The Grinch Review

Illumination Delivers Another Perfectly Acceptable if not Necessarily Exceptional Animated Diversion in this Re-Telling of the Dr. Suess Classic.

Bohemian Rhapsody Review

This Queen biopic Fails to Transcend the Genre the Way its Subjects Transcended the Music Scene, but at Least the Music is Good.

Overlord Review

Overlord Combines the Terror of War with the Terror of a Zombie Apocalypse and Accomplishes Exactly what it Means To.

The Nutcraker and the Four Realms Review

An All-Star Cast Attempts to Usher The Nutcracker Story to a New Generation Via Disney Blockbuster, but Unfortunately the Results Fall Short of the Ambition.

A Star is Born Review

Bradley Cooper Writes, Directs, Sings, and Stars in this Fourth Incarnation of this Story Alongside Lady Gaga to Rapturous Results.

THE WATCH Review

I suspected something like this was going to happen when it came to The Watch. The general consensus of critics would be that this is a lazy and unfunny piece of work from two aging comedians that are likely looking for nothing more than a good paycheck. While I can certainly understand where they are coming from and I would have overall liked the film to be a bit more funny, I actually enjoyed the movie. Maybe it was the fact I was able to get a grasp of what critics were saying that lowered my expectations, but in the end I think it just comes down to the fact that what I was looking for from this movie is what it delivered and nothing more. I don't usually like to waste time in a review trying to justify why I enjoyed a movie versus what the majority of critics thought about it, but due to the fact this one has been so brutally abused by critics I felt it necessary to justify the fact I don't mind watching this group of guys do their thing, even if we have seen it before. As this is no longer 2004-05 I can see how the demand for a Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn comedy might have decreased, but I can't deny the excitement of seeing them back together as a kind of return to form for the Frat Pack members. Do I wish there was a bit more satire to the tired alien genre? Yes. Do I wish the plot itself would have been a bit more clever, bringing together the strands of the script for a better payoff? Sure, but what I went into this movie looking for was laughs. Did I get as many as I wanted? Maybe not, but I laughed plenty enough and many times out loud. I liked the film, I walked out smiling and in a lite-comedy, isn't that all that really matters?

Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), Bob (Vince Vaughn), Evan
(Ben Stiller), and Franklin (Jonah Hill) form the watch. 
If there was one aspect of the film that did disappoint me it would in fact be within the story. There was a lot to take advantage of here as last years Attack the Block demonstrated or even Paul, they were big, broad comedies that took advantage of the premise and embraced it for what it was while maintaining a sense of parody. I wanted the script, penned by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg no less, to not only poke fun at the care-free, easy going lifestyle of suburbanites but combining these satirical observations with those of an outlandish alien invasion plot. The opportunity was there but Rogen and Goldberg instead decided it would just be easier to have these guys improv back and forth guaranteeing some solid laughs while throwing in the extra-terrestrials for ridiculous effect and giving them some kind of goal to work towards for an hour and forty minutes. If you've seen the trailer you get the gist of what is going on here and you see the typical roles each actor has attached themselves to. Stiller plays the uptight, community leader who wears sweater vests and has no shame in embracing his life as a Costco manager. Vaughn is Vaughn, but to be honest he is the guy we haven't really seen on film since 2006. Since his string of knockouts from 2003's Old School through extended cameos in Starsky & Hutch to Anchorman paired with his leads in Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers, and The Break-Up Vaughn has been somewhat absent from the fast talking, R-rated persona we all loved so much. After two Christmas-themed films and two flops that could have been much better in Couples Retreat and The Dilemma the guy who could talk his way out of anything comes back with full force in The Watch and in this aspect alone, not to mention his hilarious pairings with Hill (please let them do a movie together soon) I enjoyed watching the film. I couldn't wait to hear what came out of the guys mouth and despite this being his go-to persona he's withheld it long enough for us to welcome it back with open arms.

The men of the neighborhood watch find a new toy their
friends from outer space seem to have lost.
As for Hill, who has been having a stellar year so far with his Academy award nomination and the success of 21 Jump Street he slides easily into the violence obsessed loser that still lives with his mom shtick. The wild card here was Richard Ayoade, a British comedian who is likely best known for his role as Moss in The IT Crowd. I have never seen the TV series, but will certainly be interested in checking it out as well as following where Ayoade's career goes from this point. His humor here though is so low-key it is somewhat overshadowed by the brashness of Vaughn and the ridiculousness of Hill's. As Stiller's career has gone on I have wondered what made us find him so funny in the first place? How has he come to be this kind of modern comedic standard? Those early days of being the guy unafraid to throw himself into physical gags or be regarded as a kind of clown seem so long ago. Here, while Stiller seemingly plays a man that is made up of characteristics he has played countless times before he also continues to show why he is so reliable. He can bring out the leading man side whenever he chooses to and then will slip in the perfect delivery of a comedic line that we are taken off guard by how funny it actually is. Stiller does it several times here as he navigates this odd group of guys through the course of male bonding and his own personal issues that include not being able to get his wife pregnant. His wife, as played here by Rosemarie DeWitt and her concern in the plot is undercooked as is Vaughn's daughter/parenting issues. It's almost as if the script felt like it had to include these things to feel like a real movie, but why must we let genre lines define a film? If anything this should have consisted of breaking those boundaries and making fun of the horror and buddy action flicks, testosterone action movies, and that suburban angst that deals with the concerns of the meaning of life.

Evan and Franklin interrogate a culprit in the egging
assault that took place on them.
While the cast holds up its end of the bargain, they really do bring the funny and are solid fun to watch for the whole of the running time, I can't say that director Akiva Schaffer did the same. His group of fake MC's The Lonely Island have made countless hilarious digital shorts for SNL for years and have even made one of the more underrated comedic gems of the last few years with Hot Rod but even as that movie was not generally accepted by critics it was no doubt a funny film that might just be of an acquired taste. What was significant about Hot Rod though was that it carried this very distinctive stamp on its brand of humor. It wasn't trying to be anything it wasn't, it was simply itself and it was hilarious. That distinctive style is what I was hoping to see, but instead feels absent from the barren center of The Watch. It is of course likely that with much bigger stars and a much bigger budget ($80 million, seriously?) that the studio was much more restrictive of the artistic and comedic liberties Schaffer could take with the project yet it seemed the parts he was able to slip in is what we saw in the trailers. Why couldn't they then follow through on what we were promised? What looked to be a high concept bit of satire that featured two proven comedians and two up and comers that could more than hold their own turns out to be what is likely a more watered down version of what must have attracted Schaffer, Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill to the project in this first place. I am content with what I saw and will accept it because it made me laugh and didn't disappoint in a way I know it had the capacity of doing. And though I will likely never see it, and maybe it doesn't exist at all, I can still imagine there is a directors cut out there that matches the extra miles this could have gone to be something more. They aren't reinventing the wheel here, but it is a delight to watch when hanging out with a group of friends on a random night that will leave a smile on your face.

    

THE WATCH Review

I suspected something like this was going to happen when it came to The Watch. The general consensus of critics would be that this is a lazy and unfunny piece of work from two aging comedians that are likely looking for nothing more than a good paycheck. While I can certainly understand where they are coming from and I would have overall liked the film to be a bit more funny, I actually enjoyed the movie. Maybe it was the fact I was able to get a grasp of what critics were saying that lowered my expectations, but in the end I think it just comes down to the fact that what I was looking for from this movie is what it delivered and nothing more. I don't usually like to waste time in a review trying to justify why I enjoyed a movie versus what the majority of critics thought about it, but due to the fact this one has been so brutally abused by critics I felt it necessary to justify the fact I don't mind watching this group of guys do their thing, even if we have seen it before. As this is no longer 2004-05 I can see how the demand for a Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn comedy might have decreased, but I can't deny the excitement of seeing them back together as a kind of return to form for the Frat Pack members. Do I wish there was a bit more satire to the tired alien genre? Yes. Do I wish the plot itself would have been a bit more clever, bringing together the strands of the script for a better payoff? Sure, but what I went into this movie looking for was laughs. Did I get as many as I wanted? Maybe not, but I laughed plenty enough and many times out loud. I liked the film, I walked out smiling and in a lite-comedy, isn't that all that really matters?

