Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

king-of-knights-cup Contains mild spoilers.

Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy? About a young prince, a knight, sent by his father the King of the East, west into Egypt, to find a pearl, a pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king, forgot about the pearl, and fell into a deep sleep. The king didn’t forget his son, he continued to send word, messengers, guides…but the prince slept on.

The above is a direct quote from the opening voiceover of director Terrence Malick’s latest work, and heavily symbolic of the narrative to follow. Rick (Christian Bale) is a thirty-something screenwriter in Los Angeles, living in a beautiful apartment, regularly attending lavish parties, and always draped in an expensive black suit. But he does not feel. His inner turmoil consumes him. By most accounts, he is dead inside, trapped in a realm of meaningless, material boundaries.

This is no purgatory. Malick is known for his awe-inspiring photography of nature (credit also cinematographer/longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), but he shoots Knight of Cups’ California backdrop, the skyscrapers, the highways, the man-made creations, in bland, neutral greys, rendering them unsettlingly lifeless. No, this is Terrence Malick’s Hell on Earth, and Rick its fallen angel, gazing upward, striving to return to the beaches, the water, the sky, the heavens.

Knight of Cups examines the existential crisis as mythological struggle. Rick searches, wanders from person to person, soul to soul, experience to experience, longing for meaning, for feeling. The film separates these segments by title cards, “The High Priestess,” “Death,” etc. Rick sees his immature brother (Wes Bentley) kicking skateboards around his lackluster apartment and goading Rick into fights. Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) rambles about giving up his life for his children, and in voiceover, continually reminds Rick to “remember the pearl.” A fellow womanizer (Antonio Banderas) speaks of his surroundings with a playboy’s disdain – “The world’s a swamp. We have to fly above it, so it’s just a speck.” Then there are the women – Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a nurse who hates how he moved her out to California, an exotic dancer (Teresa Palmer) who talks of Rick’s potential to be anything he wants to be, and a married woman (Natalie Portman) Rick falls in love with.

If you’re unfamiliar with Malick’s style, one might best describe it as visual poetry, a hypnotic, complementary combination of sights and sounds that seem to capture the spontaneity and spirituality of life itself. Every shot an essay and every word a double meaning, Malick’s films are the kind film students will be analyzing shot-by-shot for years to come. And for good reason – Malick challenges you to pay attention to the little details, trusting your intelligence as a viewer to be able to make connections and piece together the story from bits of voiceover and dialogue. There is a scene in which Rick passes by a sleeping homeless man – in one shot, the camera lies on the ground with the man, and in the next, Rick is bending over to examine him, a look of sympathy in his eyes. Just two shots contain a novel’s worth of commentary, and evoke such simple meaning, such basic human sympathy. It is truly amazing how much Malick can say with so little.

We can also infer a good deal about Rick’s character with only minimal background. In tarot reading, the Knight of Cups signifies a charming and romantic knight in shining armor bearing a cup to the world, but the reverse can be a sign of moodiness, of life failing to sync with expectations. Much can be made of Rick’s relationship with water as well – after a wild party, he is seen immersing himself in a pool, walking along the bottom, arms outstretched like an angel. In other sequences, Rick is often seen walking barefoot along the beach, to feel something perhaps? Is he waiting to be whisked away by a passing ship, like a castaway on an island? Another party he attends plays a song in which the lyrics celebratorily decree, “never gonna take me out to sea.” But Rick is tormented by them, wandering around, knowing no one.

For another, Rick’s screenwriting career isn’t very impactful towards his existence. We never see him actually writing, only big businessmen meeting with him and offering him great opportunities leading to fame and fortune. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Malick himself being a part of such meetings with major Hollywood executives pitching projects of little interest to him. In fact, much of Knight of Cups feels autobiographical; for one, there are mentions of another of Rick’s brothers that committed suicide, paralleling the death of Malick’s own brother Emil.

Knight of Cups is a bit colder than Malick’s last, the 2012 love odyssey To the Wonder. Perhaps that’s because Cups’ bleak portrayal of Hollywood excess comes across as alien to most of us; we are meant to be repulsed, yet I wanted to know more. In the end, the film leaves us with few answers to Rick’s struggle. We’re led to believe the film is building up to some great truth that never really materializes. But maybe that’s the point – Malick allows us to write our own ending. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths that we are left to navigate and overcome on our own. Malick is always overreaching with elements like this, but that’s what makes Malick Malick.

Above all, Knight of Cups is a breath of fresh air after a year so lacking in true art. As with any Malick film, its spirituality and existentialism open our minds, inspire us, and remind us to live in the moment, to feel at one with the world. It’s hard for someone like me not to want to interview Malick extensively on his technique, but such is near impossible given how notoriously reclusive the director is. Still, I hope to one day encounter him, perhaps on a beach somewhere, staring out at the water. I would probably just smile and nod at him. I like to think he’d smile back.

8/10

 

 

Sources: ew.com, biddytarot.com, keen.com

Ryan’s Top Ten of 2014

2014filmTransitional. Tumultuous. Tiring. All words to describe one of the most eventful years of my life. Perhaps that’s why, in contrast to my lists of years’ past, I was more keen to appreciate dramatic, think-y flicks over the clang and clutter of the mainstream Hollywood machine. Once again, better late than never, I present my Top Ten films of last year.

I did not have the opportunity to see two films from 2014 which remained on my must-see list: A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels and Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea. Sometimes even waiting until January can’t produce a complete list, so if either of these films proves worthy, I will post it as an additional entry.

Other films of last year I quite liked: David Wain’s gut-busting rom-com sendup They Came Together, Jon Favreau’s deliciously meta Chef, Alexandre Aja’s clever and unique Horns, Peter Jackson’s epic Middle Earth finale The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, David Ayer’s real, grimy Fury, J.C. Chandor’s crime saga throwback A Most Violent Year, and Michael Cuesta’s poignant and home-hitting Kill the Messenger.

10. 22 Jump Street

22jsBravo Jump Street series, for showing us that even Hollywood’s worst ideas can be made original and fresh with the right talent behind them. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as writer/star Jonah Hill, are that talent, turning the eye-rolling idea of adapting a forgotten 80’s TV show, into not one, but two uproariously funny, ultra self-aware parodies.

“Nobody gave a shit about the Jump Street reboot, but you got lucky. So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going,” comments police chief Nick Offerman dryly. “As if spending twice the money guaranteed twice the profit.”

Cue my shit-eating grin.

22 Jump Street takes the absurd, clichéd idea of a same-y buddy-cop sequel and runs, no, skips along delightedly with it. Not only does the film mock the very idea of the sequel, but it uses its predictability to play up a meta-relationship dynamic between leads Hill and Channing Tatum, who’re just two partners who must “investigate other people” before realizing what they’ve already got in each other. If these movies continue on for years to come as 22 Jump Street’s credits suggest, consider my tickets bought and paid for.

