Some movies can create a compelling narrative out of minimalist storytelling. For a good recent example, look at The Power of the Dog. Infinite Storm, on the other hand, struggled mightily to hold my interest. It tells a story of survival in a slow and plodding way, so that the only thing I was looking forward to was it being over at some point.
The movie stars Naomi Watts, who it must be said is giving this her all. She plays real-life search and rescue volunteer, Pam Bales, who lives alone, but from photos around the home and random flashbacks, we know she used to have a family with two young daughters. (A husband is never seen or mentioned.) On this particular day, she goes up into the nearby mountains, despite warnings of a storm and bitter temperatures hitting later in the day. During her trek, she comes across an incoherent man sitting alone who is not dressed for the harsh conditions. She names this mysterious man "John" (Billy Howle), and makes it her mission to make sure that they both get off the mountain safely as the storm intensifies, and both are faced with various trials of survival, such as almost drowning and below zero wind.
Save for a detail or two, this is not a synopsis, that's the entirety of the movie itself. Like a lot of movies based on true stories, the film ends with photos of the actual people involved, and tells us what happened to them after. The text tells us that "John" (his real name is never revealed) changed Pam's life, and that she went on to have another family. The thing is, we never get the sense of Pam and "John" growing closer during their experiences. They are distant with one another during their various adventures on the mountain, and even in the film's final scene where they meet for coffee and share their individual past pain with one another, I never felt the connection that I was supposed to.
Infinite Storm tries to build up its thin narrative with random flashbacks for Pam, and a lot of nature scenery that is well shot, but simply not that exciting or interesting. I have no doubt that this story could be made into an exciting or thrilling movie, but the screenplay credited to Josh Rollins never finds it. There's just not enough here to engage the audience, and while Watts and Howle are both good individually, they never form a bond, as I mentioned. The problem here is not them anyway, it's that the movie fails to dig into these two characters, and turn them into people we want to spend 100 minutes with stuck on a mountain.
It always amazes me when a movie like this manages to make mountain climbing or a rescue effort into something as dull as waiting for bread to rise, but that's sadly what has happened here. I'm sure that the real like Pam and "John" had a thrilling experience together, and I kind of hope they're still in touch with each other. I'm also sure that they could have told this story better than Hollywood did.
The Lost City is a romantic comedy-adventure that gets most of its success from the undeniable chemistry of Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. Whenever they're sharing the screen (which luckily is for a majority of it), the movie gets some huge laughs. Even if the adventure they go on is not as memorable as one might hope, they are both more than enough to make this worth watching.
The film owes an obvious debt to 1984's Romancing the Stone, which followed a similar plot of a romance novelist being dragged into an Indiana Jones-style jungle adventure. And yet, the lead performances here and their numerous one liners are able to help this one stand out from its inspiration. Bullock has the role of the author here, Loretta Sage, who is best known for writing a series of romantic adventure stories centered around a chiseled hero named Dash McMahon. Loretta has always been inspired by her actual love of adventure, as well as her knowledge of ancient cultures, which was fueled by the love for her husband, who was an archeologist. But, after her husband has passed, Loretta has been dry on ideas, and her latest Dash adventure is not going as planned, despite the pressures by her publicist Beth (Da'Vine Joy Randolph).
On the press tour for her recent book, we are introduced to Loretta's dim-witted but well-meaning cover model, Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum), who has been the physical embodiment of Dash on the cover of all of her books, but in real life, seems to confuse the image of the character with who he is in reality. Alan only wants to prove to Loretta that he's more than just a pretty face to grace her stories, and sees his chance to be a real-life hero when Loretta is kidnapped by an eccentric millionaire named Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), who believes that the Lost City Loretta writes about in her Dash stories is real, and that she has information that can lead him to its treasure. The two quickly become lost in the jungle as they try to stay ahead of Abigail's forces, and will have to rely on each other and their limited survival skills.