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED Review

It took several episodes of Parks and Rec for me to really take notice of Aubrey Plaza. Even as a passing fan of the show, I would usually check in before or after The Office to see what antics Aziz was up to or just to get a good quote from Ron Swanson to put on my facebook page. Still, the odd couple of Andy and April were hard to ignore even if I did get the ultra quirky Plaza confused with Rashida Jones from time to time. This is all to say that Plaza has earned her stripes, she has done the gutter work and has come out prepared for what seems like a nice little niche she will carve for herself in the Hollywood landscape. Where Zooey Deschanel is the ultra-happy quirk Plaza lays on the sarcastic hipster vibe over her brooding quirkiness (does that even make sense?) and allows the sarcasm to fly with a delightfully dull delivery. Plaza really won me over with her honest and very funny performance in the 2009 Judd Apatow dramedy Funny People. I enjoyed her self degredation and simple outlook, it made her more appealing than a pretty face who was trying too hard, but more importantly it made her stand out. As she makes her leap to leading lady she has chosen wisely not to get stuck playing the gothic looking best friend to the heroine in humorless romantic comedies, but instead takes the opportunity to demonstrate a love story that is likely closer to home even if it does fit the tool of time traveling into its tale. With Safety Not Guaranteed we have what is on the surface a lovely little indie film with an engaging premise and energetic performances. While this is all fine and good I can't say I wasn't a little bit disappointed that the final product didn't prove to be more than that.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) finds herself in an odd situation
when she decides to investigate a self proclaimed
time-traveler.
Funny enough it was not the presence of Plaza that drew me into this film, though her performance is certainly what will stick with you afterwards, but instead it was the odd premise mixed with the earnest approach that was appealing. With a story that has to deal with the investigation of an idealistic grocery store worker who claims to have the knowledge to travel through time you have to at least step back with intrigue and wonder what they're going to do to pull this off, what direction they are going to take it in. While the story turns out to be one of those cases where the promise, the initial idea was just too good to ever qualify for a satisfactory ending this minor let down is made up by the stellar comedic cast that conveys this limited but ambitious story. We are introduced to Darius (Plaza) in the first moments of the film as she seemingly explains to us her life story and her now casual state of constant pessimism. The movies first laugh comes from the fact she is over-explaining this life story to a manager of a restaurant that is looking to hire someone. The moment, though small, is effective in that it tells us everything we need to know about Darius. Not just in the words she spouts but in her demeanor and the fact she would even be inclined to spill as much as she does. As an intern at a local magazine in Seattle she has come to feel sorry for herself more than she might have in the past. No matter if this is for good reason it is important at first that we engage with this character while still doubting her to come successfully to terms with what we know she will be encountering. When Jeff, a senior writer at the magazine played with smarmy charisma by Jake M. Johnson (New Girl) proposes a story from an ad placed in the paper about a man needing a partner to travel back in time Darius volunteers to tag along.

Darius, Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake M. Johnson)
spy on the subject of their story.
Turns out once Darius, Jeff, and another intern Arnau (Karan Soni) get to the small, ocean town where the mystery time traveler resides that Jeff is only interested in hooking up with an old flame. This leaves Darius to investigate the man who placed the ad. In finally coming into contact with what would no doubt be the most interesting character actor Mark Duplass infuses Kenneth, an odd man who does truly seem to believe he can go back in time, with a real honesty. It would have been easy, too easy in fact, to make Kenneth more of a caricature from some long forgotten, bad sci-fi flick, but instead Duplass gives an earnest showing as a guy who in one sense wants to think he has everything under control but is equally lost. Now, we can guess where this is all likely heading in that the most important part of all this is not the fact of if Kenneth can actually time travel or not, but instead what matters will be the reasons one would want to time travel. It is easy to assume this will serve as a metaphor to the life we all lead and how each of our encounters in life should be taken to maybe mean something more. This is perfectly fine, it touches many emotions and some of the dialogue is so pinpoint on its ability to relate to everyone while feeling extremely personal . The film, in all its craftiness re enforces these points of lost time and the meaningless extras of life through that subplot of Jeff and his long lost hook up buddy. These themes of hope and longing are all explored with equal vigor as we watch what is missing in Kenneth's life be fulfilled through what Darius has brought into it and vice versa. This is where the magic of Plaza comes into play. Through her performance we are able to understand that Kenneth is not just weird or off-kilter but a real human being who despite the issues he may be dealing with, understands how others see him and can see through those who are not as genuine as he.

Darius and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) meet to discuss their
training in preparation for going back in time.
By the end of the film you likely won't care if Kenneth can actually time travel or not, but the way the script levels its absurdity, its whimsical flights with that of the evaluation of the human condition is what will win you over. It doesn't hurt that the film does indeed come to a great emotional payoff at the end, but more than that it is really kind of inspiring. How I felt throughout the viewing though was a hope that the film would continue to exceed where I expected it to go. In this regard I was slightly let down because no matter how genuine the characters come off we can see where their journey will likely take them. I wanted the journey of the story to be as unpredictable and real as the characters I felt like I was watching. While there are plenty of scenes that address the mystery surrounding Kenneth's motives and the confusion over whether this guy is for real or if he is just a loon, we don't care because we come to engage him as a person, what is left to care about is the side of him that we come to hope doesn't actually exist. We grow so close to Kenneth as Darius does and we almost forget his agenda. This left me with feelings of wanting to know more of his backstory, what truly led to this point in his life and why, really why he needs to do what he is doing. As great a final scene as this film has I wanted more from it. It wasn't the best movie I've seen this year and I prefer the other indie time traveler Sound of My Voice over this one, but as a contradicting, comedic piece of work to this succeeds in too many ways to point out the bad things. Safety Not Guaranteed is all about connection and in its most basic storytelling elements it connected with me. I guess that really is all that matters.  


SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED Review

It took several episodes of Parks and Rec for me to really take notice of Aubrey Plaza. Even as a passing fan of the show, I would usually check in before or after The Office to see what antics Aziz was up to or just to get a good quote from Ron Swanson to put on my facebook page. Still, the odd couple of Andy and April were hard to ignore even if I did get the ultra quirky Plaza confused with Rashida Jones from time to time. This is all to say that Plaza has earned her stripes, she has done the gutter work and has come out prepared for what seems like a nice little niche she will carve for herself in the Hollywood landscape. Where Zooey Deschanel is the ultra-happy quirk Plaza lays on the sarcastic hipster vibe over her brooding quirkiness (does that even make sense?) and allows the sarcasm to fly with a delightfully dull delivery. Plaza really won me over with her honest and very funny performance in the 2009 Judd Apatow dramedy Funny People. I enjoyed her self degredation and simple outlook, it made her more appealing than a pretty face who was trying too hard, but more importantly it made her stand out. As she makes her leap to leading lady she has chosen wisely not to get stuck playing the gothic looking best friend to the heroine in humorless romantic comedies, but instead takes the opportunity to demonstrate a love story that is likely closer to home even if it does fit the tool of time traveling into its tale. With Safety Not Guaranteed we have what is on the surface a lovely little indie film with an engaging premise and energetic performances. While this is all fine and good I can't say I wasn't a little bit disappointed that the final product didn't prove to be more than that.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Review