9. Exodus: Gods and Kings

exodus2014 proved that America still loves playing the race card, and Ridley Scott’s vastly underappreciated Exodus was an unfortunate casualty of society’s increasingly erratic and irrational views on race. These arguments, easily diffused if one knows even a shred of detail about the way Hollywood works, divert attention from the real issues Exodus brings to light on religion, interpretation, and mythologization.

Gods and Kings is a gritty, contemporary retelling of the myth of Moses (Christian Bale), how he rose up against brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), and led the Jewish people to freedom. Yet refreshingly, the film occupies a closer approximation of the real world, portraying the events of the myth with objectivity, rather than rehashing the larger-than-life tale of religious folklore. And that’s exactly how modern society needs to start viewing its myths – from a more critical, objective, and rational perspective. Best of all, Exodus doesn’t pander to the faith-based market by forcing the viewer to accept the existence of God in the story. Rather, it allows them to come to their own conclusions based on the events that occur – does Moses truly wield the power of God, or is he just schizophrenic?

While its first act does drag, its third more than makes up for it, standing as a powerful look at how faith and religion can drive men insane, destroy nations, and change the world. The always-solid Scott evokes great performances, staging, and direction as always, and while Exodus isn’t his best, it’s certainly one of his ballsiest.

8. A Walk Among the Tombstones

a walk among the tombstones trailerIf Non-Stop was Liam Neeson’s finest actioner since Taken, then Tombstones is his best dramatic turn since…wait, when was the last time Neeson made a compelling drama? Perhaps that’s why audiences seeking thrills over thought ignored A Walk Among the Tombstones, a true showcase of the actor’s many talents. Based on the novels by Lawrence Block, Tombstones follows recovering-alcoholic detective Sam Scudder (Neeson) on a mission to find the man, or men, who kidnapped, raped, and murdered the wife of a drug dealer (Dan Stevens), in the process enlisting the help of computer-savvy orphan TJ (Astro). Tombstones is, by most accounts, standard detective fare and won’t win any points for originality. But who cares? It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a really good thriller of this kind, a grisly (yet never exploitative), hard-boiled, plot-driven neo-noir that’s well written, well-acted, and well-directed. Writer/director Scott Frank is wise to keep his original script’s Y2K setting, the perfect backdrop for a grim detective story, and the way he stages the final sequence set to Scudder’s reading of the 12 Steps to Recovery is brilliant editing. Tombstones is a rare subtle, smart film that proves familiar isn’t always bad.

7. Joe

cage-joe2Original Review

Most would hesitate to label Nicolas Cage’s career as anything other than ‘wildly inconsistent.’ But undeniably, when the actor hits his mark, he hits it with shocking resonance. In his best performance since 2009’s The Bad Lieutenant, Cage plays Joe, a mysterious southern laborer who begins taking under his wing local boy Gary (Tye Sheridan), who’s in need of both a job and a father. Director David Gordon Green captures some breathtaking, genuine southern imagery in a film that feels born and bred of the region. This is a place that raises generations of people succumbed to temptation and indulgence, including Gary’s abusive alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). With Gary, Joe seeks to right his own wrongs and set the boy on the right path he himself has too often strayed from. Like a dirty, rural Gran Torino, Joe is quiet and poignant, traits which carry over into one of its leading man’s best roles.

6. Enemy

enemy_nws1If I could halt time for a week, I would spend that week delving into the many layers, puzzles, and intricacies of Enemy. Easily one of the most dense, complicated films of this year many years before it, Enemy deserves hearty praise for its ability to pull an audience into its web (pun intended) of complexion. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the dual role of Adam and Anthony, two very different men that nonetheless look the same. But why? How? Enemy is an examination of self, identity, relationships with women, and really big spiders. But it’s also an exploration of totalitarianism and domination, not in the form of physical dictators, but, through societal patterns and motifs, inevitable human nature. Are we doomed to repeat our same mistakes without even thinking about it? These and many, many more questions will be asked of viewers, thought we never feel taxed by them, only challenged.

Enemy is shot with a mesmerizing, beautifully-lit gold aura, supplemented by focused performances and a subtle, haunting score, adding up to some of the most memorable imagery of recent memory. Enemy demands you to think, scattering clues throughout the film to suggest deeper metaphorical truths than its surface narrative might suggest. Yet the film’s answers are never too out of reach, and allow intelligent audiences to come to their own interpretations when all’s said and done. Watch the film, then delve deeper with these two great analyses.

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

DF-07401 - Logan/The Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) finds himself in the distant past as he becomes the catalyst in an epic battle that can save the future.Original Review

The latest installment of the rejuvenated X-franchise feels plucked directly from the Saturday morning cartoon vein, when this week, all your favorite characters travel back in time, meet their younger selves, then team up with each other to save the present. I mean that, of course, in the best possible way – Days of Future Past is a lot of fun, but what sets it apart from all the old cartoons is how deftly it juggles so many characters and subplots in one epic overarching narrative. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to First Class-era 1973 to prevent Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from using Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to create an army of sentinels, which threaten to plunge the present, last seen in The Last Stand, into a dystopian future. Featuring all A-listers at the top of their pulp-game, not only does Days of Future Past bring full-circle each of its many character arcs across the series’ 14-years-and-growing lifespan, the film proves even more entertaining and intelligent than any of its past installments.

Credit Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, and Matthew Vaughn, perhaps the only talent capable of fixing the X-franchise, as well as the major turnaround at home studio Fox, all of whom have finally realized the potential of the subgenre, and helped create one of its finest and most sophisticated entries. More, please.

4. Interstellar

interstellar trailerI’ve always found Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to be one of the most terrifying aspects of space travel. Mere hours to the traveler equals years, decades to everyone he/she knows and loves back home. Interstellar might be one of the first films to confront that pain, the pain of seeing your friends, your family, all moving on without you. In the film’s most heart-wrenching sequence, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives a video message from his daughter, now aged the same as him, and watches her relate to him all that he’s missed in the mere days he’s been away. Cooper cries openly, and I’m not too proud to admit, I’m holding back tears too.

Those are the kind of emotional cords Interstellar strums perfectly between its sophisticated, occasionally overwrought narrative of a group of scientists travelling into deep space to find and colonize a new world for humanity. Sophisticated and overwrought is Christopher Nolan for you, who’s also consciously channeling some great influences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, right down to the soundtrack. Look past the breakneck pacing and regular leaps in logic. Interstellar is a better emotional ride than a logical one, an ambitious, complex film which bears a profound sense of wonder missing from most films today.

3. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

x011_BM_04337_04342_R2.JPGJournalist types who’ve hailed Birdman as “Michael Keaton’s comeback,” congratulations, you’ve been had by the very film you’re reviewing. Yes, Keaton did play Batman, and yes, he hasn’t been in a lot of high-profile movies since then, but to suggest a parallel there between him and his character is missing the point. Birdman seeks to subvert, among other things, journalists who sensationalize and critics who critique based on expectation rather than art itself. Birdman is, in part at least, about the ways commercialism hinders that art.

