Review

The All-Encompassing, Glorious Force of “Gravity” in Commercial Hollywood

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Gravity
, above all else, is a marvel as a rarity.

A film like this has immense pull as a pre-destined hit; In an age of the dying concept of a “movie star,” it plucks its cast from the handful of box-office draws that remain; it’s complex, yet effects-driven in an era of juvenile cinema which sees mature audiences flocking to cable television for adult-oriented entertainment instead of their local theater. But, most of all, it’s a film that really knows how to be a movie without sacrificing its challenging soul—and that’s often more difficult to find for yourself than a casual trip to the moon.

Gravity unfolds with a small cast and a large scope, pitting astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) against a barrage of misfortunes. Their space shuttle is struck by rogue debris from a nearby satellite (we hear, only briefly, about the Russians shooting down their own satellite for reasons unknown), forcing them to trek the reaches of space for survival. The film could have divulged into gimmicky, spectacular formula and still managed to solidify itself as a hit. With two powerhouse actors in key roles, a glossy high-concept, and an established director of titillating cinema (Alfonso Cuaron, directing his first film since 2006’s similarly-brilliant Children of Men), Gravity could have easily devolved into a quick cash-cow driven by its 3D bells and whistles. Cuaron, however, dares to take a step beyond and challenge his audience, crafting a much more complex tale of human introspection showcasing pensive, powerful moments of a woman reclaiming a sense of self and balancing them with a dazzlingly-effective narrative metaphor.

The beauty of the film lies largely within its coherence; I don’t mean to praise a show-dog merely for making it to the show, but rather to stress the importance of studio productions that maintain basic structure, yet remain challenging enough that they can still be justified as stimulating staples of film culture in a complete, harmonious package with each part having a hand in the last. We get from A to B fairly simply, and Stone’s journey towards survival is, without giving anything away, a reaffirmation and appropriation of the false realities of a society conditioned to accept comfortable closure versus grim reflection. Does Gravity hold a mirror to society, make us uncomfortable in our chairs, and force us to think about the world around us? Absolutely not. Does it envelop us, expose itself, and force its audience to consider the character as complex beyond the binary of her survival or death? Absolutely. It’s a film rooted in style, form, content, and narrative all working meticulously and harmoniously off one another, with effect reverberating throughout the film.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (long overdue for an Academy Award, which he’ll surely earn for this) crafts a visual space that encompasses the wide scope of an endless galaxy, yet manages minute details and camerawork that mimics Stone’s physical or emotional state at any given point. The camera is alive, the camera is complimentary, and the camera insists on doing more than merely showing us what’s happening. Lubezki ushers us inside, versus making the spectacle an intangible production of impossible fantasy.

Alas, what we have with Gravity in the character of Ryan Stone is a woman whose presence the script doesn’t seek to justify, though her contemporaries are often victims of just the opposite. She’s flawed, imperfect, and allowed to exist in a world women rarely are afforded in American films; one that isn’t revolved around her gender. It’s one of the film’s crowning achievements within an industry with a serious lack of substantial roles for women; there are little to no strings holding her into position. She isn’t interchangeable, and once we learn the story that built her, the film becomes more than a survival thriller—which Gravity can also work just fine as—and shifts into a collective visual metaphor for her spiritual and emotional rebirth. It’s rare for a commercial film to transcend one of its gimmicks; superhero films rarely shake their adapted identity, horror films swallow themselves whole, and the pretense of 3D or overt special effects often distracts from what ties everything together in the first place; story, character, and narrative, but Gravity exceeds those expectations (do we even have these as expectations for films anymore?) by astronomical bounds.

The "fetus" scene

The “fetus” scene

Gravity is a film that dramatically takes us along for a character’s transformation, never letting us up for air the entire time. It retains its roots as a fairly standard survival procedural, but effortlessly blankets us with the kind of storytelling that, since the 1970s, is simply hard to find in commercial movies.

Ultimately, Gravity is a feat of filmmaking about human feats of the spirit and physicality, at once a reminder of the pure escapist power of cinema, yet not relying on its fantastical construction to do the bulk of its heavy-hitting. It’s a mesmerizing journey into the magic of movies and the pure, unfiltered power of emotion we so often forget in the trainwreck that is the state of a misguided contemporary mainstream Hollywood that still panders to an audience of teenage boys. In its sweeping, momentous urgency of emotion, I recall films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey  when I think of Gravity, not simply because they’re all space-centric masterpieces, but because each shares an inclination for change amidst a sea of indifference. It’s interesting to see a film so similar yet so different take the reins of awards season by storm, and it’ll be even more interesting to see just how large the impact of Gravity will be when we’re still talking about it in 20 years.

