Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: "The Dark Knight Rises"

Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 165 minutes

To say that expectations have been high for The Dark Knight Rises would be a monumental understatement. Christopher Nolan certainly got off on the right foot with the 2005 reboot Batman Begins, bringing a brooding and gritty vibe to Gotham's Caped Crusader. With Nolan at the helm, the story of Bruce Wayne took on a newfound sense of darkness and dread, devoid of the campy sensibility that so pervaded Tim Burton's two late 80s/early 90s films and the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films (Batsuit nipples; never forget). Here was a superhero movie that stood, more than any before it, as a testament to the post-9/11 mindset of America, and the world at large. 

Now, I'll admit, I've avoided using the term "post-9/11" to describe Nolan's bat-flicks until just now. Yes, the two (now three) films exist in a darker and more realistic world, but the thematic connection to 9/11 seemed not to click. But the mind has a way of working these things out when we least expect it. Nolan's films show realistically rendered depictions of attacks on American soil in so many ways that have otherwise been absent in comic book adaptations. 

Violence, even for superheroes, was now capable of achieving a rather chilling resonance, whether it was watching Ra's Al Ghul try to launch a biological attack on Gotham in Begins, or watching the Joker's attempts to instigate anarchy across the city, the threats felt more powerful because we lived in an age where A) these things were eerily possible and B) we knew there were people out there who wanted to hurt us. If Sam Raimi's first two Spiderman films (and to a lesser extent, the first two X-Men films) took comic book movies into late adolescence, Batman Begins took them into full-blown adulthood.

Yet it was 2008's The Dark Knight, with a large debt owed to a certain Mr. Ledger, that turned Nolan's series into a critical and financial mega hit. In addition to the gushing praise for Ledger's turn as the Joker, Nolan's film also became labeled as the best comic book movie of all time. And, among certain segments of the population, it has even been hailed as one of the best movies of all time. Period. As in, people were prepared to compare it to The Godfather (let's not go there).

The big question for Nolan and company, of course, then became "how do we finish this trilogy without letting people down?" And when it comes to answering that question on paper, The Dark Knight Rises seems firmly headed in the right direction. Instead of trying to repeat the success of The Dark Knight's iconic villain - a lone figure who essentially defined the film - Nolan has split villain duties (sort of) between Tom Hardy's hulking Bane and Anne Hathaway's slippery Selina Kyle (Catwoman, sans moniker). Lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice, and Nolan was smart to try and spread the role of antagonist among multiple characters.

Yet for all that seems okay on paper, there are equally as many missteps in the writing and in the execution on-screen. There are many individual aspects to pick apart, but it all fits under one giant umbrella: Nolan (and co-writer/brother Jonathan Nolan) have simply tried to cram in too much, despite the 2 hr 45 min duration. Batman Begins contained itself with ease, and The Dark Knight, despite sometimes bursting at the seams, managed to hold all of its pieces together, if just barely. Yet the pressure to create an epic and satisfying ending has, unfortunately, blasted a massive crater in the franchise's armor. The characters and subplots are many, yet even with nearly three hours, there's barely room for any of it to breathe. Combine these problems with the serious tone and massive expectations, The Dark Knight Rises often buckles under its own weight.

Nolan has never made a film that I've found dull, but here he's finally made one where I was actively distracted by the pacing issues. The scenes don't drag so much as they feel like Nolan has misplaced the emphasis. After a fun, Bond-style opening introducing Bane, the movie settles in for quite a bit of set up, which involves everything from a cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to help a boys' shelter, to a Wayne Industries board member who won't stop inquiring about an abandoned clean energy project (Marion Cotillard), to Bruce Wayne's physical and emotional recovery after eight years away from his alter ego. Nolan has so many dots to connect that he often races things along. It gives one the feeling that the writer/director simply expects us to just go with each development without daring to question it. The film may never become stagnant (thanks again, Lee Smith), but so often it feels, well, off. As lovely as Ms. Cotillard is, the romance that develops between her and Bruce comes right the hell out of nowhere, only so that it can be used later for a BIG moment that ultimately rings hollow and completely wastes the actress.

All of this is compounded by two big issues: dialogue and narrative structure. Nolan's tendency to have his characters spell out themes and motivations has, sadly only become a bigger problem since Inception. Sometimes it feels entirely appropriate (variations of Begins' "Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves up again" line), yet often it’s just unnecessary. The personalities of the characters struggle to shine through because they're burdened with such heavy dialogue and thin characterization (as such, the series' returning players achieve the strongest emotional resonance). As for the structure, Nolan falls into an odd cycle of repetition. I'll avoid the details, but the film essentially puts Bruce Wayne through an arc of physical and emotional recovery twice during the film, when all it does is eat up time. It's the second arc that really deserves the time, yet a period of nearly half a year ends up flashing by so the film can charge into its conclusion. Not only does the second arc have the potential for more resonance, but it's also more interesting in what it reveals about Bane, and how it brings the trilogy full circle.

