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Archive for July, 2012

Envisioning a trilogy is always a daunting task that few filmmakers have successfully been able to achieve (let alone a long-running series).  Not only does the narrative have to be engaging but needs to thematically make sure to connect with prior entries and wrap up loose ends.  In most cases, third entries usually fall with bloated budgets, too many ideas and a lackluster wrap-up that makes the journey getting to the end satisfying.  Where does The Dark Knight Rises fall?  Somewhere a bit in the middle.  Although the film succeeds in bringing some fascinating ideas and themes to the table and giving a good sense of closure, it also feels as if there are one too many ideas, leaving some sparse emotional context and an uneven plot logic that will disappoint some fans.

The Dark Knight Rises follows Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) eight years after the events of The Dark Knight.  He has hidden away from society and not taken to his cape and cowl since then while Alfred (Michael Caine) continues to stay by his side while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues to watch over the city with the help of new officers such as John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  His family’s company is still run by Fox (Morgan Freeman) who is connected with a philanthropy project from Miranda (Marion Cotillard).  However, a new threat emerges as Selina (Anne Hathaway) reveals when she steals Bruce’s fingerprints for one of her employers, connected with a shadowy figure named Bane (Tom Hardy).  Bruce must decide whether to take up the Batman once again as the city comes under attack.

The Dark Knight Rises is at it’s best when it explores the depths of it’s lofty themes and it’s characters along with all the fantastic aesthetic trappings.  Probably the most fascinating positive points are the ambitious themes that are touched upon throughout the film.  Nolan has rarely shied away from comparing his Batman films to present-day issues and this film is little different as he tackles poverty disparity to role of governmental lies and does his best to integrate them into the actual plot and as lets it brood until it explodes by the film’s halfway point.  Even more intriguing is how Nolan encapsulates the entire three films into the growth of both Gotham and all of the characters that have been with the series since the beginning.  These characters, such as Gordon to Alfred to Bruce Wayne himself, are given large moral dilemmas that have been haunting them since the first film and come around full circle into the main spotlight here.  Especially in regards to Batman’s saga, Nolan finds a fairly good way to deal with the symbolism behind the character and the importance of it’s presence by film’s end.  Also, the obvious high points of the film that were fantastic from the prior entries are still top-notch here.  Zimmers’ score is still appropriately epic and the eerie chant-filled soundtrack works well to both be creepy and bombastic – differentiating itself enough from the previous entries yet still creating a good sense of continuity.  The cinematography is also terrific and noticeably better than the prior films as the shaky cam during the action scenes have been replaced by a steady overview, greatly enhancing the massive and crushing blows that occur often throughout the film.  Finally, there are a number of huge set pieces that feel massive in scope and very tangible that only continue to grow in scale and scope from a really interesting opening set piece in the sky to the vast battles all throughout Gotham below along with the cast doing a good job overall.

However, the film runs into issues with it’s own ambition and narrative structure that nullifies it’s final impact.  All-in-all, much of the issues derive from the massive scope the film decides to go in from the outset.  Although admirable and in many ways successful, both the film’s structure and some of the emotional context feel underwhelming because of the speed and amount of narrative that needs to be covered.  For instance, the first half of the film is fairly scattered in terms of the plot it’s trying to tell with many character introductions (or re-introductions) along with a relentless pace that clashes constantly.  This type of strange ebb and flow continues with character interactions that feel too abrupt and strange, such as a love interest between Bruce and Miranda that seems more sporadic than romantic, and late plot twists create much less interesting characters all-around because of them (especially in regard to Bane).  Additionally, although it’s understandable in terms of the themes Nolan wants to complete, the ending especially has this feeling of trying to fit in a conclusive ending than something appropriate to the tone and spirit of the film thus far.  Finally, there are some strange plot logic questions that come to mind such as a prison sequence in the middle and Bruce’s entrance in the final act that add only to some of the confusion and dampen the ambitious themes that are set forth.  Additional minor quibbles include Bane’s voice (improved from the preview screening in December but still creating some problems during longer monologue sequences) and some strange stunt sequences that result in more awkward moments than heroic ones especially near the final act.

The Dark Knight Rises is a highly ambitious if imperfect ending to Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  As a whole, the film works hard to tie together the prior two movies, is bold in the depth of it’s narrative arch and creates some fascinating thematic statements.  However, the film is held back by a sporadic first half and some strange character/plot choices.  It lacks the finesse and care that was shown to it’s previous entry and will likely disappoint very hardcore fans or viewers expecting to be impressed even more.  However, there is still a very interesting underlying film at the end that few could have completely expected and pushes forward Nolan’s belief in the symbol of what Batman stood for and the notion of identity that gives the film a powerful emotional edge – something that any film enthusiast is sad to see end.  

