Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Great Movies At 90 Minutes Or Less

Brevity is the soul of wit. And apparently 2012 films offer the least witty crops of work this side of "Mein Kampf." Some of these titles earn their extra reels - the six parallel stories of "Cloud Atlas" demand time to breath. Others feel like glorified DVD collections of deleted scenes (sorry, Peter Jackson and "The Hobbit: Midgets Cross A Bridge"). 

Still, between those, and "Lincoln" (150 minutes), "Skyfall" (143 minutes), "Les Misérables" (158 minutes), "Zero Dark Thirty" (160 minutes) and "Django Unchained" (movie still running), filmmakers seemed to argue that if less is more, think about how much more more would be. Presented are 10 movies, in alphabetical order, that find greatness while still maxing out at one REM cycle. Take note, Hollywood. All of your ideas for a movie aren't worthy simply because they exist.

BEFORE SUNSET (80 minutes)
This movie flows. It glides. And it all seems effortless. Presented entirely in real time, director Richard Linklater and his cast of two deliver remarkably fluid dialogue that begins with pleasantries and gradually, believably breaks down to the characters' realizations that little in their lives went according to plan. Between this movie and "Before Sunrise," Linklater displays a keen eye for those brief, random moments that forever change your life.

BICYCLE THIEVES (89 minutes)
Italian neorealism takes cinema that was crushed into rubble and builds it anew with what's left. A man has a wife and son who would look sad even with a smile. His job requires one thing - a bicycle. His bicycle is stolen. He tries and fails to recover it. This film, probably the neorealism's crowning achievement, breaks your heart over and over again so many times, thank god it's not an epic. Its deep, unimpeachable sadness cuts to your core.

DETOUR (68 minutes)
You want real film noir? The seedy, lurid soul of a genre about characters whose souls just sucked, plain and simple? Here it is - everything about noir you want, and nothing else. Shot on the cheap, the movie lacks everything a conventional film class would tell you a movie "needs." But that grimy lack of production values plays up the film's wasted heart, and it has attitude to spare. Most movies on this list are short by choice. This is probably the only one that is short simply because they couldn't afford more film.

DUMBO (64 minutes) 
A bit of a cheat, sure. Early animation's painstaking production process required the movies to be short by design, lest the staff garner intense carpal tunnel. Still, good storytelling is good storytelling. My favorite of Disney's WWII era features, "Dumbo" zips from beginning to end, zipping in a zippy way. There's simply no time to be bored. Plus, my mother still cries at the "Baby Mine" sequence. For whatever that's worth.

THE GENERAL (75 minutes)
About 75% of what I think is funny, I'd wager, comes from Buster Keaton. Funny isn't people trying to be silly. It's people trying to be serious and failing. "The General" finds Keaton at the peak of his powers, a man desperately clinging to his dignity as everything crashes down around him - if Chaplin was the Spielberg of his day, Keaton was the Wes Anderson, offering straight faced characters unaware of the insanity in the background.

KILLER OF SHEEP (83 minutes)
How did this movie go undiscovered for so long? And what a crime that is. A kind of weird fusion of Altman, Kubrick, De Sica, and Cassavetes, Charles Burnett's short little masterpiece is like as science experiment gone horribly right. Shot in 1979, it set on the shelf for almost 30 years, but now it's finally getting its due. With no discernible story, arcs, or meaning, Burnett's vignettes of working class life in Los Angeles' Watts district just teems with life itself.

PATHS OF GLORY (88 minutes)
Kubrick had a heart. He just by and large didn't feel like using it. One of the few exceptions, though, being this 1957 anti-war tale of a French WWI officer who refused to carry out a suicide mission and defended his men against accusations of cowardice in court. Kubrick's classic "2001" and "Dr. Strangelove" both depict machinery acting exactly as designed and bringing on chaos. Similar to a theme explored in this earlier work, except the machinery is war. Such a moving story, told is such economy. 

PICKPOCKET (76 minutes)
Christ, if only every movie told their stories with such laser precision as this one. To bust out an old trope, this movie works like a samurai - enters the room, does its job, and leaves not a moment too soon. Every shot matters. Every cut matters. Director Robert Bresson reportedly shot takes over and over again until all soul drained from his actors' faces, wanting a movie that offers no emotional cues. Here is a movie that isn't short as much as it's exactly as long as it has to be.

RASHOMON (88 minutes)
If "Rashomon" didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it. The movie speaks to such a fundamental aspect of human nature, that the "Rashomon Effect" entered the public lexicon simply because there was no better way to describe it. No great secret to say that people lie. Kurosawa takes it a step farther, though, and suggests these lies really aren't lies when the tellers all believe it. Basically, factual events are subjective and nothing is knowable. Such an idea has no answers, and thus no need for the movie to drag. There it is.

STAND BY ME (88 minutes)  
Stephen King crowns this the best adaptation of his work, and although time will tell on "Dreamcatcher," I get where he's coming from. A coming of age story of four boys blissfully unaware of the cold hard punch of life waiting for them around the corner, this movie is so light and gee-whiz charming without being cloying about it, you forget its about people trying to see a dead body. What a little treasure of the movies. Make more stuff like this, Rob Reiner! We miss you.

That's it for 2012! Happy New Year from Filmvielle! May your 2013 be brief and to the point.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Read This DJANGO UNCHAINED Review With An Ironically Perfect Song

DJANGO UNCHAINED (dir. Tarantino, 2012)
 "Django Unchained" is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly untrue.

Here is a movie you wanted, whether you knew you wanted it or not. A work of glorious mayhem, Quentin Tarantino's latest blends spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, a downright-odd-at-times slapstick, and a stinging indictment of American history, with a delirious amount of blood serving as the glue. Call it "Blazing Saddles" meets "Shaft," The Man With No Name meets Sweet Sweetback, or whatever you want. There's nothing else on the block like it.

Self-dubbed Tarantino's "southern," the movie drops us in 1858 (two years before the Civil War, a helpful title card informs) as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) absconds with the title slave (Jamie Foxx). In exchange for his help tracking down Schultz's current targets, he promises Django his freedom and the chance to rescue his wife from the satanic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, positively relishing his role).