6 Films to See Before Oscar Season Takes Over Your Life

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in "Stoker"

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in “Stoker”


–A sampling of 2013 greats that won’t get any attention from The Academy, but deserve yours–

Food options consist of fluctuating ratios of beef to chicken ramen? Losing an entire night’s sleep so you can get your last-minute Oscar article posted a mere hour prior to the official nominations? Ass perfectly contoured to the shape of your local theater’s lumpy seat cushion after two straight days of three-film marathons?

Oscar season. Film buffs know it well.

It’s a time which brings out the best in world cinema and the worst in the bloggers and journalists who cover (reviewing, disputing, tracking) its multiple-month course.

From early festival circuit buzz all the way to Thanksgiving Day releases, critic awards, and guild nominations, awards season barely affords its followers time to breathe let alone take in a film that isn’t one of the respective year’s crop of contenders riding the road towards a golden statue.

It’s easy for early-release films (studio and indie crops dumped off from January through August) to gain recognition from the year’s end circle of critics, guilds, and major awards ceremonies like the Oscars and Golden Globes. 2013 is already shaping up to be one of the most crowded years in recent memory; there are power plays from the Coen brothers, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen–to name a few–to get lost in by the time the final quarter of 2013 comes to a close. But, the year has given us master efforts from a vast array of filmmaker perspectives. So, before you lose sight of everything as you scour the internet for information on when Fruitvale Station will expand past limited release in a few weeks, check out these six films which won’t get any recognition from the Academy but deserve yours.

(in no particular order)

Stoker
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

Matthew Goode

Matthew Goode

Stoker unites an unlikely gang of collaborators–Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), and veteran actress Nicole Kidman–for a beautifully macabre anti-fairytale. Chan-wook’s first full-length English feature tells the story of a young woman, India (Mia Wasikowska), who must stand by as her emotionally-unstable mother (Kidman) ignites a sexual relationship with her late father’s brother (Matthew Goode).

The film wafts through intensely-disturbing material (which crescendos as India matures to match her uncle’s increasingly-hostile behavior) with the whispery presence of a spider on the wall, with Chan-wook’s observational perspective framed beautifully by Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, reminding us that all’s well that ends with a few splatters of blood.

Instead of succumbing to his obvious affections for Hitchcock’s work, Chan-wook instead stamps a signature tenderness where Hitchcock would have flexed muscles as an artist of suspense. For all the cringe-inducing moments in Stoker, it is a refreshingly warm film about adulthood and paying respect to one’s lineage–even if the subjects are, for the most part, a little cold to the touch.

Frances Ha
Where to see it: In theaters now.

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha”

Frances Ha shares the opposite side of a coin flipped by Bridesmaids just over two years ago. Where the latter film is a raunchy, straightforward, comedy-over-depth attempt to examine distinctly feminine issues, Frances Ha instead chooses a more subtle perspective on similar topics.

Seemingly coated in a fizzy aesthetic throwing us back to an era of Godard and Varda, the film slowly unravels itself as a complex exploration of the roles women (at least in an age where friends grow older, the jobs grow bleaker, and the social mentality has everyone feeling like they’re in high school again) seek to play in each other’s lives.

Frances is a 27-year old aspiring dancer unfortunately blessed with alternate talents for wishy-washy indecisiveness, seeking fun over function, and convincing herself that she can dance (though her pliés could pass for the mere pained squatting of someone half-qualified). Her best friend, Sophie, seems to be moving in the other direction–fast; A career, a fiance, and a shifting attitude on the topics of life, men, and living in a city that isn’t New York (gasp!) all become viable options for Frances’ one-time companion in the art of being a broke twenty-something in an overstimulating urban environment.

Frances’ inability to grow up and deal with her impending bout with loneliness and separation from a stable platonic relationship is both painful to watch and irresistibly enthralling.

The script, co-written by Gerwig and Baumbauch, seems less a track leading to closure as it does a base for which the characters to reinvent their fortunes in the moment, their lofty aspirations and bloated egos running on delusion-fueled ambition like an impatient raindrop seeking a far-off river.

