Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Forgive me the indulgence but please hear me out on this peculiar observation. In 2005, Brad Pitt stars in a movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston ended shortly thereafter. Flash forward over ten years and Pitt is starring in another movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Angelina Jolie is now coming to a reported end. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances in something so personal as relationships, but if I was Pitt’s agent, I think I might advise against all future projects that even come too close to this cursed storyline. Allied wasn’t worth it, pal.
In 1942, Max (Pitt) and Marianne (Marion Cotillard) are husband and wife and also spies for the British government. They’re enjoying life back home with their infant daughter Anna when Max gets some startling news. His superior officers are investigating whether Marianne is secretly a German spy. He is to learn for himself what is real and if she is indeed a spy Max is ordered to kill her or he himself will be executed for treason.
Allied already starts dangerously when the majority of its opening act is set during WWII Casablanca, setting up an unwinnable comparison. We’re meant to watch these two secret agents go about their clandestine operation and fall in love. One of those things happens. Oh sure, for the purposes of the plot, Max and Marianne fall in love, but no member of the audience is going to believe what they see. Pitt and Cotillard have anemic chemistry together and their characters are too stilted to draw us in (rumors of an onset romance between the stars seem unfounded by the results on screen). They achieve their first act mission, get their kill, but they don’t really encounter complications. It all proceeds just a little too easily and we fail to get a sense of their capabilities as spies. They practice the cover of husband and wife but only in superficial appearances that come across more like Marianne chiding Max (“A real husband would offer his wife a cigarette first”). I recognize that these people are spies and thrown into danger but we need to invest in them as characters if the rest of the movie is supposed to matter, let alone their relationship together. There are no supporting characters of importance. Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) pops up as Max’s lesbian sister and you’d swear she’d have some significance, but nope. When Max is investigating Marianne, it never feels like the pieces are coming together. Rather it feels like we’re just getting new pieces, some lucky and some less so. The plotting feels too disjointed and arbitrary. Screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) is one of the best working in the industry, especially when it comes to crime thrillers and naturally drawing out tension. I expected more from him with Allied, but then that will be a trend with several aspects of this mediocre movie.
Here’s the problem with this premise: it’s too limiting. Either Marianne is a spy or she isn’t, and if she isn’t that makes for boring drama. You’re stuck so more and more obstacles have to be put in place to merely delay the inevitable reveal because that’s all the movie had. A solution could have been an Act Two break that revealed Pitt’s character to be the real spy, allowing the audience to reflect back on his action with a new lens of understanding. The crux of Act Three would then be Max’s moral dilemma of whether he turns himself or whether he frames his wife and in doing so erases evidence against himself. It would be a far more challenging and ethically murky scenario than a rather rote finale where the characters follow their predestined paths. I also think summary execution of a spy is a waste considering the value of covert information or even posing as a triple agent. I think the entire story should be told from a different perspective (okay, now spoilers). Little Anna is far too young to know what happened to her mother and I imagine there will need to be a cover story even for the official cover story. My pitch would be tell this story in the mid 1960s when Anna is now in her early twenties and discovering the larger world. She starts to come across testimony or nagging pieces of evidence that contradict her father’s story of what happened to Marianne, and her death now seems very mysterious. As she uncovers the old evidence she learns that her own parents were spies, a truth that had been kept from her, and all the evidence points to dad being the killer. The Act Three confrontation between harried father and daughter would then reveal the actual truth and that Marianne took her own life out of guilt and a desire to spare her husband punishment from his remorseless superiors. The lie was meant to comfort but now it discombobulates a family and a woman’s understanding of her parents and her relationship to them (end spoilers). Doesn’t that sound like a better version of Allied, dear reader? I certainly think so.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Flight, The Walk) is such a skilled craftsmen but this movie just gets away from him. You sense his urge to insert effects sequences into what should be an ordinary period thriller, and so we get distracting sequences that either rip you from the reality of the movie or might make you titter unintentionally. Max and Marianne’s coupling scene involves having sex in the front seat of their stranded car in the middle of a sandstorm. It would have been far more effective and possibly erotic if the camera had merely stayed in that confined space and let the building passion bubble over, all while the light becomes more and more faint from the sand storm, adding all sorts of sensual lighting opportunities with obfuscation and shadows. Instead, Zemeckis has a rotating camera shot that goes on for about a minute steady without cuts and zooms in and out of the car, inside and outside the dusty sand storm. It stops any sensuality from building. Another example if that Anna is born during the Blitz, and yet again instead of being in a small space and leaving more up to the imagination, Zemeckis and his special effects team have to recreate the air assault which increases the melodrama in a bad direction. Zemeckis has never really done a straight thriller and I can feel his flagging interest as he searches for special effects sequences to hold onto as some sort of anchor. I don’t think his skillset was the right balance for this story and the execution it needed to prosper.
It really doesn’t feel like Pitt (The Big Short) wants to be in this movie at all. Rarely have I seen this lethargic a performance from usually one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Part of it is the withdrawn and conspicuous nature of his spy character but it’s more than that. I don’t know if he feels like he understands his character or is that committed to the script, and so it feels like he’s just coasting and waiting for the end. It reminded me of the disastrous Oscar hosting duties from a sleepy James Franco and an overcompensating Anne Hathaway. Cotilard’s character is the gregarious and charming one, and so it feels like she has to do all the heavy lifting to compensate for the dearth of Pitt’s performance. Cotillard can be a brilliant actress with powerful instincts down to her very marrow, as last evidenced in 2014’s devastating and humane drama of personal desperation and dignity, Two Days, One Night. She has to play the more active role, first as the charmer and then as the mystery. She works much better as the charmer. I don’t think either actor knew fully who their characters were and stumbled forward.
Allied is a strange movie where the director, the star, and the screenwriter each didn’t seem to know what movie they wanted to make. Each major participant, short of a game Cotillard, doesn’t even seem like they want to be here, as if this was a school assignment that they’re doing the minimal amount of work to fulfill a requirement. Allied just feels like one of those big studio misfires where nobody was on the same page. The story lacks characters to connect with and complications that feel connected to them and their circumstances. The plot follows the path of least resistance and arrives at its predetermined destination right on time, to the monotony of its audience. Pitt’s somnambulist acting makes the movie and his lead character harder to enjoy. There’s a definite lack of intrigue with this premise and its ultimate execution. I expect better from Zemeckis, Pitt, and Knight, and I’m sure they’ll deliver with their next projects. In the meantime, skip Allied since it certainly feels like the cast and crew weren’t in alliance.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s a mighty task to boil the Bard’s classics down to a tight yet meaningful running time and maintain a degree of cinematic quality. You don’t just want to film a stage play with the mighty parameters of film, and yet giving in to the visual majesty means less time for Shakespeare’s stirring words and complex characterization. Woe unto thee who attempt an adaptation. It requires more skill than thou would believe. I had hopes for the latest version of Macbeth from its top-shelf cast, Michael Fassbender as the titular ambitious murderer-turned king and Marion Cotillard as his wife and co-conspirator. It didn’t take long for my hopes to be dashed. First, the good: the rolling hills of Scotland are lushly photographed, and the concluding battle is set amid a roaring hellish fire and flying embers that makes for a stunning backdrop. The actors are fairly fine. If you couldn’t tell from this faint praise, there’s not much to credit as an achievement with this Macbeth. It’s strangely narcotized and often listless. It doesn’t help that the actors speak 80% of their dialogue in whispers or mumbles, even when they discover the former king has been murdered. Director Justin Kurzel (the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, also with Fassbender) falls back on monotony, whether it’s an overabundance of mist, similar and low-rent locations, and a plodding score that feels like scorpions are in your mind. Some of the changes are also for the worse, especially making Lady Macbeth more “sympathetic” and neutering one of Shakespeare’s great characters. She no longer sleepwalks and instead confesses her unshakable guilt to a cross. Also Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of his dead son with the witches. And there’s some brief inclusion of awkward sex amidst monologues. The final showdown comes at the 90-minute mark and the entire proceedings feel rushed and yet miraculously boring. Even the bloody violence is pretty tame considering its R-rating. If you’re looking for a truly cinematic Macbeth that enlivens Shakespeare, check out the Masterpiece Theater version with Patrick Stewart adapted into a 1930s Stalinist era. Now that was brilliant. Kurzel’s version of the “Scottish play” is one that only signifies disappointment.
Nate’s Grade: C
A lot has changed in the nine years since the raucous, instantly quotable, and deeply silly hit comedy, Anchorman. Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd have all become big stars (sorry Dave Koechner), producer Judd Apatow has become a comedy empire unto himself, and director Adam McKay has gone on to helm several other hit Ferrell collaborations. As much as I loved Anchorman, and I unabashedly do, I was nervous about a sequel capturing the same magic. While Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues cannot be as good as its predecessor; my worries were mainly unfounded because this is still the funniest movie of the year. Simply put, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find enough to enjoy, possibly even love, with this latest chapter. The laughs-to-minute ratio is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind some scenic detours. The plot is much looser this time with several competing storylines that come in and out of focus. There are segments that could have been cut completely, like Ron’s bout with blindness, but I laughed enough that I never minded. But that ending 15 minutes is where the filmmakers drop any pretension of reality and double down on absurdity. It’s no surprise that those last crazy 15 minutes were my favorite. The cast is universally strong together, working off one another’s comedic styles so effortlessly, but the plot is very much a kitchen sink approach. I’m happy that Ferrell and McKay, co-writers again (though it’s hard to credit a collaborative improv), didn’t feel the need to recycle many jokes from the first film, reliving their old hits for fans hungry for instant nostalgia. Anchorman 2 is the same brilliantly broad comedy and absurdist dada experiment every loyal fan was hoping for. Give the gift of Ron Burgandy this holiday season and stay classy, America.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The French film Rust and Bone’s U.S. release seemed to hinge entirely on whether star Marion Cotillard would garner a coveted Oscar nomination. When that didn’t happen, it seemed like the studio just threw up its hands and said, “Well, that’s it.” Rust and Bone, co-written and directed by A Prophet’s Jaques Audiard, has been given a very ignoble release, an afterthought for an awards season that didn’t go Cotillard’s way. While I would have nominated Cotillard for her powerful performance, I certainly wouldn’t think much else about Rust and Bone, a frustrating film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling or what movie it wishes to be.
Alain van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts) is struggling to take care of him self and his young son, Sam. Alain’s ex-wife, and Sam’s mother, used the boy as part of her drug trades. Alain moves in with his sister and gets a job as a nightclub bouncer. It’s at the club where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard), a marine trainer. She’s also feisty and getting kicked out for starting a fight. Stephanie works at a Sea World-esque water park, and one horrific day one of the whales makes a wrong turn. It runs into the stage, knocking Stephanie unconscious into the water where, we learn, a whale has eaten her legs below her knee. She contacts Alain and the two form an unlikely friendship, one that turns physical as Stephanie worries what her sexual performance will be like under her new circumstances. Alain dreams of becoming a professional kick boxer/MMA fighter, and he performs in underground fights as another means of income. Stephanie tags along and helps motivate him win his fights. The two grow closer, but Alain struggles with what real feelings might mean.
Rust and Bone has a serious case of multiple personality disorder. It looks like it’s going to be one movie, then all of a sudden it changes into another, and then when you think you’ve got a handle on that, it suddenly transforms into another. I’m perfectly fine with a movie switching gears suddenly, however, with Rust and Bone, I felt like I was getting three different half-hearted drafts rather than an actual movie. I went into the film knowing little other than the selling point, that Cotillard was playing a woman readjusting to life after a freak accident took her legs. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, I didn’t get a shred of this. I got a single father trying to scrape together what he could for himself and his son, often resorting to sneaky and illegal measures. Then shortly after Stephanie is introduced, the movie becomes all about her. We’re dealing with her recovery and her anger and her loss. Just when I think I’ve settled onto the narrative direction of the movie, it becomes Alain’s movie again. Now we’re following his budding career as an amateur kick boxer, with Stephanie as his cheerleader. Then she dissolves into the background of the movie yet again, and it’s all about him. I don’t think the movie knew which character it wanted to be its focal point, so we get a sloppy interspersing of storylines vying for dominance. Personally, I was much more invested and intrigued by Stephanie’s recovery than anything having to do with Alain trying to be a better father and failing. Then there’s other muddled storylines like hidden cameras in the workplace that only further distract. It’s just all too much and at the same time not enough.
Then there’s the matter of the romance between Stephanie and Alain. I suppose you could say they are both wounded people trying to gain a greater sense of independence, battling new concepts of self-identity, but I think I’m doing the film too many favors. The sad part is that these two people are extremely shallow and limited form a characterization standpoint. The only defining quality about Stephanie is her injury. Sure she’s feisty and can get into bar fights, and that fact that she’s attracted to Alain says something about her, but really, her only characterization is her new physical limitations and her adjustment to them. Her physical needs are given much more attention by the screenplay than her emotional resonance. It makes me sound like a hardhearted bastard but I’ve said it before, I need characters that have more depth to them other than that they suffer. Alain, on the other hand, is even worse. He’s a pretty flat character who’s actually a really terrible father. He loses his temper easily, chooses quick sex over picking up his kid at school, plus there’s the whole abandonment thing. It’s hard for me to believe that anything really sinks in with this lunkhead. His relationship with Stephanie, meant to open him up, instead reconfirms what a jerk he is. He uses women as sexual playthings, and treats Stephanie with this same careless abandon. He clearly doesn’t see her as anything but a comfortable fling, which he shows through his actions. If Alain’s romantic views have changed, the film doesn’t show any of this progression. I didn’t care about him and I certainly didn’t care about the two of them together.
Acting-wise, Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises) is quite moving throughout as she tries to come to grips with everything that has been taken from her. Her more traditionally dramatic crying scenes are powerful, sure, but it’s the quiet moments that Cotillard nails. There’s a moment where she goes through her former routines hand motions, and in that moment, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” it becomes clear she is moving beyond her accident, accepting and getting stronger. It’s a subtle celebration of the human spirit’s ability to rebound, and Cotillard makes sure the moment is moving rather than cheesy. Also, there’s a very tender moment when she returns to the water park and reunites with the whale that took her legs. Through the glass, she goes through her training motions and the whale still resounds accordingly to her commands. It’s a wordless, touching moment that communicates so much, the nature of forgiveness, the culpability of an animal, but really about the connection between man and nature. Also, the fact that these two scenes are available on YouTube means somebody else must have seen them as standouts as well. She’s also naked frequently, if that matters to you.
Schoenhaerts (Bullhead) is too opaque for his own good. He seems to settle for his brute physicality, and as such the movie does little to flesh him out further. He has a couple nice moments, especially at the film’s climax, but it’s too little to overturn the prevailing notion that his character is unworthy of co-lead status.
Probably the most impressive thing from Audiard’s film is the special effects to remove Cotillard’s legs. While the technology doesn’t seem like it has changed since Lt. Dan’s days in 1994, it’s still a striking image to process. I’m still wondering why exactly Stepheanie gets tattoos on her (remaining) thighs, reading “Right” and “Left.” Is she worried about going under the knife and the doctors taking more away from the wrong limb? That seems past the point of return. With the special effects technology, and the film’s quotient for sweaty sex scenes, this is the art house equivalent of erotica for those discerning few with amputation fetishes.
When it came time to determine which film would compete at the Academy Awards, France chose the feel-good buddy comedy The Intouchables over Rust and Bone. It’s easy to see why. Except for Cotillard’s fierce performance, and some spiffy special effects, there is nothing remarkable about this ultimately frustrating and shallow movie. The mismatched love story between Stephanie and Alain feels implausible and too focused on surface-level desires; not enough to justify some statement of personal growth on both their parts. There needed to be a complete restructuring of the screenplay. Too often it keeps switching focus, changing gears, mixing in other subplots until it all feels like one big mess lacking firm direction. I might have loved a movie that focused on Stephanie and her recovery, perhaps even one about Alain, though I doubt it. What Rust and Bone offers is a movie that’s persistently in doubt of its own identity, trying its hand at everything, forging necessary care to its lead characters. It’s a fine film that could have been a great one, if only it really knew what it wanted to be in the first place.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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
For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.
Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.
For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.
While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).
Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.
Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.
Nate’s Grade: B
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
Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.
Nate’s Grade: C
Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to describe Public Enemies as anything but a letdown. This Depression-era gangster film is heavy on period details and very tight-fisted when it comes to characterization. You’d think given 140 minutes and the natural charisma of Johnny Depp that an audience would come to some kind of understanding with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Nope. The characters remain perfunctory the entire time, pushed into conflicts by a brisk pace that manages to squeeze in three bank robberies, two prison breaks, and many police shootouts. Because the movie barely takes time to breathe, the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, a dead ringer for pop singer Katy Perry) is never credible, the tension never feels palpable, and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) seems overly smitten with his distracting high def digital photography. You never really feel any sense of danger or interest. The characters on screen feel like strangers even after 140 minutes. Depp makes the movie more tolerable than it would be without his presence. Mann, one of three credited screenwriters, seems to assume the audience is well versed in Dillinger history and so he skips over plenty of fertile territory. Public Enemies certainly hums with plenty of polish but it comes across as mostly mundane due to such flimsy character work. It’s a collection of good scenes that fail to make up a satisfying whole.
Nate’s Grade: B-