Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Wow! A mega-blockbuster that is actually a well-made film. The Dark Knight Rises makes The Avengers look like a Saturday-morning cartoon. This is serious epic filmmaking from one of the very best filmmakers of our time.
I know. After The Dark Knight, I said some negative things about Christopher Nolan, despite the fact than none of his films have received less than ***+ from me. The Dark Knight remains my least favourite Nolan film and the only one of his films which doesn’t get better with each viewing (which, for me, is a prime criterion for great films). In fact, The Dark Knight gets worse with each viewing. But I understand this is a very subjective opinion. The average critic thinks The Dark Knight is Nolan’s masterpiece.
My favourite Nolan film is Inception, and I don’t like The Dark Knight Rises as much as Batman Begins, the first in the Dark Knight trilogy. But I have no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises will continue to get better with each viewing and if I see it enough times it may even make my top ten of 2012. So, for me, the third film is far superior to the second. 
I am writing an extensive review of The Dark Knight Rises for the Canadian Mennonite, so I will not be able to say much here, but I do want to share a few thoughts:
The bad: Too much action of course, and too much violence of course. The scene where Catwoman tells Batman that she doesn’t share his opinion about not using guns is particularly offensive (by far the worst scene in the film, though I won’t mention what happens there), especially since it’s played for laughs. The convoluted plot has some holes in it and much of it is predictable (due in part to its similarity with its predecessors).
The good: The music, the cinematography, the intelligent screenplay, the editing and the acting (Christian Bale is at his best, Michael Caine just keeps getting better, Gary Oldman is solid, and then there are the newcomers to the series: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway. All of them were excellent but the surprise is Hathaway. I am not a Hathaway fan; at least not yet. Her performance as Catwoman may change that, especially if she also impresses me in Les Mis). Also good is the overwhelming ‘epic’ style, with lots of flashbacks and backstory and a return to the League of Shadows as the villain (focused on the character of Bane). BEST OF ALL, The Dark Knight Rises is not available in 3D and was not even filmed digitally but on old-fashioned film stock. The special effects, which are awesome, are mostly real, not CGI! Nolan, my hat is off to you.
For a discussion of the violence and politics in The Dark Knight Rises, and more, you’ll have to wait for my link to the Canadian Mennonite review. In the meantime, this dark despairing grand mess of a film gets a very solid ***+ which may get better after watching it again next week.

Here is the link to my Canadian Mennonite review:

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

White Flour (a children's book)

Being recently empty nested, I haven't had much opportunity lately to read new children's books. And sharing a new picture book has to be one of the more delightful aspects of parenting.

So, having recently joined the Speakeasy review network that shares complementary books in exchange for candid reviews, I was quite pleased to begin with the book, White Flour, by David LaMotte. Written in intriguing rhyme and beautifully illustrated by Jenn Hales, this is a great example of how younger children can be introduced to very serious and thoughtful concepts in a fun and age-appropriate way. And, it is even based on a true story (from 2007) that was fascinating to discover.

In the book, masked members of the KKK (actually a network of white supremacists in the real event) meet their match in the Coup Clutz Clowns. By intentionally misinterpreting the chant of white power the Coup Clutz Clowns "join in" by celebrating white flour.  Several other "mistakes" follow until it becomes apparent that rather than stirring up anger and hatred, the KKK's attempt at evil simply looks silly this time around.  

The result is a unique story and, for older children, a great lead-in to discussions and questions relating to nonviolent responses to evil. Hopefully there is a chance to discuss how even good-natured mockery would not always be the right approach for every situation; creativity, on the other hand, is always welcome.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt double-feature: The Muppets and The Five-Year Engagement

I recently watched two films written by, and starring, Jason Segel. Let me be clear at the outset that I am not a Jason Segel fan. I know he is a popular guy and I have no doubt that he is a wonderful human being, but I do not appreciate either his acting or his writing. Despite numerous recommendations from friends, I have never seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Watching Segel’s most recent efforts will not inspire me to do so.
While not a Segel fan, I am an Emily Blunt fan and she coincidentally appears in both of these films. Unfortunately, Blunt’s solid efforts did not save either film (she only has a cameo in The Muppets). Neither did the fact that I am a fan of the muppets, though that fact also did not prevent me from giving mediocre ratings to every muppet film ever made (The Muppet Christmas Carol was my favourite, but even that got only ***).  
The Muppets starts very strong, with a couple of great early songs that made me think I was watching a winner. But things slide downhill from there and the film degenerates into a lot of silly and boring dialogue and a fundraising plot that seems to exist just to give all the muppets a role (the plot: a rotten millionaire wants to buy the muppet studio so he can drill for oil, so the muppets need to find enough money to save the studio). I liked the villain (Chris Cooper) and his henchmen, but didn’t find Segel’s performance endearing. Even Amy Adams failed to impress this time. As for the muppets, none were particularly inspiring.
Having said all those negative things, it may once again surprise people when I say that I did enjoy watching The Muppets and give it *** and recommend it to all. My negative reaction probably relates more to the high expectations created by the wide critical acclaim than to the film’s qualities. I don’t know what I’m missing but for me this is just a very ordinary musical comedy and therefore a disappointment.