The Lost City belongs entirely to Bullock and Tatum, who are obviously having a blast playing off of each other here, and deliver quite a few laugh out loud moments. Tatum, in particular, gets to once again show off his strong comedic skill playing a guy who means well, but would probably get lost on his way to his own mailbox, let alone a jungle. Bullock, despite having the "straight man" role of the two, gets more than her share of laughs with her remarks about the adventure they are on, or when she points out Alan's lack of common sense. (When he describes her as a "human mummy", she has to remind him that mummies are human.) There's also a cameo from Brad Pitt that sadly got ruined in the trailers, and probably should have been kept secret. Regardless, he's hilarious as well for the part of the story he's in as a Navy Seal-turned-CIA Agent who gets wrapped up in their adventure, and it's a shame the movie didn't use him more, as he could have made a funny movie an even better one.
It's when the screenplay has to focus on villain or the adventure itself that the movie loses a bit of energy. Radcliffe simply lacks the vile hatred that the character needs, and kind of comes across as a geek pretending to be threatening. He never develops into the kind of villain a story like this needs, and it's a shame that we never get an opposing force as strong as the heroes. A subplot concerning Loretta's publicist going on her own mission to find the missing author is also largely unnecessary, and probably could have been trimmed with little consequence. This is a movie with two great lead characters with wonderful comic dialogue between them, but the story and characters that surround them are not quite up to their level. You almost want to uproot the two lead performances, and place them in a more worthy project. Don't change anything about the heroes, or what they say to each other. Just strengthen the film they're in.
Maybe the leads got to improvise a lot of their material, and that's why it's so much better than the rest of the film. Whatever the case, they and the stuff concerning Pitt's character are the reason to watch The Lost City. If everything was on the same level, we would have had a truly great comedy, instead of a movie that is very funny most of the time, and pleasant the rest.
Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year"
list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and
get one out also, shouldn't I? As always, I have a good excuse. As a
regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I
can see as many of the year's films as I can. And since many of the big
end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly)
into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait. I did get
to see most of the major end of the year releases,
so I feel the time is ready to make the list.
One thing I should note is that I saw fewer great films than normal last year, so this list will be smaller. Also, there were some films I saw but did not get to review, but they will still appear on this list.
As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by
what I felt were the great films of 2021. The great films can be
anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas,
comedies, kid's films, whatever. Then I'll be listing the "honorable
mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress
performances of the year. Aside from Best Film, all of these choices
will be listed in alphabetical order.
So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.
THE BEST FILM OF 2021
LICORICE PIZZA - This is an episodic and loose coming of age story made up of various young
triumphs, embarrassments, and romantic awkwardness. Watching the film,
you get the sense that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is not so much making a plot-driven
film, but rather showing a few months in the life of an average teen,
who has a few amazing experiences along the way, as well as more than a
few everyday ones. One of the many pleasures within Licorice Pizza is getting to
watch its stars Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim together. Both are relative newcomers when it
comes to acting, but they display real star-quality here, both
individually and whenever they share the screen together. The movie
also beautifully handles the relationship between the two. The movie follows both their personal and business relationship
together, and follows them through a number of moments where they
encounter various figures based on Hollywood icons of the time, and deal with the oil
crisis that came about in the early 70s. Watching it, you get the sense
that Anderson is not so much making a nostalgic film, as he is simply
showing what life was like back then. These are not personal memories
of the era, rather he is touching on various events of the time, and
putting the sweet and awkward relationship of the two leads in the
middle of it all. This is a loose and light film, but it never comes
across as being flimsy. The performances and the central relationship
are strong enough to carry this material, and the dialogue that Anderson
has provided is quiet and witty in a way that few modern day
screenwriters can match. This is the kind of movie you want to watch again as soon as possible when it's over, and one that is not easily forgotten.
THE GREAT FILMS OF 2021 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
BELFAST - Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical black and white film based on his childhood and home is a true cinematic triumph. He sets his story during a very difficult time in history that he grew up in, but the events are seen through the eyes of Buddy (spirited newcomer Jude Hill), and they concern not solely the violence going on in Northern Ireland at the time, but also his family and the things going on in his young life, such as developing his first crush at school. All at once poignant, beautifully shot, and filled with moments of wisdom and humor, Belfast is stunning in just about every way. Branagh apparently wrote this film to help deal with the lockdown during the Pandemic, and he has made a beautiful reflection on human nature here.