Much like its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is not just a movie but an experience that deserves to be viewed for the impact it will leave on you. I will do my best to keep my personal love for the series contained and not to the point I find no faults with it, certainly there are a few and I can notice that and take those into consideration when evaluating the film. Still, when discussing a movie of this magnitude I also feel that it cannot seriously be taken as a commonplace review, a piece of entertainment that can be so easily dismissed. Even if it did not meet the expectations of what one might have wanted from the film, it can not be denied that it will still be of a higher quality, more of a thoughtful, ambitious, and exquisitely made movie than you have seen or will see the rest of the year. I was completely happy with it. The Dark Knight was a piece of work that will likely stand the test of time and be considered more of a landmark film than this third entry if not for anything other than the performance and character Heath Ledger created. There appears no such disoriented character in the third and final movie but that second film earned this final chapter the opportunity to be even darker and more of an orchestrated chaos tale that reaches a scale no longer seen in cinema today. This is, in many ways, a throwback to those grandiose films of the past that brought to life the unthinkable through practical thought. It is an inspired movie that does justice to the two films prior and brings the story of a man halted in his development and driven to extreme lengths for the cause of justice to a beautiful and satisfying close.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) slowly allow the real world back in.
As I previously mentioned the first act would likely leave any fan of Batman or Nolan's films a bit worried about where all of this might be going and if he will be able to continue to pull of what is in many aspects a fantastical tale with many outlandish characters in a way that feels just as real and gritty as his previous entries in the Batman story. The opening sequence is very much like that of The Dark Knight, an introduction to our main villain in the film that exercises his capacity for destruction while illustrating their depth of thought. The clear distinction between that of the Joker and Bane is Bane's physicality. From day one it has been a question of how Batman might fare against a real physical threat, something he had never truly been asked to encounter before. In Bane's introduction we know nothing of what is to come but we can tell what he is planning will be something on a massive scale. The simple exchange between he and a henchmen where he tells the man he must sacrifice himself and there is no resistance to his word demonstrates the kind of power he has. That it is not simply an intimidation factor, but a superiority of intelligence that will lead him to be a formidable challenge for the Batman, especially considering Bruce Wayne has been retired for eight years and has become a recluse. What Nolan has always been praised for and has pulled off so flawlessly is his ability to mesh his story and spectacle. While this was pulled off in near perfect execution with The Dark Knight Nolan escalates the scale for his Batman swan song while twisting a tale to match that holds more surprises than any other chapter while still digging just as deep into the psyche of our protagonist.

The entire point in telling this story, the main theme throughout has been to create the character of Batman as a symbol rather than a man. To make the citizens of Gotham believe their savior could be any one of them. Bruce Wayne the man, has turned to these tools of "theatrics and deception" as a means to present his symbolic alter ego as a catalyst for change in a city his deceased parents cared so much for. As he discovered who he was, what he wanted and needed to be in Batman Begins this idea was only pushed and questioned further in The Dark Knight. With the antics of the Joker bringing up the dilemma of whether the way Bruce had chosen to go about achieving his hopes was actually inspiring change or inspiring an army who wanted to fight for what the Batman stood for. Bruce only ever wanted to bring Gotham back to the days of prospering economics and peaceful existence, but instead has seemed to inspire as much bad as good, possibly caused more trouble than he has been able to rid. There is more to the quest of Batman than going out and fighting bad guys one by one though, and that is what the symbol is present for. That is what made the ending of The Dark Knight so profound, so utterly unexpected, and leaving it open for what would no doubt be an even more engaging and complex third act.

Where The Joker wanted to watch the world burn, Bane (Tom Hardy) is here to pull the trigger on the grenade. 
And with that, Rises opens to what feels like a cold and barren time of peace. The twist here is that all of this, the low crime rates and prospering citizens, is all based on the lie that Batman killed the idealistic and righteous Harvey Dent rather than letting them know the truth in that even their "White Knight" was corruptable at the hands of the Joker. This has clearly weighed heavily on Commissioner Gordon (a wonderfully honed in Gary Oldman) as it does on Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne who is now more regarded as a Howard Hughes-type than the playboy billionaire we watched him pull off so well in the first two films. When Bruce is forced back into the world at the hands of two women, it is with an instant feeling of dread that he knows the lie can only be covered up for so long, before the roof's blown off and the truth is exposed. That is where the mercenary Bane steps in. As the bombastic terrorist, actor Tom Hardy has little more to work with than his eyes yet he uses them to his advantage as they speak mountains more than his muzzled mouth and muffled speech could ever manage. Bane comes to Gotham looking to finish what was started long ago. This leads to a somewhat similar trapping that Batman Begins fell into, having a weaponized tool from Wayne Enterprises stolen and used to his advantage but we buy it and Nolan learned from his misstep as the focus here is more on the characters motivations rather than following the structure of what a superhero film might be expected to fulfill. Tying in Wayne Enterprises also means the introduction to a new board member who catches the eye of a Bruce Wayne trying to re-introduce himself to a society he once stood at the top of. Miranda Tate, as played by one of three Inception alum Marion Cotillard, is sly and sexy, but is also the one relationship of the film that feels underdeveloped for proving to be such a critical point.

In what is a more minor, side character than I expected her to be (and also my biggest worry going into the film) is Anne Hathaway who ends up pulling off Selina Kyle with a sultry flair that does justice to her cat burglar profession while also possessing a fantastic sense of sarcasm that takes full advantage of those that underestimate her strength due to her sex. The character stays true to Nolan's world by being more of a femme fatale type con-woman rather than a campy thief who wears a costume to be provocative. Hathaway is never referenced to as Catwoman and I liked that choice of not labeling the characters with names as if they were media sensations. For the same reasons I love little choices like throwing "the" in front of Batman, it simply gives the whole world a better sense of credibility; not to mention reinforcing that allusion to the bat being more a symbol than a character itself. It is likely a wise choice that Nolan and his screenwriting collaborator/brother decided to keep Kyle to a minimum as her presence is certainly welcomed and her storyline integrated nicely into the multi-layered plot, but her character gets to no real exposition or backstory. There is far too much else going on here to give everyone their due, but the cuts are wisely made. We see what we need to see and though I feared if anything was going to shake the foundation Nolan had built for his bat trilogy that it might be Catwoman, I was proven wrong not only by Hathaway's performance but by the naturalistic sense with how she came to be a part of and continued to fit into the world of both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is a sneaky cat burglar.
What idea the character of Selina Kyle does push forward in the film is that of the economic crisis that has always loomed over Gotham yet the fact remained there was an elitist group of wealthy that included our heroes alter-ego, Mr. Wayne. It has always been a fact of the story that Wayne was a billionaire and that this fact is what separated him from the others that could not make the statement he chose to make. In being born into such wealth he was not only blessed with money, but with what he came to see as a responsibility. Sure, this allows him the luxury of all the cool gadgets Lucius Fox (the always reliable Morgan Freeman) supplies him with, but in this large and deep movie Nolan also touches on this unavoidable fact in reference to the world around him. He is making a statement about the current status of our society and those who have too much, or all they want and those who struggle every day to get by. It makes a case for having a real message without alluding to the easy target of politics. I honestly don't think Nolan intends to mirror the political landscape of America at the moment with these themes and characters. Those parallels can naturally be drawn when such care is taken to provide a story about a society and how it functions when rooted in as stable a reality as Nolan has. What The Dark Knight Rises does is to show the economic downfall of its most prized possession: Bruce Wayne himself. He is bankrupted after years of neglecting his company and some slight tinkering from the new guy in town. And from here the bottom just continues to fall out from under him. Bruce Wayne, not Batman, is knocked down so many times in this film he is pushed to a point that is in one instance total desperation and determination. He is literally and emotionally forced to crawl out of a very dark place, that same place he fell into as a boy, and we are with him every step of that emotional journey. This not only solidified my belief in this movie as a success, but as a relevant and important piece of filmmaking that shows the basic elements of good vs. evil are much more complex when there is a history to them and the person fighting for good has just as much pain as those fighting for evil. It is even more powerful when we realize the strength it took in a person to fall into that former category.  