But not as big a disappointment as The Five-Year Engagement, which also received general acclaim. This is another comedy drama that gets silly and boring in a hurry. Not only was I unimpressed by Segel’s performance, I also had little sympathy for his character and therefore did not really care about the relationship at the heart of the film. Nor did I find the plot interesting. It’s about a young couple who get engaged but then have their wedding-plans delayed. This doesn’t mean much, since they live together much of the film, but the film is more about what happens when Violet (Blunt) wants to study in Michigan and Tom (Segel) is forced to leave his prestigious job in San Francisco and try to survive in the Midwest. This part of the plot fell flat for me and therefore so did the film.
The Five-Year Engagement has a number of precious moments and I enjoyed Blunt’s performance, but for me it was another over-rated romantic comedy and this one gets only **+. My mug is down. BUT I should remind readers that comedy dramas are far from my favourite genre and those who like comedy dramas may enjoy both of these films much more than I did (e.g. Kathy very much enjoyed both of these films). 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

To Rome with Love

To Rome with Love is a fairly standard Woody Allen romantic comedy, and Allen is back to getting standard mediocre reviews, suggesting that Midnight in Paris was a one-off return to greatness.
Besides writing and directing, Allen also stars in To Rome with Love and shows he is still more than capable of performing in his films if given an appropriate role. In this case, he is an eccentric retired theatre producer who comes to Rome with his wife because their daughter fell in love with a local while visiting Rome and now wants to marry him. The future son-in-law is politically on the left and doesn’t like the way his future father-in-law wants to exploit his father’s singing ability (the father can only sing in the shower). It all gets rather silly from there.
Meanwhile, in another part of Rome, we have a young bride about to meet her in-laws for the first time. But she gets lost looking for a hairdresser and a prostitute mistakenly finds herself in bed with the groom (clothed) just as his parents barge in and, well, it all gets rather silly from there.
Meanwhile, in another part of Rome, yet another young couple is facing trouble as the woman’s sexy best friend is coming to stay following a break-up. Alec Baldwin plays the voice of conscience/reason for all three and warns against this course of action. He is convinced the young man will leave his girlfriend and chase the best friend. And it all gets rather silly from there.
Meanwhile, in another part of Rome, an average middle-class, middle-aged man suddenly finds himself famous and surrounded by paparazzi. And it all gets rather silly from there.
None of these four stories is connected with any of the others. And while we bounce from one story to another throughout the film, the stories do not even exist in the same timeframe. One of these stories takes place in a matter of hours, two take place in a matter of days, and the fourth seems to require months. In fact, To Rome with Love is just as surreal as Midnight in Paris, but without the ‘magic’. Instead, we have an altogether senseless silly diversion full of uneven acting and writing.
I loved it.
“Excuse me?” you ask, “Did you just misplace a sentence? Something feels a little inconsistent.”
What can I say? I’ve mentioned here before that even Allen’s mediocre efforts are better than most of the comedy dramas out there. It might be escapist nonsense, but I can escape much more easily in an Allen film than in an action-fest like The Avengers. And To Rome with Love has a number of positive attributes I have so far neglected to mention. 
First, To Rome with Love is gorgeous! The cinematography is so good that it made me regret not having visited Rome since I was nineteen. While the writing may be uneven, there are plenty of funny and intelligent lines and the underlying theme (satirizing fame and celebrity) generally worked for me. And while the acting may be uneven (there are too many actors involved to name them fro you in this review), I enjoyed watching the great ensemble cast have fun with the zaniness. In other words, I thoroughly enjoyed this flawed mess and cannot give it less than a solid ***. My mug is up.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Speaking of spider-bites, my review of The Amazing Spider-Man will be posted on the Media Matters - Third Way Cafe website next Friday (July 13). In the meantime, let me just say that while this was not a great film, I was very impressed with the dramatic tone of the first half of the film (i.e. limited action or silliness) and I think it may be my favourite Marvel superhero film since Spider-Man 2 in 2004. It gets ***+. My mug is up.

My Media Matters review can be found at:

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Indie Fake Superhero Movies

Parallel to the dominance of superhero films at the box office of late, there runs a trend of what I refer to as indie fake superhero movies. In recent years these include Special, Super, Kick-Ass, Griff the Invisible, and my favourite by far, Defendor. It seems to me that understanding the contrast between the blockbuster superhero flicks and these low budget alternatives have something to say about our current superhero hunger.

