Category Archives: reviews

Out now on DVD/Blu-ray: “The Dark Knight Rises”

“The Dark Knight Rises” was released on DVD and Blu-ray today, and so I’m re-posting my review that I wrote after see­ing the film on open­ing day. I’m not too embarassed by it yet.

It’s always dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out how to clearly cat­e­go­rize or define one of Chris Nolan’s films in his Bat­man tri­fecta, and none more than “The Dark Knight Rises.” Nolan has always brought his auteur-ish artistry to his projects, even when we’re talk­ing huge mega-blockbusters that basi­cally every­one has been wait­ing for. But when you boil down and strip every­thing else away, who is left fight­ing the eter­nal bat­tle of good-vs.-evil in “The Dark Knight Rises” that Nolan has molded into some­thing deeper and more philo­soph­i­cal, smarter and more noir-ish than any­thing else in recent years? Super­heroes. Even if Nolan’s super­heroes aren’t gifted with fan­tas­ti­cal super­hu­man abil­i­ties, and are mor­tal, dam­aged, hurt humans like you and me, there’s no deny­ing the roots of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The pure child­ish escapism of the source mate­r­ial — comic books — can­not be fully supressed, and no mat­ter how well Nolan trans­forms it and crafts it into some­thing that is artis­ti­cally supe­rior, some­thing that doesn’t look or sound or feel like some­thing com­ing from a comic book — it still does.

So what can and what does Nolan do with this movie? He doesn’t cast away the fan­boy ori­gins, because he can’t with­out reject­ing the entire story of Bat­man him­self, and instead com­pletely dis­places this comic book movie by dump­ing it into our dirty, noisy mod­ern world. He makes a super­hero movie that attempts and suc­ceeds in tack­ling the insta­bil­ity, the inse­cu­rity, the chaos of our cur­rent post-9/11, Occupy Wall Street state of affairs with the 99% for­ever pit­ted against the 1%. There are still some­what cheesy one-liners here and there, plenty of geeky tech­nol­ogy to drool over, and thrilling action sequences that involve a lot of thugs being flipped over by a guy in a bat­suit. But Nolan infuses a ter­ri­fy­ingly now sen­si­bil­ity into the clean and pre­fab­ri­cated world of super­heroes, even more than he did with the casu­ally vio­lent anar­chy of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” The result might be an imper­fect movie, yes, that strug­gles with struc­ture and pac­ing. But there’s no hid­ing the potent power “The Dark Knight Rises” casu­ally car­ries within itself, and no deny­ing that the entire audi­ence feels the full extent of it, at least one time or another dur­ing the nearly three hours of com­plete run­time.
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The perfect movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

T here’s a rea­son “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” has become such a beloved, time-honored sta­ple of hol­i­day movie-viewing, and it’s because it is quite sim­ply a per­fect movie. (There are a lot of other per­ti­nent rea­sons too, like a benev­o­lent, portly angel com­ing down from heaven to save a sui­ci­dal man, but it all adds up to this one.) This movie man­ages to be funny, smart, sad, delight­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing, roman­tic, happy, witty, depress­ing, and joy­ous at one time or another, but per­haps the great­est virtue of Frank Capra’s 1947 clas­sic is the beau­ti­ful sim­plic­ity and purity and com­plete­ness of it all. It’s all there in the life of George Bai­ley. For this is Hol­ly­wood cin­ema like it should be, old or not, and every film should aspire to have as much pow­er­ful emo­tional res­o­nance as “It’s a Won­der­ful Life.”

