Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Some Thoughts on "The Dark Knight Rises"

The Dark Knight Rises is my most anticipated film of 2012 and probably the last super-hero film I'll be forward to for some time (I have some mixed feelings about The Amazing Spider-Man). It was always an enevitable film but it took sometime for it to get off the ground. I think Christopher Nolan is the kind of director who doesn't want to do a film unless he's interested in the story. For me this is emphasized by his statement that he didn't want to do another Batman film unless he had a good story. The fact Nolan has made this film gives me confidence that he has found a worthwhile story to tell rather than just a cobbled together, obligatory third chapter.

The hardest part about doing another Batman film after The Dark Knight is trying to find a villain who won't pale in comparison to the Joker, which is hard because the Joker is Batman's arch-nemesis, the villain who challenges Batman more than any one else in his rogue's gallery (and we clearly saw what an impact he made on Batman and the rest of Gotham in The Dark Knight), and also because Heath Ledger's Oscar winning performance was truly remarkable. The villain in this film is Bane, played by Inception's Tom Hardy. I haven't read any Batman comics that feature Bane and sadly I'm mostly familar with the Bane from Batman & Robin, a not so bright Frankenstein like character. Bane from the comics is much smarter, as having brute strength. I think Hardy showcased this combination of smarts and toughness in Inception, also directed by Nolan. Eames, the character he played, had an almost James Bondian combination of wit and mercenary roughness. Imagine that combination taken to a much more sinister level and I think Hardy will give a terrific performance. The way Hardy describes Bane's fighting style sounds brutal to sayy the least:

"The style is heavy-handed, heavy-footed, it's nasty. Anything from small-joint manipulation to crushing skulls, crushing rib cages, stamping on shins and knees and necks and collarbones and snapping heads off and tearing his fists through chests, ripping out spinal columns."

There's something scary about the way Bane fights which I think will make Batman's physical challenge when going up against Bane also a psychological one, expanding upon the psychological struggles he's faced in the last two films.

Just the other day Nolan provided a crucial detail regarding the plot of the film, which is it takes place 8 years after The Dark Knight. This emphasizes Batman's physical challenge due to the possibility that  Bruce Wayne may have retired from being Batman during those 8 years. I was a little surprised and disappointed that Nolan was skipping this much time in the series. For quite some time I was thinking this trilogy was primarily about the early years of Batman, with the concluding chapter looking forward to other characters and adventures this Batman would have. I think the story can still end that way but people are already speculating Batman has fought some famous foes in those missing years. Only time will tell.

While it's starting to become clear what role Bane has in the story, I'm still wondering what role Anne Hathaway's Catwoman will play in the film. Catwoman is not strictly a villainess nor heroine so I don't think there'll be a villain team-up nor a team-up between Batman and Catwoman I'll be interested in how Nolan ties the Bane and Catwoman storylines together in a satisying way.

It's a little weird to think of another Batman film in this franchise after The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was so ambitious and was truly epic, bringing Gotham to the verge of total anarchy. My biggest question regarding this new film is will Nolan be able to create a film which doesn't feel small in comparison, particularly with the absence of the Joker. The Dark Knight was almost too big, if this film tries to top it, it may completely fall apart. I believe in Christopher Nolan though. Through these last two Batman films, he and his writing team clearly care about creating something special with these established characters and their city. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

Not Like There's Anything Wrong With That: "J. Edgar" Review

There's a moment a little while in to J. Edgar, where an elderly J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), dictating his autobiography to an agent (Mike Vaughn) asks the agent, "Who was the most famous person of the twentieth century, thus far?" The agent eventually asks "Is that you, sir?" Hoover seems mildly amused the agent would give this answer, though we can't help but think there's some kind of pride Hoover finds in being seen as famous.

Of course, we don't know exactly what Hoover is thinking in this moment, and its this type of mystery which extends all the way through J. Edgar. The film, while it explores the secret life of the man who was the head of the F.B.I for nearly fifty years, doesn't really try to explain the man. I think it's possible that director Clint Eastwood, who himself grew up when Hoover was in power, is still struggling to figure out the man who arguably held more power than the eight presidents he served under.

