Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" to the Occasion

First off, for the victims of the mass shooting in Aurora, CO: may they rest in peace, and may their families find peace. Why this kind of horror keeps recurring we’ll never truly understand.


directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, others

As the most intensely anticipated film of the summer, “The Dark Knight Rises” might have been forgiven for buckling under the sheer weight of expectations. Happily, it holds up and delivers a robust and entertaining finale to the trilogy that helped make “reboot” a respectable cinematic term. In fact, for a movie that runs over 160 minutes long it remains remarkably brisk and light on its feet.

While the story picks up eight years after “The Dark Knight,” in both tone and narrative structure “The Dark Knight Rises” is closer to the first movie in the trilogy, “Batman Begins.” This, I hasten to add, is a point in its favor, though I may also be the only person on the planet who preferred “Batman Begins” to “The Dark Knight.” Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for origin stories; maybe it’s because “The Dark Knight” was effectively hijacked by the Joker, and I’m more interested in Batman’s psychological issues than the Joker’s. Heath Ledger’s performance was a brilliant tour de force, but it also sucked up nearly all the energy in “The Dark Knight,” leaving very little for anyone or anything else. Here, the focus returns to Batman, or rather to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who’s forced to revisit his decision to hang up his cape when Gotham’s hard-won stability is shaken by the emergence of a new, literally underground threat. We also see the return of the good ol’ League of Shadows and the specter of its deposed leader, Ras al-Ghul, and even the climactic plot twist of TDKR is somewhat reminiscent of the one in “Batman Begins.” These callbacks to the past help create a general air of mystery and intrigue, even romance, that was absent in the unrelentingly dour “Dark Knight.”

That’s not to say that TDKR doesn’t go to some dark places of its own. It’s a Christopher Nolan movie, after all, and it gives us a hero who’s older, sadder, physically and emotionally handicapped by his last outing as Batman, and at least initially overmatched and outmaneuvered by the villain who draws him out of retirement – the hulking, ferocious, and utterly ruthless Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy). Bane, even more than the Joker, represents Batman’s worst fear: that Gotham will be destroyed on Batman’s watch, and he will be powerless to stop it.

(As a side note, much has been made of the fact that Bane incites – and manipulates – a full-scale class war that begins on the floor of what looks like the NYSE. Personally, notwithstanding Nolan’s pointed nods to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I don’t think there’s any particular political or socioeconomic critique to be read into this mass uprising. Or rather, one reads whatever one brings to it, which is par for the course with Nolan movies – slippery things, all of them.)

One of the pleasant upsides to keeping the spotlight on Batman/Bruce is a nicely shaded, multidimensional performance from Bale. Emerging from a self-imposed exile as a bearded, hobbled recluse, his cleaned-up Bruce Wayne shows flashes of charm that are offset by a long, tormented middle stretch as an incapacitated Batman and his almost hypnotic, single-minded determination to return and rescue Gotham. That drive powers the second half of the movie and overcomes the increasingly larger leaps of logic in a film that from the outset exerts a severe strain on the laws of probability, not to mention physics. (Which, to be fair, does result in some pretty nifty action set pieces.)

The rest of the cast, meanwhile, offers solid support. Among the returning players, Gary Oldman continues in understated mode as Commissioner Gordon, while Michael Caine shows affecting vulnerability as an Alfred who knows this fight may be Batman’s last. Morgan Freeman isn’t given much to do other than twinkle and outfit Batman with wheels and gear, but he performs these functions with panache. The newcomers also hold their own: Hardy undoubtedly has the toughest act in succeeding Ledger’s iconic Joker, but his sheer physical presence - heightened rather than tempered by glimmers of dark wit - renders Bane a formidable foe, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after some initially stiff line readings, cuts an appealing figure as a young cop who allies himself with Batman. As for the love interest, in a James Bond-like turn there are two this time – millionaire philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and master thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Cotillard is fetching as always, but the real revelation here is Hathaway. Her take may be very different from that of Michelle Pfeiffer – still the best Catwoman, hands down – but it’s unexpectedly compelling, especially given the uneven writing of her character. This is the second time Hathaway’s acting chops have surprised me, the first being “Rachel Getting Married”; I suppose I should stop being surprised.

