Sunday, December 16, 2012

There and Go Back Again: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is Worth Travelling Through Again.

It has been over a decade since Peter Jackson adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released, followed in the subsequent years by the adaptation of the Two Towers and The Return of the King, respectively.Since then, there had been speculation as to whether or not Jackson would return to Tolkien's world. After many delays, including changes in director (Guillermo Del Toro was slated to direct) and New Zealand union issues, and much anticipation The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has hit the theatres and, while it is a worthy addition to the series of films before it, it unfortunately doesn't rise to the same heights.
But then, that should not be a surprise, given that the stakes in The Hobbit are not quite as high as in LOTR. This story, told as an extended flashback taking place just prior to Gandalf the Grey's (Sir Ian McKellen, reprising the role) arrival in Hobbiton in Fellowship, tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm in "present day", Sherlock's Martin Freeman in flashback), a simple Hobbit who lives simply but is thrust into the company of a band of dwarves in exile led by Thorin (Richard Armitage, Captain America: The First Avenger, Strike Back) who are attempting to reclaim their kingdom and gold from the evil dragon Smaug. Throughout, he is beset with danger and excitement, including a fateful meeting with a certain individual that will change not only the course of Bilbo's life, but the fate of Middle Earth as well.
This film is the first of three, built not only from the source novel but also from the appendices from "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion", thus serving as a prequel series that bridges the gap between this series of films and LOTR. A serious undertaking, to be sure, but not an entirely successful one. To a degree, the events in this film seem to go on longer than they should, working so much as padding and filler to justify the existence of another three film epic. It should be noted that the events of the novel unfolded at an almost lackadaisical pace, given Tolkien's rich language and attention to detail. On the big screen in modern cinema, however, those who are not devotees of the work would find the pacing to be plodding and borderline repetitive.
However, whatever complaints of pacing exist, are made up for by the visual realization of Tolkien's world. There is a certain feel of homecoming in the revisiting of locales such as Rivendell and Hobbiton, though shot at different angles to convey a sense of newness to the familiarity. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson's insistence of shooting the film at 48 frames per second, while giving the visuals a more realistic effect, works against the film as much as for it. Some have said that the film speed makes Tolkien's world too visually mundane; a debatable argument as it did not detract from the artistry of the set design.  However, at times the actors movements are unintentionally sped up to almost comical effect. Also, much of the special effects, almost seamless in the original cinematic trilogy, are jarringly out of place. In many places the CGI is glaringly obvious, and in others, undermined (such as the glow stick nature of Bilbo's sword, "Sting", in distance shots). However, in some instances, the effects have clearly evolved since The Return of the King, as there are very few visual sleight-of-hand cheats in the height differentials of the characters.
The performances are nothing less than engaging. Receiving top billing is Sir Ian McKellan, who plays Gandalf as more befuddled than when first encountered in Fellowship, yet bringing a childlike innocence and quality to the performance; especially in his eyes (as evidenced in a scene with Galadriel). Stepping in for Ian Holm as the younger Bilbo is Martin Freeman, "Dr. Watson" of Sherlock fame (who is reunited with his Sherlock co-star and Star Trek: Into Darkness villain Benedict Cumberbatch as "The Necromancer" and the voice of Smaug). He subtly mimics Holms' mannerisms (which would only grow more pronounced with age), while infusing his own take on the character. He manages to make the character his own while still giving the impression that he is the Holm Bilbo. This film in part hinges on that believability and Freeman succeeds in the task.
The most intense performance belongs to Armitage as Thorin, who carries the weight of his people and heritage on his shoulders. Irascible as any dwarf, but imbued with a nobility that balances his gruffness and antagonism towards Bilbo. One might not care much for him by the film's beginning, but will come to by its end. Also entertaining, though short on screen time, is Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who, Eureka) as Radagast the Brown, woodland wizard who advises Gandalf of an evil that poisons forests. He is manic, dissheveled, and lovable; somewhat reminiscent of Billy Barty's "Gwildor" in the big screen adaptation of Masters of the Universe. However, unlike Gwildor, Radagast is anything but annoying.
Cate Blanchett (The Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman The White) and Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), among others, reprise their roles from the original trilogy looking as though a decade had not passed between films (thanks to the magic of CGI pioneered in Disney's Tron: Legacy). The joy is not just seeing these characters again, but seeing them...relaxed, without the weight of the world on their shoulders, the strum and drang of the coming of Sauron's evil. Even Gollum (the wonderful Andy Serkis), while still a craven little bastard, has a bit of fun in what is perhaps this film's most anticipated scene. 
Howard Shore, second only to John Williams in sheer acoustical majesty and pageantry, brings a powerful score to this film, peppered with the themes of LOTR  but anchored by the dwarven theme "Song of the Lonely Mountain", a musical piece that invokes myriad of emotions. Shore is as necessary to this series as Williams is to the Star Wars saga. Andrew Lesnie's cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking; one deserving of an IMAX presentation.
All issues of pacing and film speed aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an uneven, padded but nevertheless entertaining spectacle and a good launch to the trilogy. Time will tell if the following films will measure up.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

HAVING AND EATING CAKE: "Skyfall" is Entertaining Though It Eschews the Legacy It Is Supposed to Emulate

