Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday at the Movies - July 30, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-Eight of “Monday at the Movies.”  A few romantic comedies on tap this week, plus a film so disturbing I feel uncomfortable saying I enjoyed it.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) – A long, long time ago, I directed readers to an essay by David Bordwell in which he draws the distinction between an excellent film and a film that is to one’s liking.  I invoke Bordwell here because I think he might be the key to my take on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; it’s a great film, certainly, excellent by technical standards and one of Kubrick’s more accomplished films, but it’s entirely different to “like” on a purely evaluative level.  For one, its protagonist Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell in the epitome of a career-making performance) is a brutal sadist who spends his evenings raping and engaging in “ultra-violence.”  Perhaps worse, Kubrick’s filmmaking attempts to get us to sympathize with – and even like – Alex, a disconcerting premise once you realize what’s afoot.  I’m probably in the minority on this one, but I usually find Kubrick a bit... boring; Dr. Strangelove is, I admit, genius, but I’ve never been able to watch 2001 or The Shining in one sitting because they seem plodding and aimless – which may be the point, perhaps, but they’re just not “to my liking.”  (The first hour of Full Metal Jacket, though, is brilliant.)  But here Kubrick displays his ability to keep a scene moving even if the camera is stationary, and though much of the film is repulsive on a moral level, it’s transfixing on an aesthetic one, helped in no small part by the quirky yet unspeakably evil performance McDowell turns in.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – I’m on record as not being the world’s biggest Steve Carell fan, and Crazy, Stupid, Love does very little to swing me in the other direction.  Which is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable – halfway far from it.  I say halfway because there are really two movies going on in Crazy, Stupid, Love (one, it seems for each unnecessary comma in the title):  in one, divorcee Steve Carell tries life without his wife Julianne Moore, while in the other his womanizing wingman Ryan Gosling reforms his ways after meeting girl-of-his-dreams Emma Stone.  As is usually the case with these kinds of films, it’s the latter plot, the supporting one, that succeeds far more than the former.  The problem, perhaps, is that Carell is too real as a man who’s had his heart ripped out; just when the supposed comedy is getting to the funny bits, Carell mopes into frame with his sad-sack character to remind us just how miserable he is.  It’s a shame, because Gosling and Stone are so talented and so charismatic together that one wishes for a movie revolving solely around them.  As a consequence of being so schizophrenic, the film’s message is a mixed one – is love possible or not?  Or is it merely difficult but worthwhile?  If the latter, tell me something I don’t know.  Aside from the Gosling/Stone scenes, I will credit the film with a rather clever third act twist, something I didn’t know to see coming.

Friends with Benefits (2011) – Remember that time that the two leads from Black Swan starred in separate movies about casual sex?  I certainly do, but after seeing Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached (with an uninspiring Ashton Kutcher as her co-lead) I wasn’t exactly ready to join Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits.  Turns out the joke was on me, because Friends with Benefits is by far the better of this odd couple.  Director Will Gluck, who made such a winner out of Easy A with Emma Stone, creates a solidly funny film here, which is by and large victorious thanks to the infectious chemistry between Kunis and Timberlake; their characters are likeable from the first, and – pivotally for a comedy film – they’re funny, too.  Also back from Easy A is Patricia Clarkson, who reprises her role as the kooky and sexually liberated mother, this time of Kunis’s character.  The only part of the equation that doesn’t fit is Richard Jenkins as Timberlake’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, whose outbursts lead not to comic relief but to unexpectedly heartfelt pathos.  While the film falls prey to the clichés of the romantic comedy genre, it does so more credibly than No Strings Attached, without asking us to cry for the protagonists when their bizarre experiment complicates itself.  Wisely, the film remembers that we have to like our characters in order to want to see them together, and Gluck and company – particularly his leads – achieve both by leaps and bounds.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The most unfortunate thing about The Amazing Spider-Man, Marc Webb’s reboot starring Andrew Garfield as the titular web-slinger, is that it wasn’t released in a different year.  In any other year, you might have been reading a very different review of this film, but as a superhero film released in 2012, The Amazing Spider-Man stands between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises – easily two of the best superhero movies of all time – and the comparison makes The Amazing Spider-Man’s faults all the more apparent.

Not that it’s a bad film, by any stretch of the imagination.  We’re not looking at another Batman & Robin or even Superman III; in fact, it’s even better than the last two-thirds of Spider-Man 3.  There is much that The Amazing Spider-Man does right, but it’s bogged down by pulled punches and an overreliance on attempting to distance itself from the Raimi trilogy.

From frame one, the focus is on Peter Parker (Garfield) and not Spider-Man; we learn more about his parents, who died under mysterious circumstances, and he doesn’t don the costume for what feels like a very long time (more on that later).  He romances classmate and science intern Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in what must be the most awkward courtship ever while Oscorp’s desperate herpetologist Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) seeks to stabilize his reptilian vaccination against human weakness.

In a post-Dark Knight Rises world, remembering the value of hope, I’m going to close this review with a consideration of what succeeds in The Amazing Spider-Man, but first, the bad news.