In the end, though, this is really Batman’s show – the grand conclusion of his lifelong identity crisis and his love-hate relationship with Gotham, the city that made him what he is. There’s a tendency among critics to view Batman as a kind of Nietzchean superman; some have even found troubling overtones of fascism in his top-down imposition of law and authority. But Nolan's Batman is a reluctant warrior, driven not by a desire to create his own moral order but by his obsession with the death of his parents – his desire to wipe out the stain of that loss by saving the city that killed them. Of course, one could say the two desires reinforce each other; yet in the end, what we’re left with is not a dictator or a superman, but, to borrow a recurring phrase of the movie, “just a man.” That’s always been the essence of Batman, and “The Dark Knight Rises” simply confirms it.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Midsummer movie roundup


directed by Benh Zeitlin

Plangent and hypnotic, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” isn’t like any other film that’s playing right now. It has a narrative, of sorts, but one filtered through a highly impressionistic lens. It features fantastical, even mythical elements, yet also evokes a grim reality of loss and dislocation. And although it appears to take place in either the present day or the near future, the story feels oddly unmoored from time. The overall effect is a film that feels at once otherworldly and very much of this world.

These contradictions stem in large part from both the setting—a poverty-stricken, isolated bayou community known colloquially as the “Bathtub” and loosely based on a real place few people outside of Louisiana have ever seen—and the perspective from which it’s depicted. That perspective belongs to a small child named Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only six at the time of filming), who’s lived her whole short life in the Bathtub under conditions that would drive most viewers to call child protective services immediately. The Bathtub is clearly an unsafe place, vulnerable to storms and catastrophic flooding and accompanying diseases. But its residents, including Hushpuppy's loving but volatile father, Wink (Dwight Henry), stubbornly resist repeated government efforts to remove them. When the waters rise, they simply cope; when the waters ebb, they celebrate.

And it’s the celebration, as much as the dangers and hardship, that colors Hushpuppy’s vision of this world. We see the squalor and the precariousness of her situation, but we also see her seizing the day, reveling in her own pint-sized strength, and enjoying food, drink, laughter, and merriment with the rest of their tight-knit community. While Hushpuppy is left on her own far too often for our comfort, as Wink periodically disappears for stretches (for reasons that are revealed later) and she has no mother, she seems undisturbed by her circumstances—at least not initially. She does, however, have a fear that looms more and more closely as the film goes on. She dreams of giant prehistoric beasts called the Aurochs, trapped for centuries under polar ice only to be freed as the ice caps melt, who are now coming for the Bathtub. Whether the Aurochs are real, imaginary, or symbolic—a projection of Hushpuppy’s fears or manifestations of real, natural threats—is left open to interpretation, though it’s also somewhat beside the point. More significantly, their rise echoes the approach of a major crisis in Hushpuppy’s life, precipitated partly by nature, partly by Wink’s obstinacy and hotheadedness.

“Beasts,” which received a rapturous reception at Sundance, is a remarkable debut for director Benh Zeitlin, who took care not only to shoot in the actual bayou, post-Katrina, but to cast locals, rather than professional actors, for many of the roles. It paid off, especially with respect to the leads: neither Henry nor Wallis had any prior acting experience, and both are stunningly, heartrendingly convincing as father and daughter. Some naysayers have nonetheless faulted the film as being a white outsider's extended exercise in “poverty porn,” a criticism that seems overstated, if not wholly misplaced. The film doesn’t condescend towards its characters, even if they are poor and black—at least not in the sense that it makes them seem pitiable. Hushpuppy endures pain and adversity, yes, and personal sorrow, but her sufferings are more than balanced by love and a fierce joie de vivre that pervades her entire existence. For every searing or disturbing scene—Hushpuppy sleeping in a hovel or accidentally setting it on fire, being struck by Wink in a moment of anger, or being separated from him by the public authorities—there’s another of pure jubilation, whether it’s Hushpuppy exuberantly shouting “I’m the man!”, glowing in the light of a sea of firecrackers, or digging with gusto into a whole roast chicken or a pile of fresh-caught seafood. The flip side of the poverty porn argument—that the film overly idealizes Hushpuppy’s experience and romanticizes her struggle for survival—carries a bit more weight. But ultimately, Zeitlin isn't suggesting that the world of the Bathtub is to be either pitied or celebrated. He’s simply showing it, in all its unparalleled beauty and ugliness, as it would appear to the eyes of a child who’s known no other reality. What’s impressive is how vividly and lyrically he renders this reality to us outsiders, as something simultaneously palpable and remote. These are images that will stay with you forever, without ever losing their essential strangeness.



directed by Marc Webb
starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Denis Leary, Irfan Khan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz

Yes, it’s better than the last Spider-Man movie. No, it’s not the best Spider-Man movie; that honor still rests firmly with “Spider-Man 2.” It’s about as good, on balance, as the first Spider-Man movie, and no, that’s not enough justification for a franchise reboot.