“In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus (Latin: Ianus) is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The month of January was named in honor of Janus by the Romans.”
While it may be odd to invoke Roman mythology in a film review (especially a definition weaned from Wikipedia), it seems aptly appropriate to me given that, after fifty years of film and sixty plus in print, the Bond phenomenon has become a mythology of its own. Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the James Bond franchise (not counting the David Niven Casino Royale or Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again), is a curious entry in the series for it carries its own themes of duality both within the story and metatextually; a film of contrasts and oppositions.
Admittedly, after 50 years it’s hard not to retread the same material.  Many of the film’s plot points revisit familiar ground as previously seen in entries such as You Only Live Twice, Goldfinger, License to Kill, Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough, especially. Ostensibly the plot finds James Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to prevent a list of operatives who are operating covertly in terrorist organizations worldwide. However, this plot is a MacGuffin as the plot really centers around M (Judi Dench) and an ex-MI-6 operative named Silva (Javier Bardem, who is just as unsettling here as he was in the superlative No Country for Old Men) who, in echoes of The World Is Not Enough, is out for revenge against her and, in further echoes of Goldeneye, is Bond’s ersatz brother-in-arms and his opposite number.
The film is replete with themes of duality and obsolescence: New versus old; Desired youth versus grizzled experience. Yet it’s not only within the story but the film as a whole. There are times it embraces and eschews Bond’s legacy all at once, in some cases, nodding to the past while at the same time disparaging it and, in at least one instance, destroying it. This whole sense of duality is epitomized in Craig’s Bond. I must admit from the get-go that I have always found Craig to be more suited as a Bond villain henchman than Bond himself (my tastes run more towards Connery, Brosnan and Dalton) however, his subsequent performances in films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Cowboys and Aliens have allowed me to give him more leeway to accept Craig as Bond, if not my Bond. In this film, Bond is broken and much is made of the character’s (and actor’s) age. The Brits call Craig the “Grumpy Bond” for a reason (as his interpretation of Bond is among the most intense, matching that of Timothy Dalton). However, Craig’s Bond finally shows some of the lighter, playful touches of the character, reminiscent of Moore’s and Brosnan’s turns, when paired with a fellow MI-6 agent (Naomi Harris,M ission Impossible II, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest/At World’s End); an agent whose identity is, for those who know their Bond history, immediately telegraphed within the first few seconds of their witty, flirtatious banter. For once, it looks like Craig is actually having fun the role of Bond. It is a welcome change.
The thing is, I’ve seen this film earlier before. It was called The Dark Knight Rises. The hero is presented as broken and past his prime, one who must rise up against a force greater than he that was shaped by the very organization that shaped him, and both motivated to some degree by a strong female presence in their lives (in this case, “M”). There are many more parallels to be found between the two films but you get the gist. And, as the opening sequence shows, the influence the Bourne series has had on these films since the advent of Casino Royale shows no signs of diminishing. Where Bond as a franchise had once led the way in terms of how to make an action film work, it is now instead following the trends; instead being more of an action piece for product placement (and trust me, there is plenty of that) instead of being innovative.
This is not to say that Skyfall is an excellent movie. Of Craig’s three films thus far, Skyfall is second only to Royale (the less said of the mishmash that was Quantum of Solace the better). If the first film was the apex and the second the nadir, Skyfall falls somewhere in the middle. The film never bores, even in its slow spots. It is also a weighty film with the themes it deals with, but also with the characters themselves. Never before have the characters of Bond and M have been as fleshed out as they are here. In fact, this is the closest we’ll get to a real Bond origin story, I imagine. Even in the film’s fantastical circumstances, these characters feel real. Yet, Bond films were always fun , escapist entertainment, a far cry from the novels that spawned many of them (with perhpas the exception of "Moonraker"), the idea of same no less reflected in  main producer Cubby Broccoli almost casting of  Adam West (!) and Burt Reynolds (!!) as Bond (But then, “off-model” is certainly the current trend. Robert Downey, Jr. is anything but the Sherlock Holmes as conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, yet audiences accept such. If the trend continues, it’s possible that the below could be coming to a theatre near you:
Ah, well…a man may not fly, but perhaps he can dream…but I digress…).
The supporting players are nothing to sneeze at.  Ralph Finnes is enigmatic as Gareth Malleroy, an intelligence agent who may or may not have it in for “M”. Young Ben Whishlaw makes for an interesting re-imagination of the armorer, “Q”. With nods to the past and an eye towards the future, this is a “Q” for a new generation of Bond. Bérénice Marlohe plays Bond girl Severine, who is somewhat (intentionally) reminiscent of Xenia Onnatop from Goldeneye and equally captivating to look at for what time she is actually on screen. Albert Finney enjoys what amounts to an extended cameo suspiciously intended for Sean Connery (especially given the setting wherein the character is introduced). Yet for all that this is a Bond film, the main character is almost a guest star in his own film, as the real focus is “M” (Judi Dench) who is front and center in this film and is fleshed out in a way never before shown for in any of its iterations. Dench proves why she’s one of Britain’s superlative actresses, conveying steel drive with a hint of vulnerability. Ironic that such a cold character (since the reboot) proves to be the heart and soul of the film. And as Silva, Bardem is Bond’s “Joker” and “Bane” all in one: as flamboyant as the former, as dangerous as the latter, and makes for a dangerous combination. The last time Bond was given a villain who was his equal or superior was Sean Bean’s “006”, and Bardem outshines that. It’s the mark of a film villain when his presence is felt even when he’s not on screen, and from the point of his introduction, that presence is palpable.
They cinematography is nothing but superb. It has been decades, yes decades, since Bond has felt this exotic and, yes, even epic in scope. Before the age of Internet and affordable travel, the Bond films were the best way for movie goers to be immersed in an exotic world. Skyfall is the first film in the franchise in decades to evoke that response. Sam Mendes’ musical partner in crime, Thomas Newman, is a refreshing change from David Arnold’s repetitively indistinguishable stylings (though not completely devoid of them, as some hints of the Casino Royale score are evident here). The score is strongly influenced by the works of the late John Barry, and the film is stronger for it (and an interesting bit of trivia which adds weight to the musical Barry homage…”M”s flat in the film was actually Barry’s home).
All in all, Skyfall is an interesting mix of heaviness and lightheartedness. But by the end of film, the “Bond Begins” experiment begun in Casino Royale is completed in Skyfall. At the end, everything old is new again and a truism is reasserted before the credits, and the familiar gun barrel sequence, begins to roll:
James Bond will return.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Knowledge is Power

Despite the fact that my blog is called "American Culture Critic", I rarely post on political topics as I would prefer to keep my own political ideologies to myself. However, in twenty some days, the course of this country will be re-determined for the next four years. Some will vote for who they consider to be the best candidate, while some will vote for the lesser of two (three?) evils.  Some expect more of the same, while some won't expect even that. I say "some" because while many of you will vote, some of you won't.
As Americans, it is your right to vote. It is a hard earned right as over two hundred years ago many died to obtain it. However, they also fought for your right and freedom to recuse yourself from voting. Understand, however, that in not voting you are still determining the course of your country...and it may not be in the direction that you prefer.
With that said, for those of you who wish to vote but are confused as to the issues and the candidates' true statnces on them, a very good friend of mine provided me with links to the least biased information websites that might help you crystalize your thoughts, opinions and decision as to which candidate(s) to back. They are:
Use them. Refer to them. Then make an informed decision. In the course of two debates, we've experienced bread and circuses. "Big Bird" and "Binders full of women" becoming comedy gold buzz words, thus taking the focus away from the issues. We've seen an incumbant transform from "Clark Kent" to "Superman" in a two week span. We've heard variations of "you're a liar" with no indication of which candidate's talking points are really the truth. The fact of the matter is the importance of the debates are not predicated on the facts but are instead mostly about who has the better presentation; who's the most photogenic; who can get away with the pithy one-liners.  The truth becomes obfuscated in the "glitz" of the show. Hence, debates should be used as a starting point, not as a clincher, in determining your candidate decision. I've met actors who when they're on screen, they invoke a commanding, charismatic presence, only to have that facade evaporate once the cameras have stopped rolling. While I'm not saying that either candidate was posturing and pandering, I'm not saying that they weren't either. The sad truth is that anyone can say anything. It's the actions (in terms of voting and policy) that speak louder than words.
Therefore, before Election Day, do your research. Look at the facts. See how each candidate has voted in the past because in all likelihood that's how they will in the future. Arm yourself. Forewarned is forearmed.
And for those of you who don't sure to accept the personal responsibility for your decision.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ponder This One

Episodes of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" scored higher ratings than the broadcasts of both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

Think about that one.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE BORING LEGACY - "The Bourne Legacy" Fails to Live Up to the Legacy

I almost fell asleep. 

In an action film.

Almost. Fell. Asleep.


Not exactly the expectation when one is watching a film that serves as an extrapolation, if not continuaiton, of the "Bourne" series (loosly based on the novels of Robert Ludlam) which starred Matt Damon as amnesiac spy-on-the-run Jason Bourne, and directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. Those films were action packed and engaging and, despite the premise wearing thin by The Bourne Ultimatum, wholly satisfying films; Legacy, while having some inspired moments, is not.

Legacy centers on events that parallel those from the latter half of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Aaron Cross (Jeremey Renner, The Avengers, The Hurt Locker) is essentialy Bourne 2.0; a member of a Treadstone offshoot called Operation Outcome, wherein the agents are biochemically enhanced with pills that augment physicality and intelligence. When Jason Bourne's (Matt Damon, seen only in pictures) exploits threaten to expose Treadstone and Blackbriar to the world, Eric Byer (Ed Norton), a ranking CIA operative who oversees the black op activities, orders the project shut down and all "assets" terminated. Running out of his intelligence pills, Cross is in a race against time to maintain his intelligence while avoiding assassination.