Speaking of those falling into the category of good, while Bane Terrorizes, Miranda Tate takes over Wayne Enterprises, and Selina Kyle slinks around with an agenda of her own that gets her caught up in the eye of the storm we also have Gordon who is put out of commission by the masked terrorist and a new character mysteriously titled with a generic name that sees something much more going on than the lie that has saved Gotham for the past eight years. In a role that almost takes over the duty of Batman for the first half of the film John Blake, a young and idealistic cop played in an environment of pure cynicism with vigor and heart by Joseph Gordon-Levitt quickly ascends to become the right hand man of the Commissioner. Through the course of The Dark Knight Rises Blake comes to be our view of the world. Our set of eyes as Alfred (played again, but with stronger emotionality than ever by Michael Caine) is limited to a shorter amount of screen time. Blake knows the truth of the conspiracy as we do, he understands that Batman is the hero, even moreso for what he has taken the fall for. In this idea that Batman and Gordon had to keep the truth of what really happened a secret from society in order for it to bring about change is where Nolan inclinates his biggest social commentary. That the idea that the truth is too much, too painful or damaging for people to handle is to say that we as a race, as a society of human beings are unable to deal with the harsh truth sometimes. That is a scary thought and as a movie goer it isn't exactly where you would like to see things go. This idea is turns out to be a positive attribute for the film though in that it never takes you down a road you feel you've traveled before. In all its layers of story with massive amounts of action we never know what is around the corner and with stakes that high, it matches the level of tension we felt as an audience while watching the Joker blow up a hospital or fail to corrupt the truly incorruptible.

Batman returns after an eight year absence to Gotham City.
With all of that said, this does feel like the true completion of the greatest trilogy ever put to film. Chris Nolan has taken movies about superheroes to a place no one has ever been before and will likely ever venture to again. Everything about the film is gorgeous, from the pounding and perfectly placed Hans Zimmer score (I especially liked how the music dropped out during the first showdown between Batman and Bane) to the cinematography by consistent Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister. Having over an hour of this two hour and forty-five minute film shot in actual IMAX makes this a must see in the format and hopefully a signal for Hollywood to change its trend of chasing the 3D and switch to this much more rewarding way of watching movies. It takes us back to a storytelling that creates a world we as an audience can get caught up in, lost even, not only because of its bigness but because the image is as important as the storytelling. The scale completely influences the story. It raises the stakes on a situation that was already extremely heightened. This story of great depth features an amazing ensemble, all of which are at the top of their game, only enhancing the quality of the viewing experience.  

Chris Nolan set the bar ridiculously high for himself with The Dark Knight, but this final film in his trilogy is every bit as visionary and as epic a piece of filmmaking. It should also be noted I think that each film is very much its own. With a mood to itself and an idea that takes each new movie that one step further into why this story is so captivating in the first place. Where Batman Begins was in many ways a story of romantic ideals, The Dark Knight was a sleek piece of chaos and The Dark Knight Rises is a bleak and painful account of how that chaos has left the world it affected. The verdict of a movie should always come down to the feeling it leaves you with though and with this film I left the theater after the credits and I was happy. It had a power over me, it left an impact with serious weight that captures a specific moment in time. I have no issue with acknowledging my moments of nervousness through the first few scenes in the film. Whether it be that my expectations were so high I began to worry too early this would not be what I wanted or maybe after repeat viewings I will actually find there is an incoherent tone to the first act remains to be seen, but I can look past a few small complaints because what this film builds to is one of the most satisfying experiences I have ever had with any kind of film.



THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Review

Much like its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is not just a movie but an experience that deserves to be viewed for the impact it will leave on you. I will do my best to keep my personal love for the series contained and not to the point I find no faults with it, certainly there are a few and I can notice that and take those into consideration when evaluating the film. Still, when discussing a movie of this magnitude I also feel that it cannot seriously be taken as a commonplace review, a piece of entertainment that can be so easily dismissed. Even if it did not meet the expectations of what one might have wanted from the film, it can not be denied that it will still be of a higher quality, more of a thoughtful, ambitious, and exquisitely made movie than you have seen or will see the rest of the year. I was completely happy with it. The Dark Knight was a piece of work that will likely stand the test of time and be considered more of a landmark film than this third entry if not for anything other than the performance and character Heath Ledger created. There appears no such disoriented character in the third and final movie but that second film earned this final chapter the opportunity to be even darker and more of an orchestrated chaos tale that reaches a scale no longer seen in cinema today. This is, in many ways, a throwback to those grandiose films of the past that brought to life the unthinkable through practical thought. It is an inspired movie that does justice to the two films prior and brings the story of a man halted in his development and driven to extreme lengths for the cause of justice to a beautiful and satisfying close.

THE DARK KNIGHT Review

If any film in recent memory has approached, if not in many a fans eyes reached, perfection it would be the second entry in Chris Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight. Everything about the film contributes to building the tension and every performance is spot on, but what will forever be remembered about the film, what will stand out no matter how great everything else was is the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. When it was announced the actor would be playing the manic and insane criminal there was no shortage of doubt in his abilities but then the teaser trailer premiered and we got our first taste of Ledger's interpretation and how different it would be from Jack Nicholson's. Ledger's Joker was a deranged lunatic of a man who only wanted to watch the world burn and does more than his part to see that ambition become a truth in the city of Gotham. No matter how many times I watch the film I find myself amazed at how much this transcends the super hero/comic book genre to become something entirely different, something more-a crime drama, a mystery, a story of love, loss, and chaos. I become more impressed with how complex the story actually is, the layers with which the Nolan brothers and David Goyer took to make sure every aspect of the story had its motivations set to serve the ultimate theories and themes that Nolan is trying to explore with his films. There was no greater experience than seeing the massive action set pieces, the swelling music, the mastery of the performances come together on the IMAX screen like they did the first time you watched The Dark Knight. There hasn't been one since and likely never will be again, but I'm hoping things come pretty close this week.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) contemplates what it
means to be Batman.
At the end of Batman Begins when Gordon handed over the joker card to Batman we knew what was coming but not necessarily what to expect. Never did I imagine the film that would follow would be the defining moment of my movie going experiences. I literally felt privileged to be alive during the theatrical release of such a film and have the opportunity to see it as many times as I wanted to in the format it was meant to be seen in. For two and a half hours I was on the edge of seat in pure escapism and overtaken by the scope with which the film was operating. Nearly every scene has am iconic shot, or moment, or piece of dialogue to it. The opening bank heist scene, the "hockey pants" fight scene where a director finally acknowledged issues with the batsuit and made the change to best one yet for the most practical of reasons. There is the introduction of the "white knight" Harvey Dent and how he has come to the aid of Batman yet Bruce Wayne can't help but to dislike him because he takes the affections of Rachel away. Aaron Eckhart likely had one of the more difficult arcs to pull off but it was always destined to be overshadowed by Ledger's insane villain. Still, the Harvey Dent/Two-face transition for me is what helped the story match the visuals and the music in scope. The sequence where Batman kidnaps Lau from his secure office building in Hong Kong by plane or the one where the Joker crashes the fundraiser or when he blows up a hospital. The car chase where the batpod is first revealed and that moment when the 18-wheeler flipped. It was astonishing, mesmerizing, it had a power over you as a viewer. The freakish and disturbing antics of the Joker keeping us guessing as the plot thickens and comes to an unconventional climax that left your mind lingering with thoughts and questions that were a chilling surprise to how much a man in a bat suit could resonate with you.

