Way late review: The Dark Knight Rises

Some films demand a grandiose treatment. After The Dark Knight, it is only fitting that Cristopher Nolan indulge in making The Dark Knight Rises a sprawling epic full of thought provoking themes supported by sometimes majestic and other times troubling sights and sounds.

Bruce Wayne is in bad shape. The billionaire and his alter ego, Batman, disappeared after taking the blame for the murder of Gotham’s beloved district attorney turned two face villain, Harvey Dent. As much as Rises is about super heroes and villains, it’s about the inner conflict of a man who has lost his sense of purpose. And, even when he believes he has that purpose back, we’re left to wonder if the purpose has turned into one last suicidal mission to save the city he loves.

The headlining villain this time around is Bane (Tom Hardy), a man who wears a mask that may have been stolen off the set of Silence of The Lambs, which makes him difficult to understand when he speaks. The voice sounds like a mix of Sean Connery and Darth Vader.  (Special thanks to my wife for that one.) There was some serious audio magic performed to make Bane more audible and clear, to the point where it was jarring to hear this booming voice coming from a muzzled mouth. Had the original voice been used (from earlier trailers) I think that and a combination of sub-titles may have been more effective, but I understand why the change was made. Having a villain with sub-titles probably wouldn’t fly with a majority of English speaking audiences. Regardless of the voice, Bane is a menacing character. The lore surrounding him is revealed over time and only adds to his puzzling motives. Whereas the Joker was the maniacal terrorist in a clown motif, Bane is the pro wrestler with a masterminded plot to destroy Gotham, but not before he has a chance to run some evil sociological experiment where he serves as the ringmaster and the people of Gotham revel in a world which punishes the rich and gives them freedom all the while crushing them.

Adding more characters to the mix is always tricky for super hero movies. Add one too many and the story bogs down with the weight of too many stories to tell and not enough time to tell them all in. Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), seemed like she would be the tipping point this time around. Instead of becoming a boat anchor, Catwoman’s story compliments that of Batman’s quite nicely. Catwoman’s arch is much like Han Solo’s in Star Wars IV. She’s a sketchy character whose desire for fortunes outweigh her desire for doing good. Both she and Batman want to be different people. She a thief who can’t get away from her life of crime even if she tries, and he a seemingly washed up crime fighter who wouldn’t mind dying if it meant a valiant effort to save the people of Gotham.

Nolan will never be accused of keeping his stories straight forward and simple. Dialogue here and in his other films is full of exposition, which is a big no-no for most. Somehow the Dark Knight director makes even plodding material interesting. Credit the constant use of an emotionally charged soundtrack for much of that. If all our lives were backed by cinema soundtracks they would instantly seem other worldly and overly dramatic. And maybe the nearly non-stop swelling music is overkill, along with a two hour and forty-five minute running time but I never once did a time check.

Commentary on modern day issues cannot be missed. The attacks on corrupt Wall Street bankers and the one percent are spread throughout much of the film. Providing some equal opportunity of a critical eye, the Occupy movement is also alluded to and, if the allusion is correct, the picture is not a pretty one. The use of laws to make organized crime a thing of the past even though they may overstep civil liberties is touched on lightly. None of it is heavy handed in a preachy manner. Nolan keeps the focus on the story while touching on various themes, some timeless and others capturing current day events.

Some will fondly recall the previous film in the trilogy as superior, with Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker being the main reason. Both films are excellent and both provide numerous areas to nitpick. The Dark Knight Rises goes out with an operatic crescendo, a thrilling yet satisfying ending to a trilogy all about a man dressed as a bat.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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My top 20 films of 2011

Another year. Another list a year behind the times. Life moves at a slower pace here when it comes to movies. It’s like being in a time machine always set to minus twelve months.

20. Martha Marcy May Marlene

The tension of the film builds as we learn more about the cult and what fate likely awaits those who try to escape. What at first seems like hippies out in the woods living in a makeshift commune becomes a full blown cult, complete with violent rituals and the mandatory mind control. The reality of Martha's current situation seems more dire as each flashback peels away one horrific layer after another to the core of her former life. Through it all, Elizabeth Olsen's performance is near perfect. She behaves awkwardly with Lucy and Ted but never in a manner that feels melodramatic. My full review.

