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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review - by Joshua Handler

Bane (left, played by Tom Hardy) faces off against Batman (right, played by Christian Bale)
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Dark Knight Rises Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 164 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language

Note: This review is SPOILER-FREE. 

After waiting for the finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy for four years, the end has finally arrived…and what a disappointment.  The Dark Knight Rises is by no means a bad film.  It is simply one that does not come even close to being as good as its predecessors for many reasons.  Though this review may seem like a slam on the film, I truly did think that this was a good movie, but also a very flawed one. 

The Dark Knight Rises follows a psychologically and physically shattered Bruce Wayne eight years after he went into exile due to Harvey Dent’s crime.  However, when Bane, a physically powerful man tries to destroy Gotham, Wayne gradually tries to come to terms with his scars and rise once again to save Gotham.

The Dark Knight is a masterpiece of cinema.  It is one of the all-time greatest films because it was more a crime thriller than simply a superhero movie.  It was emotional, terrifying, and deeply disturbing.  The Joker was a villain that was simultaneously hilarious and unnerving.  He was unpredictable.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the main villain is Bane, played expertly by Tom Hardy.  Bane is a mercenary who is more physically powerful than even The Dark Knight himself.  Bane is a good villain, scary and intense, but he is too traditional and one-dimensional.  Bane always seems more like a monster, not a human being.  He is a man with a frightening mask, but he has little soul and nothing more compelling than any other villain.  He is predictable.  I do realize that no villain in a comic book adaptation could ever equal Heath Ledger’s Joker, but in this film, the much-hyped follow-up to a masterpiece, Bane was underwhelming.

Though Bane’s character was underwhelming, the majority of the film’s problems come from the story.  To start with, the story was much too complicated with too many plot lines.  The Dark Knight was complex and complicated while still being coherent, but The Dark Knight Rises is complex and complicated, but incoherent.  Nolan tries to stuff so much into this film that it becomes cluttered.  This may be a result of him trying to wrap up the series and please fans of the comics. 

Nolan throws in many twists in the film that seem only there to try to please hardcore comic fans.  These twists come one after another and after a certain point, they feel ridiculous.  While I realize that pleasing fans of the comics may be a necessity, this film’s predecessor was so lacking in these outrageous twists and was so committed to being a pure crime film that reverting back to odd twists simply didn’t cut it for me. 

This film feels more like a part of a trilogy than The Dark Knight.  The Dark Knight could stand alone with little prior knowledge of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s history.  The Dark Knight Rises feels like a third part, not a standalone film.  It relies heavily on references to the previous two films and doesn’t feel original enough.  

Another issue with the film is that this film is too bleak and depressing.  While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight weren’t anywhere near fun or funny, they were still entertaining.  The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, is (for the most part) not entertaining.  It is depressing and made me feel awful when it was over.  I can handle any amount of doom and gloom, when in the right movie, but in this case it just felt like overkill.  In The Dark Knight Rises, there is no hope and no entertainment, only characters beating each other down mentally and physically.

This film did not engage me emotionally and by the end, I did not care who lived or died.  I think I was too worn out by watching the characters’ pain and despair that I didn’t even care anymore.

Now that I have discussed all of the negative aspects, I will now tell you why this movie is worth seeing.

The acting, particularly that of Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Tom Hardy as Bane, and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman/Selina Kyle is superb.  Each actor tries to get into their character as best they can, especially Bale.  He is given the most time to explore his character.  He reaches deep down into Bruce Wayne and conveys all of the pain pent up over the eight years that Wayne had been in exile.  This is one of his greatest performances to date.

Hathaway is sexy, witty, and cunning as Catwoman, a cat burglar who steals from Gotham’s rich.  She is electric every minute that she is onscreen and seems completely devoted to her role.  Tom Hardy (as I said before) is a powerful screen presence and does well with what he has to work with.

In addition to the superb acting, the technical aspects of the production are great.  Though the production gets too big for its own good, the sound and visual effects are amazing.  The visual effects never look fake (have any effects in Nolan’s films looked anything less than real?).  So are the stunts.  The opening scene is brilliantly staged and truly thrilling with stunts that are jaw dropping.