First and foremost, the film feels overly long; at two hours and sixteen minutes, it’s the shortest of the Big Three this summer (The Avengers 2:23 and The Dark Knight Rises 2:47), but it doesn’t feel like it, mostly because the film takes a very long time to get started.  While there is much about the film that is original, a lot of it feels very familiar; it’s only been ten years since the first Spider-Man film, and though there are minor changes to the origin story it’s mostly intact from before.  You can even see the filmmakers trying to swim around the original when Uncle Ben (played with quiet graceful authority, as always, by Martin Sheen) talks in circuitous language in an attempt not to say the exact words “With great power comes great responsibility.”  While the film, as a remake, can’t rely on what went before, the attempts to distance itself focus too much on cosmetic details and not on retelling the story in a significant way.

As a consequence of this over-familiarity, the film feels as though nothing’s happening.  The interesting plotline of Richard and May Parker is abandoned early on, apparently on reserve for a sequel; while I understand the desire to build a franchise, this thread might have sufficiently distanced Webb’s interpretation from Raimi’s, as the Parkers were entirely absent from the earlier trilogy.  Instead we get an Uncle Ben who’s only in the film to die; Sheen, though as good a choice as Cliff Roberston, is an actor whose skill is squandered.  (As Aunt May, Sally Field is an expected disappointment; her teary performance feels stilted and a poor substitute for the moving Rosemary Harris.)  Similarly, the Curt Connors plotline is only interesting insofar as the audience knows he’s going to become The Lizard; audiences who aren’t aware of this plotbeat don’t have any foreshadowing to lean on and may wonder why we’re spending so much time with a one-armed scientist who knows less about the Parkers than Peter thinks he does.

It’s a quest narrative that is abandoned not only by its storytellers but by its protagonist.  The film is set up as the story of Peter’s attempts to understand his parents, but when the film stops looking for answers so does Peter.  In this respect it’s an even bigger cop-out than the ending of Prometheus – at least in that film someone was still interested in the questions that incited the plot in the first place.

In many ways, the comparison to Prometheus is apt because The Amazing Spider-Man, too, is a weak story told extremely well.  Aside from the disorienting POV shots that seem designed to sell videogames rather than put us in Spidey’s shoes, Andrew Garfield is pitch-perfect as Peter Parker and as Spider-Man, capturing the teenager’s innate awkwardness but eminent likeability while also mastering the graceful body language of the hero, in flight and fight; he puts the friendly back in "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."  You won’t be surprised to hear that my opinion of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is similarly high; it’s no wonder she’s Peter’s first great love, a connection fostered not by the script they’re given but by the chemistry they develop.  It’s perhaps too convenient that she’s an intern at the one place where a friend of Spider-Man is needed, but she ably executes her main function in the script – the love interest, the damsel sans distress (she saves Spidey’s keister at least twice in moments that mercifully don’t feel shoehorned in by the PC Police).

As for Ifans, he’s an oddball choice by virtue of being a master oddball.  His descent into schizophrenia – in which Webb finally masters a comic book’s use of internal dialogue by employing voiceover smartly – recalls his expertly creepy turn in Enduring Love, and his scenes as The Lizard (assisted, of course, by CGI) create a foe that is successfully unlike anything from the Raimi trilogy.  While The Lizard was teased by the appearance of Dylan Baker as Dr. Connors in the Raimi films, this Lizard is a foe worth fighting, with a bizarre plan that never feels out-of-place thanks to the film’s clear translation that the once-good doctor is losing his mind.

And Marc Webb, known for his directorial debut on (500) Days of Summer, demonstrates that he’s aptly named, since he gets inside of Spider-Man’s head and directs the action in an efficient manner.  He handles the romantic plot better in some ways, since the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is so tangible that it salvages a somewhat clumsy and unenthusiastic screenplay in that regard.  While it’s hard not to get a good movie out of one as well-performed as this one, it’s significant that Webb’s only apparent misstep is the odd and uneven use of POV shots when Spidey swings into action; perhaps these looked better in 3D, but that’s a remark a film reviewer should never have to make.

Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man is too many films for its own good; the Parkers’ past and the origin story are neglected and uninspiring, respectfully, while The Lizard’s arc is the best of the three but is introduced as a distraction before becoming the main plot.  But none of these films are told poorly; the actors are gifted, the effects dazzling.  What redeems this film is that it’s just good enough to suggest that a sequel might be truly great; now that the obligatory ground has been walked, the franchise can move in a new direction with a cast that embodies Stan Lee’s original stories perhaps better than Raimi’s crew ever did.

Who knows?  When all’s said and done, the sequel could even rival Spider-Man 2.
The Amazing Spider-Man is rated PG-13 “for sequences of action and violence.”  The action sequences are more personal here than before, with large slashes and cuts rendered in each combatant’s body in bloody but not graphic detail.  Some of The Lizard’s transformations might be frightening to younger folk, but overall the film is bloodier than Raimi’s work.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday at the Movies - July 23, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-Seven of “Monday at the Movies.” After a Batman-heavy week last week, we’re going to shift gears dramatically this week and spend the day with a few animated Superman movies, all adapted from recent comics storylines (all of which are worth reading).