Riggan (Keaton), former ‘Birdman’ actor of the 90’s, is now seeking a career in Broadway, struggling against an audience who cannot take him seriously. Among his obstacles are Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor impassioned by his own vision for his character, and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who sees her father as a failure. Riggan hears the voice of the Birdman character in his head, a voice of temptation and doubt. My favorite scene comes when Riggan aimlessly wanders the streets of New York, and in his mind, Birdman is flying right behind him, amidst CGI-fueled chaos of a giant robot bird attacking the city. Breaking the fourth wall, Birdman flies up to the camera and taunts, “This is what you want, isn’t it?!” And for many audiences, it is.

And therein lies the Unexpected Virtue in Ignorance. We as an audience use film to shroud ourselves from reality, escape from the harshness of challenge. We want that robot bird to fight Birdman because we don’t want to think, we want our movies quick and vapid, sensational and empty. What we don’t often realize is that the true artists out there are spilling blood, suffering, bearing their souls out trying to bring their art to life. And even when media sensationalism begins to overshadow the art itself, in the end, artists will take whatever exposure they can get, so long as their work gets seen. That’s the tragedy Riggan faces, and the one all true artists do too.

Birdman is shot and edited to give the impression of being captured in a single take, like its own longform Broadway play. It’s also funny, clever, and one of the most original movies of the year, commenting on success, failure, and scandal, all set to a smooth, jazzy soundtrack. Birdman is the type of movie that, the more you’re willing to think about it, the more you’ll get out of it. Which is why most people raised on the Hollywood machine won’t get it.

2. Gone Girl

HT_gone_girl_ben_affleck_sk_140708_16x9_992Of all the films this year that slyly held a mirror up to society, only Gone Girl had the balls to reflect the realest, rawest flaws in all of us. Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) is accused of killing his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The media is quick to paint him guilty of the murder, the 24-hour news cycle’s endless speculation fueling deeper and deeper anti-Nick sentiment. Yet what follows midway through the film, if it hasn’t already, will blow your mind. Suddenly, this is a film about something bigger than just a murder.

I offhandedly described Gone Girl to a friend as the anti-relationship movie. While it could certainly fill that role neatly, Gone Girl is moreso a brilliant social satire of marriage, relationships, and how men and women think, feel, and perceive each other, all in the foreground of a global, salivating audience ready to feast on scandal. We watch as gender-biased newscasters (hello Nancy Grace lookalike) are quick to judge. We cringe as we learn the truth behind the murder. We’re intrigued to see how Nick uses the media to share his own perception of reality. And we’re crushed to learn the shocking and disturbing conclusion he chooses to settle on. It’s an ending which, while unrealistic on the surface, remains all too real on a metaphorical level. And just like that, Gone Girl is about how the guns we hold to our loved ones’ heads aren’t just made of metal, resulting in the little metaphorical deaths we all face in relationships, the lies we tell our friends, our family, the world, even ourselves, that everything is okay.

Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn, adapting her eponymous novel, create a genuinely twisted, terrifying murder mystery, set to a minimalist soundtrack and featuring pitch-perfect direction from Fincher. Gone Girl is simply a damn good film with a powerful message to send to the world – gender politics makes liars, even murderers, of us all.

1. Boyhood

boyhood_still2_ellarcoltrane_byboyhoodinc_2014-01-_87511657There are two directors whom I believe have come the closest to portraying absolute naturalism in their work. The first is Terrence Malick, crafting pieces that seem to mirror nature to a T. The second is Richard Linklater who, while a more traditional narrative filmmaker, is no less talented at conveying, not in words but pictures, what it means to be human.

When I first discovered Linklater in the simple, beautiful Before Sunrise, I felt a remarkable connection to the filmmaker. Dialogue from Ethan Hawke’s character, wherein he expressed desire to create a TV show running 24/7 and portraying the real, unedited life of an ordinary man, mirrored some of my own idle thoughts on using film to depict life, love, legacy, and how they are each affected by the passage of time. And over the past ten years, Linklater has been working in the shadows to do just that – create a sort of video time capsule, a chronology of some of the most vital years of a man’s life, illustrating with stunning accuracy how it feels to grow up and make connections with family and friends amidst a complicated world of adult problems.

Boyhood, a film which gathered its cast and crew once a year every ten years to shoot scenes for the film, realizes almost all of its ambitions. My only nitpick stems from something I think Linklater hadn’t counted on – the change in his lead Ellar Coltrane, playing the principle boy lead Mason. By the time the film begins to explore Mason’s teenage sexual dalliances, Coltrane seems to be straying from where the script intends to take his character, and all I can think about is, “Are we sure this kid even LIKES girls?” Props to Linklater for sticking to the template, but I suppose this is just one of the little ways the passage of time doesn’t completely work in the film’s favor.

All the same, Boyhood transported me back to a consciousness I haven’t occupied in years, seeing the world through bright, curious, unseasoned eyes. It excels at ushering us back to a time when life just sort of happened all around us, a time when we were simply along for the ride, learning and watching, before finally standing up and discovering who we really are. Linklater has an innate knack for making even the simplest of life’s moments profoundly meaningful, and Boyhood proves his most vital film yet.

Ryan’s Top Ten of 2013

2013Before I kick off my annual reflection on the past year in cinema, I’d like to take a brief moment to say how annoyed I am having to wait until halfway into January before I can even come close to completing my conclusive Top Ten list. Many of the year’s best offerings came either at the tail end of December or the very beginning of January, technically still counting as part of the prior year (in the Academy’s eyes, anyway) due to limited theater screenings. It’s an irritating practice which continues to be a thorn in my side; why not just keep the 2013 movies in 2013, instead of delaying their release to a month when Top Ten of the Year lists have become largely irrelevant?

I digress. On with my best ofs, beginning with a few honorable mentions:

42 – In spite of some of the more recent racially-minded biopics of Awards season, I toss my hat behind a more inspiring, enlightening film about African-American social liberation. Great performances and a solid script make 42 a poignant film about overcoming social hardship.

Don Jon – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a touching look at modern sexual relationships, and the way both men and women carry distorted perceptions of them. It’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t feel concocted in a studio, instead living and breathing in the real world.

The Place Beyond the Pines – Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance’s latest is a mesmerizing odyssey of family pain. We watch two generations embody their father’s flaws, doomed to repeat their lineage. Shifting in characters and perspectives seamlessly, this April release proves a surprisingly meaningful experience.

Lone Survivor – While it doesn’t do anything new with the genre, Peter Berg’s pet project is a film about the qualities that separate humanity from the inhuman, the peacemakers from the warmongers. It is a film about why, in spite of overwhelming pain, we choose to sacrifice our lives for the good of others. And it’s powerful stuff.