I also appreciated Nolan’s attempts to relate the film to the discontent of the “99%”.  How he does this, I do not want to say.  I would never give away any plot details. 

Overall, The Dark Knight Rises is merely a good film.  It disappoints on so many levels and though it is impossible to make a better Batman film than The Dark Knight, this one doesn’t even come close to reaching greatness.  However, Nolan really did seem to try.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Magic Mike Review - by Joshua Handler

Alex Pettyfer (left) with Matthew McConaughey (right, in a scene-stealing performance) in Magic Mike
Warner Bros. 

Magic Mike Review
 by Joshua Handler
2012, 110 minutes
Rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language, and some drug use

Magic Mike is Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s (Traffic, the Ocean’s series, Erin Brockovich) third film to be released in the past 12 months and is by far the best.  Contagion was a chilling, but not great thriller, and Haywire was awful.  Magic Mike, however, is a complete treat because it is not just a movie about stripping.  Calling this a film solely about stripping is like calling Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, Boogie Nights a film solely about porn.

One of many places where Haywire failed was the action scenes.  They were boring and not electrifying like they should have been.  I guess Soderbergh decided to channel the energy into the stripping scenes, Magic Mike’s equivalent to Haywire’s action scenes.  While they do not fill even half of the film’s running time, there are quite a few scenes and they are electrifying.  The actors seem to be having a great time and provide great energy.  The camerawork in these scenes greatly complements the actors and adds to the fun.

When Magic Mike is not focused on a stripping scene, it focuses on the story of Mike (Channing Tatum), a male stripper in Florida, who takes a young man, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), under his wing.  Screenwriter Reid Carolin’s characters are well developed and his dialogue is  quite humorous, but nothing would not work without the fantastic acting talent involved.

Much of the reason why the film works is because of Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, and the supporting cast members who play strippers.  Channing Tatum, himself a former stripper, is not historically known for his acting abilities or  performing in great films.  However, Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street will most likely change that.  When paired with Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street, Tatum and Hill played off each other with Tatum showing his natural charm and superb comedic abilities.  Now, in Magic Mike, Tatum delivers something even more.  Whenever he is onscreen, Tatum exudes charisma.  He walks and dances around this movie like he is a natural.  His confidence in the material obviously shows and the energy he brings, especially to the strip club scenes is infectious.  In those scenes, he shows his ease on stage and what a talented dancer he is.  While he may do especially well in the strip club scenes, he does about as well when he needs to do a dramatic scene. 

Great as Channing Tatum is, Matthew McConaughey steals the show as the strip club owner, Dallas.  Like Tatum, McConaughey is not known for being in great movies, but 2012 may be the year to break that.  He has been in more independent films and in no romantic comedies (those are what he is known for).  He has thus far starred in Bernie (a fun supporting performance), Magic Mike, and the upcoming Killer Joe (to be reviewed on Monday), Mud, and The Paperboy (the later two premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May).  In Magic Mike, he has a field day with his character, making him as sly, comical, and magnetic as possible.  Every time he was onscreen, he shined.  He, like Tatum, exudes energy and was truly a pleasure to watch have such a great time with this film.

The supporting cast that portrayed the strippers were great and added character to the film.

While most of the film is fun, but not light, there are parts where it gets dark, particularly when Adam’s new life as a stripper takes its toll.  This provides a nice dramatic balance to the comedic tone of the rest of the film.  In many ways (as some have pointed out), Magic Mike is similar to Boogie Nights, a film that follows the rise and fall of a porn star in the 1970s and early 1980s.  They both have a rise-and-fall story that starts off funny and light, but gradually grows darker and darker.  The difference is that you will feel great leaving Magic Mike, but will most likely feel down after finishing the 156 minutes of Boogie Nights

Overall, Magic Mike is Steven Soderbergh’s best film (at least of the many I’ve seen) since Ocean’s 11.  He has the best script and the most dedicated cast.  It is shocking that this movie was filmed in about three weeks.  This film shows a great director at the top of his game.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Savages Review - by Joshua Handler

Universal Pictures
Savages Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 130 minutes
Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use, and language throughout

"Boring" and "Oliver Stone" should not be used in the same sentence.  But, here they will be as Savages is one of the year's biggest bores.  Savages tells the story of two young men (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) who try to get their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively) back from a Mexican drug cartel.  

