Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Released in 2012

A record 70 minutes of footage from The Dark Knight Rises was shot using IMAX cameras. IMAX theaters stand about five stories tall and used to only screen movies about mountains and sea turtles. Since Christopher Nolan’s Batman predecessor The Dark Knight pioneered Hollywood’s use of these cameras with 30 minutes of IMAX in 2008, these giant theaters now rattle with loud bouts of action. Because IMAX cameras emit loud buzzes or whirs or whatever sound they make while operating, actors must dub over their lines in post-production. Layering heavy, percussive score over the soundtrack sounds like the other solution, at least the one these audio mixers devised.

I list these facts and observations because, for all the moments The Dark Knight Rises fills the screen and sonic space with intricate, thundering shoot-outs and fistfights, the more apparent it becomes that noise rules over silence, brawn over wisdom and text over subtext. Naturally — but not effortlessly — the last entry in Batman’s War on Terror trilogy boasts immaculate production familiar to Nolan’s prior masterworks like Memento and Inception. Many talented Nolan collaborators return, such as cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley and editor Lee Smith. The two hour, 45 minute film keeps pace but its energy does not sustain from fresh set pieces or inspired ideas as much as a maximalist take on terrorism that oversteps The Dark Knight’s tasteful balance.

Before the obligatory plot outline, I must mention one exception to that thesis above. Batman’s foil, Bane (Tom Hardy), makes a spectacular entrance. We meet Bane hooded and handcuffed on a CIA plane. When help arrives, he not only escapes but destroys the aircraft and all in it. His soldiers rappel from a bomber above, tearing apart the plane with wires and aerodynamics, and descend into the vertical fuselage to retrieve Bane and a nuclear scientist (guess what the scientist will do). As per his style, Nolan inserts a bizarre detail in the middle of the action — transfusing the scientist’s blood into a lookalike corpse — that, while biologically and forensically infeasible, leaves a brutal signature. This prologue was screened before IMAX showings of last year’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and stands alone, then and now, as a thrilling and appropriately terrifying assemblage of creative stunt work and computer effects.

From here, the plot picks up eight years after Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders in collusion with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who continues to perpetuate the lie despite a clawing conscience. Meanwhile, Batman’s alter ego, the once-billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), holes up in Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes recluse, hobbling around with a cane, atrophying legs and dwindling financial assets. He entrusts Wayne Enterprises to alternative energy innovator Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and dons the cape once again beside Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), called “Catwoman” in the comics but not in the film. Being women, the two serve as love interests to Bruce Wayne/Batman. I would accept the inclusion of romance if there was any.

That is not to say that Selina Kyle does not belong in the film, as Hathaway brings out the mischief of a character that moves the plot forward from an intriguing vantage point. The other worthy addition is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake, an idealistic detective whose investigations on the streets correctly predict Gotham City’s impending attack. Batman could have filled that role, but the following list of characters stood in the way: scheming suit John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), his slimy assistant Stryver (Burn Gorman) and spineless Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine). Others simply waste time like Selina’s accomplice Holly (Juno Temple), who puts Batman in pursuit of the “clean slate” program, a MacGuffin that only leads to significant plot holes. I felt nothing for any of these characters, except disdain for the aforementioned Miranda Tate and not the deliberate kind. Every one of them could have been coalesced with another or deleted outright, only granting more time to those we already care about. No one would complain to see more of the old man trifecta of Gordon, Wayne engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine, who multiplies the numerator of blubbery acting per second on screen).

By virtue of screen time, Bane matters more than all of these supporting and minor parts. By all other indicators, he matters very little. When the movie ends, his irrelevance to the overarching plot and lack of standout moments stick out. With that gnarly mask draining all emotion — Nolan could have at least shot close-ups of his eyes, the only human element on his face — and his faux-genteel Vocoder speak, Bane incites populist rage in the denizens of Gotham. His soldiers — how many are there, who are they, what is their motivation? — assault the stock exchange, demolish the bridges and imprison the police officers, leaving the rich penniless or dead and this anarchic city-state under mob rule. The hand of the people hovers over the trigger of a nuclear bomb, set to blow if any interfere. That is what Bane tells the people, at least.

Echoes of “We are the 99-percent” are felt, if not heard. The obvious interpretation is that Christopher Nolan and co-writers David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan are critiquing the “class warfare” of Occupy Wall Street. Yet the hostility to the revolutionaries also extends to the fat cats themselves, as Deputy Foley rolls his eyes at a panicked stockbroker and tells him, “I’m not risking my men for your money.” When viewed from afar, the financial grandstanding so prominent for the film’s first two-thirds reduces to complete nonsense. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad plot twist at the end trivializes Bane’s ideology and sweeps the motives of the entire attack under the rug. With the bomb’s countdown ticking away, big ideas flatten under the crunch of the final battle.