19. Footnote

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing. My full review

18. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol never pretends to be what it isn't. Those looking for thought provoking cinema or even character development are sure to be let down. This is an action film that has fun being that and nothing more. My full review.

17. A Separation

An exhausting film, but in a good way. A Separation tells what would appear to be a simple story in a way that is anything but simple. The moral and ethical decisions characters make in some trying situations would seem easy to judge except director and writer Asghar Farhadi doesn't provide an effortless judgement. He, like the actors themselves, ensure reality is represented in full until the end where emotions are tapped out. My full review.

16. Contagion

Never completely satisfying as a drama or thriller, Contagion finds its sweet spot somewhere in between genres. And though it never connects on a deep emotional level, the end result is a well done film that tells a believable story about a scenario none of us wishes to experience. My full review.

15. Young Adult

The journey to destroy a marriage and fulfill the selfish desires of a despicable character does not sound fun but the way that the screenplay writer, Diablo Cody (most famous for writing Juno), positions her extremely narcissistic main character with a backdrop of decent human beings makes things fun. We can never cheer for our main character. Her plans and her ways are never worth cheering for. But we can laugh at the absurdity of her behavior, realizing that when we give into our own notions of self-importance, our vanity, we transform into creatures not unlike Mavis. And in the end, Young Adult serves as a warning for those of us who might think we're far away from ever being like Mavis. A full review.

14. Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone's cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven't enjoyed Stillman's past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me. My full review.

13. The Descendants

The laughs come in small spurts, as Matt confronts the onslaught of obstacles, sorrow and tragedy before him. Rising above the quirky indie comedy, The Descendants succeeds where many fail. The seriousness of the story presented is never fully played for laughs nor is there a need to redeem itself in the end with melodrama. Instead we're left with a film that feels oddly comfortable even in the midst of uncomfortable situations. My full review.

12. Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga succeeds in not only carrying the load of this film based on real life memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs, she also directed it as a first time effort behind the camera. I admire her attempt to tackle a subject that is not a popular one in her circles and generally handling it with great care, never taking the easy route of cynically portraying her characters while also not hiding their struggles and faults. My full review.

11. The Hunter

Maybe all the pieces don't add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn't stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger. My full review.

10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I was at first convinced Jeff, Who Lives at Home was going to be another vulgar and cynical comedy; one that treats its characters with disdain by putting them through painfully awkward situations, only to watch them dangle in despair until the bitter end where there is a weak attempt at redemption. And while it is vulgar at times, there is a genuine care for these characters, all of whom are easy to make rash judgments about. The story is more than just a setup for laughs, though there are plenty of those. Jeff's obsession with his destiny may not jive with reality but it makes for a surprisingly compelling story with an emotional payoff. My full review.

9. Margin Call

The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It's a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times. My full review.

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people's top films of 2011 but it should. It's one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren't all that good and some that were simply awful. My full review.

7. Moneyball

Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A's GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it's filled with doubt. As if Beane's decision to stick with the A's or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted. My full review.

6. Hanna

Hanna was entertaining throughout, avoiding the temptation to add unwieldy plot twists and characters (I'm looking at you Harry Potter). The tone of the film hit me just right. The experimentation within the action genre was a great success. While not a fan of sequels in general, I wouldn't mind seeing Hanna 2. My full review.

5. The Interrupters

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most. My full review.

4. Beauty Day

Beauty Day is refreshingly honest. There is a nervous energy about Ralph Zavadil that is hard to not get wrapped up in. At the same time, Ralph is human and the film never tries to hide that. It would be easy to portray him as a misunderstood genius of self-destructive stunts or a troubled soul we should feel sorry for, but instead we get a look at the good, the bad and the stuff that falls somewhere in-between. And all of this is done with a sense of humor and unique style that adds up to a fine film. My full review.

3. The Elephant in The Living Room

What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US. My full review.

 

2. Better This World

Whether one agrees with their left leaning politics or not, it's hard not to feel empathy for Crowder and McKay in the latter half of the film. The two twenty-something friends are not simply used as exhibits A and B in a case against the US justice system and overreaching homeland security, they are shown as people who have families and loved ones. The repercussions for Crowder and McKay are deeper than a lost battle for the cause they believe in. These young men are faced with hard prison time away from loving families and friends.

Unlike its counterparts, Better This World makes the most of its activist focused material and tells a compelling story in a manner worthy of the source material. My full review.

1. Take Shelter

Take Shelter is sure to leave some perplexed, others enthralled, and almost everyone thinking for days about what it all meant in the end. Count me in the camp of those enthralled. The performances, the overall mood, and the contrast between an everyday life and schizophrenia are done in a near perfect manner. My full review.

Way late review: The Hunter

I’m happy I finally gave The Hunter a try via Netflix streaming. Having been on my instant queue for a while, I almost put it off to the point where it ended up in my “sure, I’ll watch that someday (which means I’ll always find something else to watch)” list.

Martin (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a mysterious company to track down the last Tasmanian Tiger on the planet, kill it, and bring back DNA samples. His housing arrangement while on his mission includes a widower and her two young children in the middle of the Tasmania wilderness. Mystery surrounds every one of Martin’s moves. He poses as a scientist studying Tasmanian Devils, which makes the local loggers immediately hate him and the environmentalists suspicious of his motives. His mission is simple yet complicated not only by the locals who see him as a threat but also by the widower and her two kids. Mom is so depressed and drugged she sleeps non-stop, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The girl is spunky and her younger brother is silent. Martin resists getting involved as much as he can but finally succumbs to a family sorely missing the adult male, a role Martin fills simply by being present.

Making a terrible looking film shot in the majestic landscapes of Tasmania is probably near impossible. Regardless, director Daniel Nettheim still deserves credit for making the most of the gorgeous scenery as our protagonist tracks his prey. Martin sets out on a number of hunts throughout the surrounding area and each one is filled with less than thrilling action. He sets various traps, tracks his progress, and then cleans up after himself. While not exciting, the scenes are nearly mesmerizing with the calm, professional Martin tracking the elusive animal. During most of the hunting the tension is built knowing there are those who don’t want him there and the fact that Martin seems like a man with a heart but still goes about this mercenary mission of hunting the last of a species for monetary gain. Just enough happens during these journeys to make the suspense grow while not overwhelming the story with melodrama.

There are loose ends which never get tied up in a satisfying manner. The height of the mystery driving the thriller isn’t as clear as it probably should have been nor are the motives of at least one character. As a result, the story feels overly ambitious for what should likely be a story focused on Martin and his inner conflict.

Maybe all the pieces don’t add up in a completely satisfying manner, but that doesn’t stop the beauty of The Hunter from resonating. Willem Dafoe carries the quiet thriller on his back with a performance which is as much about the smallest moments, the slightest of facial expressions in the midst of a mysterious hunt for the most unlikely animal to be called a tiger.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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The moral superiority of cutting the cord

Earlier this year I got rid of our satellite/cable TV service. I did not do this to free ourselves from the tyrants of TV. I looked at my family’s viewing habits and it no longer made financial sense for us to pay $50 per month for service we used very little. My wife loves giving me a hard time about this, partially because she was the last hold out and partially because the final decision came just a few days from her birthday. My husband of the year award may be another year away. You can’t lose them all.

When people hear about us “cutting the cord” they often have two reactions. First they look in amazement. Once the awe wears off there is a feeling of judgement. They feel as though we’re making some moral statement with this cord cutting by seeing all those who still pay for satellite/cable bills as morally inferior to us. As if our TV sits there with nothing to display. Nothing could be further from the truth. The TV is on way more than it ever should be at our home. We pay for Netflix and Amazon and I have a tendency to purchase blu-rays if the price is right. (I know, discs are dead.) Even so, people often immediately change topics or awkwardly defend their paying one bill we don’t. It’s very strange. And to think all this stems from a rather boring, pragmatic motivation — our viewing habits changed and I’m cheap.

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Way late review: The Queen of Versailles

There were many dynamics at play with the 2008 market and housing crash. Talk of greedy bankers, incompetent credit ratings agencies, spineless politicians and policy makers have been and continue to be the focus as we get some (small) distance between the events that resulted in a near economic collapse. Missing in all of this is the consumer side of the equation. Main Street. The innocents. You and me. Except we’re not so innocent. Money was (is?) cheap and our desires for more and more rarely subsides. Taken to the extreme this vicious cycle of cheap money and an endless appetite for more results in a couple like David and Jackie Siegel. Timing is everything. Lauren Greenfield happened to already be filming the Siegels building the largest single family home in the United States when everything came crashing down. The result is The Queen of Versailles, a documentary capturing the story of the little guy through the eyes of the biggest of the little guys.

David and Jackie Siegel came from modest families. David built his timeshare company, Westgate Resorts, from the ground up. He employs thousands of people in order to sell mostly middle class families on renting a dream they can’t afford to own. Westgate builds incredible resorts on money they borrow from banks, then they sell mortgages on the rooms for a week per year to families who could never afford such luxurious vacation pads otherwise. Those families pay a monthly amount over many years to pay for a vacation stay once a year for the rest of their life. One room in a resort essentially provides 52 mortgages. Westgate then turns around, bundles these mortgages and sells them as investments. At one point, David Siegel’s son is on screen pumping up his sales staff. He tells them that they are saving lives. He equates timeshare sales people to doctors, nurses, firemen, etc. He does this with a straight face as he rattles off some study which shows people who take a week vacation once a year live longer than those who don’t. Even houses made of cards need someone to care for them. In this case care comes in the form of twisted logic.

Jackie got a computer engineering degree and went to work for IBM out of school. Her achievement was short lived as she decided there was little glamour in writing code so she decided to marry money instead. After being in an abusive marriage, Jackie found David via a beauty pageant. The two have six children plus one adopted niece on Jackie’s side of the family. The former beauty queen and her husband decide they need more room with such a big family so they go about building a 90,000 monstrosity of a home inspired by Versailles and the finest buildings Vegas has to offer. In the process of building their dream house the economy comes to a screeching halt.

What starts off as a tale of decadence turns into the story of just what the housing market crash looked like, from the top of the food chain to the bottom, all through the eyes of a difficult to like billionaire couple. The lack of money flowing freely means David Siegel is suddenly underwater on his prized property in Vegas. He personally backs every loan the company takes out which means he is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars. And since he’s saved nothing, he and his family’s life of continued luxury is at severe risk. The trickle down impact of this is seen in one of the family’s nannies and their driver. Both depend on the Siegels for paychecks and as the banks lay the hammer down on the timeshare mogul, the ability for David to pay a household staff dwindles. Layoffs at Westgate come fast and furious, with thousands losing their jobs. No one is safe. Yet through it all, Jackie is shown to be both aware yet oblivious all at once. On the one hand she is quick to recognize a childhood friend’s desperate need for money to catch up on mortgage payments and writes a check on the spot. On the other hand, she continues to spend money like there is no tomorrow. She’s shown in one moment to be completely cognizant of her drastically downsized staff’s struggles and in the next she humiliates them with some offhand comment like, “Well, at least you won’t have to clean this place”, referring to her version of Versailles going up for sale.

As the film progresses, David’s patience grows shorter. He spends every waking hour puzzling his way out of massive debt. His dream house is on the market for a mere $90M. His company is shrinking. The banks want him to liquidate everything but the shirt on his back. And to top it all off, his family is driving him mad with their lack of awareness of what is happening to them. Towards the end of the film David’s nearly non-existent patience is put to the test by his family and he loses it. It’s an amazingly intimate moment which shows just how fragile the mortar is which holds the Siegel household together.

The Queen of Versailles profiles a hard to empathize with couple who are caught in the tangled web of a market crash. What could have been a condescending look at how the mighty fall, director Lauren Greenfield finds the deeper story by also exploring the stories of those around the Siegel family. No one will shed a tear for Jackie and David Siegel, but most will admit to an uneasy feeling that the beast they attempted to ride is the same one that many of us tried to hang onto, if only to a lesser degree.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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