All-Star Superman (2011) – This is a difficult film for me to review, and so I’ll say up front that your results may vary.  I’m a huge fan of the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely series from which this film is adapted, and the film is a very faithful adaptation with many of the book’s highlights included (my favorite, alas, didn’t make the cut).  That said, I recognize that the film has structural problems endemic to the source material; rather than a unified story, the film feels like a series of vignettes starring the same characters.  There’s an ongoing plot holding the vignettes together – Superman is dying – but viewers may be turned off by the somewhat fragmented storytelling (though, again, the late Dwayne McDuffie did a marvelous job adapting the 12-issue source material).  While this isn’t the classic voice cast we know and love (see the last two reviews of this post), James Denton is surprisingly heartfelt as the Man of Steel, embodying the heavy emotional burden that comes with being a dying savior, while Anthony LaPaglia does a Lex Luthor dripping with hatred for his enemy; LaPaglia is no Clancy Brown, but he’s a solid fill-in.  The surprise success, though, is Christina Hendricks as Lois Lane, who handles the character’s trademark snark with aplomb but, like Denton, hits the pathos when needed.  And for a superhero film that brings a tear to the corner of your eye, All-Star Superman might just be the most successful Superman movie of our lifetime.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)Public Enemies is iconic in every sense of the word, and while I wasn’t overly enamored with it the first time I saw it, I’ve found a lot to appreciate in a film that is far more than the mere slugfest for which I initially mistook it.  This film reunites Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy as Superman and Batman, the first extended team-up since 1996’s The Batman/Superman Movie; for good measure, Clancy Brown returns as President Lex Luthor, who uses his new political power to seek revenge against his caped foes when a Kryptonite meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere.  I could spend pages falling over in a dead faint over the strength of the voice cast, but if you’ve read my blog for more than a day you know that for me these are, simply put, the definitive voices of the DC Universe.  Adapted from the Jeph Loeb/Ed McGuinness series, Public Enemies is admittedly light on plot, with waves of supervillains assaulting our costumed protagonists, and a few plotlines have been streamlined for the abbreviated direct-to-video format (gone is any mention of Batman reopening his parents’ murder).  But what the film lacks in narrative substance, it makes up in thematic depth.  This film – especially the first twenty or so minutes – gets at the heart of the modern Superman/Batman team-up story by showing how unlikely it is that these two radically different types would ever work together, then demonstrating just why the partnership works.  It’s one built on mutual respect and understanding – perhaps begrudgingly so at times, on Batman’s part – and the chemistry between Daly and Conroy atones for any of the film’s missteps.  It’s unlikely we’ll see these two on the big screen any time soon, but Public Enemies fills that spot nicely.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010) Apocalypse is misleading, and consequently disappointing, on several very important levels.  In short, Apocalypse is a sequel to Public Enemies that picks up on the Kryptonite meteor, revealed to contain another survivor from Superman’s doomed homeworld – his cousin Supergirl.  For one, what seems like executive sexism prompted the title to be changed from Superman/Batman: Supergirl, which is a shame because the original title much more accurately reflected what the film truly is – a Superman film in which Big Blue meets his Kryptonian cousin with Batman caught in the middle; Batman’s very much a supporting player in this film until the very end, so the inclusion of Supergirl might come as a surprise to unsuspecting viewers.  Secondly, the film goes to great lengths to reunite Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy with Susan Eisenberg as Wonder Woman, but principal villain Darkseid is voiced by newcomer Andre Braugher, who brings almost no gravitas or personality to the role.  Indeed, Braugher is barely threatening as the ostensible god of evil, a sad step down from Michael Ironside’s voice as gravelly as the mad god’s craggy face.  As for Summer Glau as Supergirl, she’s spunky and endearing, and the film gratefully straightens out the murky origin she had in the comics; it’s just a shame that she didn’t have a better vehicle to headline as the Maid of Steel.  What we have is perfectly serviceable and not a colossal waste of time like Superman: Doomsday, but it likely won’t hold much for viewers who aren’t already fans of the source material.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!  But stay tuned for Wednesday's review (finally) of The Amazing Spider-Man!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Heroes, Hope, and The Dark Knight Rises

I had fully intended yesterday’s spoiler-free review of The Dark Knight Rises to be the final entry in my unofficial “Nolan Week,” but the recent events in Colorado – and the subsequent media coverage of the tragedy – have made it clear that the discussion of the film and its importance to American culture is far from over.

I am not writing a news piece; I was not there.  I am not writing a vitriolic condemnation; it is superfluous.  I am not purporting to know the truth; likely, sadly, it cannot be known.  But what is known is this:  without trivializing the events in Aurora, filmgoers were attacked by a man who represents everything that The Dark Knight Rises asks us to reject – tyranny, terrorism, and hopelessness.