Following 2009's "Inglourious Basterds," "Django" finds Tarantino continuing a new, unexpected phase of his career - historical period pieces as wish fulfillment. It doesn't matter that Hitler never died in a torched movie house or a runaway slave could never shoot his way through plantations with such reckless abandon. Tarantino's characters are unaware they're trapped in the confines of history. Instead, merely trapped in their creator's own imagination.

Accuracy is beside the point. What matters is Tarantino's revisions make emotional sense. He creates characters and follows them to their logical end, wrapped up in a way that is also satisfying to 21st century audiences in the theater. 

One could make the argument that his career since "Jackie Brown" (to date his most human work) represents an increasingly indulgent exercise in genre. That characters don't matter. That plot doesn't matter. That an emotional core doesn't matter. That instead, his movies stand as an alter to himself and all the film geek knowledge he can thrust upon the world.

So easy an argument, that I almost believe it as I write it. But it's too easy. His movies aren't patchworks of those that came before. And they aren't dead museum pieces. They're breathing works that are hyper-aware of their own existence as movies and using genres we love, allow those genres' very conventions to be the heroes.

A hard pill to swallow, I know, that a slave like Django could waltz onto a plantation with a gun and fire into the chest of a man who whipped him, offering the perfect capper of, "I like the way you die, boy." Only in the movies is this possible. Unlike "Jackie Brown," where the emotional core comes from the characters themselves, "Django" ultimately satisfies as a testament to movies themselves as the great uniting art form.

It's movies as fantasy, yes. But it also speaks to film iconography as a shared emotional language among fans. And when it hits on a gut emotional level, as Tarantino films don't always do, it's because he's employing the bastard art of cinema (visuals, performers, musical cues, edits) to make it happen.

Plus it doesn't hurt that "Django" ain't no film student thesis. Tarantino reaffirms his status as one of cinema's most merry pranksters, throwing everything he loves into a blender and frappe-ing it into a new singular work. Above all else, the movie is wicked fun, Tarantino slashing American history with unbridled zeal. 

His trademark weaknesses remain, to be sure. The movie is too long by a fair shake - you could cut 30 minutes from roughly any random chunks in the movie and not sacrifice much. Although no individual moments are downright "bad," he does indulge his seeming belief that every idea he has must be committed to screen. Some scenes (such as a dinner table conversation between Django, Schultz, and Calvin) aren't performed as much as they're staged, as Tarantino invites us to hang out in them.

Pacing can be your friend, QT.

Look. You know Tarantino by now. I know him by now. If it's your thing, this will be your thing too. If it's not your thing, it won't be your thing. Just don't call him a pastiche artist. He might take the familiar, but he reintroduces it as something aggressively original. When he makes a new movie, I look forward to it. I want to see it. I want to talk about it.

"Django Unchained" allows for a few new Tarantino tricks (luscious western cinematography, violence that stings instead of just titillating, and some of the most overt comedy of his career). But it's ultimately a logical step in the path his career's taking. What a vital filmmaker, and what a vital film. I'm so glad it's a thing mainstream audiences will see. Whether or not they realize what they're in for.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

LINCOLN Is A Riveting Portrayal Of Men Talking In Rooms

LINCOLN (dir. Spielberg, 2012)
 Above all else, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" puts your No Shave November to shame, assembling the fiercest collection of beards this side of the Mississippi.

In another more "meaningful" way, the movie also boils the president down to the most human level yet seen. Gone is the iconography. Gone are the famed tales of doing his math homework in charcoal and writing the Gettysburg Address on a napkin with the blood squeezed from a dragon or whatever. Gone is the history viewed in hindsight.

What we're left with is a strikingly, at times frustratingly, intimate portrayal of a man who has long since belonged to the ages. If its main lesson is the simple one that Lincoln lived his life as a human being - plain spoken, personable, with moments of doubt - maybe that's a lesson worth remembering. History isn't made by faces on the coins we use to scrape gum off our shoes. It's made by actual people who show up.

As I watched "Lincoln," I felt an acute awe that here's a man who actually lived and interacted with other humans. A near-childlike observation, I know. But also a vital one.

Spielberg's boldest gambit, one that ironically proves to be his greatest asset while also holding the movie back from greatness, is his razor focus. Forgoing the usual "greatest hits" biopic style ("Here's the Lincoln/Douglas debates, here's the death of his son, here's the..."), the bulk of "Lincoln" dwells in the last few months of his life as he pushed to pass the 13th Amendment. It's the style favored by Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Capote." Pick one key event from the subject's life and dive headfirst into it, blowing up each detail to life size and hoping it paints a larger, more symbolic picture of the man.

Oddly this also creates a schizophrenic struggle that the movie never quite overcomes. It wants to be a historical epic while remaining a small-scale character study. It wants to be a "how the sausage is made" political drama, but with that usual dash of Spielberg populism. If we get no closer to what made Lincoln tick, maybe that wasn't on Spielberg's agenda. It still leaves an emotional distance between us and a man clearly intended to be a character in his own drama.

Spielberg can't for the life of him shoot a movie that doesn't look at home on the big screen. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he bathes interiors in lush light and shadow and supplies a more cinematic vista than his story seems to even request. Still, "Lincoln" has comfortably rested on Spielberg's to-do list for the better part of a decade and damned if the resulting movie makes evident why.

God, though. To be in the same room as Lincoln. To watch him react. To watch him spout anecdotes and tell jokes. To watch him struggle when men stand in his way. Daniel Day Lewis' greatest gift as an actor is his ability to be perpetually in the present. We never catch him planning his next movie or behaving out of artifice. It's a downright eerie transformation, completely devoid of vanity, and just a towering achievement.

In fact, Spielberg himself displays an admirable lack of vanity, stepping back more than I can remember to let those around him shine. This is a performer's picture, at times becoming a game of Spot That Character Actor (knowing the guy who appeared in both "Breaking Bad" and "The Wire" earns you bonus obsessor points). James Spader in particular delights by popping in and seeming to forget he's in a costume drama.

Everything I can ultimately say about "Lincoln" is that which will drive certain crowds away while sending others a-flocking. Don't expect sweep. Don't expect bombast. Don't even expect goosebumps. Instead, expect a meticulous study in how one particular piece of history is made by the people who showed up to make it. Characters sure do talk for multiple turns of the script's pages - screenwriter Tony Kushner never met a monologue he couldn't expand, and Spielberg never met a monologue he couldn't slowly zoom in on while the John Williams score swells.