The film’s narrative unravels in an almost aimless fashion, mirroring Frances’ journey to accidentally coming into her own, never condemning her for being too lazy nor giving her unrealistic avenues that satisfy her juvenile desires. There’s no harm in acting like a kid, and Frances Ha celebrates the youthful glimmer of the free-spirit many of our eyes have long since lost, while at the same time reaffirming the need for a good kick in the ass here and there. It’s a rarity in that it’s endearing and entertaining without feeling forced, and for that it’s one of the best films of the year.

Spring Breakers
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

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Harmony Korine, an auteur in his own right, is known for anti-commercial films in line with provoking a visceral response versus pandering to a general audience. His latest film might be his first to appeal to the masses (its domestic box office tally stands at just below $14 million); thankfully his alternative approach to critiquing mainstream culture through cinema remains intact.

Korine unites Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in a film their core fanbase can’t legally watch by themselves for another five years; the R-rated spring break antics of four college friends is the focus of Spring Breakers, which at once comments on the accessibility and (sometimes voluntary) objectification of women’s sexuality yet also highlights the fragile, crumbling outlook on the once-promising vision of the American Dream.

The deliberateness with which Korine crafts his critique–from the casting of squeaky-clean Disney stars to a montage involving guns, destruction, and Britney Spears music–resonates with a symbolic urgency and coherent vision absent in his earlier work. A statement is being made, and it’s clear. Korine wastes no time showing us just how the demise of American culture will leave a heap of nothing but beer cans, broken dreams, and the Millennials’ unquenchable thirst for fun over work.

The Bling Ring
Where to see it: In theaters now.

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The latest from writer/director Sofia Coppola sees a dramatic departure from her early work. Whereas Lost in Translation, MarieAntoinette, and The Virgin Suicides each delve into issues of feminine angst, The Bling Ring isn’t a gendered perspective as much as it is an era-specific exploration of contemporary collective social mentality and the cycle of the lust for fame.

Fictionalizing the events of the notorious “Bling Ring” (a group of California teens who burglarized celebrities from Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton) Coppola’s film elevates itself far beyond the average comedy-caper by delving into issues like the responsibility of a culture to its criminals, the ownership of fame, and the accessibility of attention in an age of what seems to be a collective narcissistic push for a dream life attained without work.

The allure of fame is no longer an untouchable dream regarded with respect; in Coppola’s film, the rich are powerful and worshiped, yet far more accessible to anyone with a laptop and Google maps. Today’s celebrities are icons of mere excess, not icons of talent, and thus their star quality is diminished to the point of seeming inhuman. The boundaries between fame, normalcy/reality, and dream are blurred, and Coppola understands that in today’s culture–with quick-fix gratification outlets like Facebook and gossip blogs–a false sense of self-worth is easily attained through the ease with which one can ignore a border, scale a fence, drop to the other side, and literally run a fantasy through their fingers.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray August 6, 2013

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond The Pines"

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond The Pines”

A morosely captivating film about the lineage of males and the headstrong persistence of a father’s influence (direct or secondhand) over his son, The Place Beyond the Pines sees writer-director Derek Cianfrance (2010’s brilliant Blue Valentine) once again wielding a blade of emotional impact as delicately as a prodigal musician strokes the string of an instrument.

Featuring some of the finest work from each of its cast members (Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ryan Gosling in particular), the film is almost overcome by the emotions fueling it (a few second-act missteps and weighty, cliched attempts to inject doses of mirth fall flat), but its conclusion hurts as much as it inspires, making the film enjoyable for its insistence to corner the market on teardrops.

Mud
Where to see it: Still in theaters, but losing screens each week. On DVD August 6, 2013.

Matthew McConaughey in "Mud"

Matthew McConaughey in “Mud”

It might be cheating a bit to include Mud on this list thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s supporting performance (which already has awards buzz), but the film has enough arty flair to satisfy your indie-tooth while tiding you over for the performances of his competition later in the year.

Mud hits its dramatic chords a bit too carefully (a prominently symbolic film) to resonate as a complete package and its conclusion contains too many groan-inducing moments of saccharine closure, but the performances (Reese Witherspoon surprises in a minor role as well) are enough to warrant a few hours of your time.

“The Hobbit”: Unexpected Journeys & Blindsiding Gimmicks

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It’s hard to think of a series in any medium renowned with more critical, audience, and scholarly devotion than J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. What began as a series of novels has grown into an enormous worldwide phenomenon spanning video games, comics, toys, and of course, films. But, while all signs point to the contrary, Ian McKellan, star of Peter Jackson’s highly acclaimed cinematic adaptations, recently became angry with a reporter at a press junket for the series prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for labeling it a “franchise.”