The story of Bai­ley (a fab­u­lous Jimmy Stew­art), a com­pas­sion­ate, charis­matic young man whose kind­ness is a double-edged sword – he feels com­pelled to help the cit­i­zens of Bed­ford Falls, and sac­ri­fices much of his life in doing so – works because I’d be damned if you don’t feel sorry for the guy. You want Bai­ley to get out of this lit­tle town, and you just know the cir­cum­stances are that he’s not going to. He has dreams of trav­el­ing the world, of get­ting a col­lege edu­ca­tion, of mak­ing won­der­ful things, and he’s stuck grow­ing older, fight­ing the good fight against Mr. Pot­ter (Lionel Bar­ry­more), a hand­i­capped but no less mali­cious rich busi­ness­man who loves noth­ing more than screw­ing the town over, as head of his late father’s small but sig­nif­i­cant build­ing and loan com­pany.
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Praising the Revenge of the Sith

There were two of the Star Wars movies that I didn’t like watch­ing as much as the oth­ers when I was younger, and the rea­son is sim­ple– both were the­mat­i­cally darker and mood­ier than my young mind would’ve liked. Those two were The Empire Strikes Back, which now I dis­cover is crit­i­cally regarded as the best Star Wars entry for the very rea­sons writ­ten above, and Revenge of the Sith.

I re-watched Revenge of the Sith not too long ago, and was, as the title of this arti­cle sug­gests, impressed by it far more than per­haps I should admit. Despite hold­ing a 80% “Fresh” rat­ing on Rot­ten Toma­toes, this film seems to be some­what hated for I pre­sume the fact that it wraps up a uni­ver­sally despised prequel-trilogy (which includes The Phan­tom Men­ace and Attack of the Clones), it has act­ing just short of being wince-worthy, and, because it was released in 2005, writer-director George Lucas splurged on then-new CGI tech­nol­ogy which, unfor­tu­nately, now seems dated.

I don’t dis­agree with that, but if you can’t see past that and enjoy what lies under the arti­fi­cial­ity of the visu­als than it’s a hon­est shame. Revenge of the Sith isn’t what it looks like, and has prob­a­bly more imag­i­na­tion than a major­ity of the sci-fi pic­tures released in the 21st cen­tury – which is ironic, see­ing as what this film does is rein­vent all the rich mythol­ogy and leg­ends and sto­ries and plain old-fashioned his­tory, and puts it in a galaxy far, far, far away.

It’s true that per­haps this goes appre­ci­ated the most by me, an admit­tedly big fan of the rich mythol­ogy and leg­ends and sto­ries and plain old-fashioned his­tory in  gen­eral, etc. (The Illiad is one of my all-time favorite books. Love it.) And, of course, I can’t say I was expect­ing much from Revenge of the Sith, which means I was on the look­outwith an extremely open mind, for some­thing to make the two-hours-plus time spent worth­while. I found it, and I think you can too.
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FILM REVIEW: Jack Black is ‘Bernie’

The tit­u­lar role that Jack Black plays in Bernie is decep­tively tricky, although it doesn’t seem so at first. As Bernie Tiede, the extra­or­di­nar­ily kind, unselfish, and car­ing assis­tant funeral direc­tor of the tiny town of Carthage, Texas, Black has to make this strange, rotund lit­tle man not so freakin’ unbe­liev­ably sweet as to that we don’t believe he could pos­si­bly mur­der a rich old lady (Shirley Maclaine) who’s been treat­ing him mean andgo on to fool every­body for nine months.

But, just enough so there’s not a hint that Bernie is an evil, duplic­i­tous fraud who’s twist­ing the gullible com­mu­nity that adores him around his chubby lit­tle pinkie fin­ger. (Though that would be hard, see­ing as dur­ing these nine months he con­tin­ued spend­ing a for­tune doing good for Carthage, and very lit­tle on him­self, which would be great if it were not the for­tune of some­one he killed.)

And Black suc­ceeds, won­der­fully, but not in a way that par­tic­u­larly asserts itself as one of the great per­for­mances of the year. Per­haps it’s because by the end we still don’t really know who Bernie is, apart from being a really nice, some­what schlubby guy who com­mit­ted mur­der just because he unfor­tu­nately reached his boil­ing point. Black doesn’t dig as deep into the psy­che of this man as I would have liked, and the movie doesn’t seem con­cerned in ask­ing for more.

Cer­tainly, Bernie is an odd, off­beat and irrev­er­ent indie offer­ing, hov­er­ing uncer­tainly in black com­edy most of the time, while bor­der­ing satire and also straight-forward drama. It’s a unique con­coc­tion of direc­tor Richard Lin­klater, some­times hilar­i­ous, some­times sad, some­times absurd, some­times stir­ring, some­times amus­ing, and some­times none of the above.

Bring­ing a lit­tle more energy to the table is a scenery-chewing Matthew McConaughey, seem­ingly emu­lat­ing the man­ner­isms and atti­tude of Owen Wil­son in a Wes Ander­son movie (of your choice) as a gonzo local dis­trict attor­ney hell-bent on per­se­cut­ing Bernie.

Also, Lin­klater reg­u­larly inter­cuts through­out his film clips show­ing the hon­est folks of Carthage, uncom­pli­cated in their gen­uinely South­ern ways and united in their belief that Bernie is an angel come down from heaven, telling his tragi­comic story to the audi­ence. Again, the lines are blurred, as you don’t know whether Bernie is pok­ing gen­tle fun at these peo­ple or cel­e­brat­ing them.

The quasi-ambiguous doc­u­men­tary – or mock­u­men­tary, rather – aspect is one that should be expected, if not embraced, because Bernie is based on a true-life story that first appeared in a 1998 Texas Monthly arti­cle writ­ten by Skip Hol­landsworth, who is cred­ited as a co-writer – Bernie really did exist, and really did shoot the wid­owed 81-year-old Mar­jorie Nugent in the back in her home, and really kept using her money on the local Methodist church and the Boy Scouts and schol­ar­ships for the col­lege, and really was even­tu­ally caught.

Such a story deserves its big-screen time, and this movie cer­tainly does it jus­tice. But there always seems to be some­thing miss­ing to give it the mem­o­rable, refresh­ing boost that Bernie, as a first-class “quirky” movie, des­per­ately needs. And although it’s fan­tas­tic, Black’s singing abil­ity, show­cased here with beau­ti­ful choir songs and a rous­ing the­atre per­for­mance, isn’t it. [B]


FILM REVIEW: Let the ‘Skyfall’

It must be said, and it has been, that Sky­fall, the new James Bond film, is beau­ti­ful. Like, really, really beau­ti­ful. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy is from the leg­endary Roger Deakins, so that visual won­der is to be expected, and yet it still man­ages occa­sion­ally to take your breath away on the strength on it alone.

If you’ve seen 2007’s The Assas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Cow­ard Robert Ford, which Deakins shot, you’ll know there is a par­tic­u­lar scene involv­ing a train at night where light and shad­ows and dark­ness and the actors all come together to cre­ate a tran­scen­den­tally gor­geous atmos­phere; now, imag­ine that mas­ter­ful manip­u­la­tion trans­planted into a Bond movie, a com­pa­ra­bly much big­ger, more excit­ing and reward­ing can­vas to paint on, and hope­fully you get the point that the Sky­fall deserves to be seen on the big screen as soon as possible.

(And with as lit­tle knowl­edge of the plot as pos­si­ble, which is some­thing that could be sug­gested for all movies but really increased my enjoy­ment of Sky­fall.)

The film is, put sim­ply, a gen­uinely mag­nif­i­cent, mar­velously enter­tain­ing achieve­ment from direc­tor Sam Mendes and the entire cast, crew, etc., that were involved. This is the best film that Hol­ly­wood has come out with for quite a while now, a smart action block­buster that dips into the gen­er­ous box labeled “Every­thing We Love About Bond, James Bond” with­out actu­ally rely­ing on it for its success.

Its tight, focused script doesn’t go for far­ci­cal nor out­landishly silly moments, sim­i­lar to Casino Royale before it, but, make no mis­take, this is a Bond film – even the fre­netic Bourne–esque pre-credits open­ing set in Istan­bul car­ries itself with the dis­tinc­tive, assertive ele­gance and sophis­ti­ca­tion (again, more credit than you think is due to Deakin’s work) as well as the sense of impor­tance that is expected.

