Monday, July 30, 2012

What You'll Want to be Watching: Fall's Returning Shows

     People who watch good television are spoiled. For every person who complains about how there is "never anything good on T.V.", there is another--much smarter--person who realizes that we are living in an entertainment viewer's dream, a decade of incredible dramas and hilarious comedies. Like a book that you can't put down, a worthy television show can suck you down into it's 10-12 episode depths. Take a look at some of the shows that will be returning sometime between September and October: Dexter is returning for it's seventh season on September 30th. Though I feel the series has really fallen off the rails since John Lithgow's wonderful turn as The Trinity Killer in season 4, it's nearly impossible to give up on it now. AMC's The Walking Dead returns on October 14th. For me, this extremely popular show is a series of high highs and low lows. The soap-opera story lines involving the annoying (Rick's wife and Andrea) group members is super tiresome, but some of the innovative action and underlying sense of dread makes it plenty worthwhile. Particularly great is this trailer for season 3, which feels like the show is headed in a darker direction.

     Two shows are really worth getting excited for. The first is the third season of HBO's Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire, which beams back onto our television sets on September 16th. A new trailer has been airing before some of HBO's recent shows, and although it doesn't show much new footage, it's clear that Nucky's (the always-getting-better Steve Buscemi) season 2 showdown with Jimmy has turned him into a force to be reckoned with. Watch the trailer here, but be warned about getting spoiled. Clearly, the focus on this shooting shows that Nucky has turned a major corner in his life, and there is sure to be major turmoil with Margaret becoming more independent (signified by Nucky's wedding ring fall off of his finger into the mud). Season 3--according to creator Terrance Winter--moves into the "roaring twenties" (1923, to be exact), when the economy began to really boom and illegal alcohol sales made people rich. It should be another wonderful journey into booze, gangsters and 1920's-era fashion and ferocity.
     The second is last year's best new show, Homeland, which returns for its second season on September 30th, directly after the premiere of Dexter. The Manchurian Candidate-esque plot follows CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, in a career-defining role), a bipolar and driven woman who hides her condition from her employer. After spending time on a mission in the Middle East, Carrie begins to believe that a recent POW, Brody (Damian Lewis), who has returned to the states, has actually been turned and is a double agent working for Al-Qaeda. It provides for plenty of tension as Carrie begins monitoring Brody illegally. Though the end of season 1 cleared up some answers, it also left some great questions to provide these new episodes with plenty of adult drama. Most people will come back for Danes' hectic performance, a woman on the brink of a psychotic episode at any moment. Like any spy/double agent story, Homeland's greatness relies on the characters figuring out the deep-down truth of a possible terrorist plot. But the question is, can Carrie trust her own mind, and can we--as the viewer--trust Carrie's CIA-honed instincts?

