A somber summer epic worth seeing: The Dark Knight Rises

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

A satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s powerful, earnest, at times too self-important take on the Batman mythos, the final film in his trilogy “Dark Knight Rises” is a somber summer epic. Will the movie find its way past the tragic circumstances surrounding its debut? Almost impossible to predict. But there is something strange that happens watching this film in light of that context: what was intended, no doubt, as an allegorical take on post-9/11 America with our nation’s rampant paranoia and wildly divisive political machinations, now becomes a rumination on violence begetting violence.

All the returning players bring an almost-PBS-miniseries gravitas to the proceedings – Oscar nominees/winners all, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are all a pleasure to watch. (Freeman and Oldman lead the pack, with Freeman providing the too-few moments of levity.) I will offer that ALL the players are saddled with way too many ominous, cryptic monologues. At times, the film is almost tediously Shakespearean in its speechifyin’ – makes you wonder how these characters would, say, order a sandwich…it wouldn’t be quick, that’s for certain.

New additions Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Tom Hardy as Bane, Marion Cotillard as a mysterious investor, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an eager young cop all turn in credible, engaging performances. Much has been written about Hardy’s Sean Connery-meets-Darth Vader vocal delivery, and, I may be in the minority, but I liked his villainous turn a great deal, almost as much as I liked Heather Ledger’s Joker.  The difference being that Hardy had, in reality, the harder row to hoe, saddled with that godawful mask, and conveying a great deal of anger and angst through only his eyes and physicality. I found Hathaway’s Catwoman a slinky, sly, snarky delight – the film brightens a bit every time she is on-screen. Gordon-Levitt, for once, is not doing his winky, dimpled, charming thing but gives a deep-feeling, humane grounding to the often over-the-top proceedings.

Yes, the film, like so many comic book adaptations, wraps up with a save-the-world-nuclear-doomsday scenario. That bit is beyond tired. Yet, I found fascinating the villains’ “Tale of Two Cities” plans (until that point) to foment a people’s revolution in the midst of an increasingly self-absorbed, detached society. At times, the film falls under the weight of its own lofty pretensions, and a bit more fun here and there couldn’t have hurt it. All in all, it is well worth seeing and should be applauded for trying to say something a bit deeper and more profound. These are messages we as a society are well past needing to learn – whether or not a movie of this ilk will accomplish that as we continue to skid off the rails is, as I said earlier, impossible to predict.

And then there is her quirky, medusa-like, character-of-its-own red hair… Disney/Pixar’s Brave

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Maybe I am just becoming an old curmudgeon (or, in this case, McCurmudgeon), but I didn’t enjoy the latest Disney/Pixar offering Brave. I found it a chore to slog through this albeit very pretty, lush, liltingly-soundtracked film.

There are true moments of authentic enchantment early in the film as we are introduced to the very non-princess-y Disney princess Merida, the apple of her Scottish clan king father’s eye and the bane of her queen mother’s existence. Early sequences beautifully illustrate the joy Merida experiences from interacting with her horse Angus (who, by the way, was my favorite character in the film) and from exploring the beautiful countryside. And then there is her quirky, medusa-like, character-of-its-own red hair…how many animators did THAT take…and will her tresses be their own thrill ride at DisneyWorld soon? Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly do wonderful voice work as the royal couple, and Kelly MacDonald has a sparky, sparkly, yet soothing voice perfect for animation.

HOWEVER, once the film ventures into spooky/witch cauldron/floating purple sprite territory, I tuned (or should that be tooned?) out. I just didn’t care. I didn’t know why Merida and her mom were THAT irritated with each other, nor why the whole kingdom is phobic about bears or anything that possibly resembles a bear. AND this is probably where I will lose you, dear reader, but the whole affair seemed more DreamWorks (or Tarantino) than Disney: kilt jokes (and what may or may not be under them), fathers losing their legs, and animal trophies and hatchets as zany “comic” props seemed wildly out-of-place, ugly, mean-spirited, and jarring. But again, I could just be cranky and old…though I would argue this film (like the disappointing Cars 2 before it, and what appears to be a clunky feature in the upcoming Monsters University) does not have the warmth, whimsy, or joy of any of Pixar’s previous offerings.

