Saturday, July 28, 2012

COMPARING BATMAN TO THE GENRE'S BEST


With the high praise, and box office, that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN are garnering, the debate begins anew regarding what is the best of show in the superhero movie genre. As a huge fan of both superheroes in print and in film, I’ll throw my two cents into the mix. And I’ll invite you too, fan boy and casual fan alike, to share your thoughts and keep the debate going here at The Establishing Shot.

Best Villain
Some think that Tom Hardy might net an Oscar nomination for his role as Bane in the newest Batman movie but I’m not in that camp. Personally, I think Anne Hathaway is more deserving of awards for her portrayal of Selina Kyle. Her dynamic performance is all the more incredible considering that I was so skeptical about the prospects of another Catwoman a few months back. (My thoughts on that subject here: http://bit.ly/NbSY1G). To me, Hardy’s performance suffers some from indecipherable line readings and the fact that he seems to be channeling Sean Connery’s voice. (Or was it Darrell Hammond’s imitation of Sir Sean that he was doing?)

No, my pick for the best villain of all time in a superhero movie did get an Oscar. And rightfully so. Heath Ledger was truly riveting as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Not only did he make the Joker something far creepier than most takes on the ‘clown prince of crime’, but Ledger also made him so utterly unpredictable. And that made him all the more frightening. No two-line readings were the same, or any reaction shots for that matter. Ledger made his Joker feel like improvisation. Here was a thug, a psychopath terrorizing Gotham, and the S.O.B. was winging it, making it all up as he went along. Even his story of how he got his scars was never the same twice. And all that made for one singular villain.


Best Action Scene
For me, a great action sequence is not about special effects or a grandiose setting. It’s about character. What’s at stake for whoever’s in the big set piece? And a fight scene like the one in SPIDER-MAN 2 atop the runaway subway train tops them all. Spidey is a powerful superhero yes, but is he strong enough to keep the train from plummeting off the tracks? And since he’s lost his mask fighting Doc Ock, Parker’s true identity is exposed for all to see, making him all the more vulnerable as he tries to save the day. It’s a thrilling, nail-biting ride with so much at stake for our hero.

Best Dramatic Score
John Williams has scored dozens of brilliant film soundtracks, but none soared more than his work for SUPERMAN (1978). And he did something there that is unheard of in any movie today, superhero or not - he composed five, count ‘em five, different themes for the various parts of that iconic film: the main theme, the love theme (“Can You Read My Mind?”), the villain’s theme, and themes for Krypton and Smallville. It was a superb achievement.
Best Screenplay
David Hayter, Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer did something in the first X-MEN movie that still seems like a miracle. They set up a franchise, blending a dozen different main characters, origin story after origin story, incorporating pieces of the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, and pointed political commentary on prejudice and war, and still managed to make the mixture into an utterly crackling entertainment. And they did so with two lead actors in their sixties. It was revolutionary and evolutionary for the comic book superhero genre.
Best Direction
As much as I appreciate Christopher Nolan’s serious take on the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher’s frivolous films, I think the best direction in a superhero movie was that by Edgar Wright for SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. He infuses every frame of his eccentric movie that satirizes the genre, with an appropriately cheeky wit. There isn’t a wasted frame, or a camera set-up, or edit, that isn’t filled with his witty, kinetic POV. 
Best Batman
Christian Bale, right? Sorry, but I could never embrace his growling hiss as the Caped Crusader. And if you’re expecting me to pick Keaton, Kilmer or Clooney, well forget it. And while I appreciate Adam West’s campy take, it’s not a serious Batman consideration for me. No, the best Batman to me by far, and that covers the portrayal of both Batman and Bruce Wayne, is in the animated movie BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993). It’s by veteran voice actor Kevin Conroy, and as he did in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES in the early 90’s, he brought authority and gravitas to both sides of the equation without resorting to any tricks or whispers. Granted, he’s not on camera. But that makes it all the more significant of an achievement. 
Best Female Performance
The list here is considerably shorter than the amount of testosterone-driven performances to choose from. And most of the women’s roles in superhero movies are supporting ones. (At least until Hollywood finally brings WONDER WOMAN to the big screen.) There are some amazing supporting turns however. I laud Anna Paquin’s quaking vulnerability as Rogue in both of the first two X-MEN movies; Kirsten Dunst’s emotional rollercoaster as Mary Jane in the second Spidey film; and Gwyneth Paltrow’s sly sexiness as Pepper Potts in IRON MAN. But Margot Kidder as Lois Lane in the first SUPERMAN movie takes the honor of best in my opinion. She’s feisty, funny, and sexy as the brazen career woman who falls for the most impressive bachelor on the planet. Her Lois is definitely someone worth turning back time for.
Best Male Performance
For decades, my pick for the greatest superhero performance of all time was Christopher Reeve as SUPERMAN. His performance was extraordinarily nuanced and complex, especially compared to how bland Brandon Routh was in SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006. And even though I loved Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and recently, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, my pick for best is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in IRON MAN.

