automatically locked down? No knockout gas? No shutting off life support? No electrified floors? No collars on the inmates like "The Running Man?" No machine gun turrets? Like NOTHING?! That's all this ultra-max slam has in the way of security? A non-bulletproof pane of glass, two unlocked doors and a dude with glasses armed with only a clipboard to guard the button that lets EVERY CRIMINAL LOOSE AT ONCE!?

6) You're telling me that somebody actually programmed a command on that panel to "Open Every Door And Immediately Thaw Every Prisoner." When in the name of Odin's Mighty Butthole would you ever need that, especially when the inmates seemingly outnumber the guards about 10 to 1? That seems like not only an absurdly pointless command to even make possible to execute, but a mind-shatteringly dangerous one as well, for situations, oh I don't know JUST LIKE THIS ONE. Let's face it, when the glass on this piece of space junk isn't even bulletproof, I'm guessing prisoners getting out is a real possibility!

I don't even know if it's worth it to continue. That scene is pretty much the dumbest thing I saw in that film, and it really never gets any better. I'm surprised I haven't even mentioned Guy Pearce in it yet, which is a plus for him because he honestly pissed me off, too.

I think this is the only movie I've seen Guy Pearce in where he was memorable enough to annoy me. It's the same thing that got me about Tony Stark in "The Avengers," which is that every goddamn line out of his mouth is a quip or a joke or snide sarcastic remark. It's one thing to have a character who makes funny comments, or has a sense of humor, or who is irreverently sarcastic. But it needs to be tempered with "normal person speak."

No human being on earth is going to have something smarmy to say in response to everything single thing said to them. Even Snake Plissken said "What?" a couple of times. But it always makes me grind my teeth down to a fine powdery residue when I am forced to suffer through a character that talks like Oscar Wilde writing John McClane. And again, even John McClane, as badass and funny as he was, didn't have a "Thanks for the advice" moment every line. When they do, I don't want to see them kicking ass, I want them to shut the hell up!

"Uh...something witty...um...how do ya like THEM apples...supplements...damn it, CUT! Gimme a minute...damn it...apples...come on, Guy, THINK!"

There were other grievances I had, but it really just wound up being a haze of annoyances that held me in a perpetual state of "why the hell am I watching this?" for 90 minutes. From the absurdly bad CGI in the beginning bike chase that looked like bad PS2 graphics, to Peter Stormare's incredibly annoying "where the hell are you supposed to be from" accent (seriously I can't stand that guy), to a shot of adrenaline, instead of being injected somewhere that makes sense like the heart, being shot into someone's eyeball (and not the tear duct, right in the middle of the freaking pupil, because that works) to that really bad blowjob joke that was in the trailer, to none of the inmates stopping the craziest inmate from constantly screwing everything up by killing stuff, to gravity suddenly working in space, and finally to a free fall from orbit around Earth to ground taking less than 20 seconds...it just wasn't working for me.

It's unusual to say, but Guy Pearce is too good for this. Or perhaps this is the perfect Guy Pearce vehicle. Maybe he's really on to something with the whole "being in a bad movie" idea. If the movie is bad enough, it would make a middling actor look much better in comparison. In that case, well done?

Not bad.

THE BOTTOM LINE - There are so many better sci-fi action flicks out there that would be a far superior film to this. Hell, just watch "Escape From L.A." Even that brain-dead schlock is way more fun at least. Watch "Doomsday." Watch "The Running Man." Anything but "Lockout." It's just a waste of time. Skip it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Flowers of War (2012)

Movies like "Flowers of War" are difficult to talk about. On one hand, you can talk about the story and characters and whatnot, and that's all well and good, but on the other hand, sometimes there is just a power and intensity to a film that sort of defies description. And while I could certainly give a reader a good notion of what is in store for them would they chose to watch this film, there's no way to properly convey raw emotion, which this film is bursting at the seams with.

I could probably start by giving everyone a heads up when it comes to "Flowers of War": This is a tough movie to watch. Not tough in the sense that it's bad, but tough in the same way that a film like "Schindler's List" is tough to watch. There are films out there which are thematically more similar to "Flowers of War" than "Schindler's List" is, but in terms of tone and gut reactions to horrible things happening, it's a similar feeling. I was almost reminded of the kind of unease I experienced while watching "Requiem For A Dream" or in particular "A Clockwork Orange," especially when it came to the scenes of graphic violence done to women. Only in this case, there's additionally violence done against children, specifically young girls.

Yeah, you'll probably be able to tell if you'll be able to stomach this movie based on the inclusion of the phrases "A Clockwork Orange" and "young girls" in that previous sentence. Even the thought of those two subjects being merged is enough to make you want to cringe. So heads up, anyone who wants to watch this film.

But if you are feeling brave enough to give it a try, if you're anything like me, you'll find that "Flowers of War" is a very, very good film worthy of your attention. Is it going to be a bumpy road? Oh yeah. Will it be worth it at the end? Absolutely.

This movie has not yet begun to be bleak.

The story takes place in China in the second Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese invade Nanjing, and lay utter waste to the city and distribute wholesale slaughter to pretty much anyone they can find. Christian Bale is a mortician named John, who was on his way to perform burial rights for the pastor of a church/school in the city when it was attacked. Caught up in the fighting, he takes refuge in the church with the student body of about a dozen 14ish year old girls and the slightly older assistant, who is the only boy. At first he's content to take his pay and leave, but it's pretty clear that although John is a bit of a crass jerk, he's got too much of a heart to abandon the girls.

A complication arises pretty soon, however, when a dozen prostitutes come knocking at the door, demanding to be let in for protection. John is all about this, naturally, but tensions escalate pretty quickly between the students and the courtesans, and soon there's another little war taking place in the church. All the issues are soon rendered pretty moot, however, when the Japanese occupy the church, but not before doing some truly horrific things that end up being only a taste of what is to come. That is when John disguises himself as a priest, and basically becomes the girl's protector.

The main complication of the story comes up when the Japanese commander of the occupation forces orders the girls to sing at a party they are having in a few days time. Knowing the horrors that await the girls if they go, most likely involving rape and murder, John must find a way to get them out of the city before that happens, no matter the cost.

Christian Bale plays the role of John in a way that reminds us that despite being awesome, he really is a phenomenal actor, capable of extreme ranges that having him going from a roaring volcano, bellowing at the Japanese to stop their depravity, to a whispering, mewling mess of a man who has finally reached the end of his ever-thinning rope. I think between playing a comic book legend, sometimes we forget Bale is a master's course in acting onto himself.

"Hey ladies. Did I ever tell you I'm The Goddamn Batman?"

Playing the head courtesan, Yu Mo is newcomer Ni Ni, who I'm hoping shows up in more stuff, because she was dynamite, and ends up being the heart and soul of the film, more so than even the children, oddly enough. That's not to say the kids weren't good, because they most certainly were, but it's Ni Ni who ends up hammering home the emotional punchline of the movie.

If there were downsides to "Flowers of War," it would be three things, and the amount this bugs you may vary from person to person, but here's my trite complaints, and believe me, they are trite because it was hard to find too much fault with this film.

First, I can't help but feel that the Japanese are really, really portrayed poorly. I know that they wrecked Nanjing. That's on record as one of the worst atrocities in modern wartime. What got me is that there was not a single Japanese character who was given even the slightest shred of humanity. No, every one of those monsters is completely evil. Even the least evil among them, the Japanese commander Colonel Hasegawa, played wonderfully by Atsurô Watabe, despite being shown early on as sympathetic and looking out for the girls fate, he really is only setting them up to be slaughtered like sheep.

You're telling me not a single Japanese soldier in the entire army wasn't a serial rapist with a bad case of pedophilia? None of them? There's got to be at least a few who aren't...

