The oddest people pop up here and there in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, from Aidan Gillen (of Queer as Folk, The Wire) to Ben Mendelsohn (of Animal Kingdom) to Burn Gorman (of Torchwood, The Hour). In fact, playing “who is that actor, I know I’ve seen him someplace before” actually became one of the greatest pleasures in watching the movie. For the record, The Dark Knight Rises is better than The Amazing Spider-Man, but not as good as The Avengers, and kind of, sort of feels like a franchise running out of steam. The first half is filled with a lot of talk. A lot of talk. I mean, a whole lot of it. And all of the philosophical sort. While this sort of tete a tetes between characters gave The Dark Knight a certain excitement (I can still remember the conflicts over whether the existence of a Batman was a good or bad idea and what the existence of the Joker meant in all it), here the arguments tended to fall flat, leaden down by a certain banality. I quickly discovered that during most of it, if I looked around at the audience and studied the lighting fixtures on the ceiling, the time passed more quickly and I didn’t miss a thing when it came to plot. As you can tell, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t really work for me. It wasn’t a totally loss. There were some excellent performances, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake, an ambitious police officer who was an orphan like Bruce Wayne. Anne Hathaway was tres, tres amusement as Catwoman and enlivened every scene she was in (delivering her lines with a claw like emphasis—though I do wish she would gain a few pounds). Marion Cotillard also acquitted herself well in a role that didn’t allow her to do much for most of the movie. But the big problem came down to the performances of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Tom Hardy as the bad guy du jour Bane—neither of which were the actors’ fault. The authors here (director Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) have never been able to make Bruce Wayne nor his alter ego remotely interesting. What the character had in money, he always seemed to severely lack in personality. Hardy had a different problem. He wasn’t just hampered by a mask that hid his mouth (his most endearing feature), as well as prevented him from visually sharing his emotions (and also made it difficult to understand what he was saying—well, that wasn’t the mask, that was the sound engineers, I suppose). He also played a character whose motivation for his actions were never very convincing and never made a lot of sense for most of the movie, and, to speak the truth and shame the devil, his bad guy just didn’t come near the complexity, power and evilness of the Joker. There are a couple of big surprises at the end, both of which are fairly obvious about half way through the film, if not sooner. And for me, the scenes that would have interested me the most, that would have given the movie that something more, were never fully dramatized—what Manhattan would look like under a fascist dictatorship run by a group of criminals. In fact, this whole section never really made a great deal of sense to me. Bane has said he is going to set off a nuclear weapon on an exact day, but no one seems to act like it. It feels like one of these brilliant ideas that was never used to its utmost advantage. In fact, the whole movie seemed rather tame in comparison to The Dark Knight. The violence seemed less cruel and capricious; whether it did or not, it felt as if so much of it happened off screen. It’s supposed to feel like anarchy has taken over, but it never felt particularly anarchic. This time round Nolan, as director, only seems to come into his own when directing the action scenes where once again, New York becomes the new Tokyo (has any plot turn become a cliché so fast). But when it came to the rest of the movie, it all sort of fell flat.