Director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who initially wrote the screenplays for the initial trilogy, seems so concerned with thematically distancing this film from the original trilogy that he ironically calls more attention to it. The film's pacing is disjointedly uneven. The film is too long on exposition and short on action. Some scenes (especially in the very beginning) take longer than necessary while others that do require the development are painfully cut short. Arguably, however, it is a more relatively realistic portrayal than the adrenaline filled shoot 'em ups of the previous efforts. Yet the quiet moments (and there are many) aren't engaging enough to hold interest.

Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross is aptly named as a) Renner has the unenviable task of following Matt Damon in the series - assuredly a cross to bear; and b) if the film tanks, Renner could easily be crucified. However, as he did in The Avengers, he acquits himself rather well. However, for being a 2.0, his Cross is a tad more unsure than the amnesiac Bourne, though there are story elements that would explain this. He seems confused half the time, but seemingly more from the acting direction than from the actual situation. The normally on mark Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing is surprisingly one note in her performance. Her character arc is most especially disjointed to such an extent that by the time it reaches its payoff by film's end, it seems forcibly tacked on.  Ed Norton, perhaps this generation's master at playing smarmy, love to hate villains, is somewhat subdued, as is Stacy Keach as General Mark Turso. Many actors from the previous trilogy cameo in this film, especially at the film's conclusion, and it's a sad thing when David Strathairn (“Noah Vosen” from Ultimatum) subtly evinces more villainy in a few seconds of screen time than the principal antagonists have in the entire film.

Those who go into this film expecting nail-biting action are going to be somewhat disappointed. The climax chase scene is impressive and well done, but by the time its reached and the Bourne connections have kicked in, you just don’t care. I reiterate…I fell asleep twice during this film.  The Fourth Protocol, a Cold War espionage film starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan, was virtually non-existent on action but high on intrigue and suspense and held my interest throughout. This film, with all its modern filmmaking tropes and technology and despite the pedigree of the cast, is woefully deficient.  James Newton Howard’s score borrows much from John Powell’s familar themes but, much like the film itself as a whole, its own deficiencies are highlighted by the those thematic inclusions. While it does help to set the mood, Howard’s score tries to walk the line between maintaining its own voice while seeking similarity with the familiar “Bourne” acoustical style. Regretably, it falls short when it needs to count and never reaches the soaring heights that Powell was able to accomplish. Much like the film itself, it is serviceable without being particularly rousing or memorable.

While it is unfair to compare this film to the previous ones in the franchise, it is inevitable by virtue of “Bourne” being in the title. Renner makes for a decent substitute, but I could not help feel that film implied he was a seat warmer until Damon's return (if Damon were to; he has stated he would not return unless Paul Greengrass was at the helm…either that or his career would be in need of a resurgence). As a method in which to keep the franchise on life support, The Bourne Legacy serviceably works. Unfortunately for the film, the constant references to Jason Bourne, including judicious hints of the character’s theme, only works against it as it reminds the viewer how much better those films were. Legacy is neither good nor bad. It  The Bourne Legacy is worth a gander though…on cable.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


"It is always darkest before the dawn;" a quote attributed to Theologan Thomas Fuller, and one that is highly appropriate to Christopher Nolan's final directorial contribution to the Batman legacy, The Dark Knight Rises. This movie is dark from the outset. Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), is a broken, battered shadow of his former self, living the life of a recluse still in mourning over the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall, seen only in photographs in the newly constructed, shrine/mausoleum like Wayne Manor). In Batman's absence, however, Gotham City has enjoyed years of peace and prosperity due to The Harvey Dent Act, an act that was spun from a lie about Dent's true nature; a fact that has tortured the soul of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). However, an encounter with jewel thief Selina Kyle (a/k/a "Catwoman", though never referred as such in the film, played by the alluring and capable Anne Hathaway) leads to the dire warning that a storm is coming...not from Westeros, but in the form of the mercenary known only as "Bane" (Tom Hardy) who wants nothing more than to destroy the capitalist infrastructure...and Batman.

This reads like something out of the typical super-hero comics.  But consider that the super-heroic tales spun out of the pages of DC and Marvel Comics, among other publishers, are our modern mythology as much as Homer's tales ever were. Nolan gets this. From the opening frames of Batman Begins, a respect for the material as opposed to quirky view of Tim Burton or the outright derisive mockery of Joel Schumacher's films. And as such, the mythological nature of the trilogy have been built on archetypes.

Themes of duality are present here as well, most especially encapsulated in the form of Hathaway's Kyle, whose allegiances continually shift with the mercurial nature of the animal she embodies, while Bane, is presented as an intelligent, eloquently methodical brute of a man (with vocal intonations which sound like a mix of Sean Connery and Liam Neeson spoken through Darth Vader's respirator) whose civilized bearing is a precise facade; a thin veneer that seems ready to crack at any moment. In fact, his gentlemanly presentation is a mockery of the notion in the face of all Gothamites who are not in on the joke. Comparing Hardy's "Bane" to Heath Ledger's "Joker" does an "apples and oranges" disservice to both the character and the actor. Bane, as presented here, is the Anti-Batman. He is everything that Batman was at the point of Begins with none of the notions of morality or justice. Only vengeance. However, Christopher Nolan is not interested in giving any character the two dimensional shrift, and surprisingly infuses Bane with a heart. It is in his pain that we see his similarity with Wayne, and the grey area of good and evil blur again wherein the hero sees his reflection in the villain. When Hardy is on screen, his presence is arresting and apprehensive, because one never expects to know what he will do or say next. This villain can believably take Batman down.

Admittedly, I had reservations about Hathaway as the erstwhile Catwoman. I have to say I was wrong. She takes the role to places I did not suspect she could. From the days of Adam West and Julie Newmar, Catwoman has been presented as the woman who could "complete" Batman. In this film, she showcases why that is the case more adroitly than any of her predecesors in the role. Kyle in this film is at turns callous and mercenary, caring and doubtful, competant yet unsure of her figurative footing. Her performance is such that every little movement is infused with feline grace. Her character complex enough that she, unlike Halle Berry's version, could carry her own film.

But mid-way through watching The Dark Knight Rises, it suddenly hit me. Nolan hasn't been giving us films about "Batman", but instead of Bruce Wayne. It is Bruce Wayne who follows Joseph Campbell's template of "The Hero's Journey", a journey with the overarching theme set up in the first film: "Why do we fall"? The answer to that question, for Bruce Wayne, is masterfully realized in this film. Whether intentionally or by happenstance, Christian Bale has evinced this journey with varying degrees of success per film (he was overshadowed by Ledger in the previous outing, but if one pays close attention to the Bruce Wayne scenes, one can pick up on the weariness of being Batman setting in).

The supporting players bring the necessary weight and gravitas to their roles. Oldman's Gordon is a man conflicted, and it shows with every step he takes. Thankfully, Morgan Freeman's "Lucius Fox" is given much more to do. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the newcomer in the universe as officer "John Blake", a cop who is as fresh and idealistic as Bruce was in Begins, and he, like Marion Cotillard, as "Miranda Tate", are more than what they seem and a couple of surprise and welcome cameos complete a well cast ensemble. But the true soul of the film likes in Michael Caine's "Alfred J. Pennyworth", butler and surrogate father. The pseudo father/son relationship between Wayne and Alfred has never been more beautifully presented as it is here. And anyone who is familiar with the steps of "The Hero's Journey" (or have seen Star Wars, Harry Potter, or even read their Bulfinch mythology), knows the hero has to face the demons alone; and the precursor to that event is heartrending. Caine has few scenes, but I dare anyone to remain dry eyed to any one of them.

The cinematography brings an epicness of scope that was missing from the first two films. Gotham City is a sprawling megaopolis (with buildings taken from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York superimposed). The special effects is phenomenal and, in a couple of instances, breathtaking. The mood is heightened by composer Hans Zimmer, this time bereft of the more romantic stylings of James Newton Howard (though there are a few moments when Newton's "Rachel" theme is in evidence). Though he rehashes the original themes, he does so with orchestrations that fill them with despair and, alternatively, with hope.