Yet Sky­fall isn’t a relic of yes­ter­year, try­ing to clum­sily com­bine the past with the present – it embraces it fully, and has more than a few witty jokes and nods to the Bond franchise’s sto­ried legacy in doing so. The clash of times also influ­ences the plot, where the cloak-and-daggers game that MI6 plays is called “old-fashioned,” claims are put forth that there are no more “shad­ows” for Bond and the agency to hide in while doing their stuff, and the main char­ac­ters are con­fronted with their shrouded pasts which give some wel­come depth to the action.

Daniel Craig’s Bond has to to pro­tect M (Judi Dench, allowed more emo­tional range though her char­ac­ter still works best when trad­ing icy barbs with Bond) and Eng­land from the immensely amus­ing Javier Bar­dem who, sport­ing a blond wig as a venge­ful cyber-terrorist, makes for a vil­lain that you don’t want to take your eyes off and the only char­ac­ter, iron­i­cally, who seems to be tak­ing it all in per­spec­tive (after a spec­tac­u­lar action sequence, exhausted, he heaves a sigh and looks around: “All this run­ning around…it’s so tir­ing,” and we’re inclined to agree).

Round­ing out the stel­lar cast is Naomi Har­ris as an fiesty MI6 field agent, Ben Whishaw as the young in-house com­puter genius Q who for­goes “old-school” explod­ing pens for tech­nol­ogy and a gun, Berenice Mar­lohe as the mys­te­ri­ous Sev­er­ine, and Ralph Fiennes as a bureau­crat sent to supervise.

I love this movie. And I want to see it again. It’s one of the best wide releases of the year with­out ques­tion, and deserves to be rec­og­nized as such. [A+]

J. Edgar’ Poster Hits The Web: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Angry!

It’s not a good thing when J. Edgar Hoover is angry — even if he’s being played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The first poster for the upcom­ing J. Edgar biopic hit the web, and fea­tured the Oscar-winning thes­pian get­ting furi­ous (at who? the Pres­i­dent?) in a extreme close-up. DiCaprio stars as the title char­ac­ter in the highly-anticipated biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, the con­tro­ver­sial and infa­mous fig­ure who headed the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972 and who was at one time called, “The most pow­er­ful man in the world”, as declares the tagline for the Clint Eastwood-helmed film, which is already gen­er­at­ing buzz for DiCaprio’s per­for­mance.

J. Edgar is writ­ten by Dustin Lance Black, the scribe who won an Oscar for his work on 2008’s Milk, and also stars Naomi Watts, Armie Ham­mer, Judi Dench, and Ken Howard.

The Warner Bros. Pic­tures pro­duc­tion will be released in the­aters Novem­ber 9.

Matt Damon Lauded By Critics For Role In ‘Contagion’

Matt Damon in Con­ta­gion 

There’s a lot of buzz going around for Con­ta­gion, the newest thriller from direc­tor Steven Soder­bergh, out today (Fri­day, Sept. 9) in the­aters nation­wide. The plot­line con­cerns a deadly virus that spreads around the globe, and the ordi­nary human lives that inter­sect and try to sur­vive the killing. Star­ring — well, your all-star cast for any movie can’t get much bet­ter than this — Gyneth Pal­trow, Jude Law, Lawrence Fish­burne, Mar­ion Cotil­lard, Kate Winslet and last but not least Matt Damon. Con­ta­gion, which swept into top spot this Fri­day at the box office, is being lauded by crit­ics nation­wide with glow­ing reviews, and Damon doesn’t slip under the radar unno­ticed. As The Hol­ly­wood Reporter’s Todd Mccarthy puts it, ““The com­mon man is rep­re­sented by Damon’s Mitch, who wit­nesses at close range the col­lapse of the social order and the rise of lawlessness…”

Check out more of the reviews for Damon and Con­ta­gion here.

Are you head­ing out to see Con­ta­gion? Leave your com­ments below!