Wednesday, 25 July 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

Dir.: Christopher Nolan
With: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine

Where do I even begin…?

The hotly anticipated final chapter to Nolan’s trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a monumental, 160-minute-long opus full of resonant themes, poignant performances and violence. The film takes place 8 years after the events told in “The Dark Knight”, now Gotham is relatively at peace, relishing in the legacy of the Dent Pact, however, it is now a more cynical place where corruption is still aplenty but at such high levels that it is not immediately obvious. The rich are still getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It also seems that there is no longer a need for a masked crusader and Bruce Wayne lives a hermit's life, creeping around the East Wing of the Wayne mansion with a walking stick.

Danger comes both from within and without. Bane, a terrifying mountain of a man, Wayne’s fellow graduate of the League of Shadows, comes to Gotham to bring it down to its knees and stir a revolution against the city’s “oppressors”. Bruce faces a choice between continuing his half-life or slipping into his hermetic costume and cape once again. The brilliant thing about these films is that they do not paint the world and their protagonist as black and white. Just as Wayne is deeply flawed, Gothamites are not exactly the kind of people you want to save at the cost of your life. The order that Batman decides to maintain is imperfect, unjust and skewed in favour of big corporations. However, the alternative to this is utter chaos – Bane’s military law disguised as true freedom is nothing but an excuse for the city’s marauders to loot and intimidate the weak. And in the end, Bane’s actions only lead to the ulterior motives of a few egomaniacs. Bruce Wayne/Batman acknowledges that, however limited, a single system is better than the terror of the mob.

The argument against blind violence has been made more profound by the tragic event in Denver, which will most probably be associated with the film for years to come. No doubt many would agree that the themes raised in this film echo current events, threats of terrorism, the Occupy movement and the financial crisis. Yet, when Batman’s character was first invented in 1939, these themes seemed just as relevant with the Western civilisation facing uncertainty on the brink of another world war. As history comes a full circle, this cultural icon of the past is as germane as ever and Christopher Nolan directs him with a grandiose solemnity that is normally reserved for real-life icons.

Although Nolan’s directorship is sure-handed and the entire film is a display of his confident manner, the end result is a little underwhelming. I found the last hour of the film to be truly entertaining and engulfing, however, its beginning and middle part were far too long and could have done with some more editing. It is a rather grueling task to be sat in the cinema for almost 3 hours and only a few films deserve that kind of endurance. Having said this, the multiple characters and the complex storyline in TDKR are well-explored and explained, all things considered. Clearly, Nolan’s experience with “Inception” only honed these skills.

Christian Bale gives his best in this film, mainly because we saw more of Bruce Wayne than Batman, whom I still cannot take too seriously with his smoker’s voice and all. Bale is an intelligent actor, whose dexterity allows him to express emotions with the minimum amount of visible effort. He brought maturity and disillusionment to this role and made Bruce Wayne a vivid and pitiful being. Tom Hardy’s Bane was indeed a transformation for the pretty-faced actor and I shudder to think of the amount of steroids he had taken for this part. He upstages Batman in the grumbling department though – I could not really make out what he was saying half the time. As far as villains go, Bane is probably the most physical one, his body is really something to be reckoned with. And yet he looks pale on comparison to Heath Ledger’s unhinged Joker, who had charm as well as unpredictability on his side. A battle of two wits is more interesting to watch than a wrestling match between two dudes in masks I think.

Michael Caine’s Alfred and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon were simply wonderful, as always. It is actors of their calibre in supporting roles that make Nolan’s Gotham a real, breathing thing. Marion Cotillard, however, was miscast in my opinion. She is not a natural action actress and I think she’s been playing pretty much the same character here and in “Inception” and “Midnight in Paris”. I find her, dare I say it, boring. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, is someone whom I never took seriously and she completely surprised me. Her Catwoman was great – both edgy and playful. Thankfully, she played her like a real human being too. I also liked the fact that she was not overtly sexualised – her costume did not sport a massive décolletage like in Halle Berry’s case, and looked more like an aerodynamic burglar’s outfit (the girl can’t help having a nice figure). Even the knife-like heels were more like a pair of extra weapons than fetish objects. I just wish her and Bruce Wayne had more onscreen time together to let us sense their chemistry more. The crowd in the cinema actually whooped and clapped when the two kissed (this is not exactly a spoiler so I feel ok writing it). But you know who was super-duper cool? Joseph Gordon Levitt’s John Blake, an idealistic young cop who becomes entangled in the whole story. I’d love to see what happens to him next. Joseph (who also happens to be mighty fine, in my humble opinion) is also a surprising hit in action films – just remember his fight scene in the rotating hotel corridor in “Inception”? His new film “Looper” looks pretty good too.