The Joker was Heath Ledger's finest performance.
I saw the film no less than six times in its theatrical run and though I try my hardest not to allow my excitement and anticipation blind me from seeing any issues the film might have, it was truly hard for me to find any kind of major fault with the movie. Sure, it had a few issues in the second act, it might have drug a time or two, but it picked itself back up and Nolan understood his project so well that he never allowed the bleakness of the whole thing to outweigh the fact that it was entertainment or the fact that it was entertainment to outweigh what he wanted to explore in the Batman mythology. What he set out to make with the first film carries over in that every aspect was grounded in reality. This is a completely plausible story where a man makes himself more than a human being in the eyes of his enemies to scare them into seclusion. Christian Bale dug even deeper into his role the second time around, he became Bruce Wayne and in doing that was able to become the true identity of the man in Batman. Maggie Gyllenhaal took over duties for Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes in a move I usually don't like at all, but Gyllenhaal left me wishing she had played the role in the first place. I look back, trying to imagine Holmes delivering the dialogue and the performance needed to make Rachel as great of an emotional pull as Gyllenhaal did in The Dark Knight and it just isn't possible. Then you have the trio of support for Wayne/Batman in the form of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman. Oldman truly inhabits the skin of Gordon in this film and Caine, in his somewhat limited screen time, delivered a nuanced and emotional performance that is strong when it needs to be and light only when necessary. Freeman does his thing, but adds an extra bit of charm in a few key scenes early on that allow us to look past his persona and buy into him in this world. Regardless of how good anyone else was in the film though it all comes back around to Ledger. That first real introduction to the Joker where he crashes the mob boss meeting and makes a real impression on everyone by inserting a pencil into a mans head is one of the greatest introductions to a character ever put to film.

Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey Dent
(Aaron Eckhart) attend a fundraiser for Harvey. 
What would the film have been had Ledger not died months before its release? Did his death make the Joker he portrayed on screen all the more scary? Likely, a bit, yes. Still, four years later his performance sends chills down my spine. I don't know that the film would have been as massively successful money-wise and that will be a debate that goes on forever, but regardless of the loss of Ledger, the film is and would have been considered the pinnacle of comic book adaptations and left its audience anxiously awaiting what would come next. We have almost reached the point of seeing what that follow up will be and despite Nolan's efforts nothing he could have done would have been able to top what he made here. It is clear he put everything he had into The Dark Knight and with his third and final installment he will no doubt bring what will no doubt go down in history as one of the greatest trilogies of all time to a fitting close. There is something to be said for a film that did what The Dark Knight did but it is hard to put into words what a huge impression this movie left on me. I love the film to the point I could watch it with my eyes closed and still find it beautiful due to the soaring and grim soundtrack that evolved from the first film. It is a gorgeous movie in every demented sense of the word. It is an emotional rollercoaster, an exquisite film that demonstrates the kind of chaos and terrorism a truly disturbed individual can bring to the forefront of society. It is a mirror to society, a political commentary with hints of understanding to public perceptions and terrorism that gave it a more urgent cover to the psycho crime drama that its presented as. It is a masterpiece.

THE DARK KNIGHT Review

If any film in recent memory has approached, if not in many a fans eyes reached, perfection it would be the second entry in Chris Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight. Everything about the film contributes to building the tension and every performance is spot on, but what will forever be remembered about the film, what will stand out no matter how great everything else was is the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. When it was announced the actor would be playing the manic and insane criminal there was no shortage of doubt in his abilities but then the teaser trailer premiered and we got our first taste of Ledger's interpretation and how different it would be from Jack Nicholson's. Ledger's Joker was a deranged lunatic of a man who only wanted to watch the world burn and does more than his part to see that ambition become a truth in the city of Gotham. No matter how many times I watch the film I find myself amazed at how much this transcends the super hero/comic book genre to become something entirely different, something more-a crime drama, a mystery, a story of love, loss, and chaos. I become more impressed with how complex the story actually is, the layers with which the Nolan brothers and David Goyer took to make sure every aspect of the story had its motivations set to serve the ultimate theories and themes that Nolan is trying to explore with his films. There was no greater experience than seeing the massive action set pieces, the swelling music, the mastery of the performances come together on the IMAX screen like they did the first time you watched The Dark Knight. There hasn't been one since and likely never will be again, but I'm hoping things come pretty close this week.

BATMAN BEGINS Review

Looking back on Christopher Nolan's first venture into Gotham City it does show us how far he has come as a filmmaker. His confidence alone in what he can accomplish and what he can control to the point he can put it on screen in an organized fashion is stunning. When going into Batman Begins though, we had no impression of what was to come and so we took it for what it was at the time: the best Batman movie that had ever been made. I've always been a huge Batman fan, and like anyone from my generation, a child of the 90's, they likely gained their fondness for the character through the animated series of that decade. What was odd about the correlation between that series and the live action films coming out at the time was that there really wasn't any. The Tim Burton films painted an eccentric and somewhat dark picture of the caped crusader. Certainly, to that point they were the closest thing anyone had to the original comics of Bob Kane. Still, after Burton and Keaton retired from the series it crashed and burned under Joel Schumacher who turned the live action adaptations into more of kids entertainment than the 1992-1995 animated series. This cartoon series, partially inspired by the success of Burton's films gave my generation a better idea of what Batman really was.  With Batman Begins Nolan and writer David S. Goyer delivered the extension of that series to the kids who grew up watching it every day after school. Begins gave a darker and more realistic tone to the gritty world of Gotham city and the rich boy who in one act gained fear and despair for what his world truly was. It didn't simply deliver the superhero in a suit fighting bad guys, but it gave us the motivation for a man to cover his face and force out the evil.

Ducard (Liam Neeson) trains Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)
in the ways of the League of Shadows.
What I found particularly appealing about Batman Begins was the fact tn filled in those gaps that had always been left out of the Batman origin story. Anyone who has ever seen a Batman movie knows the part where Bruce watches his parents be murdered at a young age. We know this is what motivates him to fight for what is not necessarily revenge, but justice. How though, did such a young boy decide to take on the persona of a bat? Where did he learn to fight? Where did he gather his theories and divulge the psychology of the criminal mind? What made him any kind of authority to try and stop those who threatened what he desired to salvage? The questions are endless yet somehow Nolan and Goyer were able to blend this analysis of a hero into the story of Batmans coming to be and his first face-off with the mob and a criminal mastermind. Beginning with and going in a non-linear fashion to reconstruct the struggle of a boy through his young adult years and on into manhood the film does a wonderful job of painting a full picture of who Bruce Wayne is as a man. In doing this, Batman Begins was able to do something few superhero films had accomplished before. The audience was not simply counting the time until the man put on the suit, but instead we became just as engaged in the story of what was psychologically going on underneath that mask. When Wayne leaves Gotham after seemingly closing a chapter in his life dealing with the death of his parents he carries the sorrow and spark of a realization from mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) around with him as he explores the criminal mind. He is searching to find a way to avenge the guilt he feels for his parents death by ridding the world of the filth that took his parents from him.

Batman watches over and protects the city of Gotham.
In doing this, he comes across a man who presents himself strictly as Ducard (Liam Neeson) a recruiter for a  mysterious group of vigilantes known as the league of shadows, who at first glance seem to have the same goals in mind as Bruce. When it becomes clear that Ducard and his leader Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) do not view the way in which a criminal should be treated with the same ideals a rift is formed between the billionaire and the boys in black. Wayne fights back and seemingly makes his way back to Gotham, a lesson well learned. Despite their differences in theory Bruce has taken a few cues from his teacher and implied the use of theatrics into his plan to rid Gotham of those that have torn down everything his idealistic father worked to build. Thus we are now given the complications of corrupt cops and officials in nearly every office in Gotham. Using long time friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, later to be replaced by Maggie Gylenhaal) and reaching out to new ally Sgt. James Gordon (a flawless Gary Oldman) Wayne begins the revolution to clean up the corrupt. It also helps that he has the family butler Alfred (Michael Caine) at his side to guide him and serving as a kind of father figure as well as Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) a Wayne Enterprises employee in the applied sciences division that provides the cool gadgets Wayne uses as his alter ego. In one of my favorite aspects of this film though, we were given a live action interpretation of what I always found to be one of the creepier batman villains. As personified by Cillian Murphy, Dr. Jonathan Crane is at the same time what brings this first installment out of its strictly grounded reality while also assuring the audience that such an outlandish kind of villain can fit into Nolan's world as well.

Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) summons Batman when a
crook with the same flair for theatrics shows up in town.
Besides the story though, it is everything about the film that consistently captivated me. Never has the music felt so integral to the actions that are taking place on screen. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard set the tone for the entire series with this score by giving this Gotham a completely different feel than we had ever related to it before. The look of the film was integral, the orange and yellow tones tinted with shadows in each shot. The imagery, how Bale and Nolan made a point to get stoic shots of Batman and truly bring to life that persona of Batman from the comics. There was the reinvented batmobile aka "The Tumbler" and the way in which each actor complimented that tone the script gave off. It all falls into place and creates a coherent picture where while still having a few flaws, made it clear that director Nolan took this superhero stuff seriously and we were in for something we had not seen before. The complaints are few, though after seeing the renovated batsuit for The Dark Knight I wished that they might have discovered it a few yeas earlier so that our first introduction to bale's Batman might not have been the clunky, stiff hero we have here. There is also the case of the final act slightly desolving into standard action movie stuff. The plot becomes slightly predictable when a ship is hijacked and a Wayne enterprises tool is stolen. I remember thinking the first time I watched the film that the pacing had been perfect up to the point when it became evident how much they were trying to accomplish. Early on, despite having so much going on and placing so many implications for later in the story in front of us we were unaware of it. The script gave us what we needed to know in the most subtle of ways. As we neared the climax of the film though it simply felt more of a mess and not as smooth. Still, it could not take away from the excitement Batman Begins roused in me by seeing the Bruce Wayne/Batman story get the treatment it had always needed, what it had always deserved. If I only knew what was to come.

BATMAN BEGINS Review

Looking back on Christopher Nolan's first venture into Gotham City it does show us how far he has come as a filmmaker. His confidence alone in what he can accomplish and what he can control to the point he can put it on screen in an organized fashion is stunning. When going into Batman Begins though, we had no impression of what was to come and so we took it for what it was at the time: the best Batman movie that had ever been made. I've always been a huge Batman fan, and like anyone from my generation, a child of the 90's, they likely gained their fondness for the character through the animated series of that decade. What was odd about the correlation between that series and the live action films coming out at the time is that the only correlation had already passed in the Burton films. The Tim Burton films painted an eccentric and somewhat dark picture of the caped crusader. Certainly, to that point they were the closest thing anyone had come to the original comics of Bob Kane. Still, after Burton and Keaton retired from the series it crashed and burned under Joel Schumacher who turned the live action adaptations into more kid-centric entertainment than the 1992-1995 animated series. This cartoon series, partially inspired by the success of Burton's films gave my generation a better idea of what Batman was supposed to be (not you, George Clooney!). With Batman Begins Nolan and writer David S. Goyer delivered the extension of that series to the kids who grew up watching it every day after school. Begins gave a darker and more realistic tone to the gritty world of Gotham City and the rich boy who in one act gained fear and despair for what his world truly was. It didn't simply deliver the superhero in a suit fighting bad guys, but it gave us the motivation for a man to cover his face and force out evil.

MAGIC MIKE Review

Before the movie even began I wondered if there might be any point to writing a review about it. The film, from its initial conception seemed a way to push Channing Tatum's celebrity and sexual appeal that much further. Granted, it is made by award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, this still didn't stop me from thinking, after the first few scenes that it would be a film that would require little to no analysis. A film I would likely be able to shed no further opinion on considering the subject matter and considering the movie seemed to take itself for what it was: a fun time at the movies for a girls night out. While serving its purpose on this front and delivering (for the most part) what the ladies in the audience likely expected, Magic Mike also turns out to be something a little more than that. How director Soderbergh has transitioned from directing the apocalyptic-disease tale Contagion last September then moving on to an experiment in the underrated action flick with a feminist drive known as Haywire and now onto a romp of a film like Magic Mike is pretty baffling, but it is also kind of brilliant. As a lover of film I am happy to have such a creative and adaptable director deliver three projects in less than a year, but beyond that the diversity this shows is to be admired, the skill with which he has infused his own touch into each genre is another thing to behold entirely. While Magic Mike could have easily been that male version of Showgirls, it stops itself from even venturing into camp territory (except when intentional) and steps back from the world it is chronicling to take a look at the bigger picture. It analyzes its own issues for us instead of getting wrapped up in itself as most movies do.

Brooke (Cody Horn) and Mike (Channing Tatum) share
a stroll and a drink with one another.
As anyone even remotely interested by this movie might be aware, Magic Mike is the brainchild of star Tatum himself as it is based off his "experiences" as a stripper before he hit it big. That is to say, most of the events that take place are likely slightly embellished but the world, the world in which all of this takes place is what feels truly genuine. As stories go about excess, fame, money, and women go someone undoubtedly will have their good time driven to the point that they cross a line and have to be woken up from their excess to go back to what really counts towards gratification in this life. Magic Mike plays loose with these archetypes as the title character himself Mike Lane (Tatum) is a ring leader of a group of Tampa strippers by night while using the easy money he gains dancing to fund his dreams of being able to build a business out of making custom furniture. Mike is a career oriented individual who we truly believe to have more of an outlook on his life to realize he doesn't want to end up like his boss at the strip joint. Still, it is also clear Mike isn't taking this time in his prime for granted either. He enjoys what he does and the lifestyle that comes with it. He likes to be seen on stage, the adoration it brings to a person is something he likely begins to crave and is hard to go without. It is made clear he likes to fool himself by justifying the stripping as a front until he can get his feet on the ground with his furniture business. He can only tell himself this for so long though until the realizations are brought forth he is doing nothing but lying to himself. To help Mike move along in his developmental stage we have Brooke (Cody Horn, who I liked but looks angry all the time) the sister of new recruit Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and the only one who doesn't seem to be impressed by Mike on first sight. Tatum truly does let his character live the arc written for him in the script and displays the most on screen charisma he's ever been able to convey with this role. In this role it is made evident why Hollywood has become so enthralled with the actor and why he has become the biggest name of 2012.

The men of Xquisite include Adam (Alex Pettyfer),
Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and Magic Mike.
With Mike serving as the ringleader of this crew (and the only legitimate dancer) he goes out recruiting ladies for their show and happens to run across Adam, a college dropout who he met earlier in the day at a roofing job. The Kid, as he comes to be known, is an impressionable 19 year-old that seems to have lost any kind of ambition for anything. Feeling sorry for the Adam, Mike takes him under his wing and introduces him to that world of money, women, and a good time. Hesitant at first to embrace the lifestyle it quickly becomes like a drug to Adam when he begins to understand the rewards it can bring. Rounding out the troop of Tampa dancers is Ken (a briefly seen Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Alex Rodriguez) and Kevin Nash as Tarzan. These guys don't actually do very much dancing, more grinding on poles, chairs, women or pretty much anything you put in front of them. They have the looks required to fulfill the fantasies of their female patrons and that seems to be enough to overlook the lack of actual talent they display. I guess this makes it easier to better understand why each of these individuals doesn't come to the same realizations Mike is having. They need nothing more than the instant satisfaction of what's given to them on stage and have no thought of where this might lead them to be 10 years down the road. This kind of sad and pitiful lifestyle is summed up in the true leader of the Tampa boys and their hotspot. As Dallas, Matthew McConaughey gives yet another great performance in what seems to be the midst of a career renovation. Dallas is a 40-something who runs his own club and leads a lifestyle of leisure and unchallenged ideas. He has no desire to reform to what might be seen as more respectable, but he has no reason to either. He can see the restlessness in Mike as he begins to formulate plans of a big business move to Miami. He too takes Adam under his wing and we see the subtle hint of the cycle beginning again with The Kid as it likely did 6 years earlier when Mike wandered into the world Dallas made so appealing.

