Tag Archives: 5 stars

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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Way late review: Lost in Translation


Ever watch a film, enjoy it and then come to appreciate it all the more on repeat viewings? I’m there with Lost in Translation. There is something hypnotic about it.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an American movie star making some serious cash as a spokesman for Japanese whisky. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) and has tagged along with him to Tokyo. Neither Bob or Charlotte want to be where they are, in more ways than one. Both struggle to find meaning in the mundaneness. Bob is far away from home partially because distance is what his twenty five year marriage may need – or not. Charlotte is a Yale graduate unsure of what to do with her life. Her loneliness only grows as she’s left on her own when her husband has to work non-stop. Neither can sleep so they find themselves restless in bed or reluctantly at the bar listening to terrible lounge singers perform.

In between the laughs, which mostly come from observing Bob in a land so foreign to himself, there is a quiet desperation. Contrasts abound. The bustling streets and bright lights of Tokyo are juxtaposed against the serene temples and the backdrop of Mt. Fuji. The hectic lives of Bob’s wife (who we hear on the phone but never see) and Charlotte’s husband are in sharp contrast to the near sleepwalking state Bob and Charlotte are in much of the time. Japan culture and American culture collide on screen. The down to earth movie star opposite the hot mess of a Hollywood actress Charlotte’s husband runs into at the hotel. Middle age Bob and twenty-something Charlotte. Sleepless nights yet an incredibly tired duo. So many contrasts.

There is no big story to tell. The camera follows Bob and Charlotte as they form a friendship in the middle of a city and a moment in their lives where they feel lost. We take in Japanese culture through their eyes. Some may find it disrespectful or, at the very least, patronizing. I found it more a fish out of water story. The truth is, Bob and Charlotte are going to feel out of place anywhere they are. Their lives are in a state of flux and confusion, which makes the scenes of their night on the town filled with strange parties and karaoke all the more entertaining. Neither seems like they would want to be where they are yet they’re there, sort of; singing ’70s and ’80s tunes with all the sincerity and joy one might expect if karaoke were performed at a distant relative’s funeral.

The “will they or won’t they get together” aspect of our odd couple is present but never overwhelming in a sitcom kind of way. OK, maybe not until the very end where we are left to wonder what was whispered briefly in the final goodbye. The mysterious ending doesn’t irk me because it left me wondering what was said but because it puts so much emphasis on the friendship possibly moving to a romantic relationship. Up until that point speculation about the nature of their relationship was never the focus of the film. Again, the mystery is fine. I only wish it didn’t leave so much hanging on a question that the film didn’t spend much (if any) time addressing otherwise.

The chemistry between an unlikely pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson can’t be beat. Their odd and lonesome shuffle through a country foreign to both of them is inexplicably compelling. Lost in Translation says so much in so few words. And who would’ve guessed Bill Murray’s last whisper would be, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”?

 ★★★★★ 

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

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Way late review: Gremlins

A classic. Gremlins is so much fun that even when there is an (odd) quiet moment of contemplation it is filled with a dark sense of humor:

Kate: Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.
Billy: What are you talking about?
Kate: The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney…his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

I’m still not sure if writer Chris Columbus was trying to add a somber moment or one of the more slyly written pieces of comedy. I tend to think the latter. It’s become my favorite scene not starring a gremlin or Gizmo in the 80’s icon.

I’ll take the nostalgia hit on this one and keep on going. The film holds up, as my seven year old daughter and eleven year old son can testify. They both love and hate this film. They hate the scary hatching of the gremlins after the multiplied Mogwai eat some nasty looking fried chicken after midnight. The scene with the mom discovering she’s in a house full of green devils scares them every time but they also find themselves laughing and cheering as mom disposes of each one in her own determined and creative manner. For each moment my daughter hides her eyes, she can’t help but peek, lest she miss the next funny, action packed sequence. My son yells at the characters for foolishly not realizing their demise is only footsteps away; footsteps the characters take because curiosity is not just for cats but also for the bulk of comedy/horror film casts. Of course, we all cheer when Gizmo finally gets his chance to mimic Clark Gable in To Please a Lady and takes the Barbie mobile for a spin in order to hunt down the leader of the pack, Stripe.

The numerous gags and references to past films makes Gremlins feel like a bit of an homage to cinema all while being an action packed comedy. Director Joe Dante’s love letter to cinema is a lot different than say Martin Scorsese’s with Hugo. Call me silly, but I much prefer the antics of Dante’s Gremlins. They just don’t make movies like Gremlins anymore, which is a shame.

 ★★★★★ 

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

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Way late review: The Interrupters

Access is everything. At least it is for many documentaries, where the level of access they get to their subjects plays a large role in the success or failure of the film. Director Steve James gets unbelievable access to those he covers on the streets of Chicago in his film The Interrupters.

CaseFire is a Chicago based group determined to stop the violence that ruins their neighborhoods. Many of the staff are former gang members who have served time in prison and some earned notoriety for their antics on the streets. The goal of these interrupters is to intercede before violence erupts. They do not aim to solve all the world’s problems. Their goal is simple yet tragically complex. Stop the violence. The film closely follows a few members of CeaseFire as they go about their work and along the way a picture of who they are and who they help is developed in a sometimes painful manner. There is little rest for those who find themselves locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

There is no shortage of deeply emotional material and yet the rough edges are never avoided. The easy way out for Steve James would have been to make the CeaseFire crew saviors on the mean streets, with those they “save” serving as mere victims. Instead he allows both those who interrupt the violence and those who are creating it tell their story. They tell it in interviews as they reflect on their past and in the midst of the action. The stories told and shown are frustrating, heartbreaking, filled with anger and spite as well as love and care. No one comes out unscathed.

A film dealing with inner city violence can’t help but avoid the political implications. And while the politics are touched upon, James wisely keeps his focus on the deeply personal examination of those his camera hones in on. There are no easy answers given. Any politician given screen time comes off as rather out of touch in comparison to the reality on display.

Sad stories permeate with only glimpses of hope. Those who do their jobs as part of CeaseFire appear driven by a need for redemption. Their lives have always been mixed up in the sad stories. Instead of intervening as they do now, in the past they were causing the sadness. Now their perception of reality is different. The reaction is not to lash out in anger but rather to help as many people stuck in their old way of life as they can. The dangerous situations this desire causes are numerous. We learn that only one interrupter has ever been shot doing the work. We briefly meet that gentleman in his hospital bed when Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, visits. Up until this moment Tio comes off as a confident leader hell bent on making his organization’s goal a reality. Seeing one of his people in significant pain after being shot in the back and foot, causes this strong man to break out of his motivational speaker mode and into that of a teary eyed father who realizes the young man on the bed is around the same age of his sons.

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.

 ★★★★★ 

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

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Way late review: The Elephant in the Living Room

Everyone probably remembers their first pet. That first little komodo dragon, lion cub, spider monkey, puff adder. No? Me either, but there are far more people in the United States who know first hand what it is to own an exotic animal than should. In many states it is not illegal and in some regulations are near zero. The Elephant in the Living Room tackles this fascinating topic, educating on the problem while delving into the complicated issues that arise when people make pets out of wild animals.

Filmmaker, Michael Webber, takes us through the labyrinth that is exotic animals as pets. Our tour guide for most of the film is the confident yet understanding police officer, Tim Harrison. In southern Ohio, Harrison handles endless cases of wild animals turned pets going back to their roots. Owners who lose control of their dangerous friends or simply turn them loose after they realize what was once a cool little jungle cat, alligator, or other wild animal is no longer so cool when it can eat you and your family. There are reports of lions, cougars, bears, and more on the road terrorizing people in their cars. People call about non-indigenous venomous snakes slithering into their garages. One call is from a father who reports that his children have been playing with some sort of python. Harrison comes to the house and finds not a python but one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.

There are no shortage of amazing stories of fatal attacks, near fatal attacks, and close encounters with animals that should be anywhere but in residential neighborhoods. Harrison educates on the problem by browsing one of the popular publications that advertises exotic animals for sale. There he reads endless ads for all sorts of creatures, many of which are listed as free to a good home. The worst kept secret in this dangerous market is that large, dangerous animals can be had for nothing. While some may pay five hundred dollars or more for their pure bred puppy of choice, a lion is free of charge. Harrison and Webber show the insanity of these markets up close by sneaking in cameras to two large shows. One is a reptile show with endless tables packed with reptiles from all over the world, most venomous and in plastic containers you’d expect to purchase food in. The other show is in Amish country, where every type of large cat, primate, and other furry critters are sold to the highest bidder as if they were bidding on livestock. These are legal markets, yet both the sellers and buyers feel the need to keep the cameras away. Speaking of buyers, many of them at the reptile show were children. Mom and dad purchased Johnny an eight foot python that will easily grow to be twice that size or a baby alligator that will one day grow larger than any member of the family.

Once the problem of exotic pets is hammered home from numerous directions, Webber focuses on the story of Terry Brumfield, a man who got in a car accident and whose back and neck are severely damaged. Brumfield struggles with depression. His cure was procuring two lion cubs. The cubs, one male and one female, grow up and Terry finds himself very much attached to the big cats while also struggling to contain them. The male lion escapes one day and terrorizes motorists on the highway. Brumfield is threatened by the law but somehow keeps his lions. Harrison tries to help Brumfield, who feels as though he’s in a no win situation. He doesn’t want to the give the lions up but he doesn’t want them to get out and hurt people. In a surprising turn, Harrison and Brumfield develop a friendship. It is there that we see these two men sharing both a love for animals and conflicted consciences. Harrison knows these lions need to be in a sanctuary where they can run and not be in danger of harming themselves or others. Brumfield has raised the lions since they were cubs. They are his lifeline. Losing the lions means losing life to Brumfield. Their story develops and takes some twists along the way that are fascinating and heartbreaking.

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.

 ★★★★★ 

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

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