Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
Grade: B
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Michael Cane, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
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If Inception found Christopher Nolan debating whether to surrender, Tarkovsky-like, the real world for the deepest levels of imagination, The Dark Knight Rises finds Nolan already having taken the plunge.

Where would you rather be, as a musclebound cross between Darth Vader and Lord Humongous, Warrior of the Wasteland sinks Gotham into a nuclear-tipped French Revolution? When peasant kangaroo courts manned by maniacs belt out ice-water justice to balding stockbrokers? Is there a better place than under the covers in the shadows of Wayne Manor (where we find Bruce Wayne in Howard Hughes-like seclusion)? With the gloomy worldview expressed in The Dark Knight Rises, we might well look for Chris Nolan to be peeing in mason jars right there next to him.

If The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a mirror on the times, then it reveals the director’s misgivings about the current wave of populism biting into the world. In their Batman trilogy, the Nolan Brothers – director Christopher and screenwriter Jonathan – have found “the public” untrustworthy, insufficiently thoughtful, too open to manipulation by disinformation. The villainous Bane, leading the people in a reign of terror against Gotham’s wealthy, replaces a civilization based on stabilizing lies with lies of his own. The film makes an overt reference to the French Revolution, Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities. But it plays a little like Animal Farm.

Why does Bruce Wayne love Gotham, anyway? Why is this wretched hive of scum and villainy worth saving? It seems like a lot of trouble, a classic co-dependency. Gotham is the bachelor billionaire’s crazy girlfriend, constantly skinnydipping with the enemy, never able to turn his rubberized head without her slipping back into anarchy. The people of Gotham are worth saving, Batman seems convinced, but perhaps only in theory, only so far as to soothe his need to be the hero. Every martyr needs an audience to save.

How should we react when Gotham (and allegorically, our world) turns upside down once again? What would Nolan have us do? It’s obviously not to follow a strongman like Bane, the brutal trickster, and his illusion of imprisoned “liberation.” It isn’t the aloof out-for-herself Catwoman (a foxy Anne Hathaway, at the top of her considerable talent), disconnected from the world around her. As a hero, Batman offers stability and good intentions. What does Batman deliver but noblesse oblige, restoration of a dysfunctional status quo, and a delay until the next relapse?

As an action movie, The Dark Knight Rises is quite successful, involving in the moment, although not quite as memorable or darkly humorous as the best of its predecessor, The Dark Knight. The scale and the drive are consuming (even if Hans Zimmer’s score goes too far). The story is thick, layered but understandable. I might have cut a couple of characters (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s beat cop comes to mind), but it doesn’t detract too much from the proceedings. Bloated and pompous, true, but The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately rewarding. Disguised as entertainment, its best moments feel like a foreboding prophecy of the present.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Grade: N/R
Cast: Quvenshane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin

I probably shouldn’t write about Beasts of the Southern Wild since I walked out in the middle of it. I didn’t really expect to write anything about it at all. But here I am.

In fairness, my departure had more to do with an early morning doctor appointment than disgust. That said, the greatly hyped Sundance winner – the story of a girl and an isolated community dealing with the flooded aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – did leave a pretty thick layer of disappointment.

Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was mindful of the fact that this was a story of impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast. What I felt I walked out with was a movie about impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast.

That origin is not insurmountable. Affluent artists have always written about the poor, some very successfully. This is moviemaking, after all, where they make movies about the underclass on soundstages in Hollywood. Still, it is a real obstacle. And it’s an obstacle that debut director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t quite figure out how to deal with effectively. While I wouldn’t call it phony, it is wanky, and the film never quite reaches the illusion of authenticity.

One path would be with a fairy tale style, and sometimes Beasts makes that departure. Browsing his biography, Zeitlin’s parents are folklorists, and Beasts contains elements of folklore. It has a child who cooks dinner by blasting the stove with a propane flame, for goodness sakes. But the film never quite makes a necessary choice between realism and lyricism. Visually, this film bathed in mythological elements is grounded by techniques built to enforce reality. It goes so far as to use a shaky cam style, the sort of thing designed to convince us of the gritty realness of an alien invasion. Beasts is a little like a Zora Neale Hurston story filmed as if it were District 9.

For these reasons, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds me a little of Alejandro Gonzalez Inniritu’s Babel. After the splendid success of Amores Perros, director Gonzalez Inirritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga ultimately split in different directions. In Babel, Inniritu’s realism/hyperrealism ended up in a different place than Arriaga’s Fassbender-like melodrama. There comes a time in Babel where you feel the script working against the direction, and you can feel the film’s loose stylistic ends. I felt the same way here.

