Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises...Slowly and Not High Enough

The anticipation I, along with millions of others, felt before the opening of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises was muted by the tragedy in Colorado last Friday.  The media blitz following the massacre, the arguments about costumes in theaters, violent movies and their influence, or the lack of morality in our culture have little or nothing to do with the merits of the film. This third installment of what some call the Batman Trilogy or Saga aims to be the ultimate word on the Batman legend. It is and it isn't. Christopher Nolan has directed three excellent films, Memento, Inception, and The Dark Knight. But  The Dark Knight Rises is not their equal.

This newest installment begins eight years after the defeat of the Joker, the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, and the death of his Bruce Wayne's love Rachel Dawes. After all this and his crippling fights with the Joker and Dent, Bruce Wayne (hope that wasn't a spoiler), retreats to his mansion and severe depression. It takes a series of strange and chaotic events to pull Bruce back to the Bat Cave. Most of that pull comes from two glamorous beauties, Selina Kyle (also, a jewel thief, aka Catwoman) played by a sinewy, amoral Anne Hathaway, who almost steals the film, and Miranda Tate, a multimillionaire who eventually runs Wayne Enterprises, played by the beautiful Marion Cottilard. Add to that mix the completely insane Bane (not to be confused with Bain Capital) and his army of thugs who quickly blow up much of New Yo...oops, Gotham, trap the police force in the tunnels beneath the city, and set up a nuclear time bomb.

Now this sounds like too many plots for one action movie, and it is. The film is much too long (2 hours and 50 minutes) as well. But it has its strengths, especially in its casting. Cottilard, Cillian Murphy and the intensely vital Joseph Gordon-Levitt were all in Inception. And from the previous Batman films we have Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and even Liam Neeson in a somewhat amorphous form. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has established himself as one of the strongest young actors on the screen today. He was winsome and heart-breaking in 500 Days of Summer, angry and funny as a cancer patient in 50/50, and an athletic action star in Inception. Here he plays an idealistic policeman who joins forces with Batman. He gives a heartfelt performance in a film lacking much heart. And Anne Hathaway gives Selena Kyle a sleek, sexy, powerful kick as she kick boxes and double-crosses everyone, especially Batman.

As I have indicated, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't have humor. Its portentousness quashes any chance of comic relief. This reminds us of Tim Burton's revival of the Batman story. Batman and Batman Returns were both typically quirky Burton products, filled with brilliant set design, arresting and garish costumes and make-up, and over the top performances. In other words, entertainment was the goal, not an epic saga. With Jack Nicholson's Joker and references to classic films like The Wizard of Oz and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Batman (1989) was an instant camp classic. Its follow-up in 1992 Batman Returns continued with more great Danny Elfman music and uniquely bizarre turns by Danny DeVito as The Penquin and a sexy, vinyl-clad Michelle Pfeiffer as Cat Woman. The next two films in the series lost Tim Burton and were sadly lacking any lasting impact. Just ask George Clooney.

Perhaps Batman, like most super heroes, should be geared towards entertainment, not profundity.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Brits Are Coming! Again!

As some of us remember, we had a major British invasion in the 1960's, a musical invasion, that is. The world of music completely changed with the new sounds of the Beatles, the Stones, and many others. Well, the Brits are back for a second round. More on that later, but first a review of The Amazing Spider-Man, the opening of a second round of Spiderman movies. What? You saw the last one 5 years ago? And nobody can do it better than director Sam Raimi and the puckish Tobey McGuire, right? Maybe not. Director Marc Webb, whose previous indy (500) Days of Summer was a delightful film about love and love lost, helms the new Spidey epic. Cast as our hero (aka, Peter Parker) is the trained English actor Andrew Garfield, who won plaudits as the disappointed co-founder of Facebook in The Social Network and Biff, the bitter son in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Garfield takes the role and makes it his own from the first scene. Abandoned by his parents as a kid, he lives with his warm and cuddly aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen, who else?). When he begins to discover that he's not just a sulky nerd with a skateboard but a nerd with super powers, his performance takes off (literally as well as figuratively). Gone is the surliness. In its place a growing sense of wonder, humor, and daring. A great deal of his change comes from classmate Gwen Stacey, whom Peter has adored secretly for some time. Played by the radiant Emma Stone, Gwen is smart, driven, and quickly awed by Peter, not just Spidey. There are the typical big screen action scenes, but they are humanized by keeping both Peter and Gwen's story in the forefront. This is a delightful film for fans of all ages.