The film shifts back and forth from Hoover's younger years in the 1920s and 30s, when he first became head of the Bureau of Investigation, which eventually became what we know as the F.B.I., his relationship with his right hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)-and Hoover as an old man, dictating his biography. I liked this approach for several reasons. One is that it allows you to get used to the old age makeup on DiCaprio and Hammer. The make up has been harshly criticized but I for one was able to settle in to it as the film progressed. I also like how the film's structure gives equal emphasis to both young and old Hoover instead of showhorning older Hoover in to the last few minutes of the film. Another nice structural element is the juxaposition of certain scenes and moments that connect the past and the present. For example, an older Hoover and Tolson get in a elevator and then we cut to the younger Hoover and Tolson getting out of an elevator; we see Hoover on a "date" with secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) where he asks her to marry her but eventually has to settle for her as his secretary- we then cut to a scene older Hoover and Gandy, and just by juxapositing these two scenes, we get a sense of a long history between these two.

Dustin Lance Black's script (he also won an Oscar for writing another biopic, Milk), as well as the film itself, is surprisingly sympathetic towards Hoover, which has angered at least one critic. The film is less interested in demonizing Hoover than exploring Hoover's inner demons. A major focus of the film is the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, whom many believe was a romantic one. While these claims are still speculative, the film shows Hoover as a man, who despite loving Tolson, cannot be himself because of the era he lived in, his mother's statement that she rather have "a dead son than a daffodil," and his committment to his work above all else. In it's own way, J. Edgar is Brokeback Mountain with cops; but I don't mean to trivialize the film with that joke because J. Edgar gains its emotional resonance, its heart, from the relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Christy Lemire mentions the looks DiCaprio and Hammer share for just a little too long, and its moments like these, as well as Tolson's condition that he joins Hoover as his right hand man, they never skip a meal, which communicate deep yearning for human companionship within both men.

DiCaprio may be the most unglamorous movie star we have in that he specializes in really haunted individuals who aren't always clearly the protagionists of the film. While DiCaprio doesn't look like Hoover, as portrayed in this film, he's an almost perfect fit for DiCaprio. There's always seems to be a certain "DiCaprioness" which comes through in DiCaprio's performances, not that's he's playing himself but more a larger than life version of himself. I think this is what turns some people off of his performances, and certainly it takes a little while to settle in to DiCaprio's performance; but once you do, and I think the old age scenes help, DiCaprio once again provides a really live wire performance. His mid atlantic accent, while distracting at first, gives Hoover an old fashioned feel. It's also been noted, and is shown in the film, that Hoover had a stammer and the accent's rigidness was a result of combating the stammer.

Hammer played the Winklevoss twins in David Fincher's The Social Network; the twins were symbols of American manliness and entitlement but here Hammer gives a much softer and sympathetic performance as Tolson. Hammer gives Tolson an open face, not afraid to show his character's vulnerability, but he also shows Tolson's efficency of character as well as his intelligence and I found him very convincing as a man Hoover could fall in love with.

Unfortunately, Naomi Watts doesn't get as strong a character arc as DiCaprio and Hammer but she's very effective nonetheless in capturing Gandy's loyalty and precision as Hoover's secretary. Judi Dench, who plays Annie Hoover, Hoover's mother is chilling in the aforementioned scene when she tells Hoover about a boy who was killed because he was found out to be gay and that she'd rather her son be dead than gay.

I thought Jeffrey Donovan's accent, playing Robert Kennedy, was distracting so it was to completely get in to his scenes with Hoover.

I think the main problem with J. Edgar is that it tries to focus on too much but not enough. Much of the focus regarding Hoover's career involves the kidnapping of the Linburgh baby, which led to kidnapping becoming a federal crime. This section of the film has great detail and is an important part of Hoover's career but I wish we had seen more of Hoover's career, particularly regarding gangsters like John Dillinger. I also feel, and this comes back to the sympathy issue, that the film doesn't delve deep enough in to Hoover's darker characteristics. We see him blackmail Robert Kennedy with information about his brother's affairs, as well as listen to a bedroom liason between Martin Luther King and a woman, but I think the film needed to show more of Hoover's tyranny over his office. DiCaprio has played morally ambiguous characters before but I feel showing Hoover as a tyrant would have allowed DiCaprio to be darker than ever before. I think with this film, you have to take it less as a completely literal biopic of Hoover than one interpretation or angle on him. If taken that way, J. Edgar provides an interesting cipher of a man and in DiCaprio's performance, still one of the most interesting movie stars of our times.     