The story is a mash-up of Occupy Wall Street meets "A Tale of Two Cities" with a bit of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" thrown in...yet that is simply the backdrop. The story is about falling and rising, especially in the face of overwhelming adversity (which in one scene in particular, the fall is brutal and jarring). This film is more of a direct sequel to Begins in both tone and pacing. The middle seems to stall for the more action oriented, but in truth the middle sequence provides the heart of the film. At a running time of almost three hours, the film seems to breeze through. Even the quiet moments are powerful in their drama.  And Nolan plays fast and lose with audience expectations regarding the comic book lore. With enough twist and turns to shatter presumptions but leaving enough clues to realize the answers have been present throughout the film. The film races to a nail biting, pulse pounding finish. Some moments are cliched, some broadcast before hand, and at least one instance towards the climax where the cheese is inadvertently poured on thick, but the conclusion of the film is a powerful one...followed by an epilogue that is full of hope. There are endings, and there are new beginnings. The film brings all three together full circle in a neat and, dare I say, satisfying manner.

The Dark Knight Rises is one of those trilogies that does what few have done...get better with each successive outing. While some would think that The Dark Knight is superior to this one due to Ledger's performance, I would have to disagree. This film has an organic flow that its predecessor lacks. There is not to say the film doesn't have it's faults, nor that there are one or two loose ends that could have been tied up, but the truth is that those loose ends imply a greater story to be told. The character's lives (those that survive, anyway) continue. The Nolanverse Batman ends with The Dark Knight Rises...but rest assured, Batman will rise yet again.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Conceptual reboots are tricky propositions as they attempt to "reinvent the wheel"; even if it seems that the wheel isn't broken. Some reboots are welcome and serve as a shot in the arm to a franchise that is on the verge of falling into irrelevance. The "Batman," "Star Trek" and arguably "James Bond" franchises fall into this category. However, there are some that seem to be exercises in nostalgia that bring nothing new to the table, a la A Nightmare on Elm Street. But, when a concept is rebooted so close to its last cinematic outing, it begs the question "is it really necessary"? Moreover, can it remain entertaining and accepted in the face of any reverence that is held towards the previous incarnation?

In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb, the battle is not that hard won. Spider-Man 3, the last of Sam Raimi's outings, had proven to be a box office success but a critical disappointment; a study in excess: too many villains, too many sub-plots, and actors that practically slept through their performances. With Sam Raimi refusing further studio interference (having the villain "Venom" shoved down his throat), he left the franchise, with Toby Maquire (the original cinematic "Peter Parker") walking with him. Given Sony's current arrangement with Marvel, the rights to further "Spider-Man" film production would revert to Marvel if Sony did not produce one in a sufficient time frame. Hence, the creation of The Amazing Spider-Man.

In all honesty, to compare the Raimi and Webb films is like comparing apples to oranges. Both are fruits, but each has its own, distinct flavor. Whereas the former filmmaker focused mostly on the action and used the quite moments as simply set pieces to get to the next fight or special effects scene, TASM skirts on being an indie film (not surprising, given that his last film was 500 Days of Summer) that happens to take place in a world where super-heroes and monsters exist. Family relationships and raw emotion are the centerpoint in this new take on a very familiar story.

The bare bones remain the same: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network) is bitten by a radioactive spider and is given the proportional strength of a spider, the ability to walk on practically any surface, heightened spider-senses and extreme agility. However, unlike the dour, milquetoast version as previous portrayed by Maguire, this Parker is a smart-alecky whiz kid who loves to skateboard and is a nascent photographer for its own sake. The film focuses on his past more than any other, which includes the disappearance of his mother Mary and geneticist father Richard (Campbell Scott). It's the story of a teenager who is trying to find the truth about his parents' disappearance and, moreover, himself (a point Webb metatextually points out near the film's conclusion). In the meantime, Parker falls head over heels for blonde, assertive Gwen Stacy (played with a twinkle by Emma Stone) who so happens to be both the daughter of NYPD Captain Stacy (an authoratative Denis Leary) and lab assistant to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who was Richard Parker's scientific partner. He also lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) Parker, who try to raise the angst ridden teen as best they can. When Peter provides Dr. Connors, an amputee, with a formula that allows for cross-species spontaneous regeneration, circumstances cause Dr. Connors to use the formula on himself...with disasterous results.

The beats remain the same, only given a new coat of paint. For example, the circumstances surrounding the fateful spider bite that transforms Peter are completely changed. Uncle Ben's fate remains unchanged, but the events leading up to it doesn't (though the omission of a very important line from Spider-Man lore in especially egregious in this context). In terms of the story itself, there is nothing spectacular about it. But then, it is not the story that might make one forget the Raimi films; it's the performances.

As Peter Parker, Garfield is, put succinctly, amazing. One welcome change from the previous films is that Parker is a scientific genius in his own right; a point that is subtly made almost from the beginning. The first portion of the film is all about establishing the anguish and pent up frustration of young Peter. Garfield's Parker is a series of ticks and gestures hidden under a hoodie, but full of piss and vinegar in need of an outlet. He is an outcast but, incongruously and unlike his thespian predecessor, one that is wholly accessible, relatable and convincing as a teenager (Garfield is in his twenties). Garfield has previously extolled at press junkets about his love for the wall crawler, and it shows each time he suits up as Spider-Man. He's as snarky as the character is supposed to be and moves with grace and agility, with some poses and movements almost lifted from the comic panels. The suit, designed by Cirque Du Soleil, is a departure from the original in order to further cement the film's reboot nature. However, it's creation is much more organic than the space aged metal webbing that lined Maguire's suit. Also, this Spider-Man is not as experienced at the get go. He makes mistakes and leaves clues. Yet it is a natural progression for the character.

As Parker's first comic book girlfriend, Emma Stone shines as Gwen Stacy. She is more capable and assertive than the version played by Bryce Dallas Howard, yet despite her above average intellect, is portrayed as a vivacious, fun loving girl. Unlike the pairing of Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, Garfield and Stone crackle with an onscreen chemistry that is rare to find in cinema these days; and like all the acting greats, it is more of what is not said than said that carry the scene. It is easy to believe that these two would be lovers. Their relationship is eased and natural, not forced.

The film is bolstered by the veteran actors that support the leads. Sheen's Uncle Ben has only slightly more screen time than Cliff Robertson ever did, but he makes the most out of that time. He is the moral center of the erzatz Parker family and when his time comes, you feel it. Sally Field's slightly younger Aunt May is as doting as her comic counterpart but is by no means a wall flower. And in some of the quiet moments, her acting leaves one wondering whether she has figured out the truth of her nephews comings and goings, but it is left up to the viewer to decide. As Dr. Curt Connors, Ifans is both likable and threatening; a dichotomy that works. While purists may take umbrage at this version of "The Lizard" looking more like a background extra from "V" than the actual comic design, Ifans imbues him with a ferocity that almost makes up for the visual deviation (somewhere, Dylan Baker is gnashing his teeth). Leary's Captain Stacy is a principled law enforcer who is out to capture Spider-Man, a suitable albeit temporary substitute for J. Jonah Jameson. Leary has come a long way from the comic rapid-fire verbal stand-up who made his cinematic debut in Demolition Man over twenty years ago. Like Sheen and Fields, he helps to anchor the fanciful proceedings with humanity. 