Under threat, the innocent hide in their homes or join the outlaws to loot the streets. On the other hand, the trapped police officers band together to dismantle the opposition. There is an underlying, and I believe unintentional, cynicism in having only those who formally swear to protect their city actually do anything to save it. For a director so eager to employ sensitive imagery of the terrorism we know — urban destruction, dead cops — does Nolan forget the good we see in the masses? The outpouring of grief and determination to pick a stranger up after evil attacks stands resilient. You need not look farther back than a week to the tragedy associated with this very film.

Nolan hammers this false depiction of terrorism for most of the film’s duration. The middle act in particular suffers through overbearing sinister acts without any break for humor or hope. Pfister’s cinematography beautifully captures this carnage, but Gotham’s snow-swept, smoldering streets look like Warsaw Ghetto filtered through 9/11 more because they can than because they have something to say. The Dark Knight built comic relief into the madness itself, with Joker as both the chaos and the jester. I don’t think Bane has cracked a joke in his life, and there are times when you would think none of these characters have.

Audiences love this movie; at press time, user votes have placed this Batman at number nine on IMDB’s greatest movie list, one behind The Dark Knight. The ranking will eventually settle downwards and the site’s polling is notoriously skewed young, male and partial to comic book adaptations. Nolan sure knows how to end a movie, as the suitably epic closing hits all the right notes to send fans hollering. While I may not join in, I do admire the simple and profound core storyline — that of the Dark Knight rising. Often the clutter of Gotham’s revolution engulfs the film’s most important narrative. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman are reborn as “more than just a man,” approaching a Christ-like symbol of incorruptible strength. Bruce must climb out of hell — in this case, a deep, open pit used as a stone prison — to vanquish the demon born in it.

There is a beauty in The Dark Knight Rises struggling for recognition. When Batman returns from exile, there is a striking shot of him walking through the streets toward Bane (picture above and to the left). The police officers in Batman’s way drift to the sides, as does a cloud of mist that no longer obscures his body. The cameramen and lighting technicians must have toiled for that shot. What accompanies this potent image? Composer Han Zimmer’s relentless timpanis and a quick cut to Bane pummeling a random nobody. Imagine if the editors slowed down the action, extended the shot and silenced the soundtrack save for Batman’s footsteps and a few pretty choral or string measures. Enough time to ponder that no matter what happens, good has risen and evil will lose. After all, there is no such thing as a subtle approach when projected on a five-story IMAX screen.

Final Verdict:
2.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Breaking Bad: "Live Free or Die" Review

"Live Free or Die"
Breaking Bad
Season 5, Episode 1
First run on July 15, 2012

(There be spoilers ahead.)

There are no passive Breaking Bad fans. What we call “love” for television’s greatest show, a psychiatrist may deem “obsession.” There is a good chance that if you are reading this, you have watched all four seasons to this point, maybe across its four-year tenure or perhaps in a month-long “binge” or “marathon” — the choice of words indicative of your self-image. I fall into the binge/marathon group (I prefer the latter term), as I only got hooked this summer and watched all of Season Four in two days, finishing just hours before Sunday’s premiere (for which my friends and I dressed up as characters from the show). The implications of this grotesque absorption are worth exploring (for a later time), but I can testify that hitting “Next episode” on Netflix and Blu-ray felt more like a necessity than an obligation.

What about Breaking Bad transcends television? The appeal does not rely on the memorization and recitation of some alternate mythos, as in Game of Thrones. Instead, the universe Breaking Bad occupies is about our own, presumably without Malcolm in the Middle. The series hooks us with characters we love because we see ourselves in them and with characters we hate because … we see ourselves in them.

The model of this is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who has increasingly lost touch with the humanity he once tried to save. As his plot to kill nemesis Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) proved, Walt has abandoned good intentions in order to win. We may not, and really should not, root for him, but we definitely feel him — his pain, his anger, his madness. Beside Walt is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a man, no longer a kid, finding organized crime more loathsome than the ghetto life he lived before.

Thankfully, Season Five’s premiere lets us take a breath and remember that all this nihilism and brutality is just a subtext to a show that serves, above all, as entertainment. The morose tones so flagrant at the end of Season Four will certainly return and intensify as the final season progresses, but the beginning of the end takes care to not overdose on tragedy, or on any one mood at all. That is why Breaking Bad has a ravenous fanbase: It is more than a drama, thriller, black comedy or chemistry tutorial. It is all of those at once, with gut punches equally emotive, witty and badass (“Stay out of my territory,” “I am the one who knocks!”).