Katy Perry Part of Me Poster

Fair and fizzy assessment of a coquette-in-candyland: Katy Perry’s Part of Me

Description: Film poster; Source: Amazon [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Amazon]

Throw in one part Madonna’s “Truth of Dare” and one part Miley Cyrus’ “Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds” and one part Zooey Deschanel’s “New Girl,” add a pinch of the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and a smidge of Tim Burton’s unfortunate 3D fantasia “Alice in Wonderland,” stir, bake accompanied by an infectious pop soundtrack…and voila…you have Katy Perry’s new concert documentary “Part of Me.”

We all more or less already knew Katy was an intensely likable personality with a knack for marrying catchy melody and zany “coquette-in-Candyland” visuals, but we probably didn’t realize how deep-feeling she could be or how sad and challenged her life had been. Yes, the film, like “Truth or Dare” before it, is a calculated play to humanize (and expand the brand of) its central pop heroine. Unlike that film, there is an authenticity to Perry (benefiting no doubt from 20+ years of us all living out loud, online, and through the self-aware guise of reality TV) that Madonna couldn’t/can’t effect.

Your heart genuinely breaks for Perry when the de facto villain of the piece Russell Brand (standing in for Warren Beatty from the Madonna film) ends their marriage. (One of her handlers remarks at one point, “Katy keeps leaving the tour to go see him…when is he going to ever travel to her?”) You also wonder how overbearing her fundamentalist religious upbringing must have been when you meet her traveling minister mom and dad who resemble even scarier versions of Sharon Osbourne and Swifty Lazar. Finally you leave the theatre with an uplift when Katy “conquers” all to sing triumphant versions of her hits “Firework” and “California Gurls.” (Oh-kay, that last bit may be a bit overstated since she is dressed like a giant peppermint at the time.)

The film is a lot of fun, and, yes, a bit contrived…and completely unnecessary to view in up-charged 3D. (2D will do just fine, thank you very much.) All in all, though, it is a fair and fizzy assessment of a pop star on the ascent, one of the few for whom you genuinely wish a happy and successful life. Just be prepared (with earplugs) for the shrieks that may emanate from some of your fellow audience members (the 12 and under crowd) when Justin Bieber makes the requisite appearance onscreen. Ugh.

Best of Kylie Minogue

How many greatest hits compilations does one Australian pop star need? The Best of Kylie Minogue

Description: Album cover; Source: Amazon [linked]; Portion used:  Album cover only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by record company. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Amazon]

So by my last count, Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue has like 7 or 8 different greatest hits compilations (and, yes, I own all of them). What could yet another offering provide beyond a different sequencing and marketing/packaging? Alas, not much.

Don’t get me wrong – all her best catchy dance-pop confections are present and accounted for, sir! Her biggest and arguably strongest hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (written by Cathy Dennis!) is first at bat. Yes, we also have to suffer, yet again, through her earliest success: the Stock-Aitken-Waterman (of Rick Astley and Banararama fame…but always sounded more like a law firm to me) produced cover of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion.”

So, why bother? Well, it’s relatively cheap at $11 (or $17 with DVD) on Amazon, and it does include a few relative rarities (at least by prior collections’ standards) – particular standouts being the rather epic (and completely infectious) “Better the Devil You Know” and the swirly, sitar-laced bon-bon “Confide in Me.” It also includes Kylie’s rather unfortunate other cover hit - Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” (which is about like listening to paint dry).

There is also the cheeky cover image of Kylie in a vintage 80s acid-washed, denim jacket festooned with buttons (remember when we all did that? wow) that depict images of the singer over the years. And the busy, multi-logo’d track listing on the back is both kitschy and a bit maddening for aging eyes to read. All in all, if you have other collections, you can skip it. If you don’t and you want to buy the sonic equivalent of a can of Diet Pepsi, go for it. Or, if you are a nutty completist like I am … then you’ve already bought it.