Director: Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 164 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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Allen is known, in recent years, for his European fascination in films as he showcases his love for the foreign nations he has visited into some brilliant and insightful pieces on both the human psyche and in turn his perspective on the nation itself.  Each nation seems to truly bring a unique and different story from it and Italy is no different in To Rome with Love.  The question is – does it effectively tell it’s story and give some unique insight, especially since it divides it’s duty into four smaller plot threads?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always succeed as not all of the four stories are coherent or deep as it may have originally been thought out, but the end product itself is still a fun and interesting romp through Rome.

To Rome with Love follows four different small stories.  One is with John (Alec Baldwin) who is on vacation in Rome and decides to walk around his old living grounds when he comes across Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) who invites John to his home where Jack’s girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) lives and where they all learn that Sally’s best friend, Monica (Ellen Page) is moving in while she tries to figure out her life .  The second involves Jerry (Woody Allen) and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) who are visiting Rome to meet their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and her new fiancee Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti).  The third involves Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) who has just come to Rome for a job with his new wife, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi).  However, when Milly gets lost in the city, Antonio gets an unexpected visitor from a prostitute, Anna (Penelope Cruz) who won’t leave.  And finally, there is a plot involving Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who is a normal Roman citizen who suddenly gets an influx of paparazzi and media attention for no discernible reason.

The main problem comes with the imbalance of the strength of the stories.  Half of the film feels weaker than the other, an unfortunate problem that affects the more small story/sketch-like format of the film.  Even though the film’s style is more evocative of Allen’s earlier comedies, at least two of the smaller narratives aren’t as strong or have a fairly weak follow-thru that becomes all the more apparent because of the stylistic choice that was decided on.  The two that seemingly seems the most affected by the narrative are from Leopoldo (Benigni) and Antonio (Alessandro).  Their premises are actually interesting and thematically seem to have some good insights into both Allen’s views on Italy and society as a whole.  However, the ideas seem to run out of steam fairly quick at the outset or soon after.  Regarding Benigni’s plot, for instance, the much more reserved role works fairly well to point out the radical change that occurs for the character, but the theme and message are fairly obvious and by the time the plot point comes back up again, it feels overused as it offers nothing truly new to the audience and especially since most of the film is supposed to be humorous, these points come out to be some of the weakest.  Perhaps that’s an overall feeling of the film – none of the plotlines feel fairly revelatory or thematically potent.  The result is a whimsical look that is cute and innocuous but not truly deep.

However, there are still some good humorous moments to be had and does provide some interesting looks into Allen’s unique mindset of Rome and it’s surroundings.  The other half of the film definitely is much more enjoyable and intriguing to see play out.  Allen’s storyline involving his daughter’s fiancee’s Italian father is quite humorous and although the main joke becomes a little stale by film’s end, the interesting notion feels both classical and fresh thanks to the witty and inane banter of Allen and Davis foiled with the rest of the family and the ‘dream’ that they want to accomplish.  It provides an interesting dichotomy to a theme of ambition versus luxury and skill versus luck.  Baldwin’s storyline is probably the most fascinating of the film due to it’s structure.  Although the ‘secret’ behind the storyline is fairly easy to figure out a few scenes in, Allen continues to support it with strong writing and the appropriate actors that can pull it off such as Eisenberg and Page who have an intelligence and speed that makes the scenes move by so quickly yet feel deep.  Additionally, it uses Rome as a backdrop for romantic mischief and feels that it has the most interesting insights.  Both insightful and clever, these plotlines shine on their own and feel fun to watch play out along with the general structure of the film that views Rome as an interesting arena for such small stories that pop up among the locals to the foreigners and both.

Allen’s latest European-centered film isn’t perhaps his strongest work but still has a lot of charm and some smart insight into love and society.  On the one hand, some of the humor and plotlines fall flat as they go on for too long or seem more random than insightful and engaging.  However, that isn’t to say Allen fails as the other plotlines still radiate some original interesting perspectives and (as usual) a loving look into Europe with some beautiful framing and insight into Allen’s unique perspective on what the country means to him.  Perhaps, in the end, that is his ultimate takeaway from Rome, a city full of whimsical and human stories without a sense of too much gravitas, even if it ultimately meant creating some stories that were more or less incomplete thoughts while being able to uncover some fascinating ones.  