I wish to be empirically clear.  I do not wish to claim that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a tool to combat such evil (I will not name him – his alleged alias, “The Joker,” tells us all we need to know about this madman).  Rather, these events illustrate in a very tangible and tragic way the precise “point” of the trilogy, which the media in its bloodlust has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.  Again, I do not wish to belittle by this comparison; rather, I want to explore the ways in which media coverage of the events in Aurora entirely overlook the reality of this devastating moment.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) -- Spoiler Free

I mused yesterday about whether or not Christopher Nolan could create a successful and fully realized trilogy – something no superhero director, for one reason or another, has been able to do.  After attending a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, the verdict is in.

He has.

In many ways, I would have been able to write the bulk of this review without ever having seen the film.  I was expecting to gush.  I was anticipating that feeling of being blown away.  I had few (if any) doubts in the back of my mind.  And ordinarily a film which fulfills expectations might ultimately be a disappointment.  But when expectations are this high, merely meeting them is worth the price of admission.

And The Dark Knight Rises, impossible as it may seem, even exceeds expectations.  One might even say it “rises” to the challenge.

I’ll forego the usual plot summary in deference to the cloud of secrecy and spoiler embargoes necessitated by our digital age (even our late night talk shows were thought to be dangerous).  Suffice it to say that The Dark Knight Rises joins Gotham eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, eight years after Batman entered a self-imposed exile, and just as new foes are rising to threaten the very foundations of Gotham City and its new era of peace.

Of the performances, I can only quote the words of Stan Lee – “Excelsior!”  Bale bears the bulk of the film – no surprise here, since he’s playing the eponymous Knight; as has been the case with the past two films in “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” the focus is as much (if not more so) on Bruce Wayne as on Batman.  His character evolves without ever feeling forced to do so, his quest both understandable and relatable, and his return to the Batsuit a welcome and applause-worthy moment.

Bale’s backed by a cast that doesn’t disappoint.  The old favorites – Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon – continue to turn in solid performances.  Bonus credit to Caine, who manages to do create (particularly in two specific scenes) a real and accessible version of the trusty butler that hasn’t been reached in the character’s seventy-year history.  More than just the snarky chauffeur or stolid voice of reason, Caine’s Alfred is a friend first, as much a father as Thomas Wayne was, and we feel his agony when he sees what Bruce has allowed himself to become.

As for the new faces, they’re welcome additions to the cast.  I see now why we needed so many new faces, and I’m glad especially that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was among them.  His John Blake is easily the most interesting new protagonist (more on the villains later), embodying many of the film’s – and trilogy’s – main themes without ever feeling shoehorned into an already full film.  I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again:  JGL is bound for stardom (if he’s not there already), and The Dark Knight Rises is another fantastic line on the résumé.

But after Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as The Joker, can the film’s villains surpass the decade’s most iconic force of evil?  Honestly, probably not, but Tom Hardy’s Bane and Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (note that the name “Catwoman” is surprisingly never invoked) aren’t trying to outdo their predecessor.  Rather, they create entirely new – and gratefully fresh – versions of significant members of the Batman mythos.  More surprising than Hardy’s Bane is what Anne Hathaway manages to do with Selina; it’s a performance I didn’t quite know she had in her, managing to distinguish herself from the Catwomen before her with breathy intonations and evident internal conflict.  Bane, however, is head-to-toe conviction; though he’s given the unenviable task of emoting with much of his face obscured, Hardy manages to convey through his body language the smug self-satisfaction and confident physical dexterity for which his character is known.  (A fuller take on his voice remains to be seen; though it has been lampooned ad infinitum, I suspect my theater’s audio system wasn’t equipped for the booming bass of the film, and so I’ll have more thoughts on that later.)

But what’s most remarkable about The Dark Knight Rises is not the able work delivered by qualified thespians.  The greatest compliment I can pay the film is to repeat what I’ve already said time and time again – Christopher Nolan is a master storyteller who wastes not a frame of film in delivering his definitive statement on the character and what he means.  As before, The Dark Knight Rises is filled with moments that tie together and layer new meaning on important scenes; conversely, perhaps the worst thing I can say about the film is that it doesn’t stand on its own as well as The Dark Knight did.  Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises is very closely related to Batman Begins, revisiting moments and referencing plot beats in a way that echoes without plagiarizing.  But as the final installment in the trilogy (and not just a sequel, as The Dark Knight was initially envisioned), Nolan rewards his viewers just as Lucius Fox was rewarded in The Dark Knight for his faith in Batman’s mission.