The special effects are no revelation. They are similar to those of the previous Spider-Man films save for the majority of the web swinging work actually being performed by either Garfield or stunt men rather than an over-reliance on CGI, and it works. There are some inconsistencies in presentation, however (play close attention to a broken window that is miraculously repaired when circumstances dictate it shouldn't) but these are minor hiccups in a film that is extremely organic. I use that word because there is a flow to this film. The film clocks in at over two hours but it doesn't seem that way. Whatever slow spots it has is buoyed by the performances of the actors. Also, it borrows a couple of beats from Raimi's first Spider-Man (2001), including a scene near the climax where New Yorkers aid a wounded Spider-Man.

Webb's direction is tight and leaves little by way of filler. Every scene is advanced by the one before it and he deftly balances humor and pathos, tragedy and triumph. The mood is also heightened by composer James Horner, who foregoes both the quirkiness of Danny Elfman/Christopher Young's Spider-Man scores and goes for a more lyrical, yet quieter, heroic theme. Yet, despite the benchmark signatures of his previous scores, Horner's take is no more than servicable. It fits the proceedings quite nicely, yet nothing really stands out. But perhaps that is the point, given that the music is in service to the story and not vice versa. Regardless, his music is appropriately rousing when called for, and romantic when needed.

There are a couple of dangling sub-plots that are obviously meant to be developed in future films (this is the first of a planned trilogy). This would be annoying if this film were to underperform, thereby precluding the resolution of those plot threads. However, this film is in no danger of that. Whether future sequels will rise to the occasion remains to be seen. However, The Amazing Spider-Man is an auspicious re-do in this franchise and one that is well worth watching. Here is a Spider-Man you can root for and believe in.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


It has been fifteen years since Agents "J" (Will Smith) and "K" (Tommy Lee Jones) suited up in black and carried their neuralizers and rounded up a giant roach in the original Men In Black and ten years since the inevitable but half-hearted and sorely deficient sequel Men In Black II. The duo and director Barry Sonnenfeld return for Men In Black III, which finds Agent J going back in time to 1969 to prevent both the onset of an alien invasion and the murder of his still taciturn partner (played in 1969 by Josh Brolin).

What differentiates this film from the previous two entries is the lack of a "gee whiz" factor. Where are "blink and you'll miss it" shout outs to the first two films, this time around the aliens and technology take a back seat to the relationships in the film. The plot borrows heavily not only from other similar time travel stories but also from another Steven Spielberg produced franchise, Back To The Future. Like that film series, the first two films center on Will Smith's fast talking Agent J. However, like BTTF III (and despite Will Smith's top billing and the fact that he's almost in every scene of the film), MIB III shifts the focus to Agent K, who is the target of Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, looking like a cross between the late Randy Savage and the "Lobo" character in DC Comics). In the present day scenes, Jones is even more gruffly crotchety than ever before. However, his character has even more nuance than in previous portrayals (especially in the second film, wherein he seemed to be phoning his performance in from Bermuda). This performance makes for an uncomfortable first act (complete with an extended sequence in a Chinese restaurant that gives one pause to enter one again).  However, once Agent J literally time jumps to 1969 does the movie kick into high gear.

This film would fall apart if not for the uncanny performance of Josh Brolin as the younger Agent K. Reportedly, during their filming of No Country For Old Men, Brolin would study then mimic the mannerisms of fellow Texan Jones to the amusement of cast and crew, including Jones himself. This mimicry serves in good stead as Brolin becomes Jones in every gesture and nuance, verbal and non-verbal. He walks a tightrope that could easily fall into caricature and succeeds in maintaining a perfect balance.* His performance alone is worth the price of admission.  His K is much lighter, witty and romantic which leaves the audience asking why K turns out to be such a sour puss in the film. The film poignantly provides the answer. "Poignant" is not a word one would ascribe to this film series, but then this is not a run of the mills, paint by numbers sequel. Though there is some serious retconning going on, the film brings the series full circle in a satisfying manner.

The performances are entertaining. Outside of the aforementioned trifecta of Smith, Jones and Brolin, Clement as "Boris" is perhaps the most ridiculous yet menacing MIB villain to date. He is sadistic vengeance and the character's interpretation is appropriate to the stakes at risk in the film. Emma Thompson as new MIB director "O" shows an adroitness with deadpan comedy, though her character's inclusion is more than just a replacement for an unavailable Rip Torn. This is "K"'s film, and she adds to it. Also of note is Michael Stuhlbarg as "Griffin", a soothsaying human unicorn (don't ask), who is the key to keeping both the Earth safe and K alive. His character is a catalyst for the action as well as both prophet and doomsayer. His innocent and cryptic declarations ratcheting up the suspense to the point that one wonders whether either one of the MIBs will survive. The climax, which takes place at Cape Canaveral during the launch to the moon, is suspenseful but, as filmed by Sonnenfeld, also captures the hope and wonderment of the day, even if it is marred by tragedy; one that explains why Agents J and K are partners in the future.

Men In Black III is a return to the quality of the first film. While the concepts is no longer a novelty, the time travelling element gives it a fresh twist that allows for more depth than ever and, ultimately, a worthy conclusion to the series. If this is the last MIB film, it is wrapped up in a neat little bow and, unlike the second film, you won't want to subject yourself to a neuralizer to forget it.

*A non-sequiter aside: In graduate school I once wrote a paper arguing that "No Country for Old Men" (both in prose and film) was a modernized revisitation of the themes of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", with the cinematic representations of Jones and Brolins' respective characters as "King/Father" and "Hamlet/son" archtypes; especially due to their passing resemblance to each other. Nice to see that MIB III gives unintentional credence to the theory.

Memorial Day

Given the weekend, I'd like to call your attention to this post included last year to mark the occasion:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


It used to be that one could think of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton as human representations of a candy bar slogan: "Two great tastes that taste great together." Cinematically, their collaborative efforts have produced varying degrees of great taste:  Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, and the like. However, in their latest cinematic foray together, Dark Shadows, the taste has gone a tad stale like an Oreo cookie left out too long.

Based on the soap opera created by the late Dan Curtis, the story follows Barnabas Collins (Depp), the son of a fishing magnate who has a torrid affair with one of the family servants, Angelique Bouchard (a very vampy Eva Green, Casino Royale) though he focuses his true romantic affections for Josette Du Pres (Bella Heathcote, who also plays the governess Victoria Winters later in the film). Unbeknownst to Barnabas, Angelique is a witch who does not take being scorned lightly. Thus she both kills Josette and transforms Barnabas into a vampire, the latter of whom is taken by the townspeople of Collinswood and entombed for almost two hundred years. Barnabas is inadvertently released in the year 1972, where he discovers that the grand estate of Collinwood has fallen to disrepair and his descendants have fared no better. Among the Collinwood clan are family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking almost as pale as Barnabas); her rebelliously problematic daughter, Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz, who brings her "Hit Girl" attitude to the fore); and Elizabeth's conniving brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) who neglects his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), a boy who claims to see his dead mother. To his dismay, Barnabas finds that his once proud fishing empire has been destroyed and supplanted by a company owned by the seemingly immortal Angelique.  With the aid of his family (and groundskeeper Willie, played by a slightly amusing Jack Earle Haley, Watchmen), Barnabas attempts to return the fishing empire to its former glory.  Yes, you read right. The milieu is a Gothic horror setting replete with vampires, witches, and sundry creatures of the night, and the crux of the story is the resuscitating of a business? But then, this is a tongue-in-cheek reinvention that is emblematic of Tim Burton's quirkiness; a quirkiness that once made Batman Returns practically unmarketable to the action figure buying set.