The Counselor – Director Edgar Wright believes Ridley Scott’s epic crime drama to be a future cult film, and I completely agree. The unfairly reviled Counselor is one of the year’s most unforgivingly truthful films, boasting a great, if labored script by Cormac McCarthy. I suspect most critics had read the leaked script beforehand, and what they saw didn’t measure up to what they’d imagined. Or maybe they’re just dense. Probably a bit of both.

And finally, my picks for the best films of 2013:

10. Out of the Furnace

out-of-the-furnace-still-4One of the many things I admire about Scott Cooper’s modern western is its defiance of Hollywood and revenge-thriller conventions – the hero doesn’t get the girl in the end, its shootout sequences only take place during the third act, and even after its conflict is resolved, so many questions remain about its protagonist’s choices. Most importantly, Cooper understands that the best revenge stories aren’t about the chase or the final kill. They’re about people, and about pain.

Out of the Furnace is dirty, down-to-earth, and deliberate, staging a family where brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are torn apart in their differing ideals. One makes an honest living in the steel mill, the other is a fighter, unwilling to work with steel the rest of his life and ignoring his brother’s protests. After a fight for a dangerous drug-addicted employer (Woody Harrelson), Affleck’s character seems to disappear, leaving Bale’s character to determine how to deal with his pain.

With some great performances and thoughtful direction, Out of the Furnace is a simple, yet subtle film that sucks you in to its world of hurt. I’d love to see Cooper helm an actual period-piece western next.

9. Her

her-joaquin-phoenix-8Like last year’s Joaquin Phoenix-starring The Master, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Her, a story of a geeky, lonely man named Theodore (Phoenix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent program (voice of Scarlett Johansson). It portrays, rather objectively, a disturbingly impersonal world not far removed from our own. Here, personalized letters are dictated by staff writers in the buyer’s own handwriting. Everyone in sight is looking down at his/her phone and holding a Bluetooth device in one ear. Technology has sensationalized, altered, and masked us from reality. It has become pornographic, turning us into selfish people craving on-demand updates and searching for instant gratification. Real human relationships are fewer and more far between.

Observe the brief scene with Olivia Wilde, who plays a beautiful woman on a date with Theodore. She essentially throws herself at him, desperate for a connection, but Theodore disconnects when he learns she wants a serious relationship. She recoils, saying, “You’re a really creepy dude.” And he is; despite his people-reading skills, a lost love has kept him from forming connections with others. It’s a commentary on the world we may soon occupy; before the date, Theodore pulls up her Facebook pictures during a video game session, and a kid playing the game with him online sees the pics, telling Theodore, “She’s fat.”

One could go crazy analyzing all there is to experience in Her. It is a profound study of love and human relationships, a timely look at today’s world’s generally declining ability to cultivate connections with one another. What forms does love take? How do we define it? Can technology define and convey human emotion? The film poses infinite questions about this technology’s relationship with humanity, many of which parallel that of real-life committed relationships – how two people can grow apart, meet other people, etc.

Her is also one of the most challenging films of the year, and yanked me out of my comfort zone with its innately polarizing portrayal of humanized machinery. I’m cold to its romantic conventions (which adhere a bit too closely to formula between the second and third acts), but that’s not really the point. Technology can be a great tool in forming and maintaining new relationships. It can appear wonderful and understanding on the surface at first. But technology doesn’t feel, and when we let it take control of us, well…it can only end in loneliness. There are powerful and gripping qualities about Her, and I hope to god society hears its message.

8. Rush

Rush-2013In my review of Rush, I described a film about the contrasting ideologies and bitter opposition of two men driven in their professions. It is a film not so much about the racing of cars as it is the people behind the wheel. It’s an important stipulation, one which writer Peter Morgan indeed channeled while writing the film:

I thought no one was ever going to come to me and say ‘Please will you write a story about an Austrian and an Englishman and examine the cultural differences between the two?’ That would never occur to anybody. So I thought ‘I’ll write it because it interests me.’

The approach is all the better for Rush, an accessible yet sophisticated blockbuster in the typical Ron Howard biopic vein – it details both James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nikki Lauda’s (Daniel Bruhl) backstories, their characters, their respective love lives, and their tragic hubris. In the end, Rush has no winners or losers, just a lifelong relationship between two men with very different outlooks on racing, and in turn, life.

7. Saving Mr. Banks

Saving-Mr.-Banks-Reviews-starring-Tom-Hanks-and-Emma-Thompson-2013It took John Lee Hancock’s latest period piece to remind me just how much Mary Poppins meant to me as a kid. Is it strange that I still catch myself whistling “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Step in Time,” and countless others at my age? No matter; even more passionate than I about the film was the original novel’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). And in her and Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) conflicting visions for the film, Saving Mr. Banks presents the timeless and important message that even a reconciliation of truth and imagination can be just as, if not more poignant than the truth itself.

We watch Travers’ heartbreaking childhood as her father (Colin Farrell) fosters her creative energies, yet begins drinking himself into oblivion. We feel for her and her fight for her work as she clings tightly to the most minute details of the novel’s story, really her life story, on her quest to redeem her father. We feel for Disney, who just wants to make a fun, engaging picture for children, something to mask them from the reality of the world they live in. Both Thompson and Hanks nail the speech and mannerisms of their respective characters, and the script is an excellent one.

Saving Mr. Banks is one of the most heartfelt films of the year, a delightful walk down memory lane which hits all the right emotional notes. It’s charming, it’s poignant, and it’s sugarcoated, but…just a spoonful.

6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

dos4What shines most in the second act of Peter Jackson’s epic Hobbit saga is the incredible stuntwork and action sequences. The returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) once more flies around in gravity-defying fashion, no doubt to the seething of die-hard fans still cringing from the archer’s shield-surfing abilities in The Two Towers. But above all, these stunts provide something we’ve never seen on film before – a fantastic mid-film barrel-riding sequence, which sees Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Co. travelling down an out-of-control river trapped in barrels, all while being pursued by a vicious pack of Orcs. Jackson’s camera is so integrated in the action, you’d swear you’d been whisked away onto a wet theme park ride.

As I’ve endlessly gushed before, The Hobbit films are some of the most well-designed, enchanting fantasies put to film. Not only are the effects outstanding, but the storytelling, combining the more fantastical leanings of the novel with Jackson’s more blockbuster approach, is equally brilliant. How do they get around the many talking animals of the novel, not present in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films? Make it so their speech can only be heard when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) puts on the ring. Smart. Then there’s the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, providing not just a deliciously evil voice for the dragon, but a deliciously evil mo-cap performance.

People will continue to bitch and moan about the Hobbit films not covering nearly as much story ground per film as the Lord of the Rings films did. And no, unfortunately, the films don’t seem to want to have much to do with their title protagonist. But The Desolation of Smaug is another Middle-Earth outing from a master of the escapist adventure yarn that yet again manages to deliver a brilliantly-crafted, outstandingly-designed piece of storytelling.