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Scream Within a Dream: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

Warning:  Some Spoilers Follow

If Psycho made you afraid to have a shower and Jaws made you afraid to go in the water, then A Nightmare on Elm Street made you afraid to go to sleep at night. In the film teenagers are killed in their dreams by a mysterious man with knives on his fingers and a burnt face. All three films take something relatable and relaxing and turn it in to something nightmarish, the former two films offer some kind of escape: don't take a shower and don't go swimming; but A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't offer that kind of escape. You can't stay awake forever. Writer/director Wes Craven's concept for the film is ingenious in this respect, and genuinely scary. It's the ultimate boogeyman story and while it's hard to view the film without thinking of its legacy, the sequels, spinoffs, and remake, the film still stands as an inventive and engaging horror film, and one of the best of its era.

The man in these teenagers' dreams is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a child murderer who was killed parents within the community after Krueger wasn't able to be convicted of his crimes. Now Krueger is back to kill the children of the parents who murdered him. What's interesting about this backstory is how it's not revealed until later in the film. While knowing this backstory before watching the film, I still admired how Craven keeps this backstory close to his chest, revealing it just when things have reached the boiling point. I also liked how sparse Kreuger's backstory is. The psychiatrist from Psycho is no where to be found here. Craven isn't interested in psychoanalzying Krueger but in making him a symbolic figure. Krueger is an interesting blend of the symbolic and the literal. Krueger is literally killing these teenagers but he's also symbolic of what a nightmare is; I think this combination of symbolism and literalism is what makes Krueger so timeless.

What I found interesting about this film, considering the legacy of the series, is that much of the focus of the film is on the character of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). It takes some time to get a good look at Freddy. When we do it's when Tina's (Amanda Wyss) death scene. After that scene, we don't see much of Freddy aside from his glove in Nancy's bathtub or his hat when Nancy is able to bring it out of the dream world. It's quite effective not always seeing Freddy. It enhances the symbolic nature of his character and allows the film to be about the Nancy character as she loses her innocence and has to face her mother's past. I think after this film Freddy was featured more prominently in the sequels. I also think he became more of a jokester. In this film, he's more serious despite taking pleasure in killing.

Langenkamp gives a fine performance as Nancy, effectively going from a innocent teenager to an angry and sleep deprived fighter. It's fun to see Johnny Depp in his first film role as Nancy's boyfriend Glenn. He gets one of the most famous deaths in the series when he's eaten by his own bed.

It may sound odd but A Nightmare on Elm Street reminded a little of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Hear me out. In that film, the dream worlds the characters entered were very rooted in the real world. In A Nightmare on Elm Street the dreams, despite Freddy's presence and some haunting imagery, resemble the characters' waking life. This creates suspense as to whether someone is dreaming or not and makes familar places very threatening.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has some wonky logic which doesn't always explain itself; but like a dream, a nightmare, we're just along for the ride. In this case, it's a very thrilling one.

Friday, 4 November 2011

J. Edgar: Reviews and Oscar Chances

I wrote a little bit about Clint Eastwood's new film J. Edgar back in August when I discussed potential Oscar contenders. Last night J. Edgar premiered at the AFI Fest and reviews for the film are coming in. They're slightly mixed, with much of the praise going towards Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in the title role of the infamous head of the F.B.I for nearly fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover. Todd McCarthy, who gave the film a good review, says of DiCaprio's performance that's it's a "It's a vigorous, capable performance, one that carries the film and breathes new life into the old tradition of plain real folk achieving retroactive allure by being played by attractive stars."

Peter Debruge, who finds Eastwood's tackling of Hoover's supposed homosexuality too tasteful, nevertheless praises

DiCaprio's remarkable ability to play the character at any point along that timeline. Aided by a convincing combination of facial appliances, makeup and wigs, the thesp draws auds past that gimmick and into the character within a matter of a few scenes.

I'm glad DiCaprio is getting notices for his work here. Last year DiCaprio gave two strong performances in Shutter Island and Inception; unfortunately he wasn't nominated for either performance. As I wrote back in August, I think he has a good chance of being nominated for Best Actor, particularly now with the good reviews. I'm wondering though if the mostly muted praise for the film has hurt its bigger Oscar chances like Best Picture or Best Director. Of course even when a film isn't the hugest critical hit (The Reader), it can still make the cut. I also think it's the kind of movie the academy likes, a biopic with an A-list pedigree. Ultimately, while I'm not certain it'll be the front runner for Best Picture, I think it'll be in the race.  