The film’s visuals are starkly stunning; bright, often garish colors contrasting the Gothic bleakness of the setting. Yet for all that, the film seems strangely self-indulgent. Scenes that show Barnabas' loquacious eloquence juxtaposed against modern (by 1970s standards, anyways) dialect seems to go much too long; as if Barnabas, and Depp by extension, wax poetic simply to hear the sounds of their collective voice. The “stranger in a strange time/land” shtick is marginally amusing but, in all honesty, has worked better in other films.

The series upon which this film was based was filmed with the intention of being serious but was unintentionally campy. This film works in reverse; unfortunately, the reversal doesn't quite work. The actors, particularly Pfeiffer, deliver their lines in over the top fashion, even at the more subdued, seemingly poignant scenes which only works to dilute the impact of those scenes. Each character is instead a caricature, including Depp. As far as delivering the comedic bits, they are executed well; which may work for a series of vignettes but not as a movie on the whole. The only ones who seem to embrace the campiness of the proceedings are Burton’s nepotistic mainstay Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, and Green as Angelique, who, with the aid of the cinematographer, has the remarkable ability to turn her beauty into something grotesque. Her villainy would be more effective in a truly horrifying film but, in truth, it’s wasted here. The film is too genteel in story and presentation to be anything worth of note. While some would argue that the series had the same deficiency, at least the show’s actors and narrative compelled one to watch the next installment (perhaps in the hopes of something better the next episode). Here, Burton's direction fails to do even that.

This is not to state that if the film had been treated straight it would have been better. Ben Cross starred in a 1990s reboot of the show, which was basically a cliff notes version of what had already gone before. Unlike the original, it was treated completely straight and died a quick death. Here, Burton has gone the other way and it unfortunately does not satisfy either. As a whole, Dark Shadows is a whole lot of dull. The few moments of humor does not offset the overwhelming sense of ennui over the proceedings. This version of Dark Shadows is sure to alienate the die-hard fans of the show. However, it is so pedantically plodding that it is sure to do the same to the non-fans as well. This film is like a Reese's peanut butter cup way past its expiration date. It just goes to show that not all steady collaborations have a perfect track record.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


There may be small warned.

The road leading to the Avengers is like making love to a woman. First, there's the initial kiss, the tease...the unexpected thrill. This came in John Favreau's Iron Man (2008), where in Samuel Jackson appeared in the post credits teaser as (Ultimate) Nick Fury of S.H.E.I.L.D., hinting at an "Avengers Initiative."  Then came the caress in Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk starring Ed Norton, wherein Tony Stark (Robert Downy, Jr., Chaplin, Back to School, Air America) brings the initiative to the attention of General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, Body Heat). The caresses get bolder in 2010 with the release of Iron Man 2 where the Avengers Initiative becomes a full blown subplot and the greater presence of S.H.E.I.L.D. in the forms of Fury, Natasha Romanov/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and fan favorite Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Greg). In Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011) the embraces begin in the form of the continued participation of Agent Coulson and another post-credits teaser hinting at a MacGuffin. Penultimately comes Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, which, while a powerful stand alone film on its own, is the "point of copulation" as it's final moments directly lead into the events of The Avengers. After almost five years of foreplay, Marvel Studios and director Josh Whedon had a lot at stake; a house of cards that could rise or fall. After such a long build up, does The Avengers lead to a disappointing amount of nothing?


Far from it.

The Avengers is a powerfully orgasmic cinematic feast.

It is also perhaps the best translation of a comic book to silver screen...yes, even better than Superman: The Movie, which will always be my seminal favorite, but honestly not since Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the Man of Steel has any actor, much less actors, so epitomize their comic book counterparts as the cast in this film have done.

Director Josh Whedon obviously knows his comics. Not only has he written "The Astonishing X-Men" for Marvel Comics, he has also been the driving force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is essentially a superhero concept (simply exchange "Slayer" for "Super hero" and "Vampires" for "Super villain"). His pedigree is such that this film was his to fail. And he does not. He presents the material as it should be...straight. His screenplay, written in conjunct with Zak Penn, presents the story in four acts that follow the tropes of classic "Marvel Bullpen" storytelling:  The establishment of the threat; the meeting of the heroes; the misunderstandings that lead to the heroes throwing down against each other; the classic infighting, the sacrificial lamb, and the overriding of differences to meet the threat (note to Bryan Singer:  This is comics storytelling done RIGHT). Whedon moves the story along briskly with very little by way of slow spots; but when the story slows down in terms of the primary plot, Wheadon uses the time for what he is best known for: character development.

And what characters there are:  At this juncture Robert Downy, Jr. is to "Tony Stark" what Sean Connery is to "James Bond". The role fits him like a familiar tuxedo and should those series of films continue beyond Downy's participation, he will still be the standard to which all future torchbearers will be compared. His Stark is the charming arrogant rogue, presenting himself as the smartest man in the room. Chris Hemsworth is "The Mighty Thor", as forthright and unbeguiled as he was in the eponymous film, but this time tempered with an understanding of consequences. Scarlett Johannson returns as "Black Widow" and given more character development than in Iron Man 2. With her character, Whedon references his Buffy roots by bringing developing a character that can stand toe to toe not only with Ms. Summers but perhaps a certain raven haired Amazon from the "Distinguished Competition".

Just as noteworthy are Chris Evans' "Steve Rogers/Captain America", a Super-Soldier out of time who finds himself woefully out of place compared to the world he's awoken; and, of course, there is Jeremy Renner who as "Clint Barton/Hawkeye" shows a Daniel Craig-like looks and charm as a tortured marksman in his own right (the comparison being more palatably felt with his starring turn in the forthcoming The Bourne Legacy). Being the most human of these characters, they serve as the audience's surrogate. But perhaps the most stand out performance comes in the understated, affable form of Mark Ruafflo as "Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk" (the latter role he shares in this film with the vocal participation the original live action "Hulk", Lou Ferrigno).  Apologies to Eric Bana and Edward Norton, but this is another example of Whedon's understanding of the medium. Under Whedon's direction and Ruafflo's talent, they bring a Bruce Banner that who's template is not only akin, but honors Bill Bixby's portrayal of (then David) Banner. Not since the television series went off the air has a live action Banner been presented as a fully, fleshed out three-dimensional human being. One whose emotions run the spectrum (not just "tortured"). His Banner is a delight to watch...but The Hulk steals the show.  This is the best CGI rendering of The Green Goliath ever. He is not John Woo's "Gumby Hulk." This Hulk has weight and presence. And he has some of the best moments of screen time in both action AND humor. Plus, one of the highlights of the film (especially for any comics fan) is seeing an offshoot of the battle between Hulk v. Thor from "Journey Into Mystery" #112 realized...and leads into one of the better comedic moments. 

But the confrontations are not simply physical. Whedon uses chess master precision to use the characters as foils of the each other, bringing out the central conflicts and doubts between them, some of which are character arc carryovers from the previous stand alone films: Stark's aversion for the military and discipline; Rogers stalwart patriotism being a result of chemical enhancement, Thor's demi-god status and his filial loyalty to the film's main villain, Fury's camaraderie with his nascent team at odds with his patriotic duty; Romanov and Barton's respective needs for redemption; Banner's war with "the other guy"...The beauty of Wheadon's direction is how the elements gel. The humor is organic and interwoven into both the story and the characters. It is one of the few films that the laughs are not forced or contrived; better than some of those in the comedy genre. The character arcs progress and, unlike other superhero productions where the heroes revert to a gestalt state, these characters grow and evolve...discovering aspects of themselves that they would not have without the reflection provided by their foils. In the comics, The Avengers are more than just a team. They are a family; a dysfunctional one, but a family none the less. More than any other director since Richard Donner, Whedon gets it.