BELLE - For the past 15 years, writer-director Mamoru Hosoda has risen to become
one of the top talents in the world of Japanese animation, and his
latest film, Belle, may be one of his best achievements yet.
Mixing elements of a relatable teen coming of age story, a commentary on
social media, as well as elements of the classic Beauty and the Beast story, this is an inventive and compelling commentary on human nature that is joyous, hopeful, and filled with a lot of truths. This modern day social media tale is not just a visual wonder, the movie is also poignant and powerful as it covers a
number of emotional themes such as social isolation, dealing with loss
and pain, as well as physical and emotional abuse. It's also nice to
have a movie set around social media that is not overly critical of it,
nor is it trying to "expose" it. It gives Suzu a voice to sing and
stand out once again, and her journey becomes how she learns to stand
out in her own life, as well as the virtual one. The movie takes a
balanced view on its central subject matter, and manages to highlight
both the pros and cons of social media, without fully embracing either
side. It's the rare kind of film that is constantly dazzling, and fully
emotional and heartfelt. It also serves as yet another reminder of what
can be done with animation beyond talking animals, Minions, or 90
minute corporate products.
DRIVE MY CAR - Another film from Japan, this drama from co-writer and director Ryusuke Hamaguchi deals with a stage director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) grappling with the recent death of his wife (who he discovered was being unfaithful to him), while mounting a production of the classic play Uncle Vanya. This is the kind of film that sneaks up on you, with a three hour running time allowing the characters to be as developed and complex as the narrative set around their relationships eventually becomes. The film is based on a short story, and has been expanded upon to bring a lot of richness and truth to the emotions that these characters are grappling with. Powerful and unforgettable, with simple but memorable images, this is truly one of the great films that needs to be discovered.
THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES - Here is yet another movie I wish I could have seen on the big screen, rather
than on my laptop. With its vibrant visuals, combining lush CG
animation with hand drawn touches and doodles, this is a visually
amazing film that constantly impresses. The writing and directing team
of Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe (TV's Gravity Falls), along with producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), have created a film that is not only a joy to watch, but often hilarious, and frequently heartwarming and touching. Much like the previously mentioned Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,
the movie embraces multiple art styles that are often used together in
the same sequence, creating a look like no other film I can think of.
When it comes to CG animation, it always seems to excite me more when
the artists employ a style that serves as a throwback to classic 2D
animation rather than photo realism, and the exaggerated look of the
characters and backgrounds, as well as their fluid and almost rubbery
movements is a testament to that. The Mitchells vs. the Machines ultimately has a lot to say about
how it can be hard for parents and teens to relate, and it does so in a
way that constantly feels fresh and well crafted. As funny as the movie
can be, it works just as well as a true family film that both kids and
adults can take away something different from it. This is a rare kid's
film that constantly delights you visually, makes you laugh more than
most comedies aimed at adults, and imparts its lessons wisely.
TICK, TICK...BOOM - Back in 1990, Jonathan Larson (portrayed here magnificently by Andrew
Garfield) was your standard struggling composer living in a small New
York apartment, and working a dead-end job at a diner to make whatever
ends he could meet. He was about to hit 30, and had been struggling for
the past 8 years to get his idea for an ambitious Sci-Fi stage musical
called Superbia off the ground and on Broadway. As he was
approaching his 30th birthday, he tortured himself by noting that his
idol, Stephen Sondheim, had already had a production running on Broadway
by the age of 27. Tick, Tick...Boom originally started life as a solo stage musical
piece that Larson would perform, which celebrated the creative process
that he went through, trying to get his idea off the ground. The film
version, now playing on Netflix, not only tells Larson's story, but also
finds a sad irony to his life. He was a man who felt like he was
running out of time as he left his 20s. What he could not realize,
obviously, is how little time he actually had. As the film points out
in its opening prologue, Larson would pass away from an aortic aneurysm
at the age of 35 in 1995 on the day that his next musical work, Rent,
would open Off-Broadway, and eventually go on to revolutionize Broadway
musicals for the time period. This fact makes the film not just a
musical celebration of the creative process that Larson intended when he
originally wrote the show for the stage, but also a poignant and
touching reminder of how little time we actually have to follow our own
dreams. The film represents the directing debut of Lin Manuel-Miranda, who has managed to retain elements of the original stage production, which
was just Larson sitting at a piano on the stage, and open it up in order
to tell his story, making it into a cinematic event. This could not
have been an easy task, and considering that this serves as
Manuel-Miranda's directing debut, it shows an absolute confidence and
skill behind the camera. Here is a film that should be experienced by anyone with any kind of creative spark, as it's
certain to hold a great amount of power for them. It's not just a
powerful work, but also emotional and joyous, and perfectly performed,
and it marks Manuel-Miranda as a true filmmaking talent that I can't
wait to see evolve with time. Tick, Tick...Boom is dynamic in a way that few films are, and few can dream of being.