Downey Jr. made his superhero delightfully unheroic in so many ways. He was vain, smarmy, sexist and acerbic. And boy, what a breath of fresh air that was! Here was a superhero that battled evil because he knew how close we could all come to being bad. And if Downey Jr.’s personal life added subtext to it, so be it. His Tony Stark may have been the first superhero on screen that I liked seeing more out of his costume than in it. And in a superhero movie, that’s doing some heavy, heavy lifting.
Best Superhero Movie
There are so many good ones to choose from the X-Men, Spidey and Bats films. Those early Superman movies are something incredible too. But for me, the best superhero movie is somewhat of a surprising choice, and not the least of all because it’s animated. It’s Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES and it’s about a family of superheroes struggling with being stupendous, as well as striving for the normal dreams every human has. Love, acceptance and family, these are concerns of theirs, as well as saving the world. It’s also a brilliant commentary on what it takes to be special in the world. And how not every one can be exceptional.

Well, those are my thoughts. What are yours? Tell me what blew your cape up and we’ll keep this discussion going. Oh, and look for my next post coming soon which will assess the worst of the superhero genre. I promise you, that discussion won’t be so super.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

6 WAYS TO STOP MORE AURORA HORRORS


    In addition to this blog, I am also the Chicago Examiner's horror movie critic ( http://exm.nr/QbxTMb) so I'm used to evaluating movies with a bend towards the macabre and fantastical. And when a real life horror, such as the one that occurred in Aurora, Colorado at the premiere of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES occurs, it make any fictional monster I critique seem almost quaint by comparison. With what happened yesterday, a critique of this horror show is needed.  And I feel the greater tragedy would be for our nation to stand idly by, wringing our collective hands once again, and never act upon fighting the insanity. Here are six things we can start doing that will help fight against such madness:
    DON'T BLAME BATMAN
The premiere of one of the year’s most anticipated movies should have been only a time for celebration in the world of cinema. Instead, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES will now carry with it the taint of this tragedy forever. And even though the shooter called himself “The Joker” the franchise should not be blamed. Nor should any movie with violence or guns. Of course there is too much of such things permeating our entertainments, but a disturbed individual could have been set off by anything.

I’d even argue that Chris Nolan’s Batman movies deplore violence more than most other products coming out of Hollywood these days. The Batman franchise shows the limitations of violence. And there is a very strong morality coursing through all of Nolan’s work, particularly what he’s done with the Dark Knight. Movies did not make James Holmes do what he did. They may have made him think killing is exciting and cool, but it was his disturbed mental condition that caused his actions. And easy accessibility to weaponry that armed his psychosis.

CONFRONT THE NRA
The NRA defends the right to bear arms with a rabidness that is neither normal nor realistic and it’s time to challenge them. Their strident defense of automatic and semi-automatic weaponry for an armed citizenry is outrageous. The NRA needs to be confronted on their continual defense of the all-too easy accessibility to such weaponry and ammunition, and their “From my cold dead hands” reply to any and all suggestions to help curb it. There is a real problem with these weapons in this country and the NRA needs to address it. James Holmes got his hands on an AR-15, an overtly deadly weapon that was once illegal in this country, and the NRA can start by working with the government to ban such weapons that no one needs.
 
    CHALLENGE OBAMA & ROMNEY TOO
Yesterday, the NRA stated that they would wait to say more about the Aurora tragedy until more facts are known. And the President and the GOP presumed nominee weren’t much better in their words. Neither candidate uttered the word “gun” in their comments. Rather, they read carefully constructed statements to avoid offending the NRA or gun-owning voters. It’s time for both parties to stand up to the NRA, challenge the NRA, and do something about this overtly violent nation we’re living in. No one needs automatic or semi-automatic weapons in the USA. Period. Not. One. Of. Us. Every police force in the nation is against a citizenry having such deadly force. Isn’t it time for the President, our political leaders, and the NRA to back the positions of those who serve and protect us?