The source of fun in this episode is, to quote Jesse, “Magnets, bitch!” Walt and Jesse join Gus’ fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) in a shaky alliance — Mike nearly shoots Walt dead on first sight — to destroy video evidence of them working in the “superlab” they set aflame in last season’s finale. Problem is, the police already retrieved Gus’ laptop with all the footage. So, in a heist more Raising Arizona than Ocean’s Eleven, they strap a huge magnet inside of a truck and point it at the police station’s evidence room from a street outside. After wonderful special effects send computers and tricycles flying through the room, Walt underestimates the magnet’s power as their truck tips over against the station wall. They escape in a getaway car on time, but “How do we know it worked?” Mike asks. “Because I say so,” Walt replies.

By this point, Walt has crossed into the dark side, making it especially chilling to watch him harken back to Esposito’s Gus when staring at his goofy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) with a sculpted, loveless mug. He belittles Saul — “You’re a two-bit, bus-bench lawyer” — and growls, “We’re over when I say we’re over,” at his face in a devastating close-up. Walt has taken Gus’ place in the drug trade and as the source of evil. Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is the primary antagonist to Walt’s protagonist due to his repeated attempts to take down “Heisenberg,” Walt’s criminal alias. But Hank continues to exemplify goodness, as flawed as he is, and only pushes forward in the face of death threats, assassination attempts and paralysis. A pivotal confrontation between the two is due in the near future, and the audience’s sympathy will knot over the consequences.

The rest of the episode’s events range from teasing to bizarre. In what appears to be a year in the future (actually 2010 on the show’s timeline), the premiere opens with a glimpse of a hairy, grizzled Walt wearing thick-rimmed glasses ringing in his 52nd birthday by assembling bacon into a “52” — a nod to the series pilot — by himself at a Denny’s restaurant. He has adopted an alter ego, “Mr. Lambert,” and buys a machine gun from the dealer who sold him his illegal pistol last season. Later openings will likely revisit this vague set-up, adding more pieces to the puzzle until the main story merges like the second season’s “pink teddy bear” scenes. It is a tantalizing non sequitur, though on the other hand the episode provides an unexpected answer to the fate of Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins). Many fans inferred that when he fled from Saul’s goons and tripped on his carpet, he snapped his neck and was done for. They were right. But, even worse, he lives on as a hollow shell of the sleazeball he once was. When director Michael Slovis cuts to a shot of a bald, almost alien-looking Ted, immobile on a hospital bed and fastened into a halo brace, the painful urge to laugh bullies any shred of remorse we might have humored.

In moments like these, the obvious resurfaces: Breaking Bad is one sick show. Last season opened with one of television’s most gruesome deaths (“Box Cutter”), but Season Five begins by reintroducing us to our favorite characters and all their psychoses, deformities and illicit talents. What a relief that Gilligan and the rest of the writers wield this depravity as a means for humor and enjoyable action. They certainly get serious as well, although even the most traumatic of verbal takedowns betrays a grain of irony. Walt returns home to his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who panics about the recent events their family has been through and Walt’s role in every one of them. As if he did not hear a word she said, Walt mentions Ted’s injury, hugs her and whispers, “I forgive you.” She slept with Ted and stole over half a million dollars to hide Ted’s tax evasion, but Skyler does not pass through Walt’s mind for a second as he silently accepts her repentance. The family that he swore to protect since day one does not cross his mind at all. Walt justifies every terrible thing he has done by simply ignoring it. The scene was so frightening my friends and I could not help but laugh in our faithfully accurate costumes. Any witness would probably run scared. We have a great season ahead.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man Review

The Amazing Spider-Man
Directed by Mark Webb
Released in 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man provides a real learning experience, at least to me, on why some action films succeed and others fail. A handful of totally valid complaints can be charged against this reboot of a franchise that only booted ten years ago. Most quarrels hone in on its mere existence. How many times can studios get away with repackaging the same story just to reel in an easy profit? Consider if Marvel recast The Hulk for the fourth time in a decade; this argument is not without merit.

Well if I am just another sheep fulfilling some corporate scheme, this time, I am rather enjoying my subjection. Question the film’s purpose all you wish; The Amazing Spider-Man soars much higher than it has any right to with its sterling commitment to character. Character, character, character — if art’s purpose is to explore humanity, then, in film, priority should be placed on developing the human surrogates. The connections between viewer and character make or break action films preoccupied with flaunting their special effects. My admiration for Men in Black 3 and distaste for The Avengers reflects this truth.