And so when all hell breaks loose in the finale, Nolan is stuck making a bunch of revelations and cutting among a bunch of threads so that they can reach their conclusions. On their own, any one of them could have worked, but in trying to be so epic in scope, the film accomplishes the plots with most of them not coming off as meaning much. In the end, only Wayne and Batman's story, though it has its share of rushed moments and implausibility, resonates. Against all odds its ending provides a lump-in-the-throat moment amid an otherwise emotionally-distant film.

That's not to say that the film is a complete loss, by any means. There's quite a bit that's well done, once one looks past the flaws. The performers, at least those with something to work with (sorry Ms. Cotillard, Ben Mendelsohn, Matthew Modine...) are all perfectly engaging. Bale does nice work in his last run as Wayne/Batman, adding an extra amount of pain and exhaustion where the script fails him. Hardy's Bane is also enjoyable, and his oddly suave and cheeky tone make him a compelling presence, even though he lacks the Joker's overt psychotic tendencies. The film's biggest and best surprise, however, is Hathaway, who manages to make Selina teasingly sexy without making her ludicrously sexual. Watching her switch her personality on and off with an effortless snappiness is one of the film's strongest elements, even though Nolan saddles her with a strange subplot in which she's looking for a powerful computer program.

On the production front the film is also aces, with nice cinematography and art direction. The only puzzling exception is that, for the first time, Gotham actually looks like it's made up of multiple cities (scenes were shot in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh), instead of a cohesive metropolis. Hans Zimmer's kettle drum-heavy score, despite being repetitive, is used nicely to either enhance the tension and momentum, or add them when the film can't quite generate them on its own. And, as much as Nolan is to blame for the film's flaws, he also deserves credit for some of its successes. As a director, he remains capable of moving an audience through a dense narrative with surprising ease, despite the problems that pop up along the way. And, when it comes to pulling out show stopping moments that actually carry weight, his skills remain firmly intact. A massive attack at a football stadium is, besides massive in scale, truly stomach-churning, and the aforementioned finale is nicely handled despite the borderline ridiculous circumstances.

How it ends, I won't say, but at the very least Nolan ends with his best foot forward, more or less. The journey can be rough and overcrowded, but at the very least the ambition deserves some level of admiration, even when the execution sometimes falls short. Unfortunately, it's not just a case of expectations. The film is easily the weakest of Nolan's trilogy, despite some compelling stretches and decent acting. It may improve with time, once the disappointment has worn off and the flaws accepted, but it's a shame that such an adult-minded trilogy had to start tripping over itself as it crossed the finish line. As far as its craftsmanship and ambition, however, The Dark Knight Rises is still more successful than your average summer blockbuster. But in trying to cover so many bases instead of just cutting to the core narrative, this franchise's epic final chapter struggles to stay afloat. It doesn't sink, but only by a hair's breadth, thanks to its conviction and the goodwill built up from its two vastly superior predecessors.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Personal Ballot: The 2012 Emmy Awards

I don't spend nearly as much time writing about TV on this site, which is odd considering the ludicrous number of shows that I try and keep up with. So, instead of merely commenting on just the Emmy winners and the show itself, I figured that this year I could spend a little more time on TV's biggest awards show, namely by offering up my picks for some of the main categories, along with my winner(s). Also, my friend Patrick has done this exact same thing over on his wonderful blog (link), and I'm once again tempted to steal his format again, just like I did for my Best of the Year/Oscar ballot a few months ago.

A quick word on the awards though. I'm generally trying to follow where shows are placed, which means that something like Sherlock will be left out (it was submitted as a miniseries). However, Downton Abbey, previously submitted as a miniseries, was submitted under drama series for its second season. Now, despite the amount of TV that I watch, I'm a little surprised at the categories that I'm unable to fill (the Emmys have 6 nominees in major categories, as opposed to the award show standard of 5). So, for certain categories, there may be a slot (or two...though I hope not) with a series of dashes. Clearly I'm still not watching enough TV, at least now when it comes to certain categories. Finally, as with my Oscars post, my picks are listed alphabetically, with the winner in bold/italics.

Outstanding Drama Series
Boardwalk Empire
Breaking Bad
Game of Thrones
Mad Men

This was painfully close, especially because Breaking Bad's fourth season had so many breathtaking moments (remember the end of "Crawl Space?"). However, I'm giving it to Showtime's Homeland for starting off with such a stellar first season. The mystery, intrigue, and tension were handled in a way that many shows can only dream of doing in their first runs.