Back to the current Brit Invasion. Yes, we've had some great actors hail from Britain, but most have maintained their Britishness, even while playing Americans and other nationals. Think of Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, Alec Guiness as Obi Wan Kenobi, Richard Harris as the Man Called Horse (no, don't), Richard Burton in too many bad movies with Liz (excepting Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which he gives his finest performance), Jeremy Irons, Michael Caine, Daniel-Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, the many James Bond actors, James Mason, Deborah Kerr, and many others.

But now we have Andrew Garfield (see above), the great Ian McKellan as Gandalf in LOTR, Ewan McGregor in Big Fish, Moulin Rouge!), James McAvoy in Atonement, Kiera Knightly in Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), Daniel Radcliffe, Christian Bale, all those folks from Canada and Australia, Ralph Fiennes (The Ordinary Gardener, Schindler's List), Kate Winslett, and the list goes on and on. Without these talents our films would be much worse than many think they are. If I have left out one of your favorites, let me know! AND, do me a favor: Forward my blog to friends. My blogging ego is getting lower than Peter Parker before he got bitten!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

More Movies for Adults

Three recent films, vastly different and varying in quality, concern the abiding but often fickle paths of the human heart. The first is People Like Us, currently in release. Based on true incidents, this drama details the surprising journey an unlikable young opportunist takes when his estranged father dies. Not only does it take Sam (Chris Pine) back to his roots in L.A. but to a shocking discovery, a half-sister. His father's will stipulates that Sam take $150,000 to Frankie, a recovering alcoholic barkeep with a rebellious child. He must also come to terms with his anger with his late father and his mother (played with understanding by Michelle Pffeifer). Throughout this process, the film treads the thin line between a possible romance between Frankie and Sam but manages to focus on the growth of all the characters. Sounds a bit soapy, yes? And, no. This is a thoughtful, heartfelt drama with fine performances from the entire cast, especially Elizabeth Banks as Frankie, a good woman trying to live a good life despite the odds.

Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO movie directed by Phillip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Incredible Lightness of Being), is loosely based on the tumultuous relationship between the hard-living, hard-drinking author and the equally hard-nosed Martha Gellhorn. As they cover and even fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, they compete and they fall in love. After the war, they marry, but when Hemingway steals a World War II assignment from her, they begin to fall apart. The film uses interesting editing approaches. We see scenes going from color to black and white and the reverse, when we go from personal stories to the war zones. The characters are even placed in actual news footage, sometimes effectively and sometimes not. Clive Owen plays Hemingway with an unsure hold on this bigger than life figure. He yells a lot, curses often, but still seems much tamer than one would suspect. On the other hand, Nicole Kidman gives Gellhorn a strong and unbreakable spirit. Her actions eventually show that she was first a journalist and not a writer's wife. After all, she is the only woman who divorced Hemingway.

Twins (De Tweeling) is definitely the best of these three dramas. It tells of twin girls who are separated when their father dies. One goes into virtual bondage on a German farm; the other to a privileged life in a Dutch home. At first they try to contact each other, but the families lie and keep them apart. As young adults they come together in the late 1930's as Hitler begins to conquer Europe and kill the Jewish population. But they are torn apart again and again through political and personal conflicts. The film is suspenseful, but more importantly deeply emotional. This is a film to treasure.