Director: Woody Allen
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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The transition from one type of medium to another isn’t always the smoothest since there are inherent difficulties and challenges with each.  A music video is a short three-to-five minute (or more) burst of music and energy that needs to showcase both the musical talent as well as some interesting moments surrounding it while a film is usually longer and much more varied in it’s execution.  Interestingly, directors that make such a transition bring both their style and knowledge into the new arena but understandably with some hardships looming in the wake.  A similar look could be stated for Ted and Director MacFarlane, best known for the animated television series Family Guy, who makes his first official foray into film.  The result?  It’s definitely not a perfect landing with too much influence from his television styling that fans may love while leaving non-fans more confused than laughing, but good technology and some good jokes keep the film afloat.

Ted (Seth MacFarlane) is a teddy bear that comes to life thanks to the wish of his owner, John (Mark Wahlberg) as a child.  They grow up together and now, John still lives with Ted in their own apartment.  John has a longtime girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), who loves John but sees Ted as the barrier to them being together as she feels embarrassed that a grown man is still in cohorts with his teddy bear and continually getting into trouble.  The film continues to follow the three as they struggle with each other and themselves.

The best parts of Ted come when it’s jokes flow unhindered by it’s narrative along with the effects of Ted himself.  Since many of the influences of MacFarlene lie in it’s raunchy comedy (with some sense of class), the film is at it’s best when it can let these jokes shine without much worry about other elements of the film such as narrative flow or consistency.  The best jokes definitely come when Ted and Wahlberg are on screen together as their chemistry is played in interesting ways from the teddy bear-grown man comedy bits to playing on childhood fascinations and habits.  These jokes are pretty hilarious and straightforward and feel unique in a movie format when they may feel seemingly too familiar in a regular television episode.  Speaking of Ted, the actual technology and actions shown with Ted are also quite impressive (excluding one section near the end which seemingly ruins the effect).  The look of Ted and his movements look great and moves well within the physical space – played even further when Ted starts to interact and get into fight with characters.  The method behind the effect may seem commonplace by now but the tangibility of the character and the fact that we forget that Ted is simply a CG character plays heavily into making the jokes and emotional content work.

However, at the same time, MacFarlene’s first stab at a film doesn’t work in terms of narrative flow and subplots.  One of these problems is the narrative archs.  Although Ted and John’s relationship feel the strongest and most consistent, the journey feels fairly random and inconsequential.  Indeed, much like Family Guy, the events that appear are very random for the laughs, but unlike the series which breaks down episodes into small chunks and commercial breaks, the same methodology doesn’t work for the full film length and stories feel rushed or incomplete.  For instance, one subplot that feels utterly wasteful is the villains.  Not only are they unfunny but they feel unnecessary to the overall plot – inserted more because of a narrative stereotype.  Along with the other subplots and main narrative arch, the wrap-up feels utterly rushed and uncreative.  It’s a shame when a film decides to re-use film or images from other parts of the film simply because they ran out of new footage.  This problem also creeps into the humor itself.  The mileage of the humor will really vary from viewer to viewer depending on the patience and simplicity of the jokes one may be used to.  As stated before, the jokes between Ted and Wahlberg feel the most complete, but other jokes such as random ‘dream sequences’ or cameos really vary on how much a viewer may understand the context of the joke or likes seeing such random inclusion.  Personally, some of them exerted a giggle (such as a certain old school cameo) while another (a tango scene between Kunis and Wahlberg) felt campy and forced.  Again, the mileage of the humor will really vary for the majority of the film.

Ted is a comedy that has some good laughs that should be familiar to anyone that is familiar with MacFarlane’s television work and has it’s heart in the right place, even though his first move with an original story has a lot of narrative and character related problems.  Those unfamiliar with Family Guy and the like may be put off by the television-like scenes which seems to encompass gags one scene at a time, waiting for it’s audience to laugh, along with a fairly uninspired plot with many throwaway characters.  However, that isn’t to say that Ted doesn’t have it where it counts.  If you can get behind the sometimes long-winded jokes and the random and quick sight gags, there is some good comedy to be had – not to say the least of the accomplishment of Ted himself who is masterfully created and realized with all the other characters. 

Director: Seth MacFarlane
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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When a film series reboots itself, especially fairly soon after it’s predecessor, there is reason to give some pause and think of the implications of such a decision.  Why did the powers that be choose to change the direction and how much would necessarily have to change to differentiate itself from before?  And so thus Spider-man is the latest series to undergo such a reboot treatment.  Although certainly not the quickest reboot to happen within the film world, it still feels quite soon after Raimi’s series had bowed out in 2007.  In the end, does Webb and his creative team do enough to prove that their new iteration, The Amazing Spider-man, can sit well against the increased expectations and competition coming from the genre?  The answer is fairly shaky with nagging and haphazard film and plot elements which is somewhat saved by some interesting chemistry between the film’s two leads and some interesting visual and character ideas.