Some Thoughts on Bond 23: "Skyfall"

At the press conference for the 23rd James Bond film, producer Michael G. Wilson jokingly called it the "worst kept secret in London." He was referring to the title of the film, Skyfall, a title which was leaked as a rumoured title a few weeks ago.

I'm a big Bond fan and whatever the title, without getting too hyperbolic, I think this film will prove to be a great Bond film, maybe one of the best, and dare I say it, maybe better than my favourite Bond film, Casino Royale. The cast definitely intrigues me. Javier Bardem will play the villain and as Bardem hinted at the press conference, "Who told you a villain is a bad person," which suggests a more morally complex villain than the last two Bond villains, Le Chiffre and Dominic Greene. Ralph Fiennes also stars in a role that director Sam Mendes can't say anything about. This supposedly has to do with Bond fans recognizing the name. Will Fiennes play Blofeld, as many are speculating. I could definitely see Fiennes rocking the bald head and stroking a white cat, though the whole cat thing would probably come across as self parody.

Ben Whishaw also plays a role Mendes couldn't talk about. There's been speculation he could play Major Boothroyd a.k.a "Q." I could see them bringing back Q as a young man instead of the older man we've come to love throughout most of the series, Desmond Llewelyn. While the franchise shouldn't become to gadgety all of a sudden, it'd be great to see Q back, particularly if, aside from being younger, they give a different spin on the character; maybe make him more admiring of Bond than Llewelyn or John Cleese's Q was.

Naomie Harris was rumoured to play Moneypenny but seems now to be playing a field agent named Eve. People are wondering if Eve could be Moneypenny's real name in this film. I always though it'd be interesting to involve Moneypenny in the plot of the film but so far this character doesn't sound like Moneypenny.

Judi Dench's M seems to be front and center in the film. The plot description says   "Bond's loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost." People have noted the comparison between this plot synopsis and The World is Not Enough, which was the last time M, also played by Judi Dench has a more significent role. That was one of the interesting aspects of one of the more humane Bond films of the last decade. I think if this is Dench's last outing as M, it'll be great for her to go out on an emotional and complex note. Could it also pave the way for recently cast Albert Finney to be M?

Berenice Marolhe, French actress and model, is playing Severin, the new Bond girl. Severin is described as "glamorous and enigmatic." Hopefully after Eva Green's Vesper and Olga Kurylenko's Camille, the filmmakers will continue making Bond girls who are Bond's equal as well as interesting characters who aren't just there for Bond to sleep with. All we need to do is wait a few years and Emma Stone will be reading to take the mantel!

I'm in the minority in thinking Quantum of Solace is one of the more underrated entries in the series but as solid as that film was, I think Skyfall may be the sequel to Casino Royale people really want. Ironically, according to Mendes, this film will be a self-contained adventure, without references to Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace. This makes sense since the last two films were about establishing how Bond became Bond, so to speak. In this film he can just be Bond...James Bond. Most Bond films have been self-contained adventures so this film will fit in with the continuity style of most of the films. Craig described the film yesterday as "Bond with a capital 'B'" which makes me excited for how the filmmakers  combine a more classical Bond film with the sensibilities that were established in Casino Royale. The idea of a Bond movie with these two sensibilities makes me feel Skyfall  could arguably be better than Casino Royale or at least reach the heights of that film. It'll have to have the emotional poignancy of that film, which is a big challege.

I feel this film will be the culmination of what started back in 2006 when Craig debuted in the role. Bond has gone from heartbroken rookie agent to the iconic character that's been on the screen for 50 years. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the very first Bond film. I like Craig as Bond, I like this cast, and I think Mendes is an appropriate director for this kind of more human based James Bond. Mendes' films deal with complex male characters and hopefully he'll get a chance to further develop Craig's Bond in this film. Mendes also said he wants to have the drama and action sequences to exist side by side instead of the action drowning the human elements of the film. Like Marc Forster, the director of Quantum of Solace, Mendes isn't primarily an action director. I didn't have a huge problem with Quantum of Solace's action  but hopefully after the criticisms that film recieved for the frantic editing of its action scenes, as well as the criticisms directed towards Christopher Nolan's action scenes, Mendes will carefully construct the action so it's clearer what is happening on screen.

James Bond returns in 2012. I think this will be a good one.