The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man is…well…pretty darn amazing.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

The Amazing Spider-Man is…well…pretty darn amazing. The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield excels as both Peter Parker and his arachnid alter ego, and, of course, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is her typical warm and sunny and whip-smart self. I am not a Tobey Maguire fan though I liked the original Spidey films just fine at the time…but I guess I didn’t know what I was missing. Garfield brings layers of poignancy, sadness, and joy to the role that Maguire didn’t have any hopes of approaching.

And Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt Mae give grounded, deeply affecting supporting performances – it’s no surprise that Uncle Ben dies, but I was actually moved to tears for the first time ever in viewing that event unfold. It’s one of the few superhero films that I found myself wishing for less superhero-ing and more civilian interaction. The other players are fine – Denis Leary is solid as Gwen’s police chief father. Rhys Ifans approaches the villain role (Curt Connors/The Lizard) with the same thoughtfulness that the always wonderful Alfred Molina brought to Dr. Octopus in the second film.

This adaptation of the origin story touches lightly on the conflict of human desire to manipulate nature for seemingly noble aspirations and the Pandora’s Box that can be unleashed – not as well as last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but thematically similar. A fine film that at times seemed a bit overlong and, yes, devolved as they all do into the silly “save-the-world-from-some-cataclysm” final act. Nonetheless it is worth seeing in the theatre, both if you liked the original films or, even more so, if you didn’t.

Don’t be discouraged by the bait-and-switch marketing: Magic Mike

Description: Film poster; Source: Amazon [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Amazon]

Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.

Channing Tatum takes the slick dance moves of his breakthrough Step Up and actually applies some real acting this time. His street smarts and desperation mix with a winning charm and wit in a great performance, equaled by that of pseudo love interest Cody Horn. She’s dynamite – one of the more believable romantic leads in film in a long time because first and foremost she is a friend.

Matthew McConaughey (spelling?) has finally found a sleazy role that fits his greasy, country-fried personality, and Matt Bomer and the other supporting players gleefully supply the more comic moments of the film. I suspect many may be disappointed by the bait-and-switch nature of the film’s marketing campaign, but I liked that fact that the film gives a pretty unflinching look at the sad, unremarkable, and heartbreaking lives of these beautiful losers.

Yeah, I know. We should have known better: Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program

Description: Film poster; Source: Amazon [linked]; Portion used:  Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale -  Article/review;  Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable?   Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Amazon]

Yeah, I know. We should have known better. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program is a big, dumb mess of a movie. The worst of an admittedly (wildly) uneven film series. You know you are in trouble (big trouble!) when Denise Richards (!) is doing the best acting work of anyone in the ensemble. I have never seen a worse performance than Eugene Levy’s mugging, unfunny tomfoolery in this thing, and my heart hurt that Doris Roberts and John Amos were anywhere near this film. As always, Perry is a warm-hearted, saucy delight as the title character, and he is even better-than-adequate as Uncle Joe and as Madea’s nephew. However, the man cannot write a decent script to save his soul…and his directing is just a notch above ABC After-School Special territory. The highlight for me was watching Madea, a character who apparently hasn’t flown post-9/11 (if ever), navigate the absurdity that is modern air-travel. Watching her take off her shoes in the inspection line was (almost) worth the price of admission. Almost. Avoid at all costs…even when it airs on TNT in what will feel like three weeks.

Yup, I’ve given into the pressure…

I’ve been posting my movie musings on Facebook for a few years now, much to the chagrin of true arbiters of taste. I tend to go see whatever film has been most obnoxiously hyped, marketed, and oversold in any given week…art films? Bah! Won’t find too many of those discussed here. And every once in awhile, I may review a TV show, theatrical production, record album, concert, or book (yeah, probably not too many of those)…and I may use this blog for some shameless self-promotion. Just a fair warning! Enjoy!

P.S. Thanks to Susie Sexton, Martha Gibiser Shea, Cyndee Harrison, Michael Lesich, Paula Rivera-Kerr, Lisa Rutledge, Judy Kramer, Pam Wong, and others who have been cajoling me to do this for awhile. Here goes nothing! You can view my mom’s work at www.susieduncansexton.com and check out my theatre group at www.pennyseats.org