This story should have been compelling and political (given that it is an Oliver Stone film), but it is neither.  There was no bite to Savages.  It was brutally violent and lurid without a punch.  The characters are underdeveloped and some are frankly annoying and the dialogue that they are given is not fiery or witty.  By the time the film was over (I was waiting for last 80 minutes for it to end), I did not care whether the characters lived or died.  The biggest flaw of the screenplay is the ending which is both pointless and melodramatic.  I almost said, "You've got to be kidding me" when the film didn't end when I thought it would.  Not only did it not end, it went on for another mind-numbingly dumb 10 or 15 minutes.

The acting in the movie is no better than the story.  Blake Lively was fine, but was dull and was not given much to work with.  Aaron Johnson wasn't great either (that may have been from the poor writing too), but Taylor Kitsch deserves a Razzie for this one.  His performance is flat and his line delivery is as bad as an amateur's.  He was as wooden as the tree outside my window.  John Travolta and Salma Hayek have energy in their roles, but overact so badly that it is unintentionally funny to watch them.  They are both actors that I respect and really enjoy, but here they were terrible.  I groaned whenever Travolta appeared because he was like a cartoon character.

The camerawork is nothing special and the musical score is ridiculous.  It detracts from the movie with its excessive use of booming classical music and rips off of another movie, Babel.  The only redeeming part of this movie was that for the first 50 or so minutes it was pretty entertaining in a trashy way.  By the end, it just became trash.

Overall, Savages is a waste of time and talent.  It is not an awful movie, but not even close to passable.  Oliver Stone needs to come up with something more interesting than this trash next time.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Best of 2012...So Far

I have now seen about two dozen 2012 film releases.  There are quite a few ones that are very good, not great, but few that are "must-sees".  I hope that this year picks up with the release of The Dark Knight Rises and other late summer, early fall films.  I will first start with a few recommended films, not must-sees, but ones to definitely view.

The Raid: Redemption
The Cabin in the Woods

The following are the few must-sees, all of which are either out in theaters or will be released within the next few weeks.

 20th Century Fox
3. Prometheus (Dir. Ridley Scott) - Ridley Scott is back in action with this epic sci-fi film about a group of people who travel to the edge of the universe to find humanity's origins.  What they find there...well, I won't spoil it.  The acting is top-notch (unusual for a sci-fi film), the effects are very realistic, and the story is gripping.  This is a great piece of sci-fi that will be sure to entertain both intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. (my review)

Focus Features
(Tie)  1. Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson) - Moonrise Kingdom is a beautiful film that is about two pre-teens who are madly in love and escape their small island town in 1965 and cause everyone to chase after them.  The story is not as simple as it sounds as it is a meditation on the joy and heartbreak of childhood and has some allusions to Peter Pan thrown in too.  Moonrise Kingdom has a very "Wes Anderson" artificial and dreamlike look to it that makes it seem all the more enchanting.  (my review)

Fox Searchlight 
(Tie) 1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin) - Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or (Best First Feature) Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, this film is as unique and haunting as they come.  The film follows a young girl, Hushpuppy, who tries to survive when her southern Louisiana community, The Bathtub, is threatened by a hurricane and prehistoric beasts.  The acting, particularly by then-six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, is heartfelt and powerful.  The score is stirring and the cinematography is rich.  In terms of filmmaking, this movie is as good as they get.  I have not found a more emotionally satisfying and beautiful film this year. (my review)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Review - by Joshua Handler

Hushpuppy in the opening of Beasts of the Southern Wild
Photo: Ben Richardson

Beasts of the Southern Wild Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 93 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality

I am truly speechless.  Benh Zeitlin has created a true original that is stunning, wise, and emotionally satisfying.  Before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you what this movie is about.  Beasts follows a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her dying father, Wink, in an isolated community called The Bathtub in southern Louisiana.  When a storm threatens to destroy The Bathtub and prehistoric beasts arise from thawed Arctic ice, Hushpuppy tries to survive and stay strong.