The second thing is that the subtitled dialogue is a little stilted. I don't know if it's too literal of a translation, or if there's no real way to truly convey what's being said in English while having it sound right, or if they really do talk like that in China and Japan, but it's really weird. It's kind of hard to describe, but I can sum it up by saying it's a lot like anime subtitles. You fellow anime fans can relate to this.

Think back on how many times in anime you've read a subtitle that says something like: "You're mean!" or "Is he truly a man such as that?" or saying a person's name as a reaction to that same person saying something. Or even more annoying, when they are loudly talking about a person with other people while that person they're talking about is standing right the hell there, clearly not 5 feet away, but paying them no mind. Does any of this ring any bells?

Is that normal over there? I'm sorry, but if you're talking about me behind my back, but doing so in a fashion where I'm obviously supposed to hear you, I'm saying something. Maybe "Screw you," or "Shut up" or something. Either way I'm saying something. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but it seems incredibly rude. 

"Helloooooo nurse."

The final thing is something which I'm still not sure if I liked or not: the ending. Now, I'm not going to say a word about what actually happens, except to say it's really, really moving and gut wrenching. Adding to the sadness is the voice over narration that's been going on throughout the film by one the students, which plays up not only the tension but foreboding doom that awaits.

The problem with the ending is that there are really two separate paths to follow at that point, and we only get one of them. The other path is really left a mystery, although one can assume what happens. And while what probably happens is not something that we'd probably want to see in the first place, there really is no closure going on for the second half of the ending equation. I won't call it a bad ending, in fact it's beautiful, but it does reek a bit of unsatisfying.

That being said, this movie is a powerhouse.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Flowers of War" may make my Top Ten of 2012. If not, it's getting an honorable mention. This is an amazing film, and I'm very glad I saw it, but it wasn't exactly a pleasant trip. Be warned, there are scenes that will be seared into your retinas for days. This could be a textbook definition of a "heavy" movie. If you've got the gumption, Highly Recommended.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman (2012)

I really don't care too much about Spiderman. It's not that I don't like him, I just don't really care that much. He's got sweet powers and he's funny and he swings around like whoa, and that's cool and all, but I guess I'm just a Batman guy at heart. Maybe I just like a superhero who's just as crazy as the villains he's fighting. Or maybe I'm a sucker for Michael Keaton. At least I'll take The Keaton over Toby McGuire any damn day of the year. All that considered, Spiderman has never really done much for me.

On the plus side, he's not Superman. Nuts to that boring Boy Scout.

It's a weird thing, however, to have a reboot of a series that is still so relatively new, like they did with "Spiderman." The Sam Raimi trilogy isn't even old enough to ride all the coasters at Ceder Point yet, so it's quite off-putting, and some would say insulting, to start from scratch again so quickly. Of course, some might also say that after "Spiderman 3" the only possible option was to throw everything out and start again.

Personally, I was unsurprisingly neutral on the issue. I liked the first "Spiderman," and still consider it a darn fun movie. I never understood the big deal about "Spiderman 2." What I got out of that movie was basically the feeling that I had just watched the first movie again with Willem Dafoe's parts and the origin story all cut out of it. It wasn't bad, I was just bored with it. And while I didn't have the searing fanboy fueled hatred of "Spiderman 3" that everyone else had, I didn't think it was necessarily good, just OK. Oddly enough I think I actually got more enjoyment out of the third film than the most likely objectively better second one. Go figure.

Betrayal!!! Everyone knows Venom had 275 teeth! NOT 319 like the movie had! This movie sucked!

So clearly my taste in the whole Spiderman issue is suspect from the very beginning. For that reason, feel free to take whatever I say next with a grain of non-fanboy flavored salt. That isn't to say that "The Amazing Spiderman" is about to get a scathing pounding from me, because it's not. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't that great.