5. Nebraska

nebraskaIn discussing his latest film’s back-and-white color palette, writer/director Alexander Payne says he chose the look because, “[he] just knew it from when [he] read the script.” Yet only a true master of the art could make such a decision and have it work so beautifully. It’s a testament to Payne’s ability to downplay the thoughtfulness he exudes so fluently in his work.

Nebraska is a film about fathers and sons, families and legacies. We laugh watching the older members of the family having short, trivial conversations with siblings they haven’t seen in ages. It always seems like family reaches a point where they simply run out of things to talk about. The exception is of course June Squibb’s character, who speaks candidly about her sex life as if she were 50 years younger. She has a great scene defending her husband Woody (Bruce Dern) against the vultures that are now their family members, asking for a share in Woody’s purported million-dollar winnings.

It’s another of Payne’s dramedies that captures both the pain and the humor of life, examining the true nature of people and creating characters that feel so genuine they could easily be real. This time, Payne provides quite a few flattering shots of the Midwestern state, painting a pitch-perfect image of the setting in gorgeous black-and-white. I’d speculate that color scheme is intended to reflect Woody’s single-mindedness in collecting his million. Maybe Payne just has an innate sense for these things.

4. Man of Steel

ffa54_man-steel-trailer-supermanLike Batman Begins before it, Man of Steel isn’t merely an excellent comic book movie, but an excellent film period. The traditional Superman mythology is rebirthed into something fresher and closer to reality, yet remains as hopeful and heartfelt as any of the character’s greatest adventures. And like Begins, it answers the simple question of why its hero exists as one of the greatest of his kind, not just for modern times, but for all time.

Henry Cavill was born to play this more human Superman, making for one of the best onscreen incarnations of the character yet. The rest of the cast, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, and more, all fill their roles memorably and ably. Clark’s relationship to Lois Lane is the story’s heart, the latter no longer acting as his damsel in distress, but his connection to humanity, his savior just as much as he is hers. The film’s final scene proves the most interesting moments of their new dynamic are yet to come.

It’s a shame that so many, including Superman: Birthright author Mark Waid, were so quick to dismiss Man of Steel based on its controversial resolution, which I felt to be the perfect way to illustrate exactly how Superman came to his immovable, unwavering ideals. Since my original review, I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is no Superman: the Movie, but truly, there is something here for every Superman fan to love, bits taken from every era of comicdom, yet a whole that rings an entirely new tune. For all his faults, director Zack Snyder musters a heroic iconography, a visual palette to this point unseen in the subgenre. And kudos to Goyer’s smart script, taking what could’ve been another predictable, mundane origin story to some unexpected places. Luckily, it doesn’t neuter the character in the slightest, only his surroundings, boiling the Superman mythology down to its core of a man lost and alone in the world, looking to find his niche and help people wherever he goes. It’s real, it has pathos, and proves that, above all, Superman is like us. A man.

3. American Hustle

American HustleHustle’s original script was titled “American Bullshit,” and for good reason – the film is a defining look at the fronts we put up, the masks we wear, and the lies we tell. There’s a reason why every character in the movie has bad hair – watch Christian Bale in the opening sequence, going through a lengthy morning comb-over ritual to mask his insecurities.

American Hustle sees bullshitters bullshitting each other in its tale of con men in search of riches. But no character is able to escape his/her flaws – Bale’s character’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) has a set of lipstick and makeup which she uses to “keep him coming back.” The accessories are flower-scented, but “with a hint of garbage.” It’s that hint of garbage that Bale’s character can’t stand, and which is always there to send well-laid plans up in flames…literally.

I had a blast watching and dissecting director David O. Russell’s latest. His style doesn’t always work in the film’s favor, but when it does, it does beautifully. Set to a fantastic retro ‘70s soundtrack and boasting some excellent performances (including a surprise Russell alum who’s perfectly cast), Hustle is my early prediction for a well-deserved Best Picture win.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

wolfofwallstreetI saw Martin Scorsese’s bombastic new film in a packed Saturday matinee showing, where I was seated next to two elderly ladies, both of whom clearly hadn’t the slightest idea of the kind of film they’d walked into. Every time a scene involving over-the-top sex or drug use played, the women were taken aback, thoroughly offended. “This is disgusting,” one of them groaned in protest, amongst shared complaints about the film’s length and how much longer their bowels could stand to be held.

Ordinarily I’d be pissed. I wasn’t. I smiled at every comment, because their whining told me Mr. Scorsese had done his job and done it beautifully.

The Wolf of Wall Street packs three hours of hilariously indulgent black comedy portraying the unbelievable life of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Belfort occasionally addresses the audience directly, taking us through his exorbitant lifestyle fueled by greed and excess. Like a sort of Bizarro-Jesus, he inspires those around him to act the same way, saying, “Give me them young, hungry, and stupid, and in no time I’ll make them rich.” Eat your heart out, lady liberty.

It’s DiCaprio’s unforgettable performance that makes the film, his sheer amount of range bringing Belfort to life in a way no other actor could. If this film doesn’t prove to be his first Oscar win, the Academy are thieves. And it’s his director Scorsese, whom DiCaprio convinced to do the film in the first place, who once again knocks it out of the park, proving he’s one of the few remaining American New Wave directors who hasn’t lost a beat. Many have spread the idea that Wolf advocates for Belfort’s lifestyle. Are they daft? It’s no more a celebration of Belfort’s life than Goodfellas was of Henry Hill’s. And it has me praying that Scorsese isn’t as close to retirement as he may think.

1. To the Wonder

ttwI regret to admit that 2011’s Tree of Life led me to write off director Terrence Malick as pretentious, his lofty intentions exceeding his abilities to tell a coherent, compelling story. I was nonetheless inclined to check out this, the subject of critic Roger Ebert’s final, glowing review. To the Wonder is everything he claimed it to be and more, and I was left awestruck by the magnitude of its simple, majestic beauty.

It’s a story we’ve heard before: boy meets girl, boy plans to marry girl, boy has doubts, girl leaves, boy has flings elsewhere, boy returns to girl. And yet, there is a profound sense of unfamiliarity here, the story told more meaningfully than perhaps I’ve ever seen it told. Stars Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko shine in their deeply nuanced performances, conveying so much with so little.

In my original review, I described the film to be like a moving painting, or a homemade video of a family member stumbling upon a series of intimate moments. Perhaps To the Wonder is best described as visual poetry; as we listen to the monologues from character to character, we are inundated with Malick’s graceful, naturalistic visuals, the very grace that Javier Bardem’s priest character is struggling to find. It’s a style all it’s own, and truly, Malick’s work represents some of the highest-caliber art a film can reach. Many will dismiss it as too demanding, but I maintain To the Wonder rewards every ounce of attention you lend to it.