Monday, July 23, 2012

When Gotham is Ashes, The Dark Knight Rises

    In the seven years since Batman Begins was released, it's been clear that director Christopher Nolan's take on Bruce Wayne's story has been something a little different, a little scarier, a little closer to America's real-life situations than all of the other super-hero films (Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc.) that are supposed to be as funny as they are whimsical. By the time The Dark Knight was released, just the second film in Nolan's trilogy, the director and cast had already refined the apocalyptic vision of Gotham City and Batman into a film as close to perfection as a superhero movie can reach (helped tremendously by Heath Ledger's otherworldly performance). So it's no surprise, then, that The Dark Knight Rises is one of most anticipated cinematic experiences in years.
     Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, when Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent so Gotham could have a hero that they needed to become a better city. Bruce Wayne, secluded in a massive manor while Gotham became a city with less crime and more opportunity, once again has to come forward due to a new, incredibly powerful villain that is threatening not just Batman and Gotham's citizens, but its class and financial systems as well. The film is filled to burst with thoughts on terrorism and class warfare--I'm hesitant to mention 9/11 or the recent shooting at the Colorado theater, but when watching the film, it's hard not to react to a plot that feeds off of America's collective consciousness and our anxiety in a post-9/11 era, where fear (instead of hope) is pumped through every news station on television, fear as gross as raw sewage.
     The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan's last film about the caped crusader, and it comes with the same finality as a period at the end of a sentence. It helps having a brilliant core of actors at your disposal, willing to go to great lengths to make this a potent third and final installment (something rare in trilogies). Particularly great are three actors: Christian Bale has always been a great choice for Batman (even if you hate his over-the-top deep growl when donning the bat costume), but in The Dark Knight Rises his portrayal reaches a point of melancholy and sadness that was never reached in the previous two installments. His scenes with the great Michael Caine (as Alfred) boast a specific impressiveness, as the tears well up in his eyes when he finally says "Goodbye". Caine has always filled Alfred with humor and common-sense intelligence, and a little of that is here too, but his regret in this final film is what will gain him award nominations at the end of this year. Then we have the newcomer to this series, Tom Hardy, a brilliant actor who plays the muscly, brawling Bane, a man-beast of a villain who unfortunately had the job of living up to one of the greatest bad-guy performances in all of cinema. Though his motivations are a bit murky, his performance is admirable and full of force.
     Bane enters the city of Gotham intent causing Armageddon with his fists and a nuclear reactor core. He provides most of the action in the film, specifically in two key scenes that are exciting but didn't especially reach the greatness of The Dark Knight. In the first one, he takes over the city's stock exchange, then he and his crew make their getaway on some high-speed motorcycles with hostages strapped to the rear-end. It was good, but nothing that was better than most other summer blockbusters. At least we got out first look at Batman's new vehicle (aptly named "The Bat"), a flying well-armed machine that maybe seemed a bit out of place in this realistic superhero universe. If you've seen any of the trailer's for The Dark Knight Rises, then you've seen the second epic set piece: the destruction of Gotham's football stadium at the opening kickoff of a game. Unfortunately, this entire sequence was spoiled if you had seen the advertisement (some of the football players were from the real-life Pittsburgh Steelers, so also unfortunately, Hines Ward didn't fall in the massive hole on the field).
     But Bane isn't the only new character that provides a spark to this final installment: two new women provide a foil and love interest for Bruce Wayne and Batman. One is Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). It's fair to say many were skeptical to how Cat would fit into Nolan's universe, but Hathaway puts enough sass, sarcasm and sexiness into the pick-pocketing character to make it her own. The other is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a mysterious millionaire with interesting motivations that may save (or be the downfall of) Bruce Wayne's company. Like every woman who plays a major part in these three films, they quickly realize that getting close to Bruce (or Batman) may be far too dangerous to handle. And let us not forget about Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young cop on the Gotham force who realizes how powerful the hope that Batman's actions can bring to a folding community. He may play the most important role of all in the end to this trilogy.
     No, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't reach the heights of its predecessor, The Dark Knight. That would have been nearly impossible, an achievement that was almost completely unreachable. It suffers from too many new characters and a few predictable plot points near the end of its run time. It also isn't some grand statement on American culture (as some fan boys would lead you to believe), a prediction of what will happen when the rich keep getting richer and "leave so little for the rest of us," as Selina Kyle states. It's actually something much simpler: the final, entertaining, satisfying, sad, and--ultimately--hopeful end to one of the best big-budget trilogies in American cinema, a story of tortured souls in a treacherous environment who realize that the notion of hope is much more important than one specific costumed superhero.     (B+)

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Not Really Amazing Basically Pointless Spider-Man

     I can't imagine even the biggest super-fans of comic book film adaptations were screaming for this one: there have been three Spiderman films (before this) in the past eleven years, and those grew old faster than Tobey Maguire's whiney acting. By the time the third film of Sam Raimi's trilogy about the web-slinging hero and his love for Mary-Jane Watson hit theaters, the novelty of Spidey's story and the dated special effects left many viewers severing the silky web of love that they once held for the hero. Flash forward to the present day, and Hollywood--in its ever-greedy ways--has deemed it pertinent to reboot one of America's most famous superheros with a new director, fresher actors, but--unfortunately--essentially the same story. It's an entertaining and familiar film, and it's totally competent in every aspect of movie-making, but it feels like an old friend that (although fun to be around) you could do without.
     This is one of those origin stories that have been going around theaters faster than bedbugs spread at a Phish concert. At least Spiderman himself is played by someone a little more dangerous and exciting: Andrew Garfield, in one of his first major roles after his great turn in The Social Network, is usually likable/nerdy/sad (or some combination of the three) and has a bit more edge than Maguire's safer and cornier work. As we have learned in all of the different variations of Spiderman's universe, Peter Parker (Spiderman, obviously) comes to live with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen) after his parents disappear mysteriously. Field and Sheen play the role with just enough concern and understanding to be realistic. It's clear to Uncle Ben that Peter is in love with a blond-haired student at his high school, since Peter has her picture plastered on the background of his laptop. This girl is the love interest in this reboot, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and she is plenty more dangerous and sexy to make any viewer forget about Kirsten Dunst's stunted portrayal of Mary-Jane Watson.
    Gwen, like Peter, is a science standout. She's so good she somehow has a job at Oscorp, a huge company that deals with cutting-edge science and is led by Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), a right-arm amputee who is looking for the technology to regenerate limbs to help himself and--especially--humankind. He was also Peter's long lost father's coworker. When pushed to the breaking point, Dr. Curt squirts a non-human-tested substance into his vein to try and regain his arm--what he becomes is The Lizard, a creature with super-human strength (and super-human anger) that wreaks havoc throughout the city. His main goal is releasing a gas cloud over the population to also turn them into scaly, slimy, lizard-things (no, not Mischa Barton).
     So begins the second half of The Amazing Spider-Man, and it's all expected, (barely) exciting enough, and entertaining. The cops, led by comedian Denis Leary, are also on the chase, and they provide some mild laughs that are about 1/100th as funny as any of Leary's great stand-up specials. There are minutes upon minutes of Spiderman swinging across skyscrapers, scaffolding and fire escapes, hooting and hollering. Most of those scenes feel like an unwanted deja vu, as we had already seen plenty of that in Raimi's trilogy.
     This new adaptation is directed by Marc Webb, and it's only his second film. His first was the sometimes-charming sometimes-eye-rolling indie romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer. It's an interesting choice, and one that pays off in many aspects of this film: mainly the quieter moments, when Peter is interacting with his aunt and uncle or realizing his first experience of love with Gwen. Webb is completely competent in the web-slinging aspects too--but athough the action set pieces are good, they lack any particular originality or excitement that would make the film rise far above other typical summer comic book blockbusters. It all has a been-there, seen-that feeling that makes one wonder why Marvel would choose to reboot the Spiderman franchise as soon as they did. Oh will make hundreds of millions of dollars based on name brand alone. Ultimately, The Amazing Spider-Man is a solid adaptation that is familiar and mostly fun, but--unlike Spidey himself--it's hard to imagine anybody finding it great enough to shoot out some sticky white stuff.     (B-) 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Wes Anderson Hits His Whimsical Peak with Moonrise Kingdom