Still, as I write this, President Obama recently earned his second term. He stands center in a nation that sees him either as a pillar of nobility and good intentions, or an agent of our demise. No one yet knows how this period of history will play out. And it's vaguely comforting to see on screen one of our greatest presidents when he was alive and knew just as little, but trying his best to figure things out as they came. If "Lincoln" doesn't draw direct parallels between those times and ours, it shouldn't have to. History just repeats itself with different clothes.

It's a dry but absorbing work, seemingly destined to bore unsuspecting middle schoolers to tears when their teacher doesn't have a lesson planned. Whatever. Kids don't deserve Daniel Day Lewis. But this story does deserve a bigger stage.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

This SKYFALL Review Brought To You By Heineken And Joy

SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)
Any great movie contains "that" moment. The shot or line of dialogue or look from the actor when you decide you love this movie, when you submit to its power and strap yourself in, all while tactfully ignoring that nagging fear that it will drop the ball.

In "Skyfall," that moment hits in the opening scene and never lets up. Bond (a never more assured Daniel Craig) stumbles onto a mission in Turkey gone horribly wrong, sparking a bravura chase sequence combining cars, motorcycles, trains, forklifts, disbelief, and anything else that happened to be near set that day. To say it challenges credulity is to miss the point (aren't all Bond movies supposed to open with a little swagger?).

What matters is it throws down the gauntlet for a movie that didn't come all this way, through all of MGM's famed financial woes, to be timid. Not only is it a superb James Bond movie and the best thriller of the year, but it's a great movie, period. Here is one bustling, invigorating entertainment representing what pop filmmaking can and should be. A breakneck series of "This is too good to be real, oh wait it is, will it ever stop, IT NEVER STOPS!"

Hyperbole, take a holiday.

Carrying 50 years of creaky franchise history on its shoulders, "Skyfall" and newcomer director Sam Mendes bridge the gap between the old and the new, the elegant and the gritty, the Connery and the Craig (stranding poor Timothy Dalton somewhere in the moat). After that disastrous Turkey mission that supposedly left Bond dead, MI6 headquarters in London finds itself the target of a terrorist bombing. Lured out of hiding but not much giving a damn for the company that abandoned him, Bond sets loose after the man responsible (a terrifyingly flamboyant Javier Bardem), whose motives reveal to be intensely personal.

Mendes and his screenwriting team present themselves as clear scholars of the Bond franchise, paying respects to the familiar tropes when necessary. This ain't no Mad Lib movie, though, filling in the blanks in a preordained structure. "Skyfall" sets to point the compass in a new direction, and it zigs just when you expect it to zag. Bardem holds court in the usual island lair, but he views it as a disposable novelty. The "Bond Girl" is all but an afterthought - disposable candy to cut a few scenes of the trailer around. And instead of an action climax with the fate of the world crashing down, Mendes opts for a lyrical ballet of images (although rest assured, gunfire and explosions abound).

What "Skyfall" ultimately delivers is a 2.5 hour movie with a razor focus. Bond isn't the scenery in some other man's play. Mendes turns the focus squarely on him and how it actually feels to have a license to kill in a career that will probably kill you first. If the movie doesn't ultimately answer what makes James Bond tick, it's because the character still must maintain that man-of-the-moment persona. By the end, enough tantalizing clues are still offered about his past, putting to rest the "James Bond is an ongoing code name" theory.

Structurally it resembles "The Dark Knight" more than anything else, gleefully tearing apart its franchise's past before putting it back together in a way we didn't even know we wanted. Bond and the villain don't engage in a fashion runway walk-off between impossibly suave and megalomaniacal (although they are indeed both that). What we get is far more interesting - two sides of the same broken coin, both hoping the other guy caves first. Clearly arriving on set wanting to create a classic Bond villain and nailing it, Bardem exists in his own world - hurt, disappointment, and pure burning nihilism all fighting on his face. "Skyfall" even makes room for a little latent homosexual tension between the two men with Bardem oozing film queen slime, if that's even a thing.

And Craig, of course, stands as the first Bond for whom a respectful comparison to Sean Connery isn't even necessary. He is the best there is. Hang it on the wall.

God, such serene confidence this movie moves with. Such immaculate, elegant pacing. Such a gripping fusion of thriller, character study, and fanboy cheering. Practically the whole thing rings with the joy of kids playing in the sandbox for the first time, and it affirms the Bond franchise as something that can revive itself as long as it wants as long as filmmakers like Mendes are around to charge the paddles.

I would marry "Skyfall," but I'd also let it have its way with me just as willingly.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

FLIGHT begins as a swig of hard liquor, but ends as a sip of warm milk

FLIGHT (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

“Flight” is one heckuva movie right up until the moment when it decides not to be.

What began as cynical ends in cheese. What seemed like harrowing concedes into lame. And what should have been a peerless character study devolves into generic preaching. That it all happens in the final ten minutes almost amps up the slap-in-the-face nature. To show us what could have been and then yank it away borders on the cruel. 

Yet we have not gathered here to mourn the “coulda,” but praise the “still.” And regardless of its ultimate nose dive, here is one of the ballsier mainstream movies to step into the world in recent days. Anchored by a career-defining performance from Denzel Washington, his most fully realized since “Training Day,”  and marking Robert Zemeckis’ first live action effort since “Cast Away,” “Flight” concerns airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who treats a shot glass like a suggested serving. When he safely lands his crashing plane and hailed a hero by the public, word gets out that he also might have been drunk during the flight. 

Does that then diminish his heroism? Is the public lovefest worth the jail time he might also gain? Should we judge a man for his alcoholism when he also saved the lives of 100 people? Such questions are those which “Flight” spends its running time largely struggling with, like a schoolkid who knows the math problem but is too timid to go to the blackboard. 

Ever the Spielberg protégé, Zemeckis is a filmmaker who works best when painting in broad strokes. Remember the glorious widescreen cheese of “Forrest Gump” or the unbridled joy of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Apart from the plane crash sequence early in the film (which believe me, is as harrowing as anything you’ll see on screen this season), it’s difficult to see what drew him to this project. Its intimacy catches you off guard as it uses that wallop of a special effects scene to detail a surprisingly internal struggle of a man deciding whether he should question who he is or embrace it. 

Am I a drunk or am I a decent guy? Because only one of those two figures saved those lives.