Our Friend, Raya and the Last Dragon, Zack Snyder's Justice League, Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, Wrath of Man, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, Profile, Cruella, A Quiet Place: Part II, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In the Heights, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, Stillwater, The Green Knight, The Suicide Squad, Vivo, Free Guy, Candyman, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Many Saints of Newark, No Time to Die, The Last Duel, Dune: Part 1, Ron's Gone Wrong, Last Night in Soho, Antlers, Eternals, Spencer, Clifford the Big Red Dog, King Richard, Encanto, 8-Bit Christmas, House of Gucci, Spider-Man: No Way Home, West Side Story, Sing 2, The Power of the Dog
MY TOP 5 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Benedict Cumberbatch in ThePower of the Dog
Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick...Boom!
Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza
Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog
Will Smith in King Richard
MY TOP 5 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Jodie Comer in The Last Duel
Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog
Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza
Kristen Stewart in Spencer
Rachel Zegler in West Side Story
As we go further into 2022, let's hope there are many more bright spots in the future. Again, I'm sorry I did not get to more of the great films, but the past year has been rough for me, and I saw as many as I could. Here's hoping for better times for everyone in the future.
Ti West's X is an effective slow burn slasher in the style of the late 70s and early 80s slasher films. Unlike some inferior recent imitators, like Halloween Kills, this is a movie that knows how to play up its unsettling setting, gives us some thrills and intentional laughs when necessary, and delivers some graphic scenes that are sure to make audience's squirm. West understands that there's an art to making such a film, and he shows his expertise in every angle of this production.
As is to be expected, the set up and premise is simple enough, as we just need a group of soon-to-be victims who are trapped in an isolated location, so that some deranged madman or ghoul can stalk them one by one, until only one is left. In a clever move, the film's "final survivor" is not easy to predict. The fact that our heroes are a group of people out to shoot a porno means that there is no "innocent" character who is predetermined to survive the deadly night. It's also set in 1979, to give it a closer feel to the films its emulating. Our group includes aspiring director R.J. (Owen Campbell), who likes to refer to his porno as an "independent movie", and is determined to add as much art and integrity to his film (titled The Farmer's Daughters) as possible. There's also his girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenny Ortega, appearing in her third horror film in 2022 so far.), lead actors Maxine (Mia Goth), Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi), and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and sleazy producer Wayne (Martin Henderson).
The group have arranged to shoot their movie in secret around an isolated farmhouse that is occupied by the elderly Howard (Stephen Ure), and his wife Pearl (Mia Goth, in a dual role, and unrecognizable under heavy make up). When they arrive, Howard is aggressively standoffish with the group, while Pearl is prone to wandering about, and seems to be oddly transfixed on Maxine. Night falls, and the young heroes are drawn out of their guest home for one reason or another to be met with some kind of grisly end. To his credit, West is having a lot of fun with the standard cliches of the stalker-killer genre. As the motives behind the not-very-innocent elderly couple slowly start to come to light, it's truly disturbing in its simplicity. This is more than just a movie where we wait for the next kill scene. I found myself feeling quite tense, and drawn in by the twisted world the killers live in.