If Batman Begins could be distilled to a meditation on overcoming fear, and if The Dark Knight can be said to be a film about defeating the forces of chaos and conquering fear which has escalated into weaponized terror, The Dark Knight Rises is about precisely that – about rising, about overcoming once more.  But here Nolan makes explicit what’s been suggested all along:  the greatest heroism in the world is born through hope, both the hope that an individual can make a difference and that that difference will be a positive one.  And though I’m much more attached to films which engage me on a cerebral level – which this film does, unequivocally – The Dark Knight Rises also makes me feel, deep inside of me, that there is always hope.  It’s a film that made me shed a few tears for a variety of reasons – finality, sorrow, ecstasy, unrestrained jubilation – and it’s a credit to Christopher Nolan that I do not begrudge him a single salty drop.  He has earned it.
The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.”  Violence and all-out action sequences are prevalent as before but are almost entirely bloodless, though Bane’s methods and physicality are more brutal than we’ve seen in the trilogy thus far.  There is one clearly implied sexual encounter, with no more than bare shoulders, while another character is implied to be a prostitute; Selina is extremely sultry and uses that to her advantage, without transgressing beyond an astonishingly tight suit.  Language is mostly tame and is probably PG-quality taken on its own.

Rest assured, loyal readers, I haven’t said my last words on The Dark Knight Rises.  I saw The Dark Knight eight times in theaters, and I am certain repeat viewings of this film will come in the days to follow.  And once the statute of limitations on spoilers has been lifted, I’ll give more in-depth comments on specific moments in the film and the thematic importance of the trilogy as a whole.  Stay tuned, loyal readers – we return on Monday with our regularly-scheduled “Monday at the Movies” post!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Top Ten Reasons I'm Excited for "The Dark Knight Rises"

Back in 2008, on the eve of The Dark Knight, I posted a "Top Ten Fears about The Dark Knight," a tongue-in-cheek listing of absurd fears about the upcoming film.  A lot's changed in four years, and I'm a much more optimistic person than I was then.

And so, twelve hours before I'll be in line for The Dark Knight Rises, and in recognition of the fact that I've become a kinder, gentler Cinema King, here's a more optimistic - and more extensive - Top Ten List, this time about the reasons I'm excited for The Dark Knight Rises.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Armrest Review - The Dark Knight, Part Three

Welcome to another edition of “Armrest Reviews,” a new series in which I, The Cinema King, will partner up with a fellow filmgoer to review films as we watch them.  That’s right, we’ll be writing our unexpurgated observations as we watch the film, meaning you could theoretically read the review while watching the movie and “watch along” with us.

A further welcome back for the final part of our Armrest Review of The Dark Knight, the middle entry in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy."  As before, I’m joined by The Popcorn Prince, who’s been watching movies for almost as long as I have.  He’s a big Batman fan, so I’m pleased to have him by my side for the next installment of this series.

Armrest Review - The Dark Knight, Part Two

Welcome to another edition of “Armrest Reviews,” a new series in which I, The Cinema King, will partner up with a fellow filmgoer to review films as we watch them.  That’s right, we’ll be writing our unexpurgated observations as we watch the film, meaning you could theoretically read the review while watching the movie and “watch along” with us.

A further welcome back for the second part of our Armrest Review of The Dark Knight, the middle entry in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy."  As before, I’m joined by The Popcorn Prince, who’s been watching movies for almost as long as I have.  He’s a big Batman fan, so I’m pleased to have him by my side for the next installment of this series.  

Armrest Review - The Dark Knight, Part One

Welcome to another edition of “Armrest Reviews,” a new series in which I, The Cinema King, will partner up with a fellow filmgoer to review films as we watch them.  That’s right, we’ll be writing our unexpurgated observations as we watch the film, meaning you could theoretically read the review while watching the movie and “watch along” with us.

I’m joined again by The Popcorn Prince, who’s been watching movies for almost as long as I have.  He’s a big Batman fan, so I’m pleased to have him by my side once more.  For today’s Armrest Review, we’ll be watching The Dark Knight, the middle – and perhaps greatest – installment in The Dark Knight Trilogy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Armrest Review - Batman Begins, Part Three

Welcome to the first edition of “Armrest Reviews,” a new series in which I, The Cinema King, will partner up with a fellow filmgoer to review films as we watch them.  That’s right, we’ll be writing our unexpurgated observations as we watch the film, meaning you could theoretically read the review while watching the movie and “watch along” with us.

A further welcome back for the final part of our Armrest Review of Batman Begins, the first entry in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy."  As before, I’m joined by The Popcorn Prince, who’s been watching movies for almost as long as I have.  He’s a big Batman fan, so I’m pleased to have him by my side for the next installment of this series.  

Armrest Review - Batman Begins, Part Two

Welcome to the first edition of “Armrest Reviews,” a new series in which I, The Cinema King, will partner up with a fellow filmgoer to review films as we watch them.  That’s right, we’ll be writing our unexpurgated observations as we watch the film, meaning you could theoretically read the review while watching the movie and “watch along” with us.

A further welcome back for the second part of our Armrest Review of Batman Begins, the first entry in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy."  As before, I’m joined by The Popcorn Prince, who’s been watching movies for almost as long as I have.  He’s a big Batman fan, so I’m pleased to have him by my side for the next installment of this series.

Armrest Review - Batman Begins, Part One

Welcome to the first edition of “Armrest Reviews,” a new series in which I, The Cinema King, will partner up with a fellow filmgoer to review films as we watch them.  That’s right, we’ll be writing our unexpurgated observations as we watch the film, meaning you could theoretically read the review while watching the movie and “watch along” with us.