Remember though, dear readers reading because the commercial break is still on, when I called this one of the ballsier mainstream movies in recent days? That’s largely because until those deflating final minutes, “Flight” downright EMBRACES Whip as a blazing drunkard. From the opening scene as he wakes up from a sleazy hotel sexcapade, drinks leftover beers, and snorts a line of coke, the movie pushes his substance abuse issues to the point of farce.

Not to say substance abuse is funny, unless you’re British and droll. But for God’s sake, when you decide to play farce, do not back down. Never, never, never. Hold your head up high and dive right into the muck. For the most part, “Flight” succeeds. Even as it struggles with those internal debates, it knows exactly how to approach Whip externally. And Washington in return delivers a deliriously unhinged performance that maintains a foundation of likeability, reminding us why we’d be on a first name basis with him whether he was Denzel or James.

Maybe allowing a man’s fatal flaws to also be his saving grace is too much to ultimately ask of a Hollywood movie. When “Flight” pulls back its curtain in the end and reveals itself to be a sloppy AA recruitment tool, it reeks of something enforced by the Hays Production Code in the 1940s.

You shouldn't have backed down, “Flight.” Let your seediest nature define you rather than control you. As it stands, this is still the stuff top ten honorable mentions of the year are made for.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

TAKEN 2 - A Bunch Of Stuff You've Already Seen...But Again!

TAKEN 2 (dir. Olivier Megaton, 2012)
True confession: In the early morning after my “Taken 2” screening, I awoke and puked up an entire day’s worth of stomach contents.

Not to cast a direct physical connection between the two events - the undercooked hamburger probably played a role. But the symbolism is fairly easy.

For “Taken 2” is a checklist of the mundane - a dull, joyless slog through filmmaking as a product, with the paychecks hanging just out of reach for all parties involved, like the fake bunny in a dog race. When you see fellow audience members stumble out with a dead glare in their eyes, it’s not because they’re deeply reflecting on what they just witnessed.

Working from a screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, the movie plays like a direct embodiment of its own pitch – nothing more, nothing less. Liam Neeson’s family is kidnapped again. Liam Neeson must kill people to get them back again. A lingering threat is blatantly left dangling in the end for a sequel, but at this point, you gotta think his wife wishes they addressed kidnapping in the pre-nup.

Common sense is beside the point. A compelling narrative drive is beside the point. Spielberg can keep sending people to Jurassic Park to retrieve their lost Dollywood key chain or whatever all he wants, as long as he delivers the goods on screen. 

There’s still a list of fundamental things a movie must do to keep from sucking. And “Taken 2” doesn’t do a damn one of them.

Let’s talk about coherence. Not narrative coherence or logical coherence, but actual visual coherence. Simply looking at what’s happening on screen and understanding, “Ah, so THAT’S what’s happening.” Director Olivier Megaton fumbles his camera around like a child trying caffeine for the first time who clearly doesn’t respect the master shot. Fights and car chases are an incomprehensible hodgepodge of cuts and sounds. We know Neeson and some bad guys are in the scene at any given moment…we just don’t know what they’re doing.

Call me old fashioned, but seeing actual guys look like they’re punching each other is much more intense than cutting around the sound effect of slapping a couch with a ping pong paddle.

Now let’s talk about wit. Mind you, there is a distinct difference between this and humor. Humor is the stuff that makes you laugh, which can or cannot be necessary in an action movie. Wit is the spark that reminds you this movie came from a unique creative mind, not some hack who wrote “Taken 2” so that he can brag to dancers at strip clubs that he wrote “Taken 2.” It’s what makes a movie engaging, despite its clichés.

Gone is the fun novelty of seeing Liam Neeson beat lots of people up, and zeitgeist moments like the famous "skills" speech.“Taken 2” is just dreary and utterly unremarkable. 

Finally, let’s talk about emotional investment, the foundation for caring about a movie that obviously does not give two shits about us. Part of the appeal of the first “Taken” was the detective story aspect. We follow Neeson along as he (however implausibly) pieces together where his daughter wound up. It draws us into his world. This time around, we know full well before the kidnapping why his family is kidnapped, where they are, and how Neeson needs to find them. 

We have no reason to care. No reason to stick around. Like waiting for death itself, this is a slow, inevitable march to the end.

I get why “Taken 2” got made. Believe me, I do. The first one earned a ton of money in theaters, even more on DVD, and will be around as long as FX needs to fill late night programming slots. And I respect the desire of Liam Neeson, always dependable, to ride this action star wave his career unexpectedly took.

He just looks like he had more fun playing Oskar Schindler.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

LOOPER Screws With Your Mind Just Enough

LOOPER - (dir. Rian Johnson, 2012)

“Looper” makes you feel smarter than everyone in the room just for describing it accurately, until you realize they could all figure it out too. Here is an exceedingly complicated movie presented in an exceedingly straightforward way, with linear lines drawn from point A to point B, characters whose motivations are clear, and an emotional through-line that feels forged organically – not just because it’s in the screenwriting manual.

That we understand why everyone is firing their guns in the finale is impressive. That we actually care about who stands on the receiving end is a minor miracle.

Most time travel movies poke fun at the paradoxes inherent in the system, gleefully toying with the impossibilities that come standard with these stories (remember Doc Brown literally tracing the story of “Back To The Future II” on a chalk board?). Here, director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) simply embraces the paradoxes with a straight face and moves on.

That’s not to say those paradoxes don’t exist here too. But Johnson has a story to tell, knows how to tell it, and it just happens to involve time travel. He allows us to feel invested in the story itself, not bogged down by the logic.

Sporting an appropriate amount of frown line make-up, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a “looper” in 2042 Kansas. Time travel will be invented some way down the future and immediately outlawed, leaving professional crime syndicates to use it for easy murders. A person in the future is bound and gagged, sent 30 years to the past, immediately shot dead by a looper and disposed of. No body, no trace.

It seems like an easy job if you know how to report it on your income taxes. The one catch of being a looper is you will eventually have to “close your loop.” Meaning that when your boss in the future decides you’re no longer necessary, your own older self is sent back for you to do in. When this happens to Levitt in the form of Bruce Willis, Willis escapes, and Levitt must decide whether or not killing him is even necessary.