Dallas gives Adam his first lesson in stripping.
The way in which Soderbergh presents his story is that he takes more care to deliver the audience a portrait of the title character and who he is rather that what he is at this moment in his life. This is critical to the sincerity of the film and in terms of it succeeding as a story. This could have easily been a slapdash effort and a quick cash grab for Tatum and everyone involved, but lucky for the males who do in fact venture out to see this it is something more than that, something anyone in that audience can likely relate to. Feeling stuck in a rut, wanting and aspiring to go to places you would feel content with in your life rather than constantly struggling to reach what feels like an unattainable goal. No, Magic Mike is probably not what many of the women walking in expected it to be. This is not the light-hearted stripper movie that delivers the goods and leaves no price to pay for the excess within which these boys operate. No, it is an introspective look at a world that has never really been explored with such a credible hand before. Sure, the case can be made that such a topic deserves no serious consideration, that by pure virtue of what it is and what it represents is an artificial and vulgar view of what women want and desire in their most carnal of natures is nothing to be proud of. The idea that such a movie, with such a cast could exceed those characteristics itself to become a more human story is almost as unbelievable as the fact I would have expected to enjoy it as much as I did. In the end, it is the fact director Soderbergh was able to take such a subject matter and turn it into a movie that means something more than an excuse to watch hard-bodied actors take off their clothes and that he was able to turn it on the audience and make them look inside themselves to help motivate them to understand that you can only fool yourself for so long. In the most ingenious of ways it is delivering the message to the hoards of women that have gone out to see it that they are not restricted to one role in life, that they have the power to make the decisions for how they want their life to turn out. Now, if they could only see that past the biceps and the gyratng.

          

MAGIC MIKE Review

Before the movie even began I wondered if there might be any point to writing a review about it. The film, from its initial conception seemed a way to push Channing Tatum's celebrity and sexual appeal that much further. Granted, it is made by award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, this still didn't stop me from thinking, after the first few scenes that it would be a film that would require little to no analysis. A film I would likely be able to shed no further opinion on considering the subject matter and considering the movie seemed to take itself for what it was: a fun time at the movies for a girls night out. While serving its purpose on this front and delivering (for the most part) what the ladies in the audience likely expected, Magic Mike also turns out to be something a little more than that. How director Soderbergh has transitioned from directing the apocalyptic-disease tale Contagion last September then moving on to an experiment in the underrated action flick with a feminist drive known as Haywire and now onto a romp of a film like Magic Mike is pretty baffling, but it is also kind of brilliant. As a lover of film I am happy to have such a creative and adaptable director deliver three projects in less than a year, but beyond that the diversity this shows is to be admired, the skill with which he has infused his own touch into each genre is another thing to behold entirely. While Magic Mike could have easily been that male version of Showgirls, it stops itself from even venturing into camp territory (except when intentional) and steps back from the world it is chronicling to take a look at the bigger picture. It analyzes its own issues for us instead of getting wrapped up in itself as most movies do.

TO ROME WITH LOVE Review

I guess Woody Allen was slightly insulted in 2006 when he wasn't asked to direct one of the shorts in the compilation tribute to the city of lights titled Paris, je t'aime. There were plenty of high-class directors that contributed to the project and it happened right on the cusp of Mr. Allen's tour of Europe. In not getting to attribute a short film to the collection he seems to have decided to create a film of shorts himself. In his follow up to last years wildly successful Midnight in Paris Allen has returned to his usual state of conveying his opinion through typical, if not farcical situations. Whereas last year and every once in a while throughout his consistent career Allen will diverge from his beaten path and deliver a fantastic story that mixes the writer/director's combination of wit and criticism with a story that on a different level than most, connects to its audience. In the ethics of seeming to work non stop Allen fills the gaps between these sparks of genius with meditations on the current state of society and popular culture among other things. Allen has always been known for his insecure yet intellectual persona and he applies that not only in the character he himself portrays here but into each of the four stories that is told in To Rome with Love. While overall the film does in fact appear to be several short films spliced together to perpetrate as a feature it is actually a nicely paced piece of fun to watch that is moved along by the diverse bits of casting Allen has put together here. I can understand where many critics are coming from when they find this to be "lesser Woody Allen" but I found it to be quite wonderful, a nice distraction in the summer months, if only slightly disappointing after such a higher level of imagination he delivered to us last year.

From Left: Phyllis (Judy Davis) Jerry (Woody Allen) Hayley
(Alison Pill) and her fiance Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti)
enjoy a night of Opera from Michelangelo's father.
To Rome with Love tells four different accounts of people living in or visiting the beautiful city of fountains as each experiences an affinity for the city and for another newly acquired aspect of their lives. Whether it be a close encounter with new found celebrity in an attempt to illustrate the current state of the rich and famous who relish in the life for the reasons of being rich and famous or to examine and re-live the never changing landscape with which free-spirited, college-aged kids approach such a complex emotion as love. There is the situation in which Allen places himself as a father and husband to wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) as they have just arrived in Rome to meet their future son-in-law and his family. Allen has gathered Paris alum Alison Pill to play his daughter and in meeting her fiance Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and his father sees the opportunity to relive his glory days and come back out of retirement as an opera director as he finds a hidden talent in Michelangelo's father. Then there is the least explored story that concerns a young, rather square couple who venture off on separate romantic encounters that are meant to teach them a thing or two about their own. Penelope Cruz shows up for a bit part that is really a bit of fun, but while her excerpt might be the least explored it is the storyline that involves Roberto Benigni as a middle class, run of the mill man who gains instant stardom for seemingly no reason that falls the most flat due to lack of support. There is not much in the way of story here, but more an examination of the effects of celebrity and how fast fads come and go. Allen approaches each scenario as if it were a stand up comedy routine and blesses each with snappy dialogue that is delivered perfectly by his understanding cast.

John (Alec Baldwin) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg)
reminisce together on love and deception.
The positive light the film does shine is that it knows how to balance its non-intersecting stories well. Allen knows where the most intrigue lies and doesn't want to waste the time exploring each of these equally. He justifiably wants to present a full picture and though many will likely attest to the fact that it seems to be trying too hard and ends up being mostly forgettable. I won't argue with that, I will likely never set my eyes on To Rome with Love again and I don't really have an issue with that. It was a nice, fanciful peace of writing with amusing characters and situations, but nothing that I will feel the need to re-visit. That is not to say it isn't worth seeing once though. And if there is one particular reason to venture out of your way to see the film it would be the plot line involving an architect named John (Alec Baldwin) who is in Rome with friends, but essentially stumbles on a bit of nostalgia in attempting to re-live his youth. The set-up is made to where he meets a young man in a similar situation as he in his early twenty's. At first the relationship is accepted as something completely based in reality, but here is also where Allen's charm as an inventive comedic writer comes in. It soon becomes apparent that Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is the actual younger version of John. John travels through his summer in Rome with Jack as a guide for re-living the foolishness with which he seems to have let what could have potentially been something real go for a fling with a wispy wannabe actress that impressed him with her abbreviated knowledge of all things he loved. As the steady girlfriend Greta Gerwig is underused and as her confident, supposedly sexually enticing friend Ellen Page is miscast. Page is usually a quirky charmer and I expected her persona to fit in well with Allen's style, but the roles should have been reversed here with the Gerwig role being more fleshed out. Allen let the bigger name take the bigger role instead of having the better actress for the part have a shot at it.

