Sunday, July 29, 2012

SAVAGES: Sleazy, Cheesy Action


I love a good grim n' gritty, down n' dirty crime flick - and so I was very open-minded and hopeful going into Savages. Especially in the summer, when so many of the big blockbuster films tend to be sci-fi and fantasy, it would be a nice change of pace to dive headlong into the violent world of drug trafficking, cartel warfare, and nihilistic conflict that the film seemed to promise. And Savages delivers in terms of grimy atmosphere and sleaze-soaked violence. Director Oliver Stone ably juggles a strong cast of actors through a labyrinth of crime, and elicits some great performances from the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, and more. Still, Savages ends up feeling less substantial and less memorable than it should be. The tone is stylized but not in a way that particularly resonates - in the effort to be an ultra-slick crime flick, it never seems to go quite far enough. And the story takes a lot of left turns, but few of the twists are as impactful as you'd hope for. What carries the film are the performances. But neither the style nor the substance of the film seem to go all the way towards reaching their potential. Somewhere at this movie's core, it seems to want to make a Heart of Darkness-style statement about human nature and our propensity towards mutually-assured destruction. But SAVAGES ends up being mostly surface-level entertainment - good performances and cool moments, but not much meat to really chew on.

I do admire the fact that the plot and characters of Savages are a bit unusual for this type of story. Certainly, the main love triangle at the center of the film is not something you see a lot of - a three-way polyamorous relationship in which two best friends share a mutual lover. The two men in question are Ben (Aaron Johnson), and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Ben is a zen-spouting hippie who has gotten into the drug game because he just enjoys growing the stuff. His partner in crime, Chon, is an ex-soldier who is in it more for the thrill and the violence. Their companion, O (Blake Lively), is a sultry, still-finding-herself rich girl who seems to enjoy having the yin and the yang of both men at her constant beck and call. O narrates the film, and while Lively mostly does a good job here, some of the dialogue she's given is really, really groan-worthy - from the school of trying-way-too-hard-to-sound-hard-boiled, and instead, just sounding ridiculous. I guess there's sort of a Point Break, cheesy SoCal noir vibe here - and there is something sort of entertaining about seeing these annoying, overprivileged white dudes act the part of badasses. What makes it work is, I think, that the movie semi-acknowledges that the leads are a bit annoying, and therefore relishes letting us root for its vile yet charismatic badguys.

And it's the badguys who steal the show in the film (well, really every character is a "badguy" in the movie, but I'll get to that in a bit). Benicio Del Toro is the #1 reason to check this movie out. As Lado, the cool-as-a-cucumber, hyper-violent, sadistic muscle of a Mexican drug cartel at war with Ben and Chon, Del Toro is awesome. He makes Lado into one evil S.O.B. Yet Lado is so blatant in his savagery and so nonchalant with his sadism that he sort of grows on you. Similarly, Salma Hayek is a lot of fun as the matriarch of the cartel, Elena. Elena is a fun character - as ruthless as Lado, yet also with a tragic side to her. As we learn her backstory, the character becomes surprisingly multidimensional. That helps to make Elena a fun villain - and her and Lado make for an entertainingly loathsome duo. I'll also give props to John Travolta. Though I'm sick of the man's real-life sketchiness, I'll admit that his performance here is one of his best in a while. As a sleazy cop-on-the-take, who plays both sides of the drug war against each other, Travolta brings his A-game and turns in an excellent performance. Finally, I'll mention Demian Bechir - so amazing in last year's A Better Life. Here, he's a business-suit-clad lieutenant of Elena. Though the part is somewhat small, Bechir gives it a unique degree of gravitas.

Of course, a big point of the film is how the cycle of violence perpetuates. We're made to think we should be rooting for Ben and Chon in their drug war with the cartel - but soon enough, the duo has killed as many men, and been nearly as ruthless and treacherous, as the brutal cartel they've been in conflict with. There is the opportunity to make a pretty profound statement here, but the movie never really explores its central themes in any truly meaningful way. Hell, the title of the movie implies a lot in and of itself (they're all savages - something that is said and hinted at many times throughout the movie's running time) - but again, the movie is usually trying too hard for Tarantino-style cool to spend time on serious reflection. So again, Savages is caught between trying to be a stylized grindhouse flick and a more thoughtful meditation on the drug wars, and the neverending cycle of violence they perpetuate.

Again, there are some great individual moments from the cast - particularly Hayek and Del Toro. But the plot never quite comes together in a meaningful or affecting manner. Without spoiling anything, the ending of the film, filled with fake-outs and twists, confirmed for me that the movie lacked direction. Meaning: none of the possible endings were all that compelling to begin with, because the build-up was simply lacking. The film sets up a number of interesting plot threads, but it just seems to lose interest in a lot of them as it goes on. For example, I thought there could have been something really interesting in the way that Ben evolves from a man of peace into a cold-blooded warrior like his compatriot Chan. But his transformation unfolds without a ton of insight into his inner conflict or mindset. To that end, I also never felt like we had a complete handle on his relationship with Chon. The movie has some eyebrow-raising scenes where it's hinted that, perhaps, the two have a relationship involving more than friendship -- but it's never fully explored. Many characters in the film remark how odd the three-way relationship between Ben, Chon, and O is - but we as viewers don't really have more insight into it - we too are left guessing. Kitsch and Johnson are both good in the film - each looks the part and adds something to the character ... but they aren't given a ton to work with.

In any case, between the continuing horrors of the real-life drug war, and the examination of the drug trade in shows like Breaking Bad - I feel like there's certainly a lot of fertile and fascinating ground for a movie like SAVAGES to cover ... and I found myself getting into the film whenever it delved into the ins and outs of the conflict and its various players. And yet ... Stone and company only seemed half-interested in that part of the film, and at times seemed more concerned with Natural Born Killers-esque grotesqueness and ultraviolence. Savages occasionally fires on all cylinders, but it can also feel tonally inconsistent and thematically shallow at times. Worth a watch for Hayek and Del Toro, but ultimately, this isn't the epic crime drama  it could have been. Instead, it's an entertaining-if-occasionally-cheesy action flick.

My Grade: B

Sunday, July 22, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: The Definitive Review From a Diehard Bat-Fan


- With BATMAN BEGINS, the sheer thrill of seeing the Batman mythos taken seriously, of seeing these characters portrayed by A-list actors, of putting the DARK back into the Dark Knight ... it was more than enough to make me love that film. Finally, we were out of the Bat-hell that was the Schumaker-era. Finally, we had moved on past the campiness and into a film that drew inspiration from the classic comics of Denny O'Neil and Neil Adams. Finally, we had the Batman film that we'd been waiting for. Then THE DARK KNIGHT came along, and director Christopher Nolan again assaulted us with a film of unparalleled, thunderous momentum and intensity. The movie had flaws, but it was incredibly easy to overlook them - Heath Ledger's stunning performance as The Joker was so brilliant and badass that it elevated the film past any superhero movie before or since. But with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Nolan's sweeping directorial prowess and sensory assault just isn't enough. Narratively, he seems to run out of gas before our eyes. Watching the film, it was almost as if I could see Nolan fall out of love with BATMAN as the movie went on. The direction was as epic as ever, the cast as talented (if not more so) ... but the message of the movie felt limp and confused. The plot holes and inconsistencies felt more pronounced, and the more grating aspects of the series all the more noticeable. The fact is: I am a lifelong Batman fan. I know the comics inside and out - the character and the mythology fascinate me to no end. There's no character I geek-out for more so than Batman, and that includes Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. But I didn't get that high from DKR. And trust me ... I take no joy in saying this, but here it is: this is a very good film, but it's also a low-point in Nolan's heretofore superlative Batman trilogy,


DKR takes place a full eight years after the events of the previous film. Gotham has settled into a time of relative peace, but that peace is built on a lie - the lie that Harvey Dent was a martyr, killed at the hands of the city's enemy: Batman. The Dent Act has cracked down on crime, and now Commissioner Gordon watches over a city that is safer, though he bears the burden of knowing that that safety was built on false pretense - and that it cost Gotham its true savior. To that end, Bruce Wayne is now a recluse, holed up in Wayne Manor, using a cane to get around on a hobbled leg. Wayne's gone emo - shaggy, bearded, and still hung up on the death of Rachel Dawes.

Now, let me pause here to say how falsely this rang with me. BATMAN, the most obsessive, driven hero in pop-culture - a man who spent YEARS training to become the pinnacle of human potential, to become a one-man war on crime - has been sitting on the sidelines for a decade, pining for his lost love?! Remember, in this particular movie-verse, he was only actually Batman for about a year. And he just gives it up and becomes Howard Hughes? Yes, in Frank Miller's classic Dark Knight Returns, it's all about Batman coming out of retirement - but that's when he's middle-aged and had been fighting crime for decades. Hell, in Batman Beyond Bruce Wayne is still going strong well past the date he received an AARP membership. I get it, this is Nolan's take on the character. But I'm sorry, this take is lame.

To further expand (and to get even heavier into MASSIVE SPOILER territory) ,,, I just don't get what Nolan is going for with Bruce Wayne's character arc here. The first act of the movie is all about a Bruce Wayne who's given up being Batman for years. But the threat of a new uber-villain - the sadistic BANE - is enough to convince him to get back into the bat-suit. And yet ... the movie is not at all about Bruce Wayne embracing the Batman. Somehow, the plot evolves to be about Bruce Wayne *growing out* of being Batman, and leaving that identity behind him. Essentially, the film - in a very short span of time - takes Bruce Wayne in two completely different directions. On one hand, it builds and builds towards the Dark Knight returning, but then rather abruptly veers into much different thematic territory. The ending of the film sees Bruce Wayne fake his own death - that of Wayne and that of Batman. Wayne gives up his role as protector of Gotham. He gives up his identity as Batman. And he goes off  on a European vacation with Selina Kyle. The film tries to rationalize this sudden swing with a series of earlier scenes, in which Bruce is held captive, in the same nearly inescapable prison that Bane once called home. The big emotional beat here is that Bruce as Batman had no fear of death, and thus was a weaker man - unable to garner the strength of spirit to escape the prison. Only by realizing that he did have more to live for - that there was life beyond Batman - did Bruce muster the willpower to escape. I get it. Sort of. But this just rang false to me. It contradicts the much-more powerful premise that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and only Batman is real. It undermines the arc of the first half of the movie - the return of Batman - when we realize that the return was never going to be more than a one-shot deal.

Let me jump around a little bit here ... and please note: there are a number of mini-rants below. Most of these aren't deal-breakers as far as my enjoyment of the movie goes, but things that bugged me. More so, these were things that kept the movie from being *great*, from reaching the levels of awesome found in Begins and most especially in Dark Knight.

So ... I have to talk about Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I mean John Blake. I mean "Robin." His NAME WAS ROBIN. This was the single worst, most eye-rolling moment of the movie to me. And there was something about it that really bothered me. Nolan has said many times that he doesn't like Robin. That's always bothered me, because Dick Grayson is an awesome character. Tim Drake is an awesome character. Hell, Damian Wayne has become a pretty awesome character over the last few years. But the reveal of Blake as a dude named Robin - and the setup of him potentially inheriting the mantle of the bat - it felt cheesy. It felt lame. It felt like a weird mix of fan service and spite. "You wanted a Robin, here's your Robin." Some random cop doesn't just become Robin or Batman or Nightwing. Again, it felt unnecessary, and it felt like a short-cut. It felt like a plot point that is far too easy and optimistic for this franchise. We had a whole movie about the years of hardship and training and preparation that it took for Bruce Wayne to become Batman. But John Blake just gets to step into those shoes? It seems to undermine not just Batman cannon, but a lot of what we've already seen in this trilogy. Thematically, it doesn't even make much sense. By the end of DKR, we're supposed to be happy that Bruce has "escaped" this life and found peace. And yet we're also supposed to be happy that Blake has embraced the cape and cowl - stepping right into the role that was supposedly so horrible and tragic for Bruce. It's one of many examples of the movie undermining itself.

Another example is Bane. Bane is built up quite solidly. His first encounter with Batman is suitably intense, gripping, and unnerving. When he very quickly disposes of Batman and "breaks" him during their initial mano e mano encounter - in a scene that evokes the classic Knightfall comic book storyline - it's probably the single best moment in the movie ... its biggest, most holy-$#@& scene. But towards the movie's end, a bunch of things happen that just plain destroy Bane as a character. For one thing, there's the false reveal of Ra's Al Ghul as his father, in a very strange scene where Liam Neeson appears to Bruce as a hallucination. This is played as a major reveal ... but why? It's proven false soon after, and that negates the entire origin story of Bane that we'd heard earlier - which was pretty effective in building him up as an uber-badass. For another thing, Bane is built up as a leader, a tactician, a mastermind ... only to eventually be revealed as a mere pawn for Talia Al Ghul. The movie goes so far as to re-tell Bane's origin with Talia in his place - the ol' bait-and-switch - transferring much of Bane's badass status to Talia. Suddenly, Bane is just a lackey, a pawn. Finally, as if to reinforce his sudden demotion to jobber status, Bane's climactic fight with Batman comes to an abrupt end when he's promptly obliterated by Catwoman, who kills him point-blank with a high-tech firearm, and who fires off a well-timed quip in the process. WTF? This completely kills the epicness of the Batman vs. Bane brawl. Catwoman straight-up kills Bane and Batman doesn't say a word in protest. And ultimately, Bane goes out like a chump instead of like a champ.

Speaking of Talia Al Ghul ... I love Ra's and Talia. Two of my all-time favorite characters. I wasn't surprised whatsoever that "Miranda Tate" turned out to be Talia ... as soon as Marion Cottillard was cast, I knew she'd turn out to be the Daughter of the Demon. But the movie killed the character by insisting on keeping her identity a "mystery" for so long. By doing this, they forced Talia's motivation for helping to destroy Gotham to be reduced to two sentences of clunky exposition ... exposition that barely made sense. Apparently, Talia hated her father ... until Batman killed him, at which point she decided to take up his cause and destroy a city full of people. Ummm ... okay? Look, the reason we all love Talia is because she's an uber-complex and conflicted character, torn between her love for her father and her love for Bruce Wayne, her "beloved." There was none of that complexity in DKR. Talia was a Bond villain, a thinly-drawn cypher. We spent so much time with her posing as a corporate titan that we never saw her as a badass. Her complex relationship with Batman was reduced to an out-of-nowhere tryst with Bruce and an out-of-nowhere turn to all-out, megalomaniacal villainy. Weak.

Catwoman. Catwoman at her best is a tough-as-nails femme fatale. Raised on the wrong side of the tracks, devious, devilish, but fiercely loyal and protective of the people and causes she holds dear. Catwoman is the most badass of all badass female characters in fiction. She will kick your ass and break your heart all at once. Now ... Anne Hathaway is a fine actress. And she gives it a good go here - she tries. But she's no Selina Kyle. It felt like watching a girl-next-door play-acting at being a badass. You could feel Hathaway trying her damndest to do the sultry voice and bad attitude, but she just wasn't pulling it off. I never believed that she could take out one armed thug, let alone dozens. I never believed that Batman would fall for her hard, let alone quit being Batman to hang out with her. We didn't get Selina's backstory - we barely got into her head. The fetishistic/psycho-sexual aspect of the character was never really touched on, and her chemistry with Bale was pretty nonexistent. And ... the Catwoman costume in this movie was boring and generic - a plain leather biker suit with no style or flourish. How hard would it have been to have just used the instant-classic, Darwyn Cooke-designed suit from the comics? Ultimately, this Catwoman was never offensive or Halle Berry-level bad, but she was also nothing special. It's a shame. Catwoman is one of the best characters in the Batman universe, and she deserves an iconic portrayal (I guess there's still Michelle Pfeifer from Batman Returns ... who Hathaway can't touch).

Alfred ... he up and leaves Bruce because Bruce becomes Batman again. What? This was a major beat in the movie and it, again, rang false. I could see it if it happened *after* Bruce gets mauled by Bane. But it happens so early on that it has no resonance. In the previous films, Alfred seemed to take satisfaction in helping to see through Bruce's quest to clean up Gotham. Now, Bruce's most faithful friend just ups and deserts him?

One more thing: as bone-crunching as some of the action is in this movie, most of it didn't feel like Batman. In the Knightfall comics, Bane breaks Batman by strategically exhausting him mentally and physically. By the time Bane personally confronts Bruce inside of Wayne Manor, he's a shell of his usual self. It takes every ounce of Bruce's willpower to fight back against Bane, and ultimately, Bruce has no more fight left in him. But in DKR, Bruce returns to a Bane-controlled Gotham to literally wage war on his foe. Batman leads an army of cops in an effort to take back the city. And yet ... Batman's big plan to confront Bane is to simply duke it out with him? Their fight is visceral and intense, but it might as well be a boxing match. It felt off to have Bruce come all the way back to Gotham - after having been imprisoned for so long - without much in the way of a plan. Of course, he did plan an elaborate bit of theatrics - a dramatic lighting of a bat-symbol-shaped flame - to announce his return to Gotham. Too bad he didn't also bring some ideas of how to take out Bane aside from punch him a bunch of times.

A lot of the issues I have with the film can be traced back to its jumpy pacing. The movie picks strange moments to leap forward in time, undercutting a lot of potential drama and build-up. We see Bruce dramatically escape from the prison Bane sticks him in, but then we just see him appear back in prison-state Gotham moments later, with no explanation given of how he got back in. Bruce falls for Miranda and Selina at the seeming drop of a hat. Look, we all know that the weak link of the last two films was the love interests - but here, the lack of chemistry and believability in the relationships is even more pronounced. Meanwhile, Alfred storms out of Bruce's life incredibly abruptly. Then there's Blake's arc. Bruce talks to Blake a couple of times, and suddenly we're to believe that he's been entrusted with Bruce's most sacred and personal creation - the mantle of the bat. How about when Bane seizes Gotham ... it's hard to figure out exactly the effect on ordinary citizens, and it's difficult to discern the larger ramifications of his takeover - we get some quick cuts to the military and the President (played by no less than the great William Devane!) talking over the matter, but it all feels pretty incidental to the main plot. Finally, the random cameos by Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane were totally baffling to me - Cillian is great, but why have him appear as Crane if he does nothing the least bit Scarecrow-ish?

So yeah, DKR has a lot of issues. The pacing is uneven, the twists feel out-of-nowhere and cheesy, and  thematically, the film lacks cohesion and consistency, seemingly contradicting itself and previous films in the series at every turn. But please, don't get me wrong ... the persistent power of Nolan's direction is still a force to be reckoned with. While lacking the sorts of iconic shots that made The Dark Knight so memorable, DKR still runs like a rocket engine. Nolan is among the best ever at giving his films an operatic, apocalyptic momentum. And for a while, DKR has a haunting sense of racing towards Armageddon (and that's partly why the multiple "happy endings" of the film ring so false, thematically). But Nolan and his cast again make the film riveting more often than not. Bale is as intense as ever as Bruce Wayne / Batman (though the strained,  gravelly Bat-voice feels more absurd with each passing movie).  But come on - look at this cast. The seasoned supporting players like Caine, Freeman, and Oldman are reliably kickass. Tom Hardy makes some odd choices as Bane (the voice is alternately creepy and just weird and campy - sometimes he sounds badass, sometimes like Dr. Frankenfurter - undoubtedly, he's got too much dialogue) ... but Hardy's become one of my favorite actors precisely because he's so unpredictable and unhinged. There's no doubt though that Hardy helps make Bane into a great, imposing villain for much of the movie ... at least until the script butchers him. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has some truly great scenes in the film. Even if his character never fully worked for me, Levitt is one of those guys who's so good, he makes any part he plays better than it might have been otherwise. Again though, it's hard to overstate how much Oldman, Caine, and Freeman are MVP's of the film. They give so much gravitas and dignity to their roles, they elevate every scene they're involved in.

And Nolan still delivers the goods - with help from cinematographer extraordinaire Wally Pfister - in making the movie look huge and breathtaking, In IMAX, it's stunning to look at. I honestly think that those who come away loving this film will do so because they simply got completely caught up in the overpowering imagery of certain scenes. That's when the movie is at it's best - when it's dealing with simple, emotional, cinematic beats. The high-speed chases through the streets of Gotham - Batman piloting his ultra-sleek, ultra-cool Batwing. The big, stirring moments - as when Gordon lights up that flaming Bat-symbol, triumphantly announcing that the Dark Knight has returned. Or, perhaps most memorably, when a determined Bruce Wayne uses every ounce of his legendary willpower to escape from the inescapable prison - scaling its unscalable walls to impossible freedom. As Han Zimmer's epic score soars, as Bruce's fellow inmates chant in ominous tones, as Bruce channels his inner Batman and scales those walls - that is the moment where you think "damn, Christopher Nolan is the real deal, man." And hey, I'm a Nolan fan from way back. I count Memento as one of my top movies of all-time. I've loved his work from The Prestige to Inception, from Batman Begins to Dark Knight. And there are a handful of scenes in DKR where Nolan does indeed wow you as only he can.

That's why I do feel a bit torn about this one. I did thoroughly enjoy it, and there is some truly exceptional filmmaking to be found in certain points of the movie. In and of itself, it works as a good, solid, entertaining superhero flick. But there are two very high standards that this film was going to have to live up to. One was Batman Begins, and to a larger extent The Dark Knight. TDK was and is a true modern-day classic, perhaps the apex of serious superhero movies. Could Nolan make a film that was on par with - or better yet, that outdid - the movie that raised the bar? Secondly, there is simply the Batman legend. Nolan is playing in quite the sandbox here, adapting beloved characters that shaped childhoods, that have had their stories told in countless comics and cartoons. Heath Ledger's Joker was different than previous versions - but it was so interesting, so complex, so unique - that it instantly became iconic in its own right. I don't know if we'll be saying the same about this movie's versions of Bane, Catwoman, or Talia Al Ghul. Certainly, not about "Robin" Blake.

If you look at the metatext here, it almost feels like Nolan wants to move beyond Batman, just as Bruce does in the film. I don't know that Nolan ever truly loved Batman, but he found his place of passion, his voice, when he realized that he could use Batman as a metaphor for our modern-day political struggles - as a symbol for the hopes and fears and moral ambiguity of a post-9/11 world. From that perspective, there is a unique sort of symmetry and closure in DKR. But it feels more true to Nolan's internal political debate than it does true to the character of Bruce Wayne / Batman. Superheroes can be used as political allegory, but ultimately it all comes back to the core of the character. What makes Bruce Wayne who he is? And ultimately, what is the Batman mythology all about? The Dark Knight worked as political allegory and as a Batman story because it found the sweet spot where the two intersected. The clash between Batman and The Joker is also a clash between order and chaos, method and madness - between civilized society and violent anarchy. But where was that sweet spot in DKR? The political allegory that Nolan aimed for necessitated a story where Bruce Wayne returns as Batman, only to forsake the mantle, erase his identity, and start a new and more carefree, peaceful life. The political message clashed with the Batman character, and the overarching theme of the film forced Bruce to act very un-Batman-like. There wasn't that same subtextual symmetry in this one as in the previous films. The end result? Nolan's political message becomes muddled, as does what he has to say about Batman and Bruce Wayne. Ultimately, the message that comes through most clearly seems to be Nolan saying "I'm done with Batman, and for that I feel content." Problem is: Batman is never content, and never stops fighting. And perhaps that's the issue at the heart of this; the reason why The Dark Knight Rises entertained me yet left me wanting, why it wowed me on a technical level, but never fully won me over on an emotional one.

As for how I graded this movie ... at the end of the day, I give the movie props for its best and biggest moments. Relative to other comic book adaptations, there is still a level of quality and craftsmanship here that is above and beyond the norm, second to none. And certainly, a level of thematic ambition that you don't see in many films in this genre. But I also grade movies in terms of: how well did the film accomplish what it set out to do? Earlier this summer, The Avengers set a new standard in terms of a superhero movie that was a near-perfect execution of its intended plot and tone. DKR aimed high and shot for the moon - but like I said ... it ran out of gas before the finish line - crushed under the weight of its ambitions and its legacy.

My Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TO ROME WITH LOVE: Woody Allen's Euro-Odyssey Continues


- Even if I don't love all of his work, I'll always be interested to see a new Woody Allen film. Woody's movies are so distinctly ... Woody ... that it's fun to just get inside the guy's head for a little bit and see what's on his mind these days. His movies, to me, are always fascinating to watch even when they don't 100% click - because there, on-screen, you're seeing the gears of his brain turning, seeing him work out his ever-expanding neuroses for all to see. Now, I tend to think that the chasm between the "great" Woody Allen films and the "dud" Woody Allen films is not necessarilly that great. It's why I tend to be surprised when, by turns, critics and fans hail something like Midnight in Paris as a crowning achievement, while writing off something like Anything Else as a bomb. Most of Woody's films have their moments. Most have some pointed observations, some interesting philisophical themes. But most also have implausibilities, anachronisms, awkwardness - characters that seem to exist only in a weird Woodyland where people on the street stop and discuss poetry and philosophy in casual conversation. Especially as Woody's gotten older, there's increasingly a huge disconnect between his percieved worldview and how things actually are. He usually writes characters and stories that are supposed to be grounded in reality (unlike, say, a Wes Anderson who is clearly writing from a left-of-center perspective). But again, Woody's reality sometimes feels like that of a guy who needs to get out more and live in the actual real world. And yet ... like I said, there's something to be said for a guy who is this singular of a voice. Sometimes, it's nice to imagine living in Woody's world, where nerds win the hearts of brilliant beauties, where knowledge of literature and the arts is used as romantic currency, where everyone is is smart, worldly, and well-off enough to spend their time dealing with the existential rather than the real.

Which brings me to TO ROME WITH LOVE. In many ways, I enjoyed it about as much as Midnight In Paris. For one thing, the setting is spectacular - if nothing else, the film serves as a great little travelogue. Allen still has a great eye for location, and he has an uncanny ability to film a given city and make it look both authentic and exotic and otherworldly. Allen's also got a talent for capturing the personalities of his cast members, and the cast of this film is truly top-notch. Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Alison Pill, Judy Davis, and Fabio Armiliato (a real-life opera singer who's hilarious playing one here) - all are great in the film. Even Woody himself gets in on the action, playing Alison Pill's father in a very amusing role - his first on-camera part in several years.

The film's story is actually four stories. Four interweaving but wholly separate stories that each tell a comedic tale set in Rome. In one story, Eisenberg plays an architecture student studying in Rome and living with his girlfriend, played by Gerwig. Her friend - a lovable but clearly crazy aspiring actress (Page) comes to visit for a few weeks, and immediately, Eisenberg is tempted by her freewheeling ways. The twist/joke here is that, one day, Eisenberg runs into an older, well-known architect played by Baldwin. the two strike up a conversation and become friendly, and Baldwin begins following his young apprentice around, giving him advice and providing a running commentary on the younger man's romantic dillemnas. Is Baldwin actually an older version of Eisenberg, magically transported back to the past to lend a hand to his younger self at a moment when he's about to - potentially - make a life-changing mistake? The movie plays coy, but it's the kind of magical-realism-infused device that Woody loves. In the second story, an ordinary man in Rome (Benigni) wakes up one day to find - suddenly and inexplicably - that he is the most famous man in Rome. He's a star, a tabloid sensation, a celebrity. But why? This, also, is Woody having fun with magical-realism. In the third bit, a young couple travels to Rome together - while happy on the surface, each longs for something a bit more adventurous from life. When they separate for the day, each finds temptation - the guy from a gorgeous prostitute (Cruz) who mistakes him for her client, the gal from a famous actor who takes a liking to her. In the final story, Woody and his wife (Davis) travel to Rome to visit their daighter and her new fiance. When they meet the fiance's family, Woody has a "eureka!" moment when he hears his in-law-to-be singing in the shower (Armiliato). It so happens that Woody's character is a retired opera director, and he sees this man - who's never sang professionally - as his ticket back to the bigtime. Only problem is, the dude can only sing well while in the shower. And so, yeah, shenanigans ensue from there.

All four stories are pretty amusing, though the one that worked for me the most was probably the Benigni segment, as it was a rare instance where Woody seems to strike at some spot-on social satire, with regards to our current Reality TV/TMZ culture. Benigni plays the whole thing brilliantly, and is very funny. This is also the segment of the movie where Woody's script is just in full-on farce mode, and it works well. It's nice to see him do something so blatantly silly and comedic. Of course, the opera-singer story is also very funny at times, but it's also much more dragged-out feeling as it's sort of a one-note joke. That said, I'll say again that Armiliato is hilarious, and also, Allen gets in a few choice quips - some vintage Woody sprinkled in there. The young couple storyline is okay, but meanders and feels a bit miscast. The actor who seduces the young woman is supposed to be a suave George Clooney type, but doesn't really pull it off. Cruz is good though, and looks stunning. The Eisenberg/Gerwig/Page/Baldwin storyline is the one with the most potential, but also the one that felt the most off to me. You've got two of the most perfect possible Woody surrogates in Eisenberg and Page, but the dialogue they're given feels like Woody at his worst - pretentious and stilted. I mean come on Woody, stop having your characters use the term "make love" in every other sentance. And why is Jesse Eisenberg dressed like an 80-year-old man? I know, some of these things are surface details, but still ... there's just a lot that felt *off* about this segment in particular. It's a feeling you get a lot when seeing Woody trying to do slice-of-life stuff these days. Maybe the segment could have worked better if it was the subject of an entire film - certainly, there's enough potential here to make a whole movie around this group of characters. But the anthology aspect of the movie - while helping the simpler, sillier segments of the movie - harms this more serious, more thematically ambitious portion.

If there's one overarching theme of the movie, I suppose it'd be that of people not being content with what they have, then coming to realize that, perhaps, things aren't quite as bad as they'd seemed. "It could always be worse." But that theme only very loosely ties things together. And the Rome setting gives the film visual continuity, but not necessarilly narrative continuity. The upside is that To Rome With Love is easy and breezy - it's pretty much enjoyable from start to finish, even if you end up wincing at some of the dialogue and characterization choices. Some critics may look for the broader critical analysis in all this ... is this "good Woody" or "bad Woody?" Is this the end of Woody's recent "streak," or a sign that his European film tour is losing steam? Is this a letdown after Midnight in Paris, or a solid companion piece. The answer is all and none. This is a "lite" movie from Allen, sure, but it's also a quintisenntially Woody Allen movie, with a lot of the strengths and flaws that you so often find in his work. But the man is now a novelty, because there are so few singular voices making movies. Especially in the summertime, when so many movies are processed, synthetic, product - it's fun and refreshing to see what now amounts to the cinematic equivalent of your neurotic comedian uncle sitting you down and telling you a couple of funny stories.

My Grade: B

Monday, July 09, 2012

TED is Funnier Than Your Average Bear

TED Review:

- Way back in the day, in a time seemingly remembered by few ... a little show called FAMILY GUY burst onto the scene ... and it was friggin' hilarious. Back when it debuted, I was floored by Family Guy and how funny it was. I sung its praises, quoted it to friends, made sure to watch it each week on FOX. This was it - the next great thing in TV comedy, the new funniest thing ever. Sadly, few others seemed to hop aboard the bandwagon. Few were watching the show, and it was cancelled after a few too-brief seasons. As years passed though, somehow, Family Guy became the posterchild for second chances in the newly-dawning DVD age. The show became a cult phenomenon on home video, and while I was in college those DVDs were a staple of dorm rooms everywhere. Finally, the writing (and dollar signs) were on the wall. In an nearly unprecendented move, FOX brought back Family Guy with all-new episodes, and it's been a mainstay of FOX Sunday nights ever since - and a ratings winner to boot. But something happened in the years since Family Guy returned to the air ... it just wasn't as funny as it used to be. In fact, the show increasingly became self-parody, devolving so as to become more mean-spirited, more pointlessly crude, more repetitive, and - at times - more annoyingly preachy, than during its pre-cancellation creative peak. At the same time, Seth MacFarlane, the show's creator, franchised himself out. He created two new series for FOX, began popping up in all sorts of other movies and TV shows, and where once he was a rebel of edgy television, he was now a self-styled billionaire with his own animation empire. And that brings me to TED.

Ted is the first major motion picture written and driected by MacFarlane. And commercially, of course, there's never been a better time to be part of brand MacFarlane. But what about creatively? Would this be the breath of fresh air to big-screen comedy that FG was to small-screen comedy back in the day? Or would Ted have the same sort of feel as latter-day episodes of MacFarlane's shows ... occasionally worth a laugh, but mostly just coasting?

Well, I'm happy to say that TED is 90% old-school MacFarlane. It's often funny as hell, and it actually is refreshing. Because let's face it, most big-screen comedies are pretty dumb. But MacFarlane is a very, very smart guy, and when he's on, there's an intelligence to even his most random gags that you don't see a lot of elsewhere. So, sure, Ted could have been a just-plain-dumb movie, given its premise, if it'd been made by, say, Happy Madison. But there's a sharpness to the writing that elevates it. And there's that old, Family Guy-style penchant for pop-culture references that tap that particular vein of Gen X and Gen Y-skewing hilarity. This is MacFarlane very nearly bringing his A-game.

The story of TED is classic comedy-as-fairy-tale. When a young boy named John makes a Christmas Day wish for his toy teddy bear to come to life, the wish is magically granted, and the bear - named Ted - becomes a living, breathing thing, and John's new best-buddy. John was a bit of a friendless outsider as a kid, so he and Ted became inseparable. And this was true even as John and Ted got older. Now, John is a 35-year-old dude who works at a car rental service, gets stoned a lot, and watches a lot of DVD's ... and Ted is right there with him. In fact, Ted is sort of the enabler of the pair. As an "adult" teddy bear, Ted is the ultimate man-child: lazy, perpetually high, irresponsible, and a bit of a perv. He's a bad influence on John, who's trying to get his life together so as not to lose his impossibly-cool girlfriend Lori. But if keeping Lori means losing Ted, John finds himself torn between his childhood pal and the girl he wants to spend the rest of his life with.

First off, Mark Wahlberg owns it in this movie. This is the funniest he's ever been on camera. His comic timing is spot-on, and his interplay with the MacFarlane-voiced, CGI-animated Ted is consistently hilarious. Playing up a goofy accent for laughs can sometimes get old fast, but there's just enough subtlety in Wahlberg's Boston dialect to make it that much funnier when it's used to accent some of the movie's more madcap dialogue exchanges. MacFarlane is basically just doing the Peter Griffin voice (he even points it out in a bit of meta-humor in the film), but it works pretty well here. And Mila Kunis, as Lori, is very likable and oftentimes very funny herself. No stranger to MacFarlane's warped brand of humor, Kunis seems totally game for anything, and does a nice job of playing Lori as frustrated, yet still likable (i.e. she comes off as reasonable, and not merely cold - as easily could have happened with a lesser actress in the part).

Meanwhile, there are some nice supporting turns here. Joel McHale is an obvious standout as Rex, Lori's sleazy douche of a boss. Giovanni Ribisi is also creepy and just out-there as a strange stalker of Ted's, who figures heavily into the film's third act when he decides to bear-nap the object of he and his son's obssession. I'll also mention Bill Smitrovich, who has a small but hilarious part as Ted's boss at a local grocery store. And the list of additional cameos is jam-packed with big names and small names and just plain random names. The big highlight that is a total scene-stealer is Sam Jones, who is best known as Flash Gordon from the ultra-cheesy, camp-classic 70's version of the movie. A major joke of the film is John and Ted's fixation with Flash Gordon, and the joke has an incredible payoff when Flash himself appears. Don't worry, that's not a spoiler, because the real, jaw-dropping fun begins when Jones gets screentime and just goes off-the-rails, providing, perhaps, the film's biggest, most gut-busting laughs.

As mentioned, MacFarlane's script really shines. The best bits are all the semi-random exchanges between the characters, especially when they go off on tangents in classic MacFarlane style. It's a dense script packed with jokes, and it's full with pop-culture references and asides and random bits of absurdity.

The one weakness here is one that tends to plague certain episodes of Family Guy - that being MacFarlane's tendency to veer wildly from crass, sometimes mean-spirited absurdist humor to attempts at legitimate sentimentality and heart. When talking about Family Guy, people often point to classic episodes of The Simpsons as examples of a series delicately interweaving genuine heart and pathos into the framework of satirical and oftentimes absurdist comedy. But subtlety isn't MacFarlane's strongpoint, and he tends to go for both big, crazy laughs and also big "aww shucks, sniffle sniffle" moments. And sometimes that is a bit jarring, and occasionally off-putting. The truth is, you can often see - even with FG - that MacFarlane's creative mind is sort of being pulled in two very different directions. Part of him is very much a traditionalist, with a genuine affection for old sitcom and family comedy tropes. And part of him likes nothing more than to subvert those tropes and go as far away from traditional as possible. Suffice it to say, the juxtaposition can get a bit messy. It can also lead to stretches devoid of good jokes - or any jokes - because things have suddenly gotten serious. I'll also mention that the Ribisi bear-napping plot, while very funny at times, appears a bit too sporadically for a thread that is key to the movie's climax.

Overall though, TED has enough memorable and really-friggin'-funny moments that it is, easily, one of the best and most laugh-out-loud comedies of the year so far. While MacFarlane can have some annoying tendencies as a writer, this is an example where he mostly reigns them in and reminds us all why he became one of the biggest names in comedy in the world. Wahlberg, Kunis, and Flash by-god Gordon are the perfect compliments to MacFarlane's vision. It's safe to say that Mr. MacFarlane's big-screen career is off to a pretty damn good start.

My Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Hey, True Believers! Spidey Returns in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN!


- No matter what, there is going to a specter hanging over this latest effort to bring Spiderman to the big-screen. It was only a few short years ago that the third Sam Raimi-directed Spidey film was released, a film that ended up being the finale of a trilogy that was a big part of the modern superhero cinematic boom - a trilogy that made Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's 1960's creation more popular than ever. And anyone who follows movies knows that this latest Spiderman flick was a movie that, essentially, *had* to be made by Sony. If they didn't make a new one, they'd forfeit the rights to the character, and the property would revert back to Marvel Studios. So yes, we get a new Spiderman movie now, but if Sony hadn't retained the rights, then hey, Peter Parker and friends would be back home at the House of Ideas, free to co-mingle with Iron Man, Captain America, and Nick Fury. So sure, there is a certain cloud if cynicism and corporate politics that hangs over The Amazing Spider-Man. And yet, my own long-held skepticism about the film slowly but surely began to wear away as I watched it. No, this one never reaches the loopy comic book highs of the still-brilliant Spiderman 2 (the pinnacle of the previous series), but it helps make the same ol' origin story semi-fresh again - with a more-than-up-to-the-task cast, a slightly darker and more modern feel, and plenty of classic Spidey action.

The fact is, even if Sam Raimi's Spiderman 3 has a small but vocal group of supporters, I've rarely seen a more disappointing entry in a beloved blockbuster franchise. To me, Spiderman 3 was a huge black mark in Marvel movie history, and so I was ready for a clean slate. Sam Raimi remains one of my all-time favorite directors, and he did great things with the character. But there were certain things that did intrigue me about a reboot. For one, I've become a big fan of Andrew Garfield, and he seemed to be a great choice to play Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire always seemed a little off to me as Spiderman, so I was eager to see if Garfield could bring a little more of the wise-cracking, smart-alecky Spiderman of the comics to the big screen. As it turns out, Garfield does a pretty great job here. He is appropriately awkward as Peter, but there's also a toughness in him that makes him feel like a natural as a superhero. He also has great chemistry with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Peter's pre-Mary Jane gal pal. No, they don't have the will-they-or-won't-they drama that Peter and Mary Jane did in the earlier films, but that's okay. It's fun to see Peter with someone who's less a fantasy object and more a partner in crime. So yeah, even though Garfield and Stone are pushing believability a bit as high school students, I really enjoyed both, and they definitely brought some real depth and sense of fun to the two lead roles. They've created versions of Peter and Gwen who I'd gladly follow into future sequels.

And that's the thing with this movie - its biggest accomplishment is probably that it lays some fantastic groundwork for future sequels, establishing a great new cast and a fresh start for Spiderman's cinematic adventures. Not that the movie isn't well-done and entertaining in its own right - it's just that, again, the shadow of the Raimi films looms large. What I mean is that you can almost feel this one stretching to avoid major beats from the first Raimi movie. The film's villain, Dr. Curt Connors - aka The Lizard - works at OsCorp, but Norman and Harry Osbourne don't factor into the film. Peter still takes the inspiration for his Spidey costume from a pro-wrestler, but this film avoids the protracted wrasslin' sequence of Raimi's. Uncle Ben utters a variation of his famous credo - "with great power comes great responsibility" - but paraphrases, in a moment that seems to scream "this is not the Spiderman you know." And yet ... certain sequences mirror the Raimi original almost to a T. Even the font of the movie's title is almost identical (calculated move by Sony, given that they later co-opted that font for the PS3?). Point being, movie fans now have a taste of what comic book fans have long suffered through - having to see your favorite character's growth endlessly stunted by a continual cycle of reboots and retcons, the same origin stories told over and over and over again - always tweaked for more modern audiences, but always familiar to longtime fans. So here it is, mainstream: your chance to know the unique anguish of the comic book fanboy. Ironically though, the film reintroduces one of the main concepts that comics fans complained was absent from Raimi's films - the idea that Spiderman's webshooters are mechanical - invented by boy-genius Peter Parker - rather than an organic part of his spider bite-induced transformation. Personally, I can take or leave the mechanical webshooters - while they are comic book cannon, it *does* seem a little silly that web-shooting isn't just a power of Peter's ... ya' know?

Still, The Amazing Spider-Man surprised me in a number of ways. Not through any crazy plot twists, per se, but more so in how much it actually did get right. I mentioned the strength of Garfield and Stone as the leads, but let me mention Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. He rocks. Sheen plays the hell out of ol' Uncle Ben, and the strength of his performance really anchors the early part of the film. Sally Field is also really good as Aunt May. No, she isn't the vegetable-esque grandma of the older comics, but that's fine by me. At this point, I don't mind May being more of a three-dimensional character and less a one-note joke. Another big surprise for me was Denis Leary a Captain Stacey, father of Gwen. Leary makes what could have been a minor character into a memorable badass, and really steals a couple of key scenes. I also enjoyed Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors. While his motivations for villainy were a little silly, Ifans did a nice job, I thought, of making The Lizard into a more multidimensional villain than probably was written on the page. I know some couldn't get over some of the goofier aspects of The Lizard's evil plan (he wants to ... turn all of NYC into ... lizard people?!), but it didn't bother me that much given that Ifans sells the character well and makes him into a formidable menace. And no, I didn't love the character design of the CGI-created Lizard (looked more like Killer Croc from Batman), but I also didn't think it was that bad. Personally, I was won over by the fact that we had numerous, fun, kinetic action scenes of Spiderman fighting a giant reptilian monster.