X is a straight-forward film, as it should be. There are no subtleties, and no mistaking the kind of film West is making, or the audience he is going after. But he shows a definite skill with his work behind the camera, and even occasionally with his dialogue, offering some witty meta humor, and brief moments of dark comedy. We can sense his love for the genre when he stages some of the film's more suspenseful moments, such as when one of the potential victims finds themselves locked in a cellar. As nasty as the movie can get, there is an undercurrent of glee that he seems to be inserting. He's not only showing his skill at understanding what made the better entries of the genre work, he lets us in on the fun.
This is the rare throwback movie that works, because the filmmaker is not just showing he can do what worked before, but he puts his own unique spin on it. He excels at moments of quiet tension (a scene involving a character in the water, unaware that a gator is nearby is highly effective), as well as the over the top gore that most in the audience will have come to see. He even manages to get some good performances, with Goth's dual role obviously being the most impressive, and how she completely loses herself in the role of the psychotic Pearl. And while it would be nice to get a bit more background concerning the murderous couple in the abandoned old farmhouse, what we do get is enough to make them disturbing and off-putting.
X is skillful and tremendous fun, and manages to create some genuine suspense out of a simple premise. It's the kind of movie that will likely leave your mind not long after you've watched it, but while it plays out, it manages to hold a certain spell that few recent efforts to recreate this style of film can claim.
Like the best films to come out of the Pixar Studio, Turning Red is a movie that mixes emotion and real life experiences with the fantastic that only the animated film medium can provide. Making her feature directing debut, Domee Shi was greatly inspired by her own experiences of being 13-years-old in the early 2000s, as well as the Japanese Anime that she used to watch regularly, to create a heartwarming and funny story that covers some pretty tricky coming of age issues for an animated family comedy, as well as adding some heartwarming notes about family and mothers and daughters in the mix.
When we meet heroine Mei Lee (voiced by a likable Rosalie Chiang), she breaks the fourth wall and introduces herself to us, as well as her world as a tween girl living in the Chinatown area of Toronto. As she speaks and introduces us to her friends, family, and daily routine, we get the sense that Shi is drawing on a lot of herself in this intro. The city, usual hang outs, and characters we're introduced to all feel lived in and real. Mei is an overachiever whose life is built around grades, helping her mother (Sandra Oh) run the family temple, and joining her trio of best girlfriends as they gossip about the other kids at school, and dream about their favorite boyband music group, 4*Town. Mei has just turned 13, and is beginning to be more interested in guys, such as the 17-year-old boy who works at the local convenience store. She finds herself fighting urges to break from studying in order to draw little cartoons on the edges of her notebook of her "forbidden" desires.
This is hard when her mom is a combination of a helicopter parent, who wants to be involved in every aspect of her daughter's life, and a "Tiger Mom" who will fiercely protect her at all costs from any distraction, including her friends. Mei is starting to reach that age where she still wants to please her mom and live up to her expectations, while also wanting to explore her own desires and wishes so that she can become the woman she wants to eventually be. It becomes especially hard for Mei when she finds out about an ancient family secret that was started by a great ancestor, and has been passed down to the women in her family. When they come of age, the women become red pandas with any extreme emotion that they might feel. And with Mei being a hormonal girl going through a lot of changes, the panda has started to come out.
Mei can control the panda by controlling her emotions, which is hard enough as it is, let alone when you're 13 with overprotective parents who don't understand you. There's a ceremony that can be performed that can lock the panda away, and Mei can go back to being a normal girl. But, does she want to be what her mother sees her as? Turning Red is frank in how it handles the tricky subject matter of puberty, and yes, menstruation, which are brought up throughout the film. But nervous parents need not worry that it will suddenly inspire some very hard questions from young kids who are not ready to know about it. The film is first and foremost a relatable fantasy about a girl trying to find her place in her own world. It simply is brave enough to also handle some obvious issues in a mature way that will likely fly over the youngest viewers.