Ryan’s Most Anticipated of 2014

So excited was I for 2014’s potential slate of films that I’d actually had a draft of this list written up back in July. Several release date changes, new additions, and comprehensive rewrites later, and here we are at my final list of eagerly-awaiteds. And I haven’t settled for just ten.

15. Exodus

exodus-christian-baleAs an atheist, formerly a COFC (Child of Forced Christianity), biblical films have often rubbed me the wrong way. In part, it’s people’s cultish fanaticism, the outdated lies the church feeds to gullible geriatrics, and the sick way it lends its “seal of approval” to certain films dealing in its scripture. It’s also why I’ll likely be skipping Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – the director spoon-fed me enough Christian tripe in The Fountain to last a lifetime.

Yes, I am an atheist. Happily, so is Ridley Scott.

So it seems Exodus is aiming for something a bit deeper than propaganda. The smartest religion-based films all have a sense of spirituality about them, not in a pandering sense, but to appeal to the similarities we share as a species. Our fears, our hopes, our desires, these emotions transcend organized religion and speak to each of us on a personal level. Scott, who handled even the most heavy-handed Christian themes in last year’s Prometheus admirably, should be able to strike that cord with a more universal tone. On top of that, Christian Bale will almost certainly prove a fantastic casting choice as Moses.

14. Maps to the Stars

file_177163_1_map-of-the-stars1I prefer director David Cronenberg when he’s making hard-edged mystery movies like A History of Violence over winking, meta works like eXistenZ, but the director’s latest film dealing with, according to star Julianne Moore, “the pursuit of fame at any cost,” has me intrigued. And already the signs of Cronenberg’s trademark meta-ness are there – this is the first film the 70-year old Canadian filmmaker has ever shot in Los Angeles, a film being produced by the very people he’ll be criticizing.

Maps to the Stars began as a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, who turned it into the novel “Dead Stars” after the project fell through, then re-adapted it into a screenplay when it was picked up again. The New York Times described Wagner’s novel as, “Stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting.” Sounds right up Cronenberg’s alley.

13. 22 Jump Street

16-22-jump-streetI’d forgotten just how much I loved last year’s 21 Jump Street until I bought and re-watched the film on a whim during Black Friday. It is a truly hilarious movie, one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with its self-aware sending-up of the action genre. The film also did some really clever stuff portraying the generational gap between this and last decade’s high schoolers, which spoke to my funny bone more than even the passing years ever could.

Its sequel presents a similar premise, with Schmidt and Jenko (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) heading to college to find and bust up a new drug ring. I love the fact that the film unabashedly revels in the absurdity of its new title, being named as such simply because the cops now occupy the church across the street. My only concern is that the original screenwriters aren’t present, but luckily its directors are, so hopefully 22 Jump Street won’t fall victim to the typical comedy sequel pitfall of, you know, completely tarnishing the original film (ahem, Hangover).

12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy-Serkis-as-Caesar-in-Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was easily the best Apes film since the 1968 original, effectively relaunching the dormant franchise by going back and telling the backstory behind the simians’ takeover of Earth. It was smart about paying homage to the series’ legacy, while doing enough of its own thing to justify its own existence. One of the best surprises of the year was hearing the familiar, “Get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” followed by Caesar’s bellow of, “NO!” All I remember thinking was, “oh shit!”

Now it’s four years later, and the hyper-intelligent apes have been training and populating the forest where James Franco left them. The humans are now contemplating war against the apes to take back their land. How will the apes continue developing their speech? Will they start using obscenities? Have they perfected their British accents yet? Either way, with some likely incredible effects work from WETA and a motion-captured Andy Cerkis, let’s hope newbie Apes director Matt Reeves can keep this fire stoked.

11. The Expendables 3

expendables-2-logoTo call the Expendables films a guilty pleasure would imply some sort of guilt. I am completely, totally, unabashedly in support of Stallone’s biennial teaming of the best and boldest action stars for one big, fun ass-kicking session. And this time around the roster additions are even more impressive: Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Antonio Banderas round out an already outstanding ensemble of action veterans.

Behind the camera is Red Hill director Patrick Hughes, an interesting choice, one which matches Stallone’s desire to inflict the series with new blood. Let’s just hope the casting of several pretty-boy nobodies won’t take the focus off the more established actors who better deserve the pat on the back. Let’s also hope this isn’t the last we see of Stallone’s franchise; with stars like Nicolas Cage (sought out for this installment, eventually replaced by Kelsey Grammar due to scheduling issues), Kurt Russell, and several other action greats who’ve still yet to enter the fray, it’d be a damn shame for Stallone to retire the team without giving them their time to shine.

10. A Million Ways to Die in the West

amwtditw2Last year’s Ted proved Seth McFarlane wasn’t just a capable showrunner, but a capable film director as well, seamlessly translating his self-referential, gross-out, 80s-referencing, gut-bustingly funny brand of humor to the silver screen. I can’t wait to see what he does with his latest, a parody of the western genre featuring a mess of celebrities in either major roles or cameos (Liam Neeson!). It’ll be a true test of McFarlane’s abilities, seeing if he can’t handle the bigger budget and star-studded cast. But with the way he gracefully took it on the chin during his  unfairly reviled Oscar hosting gig, I have no doubt McFarlane can pull it off. And hey, it can’t be any worse than the current state of his familiar animated cartoon show, which has long outstayed its welcome.

9. Maleficent

maleficent-watch-first-trailer-movie-angelina-jolieWith Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland pushed back to 2015, I’ve turned to another film for my classic Disney fix – this retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its antagonist, starring Angelina Jolie in a role she is absolutely perfect for.

The film should prove an intriguing re-invention of the timeless Disney mythology. The spindle, the thicket forest, it’s all there thanks to production designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg, who also worked on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a film which certainly can’t be faulted for its design. There’s also Beauty and the Beast scribe Linda Woolverton and DC Animated writer Paul Dini on scripting duties, both of whom are sure to bring something special to the film.

On top of that, the character herself was the stuff of my childhood nightmares. There’s just something  innately terrifying about her appearance on a very primal level, and the film’s trailer already showcases a doozy of an exchange between her and Aurora:

“Don’t be afraid!”

“I am not afraid.”

“Then come out!”

“Then you will be afraid.”

*shivers*

8. Gone Girl

gone-girlLately I feel as though I’d been unfair to the subject of my first full blog-based review, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I should’ve better appreciated the film’s atmosphere, its slick mystery plot and unique character portrayal. I very much hope to be better singing Fincher’s praises on his next novel adaptation.