Portraying this sorta distant future, Johnson pulls off the mean feat of making it feel like an authentic, lived-in world. Easy enough (if you can imagine it) to throw flying cars and orgasm booths on screen if your goal is a cheap wow. “Looper” goes the route of Spielberg and “Minority Report” instead, starting with the world as we know it and building from there. Maybe it’s the product of a visionary. Maybe the product of a low budget with no room for special effects. Either way, it works.

What if I meet my future self? How will altering my past affect my future? Is fate on a straight line, or can it be diverted? Such are the questions raised by “Looper,” and such are par for the course with hard sci-fi. Anyone who even uses the phrase “hard sci-fi” could bang out a screenplay with the same basic concepts just as easily.

But the devil is in the details, and it’s in the details that “Looper” roasts other movies that get near it. Most sci-fi movies would be content to use these questions as the excuse for action and let its coolness remain conceptual – it sounds really wild only when you describe the idea, not the execution. 

Johnson uses these questions as the CATALYST for action, not the excuse, of which there is a huge difference. Shoot-outs and chases in “Looper” don’t happen just because they’re supposed to in this kind of stuff. They happen because they evolve from the scene before, which evolved from the scene before, and so on. And in the meantime, he gives the characters room to breathe and talk to each other, and he trusts the audience to decide how we feel about this.

Key to this success are the performances of Levitt and Willis. Technically they’re the same person and indeed carry some of the same physical traits (a scene in a diner, one of the few that seems to poke fun of time travel paradoxes, highlights this). Surprising, though, that not only do we feel for them, but we do it for entirely different reasons. Both actors do exemplary jobs at playing a character at two very different points in his life, with complex emotions that make it difficult to know entirely who to root for when their guns are drawn at each other.

In a genre especially that is reliant on Big Twists to shake what we thought the movie was about, “Looper” plays its finale shockingly, almost touchingly, straightforward. It’s easy to script an ending born out of plot. That’s just things happening. Much harder to make it born out of character. That requires nuance, depth, motivation, and empathy. 

When the final events of “Looper arrive exactly as expected, it’s so much more satisfying than plot twists because it feels earned.

“Looper” on the whole is charmingly old-fashioned in its approach – tell a good story, tell it well, and stay the hell out of the way. This isn’t groundbreaking sci-fi. It won’t rattle the landscapes. What it is is a still-bolder-than-usual tale that actually gives a damn about things.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Charming, And Better Than The Blank Screen

(dir. Robert Lorenz, 2012)

“Trouble With The Curve” might not add up to much more than the sum of its parts, but to enjoy it, you don’t exactly need to be smart enough to understand math anyway.

It’s a sports movie. And it’s predictable. But you know what other sports movies are predictable? Almost EVERY OTHER SPORTS MOVIE. Who cares? When it works, it works. And when your movie is anchored by a performance as undeservedly committed as Clint Eastwood’s, forgiveness is doted out in easy supply.

Eastwood, acting for another director for the first time since 1993’s “In The Line Of Fire,” turns in one of those roles where his grunting practically functions as a line of dialogue when you can feel the screenwriter hit a wall. As Gus, he is an aging talent scout for the Atlanta Braves who isn’t ready to admit that his increasingly poor eyes are being replaced by computer systems (here is a movie where a character referring to the “interwebs” doesn’t just feel like a cheap joke).

His daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), worried about her father’s health, accompanies him on a scouting mission to spot a hot young high school player in Asheville, despite a major case looming ahead in her law firm. In the meantime, she falls for Justin Timberlake, as a former Red Sox pitcher, now a talent scout himself, nursing the wounds of his lost career. And John Goodman shows up too, because who’s gonna say no if he does.

You ask, will Eastwood’s old school scouting methods beat modern computer programs? Will Timberlake and Adams prove a perfect match? Will the nice baseball players triumph while the mean ones get cast aside?

It’s cute that you use so many question marks. Every plot point is telegraphed a mile away (spoiler: It’s no accident the poor kid selling peanuts can throw a bag really hard). Once you realize the movie will massage every desire for comeuppance and victory you have, it’s just a matter of settling into the groove and waiting for those resolutions to arrive. 

Seeing “Trouble With The Curve” with a packed audience the day after seeing “The Master” with a crowd of 10 or so at a press screening, I’m reminded of the importance of Roger Ebert’s fundamental law: “A movie is not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.” Would I have seen this movie in a similar private setting, I almost definitely would have felt lukewarm. Its predictability becoming more blatant. Its mawkishness more skin crawling. Its multiple happy endings more shameless.

Those are simply the ingredients, and they have been described appropriately. There’s also a word to describe its methods, though, and that word is “warm.” Just because a movie doesn’t appeal to me directly doesn’t mean it automatically loses value when it connects to the rest of that packed crowd so thoroughly.
What this movie brings to the table, largely thanks to the performance of Eastwood, is credibility. It means what it says. 

There’s an early scene when Eastwood visits the grave of his wife, pours her half a beer, and starts reciting the lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine.” Sounds silly on paper, and indeed, you can feel yourself twitching to hold back chuckles when it starts. “Trouble With The Curve” does not share our appreciation for irony. And by the end of the scene, Eastwood and director Robert Lorenz wear us down, armed with nothing but conviction.

It’s like a goony looking date you agree to see a second or third or seventh time because he’s persistent. You could do worse.

Movies like this won’t last until next year. Hell, it won’t last until next month. If you’d rather see “The Master” this weekend, go ahead. You’re almost definitely right. Honest, old fashioned sincerity means something too, though. “Trouble With The Curve” might not be selling anything of much importance, but it sells it better than it has any right to.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Frustratingly fascinating or fascinatingly frustrating. Definitely one of those.

(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Here is an opaque movie shot with such authority of purpose that it practically dares you to dislike it. "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, is indefinable to the point of maddening, cold to the point of numbing. It's also exquisitely framed, precisely written, and containing depths which render a first viewing practically superfluous. 

Maybe it's a masterpiece. Maybe it's hogwash. It might be nothing, but it's definitely something.

What Anderson accomplishes, and what will prove to be the movie's downfall to some, is create a central character who remains perpetually out of reach, then cleverly structure the movie to mirror him exactly. A rare feat for a movie to be genuinely smart. Rarer still to be smart in the exact same way its star is. "The Master" isn't content to show us its lead - we have to KNOW how it feels to be near him.