Anna (Penelope Cruz) becomes an unnecessary
distraction for a young married man in
To Rome with Love
Still, for all of its seeming missteps To Rome with Love succeeds in being an entertaining and sweet way to spend two hours. The film moves along at a brisk pace cutting inbetween the four stories and never lets us feel like we'd rather be watching more of another's than the one we are watching in the moment. Allen focuses on his own and Baldwin's progressions with growing older, reflecting on where they've been and what they've done while side noting the Benigni and Cruz plots for easy laughs and his own thoughts and opinions on celebrities and how they act, but more interestingly how they are regarded by everyone else in today's society. Though the point is driven home with some funny results you won't help but feel like it might have all been a bit unnecessary as neither of the scenarios bring us any real character arc or story. We can argue the two lovers come to realize what their soulless marriage has been missing and that Benigni's character comes to realize what is really important in his life. These are stereotypical lessons at the very least though and not usually trappings Woody Allen will let himself fall into. This off balance kilter between his two themes takes away from the overall impression the film leaves, but hey, Mr. Allen is getting close to 80 and is likely not going to be making many more films, if the guy wants to say something or make a point in a film he has certainly earned the right to do so. I'm not gonna get overly upset if we get a side note about about something the director finds to be interesting, especially if its as pleasantly funny as what he has written for us here.

                         

TO ROME WITH LOVE Review

I guess Woody Allen was slightly insulted in 2006 when he wasn't asked to direct one of the shorts in the compilation tribute to the city of lights titled Paris, je t'aime. There were plenty of high-class directors that contributed to the project and it happened right on the cusp of Mr. Allen's tour of Europe. In not getting to attribute a short film to the collection he seems to have decided to create a film of shorts himself. In his follow up to last years wildly successful Midnight in Paris Allen has returned to his usual state of conveying his opinion through typical, if not farcical situations. Whereas last year and every once in a while throughout his consistent career Allen will diverge from his beaten path and deliver a fantastic story that mixes the writer/director's combination of wit and criticism with a story that on a different level than most, connects to its audience. In the ethics of seeming to work non stop Allen fills the gaps between these sparks of genius with meditations on the current state of society and popular culture among other things. Allen has always been known for his insecure yet intellectual persona and he applies that not only in the character he himself portrays here but into each of the four stories that is told in To Rome with Love. While overall the film does in fact appear to be several short films spliced together to perpetrate as a feature it is actually a nicely paced piece of fun to watch that is moved along by the diverse bits of casting Allen has put together here. I can understand where many critics are coming from when they find this to be "lesser Woody Allen" but I found it to be quite wonderful, a nice distraction in the summer months, if only slightly disappointing after such a higher level of imagination he delivered to us last year.

MOONRISE KINGDOM Review

In many ways Wes Anderson is a director very cautious not to wander outside his comfort zone. He has carved out a pleasant little niche for himself and has remained there for several years only venturing out slightly with his last effort The Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Since that release and even in parts of that film it felt like Mr. Anderson has been running low on steam. That might explain the three-year hiatus from behind the camera, but in his absence it seems the writer/director has been working on something rather special. I have always been a fan of Anderson's dry humor and intimate portraits of odd yet perfectly flawed characters. Here he puts these two personal touches to great use as Moonrise Kingdom finds a way to make those most human elements of humor translate flawlessly from our world around us to his golden saturated world. These little moments add up to something that ultimately feels like one of the most epic of love stories. Anderson has rounded up a couple of his frequent collaborators as well as some new friends to tell a story that at first glance is a simple story of boy meets girl. What the film ends up being is a concise and intricately made film that documents the personal journey of love in all its different forms and stages. There is a theme behind his khaki tones and direct dialogue and it is something he has explored many times before, but it seems every time Anderson is able to elicit a fantastic response because he has such beautiful ways of saying it differently.

Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) plot
their escape route in Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom tells the innocent tale of an isolated oldest child and an abandoned boy scout who find comfort in one another's arms. The story first introduces us to Suzy as played by wonderful newcomer Kara Hayward. Suzy is the oldest of four children with her three younger brothers forming a kind of isolated group that excludes their bookworm, troubled sister. It is clear Suzy has trouble adapting to kids her age and so when Sam (Jared Gilman) stumbles upon her at a church play and becomes immediately infatuated with her, she finds him interesting. Sam is introduced to us without us actually seeing him and in doing this it gives us the biggest inclination of who he is. He is a mischief maker, but not of the intentional breaking-the-rules nature, more because he is a free thinker. The boy is a total independent and he has no problem taking the world in and doing with it how he sees fit. Anderson along with collaborator Roman Coppola write these young characters with such reality and honesty it is completely believable that these two kindred spirits could come together and understand one another on a level that would make them want to run  away with each other. It works to the utmost and we buy into it and believe it. They are fleshed out by the cast Anderson has surrounded them with but not because of the characters they are playing but more for the roles they play, the influence they have upon our two main characters. Isolated on a little New England island Suzy's lawyer parents Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are disconnected from their kids communicating with them through bullhorn and only calling on them when necessary. Sam has lost his parents and relies on Scout Master Ward (a hilarious Edward Norton) to serve as a kind of parental figure. This role shifts between he and the local police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) as the story evolves. Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban show up from time to time as well and infuse great moments of that signature Anderson dry wit.

From Left: Walt (Bill Murray), Laura (Frances McDormand),
Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) and Captain Sharp
(Bruce Willis).
While all of this ultimately makes up for a surprisingly thrilling adventure story it is the small details, the extra tid bits, or simply the care that seems to have been taken in telling this story that really stands out. Whether they be about the bubble of a world in which the movie takes place or the specifics of the time period everything about this production seems to have been touched with the same bit of care that Sam has taken to make sure everything about he and Suzy's escape works. While the plan for Sam and Suzy's love story doesn't exactly go the way they likely planned it, the film hits the strides of its story with perfect measure. I loved the opening scene where Anderson introduces us to the Bishops with a series of camera movements set to the music of a young person's guide to the orchestra. There is not a word of dialogue spoken, yet in mere minutes we fully comprehend what kind of person Suzy is and even more important, why she has become that way. I adored the complex relationships that were taken on by Coppola and Anderson in the script that were each given a respective angle while still allowing the overall flowery feel of the production to never succumb to some of the more weighty issues being explored. That is the magic trick of Moonrise Kingdom, it is the clever manipulator you don't realize you've experienced until days later when you still can't get the effect of the story out of your mind. That this quirky little indie film that at first glance seems so innocent doesn't only tell the cute, humble story of two kids in love but instead explores an emotion that will forever be up for interpretation. The sadness of Captain Sharp's realizations and the tragedy of the what the Bishops have become. The longing, yet ultimately fulfilling quest of Scout Master Ward. To each is their own meditation on the subject and with an optimistic outlook Anderson brings us back to our main characters that reassure each of the adults where that feeling of love originates from.

Coousin Ben (Jason Schwartzmen) lead the runaways
to safety in their quest for true love.
Anderson  has always had his signature style to rely on and he still milks that quirky tone mixed with his painting-esque visuals to tell a poignant story of flawed characters here. Maybe it is the fact he has been away for longer than usual (he really hasn't, it just feels that way because his last film was animated despite being undoubtedly Anderson) that I embrace his latest with a warmer sense of eager excitement. Maybe because this was the slowest expansion of a well reviewed indie I've ever had to experience and the anticipation has just trumped my judgement a little bit, regardless Moonrise Kingdom is a wonder to behold. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the film and at a mere 90-minute run time it is impressive to go on such a detailed quest that brisks by at a pace that doesn't also drag you down into the sorrow and pain some of the characters feel for good amounts of that time. Much of this relayed feeling to the audience can be accredited to the wonderful performances that populate the film. Whether it be Bruce Willis who diverges from his beaten path and fills a role in Anderson's world with such gusto or another newcomer like Ed Norton who completely embraces the nerdiness of his character that he ends up wearing it like a cool style. Murray is in classic form with only a limited number of scenes and McDormand is grand in her small but necessary role as Suzy's emotionally crippled mother. As for the two leads who embrace their first film roles with as sweet and innocent a nature as their characters love for another, it is lovely to experience. It is fresh, and real and elevates this to what will certainly be one of the best films of the year.