Winner of four Cannes Film Festival prizes and the Grand Jury and Excellence in Cinematography prizes at Sundance, this movie really shows that there are still filmmakers out there with true vision.  This film was shot on 16 mm and used handheld camerawork.  The 16 mm gives the film a very gritty, realistic feel, but that does not get in the way of the fantasy elements of the film.  

The opening of the film is one that gave me chills.  The film starts with narration by Hushpuppy, then soon afterwards erupts into a celebration complete with drinking and fireworks.  The pure joy and feel that the sequence captures is indescribable.  Benh Zeitlin said that "My approach to making movies is about crafting an energy, a feeling, and a way of life that the people that make movies with me can live.  It's about inventing a reality and populating it with the best people I know."  This is evident in Beasts as he transports us to another world and captures what it is like to be there, even though it is, in reality, this "other world" is in our own backyard. 

The Bathtub feels like nothing else I have ever seen.  It is made of scraps of different materials, everyone is poor, but they are rich in their sense of community.  They are happy people who get by on a simple living.  What Zeitlin shows in this film is that though people may be financially poor, they may be richer than the rest of the country in every other way.

Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar, upon whose play this film is based, show how in The Bathtub, people are part of the earth as much as the earth is part of the people.  He shows how humans that live on the fringes of the earth are small pieces of the large universe, something Hushpuppy strongly believes in.  Because the people of The Bathtub are closer to nature, they are happier.  They are simpler.  In one point, Wink looks at some factories spewing pollution in the distance and comments on their ugliness.  In Beasts of the Southern Wild, real beauty comes from the plain and ordinary.  

Hushpuppy is a product of this community.  She is strong-willed and wise beyond her years, but lives simply.  Throughout the film, she is put to the test, and her wisdom helps her through.  Much of the wisdom came from Wink.  He teaches her to be brave and not to let anything bring her down.  Things happen, but those things should never bring you down.  

Though Hushpuppy may be wise and have an almost-full life, she wants to be held and unconditionally loved.  Her mother left when she was very little and she yearns for a mother-like figure, something that Wink is not.  Throughout part of the film, Hushpuppy looks for her mother.  What results (I won't spoil what happens) is beautiful and poignant.  

The character of Hushpuppy would not be what she is without the brilliant performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, a non-actress who turns out the performance of the year (so far).  She has a sweet, honest  innocence that few young actors have today, but also shows significant emotional depth.  We root for her character every step of the way.  Dwight Henry, another non-actor, plays Wink.  He, too, is mesmerizing every time he is onscreen.  He is brutal, comical, and ultimately caring.  

The music by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin is simple and enchanting.  It is the finishing touch that makes the movie magical.  Much of the sense of the magical realism of the film comes from the music.  

Overall, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a must-see.  It is an experience to watch.  If there is one movie (besides Moonrise Kingdom) to see from this half of the year, this is the one.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Red Lights (Advanced Screening) Review - by Joshua Handler

Red Lights Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 113 minutes
Rated R language and some violence

Red Lights has similar problems to many modern horror/thrillers.  It starts out good, not great, then takes a turn for the worst in the second half.  Red Lights premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival back in January and is directed by Rodrigo Cortés, the director of the brilliant Buried.  It stars Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert DeNiro, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones, and Craig Roberts.  

Let me start with the positive aspects of this movie before I talk about anything else.  The acting, for starters is very good.  Cillian Murphy is the perfect lead for this film.  After having done such horror/thrillers as 28 Days Later... and Red Eye, this is the perfect film for him.  He plays his character Tom Buckley with a cool intensity, but still makes him likable.  Weaver and De Niro are also very good, as always.

The first three-quarters of the movie is very intriguing as very little is explained and we are kept guessing.  Mysterious events occur out of the blue and make me jump.  Then, during the last 10 or 15 minutes when there are a few "big" reveals (one of which I guessed half way through), the movie turns from creepy and fun to dumb.  The final reveal is so random and ridiculous that it ruined all of what came before it.  And, going back through the rest of the film, it doesn't seem to make sense.