First off, I'll start with what the movie does best, because what it does well it does very well, and most of what it does well is the cast. Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker is leagues, miles, continents, planets, parsecs, GALAXIES ahead of what Toby McGuire did for the role in the previous films. There really isn't a moment in the entire film that he isn't completely convincing. And he has a voice that fits the character as well, which is important when he's Spiderman because obviously, we're not seeing his face. Garfield also has a great sense of comedic timing which helps turn in some really funny lines that we would come to expect from Spiderman.

He also looks like a high schooler, something that Toby McGuire never convincingly pulled off. I don't know, to me Toby McGuire always looked like someone had artificially aged a toddler to be 26 by the time he was 2, but the equation wasn't quite right so his body never caught up to his giant head.

In fact, I'll just go down the list and say the rest of the cast was also great. There really was no weak link at in the entire film, even though I got the feeling that Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy was...how should I put this...not necessarily wasted, but given a kind of boring character. It's not her fault, and she does fine, but there really wasn't much to her besides "love interest." At least they didn't pull the damsel in distress thing.

God, I miss her with red hair...

Denis Leary was great as Gwen's dad, although the years have not been kind to him. Dude's aging fast. Rhys Ifans as the villain, Dr. Conners aka The Lizard plays your standard well-meaning-but-still-making-dumb-mistakes-by-making-himself-the-test-subject-because-they'll-shut-him-down-otherwise scientist, but he does it well. He does have moments of some pretty intimidating menace make him a fun villain, although at times you do start to wonder why he's continuing doing what he's doing considering that each time he does it he turns into a giant destructive lizard. Really, dude? Does it really look like it's working as you originally planned?

"It's science, you wouldn't understand..."

For me though, the guy who stole the show apart from Garfield was good old Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. Good god was he awesome. He is so real in that way that only a true pro like Sheen can pull off. You wonder at times if he's even acting at all, considering that I'm sure he's had many a conversation raising kids that were probably identical to the talks in this movie. It was also nice to see Sally Field again as Aunt May. I can't even remember the last time I saw her in anything.

Apart from the cast, the action in "The Amazing Spiderman" is really good. Spiderman moves in a very organic, almost animalistic way that makes sense when you consider his powers, and he integrates that into combat in a very cool fashion. It was also nice to see his "spider sense" kick in more often, and in a (generally) more subtle way than the slow-motion, over the top way the previous films flaunted it. All this made the action really good...

...when the movie decided to have it.

My biggest problem with "The Amazing Spiderman" was that honestly, it's kind of a boring talk-fest. It's not that there isn't good stuff being said, it's just that Peter Parker gets way, WAY more screen time than Spiderman. And even though that's normal for the first part of a superhero origin movie, by the halfway point it starts to get a little annoying, especially since the action that is in it is so good. The could have spent a little less time on Peter dating, and a little more time on Spiderman kicking some Lizard butt.

This also leads into another problem I had, which was that I never felt a strong connection with what exactly Peter Parker's goals were. It's no spoiler that Uncle Ben gets killed by a robber that Peter lets go moments before that disaster strikes. That's a very well done scene, and Peter's resolve afterwards in finding the man who did it was honestly the most gripping part of the film for me, because he's using is powers, but not knowing what he purpose is with them yet. He's just a very angry kid, and it's pretty dark for a while there.

Then he gets a suit somehow (we never really find out where or how) and not too long after that, the whole "Uncle Ben's Killer" plot is just dropped from the story like he just up and forgot about it. For some reason, that whole "entire driving purpose behind his character" is forgotten, and he's like "Welp, guess I'm Spiderman now. Let's do this."

Excuse me? Didn't you have some unresolved issues? Couldn't you resolve them before just changing your goals? There is a scene on a bridge where he saves some people, and I suppose that's supposed to be his big realization moment that he needs to use his powers to help people, but the fact that the robber is never even brought up again really irked me a lot. I mean, it was kind of an important thing!

"Hey Uncle Ben. Hypothetical here, but if you got killed and I swore vengeance but kind of just forgot about it, how upset would you be?"

And also, I can't finish without bringing up something that really, REALLY bothered me: the last line of the film. Now, spoilers below, because to fully understand, I have to spoil.