Outstanding Comedy Series
Happy Endings
Parks and Recreation

Though season 4 marked a slight step down (the Tom and Anne subplot), Parks and Recreation was once again my favorite comedy. The characters are so well drawn and so fun, and the show knows how to be hilarious and still break out moments that are genuinely touching. Bonus points for excellent guest stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Rudd.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Jason Isaacs - Awake
Damian Lewis - Homeland
Timothy Olyphant - Justified

Another insanely difficult showdown between Breaking Bad and Homeland, and once again I find myself picking the freshman show. There was so much strong work in this category (even from Buscemi, who's show I have here almost as filler), but it really boiled down to Cranston and Lewis. The tipping point? Lewis' scene in the bunker in Homeland's season finale, which is such a tightly-coiled, emotional tour-de-force that it might be some of the best acting I've ever seen on TV.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Claire Danes - Homeland
Michelle Dockery - Downton Abbey
Kelly Macdonald - Boardwalk Empire
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men

As the other half of Homeland's dynamite leading duo, Danes was on fire from episode one. Carrie wasn't always likable or sympathetic, but Danes made sure we always knew where she was coming from. Even when scenes called for BIG emotions (the green pen, watching her work dismantled, etc...), Danes ensured that it never felt over the top or forced, and in turn gave us one of the most powerful performances of the past season.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin - 30Rock
H. Jon Benjamin - Archer
Louis C.K. - Louie
Neil Flynn - The Middle
Joel McHale - Community
Adam Scott - Parks and Recreation

Since joining Parks and Recreation at the end of its second season, Adam Scott has become one of the ensemble's most valuable assets. And as he relationship with Leslie developed even further in the show's fourth season, the actor only got more and more room to shine. Scott is, to a point, the show's straight man, yet he's never dull or the weak point. His facial expressions remain a joy to watch, and I'm often reminded of a less goofy/personable Jim Halpert. Well, before The Office started to collapse like a dying star.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Laura Dern - Enlightened
Lena Dunham - Girls
Patricia Heaton - The Middle
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Veep
Martha Plimpton - Raising Hope
Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation

Poehler has been on fire ever since Parks and Recreation's second season (when they stopped trying to make her a female Michael Scott). While the show's third season remains my favorite (for now), the fourth season gave us Poehler's best work to date. Funny and goofy, yet still completely human, Leslie Knope comes out on top in a season filled with strong work, from established shows and promising new ones (had it not been for Poehler, this would have gone to Louis-Dreyfus' outstanding comedic exasperation on Veep).

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones
Giancarlo Esposito - Breaking Bad
Walton Goggins - Justified
Vincent Kartheiser - Mad Men
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad
John Slattery - Mad Men

While I've had a little trouble filling out the leading categories, in supporting there's simply too much good work, this category included (Game of Thrones' Charles Dance is among the many not listed here). All of the work here is outstanding, and I gained a new found love for Slattery's work on Mad Men this year, but ultimately I have to go with Esposito, who created a cold, calculating figure of menace who was capable of making the room feel 10 degrees cooler. It's the sort of chilling work that calls to mind Javier Bardem's work in No Country for Old Men...if Anton Chigurh had been involved in meth dealing and fast food chain restaurants.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad
Lena Heady - Game of Thrones
Christina Hendricks - Mad Men
Jessica Pare - Mad Men
Fiona Shaw - True Blood
Maisie Williams - Game of Thrones

Another year, another wonderful season of Joan moments on Mad Men. Despite not having as much to do in Mad Men's fifth season, when the show brought out moments for her, Hendricks seized them and made her mark. In a season where so many new performances came forward and impressed me (especially Heady, who was so good in Game of Thrones' "Blackwater" episode), I've ended up going back to an old favorite. 

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Ty Burrell - Modern Family
Donald Glover - Community
Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation
Adam Pally - Happy Endings
Chris Pratt - Parks and Recreation
Damon Wayans Jr. - Happy Endings

Though I remain a loyal devotee of Ron Swanson (Offerman should have won for one of his show's previous two seasons), it was Glover who really won me over this year. Though Community as a show can sometimes strive too hard simply to be different at the expense of humor, Glover remains one of the show's consistent bright spots. His mix of awkward non sequiturs and full-throttle hysterics remain one of the show's best sources of humor, even when the show is having an off day.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Alison Brie - Community
Eliza Coupe - Happy Endings
Jane Krakowski - 30Rock
Aubrey Plaza - Parks and Recreation
Eden Sher - The Middle
Jessica Walter - Archer
Casey Wilson - Happy Endings

Possibly the most jam-packed category this year (I'm sorry, Aisha Tyler, Julie Bowen, Anna Chlumsky, Zosia Mamet, etc...), and yet Eliza Coupe's type-A neurotics on Happy Endings still stand tall. In a year that saw Jane Krakowski do some of her best work on 30Rock to date, along with so many new performances and returning players, Coupe remains one of the funniest women on TV right now. Look no further than "The Kerkovich Way" for a demonstration of the actress' completely spot-on comedic timing, which possesses a nearly laser-like precision.

Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series
"Box Cutter" - Breaking Bad
"Crawl Space" - Breaking Bad
"Blackwater" - Game of Thrones
"Marine One" - Homeland
"At the Codfish Ball" - Mad Men
"Commissions and Fees" - Mad Men

Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series
"Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" - Community
"She Did" - Girls
"The Kerkovich Way" - Happy Endings
"Ron and Tammys" - Parks and Recreation
"Win, Lose, or Draw" - Parks and Recreation
"Catherine" - Veep

Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series
"Crawl Space" - Breaking Bad
"Salud" - Breaking Bad
"Valar Morghulis" - Game of Thrones
"Marine One" - Homeland
"At the Codfish Ball" - Mad Men
"Signal 30" - Mad Men

Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series
"Heart of Archness: Part 3" - Archer
"She Did" - Girls
"Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" - Community
"Subway; Pamela" - Louie
"The Debate" - Parks and Recreation
"Ron and Tammys" - Parks and Recreation
"Catherine" - Veep

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review(s): "Magic Mike" + "2 Days in New York"

Magic Mike dir. Steven Soderbergh
 Whatever doubts there might have been about Steven Soderbergh's foray into the world of stripping-centric movies, you can stop worrying: it's not Showgirls. The uber-efficient director's latest outing may focus on the world of male strippers and even include a character named Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), but there's a significant distinction between Mike and a certain Paul Verhoeven-directed train wreck. Soderbergh's film never indulges in the elements of sleaze. It observes them, but never turns them into moments of trashy exploitation.

Based on star Channing Tatum's actual experiences as a male stripper before his acting career (which, at this very moment, is looking pretty damn bright), Magic Mike follows a clear trajectory. Experienced stripper Mike (Tatum) takes on a newbie (Alex Pettyfer), who falls into some less-than-admirable tendencies. As a film and as a simple morality tale, there's little here that surprises. What matters are the details that make up the story's setting, and thankfully the movie comes through, albeit only modestly. 

For all that the film does right - its characterization, its humor - there are any number of other aspects that don't quite stick the landing, namely the pacing. Clocking in at roughly two hours, there are times when Magic Mike feels repetitive and devoid of development. The flow of scenes can feel bumpy, which makes Pettyfer's moral failings feel rushed and a tad contrived. The cast, thankfully, are quite game. Tatum, already having a solid year with Haywire and 21 Jump Street (I've seen both but have yet to review the latter...), impresses yet again with a nice, understated sense of charisma that cuts through his slightly thickheaded appearance. Supporting roles are energetic, though most get little to do outside of Pettyfer and a wonderfully smarmy Matthew McConaughey (also have quite a nice year, along with his work in Bernie and Mud). I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Cody Horn's love interest, on the other hand. The character is fine, but the actress sometimes comes across as too sullen to the point where she seems deprived of screen presence. Still, on the whole you have to hand it to Soderbergh and company for cutting through the cheap surface appeal of the subject matter and churning out a decent character piece. There may be plenty of glistening abs on display, but Magic Mike remains grounded and never forgets to keep its characters front and center, and not just when they're taking their clothes off.

Grade: B-

2 Days in New York dir. Julie Delpy

A sequel to Delpy's hilarious 2 Days in Paris (2007), the writer/director's newest feature sadly doesn't quite measure up. Though it starts off on solid ground (barring an overly cutesy puppet theater intro), it quickly devolves into what 2 Days in Paris wasn't: exasperating and brimming with neuroses, but without the laughs. Rather than truly turn the tables and have Delpy meet her boyfriend's (now played by Chris Rock) family, she has her own family come over to disturb the new boyfriend. The result is that we're mostly getting the same sorts of interactions. Mingus (Rock) may not be as neurotic as Jack (Adam Goldberg), but he's being put through the same set of frustrations, as he's forced to adapt to French culture, even though he's on his own turf.

The performances are generally handled effectively, and Rock makes a nice straight man to offset the rest of the ensemble, but after a point it all becomes too much of the same, without the same amount of successful humor. Even Delpy seems off, and her character's constant frustration and apologies to Mingus sometimes feel too shrill. A decent attempt, but one that simply doesn't have the goods to justify itself. Your time is better spent simply watching 2 Days in Paris again.

Grade: C

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: "360"

When a director makes a big splash with a debut or with a film that catapults them into new found recognition, an extra amount of scrutiny is thrust upon any following work. Fernando Meirelles has been working as a director since the early 80s, but he didn't make his mark on world cinema until 2002's stunning City of God. Focused on a very singular world - the slums of Rio De Janeiro -  Meirelles turned out a visually striking and relevant film about poverty and crime. Fast forward a decade, and the director has expanded his vision to more than a single city, with incredibly diminished results. Obvious and lacking anything resembling suspense, passion, or insight, 360, the latest film from Meirelles, lives up to its title to the point that it goes almost nowhere.

Inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's play "La Ronde," the film weaves a series of stories across the globe into what one hopes would be quite a powerhouse of a narrative. Unfortunately, the problems in 360 become evident all too clear. Despite some smooth and smartly employed split screen work, many of the characters couldn't be less interesting. Among the ensemble, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, as a pair of unfaithful spouses, are truly wasted. Law, in particular, is stuck in a small series of scenes that merely exist, without anything there to drive the film from a narrative or thematic standpoint. Other cast members are given more to do, but suffer a similar fate, stuck with story threads that border on being vignettes, which isn't quite the film's goal.

The lone bright spot is Ben Foster, playing a convicted sex offender temporarily on leave. In a critical scene set in an airport hotel, the actor brings an intensity and depth missing from all of the film's other scenes. In that one moment 360 feels alive and filled with some sense of purpose. Unfortunately, once the scene ends, we basically never see Foster again, and the film resumes its unintentional aimlessness. Other performers (other than the big names in the cast) perform capably, yet there's nothing they can do to overcome the writing (a Bulgarian subplot feels particularly empty, despite everything that happens). Peter Morgan's script feels, sadly, like a very rough sketch or first draft, with all of the characters and arcs feeling too distant for the film's own good. 