There was something that felt a tad outdated and forty years too late in the movie Collaborator, the new film written, directed and starring Martin Donovan. He portrays a playwright whose last theatrical venture has spectacularly failed. That part, of course, isn’t forty years too late, but an all too common occurrence these days. What does feel a bit at odds with the space/time continuum is when he’s described as someone who was once thought to be the voice of his generation. Really? A playwright? Can you imagine describing a contemporary poet or classical composer in such terms (as Lord Byron and Wagner once were)? I can’t. I do admit I’m not quite up to date when it comes to the latest offerings of Broadway, whether On, Off- or Off-Off- (or even regional), but this seems written by someone who may have a slightly exaggerated view of the state of Dionysus in this modern world. But the whole movie feels like everyone is just a tad too old for their rolls. Well, they’re not; their ages do correspond to the ones attributed to the characters. But something just seems off here. It’s not just Donovan as the mid-life crises writer, Robert Longfellow; or the Viet Nam vet Gus, played by David Morse; but especially Olivia Williams as Emma, a beautiful actress who is only just now, at the age of 44, contemplating having children. It’s almost like watching Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer playing Romeo and Juliet (and, yes, they verily didst). The story starts out at a leisurely pace made even more leisurely by Donovan’s laid back approach to acting (often very effective, but his gloom and doom aura may drag things down a bit more than is wise this time around), until Gus pulls a gun on Robert and takes him hostage. There are some nice scenes after this, mainly the ones where Gus talks with Emma on the phone, in seventh heaven over speaking to a celebrity of her status. In many ways, it was scenes like this that made me wonder whether this was actually suppose to be a dark comedy (and might have worked better if it was). But no, Donavan is deadly serious, as deadly serious as his acting style; there’s hardly a light moment in the thing, even when it’s the middle of the day outside (which it isn’t very often). The story then makes progress by the characters playing theater games, which again felt a bit anachronistic—one wondered whether a round of Get the Guest wasn’t waiting around the corner. It ends with a conflict over the politics of the Viet Nam war. Yes, it’s 2012, and the big argument is not over Afghanistan or Iraq, but a war that ended more than three decades ago. And it doesn’t help that this exchange came out of nowhere with no real set up. The ending is shocking, but a bit puzzling. Since it was a bit unclear what Donovan was trying to do here, there was no real emotional after effect. The whole thing just sort of ends.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a story told through the eyes of a child, with all the awe and wonder of such a subjective viewpoint. It has the same fairy tale quality of such movies as The Night of the Shooting Stars and The Night of the Hunter as well as more realistic films as To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane. It is a wonderful film, perhaps the best of the year so far. The narrator and our guide to this other world is Hushpuppy, a pint size little girl who lives with her alcoholic and ailing father in a place call the Bathtub, an outlying area on the other side of a levee that protects the larger, nearby city. The residents of the Bathtub are free spirit types who want little to nothing to do with civilization. At first one empathizes with this fierce independence; there is something grand and moving about it. On the downside, though, the result is often alcoholism and cruelty, as well as an inability to protect themselves when disaster strikes. And strike it does. First Hushpuppy’s father has a heart attack. And then the rain comes. And while the city is protected by the levee, the Bathtub is flooded by salt water that eventually destroys all plant and fish life. All the while Hushpuppy voices her childlike view of what is going on in voice over narrative while imagining the approach of wild beasts that have been released by the polar ice cap melting. What happens next is the conflict between civilization and people who just want to be left alone. I can’t quite agree with the ultimate conclusion here, that the people are somehow better off by returning to the Bathtub; I certainly would never want to live there. But I found the unfolding of Hushpuppy’s story fascinating as the plot takes her all over the place, from a Fourth of July type celebration complete with tons of seafood and fireworks, to a shelter for people fleeing the floods, to perhaps the oddest place of all, a floating whorehouse. Benh Zeitlin directed the film and wrote it along with Lucy Alibar, a first film for each of them, using non-professionals. But Zeitlin makes excellent use of their amateurishness. He gets a deft and fascinating performance out of Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. But perhaps the strongest performance is by Dwight Henry as her father Wink, a character both kind and cruel who rages and rages against the dying of the light. He’s one of those awful people you never would want to meet in real life but are fascinating within the safe distance of a movie screen. But in the end, perhaps the greatest kudos should go to Dan Romer who, with Zeitlin, wrote the sole stirring anthem that punctuates Hushpuppy’s story. At the end, Hushpuppy tells us that she and all of the people in the Bathtub are all part of the universe, and that no matter what happens, they’ll keep going, as they march back home accompanied by that transcendental music. It’s a deeply emotional ending to a very unusual and captivating film.