As one would expect, these films have certain things in common while in other ways they are all over the map. Here is what this particular sub-genre seems to have in common. To be your everyday fake superhero in the relatively realistic world of indie films (as compared to 'real' superheroes for those films with bigger budgets) it is important to be a combination of uniquely stupid or 'off' (by some societal standard) and uniquely brilliant (when it comes to creativity in responding to crime or evil). The uniquely stupid part enables these heroes to have the courage and determination not to be deterred by all the good reasons one shouldn't jump into the middle of active crime scenes, and it enables them to become genuinely convinced of their unique superpowers and callings. The uniquely brilliant part enables them to do so with some measure of success and creativity. The result is that these indie fake superheroes tend to accomplish something (more than one might expect), but one of their main superpowers is their willingness to get their butts kicked and go back for more. Finally, there is usually some sense of support from quirky friends (comic book shop employees, not surprisingly, play a role here), and we learn that while some of us want to be superheroes, others are quite drawn to being sidekicks who are just as important. Most of the above qualities are duplicated in the sidekick's job description as well. 

These commonalities say something significant. While most of us are frustrated that more is not done to stop crime and evil, most of us relatively 'normal' folks let good sense get in the way of doing anything about it. Perhaps it's just as well because we also might not have the creativity to develop our superpowers in striking ways, and we may not have the courage and determination to get our butts kicked and keep diving back into the fray. But this does not make us useless because if we have a combination of compassion and some level of quirkiness we might at least play a supportive role (and often this role is subtly given the nod as being that of the real heroes in ordinary life), and even the most normal of us can be the cheering audience when somehow the bumbling superhero accomplishes some good. To be honest, though, that mass onlooker role looks pretty fickle - not unlike the crowds cheering Jesus one minute and calling for his crucifixion the next. 

From these common roots, the films diverge widely, and even single films communicate with much ambiguity. Is violence the solution or the problem? Are vigilantes needed or are they sociopaths? Should they be helped or locked up for the good of themselves and others? Some (Super, Kick-Ass) are incredibly violent, and one suspects some kind of paradoxical Tarantino-esque exploitation of violence that is supposed to mock the non-messy, presumably necessary violence of 'real' superhero films. They also suggest that part of the draw toward superheroes is a deep and suppressed rage that we long to unleash without any restraint on the real evil in the world (and let's not forget the odd choice of The Avengers to make The Hulk the most potent of the lot). Love also plays a role, of course, especially in films like Griff and Defendor, which are more warmly human films. Griff the Invisible tended to be panned by the critics because the idea that the ability for two people to really see each other's humanity when the normal world saw them as freaks did not qualify as a genuine superpower. I'm unconvinced by those critics. 

Defendor, as I've said, is my favourite and deserves a bit of individual praise. Filmed in Hamilton, it is a masterpiece of low budget quality. Great acting, great music and great script - way too underrated. It's the most plausible of the bunch, and while it shares some of the ambiguity toward violence of all of these movies, it poses the most attractive call to action. 

In contrast to the blockbusters, these indie movies are telling us that it is the broken and not the invincible whom we should look to for help. These broken people, for a variety of reasons, see the possibilities and the need to get out of our complacent ruts. They suggest action based on risk rather than prowess. In very messy ways, they suggest that change and salvation are not necessarily based on power and success. 

Finally, all of these films tend to want the viewers to enter at least a little into the perspective that there are some real superpowers available if we see with different eyes, and that just might be a little more hopeful than our chances of being bit by a radioactive spider.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is another typically quirky and surreal Wes Anderson comedy drama. Joining Bill Murray (an Anderson regular) are Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban and even Harvey Keitel (all playing quirky characters and all doing a commendable job). But none of these actors are the stars of Moonrise Kingdom because this film is primarily a romance about two fourteen-year-olds (Sam and Suzy), played very well by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. 
Moonrise Kingdom takes place on an island somewhere off the coast of the U.S. In 1965. It has the feel of a 1960s film but could take place anytime. Sam and Suzy are two quirky adolescents who feel trapped by their lives (Sam in a Scout camp, Suzy in a house on the other side of the island) and plan to run away together. When they do so, the mayhem begins, from one end of the island to the other, while the narrator warns of an ominous storm heading their way. 
It’s all very silly and sweet and funny and sad and did I mention quirky. It’s beautifully filmed and brilliantly structured. If you like Anderson’s films, you will love this one. Even if you are not an Anderson fan, you will have a hard time not enjoying this delightful film. Not that it’s perfect. The silliness, for example, occasionally gets out of hand. But Moonrise Kingdom gets a solid ***+ and is certainly Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums.