Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

Four years after releasing the commercially and critically successful The Dark Knight, Nolan ventures back to Gotham to deliver a tale that seems more content with delivering preachy, quotable dialogue than actually creating and developing characters and a story viewers can relate to and care about.

The comparisons between this final entry into Nolan’s Batman series and its two predecessors are unavoidable. For starters, Rises plays out more as a direct sequel to 2005’s Begins than The Dark Knight. That is to say, the story of Ra’s al Ghul was apparently incomplete at the end of the first film, and after watching Rises, it seems like it would have been far more appropriate to deliver a more meaningfully paced story of al Ghul over the duration of three films rather than the story with The Joker (not to say that story wasn’t brilliant). My point being that, as a trilogy, Nolan’s Batman seems to have its criminal chronology out of order. But that’s only a minor grievance compared to the other weaknesses I picked out of the film.

Like many trilogies before it – and primarily Spider-man 3 – the third installment of this series loses a great deal of its depth by introducing a number of characters who have had no prior connection to the series, yet are triumphantly significant here. Along with those characters come storylines that aren’t ever quite as fleshed out as they should be. The most prevalent of these is that between playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and business competitor John Daggett. In this universe, eight years have passed, and much of the sociopolitical scene has transgressed into a new kind of Gotham. In this world, Wayne Enterprises is on the brink of collapse due to Wayne’s seclusion from the outside world. However, despite Daggett taking up quite a share of screen time, the hand he plays in the chain of events is relatively small given he is usurped by – and essentially an appendage of – the primary antagonist, Bane, portrayed by Tom Hardy (who is clearly continuing to channel his energy from Warrior).

The second of these is Bruce’s new relationship with his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). They convert from a respected friendship to a bitter difference of ideals quickly and with little emotional buildup prior to the boiling point. This only made me wonder if Caine perhaps had other business to attend to other than Rises instead of a planned plot device. Especially when Alfred’s departure from service has no noticeable effect on the way Bruce Wayne conducts his day to day life. After losing the only person with whom he’s shared every moment of his life, time moves on without a beat. Fresh on the subject of sour relationships, viewers will remember the death of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight and how it profoundly affected the character. Here, it’s alluded to with what seems like no other purpose than to remind viewers that the filmmakers remember her (though there’s no mention of the Joker anywhere).

Lastly, we have the second-in-command deputy commissioner Peter Foley (so understated and irrelevant that I actually couldn’t recall his name without the aid of a Google search). He contributes little to the movie except for a brief representation of Gotham’s perception of Batman. However, that Gotham loathes the Caped Crusader for his alleged murder of Dent is no mystery to the viewer and needs not be reiterated through what seems an unnatural obsession with catching the bat.

That goes without saying that there are some welcome additions to the cast. The first, a returner from Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece Inception, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays John Blake, an energetic and well-meaning cop who Nolan uses as a contrast to our modern Batman. He represents what Batman stood for prior to the death of Dent in The Dark Knight in bitter contrast to the current Batman who’s more or less content with silently fading into obscurity instead of preserving a system of justice in a corrupt city. Batman has regressed into something that, despite making the ultimate sacrifice for Gotham, isn’t a peerless and stalwart defender, but a coward running away from the past that haunts him.
Another good face is Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) who gives the character the type of luster we’d expect to see from Batman. She nails a character who’s smart and sexy without glorifying herself as a sexual object, which is rare and pleasant in modern film. While Hathaway does nail her performance of Catwoman and Selina Kyle from start to finish, her character is undermined by one of the weakest scripts churned forth by the Nolan brothers (more on that later).

A second returning face from Inception is that of Tom Hardy who plays (forgive the pun) the hardy terrorist Bane. His physique matches the part as perfectly as possible without appearing absurdly out of place in the gritty, realistic Gotham of Nolan. Faults occur at his delivery of lines which often seem far too comically detached from the serious undertones tackled in the previous two films. In fact, everything in Rises seems like it’s been taken much less seriously. The quips are more frequent, the color schemes are all fairly bright, and the script is hard to take too seriously on account of its poor structure.

The last actor to make an appearance from Inception is Marion Cotillard who is strangely flung into the universe as though you’re intended to have some familiarity with her. Bruce Wayne surely does, and after following him through two movies, you’d expect to know a good deal of his acquaintances.
I’ve managed to throw a few low blows at the script for the film, so it’s only fitting that I make good on those words by explaining my motivations for saying so. I’ll preface those thoughts by saying that all of Nolan’s films have an intriguing complexity to them that captivates and amazes. The same could almost be said here except there seems to be a much greater focus on developing deep and riveting prose than actually creating interesting and relevant dialogue. At times, the actors don’t seem quite sure of the meaning of the words, at that may be what adds to the comic delivery, particularly with Bane. With all the winding and interweaving of plots and character arcs, the extensive exposition becomes overwhelming, and watching the film at times seems more like reading ancient literature – you can grasp the gist of a paragraph but the individual sentences seem to hold little value. For that, the plot often seems to be moving in unfathomable directions.