I’m joined by The Popcorn Prince, who’s been watching movies for almost as long as I have.  He’s a big Batman fan, so I’m pleased to have him by my side for the debut of this series.  For today’s Armrest Review, we’ll be watching Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, the first installment in The Dark Knight Trilogy.

Cinema King:  As the opening titles come on – no credits here, no time to waste before the movie begins – a big welcome to The Popcorn Prince.  Prince, glad to have you.

Popcorn Prince:  Thanks, King.  Truly an honor to help debut a new series.  I’ve only seen this movie a few times, so it’s good to go back right before the new movie comes out.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Monday at the Movies - July 16, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-Six of “Monday at the Movies.” With The Dark Knight Rises only five days away, we’re kicking off a week of exciting content focused around Christopher Nolan, the man behind this generation’s definitive interpretation of the Batman mythos.  Throughout the week we’ll be looking at the trilogy, but today let’s take a few minutes to revisit the body of work which preceded “The Dark Knight Trilogy.”

On the docket for this installment of “Monday at the Movies,” we have reviews of the three Christopher Nolan films not yet covered on this site; we also have links to coverage of films we’ve already reviewed so you can see our assessment of each film in context.  Happy reading!

 Following (1998) – I was in disbelief that I’d never seen Christopher Nolan’s first film, recognizing that it was high time I patch that hole in my cinematic CV.  Following introduces many of the classic Nolan characteristics – nonlinear smart writing which plays with the audience’s expectation and understanding, obsessed characters who dress stylishly, moral ambiguity – and uses them without the disappointing incapacity of an underdeveloped filmmaker.  Bill (Jeremy Theobald) is an aspiring writer who begins following pedestrians for inspiration, but the game is turned when he follows Cobb (Alex Haw, of no relation to Dom Cobb from Inception), a burglar who enlists Bill’s help in a few break-ins.  In classic Nolan fashion, the film functions much like a puzzle box, with at least three distinct timeframes narrated simultaneously and disorienting the viewer.  The film begins somewhat slowly, with Theobald’s narration a bit less than inspiring (though still leagues better than Kevin Costner’s in Dances with Wolves), but once Cobb enters the picture things become vastly more interesting, in part because Haw is both charismatic and enigmatic and because many of the twists in Nolan’s screenplay revolve around Cobb’s real motivations.  The film is, unfortunately, very short (69 minutes, including credits), and I can’t help feeling that the film would have been stronger with 20 more minutes; while the structure is similar to that of Memento, the final twist ending has none of the weight of Memento’s, mostly because the film answers all our questions.  The ending may be neater than we’ve come to expect, but Following is one of the strongest first films I’ve ever seen, sharp and slender.

Memento (2000)
Insomnia (2002) – Christopher Nolan’s only remake and only directorial outing for which he didn’t also write the screenplay, Insomnia is also the least Nolan-esque Nolan film, but if it’s the least successful film on today’s list it’s still far and away better than a lot of what Hollywood has to offer.  But let’s be clear – Insomnia is not a bad movie; it’s a taut psychological thriller grounded in strong performances.  But I’m having trouble seeing it as a Christopher Nolan film.  There are no Nolan regulars here – Al Pacino stars as Detective Will Dormer, a homicide expert investigating an Alaskan murder with the help of Hilary Swank, while the killer (Robin Williams in classic creepy form) taunts him from afar.  The film, like every Nolan film, is about obsession, both the killer’s obsession with his victim and Dormer’s obsession with closing the case; the Alaskan setting, however, becomes the focus of the film as it begins to weigh on Dormer’s psyche, impairing his ability to sleep and ultimately function as a human being.  Rather than utilize a structure which forces the audience into a character’s shoes, Insomnia opts to represent as starkly as possible Dormer’s deteriorating consciousness; it’s a fine distinction, to be sure, but it proves how deft a filmmaker Nolan really is.  It’s comparably easier to confuse an audience while a character is confused, but it’s a bit more difficult to craft a film in such a way that we feel Dormer’s insomnia without staying up for five nights in a row.  And Nolan does what few have been able to do in the last decade – elicit a solid performance from Pacino.

Batman Begins (2005)

The Prestige (2006) – Before Inception, this was the film that made me think the hardest, and it’s guaranteed to leave you scratching your noodle.  Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play rival magicians bound up in a cycle of revenge and one-upsmanship with the women in their lives (Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, and Scarlett Johansson) and their mutual assistant (the ever-avuncular Michael Caine) caught in the middle.  With The Prestige, Nolan returns to interwoven chronologies in a story that warns you in advance to be on guard for a twist – “the prestige,” the moment in a magic act when the magician performs the unexpected.  But what the film doesn’t tell you (and it won’t be spoiling anything to do so) is that there are multiple prestiges in the film, at least one for each of the three acts of the film with several right at the end.  It’s ingenious storytelling, regardless of what you think of the story itself; while some complained that the twists were “unfair” or “unintelligible,” Nolan continually reinvents the film to prevent us the filmgoers from ever getting too far ahead of the protagonists.  In this way, Nolan proves himself a master of “movie magic” (whatever that is), expertly controlling what we see and don’t see, leaving us to puzzle out not “who” and “why” like most thrillers but instead forcing us to wonder “how” – how the magician does his trick, how the story will end, and how two hours can whiz by so quickly.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Inception (2010)