I cannot stand movies that have that one last end twist that ruins it.  The epitome of this is High Tension.  It starts off as a gory and incredibly well-made horror film, but just has to throw in an end twist.  The twist is the worst that I have ever seen and literally derails the whole film.  The twist makes no sense and could not possibly fit in with the rest of the film (if you see this movie, you'll instantly know what I mean).  Red Lights does the same thing, but the twist isn't quite as egregiously dumb.

Though the twist is dumb (which makes the rest of the movie dumb too), the movie isn't all terrible.  As mentioned, there were some great "jump scenes" and good intrigue that Cortés builds.  Also, there is one scene in which Cillian Murphy's character gets savagely beat up in a bathroom which was thrilling.  It is brutal, but well-done.  When talking about this scene at the screening that I attended, Murphy told us that it was mostly him, not a double in the scene, and that he "f*cking love the bathroom scene."

Overall, Red Lights is not good, but not terrible.  I would not recommend seeing it, however I think that there will be many that will enjoy it and may like the ending (many in the audience did).  Maybe you'll like it.  If you do (or don't) please leave comments below to discuss.

Red Lights will open in limited release on July 13.


The Squid and the Whale Review

The Squid and the Whale Review
2005, 81 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue, and language

Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, and Jesse Eisenberg, The Squid and the Whale is a brutally honest, semi-autobiographical film by Noah Baumbach that follows a couple who gets divorced and how their kids are affected when they get caught in between. 

I saw this film about one year ago, but I cannot get it out of my mind.  I will also say that The Squid and the Whale is one of those films that I can safely say will not be for everyone, but those who will like it will be thrilled that they found this profound gem.  The reason why this film can be polarizing is because of the lack of a resolution, a story that will look like someone took a camera and filmed people's problems, and very unlikable characters.  This may all sound bad, but it completely works and got Baumbach a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.  

I was very impressed with The Squid and the Whale on multiple levels.  The first one was the honesty and realism that pervades which is largely due to Baumbach's excellent script.  In this film, there are no happy endings, no touches of grace, no eye-rolling sentimental scenes.  It starts off showing the parents' discontent with each other, then focuses on the effects of their separation.  When the two separate, it is painful to watch what happens to their kids, one in high school, one in junior high. The son in high school, played to perfection by the always-excellent Jesse Eisenberg lashes out in a quiet way.  He takes the side of the father, a faux-intellectual teacher who never thinks he's wrong.  This causes even more problems when his younger brother takes the mother's side.  He gets his anger out sexually and visibly going to disturbing heights that I will let you discover when you view this film.

Baumbach is great at making amazing films about unlikable characters.  He writes scenes that seem to be taken straight from real life and infuses them with fascinating symbolism.  In one of the most subtly fascinating scenes in the film, the father takes the older brother and his girlfriend to see David Lynch's Blue Velvet (reviewed on this site).  This is a piece of Noah Baumbach's signature symbolism.  Like the tree with rotten roots in his masterwork, Margot at the Wedding, this piece of symbolism shows a problem with the family.  Blue Velvet is a film about a boy who discovers a disturbing underworld underneath his seemingly perfect suburban town.  This is like the family in the film.  They are seemingly normal on the outside, but on the inside, there is serious dysfunction occurring.  Another rather comical aspect of this scene is that the son is taking his girlfriend on a date to Blue Velvet, a film rife with graphic violence, rape, and kinky sex.  Who would go on a date to this film?  This shows a lot about the abnormality of the characters.

In addition to the smart script, the performances by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are jaw-dropping.  Jeff Daniels is the most impressive actor on display here.  He is fantastic as the aforementioned faux-intellectual teacher father.  He makes himself completely unlikable (and Daniels is normally a very likable actor) and so does Laura Linney.  She and Daniels arguments in the film are as realistic as they get and are very hard to watch, especially because their two children are around.  

Overall, The Squid and the Whale is a great piece of work from one of the only directors around that makes films with completely unlikable characters nothing less than compelling.