Much of Rises’s preachy nature stems from all those extra characters. Even having seen Begins and TDK, you feel as though you’ve been flung into a foreign world with little knowledge of who resides in it and what exactly their station is. That much only clears up as early as the end of the first act – and even there, there’s confusion to be had. Luckily, this is a superhero film and there’s a healthy dose of action to be had. Unfortunately, like the dialogue, it’s heavy and drawn out far longer than necessary, oftentimes for the sake of preachy lectures from one combatant to the other. The choreography isn’t quite as compelling as that in the first two films. It plays out very slowly onscreen, and compared with lackluster editing, even becoming engrossed in the action can be difficult.

As you can imagine, a poor screenplay often isn’t representative of a strong plot, which this isn’t. As I said earlier, it’s not difficult to know what happened in general, but looking at individual scenes for the essence of systematic storytelling can be frustrating. This only worsens for those who do have a tight knowledge of the previous two films. For the first time in his directorial career, Nolan walks you through the allusions characters make to events in the past film. The first flashbacks of Dent as Two-Face are chilling, but as flashbacks become more and more frequent, they begin to remove you from the immersion of the film and prevent you from connecting the dots yourself. It feels as though Nolan is attempting to keep those who may not have seen the earlier films in the loop, but assuming that’s true, he’s disregarded the simple fact that a sequel isn’t meant to be seen without having first experienced the preceding body of work. Were that not enough, the myriad flashbacks of events that actually occur during the movie seem to cover up the actors inability to memorize their paragraphs of dialogue.

What I believe is most important to address in terms of plot is the ending to this film. Most viewers presumably expect walking into this film is to see the end of Batman. Instead, they’re treated with a tease that leaves open the possibility for the sequel in much the same way Batman Begins did. They never had to explore the joker card that Commissioner Gordon showed Batman, but by ending the film like that, a sequel was entirely plausible. Here, John Blake’s discovery of the Batcave combined with the fact that his discovery is the very last frame of the film, leads any viewer to believe that the legacy of Batman, though Wayne is out of the business for good, shall continue in one form or another.

Technically, the film has as many merits as TDK, but definitely falls short of both it and Begins – but does so for surprising reasons. Having increased his budget and implemented a great deal of additional explosions and gadgets/vehicles for Batman, it’s clear that none of them are taken care of quite as well as the less frequent designs of the previous films were. The prime example here is “The Bat,” Batman’s new flying car, which always seems out of place, even when perfectly framed. And on the topic of framing, it’s everything you should expect from cinematographer Wally Pfister. He captures every moment divinely and manages to make the five-foot-ten Tom Hardy appear to dwarf the dark knight in every scene.

In the technical field, the big issue with the Nolan trilogy has always been the sound design and mixing. Bale’s voice as Batman has always been a point of controversy. To Nolan’s credit, he attempts to quell the complaints, but it seems that all of his masked characters are destined to speak inaudible words to straining listeners. Batman’s voice fluctuates between clear and raspy, and Bane’s voice is occasionally completely inaudible. If the integrity of independent words weren’t already questionable, a viewer might feel slighted at not being able to comprehend – by no fault of their own – the dialogue. At one point, a conversation between Bane and Batman becomes muddled, with the latter channeling some of the former in his voice.

The score by Hans Zimmer isn’t nearly as impressive as The Dark Knight’s, though some of the reused tracks will certainly bring a smile to your face, especially those played when Wayne first puts on the cowl. Everything else seems to be drowned out in a flurry of gunfire raining down from the smoke of explosions.
Those expecting to see Nolan deliver a work that trumps Batman’s last adventure will be let down by the final installment which ups the budget without delivering on promises of emotional depth, character complexity, and a gripping story. Though an overall enjoyable experience, a plot that treads in murky water and a conclusion that fails to conclude the trilogy make The Dark Knight Rises a film that, unlike its direct predecessor, I can fathom critics and fans alike feeling displeasure towards.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Project X (2012) Movie Review

Coming into this movie, you might just expect a mindless party movie, but it's quite a bit more than that. It's  a movie that, supported by an excellent cast of actors, a superb script, and an excellent soundtrack.

Chronicling the exploits of three high school students looking to gain popularity before college rolls around, Project X throws you into and endless torrent of laughter as Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and JB (Jonathan Brown) plan and live the biggest party imaginable.