So when it all comes together for the finale and lives up to its tagline ("Everything comes full circle"), all that's left to do is shrug and say "...and?" 360 seems almost built on a gimmick, to have its narrative come full circle and then, surpriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiise, conclude with a scene identical to its opening, albeit with different characters. Though it borders on predictable, there are plenty of films with similar ideas that carry it off well. Here, however, it just feels like an inevitable conclusion to a thoroughly dull affair that feels too long (certainly a lot longer than 2 hours) and too empty to justify its existence. This is one of those films where all of the ideas were down on paper or in someone's head, but never even came close to achieving the proper transition to the screen. Other unsuccessful films like this include 2006's Babel, of which I'm no fan. But that film at least has some emotional resonance, as contrived and manipulative as it is.The methods may be cruddy, but at least there's an attempt to connect to the audience and make them feel. 360, by contrast, runs on autopilot the whole way through, never trying to be anything more than a series of scenes strung together just so it can have a been-there-done-that hack job of an ending.

Grade: D+

Monday, July 9, 2012

Review: "Take This Waltz"

In one critical early scene of Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley's follow-up to her acclaimed debut Away From Her, Margot (Michelle Williams) tells Daniel (Luke Kirby) that she hates being in between things. The statement proves to be true, and it echoes out across the film in multiple ways. Waltz is decidedly lighter than Away From Her, though it still boasts Polley's keen powers of observation when it comes to details that exist between couples or among family members. Yet where Away From Her had a general sense of forward momentum that built to a point surrounding its central characters, Polley gets a little lost in the details of Take This Waltz. As a result, her sophomore effort, despite containing any number of admirable aspects, feels redundant and overly long, its point(s) lost among the details.

Williams's Margot is a freelance writer living in Toronto, who's married to a cookbook author (Seth Rogen). The couple have any number of little tics, including their own forms of teasing and baby talk, as well as an inside joke where they describe fanciful ways to torture each other. While returning from a short trip/assignment, Margot meets Kirby's Daniel, and the two hit it off in a weird sort of way (she doesn't seem to mind his semi-aggressive taunts). As it turns out, Daniel is a neighbor of Margot's, living just across the street, and working as a rickshaw operator around town. As the two interact more and more, Margot examines her marriage and contemplates the possibility of doing more with Daniel than just chit-chatting. And of course, there's a bit of a moral. That's where things start to head south.

The central problem with Take This Waltz is that we get an understanding of the film's main question and message so early, yet the film remains stuck in a drawn-out period of inaction. For about 3/4ths of its 2 hour duration, the film is basically on a loop of scenes illustrating Margot's relationship with her husband and her slowly (sloooooooooooowly) budding relationship with Daniel. Rather than make the point and move on, Polley insists on making sure that the audience has five or six opportunities to "get it," throwing in stolen glances and casually pained expressions that ought to register much more than they really do. At one point Dan casts a glance of heartfelt longing at Margot, and I was tempted to let out a laugh to relieve myself of the crushing obviousness of the scene's attempt at greater importance.

And once the film gets to its big moment, set to the titular Leonard Cohen song, there's little that's surprising about the outcome. We've known the moral of the story for so long that by the time it arrives (however impressive the execution) it's difficult not to be left thinking, "well, duh." Worse, the film decides to chug on for almost another half hour before drawing to a close. Thankfully, it gives Margot a clear arc, but the journey to the end of said arc is too damn long for its own good. Barring a dramatically convenient subplot involving Margot's pseudo ex-alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman), everything progresses exactly as we expect it to, without the necessary dramatic tautness to make it feel like a worthwhile journey.

That's not to say that Take This Waltz is without its merits. Williams is wonderful in the role, taking Margot's conflicted feelings (along with the above-mentioned fear of the in between) and fleshing them out with a radiant subtlety. In different hands, the character could have felt frustratingly inert. While that remains true of many scenes, it's most certainly not true about Williams' work, which is always striving to make Margot's developing dilemma feel like it's progressing (no matter how minimal the progress). The rest are in fine form as well. Rogen and Kirby both make effective opposites, with Rogen personifying a warm (albeit purposefully stagnant) sense of comfort, while Kirby has just the right touch of excitement about him without being over the top. Some of the material Kirby has can feel tone deaf, but even then the actor remains quite watchable. The surprise, despite her limited time, is Silverman, who invests a surprising amount of nuance into her role. This isn't a case of silly stunt casting where a comedian is stuck playing herself. Silverman brings a nice bit of gravitas to an underdeveloped character, one whose struggles probably deserve their own film (in case Ms. Polley ever decides to make a sequel or spin-off...). Even when the material falters, and it does falter quite a bit, these four significant roles hit just about all of the right notes, and at times it's enough to overcome the glaring weaknesses.