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week for more brief reviews, but don’t forget to stick around for tomorrow’s debut installment of an exciting new series – “Armrest Reviews” – in which we’ll reassess Batman Begins on the eve of the trilogy’s final installment.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday at the Movies - July 10, 2012

A day late but not a dollar short (since we’re still free of charge), welcome to Week Twenty-Five of “Monday at the Movies,” in which I pregame for The Amazing Spider-Man with Emma Stone and the latter two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.  (I reviewed Spider-Man [2002] back in May 2008.)

Easy A (2010) – There are some movie stars who can carry a film solely on charisma.  Perhaps the newest face in this crowd (which includes such personalities as Denzel Washington, Judi Dench, and Samuel L. Jackson) is Emma Stone who, while making her big debut in Superbad, garnered international attention for Easy A, a take-off on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in which Olive Penderghast (Stone) becomes the talk of her high school after a rumor about her romantic escapades takes on a life of its own.  I’m a sucker for literary updates (most of the time, at least, but I make no apologies for digging Twelfth Night by way of She’s the Man), and here the story works because it doesn’t use Hawthorne as a crutch but rather winks at the relationship and self- references itself in a clever way; a similar relationship with the John Hughes canon is fostered, as well, and the comparison is a successful one.  But as for charisma, Stone is insanely charming, extraordinarily gorgeous, and unceasingly hilarious as Olive; if the script is campy, it’s on her shoulders that the film succeeds.  Credit, too, should go to the supporting cast, which includes Stanley Tucci as Olive’s scene-stealing father, Thomas Haden Church as her favorite and most sympathetic teacher, and Amanda Bynes as the school’s antagonistic “Jesus freak,” an inverse Penny Pingleton.  Though the film relies on Olive’s webcam as a narrative guide, it’s a bad gimmick that works because of Stone’s aforementioned charm.  While Easy A may not yet be a classic like 10 Things I Hate About You, it deserves to stand in those ranks.

Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Under the capable direction of Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire’s second outing as Peter Parker stood for a long time as arguably the best comic book film (up until, y’know, The Dark Knight), and it’s still exceptionally strong almost a decade later.  Here we see the classic “second film” plotline of the hero questioning his place in society, finding trouble navigating the disjunct between secret identity and public persona, even – channeling the famous comic plotline – quitting the hero game for a time.  This thread is especially strong, ably guided by a strong screenplay which makes the webslinger’s struggle seem plausible but never forced.  Alfred Molina’s role as Doctor Octopus in particular contributes to the film’s success, layering the villain with a complicated mixture of pathos and psychosis.  Spider-Man 2 makes the smartest choice of all, which is to play itself almost completely straight, save for J.K. Simmons’s spot-on performance as J. Jonah Jameson (note to the rebooters – bring him back at all costs).  And if Spider-Man 2 is indeed a perfect superhero film, it’s because it avoids the temptation of the sequel to replicate and overfill, instead moving the series in a new direction and allowing its plotlines to breathe.  Reflecting on this film makes me think about the very nature of good reviews; it’s difficult to reach my standard 250 words because the film is exceptional.  In the words of Stan Lee, ’nuff said?

Spider-Man 3 (2007) – Take a breather.  Spider-Man 3 is not as bad as we remember.  The film is flawed, to be sure, but it’s not irredeemable; had it not been preceded by Spider-Man 2, things may have seemed different, but the film certainly suffers by comparison to its antecedent.  For the first hour, the film is strong, among the best of Raimi’s trilogy; consumed by revenge, Spider-Man hunts The Sandman while under the influence of a malicious alien symbiote which feeds on his vengeance and budding narcissism.  But the film escapes Raimi’s control near the beginning of the second act; the film is overfull, with Bryce Dallas Howard miscast as Gwen Stacy, who literally has nothing to do in this movie and whose absence would have no effect on the finished product.  What’s more, we have three villains (Sandman, Venom and New Goblin) who never get fully developed beyond shallow and poorly scripted motivations.  Worse, the film badly fumbles the symbiote plotline, opting for slapstick and easy laughs instead of focusing on the internal perversion and darkening of Spider-Man.  How much better might the film have been if we got a truly frightening Symbiote Spider-Man rather than the Emo Peter Parker we found tousling his hair and thrusting his pelvis?  What’s good about the previous films still holds – J.K. Simmons still aces his part, Thomas Haden Church as Sandman is another great villain – but Spider-Man 3 has a strong first act but spirals out of control like the Goblin’s glider.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monday at the Movies - Service Interrupted

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled programming to bring you this special news bulletin.

Due to unforeseen circumstances that have nothing whatsoever to do with poor time management (why do you ask?  Who told you that, anyway?), The Cinema King regrets to inform you that this week's installation of "Monday at the Movies" has been delayed.