The high point of the film is certainly the script, which is sure to deliver laughs from start to finish, although the story does become subject to questioning by any rational man. Questions such as why the police aren't more involved with a 1500-man party and why there are seemingly no real consequences for high-end property destruction. Those gripes aside, the film manages to effectively do all it sets out to do: detail the party of your dreams.

All of the excitement of the party (which you will doubtlessly feel through the film) is enhanced by a brilliantly devised soundtrack that blends various genres and musical styles with pieces that perfectly match the on-screen action. Were this not enough to convince a skeptic that Project X is a film worth paying for and sitting through, it should be brought to their attention that one of the biggest draws is the way the three central actors deliver the script. They perform with such a naturalism about them that it's hard to call their collective performance as a tightly knit group of friends anything less than breathtaking.

What might come as the biggest drawback to the film is the excessive sexual content, but what else could one expect from a party that involves both drugs and alcohol? That said, it's not the kind of R-Rated movie that it would seem fair to bring young children to.

All things considered, Project X is a phenomenal visual feast that succeeds in more than just appeasing the "party-kid" demographic. It's the kind of movie that's so much fun, the experience won't end even in the days following the last of the closing credits.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Battleship or How I Learned to Gague the Intellect of Moviegoers

Just last weekend, I saw Chronicle which, if you haven't yet heard, is a fantastic movie. There's lots of fun and intrigue to be had with it despite its resemblance to generally-frowned-upon found footage films. But that's not quite relevant. What I really want to discuss is the audience I watched it with.

One of the great experiences of going to the movies is getting to see trailers for all of the upcoming releases. I can't remember every trailer that was shown, but I do know that most of them looked pretty interesting. Most of them. The first I do remember. It was the trailer for Wanderlust, a movie that interests me because part of it was filmed in my neighborhood - unfortunately, it was the day after Jennifer Aniston had flown back to L.A. It seemed interesting enough, but nothing to write home about. Then there was the trailer for The Hunger Games, starring Jennifer Lawrence, one of my favorite female performers since I first caught sight of her in Winter's Bone. The most exciting trailer for me was for The Avengers, finally advertising scenes that weren't filmed on the cell phones of bystanders. But none of these trailers caught the attention of the audience.

Dead silence. Dead silence throughout all of them. Then it happened. The trailer for Battleship. Right from the onset, I was reminded of Battle: Los Angeles. I haven't seen it, and since I don't get paid to watch movies, I never intend on seeing it, but I think all the bad press speaks for itself. Battle LA was a prime example of shaky cam destroying any amount of coherence in a film (again, from what I've gathered from other reviewers) and Battleship seemed to offer more of the same in the trailer. Senseless apocalyptic tale strewn with over-the-top special effects and a sub-par plot. Yet, this was the only movie that anyone in the theater reacted to.

"That looked pretty good."

"You wanna see that when it comes out."

"Finally a good movie."

Naturally, I was obliged to facepalm and nearly broke down at the comments I was hearing - the only comments from anyone, even after Chronicle started. I was genuinely upset that those were the types of films that people were most stoked for. How is it that flashy effects and America's armed forces, when portrayed in a movie, capture the attention of everyone despite their long history of being poor on-screen experiences? Why is it that people continually fork up their money to see these movies when they're constantly panned by critics and casual viewers alike? Why is it that The Artist has yet to gross 15 million?

It's because people have low standards, and as long as they continue to contribute so much to these critical failures, the more of these movies Hollywood will churn out. The industry is largely based on a formula. Companies want to make profits and they know what movies people are willing to see. Once they have a grasp on the most profitable marketing or the most profitable stories, they'll continue to make movies for the sake of commercial success. It doesn't matter if they make a good movie or not because you'll watch it for .

The only way consumers can alter the way filmmaking is approached is with their wallets. Pay for movies you want to see more of, movies that challenge the way you look at the world or introduce fresh ideas; and leave the nausea-inducing titles on the shelves of retailers.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Fighter Movie Review

There have been very few outstanding movies starring Mark Wahlberg recently. Arguably, he hasn't seen much success since The Departed in 2006. 2010 saw him in three movies, two of which were sub-par "B" movies. Despite those two setbacks, he ended the year on a strong note with one of the best performances of his career: "Irish" Micky Ward in the biographical drama, The Fighter.

The Fall of Dicky Eklund
The Fighter chronicles the life of two professional boxers, older half-brother and mentor Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) and the aspiring Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), during a period of turmoil within the family. Bale's character, who dealt with a severe bout of drug addiction following a traumatizing defeat - trauma so severe that the disgraced boxer compulsively denies the fact that he ever lost. Instead, he seemingly fools himself into believing he is still championship material - and has fallen down the ladder of success into obscurity. However, he spotted a glimmer of hope for redemption through the innate ability of his younger brother. Needless to say, his addiction to drugs and prostitutes fails to subside even after multiple imprisonments. This obsession to earthly pleasures oftentimes leaves Dicky too preoccupied to remember appointments made to train his younger brother, and the resulting sense of neglect felt by Micky triggers the notion that he perhaps might find a better path to success where his family is not included.