Andrew Garfield’s embodiment of a more inquisitive, wide-eyed Peter Parker rises to such distinction. Emma Stone as love interest Gwen Stacy does, as well. They make a cute couple, at the very least. Director Mark Webb assembled the quirky romance of (500) Days of Summer, so the interplay between the two sparks in ways Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst did not. There is no epic “MTV Best Kiss Award” moment, but many small, real little moments: After Gwen acknowledges him for the first time, Parker’s lips twitch as he imagines kissing her. That ultimate kiss itself is a hilarious mix of revulsion and seduction. In a movie without any standout supporting characters — with the exception of Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy, Gwen’s policeman father, who plays a surprisingly crucial role in the plot, steeped in Leary sleaze — the couple actually steals the show.

Of course, the romance is just a subplot to the origin story. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man covered much of the same ground, but it would be tedious to point to which scenes were better or worse. Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves (Harry Potter) breeze through much of the exposition, adopting an alacrity that does not slow down to underline this transformation or that discovery. In fact, Parker’s super-fast and ultra-adhesive fingers rip apart his keyboard, parodying that “Google for answers” cliché that has emerged in recent years (Though Parker uses Bing for some horrid, inexplicable reason. Sony owns Columbia Pictures, so Microsoft either wrote a fat check or held a marketing executive hostage).

The answers Parker seeks revolve around the abrupt fleeing and subsequent death of his parents when he was a young boy. Living with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, who was always the Ben I imagined, with all respect to the late Cliff Robertson), Parker finds the mysterious briefcase his father left behind the last night he ever saw him, which includes an immaculate “decay rate algorithm.” Learning that his pop’s old partner was Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), Parker treks over to the imposing Oscorp tower in the heart of Midtown to befriend and assist this lost family friend (The mutated spider bites him at this point, too). Connors lost his right arm years before and researches “cross-species genetics” to make reptilian limb regeneration a human reality. It goes without saying that playing god turns you into an angry, rampaging Godzilla.

The script throws at us a love story, a science-fiction thriller and a hardboiled mystery, though the central arc starts, grows and tapers as a coming-of-age tale. Characters ascend and fall according to their commitment to altruism. The hotheaded seek vengeance, while the wise hope for forgiveness. The separate narratives have little problem coexisting for they each quietly impart these themes. Peter Parker is still a kid — he buys milk when roaming the streets at night and plays Breakout on his smartphone from his spider web ambush. But he matures along the implicit yet unspoken “With great power comes great responsibility” adage so pertinent to the character, sacrificing personal happiness and well being for others. In the movie’s most powerful scene, Spider-Man rescues a little boy from a burning car, giving him his mask and telling him, “It will make you strong.” Spider-Man’s presence raises the weak around him, even when you realize through his repentance that Parker is only saving himself.

Mark Webb and cinematographer John Schwartzman capture these perilous episodes with the right colors and pacing, brightening the palette and speeding up camera movement for the acrobatic action scenes and softening the focus and tone when goofing in high school. They bathe his Manhattan web-slinging (now achieved through mechanical ‘biocable’ shooters Parker builds himself, consistent with the comics) in a neon, Times Square glow, the city surrounding and literally superimposed upon him — the tourist’s vision of New York City, at least. As Spidey brachiates throughout the city, Schwartzmann and the CGI team retain a startling level of fluidity as they track him plummeting and careening back up, not blurring the surrounding skyscrapers in a roller coaster effect. They screw with shutter speed in ways I have not seen before.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man gave us Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin and Spider-Man 2, perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made, hosted an unforgettable turn from Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus. This incarnation of The Lizard does not stand in their league. Rhys Ifans is a gifted character actor, so the blame does not rest on his shoulders but rather the screenplay’s, which studies his character at arm’s length, no pun intended. The Amazing Spider-Man can certainly compete with its predecessors, but its leaner approach fortunately precludes humdrum Venn diagrams. This film nurtures a joyous spirit that also pulsated through the mid-term Harry Potter entries, like the imperfect but captivating Goblet of Fire. The characters are more like you than not, for all their superpowers and magical abilities. They channel that nascent desire for more, not in material wealth but in strength and integrity. And through every deed and moment of sacrifice, they teach us why we can’t have it.