But fear not, loyal reader.  You'll only have to wait a scant twenty-four hours to get your Cinema King fix; this week, "Monday at the Movies" will come your way on Tuesday at the same Bat-time, same Bat-blog.  And when you join us tomorrow, we'll be bringing you a somewhat "timely" post which pregames for The Amazing Spider-Man (which, no, I haven't seen yet) by reviewing three films which share something in common with the reboot/prequel/requel swinging through theaters.

So stay tuned for tomorrow's "Monday Tuesday at the Movies"!

(PS - All kidding aside, we haven't been taken down by the DNS Changer malware that seems to be going around today.  We're sorry if you are, though.)

(PPS - If you got the joke about "timely," let me know and you'll get a fabulous prize.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday at the Movies - July 2, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-Four of “Monday at the Movies,” in which I tie up a few loose ends on movie series whose final installments haven’t been reviewed yet on this site.

Hulk (2003) – If I’m not yet on record as saying that Mark Ruffalo is the definitive Hulk actor, quote me on that because I’ve just rewatched Ang Lee’s Hulk, starring Eric Bana as the jade giant and don’t have a lot of good things to say about it.  For one, the plot is overfilled with antagonists with competing interests; consequently, none of them (save, maybe, Nick Nolte as Bruce Banner’s evil father) becomes terribly compelling – not Josh Lucas as a cutthroat corporate scientist, nor Sam Elliott as General “Thunderbolt” Ross.  What we do get is the curious directorial choice to drain the film of any positive emotion; all the characters are either broken or emotionless (or both), which allows some of the acting to walk the line between nuance and flatness.  Unfortunately, Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross is the worst offender here; at moments, her affection for Bruce is touching, but at others she looks like she’s staring at cue cards written in a foreign language.  But the film’s worst offense isn’t its emotional flatness or sense of bleak despair, but rather it tampers with Bruce Banner’s canonical origin in a way that fundamentally alters the character.  I can pardon the 2008 film’s link to the Captain America super-soldier serum as an exercise in world-building, but the connection to the father is purely imagined and ultimately unfulfilling since it never quite makes sense – especially at the end when a deus ex militia ends a major fight that, once again, is more about which can be out-angst the other than it is about superheroic adventuring.  I wanted to like this, but it fell flat and ranks below the Norton interpretation.  Long live Ruffalo.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) – It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and for my money the series goes four for four with this soft reboot, which finds Captains Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) in a quest to find the Fountain of Youth – or at least prevent the dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his shifty daughter Angelica (Penélope Cruz) from reaching it.  The film is instantly accessible, building a new world without relying on or scrapping entirely the preceding trilogy.  Instead, the series goes off in an exciting new direction, promising a healthy spirit of competition between Jack and Barbossa for future films.  One of the highlights of At World’s End was seeing Depp and Rush out-pirate each other, a plot element that recurs here to great success.  What’s more, personal favorite McShane is delightfully menacing, unequivocally embracing his character and reveling in his mischief; think of the unswerving evil and odd syntax Al Swearengen of Deadwood, but with an enormous smoldering beard and far fewer F-bombs.  And Cruz’s Angelica brings a fun new character to the franchise, carrying on impressive repartee and even occasionally matching Depp, who brings his A-game as always.  Indeed, if I have complaints, it’s that Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is more recycled than original, and Judi Dench has far too small a cameo role as a royal lady wooed by Captain Jack.  Though it didn’t receive much critical love, On Stranger Tides is more than satisfying, and its box-office receipts thankfully made a fifth film (allegedly in the works) a viable prospect.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) – While the fourth Pirates film proved the franchise still had steam, Superman IV took a critical drubbing and continues to be hammered by superhero fans who regard its very name as shorthand for the worst in the genre.  But when I finally watched it this week, to my surprise there’s actually a lot in the film that works, making me wish that had been given a bigger budget and a better script editor.  Christopher Reeve is back for his last outing as the Man of Steel, facing Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and evil clone Nuclear (“Nucular”) Man.  The film is incredibly brief, meaning that the story is overly compressed, with characterization shortchanged for protracted and uninspiring action pieces which often cut away from the action (the film’s only explosion happens off-screen).  The screenplay, too, is weak in places, with Superman manifesting bizarre new powers and breaking his own rules several times; the secondary villains, moguls who buy the Daily Planet, are overdrawn and poorly performed, and the filmmakers apparently forgot that humans can’t breathe in space.  But there’s a good amount of the film that does succeed; Reeve and Hackman in particular are fantastic (even if the latter is saddled with Jon Cryer for a sidekick), their performances feeding off each other and nailing the heart of their character’s relationship with expressive frowns and shrugs.  Additionally, Jackie Cooper gets a terrific character arc as Perry White, who refuses to compromise his values in the face of the changing landscape of journalism.  Though the script is excessively preachy about the woes of nuclear weaponry, I’m surprised to say that I enjoyed it more than I thought it would – at least, more than the unfortunate Superman III.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!