Credit should also go to the technical side of the film. Forgoing the idea that small films need to have a bland, washed out look, Take This Waltz positively pops with a summery glow, bolstered by the cinematography's emphasis of colors like red and green. The soundtrack is also a nice touch, if a bit cliched, all quiet guitar twangs and the like. When these elements gel with what works, Take This Waltz proves quite compelling. Unfortunately, the film is a bit of reverse Impressionism. The individual pieces work up close, but once you step back to look at the work as a whole, nothing ever comes together quite like it should.

Grade: C+/C

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review: "Ted"

A firmly established name in the world of TV, it was only a matter of time until Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy and American Dad made the jump to live-action film making. Both of his shows have strong followings (Family Guy remains popular despite its general decline, while American Dad is becoming more popular) and with the resurgence of R-rated comedies over the past decade, the transition only makes sense. MacFarlane's signature brand of non sequiturs, bawdy humor, and varying degrees of pop culture references certainly has its critics (even among the fan base), and as such, your opinion of Ted likely hinges somewhat on how you feel about MacFarlane's work so far. Almost. For even though Ted builds its humor more out of the situation (despite the references) a la American Dad, the success rate and overall execution call to mind the recent seasons of Family Guy: moments of inspired hilarity weighed down by awkward plotting and attempts at humor that are only partially successful or that fall flat.

Opening with voice over about humanity's belief in magic, MacFarlane firmly establishes that Ted takes place in the live-action reality that the clans of Peter Griffin and Stan Smith would live in were they not animated. Like MacFarlane's signature shows (as well as that unfortunate mess that is The Cleveland Show), Ted involves a sentient, non-human creature. Instead of an entirely organic creation like Brian the dog or Roger the alien, however, this time the non-human role is a teddy bear belonging to the friendless John Bennett (who will grow up to be played by Mark Wahlberg, so life's not so bad...). Upon seeing a shooting star, young John wishes that he and his Teddy bear will stay friends forever. Lo and behold, the next morning, John discovers that Ted has come to life. Though Ted's existence quickly catches on and he becomes a media sensation, the two remain close friends, never separating.

Jump forward a few decades, and John is 35, stuck in a dead end job but blessed with a disproportionately sexy girlfriend named Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori and John are close, but she's not exactly keen on one part of John's life: the fact that Ted, now a foul-mouthed pot smoker, still lives with John, and seems to keep him anchored in a state of perpetual man-boyhood. And, despite the fact that the film is live-action, adjusting to MacFarlane's world is surprisingly easy. Having the film establish Ted's "birth" of sorts and then jump forward essentially removes any of the tedium involved in having to go through the typical cope-with-the-extraordinary-circumstances shtick. This gives Ted a more relaxed feel, one where the magical talking teddy bear can function as a character, rather than a plot device.

But if the set up is decently handled, everything from that point on is a mixed bag. When MacFarlane's shows are on their A-game, they are, for all of their flagrant disregard for anything remotely PC,  actually pretty damn funny. American Dad in particular can be an absolute riot, seeing as it forgoes the excessive cutaway jokes and develops humor simply out of the ridiculousness of the situations and the characters involved in them. Unfortunately, Ted feels more like an iffy episode of Family Guy stretched out for a feature film. Some lines that have the potential to be funny only register a minor 'ha,' while others just sink. Even when the material clicks, there's a certain taut zaniness that's missing from the situations and set ups. One could make the argument that this is simply because we're getting acquainted to the characters, whereas TV shows have time to build up their characters. The problem, in reality, has more to do with the pacing and plotting than with the characters. 

Take, for example, a subplot involving a man who has been obsessed with Ted since he first saw him on the news (Giovanni Ribisi). After the character's introduction, he appears only briefly in one other scene, before coming back to incite a kidnapping subplot to give the film a climax. Other scenes, like those involving John interacting with his co-workers (among them Patrick Warburton and Veep's Matt Walsh), feel like they're desperately trying to branch off and become their own (really awful) sitcom. Mila Kunis may get the short end of the stick when it comes to funny material, but at least when the film follows her at work, the film has a perfectly obnoxious Joel McHale to liven things up.

Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg is tasked with being too much of a straight man, and even when the film puts him in funny scenes, the character remains marginally entertaining at best. This means that it's up to Ted to be the source of humor, and the character proves he's not quite up to the task. Some of the material is funny, but even some of the best material is never fully successful. A massive drunken party at Ted's apartment packs some of the film's best laughs, but is undermined by moments that either go too far or are just plain bad. Many of the attempts at pop culture references also fall flat, including the recurring use of actor Tom Skerritt. At its worst, the film throws in split second jabs that feel lazy (an insult thrown at Katy Perry's singing lands with a particularly loud 'thud'). Only a handful of shots of Ribisi doing some absolutely loopy dance moves in front of a TV provide consistent laughs.

It doesn't really help matters that some of the editing lags and the whole production looks rather drab. The awkward smudgy glow of digital pervades so many of the shots, as if no one had any intention of making the film look decent. Only Walter Murphy's boisterous score works, and helps lend an old-fashioned sense of energy to the cartoonish shenanigans. Overall, though, MacFarlane's exploration of growing up a few decades too late is too uneven to fully succeed. The initial conceit may feel fresh, but it doesn't take long for it to settle for being too familiar, without enough successful humor to make up for it.