The Amazing Spider-man follows Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) in a brand new story thread in which his parents have fled when he was a child and he, himself, is still studying in high school.  He lives with his uncle, Ben (Martin Sheen), and aunt, May (Sally Field).  At school, Peter finds himself bullied but finds refuge in taking photos while falling for another student, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).  Eventually, Peter’s desire to find more information about his parents leads him to Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans) and OsCorp, where both Connors and Peter’s father worked together and eventually propels him into a series of events that would change Peter’s life forever.

The film works at it’s best when focused on the romance of Peter and Gwen and it’s other stronger actors along with some interesting visual ideas and story direction.  In an unintended but interesting note, Garfield and Stone fell in love on set and are currently dating.  This point is important because it contributes to the actual chemistry on screen between the two characters that feel natural and is the film at it’s best when focusing on their relationship as they literally are falling in love as the cameras are rolling.  It also helps that Stone and Garfield really give it their all for their performances (a standout section being Spider-man’s realization of his role midway through the film) along with Sheen and Leary, who plays Stacey’s father – the latter of which has some of the best lines, even though his role is fairly limited.  Furthermore, the film brings out some interesting ideas both on a visual level and on the themes of the Spider-man mythos.  In terms of it’s cinematography, the film has interesting perspectives and some good shots that create some striking images such as a scene in which characters are moving with their umbrellas in a specific formation.  It probably isn’t exactly a standout element that hasn’t been done before but is a nice touch to see more thoughtful visual elements make it into a more mainstream film.  Additionally, the writers play around with interesting ideas such as creating a much more distraught and angry Peter unsure of his place in the world.

However, the film loses some of it’s appeal due to a lack of control in many of it’s film elements, weak narrative elements and a lack of much empathy and emotional impact.  As a whole, The Amazing Spider-man has a strange ebb and flow due to several key problems.  One is the pacing.  Up until near the last act of the film, the edits and cuts seem to come at strange moments as transitions don’t flow well and impacts don’t feel right.  Indeed, one part of this problem comes with parts of the story that are retreaded from the original Spider-man as the writers seem to be confused whether to blaze through or explore these parts of the plot.  Some logic is also fairly questionable on character motivations and sudden shifts in characterization.  The importance of mentioning these points is due to the film having so many emotional points that are sullied by these strange choices, dampening scenes such as character deaths and lacking much build-up – an important key to selling central plot moments in the film.

This lack of emotion can also be attributed to the lackluster villain choice of Dr. Connor’s, The Lizard.  The villain not only felt terribly cliched and underwhelming (attributed to the lack of focus and build-up) but the design and effects just never made the villain feel interesting or tangible.  Unfortunately, as the second half of the film is dedicated to the cat-and-mouse game of the villain versus Spider-man, the ultimate climax felt uninteresting and simply by the books.  Finally, I have to take issue with the soundtrack, which much like the film itself, felt sporadic and unmemorable.  Webb’s indie music love shines through a bit as an interesting touch, but the soundtrack as a whole seems to try and bounce around from genre to genre confusingly and when it finally arrives at it’s heroic anthem, it feels lackluster.

(Note: One on-the-side note that was also intrusive was the in-movie product placement, especially with Bing.  I understand the necessity of the practice but seeing Peter utilize nearly every Bing features for a few minutes doesn’t only scream product placement but totally kills much immersion.  It signifies one of the worst product placements in a film to date this year.)  

The Amazing Spider-man is a film that is marred by a lot of elements scattered throughout the duration of the film but saved by it’s leads and visual ideas.  The film has a lot of nagging points that work against it from the lackluster villain to the strange pacing and soundtrack choices.  However, at it’s core, the leads, Garfield and Stone, have a fascinating and genuine relationship along with some interesting visual and character ideas.  It may not exactly be the greatest case for why the property necessitated a reboot but as a film, it should keep fans interested and other audience members somewhat entertained as long as they don’t look beyond the window dressing.  