And believe me. You can feel it. Languidly paced to make "There Will Be Blood" feel like "Run Lola Run," Anderson cashes in almost all of his artistic capital earned with "Blood" and "Boogie Nights," asking us to trust that he's taking us somewhere as he skirts along a threadbare narrative. Finally playing actual characters again after his descent in "I'm Still Here," Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a seaman who returns from WWII to a country that essentially discards him, bouncing around from job to job, without any knowledge of where he'll end up or a desire to even make it there. 

Through sheer chance, he stumbles onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd (always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman), charismatic leader of a new belief system called The Cause. Freddie becomes Dodd's right hand man, and through his eyes, we must decide if Dodd truly believes what he's coughing up, or if he's stringing everybody along as pawns.

Lets get this out of the way now: "The Master" is decidedly NOT the "Scientology movie." It's not the insider's expose on L. Ron Hubbard. Well, OK. Maybe it is. But in the same way that "Prometheus" is an "Alien" prequel. It hits those notes, but the music is something else entirely.

And what is it, exactly? Bear in mind I'm not being entirely rhetorical. Like obvious inspiration Stanley Kubrick, Anderson proves himself to a master at telling us precisely what we need to know and nothing more, then finding artistry in cold, grand gestures. Large chunks of "The Master" consist of nothing more than things happening, followed by other things happening. Freddie lazes on a beach. Works as a department store photographer. Suffers through Dodd's treatment session of touching a wall and window over and over again, forced to describe it differently each time.

That last sequence fittingly sums up "The Master" on the whole. Anderson presents a work that appears entirely superficial, drags us through it repeatedly, and leaves the heavy lifting to us. As moviegoers, we're conditioned to assume that nothing in a movie's final product happens by accident. Everything happens and is shot for a reason. So when confronted with a movie that so defiantly shuns easy explanation, we become desperate. We want an explanation. Any explanation. And what we ultimately arrive at probably says more about us than it does about the movie.

Which is really one of Anderson's greatest triumphs here. "The Master" at its core is really about lost souls in an America growing too big to accommodate them all, turning to the first person whose playbook says "Answers" on the cover, whether there's anything inside or not. It's about how desperation makes blind submission seem satisfying, and how those leaders are just as clueless as the rest, except their id is fed by loyal subjects, not commands. And just as Anderson structures his movie to intellectually resemble Dodd, he allows it to emotionally resemble Freddie, putting the audience firmly in his shoes.

We're desperate for easy answers in a movie that provides none.

For a movie of such sweeping statements, Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. shoot in luxurious 65mm film, the stock of such classic epics as "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "Patton," reportedly even using the same camera as "2001: A Space Odyssey" for select scenes. Predictably doing figure eights when he should be doing circles, though, Anderson ultimately shoots "The Master" as a startlingly intimate character study. Think you've seen all there is of Joaquin Phoenix's gums and nostrils? Think again.

The film stock of sweeping landscapes, last applied in full to friggin Kenneth Branagh's take on "Hamlet," finds itself reduced to uncomfortably close close-ups in "The Master," allowing for uncommonly rich detail within the frame. It's a jarring effect, narrowing the focus square on these two characters, and raising their inner turmoil to the forefront. If the house lights must go down on celluloid in an increasingly digital world, at least it's granted one hell of an encore.

It takes a true artist to tackle a medium or form which come with rigidly defined purposes, then recraft it to fit his own. And that's precisely what Anderson does. Prepare to feel frustrated. Prepare to feel dumbfounded. Maybe practice looking like you're in deep introspection, but really it's because you can't think of anything to say. "The Master" arrives with its own beats and rhythms, never catering to what you hope.

It also further cements Anderson's growth as a director of intellectual thrills, shaking what we think the movies can and should do.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Buy a ticket to a PG-rated review and sneak into this one

(dir. William Friedkin, 2012)

“Killer Joe” contains one of the most sadistic scenes I’ve seen a mainstream star perform in a movie, and I’ve seen the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

The film might not reinvent the wheel. Beat by beat, it performs essentially how you expect. But its own existence justifies itself. Offering a sort of “Double Indemnity” for the trailer park set, within it beats the lurid, seedy soul of film noir. A world offering moral depravity without apology, justification, or meaning.

And guiding it all is the performance of Matthew McConaughey, capping off a banner 2012 which saw him drift from the oily lawyer in “Bernie” to the weary-eyed strip club owner of “Magic Mike” to this without missing a beat. As the eponymous Joe, he’s a detective moonlighting as a hitman, brought in to end a redneck Texas mother so her son and ex-husband can collect on the insurance policy.

Suggesting a second career playing heavies might be in the cards, he oozes dread, but keeps it boiling right beneath the surface. How hard must it be for an actor to convincingly play scary? Harder still to do while being the quietest guy in the room. McConaughey here causes you lean forward in your seat simply by stepping onto the screen.

Long relegated to being a movie star in the classic sense, playing variations on what we believe to be himself, he reveals depths here that almost piss you off for not being known earlier. It’s as if Michael Jordan tried playing baseball again, but didn’t suck.

If the movie surrounding him is by the numbers, eh, so what? We also knew things wouldn’t turn out so well for the characters in “Touch Of Evil” or “Detour” either. Noir isn’t about the destination, but it’s barely even about the journey. It’s about the window dressing. The details. The attitude.

That isn’t to say “Killer Joe” is a shrugged case of style of substance. It’s to say the style IS the substance.
What impeccable style it is, too. With director William Friedkin of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” and screenwriter Tracy Letts, you feel in the steady hands of people who really really know what they’re doing.

During the movie’s particularly shady scenes of morality, this trust goes a long way. Such as when Joe seduces a preteen girl, sidling near her and choreographing a moment of depraved romance, the movie threatens to fly off the rails by virtue of its own oily residue. Another scene involving fried chicken that no doubt earned the movie its NC-17 rating likely won't see an advertising tie-in with KFC. But Friedkin and Letts keep things grounded.

It never exists for its own sake. It never delves into the giggling world of, “Can you believe what we’re getting away with?” Instead it remains a respectable, “Can you believe what these people are doing?”

Perhaps it might have been a more rousing success if it tore down that distance. As it is, “Killer Joe” remains a perfectly admirable case of seedy characters kept at arms length. Never does it delve into their motivations, and never does it hold us culpable for enjoying their crimes. The great film noirs make us feel like we’re part of the action. If this movie is a circus geek biting the heads off chickens, it’s presented by a barker who clearly never hangs out with him backstage.