At the climax of the film, Denis Leary's character is mortally wounded by The Lizard. After the fight is over, he tells Peter with his dying breath that he needs to stay away from his daughter, for her own sake. Peter promises him that he will, and later, breaks up with her.

This is a great scene. It's reflective of Peter's journey into a selfless, noble superhero who realizes that he must put the good of others before his own, because his late Uncle Ben taught him that he has a responsibility to use his talents to better serve the world. After all, even though the movie never actually says the immortal line that is the tagline and philosophical lynchpin of the entire Spiderman mythos (why they don't say it I have NO idea): "With great power comes great responsibility."

And then...we come to the last scene. Cue the class room. Peter comes in late. He says "Sorry I'm late. It won't happen again." The teacher looks at him, scoffs, and says "Don't make promises you can't keep, Mr. Parker."

Peter then takes a seat behind Gwen and whispers to her, "But those are the best kinds of promises." Gwen smirks, we cut to Spiderman swinging around New York, roll credits.

BULL. SHIT.

Way to make that whole emotional scene not three minutes beforehand mean absolutely dick. I mean, yeah, that's totally cool that you took a character who finally discovers that not everything revolves around him, who is on a journey to be a great hero, who just made a huge sacrifice to protect the person he loves, and did a complete backwards 180 to turn him into a selfish, lying douchebag.

If he truly loved Gwen, he would leave her alone. He has seen the effects of what his actions can have on other people. Stuff like, I don't know, her freaking dad DYING. I just can't believe that a noble sacrifice in a superhero movie was so promptly negated by a selfish action. Way to make me intensely dislike Peter Parker in the last 30 seconds of the film. What the hell.

Doooooooooooouche.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Amazing Spiderman" has some really good stuff in it. This has been compared a lot to "Batman Begins," and while it's nowhere close to as good as that, I can see where people are coming from with that analogy. It's dark, it takes itself seriously, and the acting is all top notch. However, it's just one of those weird "can't put my finger on it" situations where I walked away not overly impressed. Maybe I just really don't care about Spiderman. But if you at all liked the others, this one is the best since the first one, and at least in the acting department, better. Recommended for at least a rental.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Artist (2011)

I remember feeling nothing but absolute apathy for the 2012 Oscars. Out of the ludicrous pile of 10 Best Picture nominees, which by the way the Academy needs to cut the hell down on, there was only one, ONE film that I gave even the slightest crap about. That movie was "Moneyball," a good film, but Oscar bait all the same. And even if it was good, I wouldn't have chosen it for any kind of Oscar. It wasn't that good.

"Hugo" and "War Horse" were among the absolute worst I had seen that year, and "Tree of Life" I will count till the end of my days one of the worst, most painful experiences I've ever subjugated my poor brain to. So of course these were among the nominees for Best Picture. And "The Muppets," the best film I saw that year, was nowhere in sight. The only award it got was for Best Original Song for "Man or Muppet," which was honestly probably the weakest song of the whole movie. Clearly this awards show has passed me by.

That, or the Academy has their heads up their asses. You make the call.

Of course there ended up being two movies that ran away with pretty much every award that night, the first being "Hugo" (screw you) and the other movie, the one that took home Best Picture, being "The Artist," a film I honestly hadn't even heard of. This makes sense since it only got a limited release in the States. The only thing I knew about it was that it was in black and white, and was about the era of silent film. Sounds just pretentious enough to be ready for Oscar.

And after finally seeing it, I now know that being in black and white and about early Hollywood was only the tip of the pretentious iceberg of "The Artist." Had I known that it was also not only in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes watching at home in an age where every TV is widescreen completely annoying, but that it is also actually silent with intertitles and everything, I would have just called it right then and there that it would get Best Picture. It doesn't matter if it's good or not. That is pretension of the highest caliber.

The only time he's not wearing this stupid smirk is when he's got a gun to his head.