Most of all, the film is about Mei and her three best friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). They accept her completely, and even help her come to terms with the Panda, becoming the catalyst to controlling it. However, her mother does not approve of them, because they are so different from what she perceives a "perfect" daughter should be. So, Mei finds herself frequently caught between pleasing her mother, and being herself in front of her friends, who want her to cut loose a little and go singing with them, instead of cleaning the family temple after school. This too is handled with a great amount of maturity and humor, and helps further ground the story in a kind of reality. As much as the film is about a young girl struggling to control a literal beast that is within her, it's about life experiences that the filmmakers obviously drew on, and have a deep respect for.
That's what makes Turning Red stand out. There is so much identity and truth to the characters and what the film is saying. Even if you never had the exact real world experiences, you can still relate to it and sense its accuracy. The film is also a visual wonder, so much so that it's a crying shame it's getting placed on streaming, instead of the theatrical release it was meant for. I understand that Studios are struggling to get people back to theaters for movies that don't involve capes or superpowers, but there is just as much a need to watch animation like this on the big screen. We need diverse genres at the cinema now more than ever, and I truly hope that the theater never becomes a permanent home only for "event" movies.
That bit aside, here is a movie that is as magical, truthful, and funny as anything Pixar has done, and serves as a wonderful directing debut for Shi, who I'm sure has many more stories and personal experiences to share, and I eagerly await them.
Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog is an unrelentingly sad film, deliberately slow paced, and fueled by the raw emotions of its characters. The main source of this is Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a macho cowboy/rancher who plays psychological games on his brother (whom he routinely refers to as "fatso"), his brother's wife (whom he belittles to the point that she turns to alcoholism), and to the wife's son, who is initially an easy target for him, given his effeminate tendencies, but gradually builds a guarded relationship with.
Adapted from the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the film is a complex study of Cumberbatch's character, as well as the effect he has on those around him. His character, Phil Burbank, is introduced to us as a man who values everything that is stereotypical male, and looks down upon anything and anyone else who may not fall under his ideal view of what a man, or even a person, should be. We can sense that he enjoys the discomfort that he often gives others with his views and the words that he uses to insult or label others. He's not the sort who is set in his ways, and doesn't realize that those ways offend others. He is well aware of that fact, and relishes in it. Cumberbatch seems to be relishing the character as well, and gives a broad yet complex portrayal that is one of the best performances of the past year. He knows just how to push the boundaries of his performance without going too over the top.
The story itself is set in 1925 Montana (though filmed in New Zealand), giving the film a unique look in settings that kind of look forgotten and not as modern as the time period suggests. We meet Phil and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons, capping off an amazing year of a wide variety of film performances), who are both ranchers. Phil idolizes his his former mentor, Bronco Henry, and seems to set his life and beliefs around that man's teachings. As for George, he is quiet, overweight, and doesn't seem quite as into the rugged frontier life as his brother. He wants to settle down and maybe have a family of his own. He has a fateful encounter with the widowed Rose Gorden (Kirsten Dunst), which quickly grows into a relationship, and begins the psychological games that Phil starts to play on the budding love the two have.
Rose has a son in medical school named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who likes to hide himself in his room making paper flowers for his mom's table, and dissects animals to help learn about biology for his studies. This immediately catches Phil's attention, and he immediately starts targeting the young man's odd behavior, openly and cruelly mocking him at every opportunity. He is also not approving of the union between his brother and the woman he loves, believing that she is only after his money. As the film's narrative slowly unwinds, we begin to realize that Phil might have some secrets of his own behind his rugged manly exterior. A begrudging friendship is formed between the two men, as Rose herself slowly slips into depression and alcoholism from Phil's taunting.
The Power of the Dog is intentionally slow burning, which may turn some audiences off, but the lead performance from Cumberbatch was able to hold my attention throughout. The other performances don't get to show off as much as he does, but they are equally strong, especially Dunst as Rose, who doesn't feel comfortable with the idea of her son getting close to this man. This is a character study film that is no rush to get to where it's going. We're supposed to be drawn in by the atmosphere the film creates of a bygone age, and by the complex lead performance. The film is also made up of smaller moments that hit home, such as when Phil's mind games with Rose prevent her from playing the piano in front of a group of guests who visit her home. The movie is not so much a narrative journey, as it is a look at how one man's beliefs and behaviors effects everyone around them.