Take This Waltz (please) is the new Sarah Polley movie, the writer/director of Away From Her. She is also the writer/director here, perhaps not her strongest choice this time around. It’s about Margo (played by Michelle Williams) who is bored with her life and her marriage, which is actually understandable since she isn’t a particularly interesting person herself. She meets cute a neighbor, Daniel (played by Luke Kirby), and contemplates having an affair. And contemplates and contemplates and contemplates until you want to yell at the screen, “shit, or get off the pot, already”. There are actually two scenes in Take This Waltz that are very effective. One is a scene where Margo gets Daniel to follow her; not talk to her, not try to seduce her, just follow her. This seems to represent the sort of attention she would like to receive from her husband Lou (played by Seth Rogan, and in defense of Margot, he’s not Mr. Excitement either—he reminded me of Herbert Marshall in The Letter where you could understand Bette Davis taking a lover if this dull lump was her only alternative). The other scene takes place on a carnival ride where Margot and Daniel whirl around in breathless excitement to an incredibly upbeat song. And then in mid-song, the music and ride stops. This seems to symbolize Margot’s predicament, that life is made up of these exciting and even transcendental moments, but then they suddenly end and the dullness of existence comes crashing down around you. And when all is said and done, this does seem to be the point that Polley is trying to make, what the movie is suppose to be about. The problem is that Polley doesn’t really let us in on this idea until the last ten to fifteen minutes of the movie, which, I suggest, is perhaps not the best way to sell her theme. If this idea is what the movie is supposed to be about, then it seems that it should be the driving force of everything that happens. Instead, we’re subjected endlessly to Margot’s inner struggle as to whether she’s going to break the seventh commandment, which, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t that stimulating a topic to dwell on for four minutes short of two hours. What perhaps should be noted is that in the two scenes described above, no words are spoken, no lines exchanged. That may be one key as to why they are so effective. The dialog here is a bit bland, banal and not particularly memorable. And Williams, who has become a marvelous actor since moving away from that Creek she used to live near, delivers each of those lines by first making a face to indicate her dramatic intent and then saying the words, which is a bit too redundant for my taste. Sarah Silverman as Margot’s sister-in-law actually gives the most interesting performance, perhaps because she has the most interesting character to play, an alcoholic who falls off the wagon and rips Margot a good one. Polley has done better work with the movie Away From Her, a touching film about someone descending into Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the reason there is because she had better source material, an Alice Munroe story. Here, the script is totally Polly’s child and probably doesn’t show the director at her best.
The lead characters in The Amazing Spider-man are either characters in their mid-to-late twenties who. for some, odd unexplained reason (made even odder and more unexplained since both are suppose to be geniuses), have been held back and are still seniors in high school; or they’re played by two actors in their mid-to-late twenties frantically trying to act like high school students. My guess is the second, but either way, it’s not a pretty sight. Yes, guys, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, but I did not care for The Amazing Spider-man. In fact, I found it extremely painful, PAINFUL, to sit through. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker (aka you know who) and Emma Stone plays Gwen Stacy, the popular girl he’s in love with from afar. They approach their roles as if they are James Dean and Julie Harris in East of Eden, which was an effective choice in the context of that adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel, but here seems a choice arising more out of a desperation to hide the fact (to beat a dead horse) that they are waaaaay too old for the roles. The villain is played by Rhys Ifans, a bland and dull performance of a bland and dull character (so weak that it almost makes you forget just how good an actor he can be as demonstrated in such films as Notting Hill, Enduring Love and Greenburg). Other actors like Martin Sheen and Sally Fields fill out the roster. None of them embarrass themselves, but none really help the situation either. Perhaps the oddest character is a psychotic high schooler, Flash, played by Chris Zylka, as a jock driven by roid rage. The whole approach to bullying here is so 1990’s (Zylka gets away with bashing a guy hard enough he should be sent to the hospital, but Parker gets in trouble for just teasing the bully). What makes the situation incredibly ludicrous is that the movie actually gives this sociopath a pass on his behavior because he shows sympathy toward Parker after the death of his uncle. The plot, a new take on the original origin story of a boy bitten by an arachnid, has one nice twist: it tries to give a more convincing explanation for Parker’s transformation. Instead of just being bitten by a radioactive spider, he’s bitten by one that causes changes in the DNA that causes the host to take on qualities of the invader. Still, all in all, though certainly no worse than the original story, it’s definitely no better and at times feels as if it was written by someone who watched the X-Files a bit too much (hmm, they both have hyphens in the name—coincidence or government conspiracy?). The bite takes place at the Oscorp Building, a research lab with shockingly lax security. Stacy is there when Parker arrives. One of the conceits here is that Stacy and Parker are the number one and two eggheads at their school—yet neither seem to really know the other when they first come into contact at the beginning of the movie. The plot proceeds well enough, though the only really neat part of it are some scenes of reptiles flocking to the bad guy’s lair beneath the city and a stirring scene at the end when construction workers come to the rescue like the first responders at 9/11 by lining up a series of cranes to help Spider-man reach the bad guy. The metaphor for this final battle scene is of course that fateful day eleven years ago. As in The Avengers, New York is now the new Tokyo. It’s directed by Marc Webber. He’s the one who helmed the wonderful romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, which suggests that he can do better when he has better material to work with. It’s written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. They’ve all done better and I wish they’d go back to doing it; they’re above this sort of thing.