Let's get one thing out of the way first and foremost: "The Artist" is not a bad movie. It just has it's head so firmly planted up its own colon that it's seeing it's lunch again 4 seconds after swallowing. It's clear that there is a lot of passion going on with the making of this film. The people involved obviously love silent movies, and want to pay tribute to them. And honestly, they do a great job of that. The look of this movie is dead on, and it would be very easy to think of this as a film from the late 1920's if you didn't know any better.

The story is also in the same style as an old fashioned drama, following the fall of fictional silent film star, George Valentin. At the advent of "talkies," George dismisses them as a doomed gimmick, only to find himself ruined and out of work a few years later, after his studio quits making silent films. Eventually he is brought back around from the brink of suicidal despair by an actress, Peppy Miller, who George had an almost-there romance with years earlier, and his career is rekindled. There's a bit more to it, but that's the movie in three sentences. It's not a bad little story, actually.

But did it need to be silent? I would argue that the gimmick of having no sound except for the music is more detrimental to the film than good. In fact, this could have probably been a really interesting period piece had it been made in sound. You know, like every flipping movie of the past 90 years. However, the silence is just plain distracting in how much it draws attention it itself. As quiet as "The Artist" is, it is screaming at us the whole time at the top of its lungs, "LOOK AT ME! I'M ARTSY!"

John Goodman? One of the best actors around? Naw, we don't need to hear him. #wastedtalent

I really hate to say that, because I sound like your average popcorn slamming, lowest common denominator, movie going clod. But the fact remains that it's really difficult to get into a silent movie made in 2011 because it's hard to imagine why they did it. It doesn't add anything to the film. In fact you're taking away an indescribably huge part of the film experience.

I've read that the director, Michel Hazanavicius, was interested in making a silent film for years because of the "image-driven nature of the form." I'm guessing what he means is that by not having dialogue or sound, the picture is more important and somehow more pure. That is cosmically stupid.

I've got news for you, Michel, image is always and will always be important, even if there is sound. This isn't radio. This is a movie. The very essence of a movie is the projection of images being shown at 24 frames every second so as to make the illusion of movement, and by putting these images in a specific sequence, conveying a narrative. Sound does not detract, it does not carry the film, and it does not mean that the images are somehow less important than if there was no sound over the top of them, and to suggest that is honestly pretty snooty.

It would be like suggesting that by drawing a picture of a rainbow in normal black pencil, it is somehow a more pure rainbow. That's the kind of pretentious crap that hipsters and film school graduates ponder over a venti vanilla no-foam soy macchiato.

He would have shown up, but coffee is too mainstream.

What could have made this film far more interesting, in my opinion, is if it had only been silent in the beginning, and going to sound at around the end of the first act. In fact, for a second I thought that was precisely what was going on. There is a scene where George has a nightmare that is actually in sound, although it's not true sound but stock sound effects, however the effect is still very jarring when it happens. Had the rest of the movie continued in that fashion, it would have been a pretty neat effect that would fit with the plot, since at that point George is looking at his own ruin due to the rise of the "talkies." Unfortunately, he wakes up and that's that. It's back to silent for the rest of the movie.

Except for literally the last 15 seconds of the film. That's in sound, and while it was nice to finally hear John Goodman, one of my favorite actors actually speak, it's so jarring and confusing and honestly completely nonsensical that all it does is highlight the fact that it was so much better to hear them speaking in the first place!

So did "The Artist" deserve Best Picture? Good gravy, no. The only reason it won was because it had the silent movie gimmick going on. Had it been in sound, it would have been a passable period drama that was trying really hard to be old fashioned. And nobody would have given it a second glance.

"Mug for the camera...aaaaaaaand GIVE US ALL THE OSCARS!!!"

THE BOTTOM LINE - If you've never seen a silent movie before, this will be ROUGH. It's such an archaic way of making a film that it's really difficult to sit through, unless you're familiar with really old films, or can at least appreciate them. It might be worth seeing as a curiosity, but in the end it's really nothing special. Recommended if the concept of a silent film made in 2011 intrigues you.