The growth is not simply epitomized in the protagonists. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a much more credible threat than the petulant, neglected second son he was in Thor. While no match for Terrance Stamp in a scene that was clearly evocative of Superman II, this is villainous demi-god to be reckoned with; one made more so by one pivotal, heart-wrenching scene. He is a super-powered "Simon Legree" and when he gets his comeuppance, it is supremely satisfying. The true heart of this film, however, comes in the form of Agent Phil Caulson, who despite being beyond the age of innocence and everything he has seen, still believes in heroes (especially Rogers) and provides the "push" the team requires; in essence, he is an unacknowledged Avenger.

The film comes together in the third act, which makes the climatic Metropolis battle from Superman II (a template for this sequence) look like a child playing with Tinker Toys (though one moment in the climax cribs heavily from that of Independence Day). The CGI is interwoven with old fashion stunts and pyrotechnics and the action, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's powerful (though not as evocative as his previous Captain America effort) score.  Like a marathon lovemaking session, it pounds the senses until the battle's final moments and, when the credits roll (and be sure to stay through all the credits), one really needs to have a post-coital cigarette.

Yet all throughout, the material is treated straight. There is no hint of condescension of the source material. There is one scene involving Captain America that skirts towards that territory, but instead reasserts why Captain America (jingoism aside) as a character is a source of inspiration. Not since 1978 has a symbol for patriotism and morality seemed more, put succinctly, bad ass.

Unabashedly, I have been a comic book fanatic since the age of five. Understandably, my view of this film may be a bit biased. But then, Marvel has admittedly not been my company of choice. I wish I could be as effusive of praise on DC Comics' more recent cinematic offerings. Yet to try to be otherwise would be disingenuous. The fact remains that as a comic book an action a science fiction a movie, period, The Avengers works! It balances action and character exposition, humor and pathos, deftly. Any other critics who see this as a popcorn film are missing the moments of characterization and the evolution they go through. If I am too effusive in my praise, it is only because this film truly merits it; not many films have engendered such a reaction in me. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a film based on a comic book this much...and that includes The Dark Knight. The film is enjoyable for the average moviegoer but also respectful shout outs to the hardcore fans as well (Captain America's instruction to The Hulk is especially "geektasmic"). The film is, in effect, a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.

Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Hollywood has a history of repeating success and/or capturing lightning in a bottle (or, as an oft-used Hollywood saying goes “nobody wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second”).  For example, when Star Wars became a success, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shunted from Paramount Pictures' television to movie division, with inferior offerings such as Battle Beyond the Stars rushed into production. Raiders of the Lost Ark launched the less successful likes of Doc Savage and Allan Quartermain and the City of Gold. John Millius’ Conan the Barbarian inspired the lackluster Lou Ferrigno Hercules films, and so forth. With the advent of the mammoth success that has been Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes franchise, another Victorian era actioner was bound to happen.  In this case, however, it is not a Victorian fictional character at the forefront, but an actual historical figure in the form of Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack, Say Anything, Hot Tub Time Machine) in the final, destitute (and historically nebulous) years of his life.
The premise of the film is simple: a serial killer who stalks the streets of Baltimore utilizes Poe's stories as a basis for each murder, places Poe's resourceful lady love Emily (the lovely Alice Eve, the forthcoming Men In Black III and the currently filming Star Trek sequel) in mortal danger and challenging Poe to solve his clues to rescue her. Upon first glance, James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) The Raven seems like a blatant attempt to cash in on Holmes' coattails.  However, this film could not be further than it's "inspiration". Where the Holmes films were fast moving, action oriented fare punctuated with moments of humor, The Raven is a dark, atmospheric methodical horror procedural which takes itself perhaps a bit too seriously. The settings, even in the daytime, are as dark and forboding as Poe's attire, the only hint of light epitomized in Emily's golden tresses and bright mode of dress. This is a humorless world which is as stark as any story the real Poe ever wrote; the shadows cast in the scenery are all pervasive, touching upon the characters themselves, such as Detective Fields (Luke Evans, The Three Musketeers), the constabulary who engages Poe in the investigation, and Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson, the Harry Potter series), who loathes Poe for trying to romance his daughter. All of the actors bring in top notch performances, but especially Cusack as the title character. Gone are the "Cusackisms" that infuse his previous characters. This is one of those rare efforts where an actor buries himself so completely in the part you forget the person playing the role. He and McTeigue deftly avoid the cliché of turning Poe into an action hero. He's not. In truth, he is the furthest thing from. He is a man hounded by personal demons and past glories, and it leads to a satisfactory character arc from beginning to end.
This is also a risky film, because it goes against American movie going conventions and expectations. To say more would enter into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that it contains disturbing elements that would turn off most viewers and goes against the grain of conventional movie storytelling. What little gore in evidence is explicit and the battle between good and evil is not so cut and dry even at its conclusion. However, the film is not without its flaws, most especially in the reveal of the murderer. Say what one will about Ritchie's Holmes series, clues are laid out in full view of the public throughout the films. Here, The Raven cheats. Again, more cannot be said without spoiling the film, however, once seen this complaint will be understood. It is understandable to want to surprise the viewer with the killer's identity; it is another thing to do so at the expense of the audience's intelligence and rob them of the opportunity to properly figure it out. The final scene seems almost a tacked on afterthought to appease the general public; one that is oddly dissatisfying.

Despite this, The Raven is a good film, on par with From Hell starring Johnny Depp. The film's tone matches the works of the character it is based, so bear that in mind when watching it. Do not expect sunshine and rainbows. You can expect good performances and evocative atmosphere. It is worth a viewing.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Dick Clark. R.I.P.

Thank you for your immesurable contributions to the American pop/music culture landscape.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

THE ODDS ARE IN ITS FAVOR: The Hunger Games is a Must See

I am one of a select few of the population who has yet to read Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy (I’m sure the rest of the population that haven’t aren’t old enough to read yet). That being said, It affords me the rare opportunity to review a film without being alternatively aided and handicapped by the source material. As a film, The Hunger Games works.

In a seeming not-too-distant yet dytopic future, the continent of North America (now known as "Panem") is divided into 12 districts. In an ersatz application of the concept of “breads and circuses”, two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are chosen from each district in order to participate in “The Hunger Games”; a televised battle to the death which the populace is required to watch. When her younger sister is chosen by lottery to represent the 12th district, young Katniss Everdeen (a beguiling Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men - First Class) becomes the first volunteer in the games 74 year history. From then on she is given an advisor (an uneven Woody Harrelson, Cheers, The People v. Larry Flint, Zombieland) and handlers (a polished Lenny Kravitz and Elizabeth Banks, outfitted in a wardrobe Batman’s “Harley Quinn” wouldn’t be caught dead in) before she is let loose in a controlled habitat to fight for her survival.

The story is a pastiche of other plots. Death by lottery was a staple of episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and the hunter becoming the hunted is a familiar trope. Yet it is a testament to director Gary Ross (and arguably Suzanne Collins, since it is her story) that they make it seem fresh.  This film balances action and suspense rather well, moving at a brisk pace, despite some uneven dead space as it builds to the main event.

Normally, in a review, I like to break down the elements that work, assess the performances, etc. But this time I am hard pressed to. This is one of those rare films that actually work in a very visceral way. It is, perhaps, one of the most horrifying films this year. “Horrifying” in that the world it depicts, despite its science fiction trappings, is one of the most chilling indictments of our society in quite some time. Our culture’s obsession with reality television,  our collective ability of ignore the ills that plague our society through the distraction of “bread and circuses”.  The quasi-Seussian dress and colors bring out, rather than mute, the stark harshness of this world’s existence. The over-the-top Stanley Tucci, in blue dress, is a maniacal fashion disaster from Whoville who would seem quite at home sitting in Maury Pouvich’s hot seat, stating DNA results no matter what the consequences for those involve all in the name of ratings. In this movie, power resides in the hands of a select few, with the games the only manner in which to keep the masses distracted from their plight. The Tributes (those chosen to become participants in the games) are given the “American Idol” treatment as the audience follow them from selection to indoctrination, from training to game commencement.  It all seems so genteel and magical on screen until they are finally let loose in the game habitat.  The film’s tonality shifts and becomes a modern day “Lord of the Flies”, where the savage survival at all costs instincts come in.