I really wish characters in movies would go to more movies so they wouldn’t do the stupid things that characters in movies do all the time. That’s the first thing I thought as I began to watch Easy Money, the new Swedish crime thriller, directed by Daniel Espinosa, written by Maria Karlsson, Hassan Loo Sattarvandi and Fredrik Wikstrom, and staring that guy from the American version of The Killing, Joel Kinnaman. It’s really about three people whose lives overlap during a drug smuggling operation. Kinnaman is JW, a brilliant business major who wants to be rich for no other reason than that he can hobnob with other rich people (you know the drill: The Great Gatsby, A Place in the Sun, Brideshead Revisited, The Talented Mr. Ripley). At that point he became the least interesting and least sympathetic person in the movie. His life soon takes a sour turn when he becomes involved with Jorge (Matias Varela), a prison escapee who is helping the local Hispanic immigrants take over the drug trade through a shipment from his brother in Germany; his goal is to take his part of the money and run off to South America. On the other side is steadfast soldier Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), a member of a local mob made up of Russian immigrants who don’t want the Hispanics moving in on their territory; when Mrado is saddled with his five year old daughter, he wants to take steps to make this his last assignment. JW is the beautiful looking Swedish born citizen caught in the middle. I don’t know if you can tell where this is going re the racial aspects of the situation, but I have to say I was a bit bothered by it in the same way I was with Oliver Stone’s Savages. JW has no real personality and as result resembles all those white actors who are cast in the leads in films about minorities because the producers think the movie will sell more tickets with a white lead. But here, like the main players in Savages, he plays the Aryan innocent in a country besieged by ruthless others, i.e., violent and amoral immigrants who are destroying the land who is hosting them. He is less guilty than the others not because he is less guilty, but because he has reasons for his bad choices while the others are just the way they are because, well, that’s just the way they are. In the movie’s defense, whenever the story focuses on Jorge and Mrado, it feels like there’s something fresh and even original here. They have fully realized characters with real and empathetic conflicts, both internal and external. But whenever the story focuses on JW (and boy, does it), it’s a pretty familiar one; he decides to help the Hispanics launder money using his business acumen (now what could possibly go wrong here) and the result is exactly what you think it will be, happening in exactly the way you think it will. (To paraphrase Claude Raines in Casablanca, I’m shocked, shocked, that getting involved in money laundering can lead to a bad end.) JW’s ending is dramatized as if it’s a tragedy, but that would be an insult to Shakespeare (it’s actually Jorge and Mrado who are the more Hamlety of the characters here, but it’s unclear that the writers and director realize that). On top of that JW has a girlfriend who sticks by him after everything goes wrong—perhaps the most ludicrous and unbelievable part of the story. There is one point where it looked like something really different was going to happen. JW comes up with a brilliant idea: take advantage of the bad economic times and buy a bank in order to launder money. When that happened, it really looked like the movie might take off in an exciting and original direction. But no. The characters make a deal on the bank and then…nothing, nada, zip; that through line is pretty much dropped. The direction by Espinosa is very flashy and full of hand held camera work and tons of editing. He does everything he can to make the rather routine story exciting, giving it the old “Orson Welles/Touch of Evil, I’ve got to do something to make this movie interesting because the story won’t do it” try. And you have to give him credit; he does keep things popping. And in the movie’s defense again, I should say that I do seem to be in the minority here. I went with a friend who loved it and its getting all sorts of rave reviews. But in the end, for a tragedy, I thought it was a bit too much at times full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I loved To Rome With Love. And before everyone goes all tweetery on me and starts ending me hate mail, I am fully aware that it has its faults. I don’t care. I loved it. To Rome With Love is really a portmanteau film, merely an excuse for writer/director Woody Allen to string together four separate stories. In this way, it’s more or less like his early film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. But whereas in …Stranger only one story really worked (that of Josh Brolin plagiarizing a friend’s novel when the friend went into