This is what makes the film rewarding in the end. It paints Phil as a hateful, yet complex, man. It's an unsettling piece set in a unique time period that we don't see often in the movies. And while the movie itself might be a bit too slow to have the power that is intended, the performances and the characters at the center of it are unforgettable.
While Batman has traditionally been taken mostly seriously in films the past 30 years or so (Save for that time in the mid-90s when Joel Schumacher bowed to Studio Pressure, and tried to make the franchise more "kid-friendly".), I was still quite surprised by the darkness held within Matt Reeves' The Batman. This is a down to earth film that tries to answer what Batman is about. Is he a tool of vengeance driven by the death of his parents when he was young, or can he serve to do more for the people of Gotham City?
It surprises me how few of the films about the character actually try to explore the idea of Batman as a symbol. The reason why the character has been successfully portrayed by different actors over the years (Robert Pattinson dons the cape and cowl this time.) is because the films usually treat the character as an image. He's the suit, he's the symbol on his chest, he's the gadgets and weapons, but seldom has a movie tried to dig deep into what Batman can truly be, or who he is. The main film that truly sticks out in my mind that tried to dive deep into the costumed figure is 1993's underrated Mask of the Phantasm, which explored Bruce Wayne's early years of trying to develop his identity as Batman, as well as how it effected him personally. Now here is this film which successfully asks if Batman can possibly be more than just a vigilante, and if he can actually be a symbol of hope, rather than a symbol of fear to the criminal underworld.
I don't know if we needed a full three hours to explore this idea, for as good as it is, I certainly felt the length of this one. Regardless, the film works, because it treats Batman seriously, and is staged more as an emotional thriller rather than a blockbuster spectacle. Some people who saw the film early complained that it was inappropriate that the film have so many food and toy tie-ins, and having seen it, I'm inclined to agree. The movie is far too dark and intense for young children. This is nothing new for the franchise, and I'm sure it won't stop parents from taking their kids to it. I just had to wonder what some of the children at my screening thought of The Riddler (Paul Dano), who is not the over the top villain immortalized by Frank Gorshin in the 60s, or Jim Carrey in Batman Forever. Rather, he is a sad and twisted individual who sets up elaborate death traps that are targeting Gotham City's elite.
That is what drives the plot, but it is not what drives the movie itself. Yes, there are fight scenes, Catwoman (an effective Zoe Kravitz) is worked into the plot, and there is an extended car chase where The Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell) is chased down by the Batmobile. But, this is a superhero movie that truly wants to explore what it means to be Batman, and what happens when some of Bruce's illusions about his own past are shattered. There isn't even a final standoff between the hero and the main villain here. It's also a brave film in a lot of ways. It feels no need to be an origin story, even though this is a reboot of the previous Ben Affleck era. It's also the first film about the character I can remember to truly show a complicated relationship between Batman and law enforcement. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is the only one on the force who truly cooperates with the vigilante, and doesn't see him as an insult to the line of work of the police.
Have other films touched on it? Of course. But, The Batman is a deep dive into a lot of ideas that the previous entries have just reflected on. That's what held my interest during its extended running time. The movie doesn't so much break new ground for the character, but it does explore its themes a bit deeper than I expected. For the sake of spoilers, I won't go into detail, but it's certain to give long time fans of the character a lot to get excited over. Will casual audiences enjoy it? That's trickier to answer. This is not a crowd pleasing movie, and is certainly not in a rush to get to what it's trying to say at times. But, it's undeniably powerful, and when it does work, it is one of the more effective attempts to bring the world of the comics to the screen.
Even if the film doesn't nail everything perfectly (the final moments are a bit standard), it still achieves what it sets out to do. It's a fascinating dive into an iconic character who oddly is not dived much into outside of the comic medium, and is usually treated as an image. This movie sees Batman as not just human, but also a symbol for a lot more things than just striking fear into criminals.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen