Savages

ImageIs Savages pulp? Yes. Is Savages fiction? Oh God I hope so. But Savages is definitely not Pulp Fiction, despite its desperate attempt to be, including casting John Travolta. Savages is a gritty, hard-core examination of the cut-throat high pressure, high stakes game of marijuana cartels. Wait, what? Marijuana cartels? Oliver Stone crafts a screenplay, with help from Don Winslow who penned the source material, that does explain this unorthodox cartel’s extremely violent nature. The story is actually very simple. Young marijuana entrepreneurs gain the attention of a major drug cartel who kidnaps their shared girlfriend in order to force their hand to deal with them. Those entrepreneurs are played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson. The shared girlfriend who drags her nails across the chalkboard with flat acting and dreadful voiceover is played lumberingly by Blake Lively. Why they want her back is the film’s biggest mystery. Her character, O, is named after Hamlet’s deranged, suicidal lost love and she hints from the first line of the movie that she may not be alive at the end, providing some powerful wishful thinking. The biggest problem with Savages is the same with most Oliver Stone movies that don’t work, its agenda. Now, this time there is no political agenda; instead it’s a “look how edgy I am” agenda. This agenda is completely fulfilled by putting the viewers out of their misery with one of the worst endings in recent memory.

I could go on about what doesn’t work in this movie, but I feel the point is made. Instead, I’ll quickly mention the things that do work. Benicio Del Toro’s character is introduced with brutal gusto. Also, the film is mostly in focus, even during the ridiculous number of close ups. That’s about it. I am looking forward to the next great Oliver Stone movie; this just wasn’t it. D-

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The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight RisesDirector: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman

The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. There is so much to appreciate in this film. The menacing tone that lies beneath the surface of Gotham City is felt for all of its 165 minutes. Rises is set eight years after The Dark Knight. Gotham has cleaned up its act due to the events surrounding the false-martyrdom of the fallen “white knight,” Harvey Dent. Nolan uses this perfect atmosphere to resurrect (from the Lazarus pit?) a brilliantly executed return of the League of Shadows helmed by the extremely effective new villain, Bane. The historically epic mission of Ra’s Al Ghul is not complete, and so the battle over mankind’s capacity for redemption wages on. While the plot is engaging, and in my opinion – the best of the three, there is little use discussing it here. Film goers should avoid knowing much else about the events of this movie; in fact a “clean slate” is quite desirable for both the characters on the screen and the viewers in front of it.

Nolan may be slightly criticized for following a bit of a formula for his ambitious and ultra anticipated conclusion to his Batman series, but what a formula! Nolan introduces multiple new characters and effortlessly crafts his story in a way that gives them all their own moments, leaving us wanting even more and perhaps even a tear in our eyes. Veterans Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman each shine bright and make way as Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, and Tom Hardy join the impressive cast along side our central hero portrayed once again with fervor by Christian Bale. I think, taken as a whole, what Christopher Nolan can by most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. He may present some of this grandiose and complex content in a simplified and somewhat self-important/preachy way, but he achieves his grand design of getting us all thinking about our own morality, our limits, and our duties. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far. I am excited to see where Nolan takes his journey from here and I hope he continues to deepen his material and his relationships with this core group of actors. A

Ted

ImageThe feeling you get after watching Ted is the same feeling you get after watching your son’s team get “mercied” at a little league game. You give them credit for finishing it, but it’s best if you never speak of it again. Seth MacFarlane dreamed up an idea with infinite potential, but he did not deliver as a director or as the character of Ted. MacFarlane most likely felt nervous to leave his comfort zone of TV, especially after a decade of “animation domination,” and it shows in Ted. That is probably why his directorial debut looks and feels like a television show. With scene after scene to static shots, voice overs, and corny “Family Guy” style interlude music between scenes, it is hard to allow the “mise en cene” to work its magic. This is a warmed up rewrite of thousands of other comedies where the protagonist man-child waits too long to grow up and suffers the consequences of life. Of course a new gimmick is introduced in the form of a raunchy (but I argue not raunchy enough) talking teddy bear, however that wears off quickly and nothing else fills the void except some very obscure pop culture references.
MacFarlane has been extremely successful at what he does, however his reputation as a unique presence in the field has been overshadowed by South Park and The Simpsons for his entire career, both of which went to the theater with successful versions of their respective shows. Ted marked an opportunity for MacFarlane to prove he definitely as talented as the creators of those shows by formulating something new, but it falls short. On a side note, surpassing Trey Parker and Matt Stone as pioneers will probably never happen.
Mark Wahlberg is adequate and Mila Kunis is basically a prop. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Ted, but the fact remains that as a fan of comedy, I do not want to see the bar being lowered for what passes for acceptable films of this genre. There are some funny moments in Ted, my favorite being in the film’s opening scene where the bear is discovered to be alive by young John’s parents. More episodes like this would have been preferred to formulaic events where characters fall into stereotypical character flaws. Overall, I wish Ted had a little more going for it. Unfortunately, when the final inning was over, I was more than ready to avoid eye contact and head for the door. C-

The Amazing Spiderman

ImageThe Amazing Spiderman does a very good job bringing Spiderman back into the spotlight. Many people have speculated whether a “re-boot” of Spiderman is a good idea so soon after the previous films directed by Sam Raimi. There certainly does not seem to be a waning of interest in superhero movies, but what The Amazing Spiderman further proves, is that these stories are so strong and potentially captivating that, if done well, people will be interested no matter how familiar the source material is. I was prepared to find The Amazing Spiderman stale or uninspired. Mark Webb, however, has created a stylish rendition of Spiderman’s origin that is well paced and feels fresh and fun. I think Webb benefited from Raimi’s original trilogy. While this is not a sequel in any way, Webb does seem to be aware of Raimi’s more wide ranged comedic tone and plays this series closer to the vest including some of the more intricate details from the original Marvel comic books. This is not unlike Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of the Batman story after its complete meltdown. This Peter Parker is more “real.”. He isn’t a loser he isn’t a “cool kid.” instead he’s a quiet genius and this film holds Parker’s intellect in as high esteem as his anticipated super powers. A Spiderman movie can never achieve a level or morality and realism the Nolan has achieved with his Batman films, but that’s not this story. What Webb does is set up a story that unlocks our childish wonder of heroism and does it with panache. Andrew Garfield fits the role very well. He is charming, awkward, funny, and talented. Emma Stone is given little to work with in this film as Gwen Stacy, but she saves the role in her usual fashion. The supporting cast is top notch as well including a Stan Lee cameo that may be his best yet. Overall, the debate on whether this movie was necessary can be settled, no. I hesitate to call any one movie necessary, but The Amazing Spiderman definitely deserves to exist without any superfluous criticism that wouldn’t be levied on the next Superhero action movie. A-

To Rome With Love

ImageWoody Allen’s To Rome with Love is the latest in his series of cinematic love letters to his favorite European cities. Allen’s latter portion of his career has seen a renaissance in terms of inspiration and fresh takes on familiar, yet intriguing, themes (Whatever Works excluded). This film comes on the heels of his greatest box office success of his career, Midnight in Paris. Consequently, To Rome with Love becomes a sort of paradox. On one hand, it’s nice to see Woody Allen enjoying some major attention again, but like so many of Allen’s characters, it would be terrible to see that attention affect his outlook or disposition since this film will no doubt be compared to Midnight in Paris. After ‘Midnight’s‘ success, the anticipation level for Allen’s next film was higher than average since it charmed so many people, many of which were not typical Woody Allen fans. This film meets that anticipation with bizarre unease, as it may not satisfy many of Allen’s recent converts, which is exactly what it needs to do.

Allen has blended his new Euro-flare with a picaresque film that feels very much like that of his satirical style of earlier days rather than the more playful mood of recent. To me, this is great. I enjoy Woody Allen’s skewed and informed views on love, celebrity, and fate; it’s a gift to fans. The film is composed of four unrelated stories that do not really intersect or even exist in the same time frame, yet the viewer is challenged to deconstruct them down to their thematic commonalities. When all is said and done, each story presents a separate character study and morality play, each seamlessly jumping back and forth without losing the viewer. Some stories are stronger than others, but all have something to say worth saying, and they all offer at least one good solid laugh. I think Ellen Page’s character Monica stands out as the most intriguing. Monica’s sexually charged wildly independent character is talked about before she appears, and the set up does not lead one to think “Ellen Page.” She is very well written and Page is great delivering Allen’s characteristically faux-intellectual free spirit female artist dialogue. Ironically, over-analysis is not what To Rome With Love deserves, although analysis is a major theme. It should not be compared to Midnight in Paris, but rather it should rest on its own merits which are substantial. B+

Prometheus

ImageWhile the conversations surrounding Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus are mostly about its relationship to Scott’s early sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien (1979), there is an unavoidable comparison to be made to an earlier classic: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A scene near the beginning of the film includes a Kubrickian juxtaposition where robot “David” (Michael Fassbender) speaks with a HAL 9000-esque computer to wake up the Prometheus’s 17 man crew from cryo-sleep (a scene reminiscent to Alien, of course). This sets the tone for the film, which has always been one of director Ridley Scott’s strengths. The tone of Prometheus is at first pensive. The film’s momentum is firmly rooted in the mythology of man’s existence. This is not an unusual thematic trapping for sci-fi/horror, but this time it feels fresh. The Alien universe provides curiosity and character development that allows for some unique and clever insights on this idea. Prometheus is also a great looking film. The film opens with beautiful landscapes and Scott’s slow moving, sometimes static, floating camera movements both accentuate the pensive tone and allow the viewer to have time to appreciate and enjoy the film’s look. This is not to say Prometheus is not without its intensity. Plenty of scenes are punctuated by gripping suspense and cringe-worthy extra-terrestrial horror (it is a 17 man crew, or should I say was). The cast is well chosen from the soulless Michael Fassbender to the charismatic and surprisingly effective Noomi Rapace as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers is an intriguingly mysterious character as well. All in all, Prometheus delivers, and as its namesake suggests, not without catastrophic results. A-

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows

Clearly, Dark Shadows will not make any box office records. Iron Man does not make an appearance, so it’s hopeless. However, what Dark Shadows does do is add another solid entry in the impressive Burton/Depp collaborative series. The movie strikes a vibe that is much more serious than the tongue-in-cheek trailer would have you believe. Depp’s turn as Barnibus Collins may feel familiar to Depp fans. He has the appearance of Edward Scissorhands, the mannerisms of Captain Jack Sparrow, and the vocal pattern of Hunter S. Thompson. This is a fun combination, but the story surrounding Collins is one of betrayal and vengeance. Not that the movie doesn’t have its humorous moments, it does. But it should be mentioned that the film firmly belongs in the company of Burron’s films like Sleepy Hollow instead of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In addition, there’s an excellent soundtrack of classic rock, which is rare for Burton who usually relies on Danny Elfman only. The supporting characters do feel a bit under developed and, at times, seemingly unnecessary, and the film does begin to wander as the final 30 minutes roll around, but that does not spoil it as a classic Tim Burton movie in the least. B