a coma), all four stories in To Rome… had merit. Yes, there is a certain awkwardness to some of the plotting and parts of it could have used a bit more thinking through and may even feel rushed, but they all had their charm and a certain magic to them. The one that pretty much succeeds on its own terms and feels the most fully realized over all is the one with Woody Allen and Judy Davis (who spouts Allen’s bitchy lines with an Eve Arden heat seeking missile of a delivery) in a tale that feels like a short story that Allen would have written for the New Yorker. In it, he’s an ex-opera director who discovers a major tenor in the father of his future son-in-law. The problem is that the man can only sing beautifully in the shower. So Allen has to stage the singer’s performances in the style of Mary Martin performing I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair in South Pacific, with the end result an hysterical staging of Rigoletto. The second most successful story concerns two honeymooners, innocents from a small town, who find themselves not only seduced by Moma Roma itself, but the man by a prostitute (a very funny Penelope Cruz) and the woman first almost by a movie actor, but then all the way by a hotel thief (you had to be there) in a plot that feels a bit more than borrowed from Federico Fellini’s movie The White Sheik. The best performance is probably given by Roberto Benigni as an everyman who finds himself suddenly, out of nowhere, and for no explainable reason, famous for being famous. The start is a bit clunky and the idea is obvious, but Benigni is a riot. The least successful, but perhaps most interesting, is Alec Baldwin (somewhat type cast as a somewhat rueful architect) who once lived in Rome. He meets a young man (Jessie Eisenberg), also an architect, who just happens to be going through the same romantic crisis that Baldwin went through at the same age. The dialog and philosophical tete a tetes feel a bit dated and very Annie Hallish, and Baldwin’s integration into the story is not well thought out. It should have been better, but it also has its moments. The stories all seem unified not just by location, but by theme. If feels as if Allen is saying that maybe it’s better to not achieve one’s goals, that perhaps in life one would be happier and more at peace if one settled for a simpler life. In the end, only the Allen character really gets what he wants (staging the perfect opera), but it’s an illusion. He doesn’t realize that he is actually being ridiculed by his peers.
I’m not sure what I’m suppose to make of Alma, the central character of writer and director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s study of adolescent sexual awakening. I’m also not sure it’s totally my fault. Alma (played with youthful angst by Helene Bergsholm) is the victim of one of those typical high school misunderstandings. She has this thing for fellow classmate Artur and at a party she goes outside to wait for him. When he appears, he doesn’t talk to her, but suddenly, out of nowhere, he takes out his erect penis and pokes her with it (awkward). She then tells best friend and resident mean girl, who also has a thing for Artur. When Artur denies it, Alma finds herself as outcast as Hester Prynne. Don’t you just hate when that happens? Anyway, the reason I’m not sure what I’m to make of Alma is that there seems to be two through lines here. The first is the aforementioned being pricked by a prick with his prick (not bad, huh?). The other more closely resembles a Scandinavian remake of Shame with a high school girl in the Michael Fassbender role. When Alma isn’t being shunned, she’s racking up enormous phone bills having phone sex with an on-line service while masturbating on her kitchen floor; has increasingly wild sexual fantasies, one while manning a cash register at a store, publicly using a roll of coins to help her achieve orgasm; and stealing porn magazines. When her mother confronts her, she just says she’s horny. Okay, fair enough. But one almost gets the idea that we’re suppose to think that Alma is just going through a typical teenage phase. But the problem isn’t her interest in sex; that is normal. What makes her life seen more like the movie Shame is her inability, not her choice, but her inability to be discreet about it. In the last third of the movie, Alma, having had enough and getting no support, takes off for Oslo to meet the sister of the mean girl, who is in college, in order to get advice. At this point, Alma’s sexual addiction is dropped as if it never existed and suddenly the movie becomes incredibly sweet and even moving. The college kids take her very seriously (something no one else will do), mainly by making her realize how trivial what has happened to her will seem in a few years when she also goes away. Now that she’s seen her future, she’s able to return home and take control of the present. It’s a nice ending to a perplexing beginning.