     At this point in director Wes Anderson's film career, it's very clear that your opinion of his movies are not going to change one way or the other: either you appreciate his ironic and quirky efforts, filled with his signature style, wit and life-size dollhouse sets, or you find his cinematic efforts the creations of a pretentious poser, films directed by a man who is unwilling to alter his technique or stories and is instead stuck in his idiosyncratic ways, never to be released from the casting of Bill Murray or Jason Schwartzman. I fall somewhere in the middle, always enjoying his films but never really loving them, unlike some of my close friends or many critics. After exploring loneliness, the need to escape, and familial tension in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson tried something different, directing a stop-motion animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, that turned out to be a funny breath of fresh air. The animated form fit perfectly with Anderson's directing techniques.
     So now, in 2012, Anderson returns to live-action films with the wonderful Moonrise Kingdom. It seems his break into animation sparked a new kind of creativity, because Moonrise is a film that not only contains one his best enclosed worlds (something he was already great at creating), but also a story about young love that rings more true than the rest of his back catalog. The film is set in 1965 on picturesque island off the coast of New England. It focuses on two parts of the island (from watching the film, you might think these characters are its only inhabitants): Suzy (Kara Hayward) lives with her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three younger brothers in a lighthouse called "Summer's End". Her parents are lawyers, and when Suzy starts exhibiting some troubling tendencies, instead of parenting they rely on a book about dealing with a troubled child. Sam (Jared Gilman) is a member of a scout camp led by Ward (Edward Norton). Sam's an outcast who wants to plot his own adventure to put his scouting skills to a real test.
      Sam decides to leave (escape) the scout camp with a great allusion to The Shawshank Redemption. Suzy leaves her dysfunctional family behind too. You see, Sam and Suzy had met the previous summer, plotting their escape from their respective too-many-rules homes. They have plotted a reunion in a desolate field on the island, the start of an adventure that leads them through love, danger, violence, and a natural disaster. They bring along things that are essential to them: Sam, ever the obsessed scout, can pitch a tent (in more ways than one) that would make Bear Grylls growl with jealousy. He has all of the things to survive in the wilderness.  Suzy, on the other hand, has brought a few of her library books, a little kitten, and a record player. Her wardrobe isn't quite suited for wandering through the brush or getting bitten by ticks, either.
     The young lovers follow an Indian trail that leads them to plenty of picturesque places, most notably a secluded beach where each of them first experience the loss of innocence and gaining of maturity. But I'm getting ahead of myself: obviously, Scout Leader Ward and Suzy's parents have launched a search party and contacted the authorities, mainly Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis, in a nice, charming change-of-pace role for the actor). Even the other scouts, who once picked on the runty Sam, get in on the action of trying to find the young couple. It doesn't give anything away to say that a hurricane is approaching that could wreck the island or grab Suzy and Sam and tear them apart from each other. We learn this within the first few seconds of the film's run time.
     One other thing is also certain within the first few seconds of the film's run time: this is--unquestionably--a Wes Anderson film. All of his usual winks and wit are present almost instantly. But this time, they are coming from his gut and heart instead of just his head. Yes, all of the characters in the film sometimes seem as though  they know they are in a Wes Anderson film, with their sarcasm, oddball humor and quizzical looks. But Sam and Suzy, with their nervous tension and will to break free from their families, provide a solid lightning rod to ground all of the exciting electricity from Moonrise Kingdom, one of the best films so far of 2012.     (A-)