The Rise of Micky Ward

Director David Russel does an excellent job of conveying Micky's emotions; though some may disagree, Wahlberg's ability to emote seems genuine in this film. Onscreen, he almost seems to harbor a personal connection with the character - he looks completely natural being out of place. Before long, he befriends the eye-candy bartender Charlene Fleming (deftly played by Amy Adams who steps away from her usual less serious characters for this movie). Micky's relationship with Charlene only furthers the sentiment that he should search for a different path to stardom. A stark contrast to Micky's blood relatives, she expresses concern for his desires, pushing him to become his own man throughout the film. While Wahlberg's character is typically the reserved type, the relationship he has with Charlene brings out a new side of him that is willing to rebel and take a stand against those who never allowed him to speak out. It is here that Mark Wahlberg truly shines. He makes an amazing transformation from a man who simply follows the established order to someone who is perfectly capable of making his own decisions. At the same time, the status quo reconstructs itself according to his standards. Though faced with loss after loss under the management of his assertive mother, his break with the family propels him to heights never before imagined at which point Wahlberg's approach to the character is drastically modified; he is willing to argue and rebel against his family in situations where, earlier, he would have taken a one-word command and let it control him.

Lovers, Not Fighters?

Perhaps the least convincing aspect of the narrative here is the reaction of Micky's family to his decision to cut them off. Initially, they become furious, even bringing the entire family to Charlene's house where the aspiring boxer was staying and causing a scene that, surprisingly, did not draw the attention of neighbors. Their radical approach seemed firmly ingrained in each of their psyches, yet by the end of the film, they all came to support Micky without any real stimulus to do so. After years of never taking time to ask for Micky's opinion, when the boxer found success without their aid, they all instantly seemed to care about his desires, a fairly shallow development. The family only seems interested in success, yet they gave off the feeling that they actually cared about their son by the end without a major confrontation between the two opposing views. The change in Dicky's character is far more believable and owes a lot to Christian Bale's superb performance. Though Dicky's addiction keeps him from training Micky, it never affects the devotion he has for his brother's success. Still, he finds it difficult to escape a life of sin until after being arrested again for impersonating a police officer, battery, and theft, among many other charges, all for the sake of raising money for his younger brother. The fallen star is imprisoned and finally reforms himself after viewing a televised documentary which reveals to the world the secrets of his drug addiction and lifestyle. This broadcast opens his eyes to the type of person he became because of his lifestyle. Though the resolution seems forced for the majority of the family, circumstances merit all of Dicky's behavioral changes and the family enjoys both domestic tranquility and stardom into the early 2000s according to the afterword displayed after the last scene. 

The Shadow of a Star

Wahlberg's characterization of Micky Ward speaks to the audience indirectly - especially in the early parts of the film. Wahlberg's countenance and body language says in a nutshell what words don't. Micky is quiet, strong but passive, agreeable and disappointed. Had the script relied more heavily on the spoken word, the effect of Micky's transformation would have been significantly less impressive. But to pull off characterization without words, an actor with capable talent is required - something one might not have expected from Wahlberg with his last great movie, The Departed, having been released four years prior. Despite it all, Wahlberg truly pulls out of his shell for this one (ironic, considering his character was heavily introverted). By contrast, Bale's character is characterized through his over-the-top attitude. Whenever his family finds him in a crack house or in a building known to house prostitutes, he makes his grand escape through the nearest window with seemingly no regard for his physical health. His attitude overtakes all - even Wahlberg. While it's to be expected from a star of Bale's grandiose, its disappointing to see Wahlberg in one of his best performances overshadowed by a supporting character. Admittedly, while they play two vastly different roles, Bale's performance overtakes Wahlberg's, an indisputable fact that weighs heavily on the recognition Wahlberg will receive for this film. But regardless of the aptitude of others, Wahlberg managed to hold his ground with a solid performance.

Final Words

While The Fighter likely won't be seen as a classic, it's definitely one of the most worthwhile flicks to hit theaters in the last few months. There are solid performances around the table from all the actors and actresses, including Amy Adams who seems miscast for this role but pulls it off nicely. The story moves smoothly and the characters are, for the most part, fleshed out well enough to keep anyone engaged from start to finish.

Story: 8
Acting: 10
Script: 9
Wow Factor: 7
Overall: 85%