In other words, there’s no compelling reason for this movie to exist at all, unless you’re a Sony executive. And yet I’m glad it does exist.

Reason #1: Andrew Garfield as the new Spidey. I fully admit that as a longtime fan I’m a bit biased in young Mr. Garfield’s favor – but his performance bears me out. I’m not knocking Tobey Maguire, who I thought made an excellent Spider-Man. But when I first heard that Garfield was taking over the role, my first thought was: damn, that’s brilliant – they should have cast him in the first place. He’s a bit old now for the part, but he's got the right body type, and, even more importantly, that awkward, vulnerable quality and slightly geeky charm we expect in Peter Parker. True, his spin (sorry, couldn't resist) on the character is different from Tobey’s – less forlorn little-boy-lost, more rebel-without-a-cause – and arguably less likable. In interviews Garfield has said he was going for a Holden Caulfield vibe, and it shows. This Peter is moody; he skateboards; he can be a punk to his loving Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field, both very good) for no reason (although the movie clumsily suggests his anger may be rooted in his apparent abandonment by his birth parents); and his motivations for becoming Spider-Man are driven more by revenge than by a desire for redemption – at least at first. At the same time, he’s still a recognizable Peter Parker, with his science geekery, his guilt, his inarticulateness around his crush, and his boyish elation in discovering his new powers. Garfield deftly captures that conflicting mixture of traits and makes the character his own. (Oh, and he looks really cute in glasses.)

Reason #2: Emma Stone as a spunky, smart, and adorable Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s first love. At this point in her career, Stone can be counted on to add a spark to just about any movie, and she does here. The character of Gwen could have used some more development, but Stone makes us love her anyway.

Reason #3: The pairing of Garfield and Stone (who are reportedly dating in real life). Here again, the love story isn’t especially well written: there’s a weird jump between Peter and Gwen being all cutely awkward and then suddenly together, and their one big tearjerker moment is undercut by a wink-wink ending. But the off-the-charts chemistry between the two stars makes it easy to overlook such flaws. I’ve actually considered seeing the movie again just to watch one pivotal – and totally charming – scene of them on a rooftop. It’s at such moments that you can most clearly see the hand of director Marc Webb, who was handed the “Spider-Man” baton on the strength of his (anti-) romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer.”

Otherwise, there aren’t any pressing reasons to see his movie if you’re a fan of the Sam Raimi trilogy. The effects are better, I suppose. As for the plot, it’s largely an amalgation of the “origins” story of Spider-Man 1, slightly retooled, and the tragic-scientist story of Spider-Man 2 (which Spider-Man 2 did better). The tragic scientist here isn’t nearly as compelling as Doc Ock, although Rhys Ifans is reasonably effective as the one-armed Dr. Curt Connors. (Not so much as his alter ego Lizard, who comes across as dangerously unhinged but also just a little bit too silly to take seriously.) Nor is the revamped origins narrative a marked improvement, although it does set up a new thread in the mystery of what happened to Peter’s parents (played in flashback by a still-handsome Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz). I’m not convinced the mystery really adds to the overall resonance of Peter’s semi-orphaned status, but it does set up a reason to continue the saga. And assuming Garfield and Stone are back for the next installment, I will be, too.


Andrew and Emma: A


directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Olivia Munn, Cody Horn, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer

I never thought I’d say this about a movie starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper, but I wish I had been a little more sober while watching it.

Not that the four margaritas I consumed beforehand impaired my enjoyment of “Magic Mike.” Far from it! The opening night show I attended was a raucous, rollicking affair thanks in large part to an enthusiastic audience who, besides being about 90% female, seemed determined to simulate the atmosphere of a ladies’ strip club as closely as possible. It was a setting highly conducive to being at least 2 ½ sheets to the wind, especially when the fictional Cock-Rockin’ Kings of Tampa strutted their stuff and the crowd (both offscreen and on) roared in appreciation. The dancing crackled, especially Tatum’s solos – which were only upstaged by Matthew McConaughey as the teasing, drawling emcee and club owner, whose stripping days might be behind him but who still knows how to work a crowd.