I also had a difficult time getting into Andre Techine’s Unforgivable, but I would like to mount a defense. The story revolves around a writer of Gothic thrillers whose daughter very quickly disappears whereupon he hires a private investigator to find out what happened. I’m sorry. I really, really thought, based on this, that I was involved in a film noir. Instead, as became clear toward the end of the movie, the rambling feel of the plot and the lack of any central through line was not due to the writers’ failure (screenplay by Techine and Mehda Ben Attia) to focus on the mystery. It was because there was never a mystery in the first place. Instead, Unforgivable is more an ensemble character study of a group of people whose lives intersect at the same time as in his earlier film The Witnesses. But by the time I figured this out, the film was almost over and it was just too late to switch gears. My bad, I guess. Techine is one of my favorite French directors and is responsible for such films as Wild Reeds, Alice and Martin, Scene of the Crime and the aforementioned The Witnesses. But this one left me cold, the only scene that startled and unnerved me was a vicious and pointless act of cruelty toward a dog, a “that’ll teach that fag basher a lesson” moment (not sure about the owner, but that dog certainly did learn a thing or two—or would of if he had made it through alive). In the end, the movie does have Techine’s strengths, fully developed characters at an internal crossroads in their lives and strong acting. But it just never came together for me.
There is a wonderful, improvisational quality to the delivery of the dialog in the new Channing Tatum vehicle, Magic Mike. It feels well rehearsed and made up on the spot at the same time and is probably the best thing about this somewhat familiar cautionary tale about the dangers of male stripping (though this virtue is very quickly overshadowed by the pulchritudinous displays by most of the central characters). Tatum plays the title role Mike, a role tailored made for him, which makes sense since it’s based on an episode in his life when he was but a wee lad in a g-string. Mike is an entrepreneur with his fingers in a few too many…enterprises (you thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you?), hoping to finally be able to devote his time to his true love—custom made furniture. But oft laid plans of mice and men, etc., etc. The morality is Christian by way of Cecil B. DeMille. It comes down heavily against sex, drugs and rock and roll, but before it does, it makes sure we experience plenty of it (probably so that we’ll know it when we see it and will, thereby, be able to avoid it) until our dancing fool of a hero has his road to Damascus conversion. It’s a fun and entertaining movie if you don’t take it too seriously. The director Steven Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin does plenty of that for us so we don’t have to bother. The women in the strip club audience may go wild over the performers, but there’s no joy in the dancers themselves who go through their routines with blank, bland faces. And there’s no joy in the leathery skin of the exploitive club’s manager played with his usual over the top gusto by Mathew McConaughey. Even the scenery is downbeat. It’s the dog days of summer, but whenever anyone goes outside it looks as if it’s about to rain. Soderbergh, doubling as cinematographer, has made sure to film everything with a storm is brewing overcast (metaphor much?). Soderbergh may be the Michael Curtiz of our time. He isn’t be a great director, but he knows how to get the job done. And he delivers. As does Tatum. This is perhaps his best performance since A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints; it really caters to his strength, a Mark Wahlburg type underplaying. And he’s a wonderful dancer. See the movie, leave the singles at home.