POLICE THE INTERNET
And speaking of changing laws, why is the web allowed to traffic in so much illegality? One can easily find illegal drugs, child porn, illegal weaponry, and all kinds of ills – if you know where to look. Holmes knew where to look. And when he wanted to get his weaponry, he bought online. The web made it too easy for him. I’m not against freedom, but I don’t think that kind of access is freedom. Arguably, it’s actually holding our nation hostage. Time for some real laws to be put into effect to control some of the things going on in the Wild West that is the Web.

    HIRE MORE STAFF FOR THEATERS
The economy has forced businesses to cut employees everywhere. Movie theaters too. It’s amazing how scant staffing is at your local Cineplex. Perhaps movie ticket prices have to rise to accommodate better care of patrons but I’d say having more employees there monitoring exits and patrons would be worth the extra cost to ensure a safer experience.

    CURB MIDNIGHT PREMIERES
The only reason midnight premieres exist is so movie studios can get another big showing tacked onto their first weekend take. It’s greed, nothing more. But with those late, late shows come a whole host of problems. There is usually only a skeleton crew left to handle crowds that are often unwieldy. I used to love midnight screenings because they were exclusive. But now, I’d do with a little less exclusivity in favor of a more secure movie-going experience.

I hope that those idiotic fans out there that were threatening critics who deigned to pan THE DARK KNIGHT RISES are feeling 10 inches tall this morning. The movie didn’t deserve that notoriety. And how tragic that it now has the Aurora, Colorado albatross around its neck too. I hope these events don’t detour people from going to the Cineplexes. But what I do hope even more is that we start to find solutions to this incredibly angry and violent country we’re living in. We can start by trying any of these six solutions.

Friday, July 13, 2012

NAKED AMBITION IN HOLLYWOOD


What do Sigourney Weaver, Hilary Swank, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Demi Moore and Rooney Mara all have in common? They’re all A-list actresses who have appeared completely nude in film. A-list actors such as Richard Gere, Jason Segal, Jude Law, and Kevin Bacon have done so as well. And Michael Fassbender really went above and beyond the commitment to the craft with his stellar performance in the complex movie SHAME last year.
Michael Fassbender in SHAME (2011)

 So what’s the matter with Blake Lively and Channing Tatum?

Lively and Tatum star in two of this year’s big summer movies, SAVAGES and MAGIC MIKE, respectively, playing extremely sexual characters, and yet…they don’t do what those other A-listers were willing to do. Why? By remaining covered up they rob their roles of a certain authenticity, don’t they? 
Blake Lively as "O", the free spirit girlfriend, at the center of the drama in SAVAGES (2012)

Look, I’m not chomping at the bit to see either of them au naturel, but when the script calls for such things, and the actors resist, it seems fraudulent. At the very least, it takes you out of the story. There you are, watching the sex scene in SAVAGES, and Lively’s costars Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson are showing plenty of skin and bare bottoms, and yet she hasn’t bothered to even remove her bra? What’s wrong with that picture?
Channing Tatum shows a lot, but not all, in MAGIC MIKE (2012)

It’s a little easier to understand Tatum’s position as an actor. He already exposes a lot of flesh in his role of Mike and it wasn’t absolutely necessary for him to show ‘the full Monty.’And rarely do name actors. But still, it seems a bit incongruous in a movie about a stripper. (Oh, and interestingly, all the guys in the 1997 movie THE FULL MONTY showed more than Tatum does in his stripper film.)

I don’t think there’s any real excuse for Lively however. Especially when you consider her costars' willingness, or that everything else in Oliver Stone’s movie is explicit, from the language to the cringe-inducing violence. Then there’s the fact that it seems Lively isn’t all that shy about nudity, as there are, allegedly, nude cell phone pics of her making the rounds online. 
Blake Lively is dressed, Aaron Johnson is not, in this scene from SAVAGES

Time was that if an actress refused to do a nude scene in a movie it was because it was deemed gratuitous and not advancing the story. But the whole plot of SAVAGES hinges on the audience caring about this incredibly intense and passionate open relationship that Lively’s character has with both men, and yet at every turn, she’s covered up. Whether that was her choice or Stone’s, the false modesty took me out of the story. Subsequently, that pulled punch made everything else feel fake as well.
Sasha Grey in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (2009)

For some reason, the movie industry continues to be alarmingly immature or even sophomoric about how sexuality is portrayed onscreen. It shows plenty of nudity in comedies. God knows we've all seen Will Ferrell in the buff many, many times! But when it comes to a serious film about sexuality, more and more Hollywood doesn't seem to have the balls. And the topic of sexuality is rarely dealt with in as frank a way or with the candor of a groundbreaker like SHAME. 