On that note, I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed the film's action scenes. They're mostly smaller-scale and less over-the-top than some of the big set-pieces in the Raimi films, but I thought there was some really solid stuff here. The action definitely has a fast-paced, videogame-esque sheen to it, but I thought that there were some pretty kickass moments, with plenty of interesting, web-slinging moves that we've yet to see on the big-screen. A fight between Spidey and The Lizard that takes place in the halls of Peter's high school was particularly fun and innovative-feeling (and featured a fantastic cameo from Stan Lee!), and was a major highlight. I also admired the use of first-person during a few web-swinging sequences - if it was overdone, it could have been annoying, but given that it was used sparingly in a couple of key moments, I enjoyed it. That said, Marc Webb is a talented director, but he follows in the footsteps of one of the most visually-innovative modern directors in Sam Raimi. All three previous Spidey flicks had a couple of those jaw-dropping, vintage Raimi moments (think the Doc Ock transformation scene in Spiderman 2) that helped elevate those films. I don't know that the new movie has that one sort of instant-classic visual moment, per se. But it still looks great overall, and given that this was Webb's big leap to blockbuster action, I think it's a great first step.

Where Webb is 100% in his comfort zone though is when dealing with the quirky-cute Peter/Gwen relationship. It's no surprise that the guy who made the charming 500 Days of Summer would do a bang-up job with the young romance portion of The Amazing Spider-Man, but still ... Maybe it's just that we've had to endure so many lame, forced-feeling romances in superhero movies over the years, but man, this one was refreshing. Not for any melodramatic stuff that occurred, but more so just for the little moments of banter and flirtation between Gwen and Peter. In short, most superhero movies - yes, even the mighty Christopher Nolan Batman films - make you cringe at the romance subplots. But not here - you can't help but root for these crazy, mixed-up kids to find love.

One final surprise for me was that, despite being smaller-scale, the movie had a couple of big, heart-filled emotional beats that caught me off-guard. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any superhero story where a whole city rallies around their local hero (I am), but I thought that the film did a nice job of remembering that Spiderman is of and for New York City. Even if it's a bit darker than the Raimi films, this one still has a very New York feel to it (Garfield even does a pretty good NYC accent), and I liked that - even if the setup to get there was a bit contrived - the movie eventually paints Spiderman as a hero to the people of New York, even if the police and media think of him as a menace. And, even if the Raimi films owed more visually to the old Lee/Ditko comics, I still thought that this movie maintained a bit of that old Marvel feel, with certain shots evoking the comics both old and new. Sure, purists might complain about superficial updates like Peter now being a skateboarder, but to me, there was no doubt that this was the Peter Parker we've known and loved. In particular, the way that Garfield's Parker seemed to revel in the web-slinging and wise-cracking ... that to me was more OG Peter Parker than the version we often glimpsed in the old trilogy.

The biggest problem with the movie? It feels like it's in too much of a hurry. It almost seems like the movie is on the same page as us going in: "yes, we realize you want to skip past the origin and get to the good stuff." That's fine, but the movie is very much structured as a full-on origin story, and so it jumps between all the usual origin-story beats (Peter is bitten, he's horrified by his new and uncontrollable abilities, he goes off and tests his abilities, he puts on a ski-cap and all-black and foils a crime or two, he dons a prototype version of his costume, he constructs the actual costume, etc., etc., etc.). It can all feel very by-the-numbers - and so you have to ask ... did we need it all? I always think back to the beginning of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, where he brilliantly lays out the classic Superman origin story in one page, and then gets right to the good stuff. I'm not sure why that couldn't have been done here. Because the side-effect of spending so much time on the by-now tired origin story tropes is that we miss out on some potentially cool moments that are only briefly touched on. For example, it feels like we really only see about 3/4 of the full Lizard story. We never find out how he lost his arm, we never learn exactly how and when Dr. Connors is able to transform back-and-forth into a reptilian monster. We never get the full explanation of his sinister plan for the citizens of New York. And we never see much of the hinted-at inner conflict he has, where part of him has affection for Peter and Gwen, and part of him - the monster part - wants to destroy them. Some similar jumpiness exists in the Peter/Gwen relationship arc. There are tons of great little moments between them, but there's also a slight sense that we've skipped over some key beats in their story. Of course, a lot of these sorts of problems are just inherent to translating serialized comics to two-hour movies ... these stories were designed to be multi-part soap operas, and so you inevitably miss out when cramming everything into one film - particularly an origin film.

And yes, some random other moments in the film bothered me. Ironically, many were similar pet peeves I had with the Raimi films. For one, I get that you're paying your star a lot of money, and thus don't want him behind a mask the whole time, but DAMMIT ... Spider-Man needs to keep his mask on when in costume. For one thing, he's got a secret ID to protect, and for another, Spider-Man looks cool with the mask on, but without it, he's just a nerd in tights. But similarly to the previous flicks, The Amazing Spider-Man finds every contrived way in the book to get Garfield to lose the mask. Lame. Also, few superhero flicks have ever done a good job of having heroes interact with kids (Captain America is one of the only ones that had a great hero-meets-kid scene). And this movie has a very groan-inducing Spidey-saves-annoying-kid moment that grated on me (even more so because Spider-Man took his mask off in the process of saving him for no good reason). Finally - and this has been a problem with most Marvel movies to date - the score is ultimately pretty forgettable and not iconic like it should be. Spider-Man deserves an awesome theme, dammit. Get Hans Zimmer or John Williams on the phone, Marvel, and stat.

Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man didn't necessarily 100% wow me as a standalone movie, but at the same time ... I thoroughly enjoyed it and liked a lot of the creative choices it made. It did give me a lot of hope for the franchise going forward, and I could see a sequel really blossoming once more distance has been achieved from the Raimi movies, and now that the origin is out of the way. Certainly, this is a huge step up from the abysmal Spiderman 3, and certainly, this is one of the better big blockbuster films we've gotten so far this summer. Those who say this is one of the worst Marvel movies are, quite frankly, on crack. No, this isn't The Avengers ... but this to me is a crowd-pleaser - a fun and charming superhero flick that's true to the spirit of Spider-Man.

My Grade: B+