As movie crimes go, though, a fairly minor one this is. Even if “Killer Joe” never crosses the realm of “movie you show to your cool friends” into “movie you show everyone,” let us still thank God it did its thing anyway. Having the balls to admit this world of people even exists is a bold move. And to do so without apology is even bolder. Here is a movie that inspires baths.

It’s enough to make you forget that Hazy Davy never shows up.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Note: This review is supposed to be positive

(dir. Len Wiseman, 2012)

If you can say anything about the new “Total Recall” (and believe me, there isn’t much to say about the new “Total Recall”), it’s that its existence isn’t significantly more offensive than a lack of existence.

That is to say, this remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger isn’t groundbreaking, it isn’t thoughtful, and contrary to its studio’s ironic title card of “Original Film,” it isn’t especially original. This is a somber, largely humorless slog through workman special effects and focus grouped sci-fi ideas. I can’t remember the last special effects extravaganza so joyless in its awesomeness.

And yet, here’s the thing…you could do worse. You could. By coughing up 10 dollars, you also devote two hours of your life, and I feel reasonably confident you won’t spend the movie thinking how you’d otherwise devote them. For all the movie’s faults, director Len Wisemen successfully breezes through to the point that you don’t notice them until the movie is over.

If this summer’s sensational “Prometheus” is eHarmony, consider “Total Recall” to be OkCupid. Technically it’s settling, but eh, whatever.

Based on the 1966 Phillip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the screenplay concerns a lot of characters that the movie flatters by giving them names, distinguishing them from the other characters who behave in specific ways to move the plot forward. No one in this movie reacts. They just keep on and carry on.

Specifically among them is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker in 2084 suffering from oddly vivid nightmares of being a secret agent, taking on gunfire in a mysterious lab. He visits some seedy pleasure palace called Rekall hoping to learn the source of these dreams. Only instead, actual government agents burst in to arrest him and he unleashes a series of Jason Bourne-style combat moves he wasn’t even aware he had.

Suddenly he finds himself a man on the run from the government, even though he in fact might work FOR the government. This leads him to question whether his reality is in fact a dream, whether it’s the other way around, who he can trust, and what is identity truly is. All fairly top shelf stuff as sci-fi is concerned. Not aggressively unique, but enough to draw you in.

But Wiseman, he of the “Underworld” movies and “Live Free Or Die Hard,” knows what butters his bread. Once these basic questions are laid forth, he merrily zips by them, amping the action sequences waaay up. Some are impressive, like the initial footchase that left me seriously questioning whether this movie would surpass my expectations instead of humbly dropping at my expectations’ feet. Most others are perfunctory. None are imperative. When an audience isn't invested in any characters or their fate, it just becomes a matter of watching the dominoes crash into each other.

For that first third of the movie, though, I legitimately DID feel the movie would be more special than what it ultimately became. And even as shallow ruts go, at least the view is nice. One especially popping chase sequence (of at least three – I stopped counting) takes place inside an elevator shaft that goes up, down, inside, outside, and hey look, sideways. Like a nifty video game that you can’t personally play, but at least it’s well choreographed.

Of course, once the chase concludes, commence rattling off all the ways it defies time, space, and logic (why build elevators that go sideways for a building that appears of average width?). Such is “Total Recall” on the whole. Useless but intermittedly satisfying.

Adjusting expectations to meet a flailing movie can be a difficult thing. I shouldn’t forcibly lower my standards just to avoid admitting I wasted my time. But I also shouldn’t knock a movie that meets the base purpose of filling it. “Time filler” doesn’t exactly make for a ringing movie poster quote. This I agree. And “Total Recall” may be charmless, unnecessary, and thoughtful only in the sense that its screenwriters took enough thought to write it down.

If you choose not to make it part of your day, I can’t blame you. For those looking for a respite from the storm, at least you’ll be greeted by a movie that doesn’t expect you to rise to the occasion any more than it does.

MAGIC MIKE is beefcake served well-done

(dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat down at the Mission Valley movie house, medium popcorn in hand and credit card receipt thankfully not listing the movie title, ready to see “Magic Mike.” Young women of similar ages and dress sat near me. We made eye contact. They quickly turned away to indicate it was not intentional. Their cell phones were out texting. My cell phone was in the car, texting service disabled. Some pontificated whether Matthew McConaughey’s nudity would extend beyond the usual shimmering chest.

All of this is not to impress you. Rather it is to indicate that until start time, it felt like I was crashing their party. Then the movie began, and it quickly became clear they crashed mine.

For “Magic Mike” is the DAMNDEST male stripper movie you’re ever likely to see. Closer in spirit to “Boogie Nights” than Chippendales, here is a movie of seediness, grim realities, and how it must feel when your entire resume is a chiseled torso. Any movie about male strippers can capture the gleeful cavalcade of gals hurling dollars at their thrusting beefcake. This one lingers on the scene the next morning as the men sadly smooth those dollars out under phone books.

What drives the movie, even as it gradually descends into depravity, is its sense of dogged earnestness. With the easy charms of stars Channing Tatum and McConaughey, this could have easily delivered a fun girls’ night out that most of its target audience probably expects. Certainly its strip numbers have the exuberant choreography of a musical. Or it could have fell to the traps of self parody, a series of morning-after shots of the dancers waking up next to their own vomit, trudging back into the pit of their own existence.

Instead, director Steven Soderbergh takes a rather obvious thesis – that taking your clothes off for strangers is no way to feel good about yourself – and beholds it with the wonder of a man who just discovered how to turn Grape Nuts into platinum, following that idea right to the end. This might sound like a rather cheap knock at the man and his film. On the contrary - the approach is refreshing and engaging.

You could call this movie silly. You could call it ham fisted. But you sure can’t call it ironic. And thank god for that.

Not to mention the movie’s base fascination as a “how the sausages are made” story. Like “Casino” or “All About Eve” or any good movie that takes us behind the scenes of a forum we already know, “Magic Mike” pops as a work that has done its research. As backhanded a compliment as this might sound, the movie feels like it knows a LOT about male strip clubs. How I love it when a film can present a world to me I never knew before.

This is not a deep movie. This is not a profound movie. What it IS, however, is clear eyed and full-hearted. Some of its characters find happiness in the strip club, some yearn to escape, but they’re all treated to the same respect in a work that weaves comedy, melodrama, and occasional exuberance with ease.