Fincher, whose talents are probably better suited here than on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake, will direct the story of a man searching for his lost bride from a script by the novel’s original author Gillian Flynn. I haven’t read the novel, but the promise of neo-noir-like themes of deception and paranoia between the couple intrigues me. It’ll prove interesting to see how Flynn chooses to adapt her novel’s way of revealing plot points entirely from the perspective of its leads (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). And on a side note, Affleck himself has been making some very smart career choices lately (Runner Runner excluded), so I have to give him credit for really growing up in a big way. This is definitely a film I’m watching out for.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

xmdofpIt wasn’t until very recently that I began to truly appreciate what director Bryan Singer had done on X-Men. Yes, I’d reasoned, the 2000 film rejuvenated the comic book movie. Yes, it spurred studios to begin taking pulp properties seriously. Yes, it balanced an effective ensemble. It also spawned a series that still hasn’t quite mined the heart of its source material, a series filled with blaringly obvious metaphors and thinly-drawn characters (read: walking sets of powers) in its earliest installments.

Now, I see and appreciate what Singer was doing. His films aren’t about the script or the characters. They’re about the staging, the gravity he lends to the proceedings, the real-world application he brings to the pulp, and the spot-on casting of these actors. With that in mind, I’m even more excited for Days of Future Past, which will not only unite the cast of Singer’s films with their younger, equally brilliant counterparts from First Class, but also boast a script that’s been toiled over by First Class’ Matthew Vaughn and Simon Kinberg. It all feels like one big culmination of everything the series has been building up to.

A dystopian future spurs Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to travel back in time to fix the past and save the present; I like this idea that out of ultimate despair, out of complete hopelessness, comes hope for the future. I also like the idea of Professor X meeting himself at a very different time in his life (as in the above image), comparing and contrasting the two Xs. Days of Future Past’s trailer provides a dark gravity the series hasn’t seen since X2, and could easily wind up being the best of the series.

6. A Walk Among the Tombstones

liam-neeson-filming-a-walk-among-the-tombstones-3Two Liam Neeson-starrers will grace the silver screen in 2014. The first is February’s airplane heist thriller Non-Stop from Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra, which looks to be along the same silly, fun lines as the first Taken. The other is this, the long-gestating adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 10th Matthew Scudder detective novel about a retired cop investigating the rape and murder of a drug dealer’s wife. And while Taken sold me on the prospect of more action-centric Neeson vehicles (which even he doesn’t take seriously), it’s great to see such a talented dramatic actor bringing his considerable gravitas to something a bit more…well, serious.

The adaptation, to be helmed by writer/director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has been heavily praised by Block himself, who wrote, “I couldn’t be happier about either the star or the writer/director, both of them genuine artists and brilliant professionals. My book’s in good hands.” You rarely hear such a ringing endorsement from the author of an adapted novel these days, so I fully expect to enjoy my walk this Fall.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

capwsThe second Captain America faces an uphill battle. It must make up for time lost after the all-too-humble characterization seen in The First Avenger, better expanding on Cap’s authoritative voice as written in The Avengers. It must balance the blockbuster thrills of team-based conflict involving newcomers Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), while still depicting the more intimate inner turmoil of Rogers (Chris Evans), a man out of time who has lost both a lover and a best friend, forced to face a world he no longer recognizes. It must take audiences through the tragic arc of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), another sorely underdeveloped character in First Avenger. Most importantly, it must convince audiences that good-guy Rogers is as interesting a character as Batman or Iron Man. Indeed he is, in the comics anyway, which is why I’m happy to see the excellent Ed Brubaker-written Winter Soldier arc being translated to the silver screen. With “Community” directors Anthony and Joe Russo taking over for the safe, mechanical direction of Joe Johnston, Winter Soldier looks to be the smarter, edgier political/spy thriller to better tap into the heart of what Cap is all about. And finally, a suit that looks great and lets Cap’s ears breathe.

4. Interstellar

interstellar_lead-449006It’s a former Spielberg project back on track thanks to the Nolan brothers, and it’s just as shrouded in mystery as when it was last buzzing about. A 2008 draft of the script by Jonah Nolan suggests ties to black holes and alternate planes of existence, a fascinating prospect which should prove to be smart sci-fi material for director Christopher’s first venture into the genre.

I like Nolan as a filmmaker, but despite what Batman fanboys hailing him as god’s gift to cinema will tell you, he really isn’t at his best directing action. It’s the suspense, the intrigue, the sheer storytelling ability showcased in Memento and The Prestige that make Nolan special. Those abilities seem to have suffered a bit after the overwritten Inception and the underwritten Dark Knight Rises, both of which experienced overblown hype that may very well have gone to the director’s head. Still, with admitted influences in sci-fi greats Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, Nolan’s own space odyssey has potential to be something truly special.

3. The Hobbit: There and Back Again

the-hobbit-there-and-back-again-postponed-until-december-2014-129368-a-1362124090-470-75There’s not much praise I haven’t already heaped on Peter Jackson and his team for their outstanding work bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to life. The third and final installment of the trilogy will be their last-ever outing to Middle-Earth, making for all the more reason to be excited for the epic, bittersweet conclusion to Bilbo and the Dwarves’ saga.

As such, the storied Battle of Five Armies of the novel is sure to be the most epic of Jackson’s entire Middle-Earth saga. It’s a lofty expectation, given that these Hobbit films haven’t quite taken the world by storm in the same way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. But they are a nice throwback to those films, showcasing a great mythology worthy of praise for WETA’s brilliant design work alone. Something tells me Jackson’s Tintin sequel and whatever other New Zealand-based projects the director has planned after ending his tenure with Tolkien just won’t compare.

2. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

josh-brolin-sin-city-a-dame-to-kill-forDéjà vu…Robert Rodriguez’s highly-anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Sin City teased us with an official 2013 release date before the director revealed it was all a ruse to hold that date for Machete Kills. The film, which will take another year for its effects to be completed, will now see release in August, yet the delay has done little to dampen my enthusiasm for the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. Everything I said in last year’s Most Anticipated post still applies, so there’s little I have to add to what will hopefully jump-start Sin City into a full-blown franchise. And I can’t be the only one who’s praying for Clive Owen to make a surprise reprisal of post-face-operation Dwight for the climax of the film’s title segment.

1. Knight of Cups

knight-of-cups-stillIt’s rare these days for any one film to completely blow me away, but what Terrence Malick achieved in To the Wonder was nothing short of spellbinding. I’m expecting equally big things from his next, a story of Hollywood excess starring two of my favorite working actors, Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, among a cast of equally impressive players.

As is sadly the standard with Malick’s work, the question of whether or not these actors will actually make the final cut is another matter entirely. Malick is notorious for shooting hundreds of hours of footage and constantly changing the focus of the final cut during his films’ lengthy post-production period.

Malick shot Cups simultaneously with his next, an as-yet untitled film about the music industry which starred, among others, Michael Fassbender, who recently expressed doubt he would make it into the final cut. Yet to read Fassbender talk of what a privilege it was to work with Malick regardless is telling enough. Truly, Malick’s meticulousness is the work of a master director, one who has spawned some of the most profound, intensely detailed, meticulously crafted films of the past half-century. As far as I’m concerned, he can take all the time he needs.

Happy New Year all! Expect my 2013 Top Ten list very soon.