One of the lamest examples of such material being utterly botched  was in the 2009 film THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. It was about a high-end call girl and director Steven Soderbergh cast a porn actress, Sasha Grey, in the lead. But rather than be a truly bold and thought-provoking dissertation on the sexuality of such a woman, Soderbergh allowed Grey to give a completely bland, asexual and amateurish performance that turned the film into a total yawn. It also didn't help that Grey remained clothed almost the entire film.
Morena Baccarin in HOMELAND on Showtime
And yet while movies wimp out, entertainment with themes of adult sexuality is thriving on TV. Anna Paquin and her costars show skin all the time on HBO’s biggest hit series TRUE BLOOD and it embraces its themes of sexual desire and obsession with a vengeance. Then there's HOMELAND on Showtime where sexual politics is at play throughout. In fact, Morena Baccarin's very first scene on the program had her performing in a tricky love scene with no room to hide. And the scene, and her sexual performance throughout the series, was extraordinary. So was Claire Dane's work on the show. She's a name actress who doesn't shy away from nudity either.  So why can't R-rated movies be as intelligent and brave about the topic of sexuality? And why isn't Blake Lively doing what premium cable stars are?
Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988)
Maybe it has to do with movies valuing adult audiences less and less. There's too much catering to the TWILIGHT crowd and it's stifling more sophisticated examinations of love and sexuality elsewhere. Too bad, because in the day, Hollywood did exceptional and complex films about human sexuality, and got name actors to commit entirely to the proceedings. Actors like Richard Gere in AMERICAN GIGOLO (1979); Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in BODY HEAT (1982); Isabella Rossellini in BLUE VELVET (1986); and Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin and Daniel Day-Lewis in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988). There are a few movies today here and there that continue that admirable history, like BLUE VALENTINE (2010) with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, but it is becoming all too rare. 


More and more, mainstream movies play sex for laughs or they Puritanically shy away from anything truly provocative. And so much of it has become silly. Even infuriating. Like Blake Lively's character "O" in SAVAGES making love in a bathtub, wearing a summer dress. And then she doesn't even remove it when the sex moves to the bedroom. It’s laughable.

It’s been said that 90% of a movie is casting. If you don’t believe the actor playing the part, you won’t believe the person in the story. That’s true. And in the case of two of the summer’s big movies, the leads don’t commit 100%. I’d love to know why. But more than that, I’d have loved to never had to ask the question.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

2012 MOVIES: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY

It’s now July and we’ve reached the middle of the film year, and so far, not so good. For many reasons, it’s been an exceptionally weak six months for cinema. The rest of 2012 holds some great promise, but of what I’ve seen so far, here is the good, the bad & the ugly:
Rachel Weisz gives one of the year's best performances in one of its best dramas so far THE DEEP BLUE SEA.

DRAMA 
The Good: Rachel Weisz had her best role in years in THE DEEP BLUE SEA, a searing examination of love and lust in time of war and crisis. 

The Bad: Did we really need “TITANIC re-released in 3-D?  

The Ugly:  Lindsay Lohan’s personal dramas continue to make us long for the days when she used to be a promising actress. 
Sacha Baron Cohen was once again hilarious, and controversial. This time in THE DICTATOR.
COMEDY 

The Good: Why did THE DICTATOR bomb? It was hilarious, but perhaps a bit too political as it savaged USA’s own dictatorial ways. 

The Bad: MIRROR, MIRROR didn’t know what kind of comedy it wanted to be – one for children or one for adults. So it ended up being neither. And was bad for all. 

The Ugly: Adam Sandler’s straining performance in THAT'S MY BOY almost made me forget he played twins in last year's abomination JACK & JILL. Almost.
Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker & Bradley Whitford played scientists causing the frights in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.


HORROR
The Good: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS managed to lampoon the genre and still make for a scary and compelling horror movie. THE WOMAN IN BLACK and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER are also two worthy of note, adding fun and frights to the genre.   

The Bad: THE DEVIL INSIDE made me question why God lets such bad movies happen to good audiences. 

The Ugly: CHERNOBYL DIARIES looked ghastly and dank, as any mutant zombie movie in Russia should. Yet its story was as limp and vanilla as any B thriller.
Why did Disney make their BRAVE doll look more like Barbie than Merida?
 ANIMATION

 The Good: BRAVE proved that Disney & Pixar together could do no wrong. Again. 

The Bad: The Cineplexes continue to be day care centers as animation features virtually guarantee box office bonanzas. The downside of that is it likely keeps more adult-themed films from getting made. 

The Ugly: Shame on Disney for letting the dolls of their BRAVE heroine Merida look more like a Barbie version of her. The lesson that there’s room for all different kinds of girls in the world is lost when the movie’s toys reek of conformity. (See my slide show to see exactly how off the likeness of Merida is.) 
THE AVENGERS is distinguished by its action set pieces but even more by its excellent characterizations.
ACTION  
The Good: THE AVENGERS had characters we cared about filling the big action set pieces. In fact, the characters were so good their dialogue scenes were even better. 

The Bad: BATTLESHIP took a beloved child’s game about Navy strategy and turned it into an alien invasion movie. Talk about the plot sinking a picture! 

The Ugly: THE RAVEN squandered its interesting period premise with Edgar Allan Poe tracking a serial killer through the streets of Baltimore by unleashing buckets of bloodletting that were more appropriate for a SAW movie.
Adam Sandler continues to embarrass himself with another atrocious performance, this time in THAT'S MY BOY.
ACTORS 

The Good: Michael Fassbender continues to fascinate onscreen, as an urbane hit man in HAYWIRE and even in his role in PROMETHEUS, where his robot only runs the emotional gamut from A to B. 

The Bad: Is there any actor squandering his talent more these days than Adam Sandler? What happened to great work like he did in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE or FUNNY PEOPLE?

The Ugly: Okay, maybe Andy Samberg. He shouldn’t have left SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE if all he was going to do was tripe like THAT'S MY BOY with Sandler.
How many times is Tyler Perry going to dress up in drag?
ACTRESSES 

The Good: In THE HUNGER GAMES Jennifer Lawrence hit a bull’s-eye and established herself as a major star. 

The Bad: What happened to the Elizabeth Olson who played so many notes brilliantly in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE? She was a one-note wonder, and a dull one at that, in the stupefyingly dumb SILENT HOUSE. 

The Ugly: Is drag still funny? Is it a laugh riot seeing Tyler Perry in a dress for the umpteenth time like he is in MADEA'S WITNESS PROTECTION? Really?
Charlize Theron's first scene in PROMETHEUS, doing angry push-ups, promises an excellent villain.
VILLAINS 

The Good: Charlize Theron. Played bad twice. Superbly. In both SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN and PROMETHEUS. And Tom Hiddleston played Loki in THE AVENGERS as if he were a top drawer Bond villain. Bravo to them both! 

The Bad: Johnny Depp made for an ineffectual and effete vampire in the misguided re-imagining of DARK SHADOWS. It’s easily one of the year’s biggest movie disappointments, as was his performance as Barnabas Collins. 

The Ugly: The aliens in PROMETHEUS looked hideous. The only problem was they were virtually the same villains from the original 1979 ALIEN and its multitude of sequels. Been there, seen that, too many times.
Shirley MacLaine was finally honored with AFI's Life Achievement Award this past spring.
ODDS & ENDS 

The Good: Jennifer Westfeldt wrote and directed the wonderfully heartfelt examination of immature adults growing into mature parents in FRIENDS WITH KIDS. 

The Bad: I was thrilled Shirley MacLaine finally was awarded the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, but why did it take so long to happen? She’s been a major star since the 50’s and should have been honored a few lifetimes ago. 

The Ugly: The over-the-top costumes and make-up in THE HUNGER GAMES were so garish that for me, they almost stopped the picture and turned it into caricature.
Of anything that opened in 2012 so far I think there is precious little to warrant critics lists or Oscar consideration, so let’s hope the second half brings an upturn. And with the SPIDER-MAN reboot about to open and the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s take on BATMAN due later this month, things would seem to be looking up. Let’s hope that some great things occur the remainder of the movie year, especially if those pesky Mayan calendars are right and this is cinema's last hurrah!