For sheer entertainment value, I certainly got my money’s worth. Still, I couldn’t escape a hazy sense that there was more going on at the margins and beneath the surface of this flesh-fest than I was really appreciating, and no, I’m not talking about anything sexual. (For a movie about strippers, there was relatively little of that.) At the same time, I was struck by the strangest pang of disappointment, at the close, that I felt so little personal investment in most of these men who had literally bared so much of themselves to us. Was it the alcohol that dulled my emotional response, or was it the movie?

If the latter, it might not be a flaw so much as a hallmark of the man behind the camera. As a director Steven Soderbergh can sometimes seem more like an anthropologist – keenly observant and attentive to detail, but coolly, almost clinically detached and more inclined to step back and take as many vantage points as possible than to latch on to any one. Rarely, if ever, does he manipulate the viewer into adopting the individual subjectivity of any one character; we remain almost entirely on the outside, looking at them as cogs in a larger framework – whether it be the international response to a pandemic, the drug market, the call girl market, an FBI sting gone hilariously wrong, or even an elaborate casino heist. As a result, while his films are almost uniformly well crafted, they don’t often produce strong emotional identification with anyone in them. There are exceptions to this – notably his extremely underrated remake of “Solaris,” one of my favorite films, and arguably the slightly overrated “Erin Brockovich” – but they are infrequent. And “Magic Mike” doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Again, the filmmakers may have had no such aspirations; or I may not have been in an ideal condition to draw this conclusion. There are signs that Soderbergh, or at least screenplay writer Reid Carolin (who appears briefly in a small role as a douchey yuppie boyfriend), may have intended more viewer empathy than I’m giving them credit for, especially with respect to the title character. The film – assisted by Tatum’s inherent likability, and perhaps a certain resonance with his own real-life experience as a stripper – does succeed in depicting Mike as a sympathetic guy who drifted into that world and who, notwithstanding the access it gives him to easy money and easier sex, yearns for a more fulfilling career and relationship. It’s much less successful, however, in its treatment of the parallel story of young newcomer Adam (Alex Pettyfer), quickly dubbed “the Kid,” whom Mike recruits and whose trajectory is clearly intended to be both an echo of Mike’s and a warning to him. Whether Adam’s inertness as a character is due to ineffective writing or flat acting, or both, he never really stirs any true concern for his fate despite being one of the main characters.

But Soderbergh, being Soderbergh, seems almost as interested in the milieu surrounding these two men as in the men themselves, with mixed results. Sure, we get interesting glimpses of what goes on offstage and behind the scenes of a strip club – often to humorous effect – but there’s a certain distancing effect as well. Even in a scene clearly written to be poignant, in which Mike puts on a suit and interviews for a bank loan to start up a furniture-making business, I felt Soderbergh’s sociologist’s eye, dispassionately observing Mike’s attempts to charm the flustered female loan officer. And when Adam falls into a predictable downward spiral, causing Mike, equally predictably, to reassess his own path, Soderbergh seems to be only going through the motions of trying to make us care.

In the end, it’s telling that the scene that stood out most in my memory of the movie was one in which Adam’s protective older sister (newcomer Cody Horn) comes to the club and watches Mike do his thing. We see him from her perspective – the female gaze, a rarity in Hollywood movies. And yet her expression gives us absolutely no sense of what she’s thinking or feeling as she gazes. Is it desire? Hostility? Bemusement? Understanding? Maybe it’s just the actress’s lack of affect, but I almost think she serves, in that moment, as Soderbergh’s stand-in. He’s not going to help you figure out what to feel. For a movie like “Magic Mike,” that standoffishness can be a limitation.


Channing Tatum - dancing: A+; overall performance: B+

Matthew McConaughey: A (doesn't dance much, but doesn't have to)

Alex Pettyfer: C+ (cute, but still not seeing the charisma)


directed by Wes Anderson
starring Ed Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel

For better or for worse, Wes Anderson films are effectively a genre unto themselves. They don’t look or sound like anyone else’s films: everything about them – both visually and narratively – is composed and arranged with the elaborate precision of a greenhouse. Or a dollhouse. Or both. The bright colors of his palette contrast sharply with the preternaturally (sometimes hilariously) solemn demeanor of his characters and the air of gentle melancholy that seems to infect them all. There’s an artificial quality about his aesthetic – charming for some, off-putting for others – that gestures towards the fantastical but for the most part contents itself with being (sometimes wearyingly) whimsical. In that last respect, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson’s latest, just might mark a turning point in his career – when he finally learned to stop worrying and love the fantasy.

It isn’t that big a shift. While his earlier films purportedly take place in the real world, they’re really set in the world inside WA’s head, an interesting but sometimes airless place to be. A visit there is rather like letting him show you around an attic crammed with a lifetime’s worth of yearnings and disappointments, all organized with obsessive care, with a special shrine for memories of his alienation as a child and adolescent. The experience can be intermittently engaging, but only to the degree that Wes Anderson’s Head is able to conjure up something resembling real human beings with recognizable human emotions that transcend their super-stylized togs and speech patterns. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. (“Rushmore,” yes; “Royal Tenenbaums,” no.) But he’s proven capable of doing it in a completely imaginary space – previously in the delightful “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (still my favorite WA film) and now here. He takes his time in this outing, but he does get there in the end.

In the meantime, there’s plenty to distract the eye and mind while your heart waits to be won over. The opening shot – of a family that lives in a lighthouse – is the first of many that give the setting a quaint diorama-like feel. The lighthouse is on a fictional island called Penzance (sorry, no pirates this time), apparently located somewhere off the New England coast; the year is 1965, though Penzance seems to be trapped in an earlier time period in which telephone switchboards are still in operation and the kids spend more time listening to Benjamin Britten than the Beatles. On this island that never was, two precocious misfit children – are there any other kind in Wesworld? – named Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Heyward) meet by chance or destiny, engage in an extended secret correspondence, and plot to run away together. He’s an unwanted orphan, a runty but scrappy and resourceful Davey Crockett-wannabe, and the odd boy out in a scout troop; she’s a bookworm and budding beauty, out of Sam’s league but with psychological issues of her own – mostly related to her parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray)’ stultifying marriage and resulting emotional neglect of their children. Sam and Suzy strike out on their getaway idyll, relying mostly on Sam’s map and scouting expertise to keep ahead of a search party led by Suzy’s parents, Sam’s scout master (Ed Norton), and a sad-eyed police captain (Bruce Willis). But an epic storm is building, and Social Services (in the form of Tilda Swinton) is coming to claim the cast-off Sam; can young love survive such tests?

Like most of Anderson’s films, “Moonrise Kingdom” suffers from a surfeit of whimsy and a third act that doesn’t seem to know when to quit: certain characters have an abrupt change of heart; someone gets struck by lightning; and someone else gets rescued from a flood, all to very little narrative purpose or effect. (Though I’m sure some critic out there has come up with an interpretation of the recurring motif of Noah’s flood.) But none of these detours diminishes the emotional core of the film, which builds imperceptibly and almost improbably in between the hijinks. In those quieter moments, the key interactions – between Suzy and Sam, between Suzy and her mother, between Suzy’s mother and Willis’ policeman, and between Willis and Sam – hit all the right notes, never mistaking bathos for pathos or sentiment for sentimentality, and not afraid to add an edge to cut the sweetness. Anderson is spot-on in his depiction of the awkwardness of first crushes and refreshingly free of squeamishness towards preadolescent sexuality. And while the film underutilizes some of his usual MVPs (most notably Murray – also, Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwarzman show up for what are essentially pointless cameos), it does elicit Willis’ best performance in years – maybe his best since “Pulp Fiction.”

In the end, Anderson’s best instincts triumph over his worst ones, leaving a wistful and poignant fable of the search for human connection. Did some scenes make me roll my eyes? Yes, certainly. But I’ve forgotten them already, in favor of others I suspect will stick with me for a long time: Sam and Suzy, shyly intimate as they dance on the beach to a French ’60s pop song; Bruce Willis’ policeman quietly contemplating Sam from across a kitchen table before pouring beer into his glass; McDormand, as Suzy’s mother, telling Murray in bed that they need to do better as parents. In the end, “Moonrise Kingdom” works because, underneath all its quirky trappings, it’s about a very simple need: the need to belong somewhere and to someone. All of Anderson’s films are about that at some level; but this one feels like its purest distillation.