So what do I have to say about it, finally? Chin up. The willingness to make a story about small places and delicate lives is encouraging. Zeitlin is a different voice, and I suspect it will eventually find its range.


Grade: B
Cast: Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connally, Julie Walters
Director: Mark Andrews
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If you were a Scottish princess, wouldn’t using a spell to turn your mother the queen into a bear be considered an act of insurrection?

It’s hard to imagine that in real life Merida – the red-headstrong princess in Disney Pixar’s Brave – would avoid the tower for very long. In fact, consorting with a witch would be pretty risky – burning at the stake and all. Not to mention Scottish royalty has a particularly discouraging tradition of leaving life with one less head than they entered it with.

Ah, but that’s the thing about teenagers. You’re pretty much contractually obligated to forgive them. So is there any risk that Brave would turn into anything but a touching mother-daughter movie? The princess learns a little about life. The queen learns a little about love.

Life and love told amid a slight bedtime story. The queen wants to marry off her daughter in a proper manner. The tomboy daughter, who prefers archery to riding sidesaddle, has other matrimonial ideas. There’s something to be said for wedding for political alliances, but of course this isn’t the film that would say it. This is the modern age and we marry for love. There’s a wild king with a peg leg, rowdy clansmen in kilts, and a trio of mischievous brothers to keep the castle on its toes.

Even among Pixar’s successes, Brave stands out in the visual realm. Pixar’s genius is that it creates movies that look like they were filmed on location on a computer-generated planet and brought here. There’s not a “hey I’m watching a movie!” sense. It’s like visiting a real world. The dark hollows and fresh greens of Brave’s fictional Scotland are breathtaking and unique.

By the way, Brave extends the bow-firing trend among young female heroines. For parents already fretting the “should we buy our daughters a deadly weapon for Christmas?” decision, this is another arrow in the quiver.

I’d love to sit here and tell you a million interesting things about Brave. I think there are maybe 11 or 12, and I’ve said them all. It’s a particularly lovely round of craftsmanship, and it never loses your attention.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages
Grade: C
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige
Director: Adam Shankman
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Rock of Ages, this week’s hair metal spandex singalong, asks a basic question about the musical – what’s the point of a musical?

More specifically it asks a pair of underlying questions about musicals: Is enjoyment a worthy artistic goal? Is sentimental simplification acceptable in the name of fantasy and fun?

On one level Rock of Ages does to the metal years of the late 1980s no more or less than what Singin in the Rain does to the twenties or Grease does to the fifties or Moulin Rouge does to Golden Age Paris. Accusing these films of ignoring the racism, violence or barbaric dentistry of their era would be a little like marking off Peyton Manning’s greatness because he isn’t a very good tackler. It’s true, but it misses the point.

On the other hand, how do you take the most hedonistic, polyamourous, and misogynistic era of pop music and turn it into a musical with a female lead about multiple couples pursuing that one true love? And how do you create an atmosphere of self-destructive decadence in a movie in which no one even smokes? There’s a fly in this zeitgeist somewhere.

Rock of Ages casts sunny-eyed Millenials as broken-homed Gen Xers. Accusations of being American Idol: Metal Night are, sadly, fairly accurate. Aspiring baby-faced metalhead Diego Boneta doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Axl Rose. Playing an Oklahoma Snow White who escapes to the bright lights of Los Angeles, Julianne Hough seems more like a girl who would listen to Madonna or Debbie Gibson, or Amy Grant and Stryper. In real life, she ‘s Ryan Secrest’s girlfriend. She looks it. She feels it. And she sings like it. Of the younger set, only Malin Akerman (Watchmen), as the Rolling Stone journalist Constance Sack, comes across as a natural candidate to be spread across the front hood of a Camaro.

What saves the film, and ultimately makes it worth the view, is the great supporting cast. Russell Brand is either a choice so perfect that it’s obvious or a choice so obvious that it’s perfect. He’s teamed successfully with a camp Alec Baldwin as the owner of a Sunset Strip club on the tight rope of bankruptcy. .It’s topped by Tom Cruise having an enormous amount of fun as rock legend Stacee Jaxx, an 80s action star playing himself as an 80s rock star. On a practical level, how do you hire leads that are so miscast but a supporting cast that’s right down to the last sprinkle of hairspray?

Is the music good? A better question … was the music good then? An even better question .. is the music fun? On the last point, I’ll go with more yes than no. A cheeky busride rendition of Night Ranger’s Sister Christian sets the tone, giving you a good taste of director Adam Shankman flair for amusing camp. When it hits that point, it makes up for clunky editing and the blah story. Rock of Ages isn’t a film I particularly respect. But I did enjoy it.


Grade: B
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba
Director: Ridley Scott

Named for a deep-space vessel on a mission to discover the interplanetary creators of mankind, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is on another unenviable origin mission – the near-impossibility of recapturing the shock and dread of the original 1979Alien.

So much of the original is surprising and unexpected. Sequels, prequels and whateverquels (we’ll call this a companion film) are burdened by knowledge and expectation. Despite the best efforts of Noomi Rapace’s awesome shag haircut – floating in space since the Disco era – that 1979 magic is lost in the interstellar vastness. When an alien finally bursts from an unfortunate astronaut’s stomach, it’s not a scare or shock but the re-emergence of a brand. In space no one can hear you scream. That's OK when we’re meant to cheer.

That said, don’t take that to mean that Prometheus is some sort of doughy, follow-the formula failure. Actually it’s a sharp, follow-the formula success. Scott shakes the box of familiar elements (abandoned spaceships, flamethrowers, double-dealing androids, symbols of disturbed motherhood, fears of sex and being eaten) and out pops a summer freak-out that should leave audiences satisfied.

It’s appropriate that the android in Prometheus is obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, as this is Scott’s leanest movie in years. Absent – or at least unnoticed – are the multiple cameras and restless editing that have marred the director’s recent films. Michael Fassbender is the android who not only wants to be human (a seeming AI reference) but wants to be Peter O’Toole. He is assigned by the Weyland Corporation to a deep space exploration aboard a ship seeking aliens who might be the creators of human life.

Two things emerged from John Hurt’s stomach in 1979. One was the phallic-headed alien. The other was the stardom of Sigourney Weaver. Prometheus affords Rapace (You’ll always be my Lisbeth Salander) a similar opportunity. Certainly she’s helped by Prometheus’ intense centerpiece – a self-performed C-section that nails the coded fears of sex and violence that the Alien series does best.

Prometheus ‘ main deficit is either some of the dialogue or some of the acting. It’s a little hard to identify alien and egg. Is Charlize Theron’s corporate master too cold, or is she just burdened with too much dialogue that consists of yelping? (Did they write down specific yelp noises, or did they leave the yelp content to the inspiration of the actress?) But the story is nimble and confident, and the visual effects are first-rate.

Magic Mike

Magic Mike
Grade: B
Cast: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn
Director: Steven Soderbergh
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Hamstrung by protein-level decisions made during the first Nixon Administration, I can’t fully enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper drama Magic Mike. That’s what DNA gets you. But I did enjoy it as best as my hormones permit.

If your wife has planned some mysterious me-time this weekend, be aware where she’s going. She’s probably figuring out ways to smuggle kiwitinis in her purse as we speak. And she’ll enjoy it. Soderbergh sexualizes the male bodies of Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey much like the women’s bodies of Gina Carano in Haywire or Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. The mercurial Ocean’s series director has become one of the last American filmmakers who believes in the carnal potential of cinema.

By casting the ultimate fighting champ Carano, Soderbergh rang in the year by crossing gender roles on the action film in Haywire. Conversely, Magic Mike places Tatum in the traditionally female role of a stripper with a heart of gold. The muscular heartthrob becomes something rare for a male lead – a sexual object. Like Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, the film even begins with a butt shot of Tatum.

…. Now ladies, sit doww … you promised! …. please notice the film is more than its ripe bottom. Soderbergh’s recent films have been situated at the crossroads of work, performance, and identity. Mike is a sex worker with normal worries and dreams of a furniture business. He thinks he leaves it at work, but it’s not that easy. And a disagreement with a bank loan officer brings home Soderbergh’s point – the idea that capitalism depends on self-exploitation in which everyone participates. Just some ways are sexier than others.

Soderbergh can be a little like the edgy songwriter who stirs provocative images but doesn’t know quite where to go with them. At times, the film grips conventional plotlines for buoyancy – a will-they-won’t-they-of-course-they-will romance and a younger stripper’s ascent to stardom and descent into hedonism. Fortunately, the performances and tone are sharp and the detriment minimal.

Magic Mike is strangely the (loosely) real life story of its star Tatum, a male exotic dancer before his film career, but the fantasy of McConaughey – who as the club’s folksy owner nearly steals the show. But it’s Tatum’s sense of cool that holds the film together. He’s the owner of that unmistakable indefinable. It’s there in scene like when he casually backflips off a bridge into water, with no sweat or hesitation. I can’t quite define it, but I can see it, and it’s something I can’t quite forget.