If Gene Kelly showed his nipples in his movies, it might feel something like this.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's Wes Anderson's world, and we wish we could live in it

(directed by Wes Anderson, 2012)

If hipsters had a heaven, you can bet everything would be framed precisely in the center.

Which is to say that for Wes Anderson fans, “Moonrise Kingdom” is about as good as it gets. Gone is the cloying self-consciousness, the hip detachment, the willingness to create genuine human moments only to undercut them, all of which plague his films at their worst.

Or wait. That’s not exactly true. That’s all still there; his tricks haven’t left. Instead he presents these tropes that are the comforting reminder of a Wes Anderson world, then snatches them from beneath us to present a world of true melancholy, warmth, and honesty.

What results is one whimsical concoction that’s not entirely like anything else in theaters this year. And yet that’s true for all Anderson movies, isn’t it? Love him or hate him, how many directors can screen any random five seconds of any of their movies, and you instantly know whose it is? What a rare and precious gift that is.

That this movie’s making money is even more encouraging. Anderson breaks through to the multiplex crowds, and he does it without condescending or changing what makes him special. Never in “Moonrise Kingdom” do we catch a whiff of Anderson sacrificing his artistic ideals. Instead he AMPLIFIES them, and forces the audiences to bend to his auteur groove.

Set on a 1960s island that might well have sprung from a picture book, “Moonrise Kingdom” concerns two preteen outcasts. One is Sam, the outcast of a summer scout camp for cub scouts, who was probably born wearing his glasses. The other is Suzy, who lives on the island and runs away with Sam as a hurricane rapidly looms overhead. This jailbreak doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as the island leaves relatively little space for them to hide. But hey, it’s an adventure for a week.

Maybe they’re genuinely in love. Maybe they’re just infatuated with the idea that someone else seems to understand them. It doesn’t matter. Anderson treats it with utmost respect just the same. Bill Murray also shows up because of course he does. And this being Bill Murray, his eyes reveal enough lurking melancholy to render the screenplay moot.

Throughout all this, Anderson fills his canvas with colors, but not the sort that call attention to themselves. It’s mostly a series of muted greens and khakis, amplifying the natural landscape and the scouts’ uniforms themselves. All as if to say this world feeds off and mirrors those that occupy it. There might as well not be any people on the island outside those concerned to the movie.

Not a frame gets wasted. Not a frame calls attention to itself or feels like it’s showing off or exists for its own sake. Anderson is in complete command of his craft here, tailoring every image to simultaneously inform, entertain, and enchant.

Hipsters get a bad reputation, and with good reason, because they suck. But maybe that’s the easy way out. The way of standing back and judging that which we do not care enough to understand. What makes people loathe hipsters (along with many other reasons) is their conscious effort to appear different. Knowing they’re cool isn’t enough. We all need to be subjected to it too.

That’s too simplistic, though. Empathy is one of the most important human emotions, and key in this case is to recognize the human longing lurking beneath.

All this to say that “Moonrise Kingdom” feels like Anderson’s own response to his earlier work. He returns to the familiar twee tropes. But then reminds us there’s a real beating heart in there too.

What a magical place his mind must be.

There's more to Batman than a chin

(directed by Christopher Nolan, 2012)

“The Dark Knight Rises” represents a ton of money thrown at the screen, a bit of thought thrown at the writing, and a Batman fan’s willingness to forgive. As a climax to possibly the most respected superhero franchise of all time, it only mildly satisfies. But boy, as a climax, it sure keeps going, even if this Batman movie has relatively little Batman. I remember Woody Allen’s line about orgasms – “My worst one was right on the money.”

Is it even fair to judge a movie based on its own hype? Director Christopher Nolan sure did himself no favors with his predecessor “The Dark Knight,” which dressed up a bunch of simple psychobabble about good and evil as handsomely as you’re likely to find in a summer popcorn flick.

Let’s step in a vacuum, then, shove memories of Nolan’s previous Batman movies aside, and judge the movie for what it is. Which shall be unfortunate. For this trip around, his ambition gets the better of him. Inconsistent pacing and too much damn plot mars the first half of the movie, until it has no choice but to blaze through the last half. I can’t recall a 2:45 minute movie that feels rushed, but could also use a trim of at least 30 minutes.

Nolan’s screenplay, with brother Jonathan, proves that as plate spinners, they’d never exactly make it on Ed Sullivan. After a sensational opening sequence involving our new villain Bane (an impressively cube-y Tom Hardy) escaping from a plane mid-flight, we settle in for a long series of events you should probably just look up on Wikipedia. This review would have to copy most of the plot points from it anyway.

Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne moans in his mansion before he decides to stop doing that, meets Catwoman (a spunky Anne Hathaway) and stops moaning for a bit, then finds himself brutally beaten by Bane and sent to a mysterious hole-in-the-ground prison across the world (which will be a real bitch to fill in if Wal-Mart ever decides to expand), where he moans for a while longer until Hans Zimmer’s adaption of “Push It To The Limit” plays in his head and he escapes to save Gotham.

Meanwhile, Bane enslaves Gotham in a fascist regime, all bridges to the outside world cut off and its citizens left to suffer under his rule. I guess his goal is to equalize the ruling classes with the peasants. Of course he also plans to destroy the city in a nuclear blast, which kinda renders his entire operation moot. But nevermind.

Lest you think I’m having fun blasting the movie, leaning back in my leather chair, snarky comments dispensed and a day well spent, “The Dark Knight Rises” has too much going for it to simply cast it aside. Ambition possibly did the movie in, but in the world of summer action flicks, ambition DOES count for something.

 In a time when movies are either seen on computer screens or cramped multiplex bunkers, Nolan paints on the entire canvas. When was the last time you saw a comic book movie create a world that’s so utterly its own? Even in the first half of the movie, where I admit I don’t have much clue who is doing what to whom at what times, Nolan envelopes us in a brooding shroud that at least makes it sensational to look at. None of this is much fun. But it carries a genuine weight.

In the end, most of the praise heaped on the movie will reference concept, not execution. While Nolan’s previous Batmans delivered complex plots that still felt relatively streamlined, this one’s a jumble. But even if Santa Claus’ sleigh couldn’t quite stick the landing, he’s still a jolly man who gives presents to people. And in the world of summer and superheroes, eh, lets take it.