Final Verdict: 
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Brave Review

Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell
Released in 2012

Brave stands as Pixar’s most mature work to date. Pixar itself is quite mature, although in that context I mean “old.” Brave proves the 26-year-old studio is aging with poise and self-reflection — a wise, accomplished … mature artist passing down knowledge to adults and, more importantly, children. The collected works of Pixar teach the School of Life.

To many critics and friends of mine, Brave does not strike them as bold or ambitious, which they observe only in light of the studio’s previous works, particularly the consecutive string of masterpieces: Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 (the only threequel rightly deserving of such praise). In concept alone, Brave is built with familiar fairy tale parts. However, co-directors and writers Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell tweak the structure in a number of daring (one could say ‘brave’) ways, executing a story with all the visual flourishes natural to the studio’s computer wizardry. But it is the seamless storytelling — in this case, spinning a simple yarn in an economic and universal fashion — that is so Pixar, qualifying Brave as yet another classic animated feature.

The film’s wonderful protagonist shoulders all this ‘ambition’ the detractors accuse as absent. Whereas we call something “ambitious” only because of its blatant potential to not make money (there are other artistic justifications, of course, but this is the fundamental endgame), what could be a more risky pitch than the tale of a sexless tomboy subverting romantic tradition with feminist ideals?

Princess Merida (Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald) must face the chivalric custom of choosing a suitor to marry. To her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), the day recalls elegance and prosperity and lifelong security. To Merida, the mere thought of arranged marriage rouses her into a cross-country frenzy of archery, horse riding, hiking and free rock climbing. You know, girls. The father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), would protest to such distaff indecency if not for his own Ahab-esque obsession over a bear that bit off his leg in a fight when Merida was a wee child.

The hearty humor sneaks up on you and drives the film’s lengthy but breezy exposition. As three houses compete for the princess’ hand — the leaders of which are voiced by Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd and Robbie “Hagrid” Coltrane — their brawls and constant one-upping prove ceaselessly entertaining, not unlike the laughs that Up and Toy Story 3 delivered with ease. After missing the bullseye in Merida’s competition, the fuming son of Lord Macintosh hurls his bow into the crowd of spectators behind him. A disembodied hand from the very back catches it on a snap and a muffled voice exclaims, “I got it!” This is not groundbreaking humor, but it flows like a winning comedic routine, thanks to the efficient direction and malleable animation. There is a lot of slapstick, but it is damn beautiful slapstick. Merida’s three little brothers, none who say a word, scurry throughout the castle, terrorizing Cleavage Lady (self-explanatory) as the nonexistent camera glides around the architecture. In our era of ‘blue’ social comedy, how refreshing it is to laugh at friendly jokes built on artistic ingenuity and not self-aggrandizing pop culture references.

Naturally, Pixar programs this thing with effects NASA is probably dying to grab. The Scottish highlands look immaculate, as does the rendering of water, particles, shadows and light. That impenetrable fog perpetually looming over the British Isles actually feels inviting, at least to this American. Computer-generated humans have also evolved eons since Toy Story. The dimensions and proportions of nose to eyes to ears and so on remain like caricatures — as symbolism, fun and peaceful dreams demand — but the artistic engineers imbue an individual humanity to these characters. You can see it in the eyes.

Or hair. Merida’s fiery locks are an engineering marvel and they punctuate a remarkable character’s demeanor and independence. Sick of her mother enforcing a staged way of life, Merida lashes out like any teenager. The consequences, however, shock them both; to repair this mutual debacle, Queen Elinor must appreciate Merida for who she is and vice versa.

Some critics have misconstrued the film’s message, including my beloved Roger Ebert who charges the filmmakers in making “her a sort of honorary boy.” They overlook the stunning message finally christening the Disney pantheon. From the obvious Cinderella to the sinisterly safe Mulan, all of the “Princesses” have always ended up with their Prince Charming. Disney, the only distributor to reach such an international audience with female protagonists and inspire millions of children with every release, has made their first comprehensive feminist statement. Love champions above all else: love for family, friends and even yourself. That last point is where commercial children’s entertainment often fails. Grow comfortable with who you are and live through your own passions. Love will find you, when you welcome it. It is funny but much more sad this “feminazi” propaganda — what some extremists consider those fighting in favor of the renewed women’s rights movement — is just something you would hear on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Princess Merida is the greatest Pixar character since Wall-E, which puts her alongside Woody, Buzz, Dory and … pretty much no one else. Disney can even exploit her for merchandising, which her Toy Story and lesser Cars counterparts know too well. I am sure little girls are already buying or more likely demanding the Princess Merida doll en masse. Hopefully they can understand why there is no Prince.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.