Director: Marc Webb
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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There are lot of films that love to pay homage to time period in the past and emulate it’s film to harken back to it.  Take Kill Bill for instance in which Tarantino plays with the spaghetti western to the Hong Kong kung fu films throughout the narrative arc.  These homages can play out in different ways and to interesting effect on the final story at hand.  Interestingly, with Moonrise Kingdom, the always quirky but fascinating Director Wes Anderson utilizes a mid-1900s television style as the main inspiration to tell a story about boy-meets-girl with a ton of various trappings.  The end result may be overly shallow and weird for some, but those that can accept the vibe will be rewarded with a poignant tale that is thoughtful about it’s aesthetics to contribute as much as possible to it’s themes.

Moonrise Kingdom mainly follows a young Khaki Scout, Sam (Jared Gilman), and a young girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), who lives on the island Sam’s troop is camping on.  After meeting each other earlier, they set out a plan to meet one another and run away.  However, when several adults of the island learn that these two young people are missing, they set out a search party to go after them from Suzy’s mother and father, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) to the Khaki Scout’s Troop Leader, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and finally the police captain of the island, Sharp (Bruce Willis).  It becomes a back-and-forth race between the two young children versus the adults and search party.

The main problems that some audiences will have with Moonrise Kingdom’ is in it’s fairly simple core story and characters along with the very strange style the film is put together with.  The main narrative arc (and even many of the sub-plots) aren’t exactly complicated endeavors and in the end, some audience members may come away with a sense that little has been actually accomplished or a lack of feeling completely enlightened with something very provocative or profound.  This same feeling also seems to bleed into the majority of characters as well who can range from simplistic and one-noted to perhaps a little more complex, due to the fairy tale-like plot style.  The main problem, however, that will really sway audience members to liking or disliking the majority of the film is how quirky and strange the film can get and whether it goes too far.  Some of the stylization can border on the incomprehensible and disconcerting with scenes that feel like they don’t add much to the plot than just Anderson playing around with concepts for the sake of it.  On a whole, though, if an audience member doesn’t accept how quirky the film can get, the rest of the film doesn’t work and some may find their mileage may vary.

However, if audience members can accept Anderson’s fairy tale/50’s-60’s TV style vibe, there is a lot of different elements that work together to create an entertaining, endearing, and thoughtful package.  Much of what makes the film unique and fascinating is how all of the film’s elements play to the themes that Anderson wants to present.  The framing for instance showcases an interesting homage to the old school television style while showcasing a fascinating dichotomy in the beginning of the film of the two main character while the plot constantly uses symbolism, repetition and foreshadowing in the most mundane items to become important future plot points and themes that resonate to the end of the film.  The soundtrack is so strong as well that embraces the film’s style and permeates it with children choir vocals to mysterious and old school instrumentation and melodies, while the old television style doesn’t feel like it’s wasted with very obvious nods such as awkward zooms to an entire beginning credits sequence that, again, are done thoughtfully and to contribute to the film’s goals.

Perhaps even more fascinating is the theme material that initially may seem innocuous but becomes interesting commentary on a variety of issues.  Anderson tackles different topics from the loss of innocence to the acceptance of societal norms and although the outcomes may not be too surprising, the methodology that is used to bring these themes to life are interesting due to the style and film trappings.  Finally, the film is bookended with both some good humor and a sense of fun from it’s plot to it’s actors.  Even with some fairly deeper themes, the aesthetic trapping of the plot is humorous/dark and the comedy works, even at the expense of perhaps a dark reality that it may reveal.  The actors too seem like they’re completely enjoying themselves with odd roles from Edward Norton playing the all-too-serious scout leader to Swinton’s short but overly strict social services agent (keep an eye out for Schwartzman’s terrific cameo too).  The two leads, Gilman and Wayward, as well make a great impression and fit perfectly as Anderson characters and although they take a bit to completely warm up for the audience, they play their roles fairly masterfully and definitely do make the film work as the central characters.

Moonrise Kingdom definitely will divide audiences with it’s very flamboyant Anderson style, but anyone that can embrace his fantastical vision here will find both a simple, charming story and a movie full of symbolism and great filmmaking.  The film isn’t Anderson’s most complex or deep film and certainly is no less divisive in it’s bold narrative style.  However, for those that love Anderson’s previous works or can get over the flamboyant stylings, Moonrise Kingdom delivers a fun and whimsical comedy-romance that makes all of it’s elements work for it’s messaging and theme from the cinematography to the brilliant soundtrack to the narrative flow.  The film achieves not only in showcasing a childlike romance but with deeper commentary all while keeping the audience laughing and smiling.  It’s great to see such a charming and off-kilter film that cares little if you’re on board but delivers something more than worthwhile for those that stick by it to the end.  

Director: Wes Anderson
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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