But the true horror comes in the portrayal of the young actors who portray the “Tributes”, as they transform from wholesome youths to, in some cases, bloodthirsty (un)noble savages. Jennifer Lawrence is the glue that holds this film together. Though a great suspension of disbelief would be required to believe that this otherwise healthy looking girl would be starving, the 21 year old Lawrence evinces her character’s despair at the world around her with nary a word. She is frightened, overwhelmed, and, yes, even vulnerable. But she is also strong, resolute and determined. She is a well-rounded heroine with nary a hint of caricature. Without her believability this film would fall apart.  Another standout is Amandala Stenberg as “Rue”, who imbues her character with an almost angelic presence; one that is emblematic of the fact that angels are not meant for this world.

Unfortunately, despite its pacing and coherency of plot, the film does not quite hold together completely, calling attention to the portions of the novel that possibly did not make the transition to the screen. For example, Woody Harrelson’s character undergoes a change of heart in almost inexplicable fashion, with only a hint of a scene as a possible explanation towards its change. Alas, it is insufficient to be satisfying. The same can be said of Peeta’s loyalties (though his name should have been spelled PITA, as in “Pain in the Ass,” for that is how his character comes across).  Directors, take note, the best use of Donald Sutherland is minimalism. The less said, the better.  Same can also be said of the score of James Newton Howard. His orchestrations of late have been serviceable without any real sense of thematic identity. Unfortunately, his score for The Hunger Games continues this trend. It works within the film, but is almost as generic as any of his other actioners.

Of course, there are two other books in the series which, given the profitable opening weekend the film has enjoyed, are surely due for cinematic adaptation. However, I am not left, if you’ll pardon the pun, hungering for more. This is not an indictment. It is, instead, a powerful recommendation.  The film is powerful enough to stand alone, and definitely one of those rare films that deserve multiple viewings. It is that nuanced. It is that meaningful.  It is that good.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  It is more than sheer entertainment, it is a powerfully allegorical cautionary tale. As our political climate devolves into subsequent petty squabbles, as freedoms seem to become eroded before our very eyes, as celebrities become the focus of national attention in the place of social problems, as the wealth and power of our nation become concentrated into the hands of a powerfully privileged few, this film is a warning, albeit a fantastical one, of the consequences of ignoring what is happening around us. The Hunger Games will not leave you feeling hungry. It will make you angry, it will make you fearful. It will entertain you and, ultimately, fill you with hope.

Friday, February 24, 2012

BROMANCE, ROMANCE, SHROMANCE: “This Means War” A Surprising Action Rom Com Flick

Men…go see the rom com This Means War.

You read that correctly, I said "men".

At the moment, I am hard pressed to remember a film that blends romantic comedy and action with such balance and panache; it is as much a “guy film” as it is a “chick flick”.

The premise is the standard romantic triangle: two buddies “FDR” (Chris Pine, Star Trek, Smokin’ Aces) and “Tuck” (Tom Hardy, Star Trek: Nemesis, Inception, Warriors, the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises) vying for the affections of the same girl (Reese Witherspoon). The twist here is that they happen to be crack field agents in the CIA.

Chris Pine transplants his "Captain Kirk" persona into modern day Earth with the character of “FDR Foster” (with a couple of tongue in cheek references to the iconic character Pine has inherited, including his penchant for “intergalactic relations”). He imbues in his character a confluence of rakish charm of both Kirk and Harrison Ford’s “Han Solo” yet Pine plays it with a bit of guardedness. Hardy’s "Tuck" is the more “sensitive” of the two, but has enough macho swagger to balance it out. And one particular scene he makes a throwaway line given to Pine at the beginning of the climax especially poignant. He is a very talented actor, and it is surprising that someone who could play the sociopath Charles Bronson can juggle a role such as this. In their interactions Pine and Hardy have a wonderful chemistry together. It is easy to believe that these two have been practically brothers when you first meet them on screen. The comedy comes mostly from their knack of comedic timing coupled with their game of macho gamesmanship.  Their affability offsets the inherent discomfort one would get if one were to sit back and ruminate on the tactics they use to sabotage the other and insinuate themselves in their objective’s graces (misuse of government funds and equipment is an understatement here).

As the object of their mutual desire, this film is an interesting choice for Witherspoon. She may have top billing but her story takes a back seat to that of her co-stars. Yet she makes the most of what she has and holds her own. She defaults back to the plucky persona she’s managed to cultivate throughout her career but refreshingly absent this time is the smug self-awareness that tinged it. She is delightfully lacking in self-consciousness and gives the most natural performance she has in quite a while. Her “Lauren Scott” is competent, self-assured, and slightly neurotic, but none of these are played as stereotype. Complementing her performance is Chelsea Handler. While she is not a revelation as Tom Arnold was in “True Lies” so many years ago, her character is surprisingly nuanced. Her trademark delivery is in evidence but her persona is sublimated to suit the performance, which is marked with a surprising down to earth sensitivity. Rosemary Harris has little more than a cameo in her role as Nana Foster, but she brings a lot more spunk than she did to “Aunt May” in the Spider-Man films. It is easy to see where FDR got that aspect of his personality from.  

Sadly, the resolution the love triangle is practically telegraphed in the beginning of the film. If you’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy then you will know how things will end up. In this case, however, the fun really is in the journey not the destination.

As a director, McG has been blasted for being all flash and having very little, if any, substance. However, with each subsequent outing, his films, while entertaining on the surface, begin to carry with them a little more emotional heft. One important theme in his films (and yes, this includes the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise) is the importance of familial relationships. This film showcases the importance not only of a fulfilling romantic relationship but that of the filial bond as well. As aforementioned, the “bromance” plot line overshadows the romantic one. In showing the agents as adversaries, the audience is treated to exactly why they need each other. They complement each other in a way only real companions can. Yet he also demonstrates why these men would go after the same girl and why she would be torn between the two. Quite possibly, despite the farcical ludicrousness of the proceedings, this may be McG’s most adult/mature film to date.

His pacing of the film is mostly balanced. The quiet moments are almost as gripping as the comedic ones, which come fast and furious and are genuinely funny. Where McG drops the proverbial ball is with his treatment of Til Schweiger as “Heinrich”, the film’s ostensible antagonist in the sense that his scheme of revenge is less than a “C” plot. The audience never feels any sense of jeopardy because his character is hardly present; he is more conspicuous by his absence. By the time he makes his move against the warring agents, it feels like almost a tacked on, deux-ex-machina afterthought. Also egregious having an actress of the caliber of Angela Bassett and give her what amounts to maybe two minutes of screen time as a Starskey and Hutch desk supervisor stereotype; an expositional plot device and little else. It seems as if the only direction he gave her was “do what you did in Green Lantern, but angrier.” The film could have arguably moved along fine without her, which is more indictment of the script than the talents of the pigeonholed Bassett.

This Means War is an almost perfect balance of what Hollywood looks for in its films: a film that will satisfy both genders. As of this writing it is lost in the shuffle of other, bigger budgeted and hyped films and that is to its detriment. Despite its minor flaws, it is a wonderfully executed film that is sure to please both genders and delivers on laughs and action.