Grade: C

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: "The Amazing Spider-man"

With only 10 years separating Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man from Sam Raimi's Spiderman, and only five years between Webb's film and Raimi's last Spidey flick, it's easy to understand complaints regarding Sony's decision to reboot the character so quickly (origin story and all). Despite the crashing disaster that was Spider-man 3, Raimi's first two films were both big hits and popular with the public (and even the third made bucket-loads at the box office). Even if the reboot was good, there was still one critical question: was another stab at the origin story necessary so soon? The answer remains 'no,' but in fairness, Webb's reboot is mostly a success even as it's forced to hit so many of the same story beats. 

Having made his name with (500) Days of Summer (2009), Webb wasn't the most obvious choice for the job. However, his skills with emotion and his surprising flair with action set pieces make me hope that he'll stick around for the rest of this Spider-man series. Even when Peter Parker/Spider-man (Andrew Garfield) is battling the hulking Lizard (Rhys Ifans) in close quarters, Webb and his camera team nimbly capture both figures (and their CGI avatars) with a herky-jerky sense of movement that proves surprisingly effective and actually allows you to see what's going on. Webb also deserves credit (though I suppose some of this belongs to the script as well) for giving audiences the best obligatory Stan Lee cameo, working it fluidly into an action scene in a way  that proves hilarious.

And speaking of humor, that's another thing this Spider-man has going for it. Raimi's films were never devoid of humor (or attempts at humor), but much of it felt somewhat like pandering. Here, Peter Parker/Spider-man himself is allowed to either be funny or be in funny situations, and it pays off. Whether he's quipping while battling a carjacker or satisfying some spider bite-induced munchies, the sense of humor feels more organic, built more out of the situations than in some desperate attempt to keep the proceedings from becoming "too grown up."

Of course, funny lines or scenes can exist on the page, but can be horribly botched if the person involved in them on screen isn't pulling their weight. Thankfully, Garfield carries the humor off with great skill, using his spindly frame to perfect effect. Like Webb's film, Garfield is generally adept at both drama and comedy, though it has moments where it falters. Emma Stone as love-interest Gwen Stacy remains as engaging as ever, even though she's technically not given much to do despite abundant screen time. Sally Field and Martin Sheen also give nice, albeit limited, turns as Peter's aunt May and uncle Ben. Rhys Ifans is certainly convincing as Dr. Connors, the man who eventually becomes the Lizard, even though the script's developments with him are among the film's weakest.

The script, unfortunately, provides the film with its best and worst elements, particularly when it comes to the story elements that are being redone. The changes to Peter's personality work wonders, but other aspects, like the demise of uncle Ben, feel so much weaker. The staging of the robbery that eventually leads to Ben's death in Raimi's film had enough separation in it so that it really hit home when Peter discovered what happened. Here, the scenario feels contrived, with Ben trying to chase down Peter to talk to him, only to have him run into the robber who delivers his untimely death sentence. On the super hero front, the script often seems completely unconcerned with the general reaction of New York City to Parker's web slinging alter ego. Yes, the NYPD puts out a warrant for his arrest, but other than that, one never gets a sense of the masked hero's developing notoriety. 

The same can also be said for the developments regarding the Dr. Connors/Lizard, who seems to lurch from one big moment to the next. And when the two collide, things get even shakier, with Peter's realization that Connors is the Lizard feeling like a minor development when it should be so much more. Webb generally controls the tone effectively, but there are scenes where it all feels a little too casual considering the stakes. Even the vastly better romantic subplot with Parker and Stacy occasionally becomes too forced and cutesy, with both of them awkwardly/adorably stammering at each other to the point where you want to shake their lines out of them. And for all of Garfield's good scenes on the dramatic front, there are a few where his emoting feels distressingly weak. 

Thankfully, these are problems that get better as the film progresses. Webb has crafted a slick, emotionally engaging film, one that would have been so much better if it hadn't felt the need to cover the origin story again. It's the familiar that keeps The Amazing Spider-man from reaching its full potential, which is a shame because of the strengths clearly on display. One can only hope that the inevitable sequel will, like Spider-man 2, significantly raise the bar for this new series.

Grade: B-/C+

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Month in Review: June 2012

Best Film (Theaters): Safety Not Guaranteed
 Though it suffers from some awkward editing, this low-key indie comedy, featuring lovely performances from Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass, is entertaining, enjoyable, and heartfelt enough to make some flaws easy to ignore. By focusing more on character than its tiny shades of science fiction, the film really delivers, and never strains to be more than it is. 

Best Film (DVD): The Man Who Wasn't There

One of the less-talked about films of the Coen brothers' resume, this stab at noir surprisingly ranks among some of their strongest work. Featuring top notch work from the cast, a subtle sense of humor, and a bit of carefully managed strangeness, this under-appreciated gem is worth checking out as you wait for Joel and Ethan's next offering, due in early 2013.