I am happy that the trilogy ended on this note, even with all its shortcomings, this is by far the best superhero rendering and I am so pleased that the cast and crew managed to keep the bar so high throughout all these years. As for the ending of the film itself, I think it could have been a little more ambivalent and just one shot of Alfred’s face would have been a more subtle and elegant solution. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

REVIEW: To Rome With Love

Dir.: Woody Allen
With: Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg

I read an interview with Woody Allen the other day, in which he describes his creative approach to story-writing. He says that he collects random ideas that come to him out of the blue, writes them down on napkins and such and puts them in a drawer in his study. A few more months of these napkins and matchboxes and he constructs a script using most of the ideas. ‘How curious!’ one might exclaim. And yes, I think this is an unusual method but it also has one big flaw – sometimes these ideas just don’t work together very well, as is the case with “To Rome with Love”, unfortunately. Essentially, the film is made up of four separate plotlines, completely independent of each other. They are shown interchangeably, moving through time with no particular logical system.

My favourite storyline was the one concerning an average Roman employee, played by the clownish Roberto Benigni, who one day wakes up extremely famous, for reasons unbeknownst to him. The others deal with a young provincial couple, who upon their arrival to Rome have to face absurd temptations of the baser kind; a young American architect (Jesse Eisenberg) with an animated consciousness (Alec Baldwin), lusting after his girlfriend’s best friend (Ellen Page); and finally, American parents (Judy Davis and Woody Allen) who come to Rome to meet the family of their daughter’s fiancée. Their Italian counterparts, of course, end up being totally bonkers and the father somewhat unusually gifted. “To Rome with Love” is filled with the classic characters from Woody Allen's earlier works; there is Allen himself, a neurotic egoist who is no stranger to greed, Jesse Eisenberg – a boring do-gooder, dying to feel a little more alive and wild, Ellen Page as the dangerous yet enticing Woman, and Penelope Cruz as the eye-candy. The film is meant to be a light-hearted comedy with the classic Allenian dollop of dark humour and illicit hook-ups.

However, I found that it lacked charm and the characters, as well as the plotlines, were all too clichéd and just not spunky enough to be able to compare to some of the director’s earlier works, many of which deal with similar themes. Although there were a few laughs, the whole film was just a bit empty and disjointed for me to enjoy it properly. Given that its original title was ‘Bop Decameron’, it seems that it was first conceived as a collection of stories that deal with love, lust and temptation to a very comic effect, like in Boccaccio’s famous work. Yet, somehow, adventures of the medieval lovers seem much more entertaining and scandalous now than those of their modern descendents.

Having a brief look at Woody Allen’s filmography, I noticed that since 2007 he wrote and directed six films: “Cassandra’s Dream” from 2007, set in London and not terribly successful, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” from 2008, which as you know was great, “Whatever Works” in 2009 – an ok movie, set on his home turf in New York, then back in London for the poorly received “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” the following year, “Midnight in Paris” in 2011 – his most successful film financially, and finally “To Rome with Love” in 2012. From what I can see, it’s better to stick to quality than quantity in Woody Allen’s case, leaving a gap of two-three years between his films and allowing those napkins and matchboxes gestate a little for better results, rather than whip them out every twelve months.

The film is already out in the States and most of mainland Europe. The UK release date is 14th September.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

REVIEW: Magic Mike

Dir.: Steven Soderbergh
With: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer

I am not going to lie – I’ve spent the entire film with a stupid grin stuck on my face. I just could not help it, the sight of those ridiculous male bodies with such defined pecs that you could probably grate some Parmesan for your pasta on them, was madly captivating.

I’ve been looking forward to this film for a while because when I heard that Soderbergh was directing a movie about male striptease, I naturally assumed that it will be quite a serious insight into the life of someone who does not have the easiest of ways of making a living. Besides, it is based on Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a stripper in his early youth. Then the trailer came out and it became obvious that the film will be more fun than a barrel of monkeys (that’s a new saying I’ve picked up in the States ^-^). And yes, the dance performances were great and I take my hat off to the male artistes for their acrobatics but I can’t help the feeling that the film was, essentially, about nothing. The protagonist, Magic Mike played by Channing Tatum is a 30-year-old stripper who juggles a couple of day jobs with his onstage persona at the Xquisite club. He finds himself a 19-year-old protégé in the shape of The Kid, aka Alex Pettyfer (a very dull performance from him). Mike develops a soft spot for The Kid’s no-nonsense sister, which results in him finally trying to take hold of his life’s course.

The dialogues that take place outside of Magic Mike’s night shifts are very boring indeed, which in a way highlights the dreariness of Mike’s life. There are some allusions to the real-life problems associated with this sort of occupation – short shelf life, no career prospects and a general atmosphere of decay and exploitation. Yet, these are not thoroughly explored and the film ends up being a series of dance numbers interchanged with a few poorly written angsty conversations. The portrayal of the other guys in the “troupe” is remarkably innocent. Their personal troubles are never uncovered, much like their genitalia, which remain chastely covered up by various sassy underwear pieces.

However, as I said, the dances are very entertaining and if you are female, a gay man or a super-comfortable-with-his-sexuality heterosexual male, I am sure you would appreciate them. As a final note I’d like to mention Matthew McConaughey who was the best thing about the movie and has recently been making very interesting career choices. Jeered at as he is for the string of topless and toothy roles in a number of romcoms in which he starred, this year alone he has been in two films that competed at Cannes (‘Mud’ and ‘Paperboy’) and his work in ‘Killer Joe’ has been praised by many film critics. In ‘Magic Mike’ he plays Dallas – the madame of the club, a sleazy, manipulative, yet terribly charming host. I think it is just so cool of him to go out there and poke fun at his own reputation. Look, this is him poking fun at his reputation:

And may I just say, the vision of him performing one final dance, by the end of which he was left in a g-string full of dollar bills and cowboy boots (see above image) was worth the price of my ticket. He deserves an Oscar for Best Supporting Role. Hehe. What can I do, it’s impossible not to feel pervy after this amount of gyrating pelvises literally thrust into one’s face. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man

Dir.: Marc Webb
With: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans

Despite the fact that the decision to re-start a franchise only 5 years after its last instalment puzzled many,  ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is, indeed, amazing. The main reason for that is Andrew Garfield (I've liked him since 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' he he he), who simply happens to have a little more presence and is more likeable than Toby Maguire. When you compare the two actors, Andrew Garfield possesses more warmth and his puppy eyes have a glimmer of wit in them; Toby’s Peter Parker was colder, less sensitive to the emotions of others and I for one could never really sympathise with him much.

Likewise, the decision to cast someone younger and focus on Peter Parker’s high school days was a good one – on top of the standard Spidey troubles, this adolescent Peter has his raging hormones to deal with. Andrew Garfield, albeit being almost 10 years older than his character, portrays the lanky, moody youth brilliantly. Although he undoubtedly had to bulk up for the role, he remained lanky and wiry, and has the air of a 16-year-old who had an unexpected growth spurt and is still unsure how to move about in this new body. This makes the scenes with him testing out his new powers, often to hilarious ends, particularly enjoyable.

The film boasts an intelligent and coherent script and is truly entertaining, especially during its first two-thirds, before it culminates in a standard super-hero hullabaloo. The director, Marc Webb (his previous film was ‘500 Days of Summer’), borrows heavily from other genres: there is an interesting and convincing love story between Peter and Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), and here the girl is not just a damsel in distress, but a sharp and active participant, then there is an element of horror – in particular in Peter’s transformation scene that reminded me of Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’, comedy, drama (mostly delivered by Martin Sheen who makes a great Uncle Ben) and, of course, good, old 3-D action and  the streets of New York from birdview.

The Spider-Man epos has not lost its attraction. I think the reason for that is the character’s humanity and humility; he is a normal, brainy kid with enormous powers and responsibilities thrust upon him. In contrast to Batman, Superman and the rest, Peter Parker is simply a nice boy, imperfect and sometimes too emotional, yet he is the most understandable and sympathetic of all the super-heroes.

Also, let me tell you a secret how to enjoy a film like this to the max – take a child with you to the cinema (borrow one if you have to). They’ll be eternally grateful and you’ll be able to see the story through their eyes. My brother, who went with me, watched the film so hungrily and in such a state of awe, it was absolutely infectious. In the end he clapped with so much enthusiasm, and when I teased him about it, he said ‘you’re supposed to do that when you’ve really liked something, don’t you know?!’