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

 

New_Dark_Knight_Rises_Poster_Arrives_Online_1337636698

This review contains mild spoilers.

Well well, it seems Marvel’s Avengers really have beaten the Bat at his own game this summer. Kudos. But as a DC fan first and foremost, it’s no less disappointing to see a series so close to my heart end on such a dishearteningly average note. The plot of The Dark Knight Rises, the highly anticipated final entry in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, could be best summed up as “the shit hitting the fan,” and fans expecting anything more, perhaps something as deeply poetic and immensely powerful as the climax of The Dark Knight, are in for a rude awakening.

The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after its predecessor with police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struggling to continue keeping the truth about Harvey Dent’s death a secret. Meanwhile, a publically reviled Batman is no more, now merely crippled, aged recluse Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who has left his company in tatters and refuses even to see anyone outside of faithful butler Alfred(Michael Caine). But when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals one of his most precious family heirlooms, and the ruthless mercenary-with-a-mask Bane (Tom Hardy) begins to rise from the depths and expose the truth about Harvey Dent, Bruce realizes he must once again take up the mantle of the bat to defend a city rapidly plunging into anarchy, with the added help of new Wayne Enterprises CEO Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and idealistic city cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Nolan’s third and final bat-outing prides itself on its spectacular action sequences. Finally, Batman gets to stand toe-to-toe with one of his baddies; his fistfights with Bane are some of the most brutal and well-shot fight sequences of all three films. Tom Hardy is perfectly cast as the menacing, hulking (if not towering) beast originating from 1994’s Knightfall arc, in which the villain is able to deduce Batman’s identity and systematically take him down. Anne Hathaway is also surprisingly spot-on as Catwoman, perfectly nailing the villainess’ two-sided behavior. And like its predecessors, the film contains a good deal of nuance, thoughtfully presenting themes of rising; for example, Bane and his followers literally existing beneath the city streets and within its sewers, a repressed part of the city that can no longer be contained, just like the lie Gordon’s kept all these years.

But like Gotham itself, The Dark Knight Rises has glaring problems beneath its surface. Most apparent is how the film misguidedly blows itself up to be this huge, epic conclusion to a saga of Lord of the Rings-scale importance. At its core, this story began with, and should always remain true to, a man broken by the death of his parents and sworn to protect the city at all costs. The Dark Knight Rises can’t be faulted for lack of trying to keep to those origins, but its narrative, heavily reliant on side characters, is simply too self-important, pretentious even, for its own good. It’s as if the filmmakers have been influenced by the colossal hype of the previous film in all the wrong ways.

Indeed, unlike its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises favors scale over storytelling, backgrounding many of its finest moments in favor of expensive set pieces for Bane to conquer. I’d feared as much following the similarly indulgent Inception, director Nolan’s previous film and further proof that his style is quickly descending into convoluted, overblown action movie territory. Both films are simply far too expansive, to the point where plot details, character motivations, and any sense of intimacy are all drowned out by their bloated second and third acts. Where The Dark Knight was influenced by the work of Michael Mann, The Dark Knight Rises might have very well been influenced by the work of Michael Bay.

And if The Dark Knight had its critics for not focusing enough on its title protagonist (I personally thought it balanced its characters fine), then The Dark Knight Rises is by far the guiltier of the two. Sure, Bruce Wayne’s character arc is a poignant look at a hero dragged down into deepest pits of the underworld, forced to overcome his weaknesses and rise once again to serve his destined duty. These scenes are arguably the most emotional of the film, yet they’re given a frustratingly scant amount of screentime. For a movie supposedly about Bruce Wayne’s return to the mantle of the bat, the character doesn’t receive nearly the attention he deserves. Even the iconic cape and cowl itself is too infrequently a part of the narrative, lost in a film lacking a central focus and too heavily devoted to forgettable, less interesting newcomers like Gordon-Levitt’s cop character.

Simply put, the focus should’ve been stuck squarely on the film’s returning cast members and its villains. Those are the characters that have spawned so many memorable moments that make these films so fun to watch, yet in The Dark Knight Rises, I can count to number of truly humorous, entertaining, or otherwise standout moments of character interaction on one hand. I’m reminded very vividly of Spider-Man 3, a film which also suffers from many of the same problems. Both films have far too many things they want to accomplish with their final time in the limelight that they don’t really succeed at any of them, and especially not at bringing their characters full circle meaningfully.

In a lot of ways, The Dark Knight Rises is simply a victim of studio upscaling. Similarly, writing about 1997’s abysmal Batman & Robin, Roger Ebert identified the film’s crucial misstep: “My prescription for the series remains unchanged: scale down. We don’t need to see $2 million on the screen every single minute.” It’s for that reason that Nolan’s own Batman Begins, which boasted a far lesser $150 million budget, was such a breath of fresh air. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises was given a massive $250 million budget, a grossly unnecessary amount for a film of this kind. Even the film’s opening sequence, an airplane heist sequence in mid-air, is incredibly overindulgent and not only serves little purpose, but frankly has no place being in a Batman film at all.

I was also rather disgusted with the amount of concessions Nolan seems to have made for fans this time around. Not one to pander up until now, Nolan was known for using his influence to maintain  a consistent, singular vision for the previous two Batman films, a resolve made stronger in its resistance to incorporate fan requests for more characters from the comics. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan detracts from pivotal scenes to incorporate pointless cameos from villains past, other appearances from series tropes, and, perhaps most condescending, even taking time at the very end to reveal that a certain hero character is actually a classic character from the Batman mythology, which itself is nonsensical, tacked-on, and heavily deviant from the comics. It’s a new low for Nolan as it is, but to top it all off, we’re given a clumsily handled and horribly written ending so spectacularly lazy and predictable, not only will you guess it within the first fifteen minutes, but it’s so goofy that you’d swear it was written by the mindless masses of fanboys themselves. You would think a director known for shocking surprises and unexpected twists would be able to dream up something several steps ahead of what talentless Internet dwellers hammer out daily in fan fiction circles.

Even Hans Zimmer’s musical score lacks the invigorating bravado of the composer’s previous Batman-related work. With The Dark Knight Rises, he’s adopted new themes and styles for certain scenes, yet none of them really stick. Sure, Bane’s chant made popular in the film’s marketing is memorable enough, but aside from that, I don’t see why Zimmer even bothered to try to reinvent the wheel at this point in the series, when a more traditional score bringing back the themes of its predecessors would’ve been just as welcome.

It’s with a heavy heart that I call The Dark Knight Rises a bit of a disappointment. While the film does hit a lot of the right notes, ultimately it’s more concerned with ending everything in a big, bold, fan-pandering way than doing its predecessors justice and creating a more grounded, thoughtful conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Recently, I’ve glanced over headlines hailing Nolan’s Batman films as this generation’s Godfather trilogy. I’m inclined to agree, right down to both trilogies’ similarly anticlimactic third installments.

6.5/10