Best Director: Ridley Scott - Prometheus

Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi may have not yielded the masterpiece many were clamoring for, but despite the bumps (mostly from the screenplay), the film did prove a return to form for Scott himself. A director who has had his fare share of forgettable films over the past decade, Prometheus showed Scott at his best, drawing out nice work from his actors, and creating, with his collaborators, an elegant, chilly, and eerie atmosphere that helped keep the flaws in check, and make the film an entertaining watch all the way through.

Best Male Performance: Mark Duplass - Safety Not Guaranteed

A name on the indie circuit for a few years now, Duplass is finally really having a break out year this summer. In Safety Not Guaranteed, Duplass hits all of the right notes with his character, making him compelling and keeping us guessing, never making him a weird guy who can be used for easy jokes.

Best Female Performance: Gong Li - Raise the Red Lantern

It's easy to understand why Gong Li's career skyrocketed after her performance in Zhang Yimou's melodrama. Though the performance is often restrained, Li captures the character's constantly shifting emotions as she rolls with the ups and downs of sharing a husband with three other women. 

Best Ensemble Cast: Mean Creek

One of the great difficulties ensemble films have is using every member of the cast effectively. That's not the case with Jacob Estes' Mean Creek, which features first-rate work from a terrific and very young ensemble, making this bleak teen morality tale all the more haunting.

Best Screenplay: The Man Who Wasn't There by Joel and Ethan Coen

For a film with one decidedly out-there plot element, it's surprising that The Man Who Wasn't There works so well as both a sly satire of the noir genre, as well as a sincere noir film. The Coens' resist the temptation to turn the film into a full-blown parody, and as such the little jabs taken at the noir genre register more due to their smart integration into a richly realized plot.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Netflix Files: June 25 - July 1

The Game (1997) dir. David Fincher

One of Fincher's lesser-discussed efforts (despite its impending Criterion Collection release), this dark thriller features the director doing fine work in his comfort zone, even as he's saddled with a screenplay that's little more than ordinary outside of its conceit. Michael Douglas gives a nice turn as a man pulled into an all-consuming "game," and Fincher's signature touches (green/yellow color palette, chilly and elegant camera work) give the film a sense of heft it might have been lacking in less distinct hands. And, for much of the two hour run time, it's an engaging little thriller. Only in the last act does it start to venture closer into absurd territory. It never flies off of the rails, but there comes a point when the central idea feels dangerously close to running amok to the point of self-parody. Fincher has, to his credit always worked in the studio system, never venturing off into indie territory like so many contemporary auteurs. The work he's created thus far is an impressive testament to big studio/auteur director collaborations. Still, one can't help but feel that something like The Game, despite its merits, feels a little too much like "just another big studio thriller," instead of "a David Fincher film."

Grade: B-

The Mirror (1975) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

Though best known for Solaris, Tarkovsky's The Mirror is often considered to be his crowning achievement. Consider me among the unconvinced. While moments work and it never does anything actively bad (the ideas are certainly interesting, despite their ambiguity), it feels too experimental for its own good. Many films require lots of thought or repeated viewings (or both) before one acquires a full appreciation, but the usually give a significant amount that is immediately compelling and satisfying. With The Mirror, Tarkovsky goes a little too far out of reach in terms of structure, rendering even straightforward scenes too abstract for their own good.

Grade: C+

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

There's no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most striking and important working directors out there. Unfortunately, everyone has a misfire or two, and for Anderson, it's this nearly decade-old "romance." Anderson has a remarkable ability to render run down and ordinary landscapes in a manner that somehow feels epic, and that remains true here. The wide shots and gliding camera movements create a very large world, despite the actual intimacy of the story. Adam Sandler is strong in lead role, and Anderson does a strong job of putting us inside of the character's head on every front, particularly with the anxiety-inducing score. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the character, there's a limit to how much time we can spend feeling things as they occur in his head space. After a while, it feels more like the film's execution is assaulting you with sensations, and even at 90 minutes, it's too much. Some scenes have a chaotic feel that becomes too much, and it blurs the line between our perception of the character (and his perception) and our perception of the film as a whole, with pretty severe consequences. The vision is there, and in its own way it's somehow a compelling film, but the little tics that Anderson slathers on just about every scene grow tiresome far too quickly.

Grade: C

Mean Creek (2004) dir. Jacob Estes

Jacob Estes hasn't released another film since his critically hailed sophomore effort, and it's a real shame, because if Mean Creek is any indication, the writer/director is one of the most exciting voices in current American indie cinema. Though the first act has some pacing issues, as the film blossoms into a bleak (but never manipulative or maudlin) teen morality tale it digs deeper and deeper and really delivers when it counts. The main cast members, all under the age of 20 at the time of filming, give tremendous performances, even though the occasional line of dialogue feels a little stiff or too grown-up. This is an extremely grounded film that works precisely because Estes never feels the need to strain for something bigger or more intense. Brief research reveals that Estes is actually at work on a third film, and after seeing this, I couldn't be more excited to see what he does next. 

Grade: B+