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Snowden (2016)

originalThere’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.

maxresdefaultThe best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.

Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.

This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.

snowden-movie-joseph-gordon-levitt-shailene-woodleyThere are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.

Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.

Nate’s Grade: B

Don Jon (2013)

don_jonJoseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most talented and, yeah I’ll say it, dreamy young actors working today is proving to be more than a pretty face. Don Jon is his assured writing and directing debut, and it shows that every man has one more reason to feel insecure compared to Gordon-Levitt. The titular Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey lothario who sleeps with lots of women but the real thing just can’t measure up to his porn. The schism between reality and sexual fantasy is too much. Jon tries to reform his porn-addiction ways when he meets a hot lady (Scarlett Johansson) but old habits are hard to break, especially when he has to wait before sleeping with a woman. The narrative isn’t terribly deep or that developed but remains entertaining throughout, buoyed by feisty performances and stylish direction. The editing, sound design choices, and smooth camerawork made me feel like I was watching a promising Scorsese student. I found Don Jon to be a far more successful look at sex addiction than the recent sex addict drama, Thanks for Sharing. The parallel between porn and Hollywood rom-coms, both an inflated fantasy of relationships, doesn’t really stick, and Jon’s family is a bunch of loud Italian stereotypes, but the lead guy is a self-possessed lunkhead anyway, so it makes sense for his family to follow suit. Don Jon is funny, sexy, and an enjoyable diversion at the movies. What it really does, though, is provide the first notch in what may prove to be an exciting directorial career for its star.

Nate’s Grade: B

Looper (2012)

I became a Rian Johnson disciple the second that 2006’s Brick ended. I was floored by the originality, the artistic vision, the intelligence, and the creative voice. This was a unique filmmaker and I instantly knew this writer/director would be a man worth following. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was three fourths of a great movie, but a bit of an overdose on whimsy. Then I read that Johnson was next going to try his hand at time travel, and I could not contain my excitement. One of my favorite film genres and one of my favorite up-and-coming indie filmmakers together. I was expecting Johnson to do for time travel what he did with film noir (Brick) and the con movie (Brothers Bloom). How could Looper disappoint? Well, sadly, the movie found a way. It feels like Johnson smashed two halves of two different movies together, one good and one not so good.

In 2072, time travel is invented but instantly made illegal. The only people who have access to time travel are the mob. They have a surplus of dead bodies that need to disappear, so the mob sends them back 30 years. In 2042, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed as a looper. He kills the guys the mob sends back in time and then disposes of the bodies. He’s paid well, and he and his fellow loopers live it up as privileged members of the Kansas City social sphere. Abe (Jeff Daniels) runs the show in town; he’s a mob guy from the future. There’s a catch to all the looper riches. The mob also wants to protect them in the future, so they send back the looper’s future self to be executed. It’s called closing the loop. And if you don’t kill your future self, bad things will definitely happen, just ask Seth (Paul Dano), a looper hacked apart to lure his future self back.

The day comes where Joe is tasked with executing his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and goes on the run. Younger Joe is now under extreme pressure to kill his guy, or else the mob might just find him and start slicing body appendages. Old Joe is looking for the Rainmaker, who in 30 years will become a criminal tyrant responsible for much death. But in 2042, he’s only a child. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the child before he becomes the Rainmaker, and before he murders Old Joe’s eventual wife. While fleeing the mob, Joe takes refuge on a farm outside of the city. Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) warily take in Joe but they’re also hiding a secret, that Cid has powerful telekinetic powers that can be put to great damage.

The film’s premise is compelling and allows for plenty of mind-bending possibilities, and Johnson has a fresh take on the sci-fi genre. Hunting down your future self is a grabber of a concept and I loved the scenes where Joe and Old Joe would sit down and converse. There’s the natural tension of Joe’s mission to eliminate his future self, but there’s also a flurry of ideas, ones that make the film better developed. Old Joe has an edge in foreknowledge but Joe has his own edge. He can change Old Joe’s memories by choosing different actions. He swears if he ever sees a picture of Old Joe’s wife that he’ll do everything in his path to alter fate, to make it so he never finds her. As a result, Old Joe is hobbled by headaches and fuzzy memories because the order of events is no longer concrete. “This time travel stuff fries my brain like an egg,” Old Joe admits. That, my friends, is a fascinating struggle for dominance and a refreshing take on time travel. Then you throw in the mob chasing after both Joes and you got an extra sense of urgency. Looper is playfully heady but easy enough to follow. It’s a thriller that doesn’t get bogged down in time travel logistics but it doesn’t pander to its audience either. If it did, I’m fairly certain Joe (addict, criminal, selfish) and Old Joe (eventual child slayer) would have taken turns to be more likeable. For a solid hour, Looper is alive with narrative jujitsu, a nice balance of action, drama, dark humor, intelligent plotting, stylish direction, the occasional startling visual, and strong acting from Gordon-Levitt and Willis.

And then the Looper becomes a completely different movie. Once the action shifts to Sara’s farm is where this movie completely unravels. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. The first half was so intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and thrilling, and then I got stuck on a farm and the movie turned into a lame version of Children of the Damned. I didn’t come for a telekinetic kid movie; I came for a time travel movie. The second half of this movie is practically wall-to-wall telekinetic kid stuff. The action slows down to a crawl and the flurry of ideas turns to a trickle as we introduce Strong Single Mom and Weird Son. I may have a cold heart but I didn’t care about these characters. I found the romance forced and Sara to be poorly developed. I found the kid annoying, and when he got mad and made his stupid mad face, it irritated me. Mostly I was irritated that the promise of the first half of the film had stalled out, and that this was where the movie was choosing to spend its dwindling time. It’s like the movie has been swallowed inside out by this stupid telekinetic subplot. The climax is fine but why did we have to travel through Dumb Farm Rest Stop to get there? Is it so that Joe can learn to be a better person? I didn’t buy that growth, especially with a kid as annoying and obviously dangerous as Cid. I suppose one night of sex with Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) could do the trick.

Besides the whole farm deal, there are other nagging questions I have that devalue Looper in my eyes.

1) So in the future the mob is the only entity with access to time travel, but all they use it for is to dispose of bodies? That’s it? Biff Tanner used a sports almanac from the future to become king of the world. Are you telling me an organization that has historically profited from gambling would make no use of foreknowledge for personal gain?

2) Why would the mob have the loopers kill their older versions of themselves? This seems like a natural conflict of interest that could readily be avoided. Instead of having that particular looper kill his future self, thus closing the loop, why not assign that future version to a different looper? That way you don’t have to run the risk of the past looper letting his future self go. Or you could just never tell them what happened. For that matter, why does the mob have to send the guys back alive? Could they not simply just kill them and send the dead bodies 30 years back in time? This seems like an easier solution that also minimizes risk.

3) If you’ve just uncovered the power of time travel, why are you even bothering to send back your dead bodies 30 years into the past? Why not send your dead bodies back BILLIONS of years where the Earth is still forming, hot, and uninhabitable? I find this to be a better solution (I also wrote this solution in my own time travel screenplay, so there’s that too). Why can’t the mob feed dead bodies to dinosaurs? I’d love to see that.

4) You have a mob guy from the future, and you do nothing with that? Abe has one wisecrack about being from the future, and it’s a good one, but otherwise this guy could have just been from the present. The movie does nothing with the juicy element of a mob boss from the future. Maybe he doesn’t do as he’s told and arranges for his own rule. Or maybe he utilizes a sports almanac and makes some prescient bets, huh?

5) The movie takes place almost entirely around the confines of Kansas City. I find it hard to believe that a criminal organization would be sending all its bodies to Kansas City. Perhaps the mob also sends people across space and time, otherwise this means that we’re only following the future evil masterwork of the Kansas City mob.

6) I suppose you have to ask at what point do you really start to nitpick the whole butterfly effect of cause and effect paradoxes. With all time travel movies, there’s going to be some degree of suspension of disbelief, because changing one action can have wide-ranging consequences. However, with Looper there are several instances that gave me pause. Firstly, there’s the central idea of killing the Rainmaker as a child, which would negate the killing of the loopers, which would negate Old Joe seeking out the Rainmaker to kill. I’ll look beyond that. So Old Seth, in the film’s most horrifying sequence, starts noticing his fingers are disappearing, then his nose, and then his legs, etc. The mob is torturing young Seth to lure back the missing target. It’s an amazing visual sequence, but are you telling me that cutting off young Seth’s body parts would not have altered his future to a greater degree? I’m fairly certain when you start removing fingers and legs that Old Seth’s timeline would have been dramatically altered and he would cease to exist or follow the exact path to wind up in the past again. For that matter, why even bother luring the older Seth back? Could they not just take care of him by killing young Seth? What are they going to do with young Seth? If they’re just going to kill him then they should have just done that to begin with.

Johnson has plenty of thought-provoking questions he’d like to address within the bounds of a sci-fi action thriller. Would you kill a child if that kid were going to grow up and be a monster? Is redemption possible after doing horrible things? Could you kill your future version of yourself? Would you sacrifice everything to prevent future misery? These are legitimate questions and Looper deserves credit for spending time to ponder them, but I just wish Johnson could have gone back in time and chosen a different path.

Coming off of the stupendous Brick and the perfectly enjoyable Brothers Bloom, my expectations for Johnson’s third film were astronomical, especially given this crafty man’s take on time travel. I love the premise, love the actors involved, and love the ideas toyed around with, but the movie completely falls apart at the halfway mark. The pacing gets slack, the story becomes forced, and Looper transforms into a different, unwelcome movie. I can’t help but feel disappointed, partly from my expectations but also from the knowledge that Johnson could do better. The story just isn’t as well developed as it carries on, and the telekinetic subplot feels like a dull leftover from another movie. After an invigorating first half, Looper crumbles under the weight of a weak subplot that consumes the movie. There’s a good amount of thrills and intellectual stimulation aboard, but it’s all concentrated in the first half of the movie. I can’t recommend one half of a movie. I’ll still eagerly anticipate Johnson’s next project, but Looper is a sci-fi thriller that unravels at an alarming rate, turning a possibly great movie into a mediocre one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Premium Rush (2012)

It looks like the silliest movie of the summer, and that includes a film where people travel through the center of the Earth as part of their daily commute. Premium Rush is going to have some inherent silliness given that it’s an action movie about bike messengers, plus there’s the whole title that seems like a time warp to the addled surfer-speak of the early 90s (radical, dude!). There’s just something silly about the world of bike messengers in a technologically advanced world. However, once the film gets started, silliness and all, I got completely caught up in it and went happily along for the ride.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle messenger in New York City. He lives on the speed and rush of the job, riding a bicycle with fixed gears and no brakes. He’s still trying to get in good graces with Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), a fellow bike messenger and his ex-girlfriend. At the end of his shift, Wilee gets one last mission. He’s to deliver a very important envelope by 7:00. That envelope happens to carry a receipt for a very lot of money, which is the equivalent of a bank notice in some criminal circumstances. Police detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) tracks down Wilee and insists that he hand over the package. Monday, you see, has some very deep gambling debts to some very angry people, and he needs that package. Wilee refuses, races off, and Monday gives chase, using his police connections to try and snag the plucky cyclist.

Your presumptions of how silly the realm of bicycle messengers are get dashed quickly when you realize how insanely dangerous this profession can be. These guys, and gals, are speeding through downtown New York City traffic, careening around vehicles, and flying through lights. We see a few high-speed accidents but I wouldn’t be surprised if nearby hospitals have an entire organ donation pile labeled “bike messengers.” Director/co-writer David Koepp (Ghost Town) does a great job of making the audience feel the adrenaline rush of all that speed. You will get swept up in the thrills and forget all about the silliness. For a man who hasn’t directed action before, though written plenty of it, Koepp has a natural feel for developing his action and showcasing the cyclist’s impressive skills. Simply put, this is one movie where the action really speeds along.

The high-speed navigation of New York City is entertaining in and of itself, but Koepp goes one further and places Wilee in a series of dangerous predicaments where he has to determine his next split-second route. He mentally plays out the different scenarios, most of them involving him getting creamed by a car. It’s a fun visual quirk and a great opportunity for physical humor as well since some of the potential outcomes are quite worrisome. Koepp gooses his story with plenty of visual flourishes that gives Premium Rush an added degree of fun. The narrative also jumps back and forth linearly, fleshing out characters and giving us a better sense of how the pieces of the plot all snap together. It’s flashy and fun and thrilling with some great practical stunt work, and that’s more than enough to make you forget any misgivings you may have had with the premise.

Tonally, the film has a nice tongue-in-cheek sense of humor; it’s not enough to be self-aware or veer into meta territory, but it’s a concerted lightness, a springy attitude that further elevates the fun quotient. No more is this sense of humor better realized than with the villainous Bobby Monday. He’s a corrupt cop but he’s also hilariously off, just like every Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) character it seems. He’s a horrible gambler, and even he knows it, but he still comes back to the math-heavy Asian games that he’s not suited for. This character’s entire crazed demeanor has a comic desperation to it, which does temper his predatory danger. But you’ll never know what he’ll say next, or what strange, over-the-top delivery will accompany the next bon mot. In one scene, he complains about the trashy nature of primetime TV, bemoaning that he heard, during the family hour, some kid say “suck it.” He also laments how prevalent the term “douchebag” has become as an insult. It’s these little oddball touches that reminded me of the excellent 2003 action movie The Rundown, specifically Christopher Walken’s whacked out bad guy. Now there’s nothing that approaches the absurd poetry of Walken’s tooth fairy speech, but Shannon and his offbeat rhythms add another level of enjoyment.

I salute Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rise in Hollywood circles, now among the ranks of spry action heroes. Gordon-Levitt has long been one of my favorite actors, delivering tremendous performances in films like Brick, Mysterious Skin, (500) Days of Summer, and of course last year’s cancer dramedy 50/50. He’s got a natural charisma to him that doesn’t seem manufactured, that isn’t overworked, and he delivers committed performance after committed performance. It’s easy to like this guy and be impressed with his performances. Now, Premium Rush isn’t going to going to shoot to the top of this guy’s resume, but he makes a credible action lead that’s easy to root for. He has an affable, devil-may-care attitude, and flashbacks to his early romance with Vanessa give a peak at how overwhelmingly charming the man can be when he turns it on. I will not admit whether I have a shrine devoted to Gordon-Levitt (or “Jo Go-Lev” as I prefer to call him).

My only major complain with the film is that it becomes a tad repetitious leading into its final act. All of this effort is spent on tracking down a ticket, so you are comfortable with it changing hands repeatedly. The good guys have it. The bad guy has it. And so on. I think the film would feel less repetitious if these changes in ownership didn’t happen so frequently. It feels like nobody can hang on to this thing for more than a few minutes.

For a summer awash in disappointment, it’s nice to come across a modest action movie that’s well-executed and just plain fun. Premium Rush delivers an end-of-summer blast of fun and some neat visual whimsy. Gordon-Levitt carries the film well and the great Michael Shannon punctuates the movie with such entertaining weirdness. I was laughing routinely, getting caught up in the rush of speed, and even coming to enjoy the various silly detours, like when an army of bicycle messengers is called out for action like some gang. This is not a movie to take too seriously, but much like Battleship, it’s a summer formula action movie that sticks to its guns and finds plenty of enjoyment. I never would have thought at the beginning of the summer that an action movie about bike messengers would be one of the most entertaining offerings, but there you have it. Koepp has crafted an enjoyable, thrilling, and just plain fun movie and a fine way to close out the summer.

Now back to my Jo Go-Lev shrine.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Let’s be honest, The Dark Knight Rises movie was never going to meet fan expectations after the high-water mark between superhero movie and crafty crime thriller that was the pop-art masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Whatever director/co-writer Christopher Nolan put together was fated not to match the pulpy big blockbuster alchemy that he worked so well in 2008. Minus Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic performance, a role that set the film on fire whenever he was onscreen, there is going to be a certain void to this capper to the trilogy. Now having seen the movie twice, including once in sphincter-rattling IMAX, I feel that I can truthfully state the most obvious: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the previous movies. While a fine finale for an ambitious series, this is definitely the weakest movie of the trilogy.

It’s been eight years since Gotham City last saw the likes of Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is an older man, hobbled by age, and living as a recluse in his mansion. His trusted friend and butler Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps encouraging Bruce to seek a life outside that of Batman. In those eight years, Gotham’s police have cracked down on organized crime thanks to the Dent Act, a law named after the late district attorney Harvey Dent (a fallen idol that only a handful know the real truth about). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is growing sick with the secret of Harvey Dent and looks to retire from the force. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is a businesswoman eager to restart Wayne’s clean energy project, and a woman interesting in getting Bruce back on his feet. There’s also Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, a master thief who gives Bruce a new challenge. But then along comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a master terrorist and figure of brute strength. His goal is to fulfill the League of Shadows’ plan and destroy Gotham City and expose its rampant corruption. He sidelines Batman and takes over the city, unleashing criminals and hordes of the downtrodden upon the wealthy. There is no escape from Bane’s plan, his wrath, but Bruce Wayne must rise to the occasion and be ready to sacrifice the last of himself for the people of Gotham.

Firstly, Bane is no Joker. The bad guy lacks the fiendish charisma of Ledger’s Joker and he’s not as well integrated thematically into the movie. The Joker was an anarchist that wanted to tear down the pretensions of society and watch people “eat each other.” And we watched a city come unglued. We explore the notion of escalation and what the blowback would be for a man fighting crime in a costume. With Dark Knight Rises, Bane wants to take up the mantle of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and wipe Gotham off the map. He’s got moments of being a master planner but really he’s just a big heavy. He’s the big tough guy that beats up old man Bruce Wayne, and Bane is continuously diminished in the film as it goes. A late revelation with the character completely diminishes his role and turns him into the equivalent of a mean junkyard dog. His big plan is simply to rile up the masses and wait for the inevitable. Hardy (Bronson) is a great actor prone to mesmerizing performances. This isn’t one of them. He’s super beefy but the facial mask, looking like some sea urchin, obscures half his face. It’s all physicality and eyes for his performance, along with very amped-up dialogue that you can tell was rerecorded after filming. Every time Bane speaks it’s like he has a speaker system installed in his face. And then there’s the matter of his sticky accent, which to me sounds like German mad scientist but to my friends sounded like drunken Sean Connery.

Bane keeps espousing about the corruption of Gotham but you really never get a strong sense of what that corruption has lead to. Catwoman talks about the Gotham elites living large while the rest of the city struggles; but rarely do you get a sense of this. So when Bane flips the tables, and the elite and wealthy are stripped of their decadence and put on trial by mobs, it feels improperly set up. Just because you have characters talk about wealth disparity and the city’s corrupting influence doesn’t mean it’s been established. Nolan’s Batman movies are a reflection of our modern-day anxieties in a post-9/11 world, so I wasn’t surprised to see a society rotting away from the sociopathic greed and wanton excess of the 1%. But rather than serve up a wealth disparity parable of class conflict, the movie simply turns to mob rule, a far less nuanced and interesting dissection of current events and fears. It’s like the French revolution took a trip to Gotham City (Gordon even quotes from A Tale of Two Cities). It’s a society built upon a central lie, the idol of Harvey Dent, but the movie fails to make the corruption felt. In the end, this is all pretty weak social allegory. And would it have killed Bane to be a little more brutal to stock exchange short-sellers?

Then there’s the typical Nolan origami plot with the myriad of subplots intersecting. This is the first time in the series where the plots felt poorly developed. Rewatch Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, as I recently did, and you’ll see there is not an ounce of fat in those movies, not one wasted scene or one wasted line. Sure they got secret super ninjas and Katie Holmes, but those movies were well built blockbusters. I could have done without Bane entirely and certainly would have loved more of Catwoman. Hathaway (Alice in Wonderland) is terrific in the antihero role and brings a very interesting dynamic relationship with Batman. She may be the only person who understands him. I wanted more Catwoman, the movie needed more Catwoman, but alas she is just a plot device to connect Wayne to Bane. She has a larger role in the concluding melee but essentially becomes Batman’s reluctant wingman. The whole theme of the 99% vs. the 1% could have been generously explored with this character, and her spark and charisma would certainly be enough to get Bruce Wayne out of bed again. Then there’s the regular cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doing the unheralded good deeds that so easily get overlooked. Here is an interesting character that, due to some leaps in logic, connects with Bruce Wayne on a unique level. He presents a counterbalance to all the souped-up superheroes, a recognizably regular human trying to do good. It’s then a shame that he gets entirely relegated during the third act so that the superheroes and their super toys can make some noise.

For a Batman movie there’s hardly any Batman in it. The caped crusader has been in retirement for eight years, so it takes some time before Bruce puts the suit back on. But then he’s also sidelined for a good third of the movie, stowed away in a far-off prison. The entire Indian prison sequence really could have been exorcised. It essentially becomes a Rocky training moment for Bruce Wayne to recover and a plot device to explain why there needs to be a time gap in the story. But this part of the movie just feels like it goes on forever, and we all know where it will go so we just keep waiting for the movie to get there. No one wants a Batman movie where Batman sits the middle out. The end feels relatively fitting but any fan of The Iron Giant will recognize some similar key elements.

And while I’m on the subject, let me do some estimates here. The timeline between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is about a year, as the Joker notes to a congregation of mobsters. I’ll be generous and say that the events of The Dark Knight last two months. We learn that Batman never appeared again after the death of Harvey Dent, and now we flash to eight years later with The Dark Knight Rises. So you’re telling me that we only really got a solid year of Batman being Batman? That over the course of nine years he was Batman for only one of them? That’s very little Batman-ing for a Batman franchise.

But even with these flaws in tow, The Dark Knight Rises is still an exciting, stimulating, and mostly satisfying close to a trilogy of unprecedented ambition and scope for a modern blockbuster. The action sequences in this movie are huge and exhilarating. I loved Bane turning Batman’s armada of weapons against him. The Bat fighter plane is a nice addition that gets plenty of solid screen time. The sheer scope of what Nolan produces is epic; from a plane being hijacked in mid-flight and torn apart, to a city being leveled by explosives, to a face-off between a bevy of armored Batmobiles and the Bat plane through the streets of Gotham, the movie does not disappoint when it comes to explosive, large-scale action set pieces. This is also the first Batman movie where the climax is the best part of the film. The last half hour is solid action but also a fitting sendoff for a beloved character. Some will grumble with certain hat-tipping moments at the end, but I found it entirely satisfying. It all comes back to the central thesis of Nolan’s Batman films about becoming something more than just a man, becoming a symbol, and that symbol is meant to inspire others. By the end, you feel that the inspiration has been earned as so has our conclusion.

I want to single out Caine (Harry Brown) who has very few scenes but absolutely kills them. He’s the emotional core of the movie, perhaps even the series, and has always been hoping that his charge, Bruce Wayne, would never return to Gotham. He’s the voice of reason in the movie, the man that reminds Bruce about the costs of a life spent seeking vengeance and sacrificing his body. I wish Caine was in the movie longer but his scenes are pivotal to the plot, as is his absence.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t rise to the level of artistic excellence of its predecessors, but it’s certainly a strong summer blockbuster that works as an agreeable finale to the premier franchise of the era. It’s not quite the knockout we were expecting from Nolan but it still delivers where it counts. I wish it had give a fuller, richer portrait of a city corrupt from the inside out, a society rotting away and ready for revolution, and plus I also wish we had plenty more Catwoman and plenty more shots of Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman cat suit (Michelle Pfeiffer still has nothing to fear), but these are the things of dreams. Nolan’s aim has always been to place Batman in a world that is recognizably our own, and with that comes the responsibility of bringing a stolid sense of realism with all the blockbuster pyrotechnics. This artistic ethos has given us some extraordinary movies, though some Batman purists would object that Nolan’s hyper-realism is not the Batman they grew up with. It’s hard to really get a sense of the accomplishments that Nolan and his team has been able to pull off over the course of three bladder-unfriendly movies and seven years. He’s taken the superhero movie and redefined it, brought it unparalleled psychological depth and philosophical analysis, and given a human quality to what normally gets dismissed as escapism. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as revelatory as its previous entry but it sticks the landing and puts to rest what is indisputably the greatest superhero trilogy of all time.

Now get ready for the reboot in three years.

Nate’s Grade: B

50/50 (2011)

50/50 is based upon the experience of screenwriter Will Reiser, a writer for HBO’s Da Ali G Show who contracted cancer before his 30th birthday. Reiser’s real-life travails with his buddy Seth Rogen (who serves as executive producer) through the good times and bad. I guess when you get cancer it helps to have an established movie star as your good friend. It also helps when you write a terrific script, which Reiser has accomplished. Originally titled I’m With Cancer, I guess the studio felt that a movie with “cancer” in the title was a hard sell to mass audiences (On a related note, Showtime’s comedy-drama The Big C, about Laura Linney finding the humor through cancer treatment, was previously titled The C Word. I don’t know about you, but when I heard “the c word” the first thing that comes to mind is not “cancer.”). Even with a more oblique title, 50/50 manages to walk between comedy and drama with flair. It’s probably the funniest movie you’ll ever see about cancer. Definitely funnier than My Sister’s Keeper.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a relatively healthy 27-year-old. He likes his job writing for a Seattle National Public Radio station. He likes his girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), an aspiring painter. He likes his best friend, Kyle (Rogen), a dude prone to speaking whatever is on his mind. Then one doctor’s visit changes everything. Adam has a very serious form of spinal cancer. He begins chemotherapy to try and stop the tumor’s growth. Rachel drives him to his hospital treatments, helps him during his long nights of nausea, but ultimately it proves too much to bear. She leaves him. Luckily, Adam has a young therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), helping him put his life in order. Adam’s chances of surviving this rare cancer are exactly as the title proclaims, 50/50. As he comes to grips with the measures needed to survive, Adam finds himself growing closer to his therapist in a completely unprofessional degree.

50/50 may be the least sentimental movie I can recall about the realities of living with cancer, and that is its greatest attribute. That doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t cover serious issues in a flippant manner. Instead of hitting cheap sentiment and milking cancer for easy tears, the movie, thanks to Reiser’s sharp script, forgoes false feelings and finds something more rare and true. There’s no real playbook for something as unexpected as a person in their 20s being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It seems like a cruel irony to be stricken with an illness so young. Adam doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t even drive due to the danger. He’s pretty mild-mannered and a bit of a pushover. Adam tries to not let cancer get to him, to shrug off the heavy implications, and to just make it seem like any other personal setback. If he doesn’t treat it like a big deal, maybe it won’t be and his friends and family can follow his lead. This kind of self-manufactured blasé attitude, even in the face of cancer, seems like an apt approach for a younger relaxed generation. Naturally, this denial-heavy approach doesn’t exactly work. It’s too easy to confuse numbness with acceptance. Fortunately, Reiser does not let his story slip into easy maudlin theatrics. We don’t need anybody reminding us, or Adam, how serious his situation is. On the other hand, we also don’t need anybody moralizing about any self-help slogans. Not everyone sees adversity as a blessing into Discovering Who You Truly Are. Reiser refrains from his characters making anything approximating Big Life Statements. Cancer does not lead to automatic personal epiphanies. If it did, we’d have a lot more people inhaling carcinogens and volunteering to work in the Chernobyl ruins.

50/50 doesn’t ignore the sometimes odd and dark humor that arises from life’s predicaments. That means this is the only cancer movie where the guys try and use the disease as a way to convince girls to sleep with them. At no point do I remember this occurring with Terms of Endearment or Beaches. And this opportunistic babe hunting doesn’t make the boys come across as sleazy. Adam can’t even enjoy the one-night-stand as his back pain robs him of the pleasure of his nubile well-wisher. The tone is very controlled. The raunchy comedy is not a distraction; at no point does any situation feel like a comedic setup. The comedy comes from the characters being genuine to who they even through the trying circumstances. If your friends are funny, chances are they’ll still be funny talking about cancer. The humor doesn’t make light of things nor does it just play everything for laughs. Humor is how we humanize, how we make the insurmountable digestible.

50/50 also treats its characters with a bittersweet sense of reality; these people are flawed and relatable. They are not instantly made into self-actualized saints thanks to cancer. Adam’s girlfriend actually breaks down because she cannot handle the extra responsibilities and emotional wear and tear. Their relationship fizzles. This seems far more realistic considering many people will feel like they did not sign-up for sleepless nights, 24-hour care, and watching their loved one waste away. It’s a strong individual that can endure that kind of collateral pain, but the movies make it seem like every romantic partner is unnaturally selfless. They become ideal partners, but really most of us would just bail. Reiser easily could have easily written his ex-girlfriend as an insensitive shrew. While she does cheat on the guy, thus making her easy to dispel, Howard makes her vulnerability relatable. She even comes back trying to make amends, forcing kisses upon him to weaken Adam’s resolve. Kyle relishes the opportunity to finally be able to tell off Rachael, a girl he admits to disliking from the start. I don’t get the instant hate, but maybe it’s my complete adoration for Howard even when she’s playing a bad girl that blinds me to her offenses. To dismiss her as a “bitch” seems unfair. How would you react if your boyfriend/girlfriend were suddenly diagnosed with cancer? Could you last?

I found all of the characters to be empathetic and relatable (though a lead who waxes about the glory days of radio and works for NPR seems a bit hipsterish), especially in their personal struggles surrounding Adam’s illness. Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), can be overbearing and would have easily been kept as a caricature in other movies. In 50/50, the film examines her own struggle – a husband with Alzheimer’s who can’t talk to her and a son with cancer who chooses not to talk to her. The isolation she feels, the loneliness, always putting other people’s needs ahead of her own, this is culmination of the caregiver, a role as I’ve stated that too often gets canonized. In 50/50, the reality of living with illness is dealt with in a meaningful manner. The people surrounding you are also affected by your illness. You cannot shut them out to spare them from pain. Adam realizes this too as the film progresses to its moving conclusion.

The heart of 50/50 concerns two sets of relationships. The one that will catch the most attention is Adam’s budding romantic relationship with his therapist. Their romance feels like it emerges naturally, albeit in a slightly hurried up pace for our small timetable. It’s a romance built upon the chemistry of the two actors, the strength of their individual performances, and the fact that Reiser forgoes anything obviously romantic. He cleans out her car. She gives him a ride home. It’s little things that seem like they matter on a personal level, not the outsized theatrics of romantic gestures. The movements are small but they add up, and we can feel it too. So when Adam, at his lowest point, calls her and says, filter down and radiating in emotion, “I bet you’d be a good girlfriend,” it’s a moment that feels earned. I also greatly appreciated Katherine’s own insecurity about being a therapist. Too often movies depict therapists as omniscient beings that have a fortune cookie answer for all of life’s mysteries. Kendrick hides behind evaporating smiles as her character’s defense mechanism. In 50/50, we get to see a character that is honest about her insecurities about a job that advises others. It’s refreshing. The other main relationship is between Adam and his best friend, Kyle. His best buddy is his spark, the guy who gets him out, who shakes him from moping around. He cares but goes through unorthodox methods to show that care, including trash talking and ball busting. He remains likable to his shaggy core because he has Adam’s best interests in mind, even if that means scoring with girls.

Director Jonathon Levine (The Wackness) gives the movie an improbably beautiful look. This is one cancer comedy that is simply pleasing to watch for the cinematography alone. He doesn’t overpower the narrative with self-aware visual touches, though there is one that stands out. When Adam receives the news from his doctor, the audio becomes distorted after the shocking word “cancer” is uttered. The picture becomes blurred. The world seems to have been swept away. I imagine this sonic body blow is pretty much how Reiser recalls receiving the news, and if not it still feels authentic. The score by Michael Giacchino (Up, Super 8) is subtle and doesn’t intrude too often, ably assisting the drama instead of smothering it.

50/50 is an unsentimental film that manages to be moving and genuinely entertaining on its own terms. It can be rude but that doesn’t mean it lacks sincerity. The characters and their dilemmas feel all too relatable, even the ones we hope don’t become us. The 50/50 production has followed a subdued edict, forgoing sappy melodrama and easy pathos. These emotions are earned the old fashioned way, through characters we care about and drama that feels truthful. The mixture of the course and sweet gives the film a decidedly Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) flavor even though his name is nowhere to be seen. Gordon-Levitt, who at this point can do no wrong in my eyes, gives one of the best performances of his already accomplished career. The comedy, lead by Rogen’s obnoxious best friend, keeps the movie from being bogged down in melodrama. It’s the only way to stay sane, and 50/50 recognizes this and delivers a film that earns its tears and laughs.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Inception (2010)

Without a doubt, no movie has piqued curiosity like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. After breaking all sorts of box-office records with The Dark Knight, Nolan earned some capital. He wanted to make an expensive, intellectually demanding, high-concept movie that takes place mostly in the realm of dreams. The studio said yes, anything to keep their golden goose happy before a third Batman can roll out. Nolan has been tinkering with the script for Inception for almost ten years, trying to scale it down but never being content. This is a story that called for the biggest stage, which required a heavy price tag, and could only be fulfilled once Nolan was an established hit-maker. Early images of shifting gravity and folding cityscapes got people buzzing but then the concern was whether Inception would be too smart for audiences to embrace. You know, the same public that made two Alvin and the Chipmunks films blockbusters. Two weeks running, Inception has made a sizeable portion of money and become the “must-see” movie of the summer. Score one for the public.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor. He can sneak into your dreams and discover whatever secret you’re hiding from your self, your wife, even your shrink. All for a tidy sum, of course. He’s on the run from U.S. authorities because they believe he killed his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A rich businessman, Seito (Ken Watanabe), promises to clear away the pending charges if Cobb can perform one important job. Instead of stealing an idea, Cobb will have to plant an idea, known as inception. A young upstart (Cillian Murphy) will inherit his dying father?s empire, and Seito wants the guy to break up that empire and sell it off. Cobb enlists the help of a skilled team to pull off what is believed to be impossible; Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the point man, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as the architect of the dream world, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can convince the mark he?s other identities, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist that creates a compound to put the team under a deep sleep. They’ll need it because Cobb plans to go three levels deep, a dream within a dream within a dream in order for inception to take root. The only way out is a “kick,” the sensation of falling that will awaken the dreamer. The team is under great risk not just from the dream world, but also from Cobb. He?s been secretly keeping memories of his dead wife alive and she keeps intruding into shared dreaming, causing havoc, relying on the same info that Cobb knows. The deeper they go into the dream the deeper they also go into Cobb’s memories.

Inception can be many things to many people, as is the nature of dreams. I found the movie to be a master class mousetrap. Watching Nolan and his origami-like script fold and bend and connect is a true pleasure. However, the movie is not a great character piece. Cobb is the only person on the entire team allowed any sort of back-story or inner lives or even personality traits. What do we know about Arthur, Ariadne, Eames? Nothing. They are all members of the team, but it is Cobb who is the only one allowed to have supporting details. Despite Cobb’s tragic past with his wife, emotionally the movie can best be described as a bit distant (not cold, distant). Nor does Inception deal with the psychology of dreams or the interpretation of the subconscious and its links to our own reality; this movie does not have Freudian psychoanalysis in mind. What Inception does deliver is a brilliantly staged heist that takes place in the realm of dreams, and if that doesn’t sound like a fun concept then I don?t know what does. To get to that heist, the audience must slosh through about 90 minutes of solid set-up and exposition (Pages character is essentially an exposition device). There are a lot of rules to digest in order for the final hour to have the impact that it does. If you nod off for a portion of that time, like my father, you will be lost as to why anything is exactly happening. Having seen the film a second time, I can say that once the hyperactive “Oh my gosh, this is awesome!” haze of newness wears off you do realize that the pre-heist portion of the movie can be a bit slow. I think that for future DVD-viewings I will skip to the start of the heist and sit back and relax (much like skipping the first hour of King Kong).

After talking about what Inception is not, let’s focus on what Inception is. It is a massively entertaining, brain-tickling thriller with eye-popping visuals that verge toward the iconic. Nolan isn’t the greatest orchestrator of action (a foot chase in Mombassa is pretty lackluster short of a narrow alleyway) but the man knows how to put together tremendously memorable set pieces. From Paris folding upon itself to a fistfight in a revolving hallway, Inception is packed with stimuli to ignite the senses. It’s the first movie in years that I walked out and thought, “How did they do that?” It renewed my sense of mystery and wonder with the movies. And the last hour is ridiculously fraught with tension as the movie descends level after level of subconscious, juggling four separate action set pieces with mounting climaxes. The revolving hallway fight is perhaps my favorite action scene in years. I still got goose bumps the second time. Gordon-Levitt hops from ceiling to floor like he’s Spiderman, or Gene Kelly, all while the camera remains fixed. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of zero gravity experience in this movie. He might have qualified for a free ride on the space shuttle.

Like the alternate reality of The Matrix, people can manipulate the world of dreams, which allows for some imaginative visuals. Aside from the dreams-within-dreams impacting one another, there aren’t really playful distortions of reality. There?s a few M. C. Escher-inspired staircases but nothing too out of bounds. Nolan devises a reason for this since the dreamers do not want to call attention to altering the dream. They want to hide among the subconscious projections; get in and get out without being noticed. You do wish that Nolan played to the potential of his flexible reality, but on the other hand, it’s still fairly mind-bending to reach inside a magician?s hat into another magician?s hat and so on. I wonder if there was another story that could have succeeded in this setting, namely competing thieves that have to race against time within the world of dreams. Think about it next time, Nolan. That one?s on me.

But the most exciting aspect of the movie is how intellectually stimulating it is. The movie is jam-packed with ideas like Nolan’s other works, so much that it’s hard to fully process everything the film offers in one sitting. The pieces do fit together and the movie follows its own internal logic, so if you didn’t skip out on any bathroom breaks, you should be able to follow along reasonably. On first viewing, Inception is bristling with intelligence and narrative complexity, and it rarely stops to pander to an audience. It expects you to keep up for the rewards that will follow, and they are indeed rewarding. The movie isn’t as complicated to follow but it can definitely get complicated when you try and explain action beyond a literal level. Nolan laces all sorts of narrative stops and peculiarities that can be targeted for an alternative thesis statement on the ending. The very ending shot is ambiguous perfection. It keeps the mystery of what constitutes reality while providing an out for people that want to formulate a happy ending. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and analysis but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Hollywood is pretty risk averse when it comes to anything that makes people think, let along anything expensive that requires active synapses. Nolan has long been a filmmaker of intellectual heft and non-linear narratives. His narratives are complex puzzles that snap together with airtight precision. The joy of a Nolan film is surrendering yourself to his narrative origami and waiting to see the Big Picture. There are new insights to discover with every viewing. Nolan may not be the second-coming of God, as those frothing at the mouth on Internet message boards proclaim, but I can think of no other director working today who harnesses Big Ideas on such a big stage.

Inception is a $160-million dollar studio film with substance, but it also looks like money well spent. The film looks amazing. The cinematography by Wall Pfister (Dark Knight) is gorgeous without being self-consciously arty, pleasing the senses without drawing too much attention away from the story. But with a screenplay that makes all kinds of leaps, you need the help of a good editor to guide the proceedings. Lee Smith (Truman Show, Master and Commander) is that man. While the repeated cutbacks to the van falling in slow motion can be giggle-inducing, Smith gamely holds everything together thanks to his skill in juggling all the parallel storylines/dreamscapes. Finally, the score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator) is full of ominous, blaring horns that send shivers and get your blood pumping. Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) even added an assist by strumming the guitar licks on the score. Apparently Zimmer’s key score themes are actually the tune “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the Edith Piaf signature song used to signal “kicks,” played at a slowed speed. At the risk of sounding like one of those frothing from the mouth on the Internet, that’s insanely cool.

The acting is uniformly good with a few bumps. DiCaprio (Shutter Island) might need to do something light after continuous roles where he inhabits mean weighed down by guilt and dead wives (three in a row for those counting). He’s a good emotional anchor. Watching the star of 500 Days of Summer and Brick as a suave, cool-as-can-be action star is improbably awesome. Hardy (Bronson) is a scene-stealer mostly because he?s the only member of the team that has a sense of humor. Cotillard (Nine, Public Enemies) who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in 2007’s La vie en Rose, gets her best part since then. She gets to do many things as Mal, a projection of a character. This means that she must be limited in how she fills out the character because she is defined by Cobb’s fading memory. Yet she can be malicious, playful, spiteful, loving, vulnerable, and more. Cotillard and her big, glassy eyes do a great service in selling a romance we only see after the fact. Page (Juno) just feels out of place. She seems like the kid among a group of adults. And while the elfin actress will always look youthful until she applies for an AARP card, Page just seems in over her head. Her performance is fine if a bit mealy-mouthed but she still feels miscast.

Inception. Expect it to become a fanboy religion in a matter of weeks. It wears its influences on its sleeve, from The Matrix to Abre Los Ojos (or the American remake, Vanilla Sky). Thrilling, stimulating on different levels, and supremely engrossing, Inception is just about everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, except when it can also feel mechanical, distant, and free of emotion and character development save DiCaprio (perhaps this is further evidence that it was all a dream?). Regardless, Inception is easily the brainiest movie of the year, and usually those don?t get packaged as big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Just make sure to bring your totem the second time you watch the movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

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It doesn’t take long before you realize that (500) Days of Summer is a different kind of romantic comedy. In fact, to slap that genre title onto it does a disservice. I’ve watched plenty of romantic comedies (a notable rise in viewership since getting married in 2006), and the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy exists in a world not our own. It is a sitcom world where people blurt out their feelings, interact in bizarre manners, and get into wacky hijinks and contrived misunderstandings. These tales also exist in “movie world”; (500) Days of Summer, on the other hand, is refreshingly recognizable. Granted the characters still have fantastic if slightly off kilter jobs (writer of greeting cards), and the characters live in fabulous and gigantic apartments. Excusing those contextual quirks, the movie is upfront about its intention. “This is a story of boy meets girl,” a narrator intones, “but it is not a love story.”

Tom (Joeseph Gordon-Levitt) recounts the 500 days he has spent with his ex-girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the girl he aches over because he feels her to be his “one.”

This is a movie about love and relationships but it has such a wider scope. It’s perceptive and insightful in the way that human beings engage in coupling. Tom ping-pongs between memories, tying together happy moments and the failed recapturing of those exact happy moments later. I enjoyed how reflexive the film can be with romance. When Tom is infatuated with Summer he lists her attributes: “I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love how she licks her lips before she talks. I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck.” And then when he is frustrated with Summer, he lists her faults: “I hate her crooked teeth. I hate the way she smacks her lips. I hate her knobby knees. I hate that cockroach shape splotch on her neck.” I appreciate a movie that tries to tackle the complexities of love in a manner that doesn’t seem trite or sensational. A movie doesn’t have to say anything new about romance (is it even possible to scoop the Romantic poets?), but it can still say something true and revealing. It is a story about love, but not a love story.

It also helps that the characters are meaty and are played by capable actors. Tom is a smart enough guy, though a bit of a foolish romantic. He buys into the love that is talked about in pop songs and greeting cards; he’s not naïve per se but plenty vulnerable enough to get his heart broken in the real world. Summer is an independent woman who says at the start that she is not looking for a boyfriend. She doesn’t wish to be constrained by a relationship and wants to enjoy the carefree days of youth. Yet Tom persists thinking he can wear her down or win her over, waiting for Summer to cave and find solace in Tom’s embrace. He fancies Summer as the “girl of his dreams,” though everyone else isn’t so sure. His little sister argues, “Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” One of Tom’s friends has a really nice monologue describing his “perfect girl,” and these descriptions noticeably differ from that of his long-term high school sweetheart. But then he stops, reflects, and says that’s what his “perfect girl” would be like, but his current girlfriend, well, she’s better than his imaginary version of a perfect girl. This sentiment really hit home for me personally, perhaps because I had my wife seated by my side. But Summer isn’t a fantasy of romantic perfection, she’s a person. She has her own desires, her own insecurities, her own ambitions, and her own life to lead. These two feel like actual human beings and not stock players, though (500) Days of Summer does carry its own share of stock parts like the square boss (Clark Gregg) and the goofy, horny friend (Geoffrey Arend).

The saying “the camera loves” somebody seems outdated, old fashioned, and liberally applied. But when it comes to actress Zooey Deschanel, well, the camera just loves her. It’s hard not to fall in love with this blue-eyed beauty. She’s adorable, but not in an overly quirky way, and she’s smart, but still approachable, and altogether lovely. She is the face of unrequited love. She can be cold and aloof and jubilant. Deschanel plays the complications and complexities of an enigmatic woman who refuses to abide by labels. Her last conversation with Tom manages to be both crushing and inspirational. Her chemistry with Gordon-Levitt feels entirely naturalistic and pleasant. Gordon-Levitt has been cranking out strong performances in indie films like Brick, Mysterious Skin, and The Lookout. He’s quite possibly becoming one of the premier young actors working today. He has an everyman capability but he also can turn on the charm in a way that doesn’t seem forced, like Shia LaBeouf. Gordon-Levitt is the anchor of this movie and we see the world and Summer through his eyes. He brings great vulnerability to his role and we feel each step of his emotional journey. Both actors deliver terrific performances that don’t stoop to playing by the conventions of the romantic comedy.

photo_07_hires(7)The nonlinear story structure seems like a gimmick until you realize that the writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, have cleverly freed themselves from the contrivances of movie romance time. MRT, for those who prefer their nomenclature in the shorthand, is that unbelievable breadth of time where the characters fall head over in heels in love with each other. It always feels so fast and far too fleeting, so that when complications have to arise late in the second act they too feel rushed. You could apply a healthy dose of montages to signify massive time passages, but those get old unless you’re Sylvester Stallone training to fight another boxing match. (500) Days of Summer tells you right away that this story takes place over a year and a half, and Day One isn’t when boy got girl but when boy met girl. By skipping around to specific dates, Neustadter and Weber are hitting only the highpoints, the memorable moments, and leaving out the unforeseen groundwork. All those mundane yet essential moments of pulling together a successful relationship are there, they are just now implicit. They are implied in the time jumps. The relationship between Tom and Summer, therefore, exists in an expanse of time that feels believable. The nonlinear structure also belies the way our memories work. Human beings don’t remember everything in a straight line, especially in matters of the heart.

There’s a lot of drama to be mined here with the breakup territory, but the movie is also playful and funny. Director Marc Webb, he of the video music world, pokes fun at other filmic expressions of love. At one point, Tom struts down the street and becomes the center of a lively choreographed dance sequence complete with animated blue birds. At another point, during Tom’s heartbreak, the movie descends through Bergman and Fellini visual tropes. It simultaneously communicates Tom’s emotional highs and lows and satirizes the histrionic nature of his feelings. Truly, when one’s in love you couldn’t feel better, or worse, but upon retrospect you can see how silly such in-the-heat-of-the-moment proclamations can be. There’s also a scene later in the film where Tom attends a party that Summer invited him to. The screen cuts in half, and on one side we see Tom’s expectations of what will happen that night and on the other side we see what actually occurs. The visual symmetry is interesting and a great glimpse inside the mind of a hopeful romantic.

(500) Days of Summer manages to be breezy, moving, delightful, perceptive, charming, and just a great time at the movies. It’s a story about falling in love for the right reasons with the wrong girl. Summer isn’t the villain of the piece but her own woman, and she can be fickle and frustrating but she is not cruel or indifferent. Tom is desperately in search for his “one true love” but he’s playing by a checklist he’s drawn up from movies, TV, and love songs. All of this could have been sticky and formulaic (in fact, the dynamic vaguely resembles the characters from the abysmal Ugly Truth), but the filmmakers and the talented actors make the movie feel honest and relatable. The nonlinear narrative allows the movie to simultaneously be more playful, believable, and actually easier to understand, linking selective memories. I left the theater feeling so buoyant and happy, perhaps again because I was walking out hand-in-hand with my own “one.” But no matter your current romantic situation, (500) Days of Summer is a slick antidote to Hollywood’s rom-com factory line.

Nate’s Grade: A

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009)

While plenty stupid, the big-budget G.I. Joe movie is actually passably entertaining. Sure the characters are one-note, the motivations and romances are strained, the acting is abysmal, Dennis Quaid looks to be in particular pain, the plot has too many unneeded flashbacks, the special effects are cheesy, and the movie is crammed with deliberate toy merchandizing connections, but I had fun with this flick. Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) works the right kind of stupid, the loud noisy kind that manages to tickle a childlike sense of glee like watching an eight-year-old’s imagination blown up on screen. The scale of weapons and special vehicles and special suits and special ladies in special leather outfits for engaging in criminal activity should delight younger film goers. The action is frenetic (if there is a pane of glass within 100 miles, the movie assures that you will see it shatter) and the international collateral damage is colossal, so much so that G.I. Joe almost comes across as a goofy, straight-laced version of Team America. Certainly the benefactor of rock-bottom expectations, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra is a brash blast of acceptable action movie stupidity. Grab a big bag of popcorn, shut off your brain, and enjoy the film’s cartoonish yet entertaining qualities.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Brick (2006)

I appreciate movies that try something different. That isn’t to say I love all movies that try, like Gus van Sant’s latest collection of watch-grass-grow cinema. More often than not I appreciate stabs at originality even if it results in colossal failure. That’s why I can never beat too much on M. Night Shyamalan. When Brick came out last spring it had my attention immediately. Writer/director Rian Johnson placed a hard-boiled detective story in the contemporary setting of a high school. And true to my promise on my podcasts, I bought it the day it came out on DVD. For fans of crime fiction and excitingly bold cinema, rent this movie.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a kid that knows the ins and outs of the high school scene. He’s currently looking into what happened to Emily (Emile de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend who was last seen trying to fit in with the popular types. She was in some form of danger and contacted Brendan for help. With the help of The Brain (Matt O’Leary), an old friend, Brendan must negotiate a web of unsavory characters, each with their own game. There’s Dode (Noah Fleiss), a burnout who was last seen crushing on Emily. There’s Laura (Nora Zehetner), a rich girl accustomed to hanging out with bad boys. It all leads to The Pin (Lukas Haas), the man controlling the area’s drug supply and who, we’re told, is “way old, like 26.” The Pin’s been volatile ever since a brick of heroin went missing. If Brendan’s head isn’t spinning piecing together all the clues, surely the audience’s will be.

Brick is a film that refuses to simply be an afternoon afterthought. This is a movie that demands you sit on edge, poised to decode its complicated detective jargon and twisty storyline. It takes a while to first get into the movie because of its stylized dialogue and how straight everyone plays it. Johnson has recycled the same hard-boiled talk you’d expect coming from the mouths of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I heard that some theaters actually gave a glossary of terms and verbal exchanges for people who went to see Brick. Whether that’s true or not, your brain is working overtime to decipher what is being said, and I love that. I love that Brick doesn’t take time out to explain its terminology but expects you to keep up as best you can. I don?t want to scare readers off, because even if you don’t know any noir vernacular you’ll be able to know what’s going on, but it’s just cooler to be in on the fun. The snappy dialogue is only one part of Johnson’s extremely intelligent, very meaty script.

Brick relies on a gimmick, yes, but what an inventive and clever gimmick. There’s just an extra level of fun for film noir fans, spotting the same archetypes (mysterious damsel in over her head, femme fatales, goons, underworld boss) and locations (gin joints become house parties, detective offices become teen bedrooms). Brendan even gets chewed out by his superior who wants results… his assistant vice principal (Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree). There’s such a common language of film noir and its staples, and part of Brick‘s enjoyment is placing all of them. I’m fully aware that Brick will exist more as an artifact in a film class than as a film casual moviegoers will actively watch. The plot is blissfully twisty with many intriguing players, and once it’s all laid out it actually holds together. Brick is rewarding for those willing to stay attentive.

The movie succeeds because of how committed everyone is. The gimmick seems doomed to fail but the movie has creativity in spades. Of course it’s all highly unrealistic but it all works splendidly within the world it creates. Because the filmmakers play it all straight, you never look at the movie from an outside perspective. You’ll never laugh at it unless you’re giggling about how much fun it is. Unlike other recent brainteasers like Syriana, you do have an emotional connection to the movie and you do care about the characters and are interested to see where the story goes (and it’s not nearly as confounding as Syriana). I love that Brendan outsmarts everyone and sometimes he does it by taking a pounding. I love that he takes so many beatings that he actually gets sick from swallowing so much blood. It’s the attention to details like that where Brick shows its commitment to the world it has created. Brick is reveling instead of deconstructing the detective genre, like the audaciously cheeky Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

There are some humorous winks that remind you of Brick‘s gimmick, which is surprisingly easy to forget. The Pin’s mother serves juice to her son’s “friends;” The Pin walks along a beach discussing the details of his operations and then drops a peculiar non-sequitur, asking Brendan if he’s ever read J.R.R. Tolkien (“His descriptions of things is really good. He makes you want to be there.”) That moment has haunted me still months after I viewed Brick in a theater. The Pin is a scary bad guy but it’s that line that makes me go back and say, “Yeah, but they’re just kids.”

Johnson masterfully handles his actors. Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most versatile young actors. He’s the moral anchor of the movie and Levitt carries the film on his back. He’s great handling the dialogue but even better making Brendan seem human in a highly stylized tale. Zehetner leaves quite an impression as a smoky seductress who may be the biggest player in the film. Haas plays his villain role to eerie perfection.

Brick is an exciting, disarming, demanding, vibrantly different movie that is stone cold cool. This is not the easiest movie to get into, but once you open up to its freshly retro wavelength then Brick is one greatly rewarding movie. Johnson has built a movie around a gimmick but it all holds together so well thanks to his total commitment. The dialogue is heavy in noir slang and the story is crammed with twists and surprises. I loved this movie from the first frame to the last. Johnson has found a refreshingly original movie by going back in time. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

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