“This is not ‘X-Men,’” he growled.

The “franchise” descriptor carries heavy connotations of factory-like production with cheap values, cheaper gimmicks, and a knack for cunning repeat dips into the pockets of faithful audiences en masse.

McKellan’s frustrations are not unfounded. Has Lord of the Rings ever shared the same receptive space as industry heavy-hitters like Spider Man or Twilight? Peter Jackson’s tender handcrafted a series of arresting whimsy coupled with powerful parabolic implications. What made Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film series stand out from a franchise-obsessed film industry are everything that make The Hobbit look like only a smear of ash cast from a raging fire.

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The Hobbit is a prelude to the highly-decorated Lord of the Rings series, chronicling the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a band of dwarves, and Gandalf the wizard as they seek to reclaim treasure stolen by a dragon, Smaug. Recognizable characters from the series are all here, albeit with presence motivated only by nostalgic longing for familiarity versus any sort of narrative necessity, but since the film is part one of three (as a matter of fact, actors billed in the film’s credits, such as Evangeline Lily and Benedict Cumberbatch, do not even appear in this installment), that still remains to be entirely seen.

The Hobbit takes the simple premise of its source material and stretches it into a nearly three-hour epic of spectacular vignettes, causal relation often thrown to the wind as the film seems keen on molding juicy come-to-life visuals for fans of the literature versus forging a cinematically individual path of its own. For this, The Hobbit works on its most artificial levels, suffering as whole in the process. The imagery is crisp, the production design lush, and the quality of projection some of the finest you’ll see on cinema screens this year. The problem, however, is that these elements work against the film’s credibility as true fantasy, the kind which exists as an ethereal essence versus a noticeably crafted product. The Hobbit’s spectacular qualities (particularly the 3D visuals, as well as the high projection rate at nearly 48 frames per second) nearly always outshine its narrative roots, in short; in fact it is brevity of editing and effective pacing that seem to escape the scope of Jackson’s focus, something that didn’t plague his initial Lord of the Rings trilogy.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Even fantasy requires an anchoring thread of realism, which is present in The Hobbit but altogether stifled by artificiality that emphasizes the presence of the camera and, ultimately, the confines of the audience’s spectatorship. The beauty of the story at heart is hard to grasp when the audience is beaten over the head with 3D gimmicks and film speed that makes even the simplest of movements far too crisp and constructed not to devote attention to. The future of cinema is leaning towards an even greater 3D revolution, and the Lord of the Rings series is one far too rooted in the history of other mediums to be hampered by the cheapest of visual trickery.

Perhaps the film itself is mediocre, or maybe the lense through which we view it is tainted by a film industry overgrown with spectacle over substance, rendering The Hobbit‘s presence trivial and unrefreshing. It then becomes Peter Jackson’s mistake, then, to allow such a visionary franchise succumb to the pitfalls of convention that his Lord of the Rings series rose above over a decade ago.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film which sees a standoff between two characters. One (larger, more intimidating than his challenger) taunts his opponent, mockingly asking him what he’s going to do to stop the blunt force of the impending attack. After an unexpectedly quick slash to the face and stomach from his measly opponent, the large foe humorously quips “well, that’ll do it” before falling to his death. At once, the exchange is funny, and on another, completely out of character for the scene, the film, and the tone of the entire series. It’s hard to imagine J.R.R. Tolkien writing such a shallow calling out to the audience’s conscious, but I guess novels are often described with such qualities that “jump off the page.” It’s an unsurprising shame when, taken too literally with technical bells, whistles, and 3D effects, the same sentiment can’t be trusted to make average cinema truly great.

Leos Carax brings “Holy Motors” to Pittsburgh

Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”

The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.

The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.

In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.

The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.

Edith Scob dons her “Eyes Without a Face” costuming in “Holy Motors”

It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”

When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.

“Rust and Bone” Kicks off Three Rivers Film Festival with a Roar

High profile productions aren’t just made in the Steel City these days; they’re also headlining Pittsburgh’s very own Three Rivers Film Festival, which made its 31st debut tonight with screenings of some of this Oscar season’s buzziest titles. But, that doesn’t stop a little brokedown Pittsburgh “flair” from seeping into the mix. It’s hard to imagine a  projector merely “slipping” off its axis mid-screening, or a festival showrunner announcing the dispensing of sandwiches and cheap wine after the show (simply because “well, uh, because it’s opening night,” he so eloquently concluded) at Telluride, Toronto, or Sundance. But alas, these things happen. You must constantly remind yourself (the cutesy mishaps might do that for you) that this is merely Pittsburgh charm at its finest.

As a city sprawling in artistic evolution, there’s undoubtedly a comfortable amount of room for the film industry to nestle itself firmly in Pittsburgh’s bosom. The Dark Knight Rises and Adventureland are a mere sampling of the big-name studio productions filmed here over the course of the past two years. Pittsburgh is making a name for itself as a Hollywood of the East Coast, and its priority film festival should reflect that.

Around 7:00 PM, small crowds of people dotted the sidewalks of Liberty Avenue as the historic Harris Theater prepped Rust and Bone for its Pittsburgh debut. After screening in competition at Cannes earlier this year, Bone leads an impressive trifecta of Oscar bait goodness headlining Pittsburgh’s two-week long festival. Joining the film on opening night were Silver Linings Playbook and Beware of Mr. Baker, playing at the Regent Square Theater and the Melwood Screening Room, respectively.

The night intensified as Rust and Bone screened, however, with audience members responding audibly (gentle sobbing, jeers of disgust) to the French-Belgian co-production starring Marion Cotillard in a role that surely makes her a worthy contender in this year’s already crowded Best Actress Oscar race. The performance is a thing of fantasy, a fantastical fruit plucked from the highest branch of cinematic perfection.

The film itself is a masterful emotional powerhouse, telling the story of two people entwined in a delightfully tragic dance of magnetic attraction. Stephanie (Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer treading water amid a stagnant love life; Ali is a twenty-something drifter running away from a murky past filled with one-night stands, an ex-wife, and the liveliest souvenir to show for it all; a sprightly five-year old son. Together, the pair feed off what they lack but are able to find within each other; Stephanie’s inherent ability to harness and control what’s “larger” than her and Ali’s ruthless path to self-gratification don’t meet with fireworks, but rather a slow melding together—sometimes messy and dripping with unsightly bits—of a beautiful relationship that’s as imperfect and alluring as the people who comprise it. It’s hard to call Rust and Bone an optimistic film, seeing as its protagonists suffer far more than they prosper, but it is a celebration nonetheless. Rust and Bone finds beauty in pain, delicately savoring the jagged edges of experience learned from life-altering tragedies instead of offering quick-fix, unrealistic solutions to unexpected hurdles.

Opening night sets the tone for the days (in this case, weeks) to come, and the Three Rivers Film Festival will screen pictures such as Holy Motors, Compliance, and a score of this year’s competitors for the Foreign Language Oscar; a dazzling high note hopefully crescendoing to a roar by the festival’s end. Although it’s hard not to chuckle at the inclusion of a low-brow “Pittsburgh Dad”-based production playing the same field as Oscar frontrunners. That’s Pittsburgh for you.

While filmmakers Q&A’s, receptions, and other standard film festival razzle-dazzle are expected, something tells me Pittsburghers will be pleased simply with a comfy chair, a working projector, and a film of any kind playing overhead.

More updates as the festival goes on.

Argo: A Mixed Bag of Conflicted Ideals and Smooth Action

Americans love watching other Americans win; whether it be at the Olympics, cheering on a pissed off housewife as she berates a retail worker for an extra 20% off, or in a power struggle of Western values against Middle Eastern opposition. Countless international conflicts, thirty-three years, a fake film, and six would-be-hostage escapees later we have Argo, an ambitious (if problematic) two hour wank to a “winning” America from director-star Ben Affleck. If you find yourself complaining about the “spoiler” just revealed, chances are you grew up with a “Jem” lunchbox and/or didn’t pay attention in history class; you’re not Argo’s target age demographic, and shame on you for being a waste of space (and tax dollars) in mid-80s elementary school.

Turmoil amidst foreign affairs in the Middle East lingered as the Vietnam War ended, the purple haze of the hippie generation wafting away, the legacy of the 1970s lingering as the dust settled; The stage for Argo is set amidst an era which ushered in a uniquely aggressive American perspective on foreign affairs and the United States’ role in international crises, one that’s hardly containable within a white picket fence crafted with optimism and a neighborly “hello.”

This post-“American Dream” America serves as only a pseudo centerpiece for the glorious buffet of cultural critique Affleck initially serves up. The bulk of the film is a systematic retelling of the “Canadian Caper” rescue mission of 1979, the remaining course a condemnation of America’s world presence as a vigilant virus of socio-cultural-politcal domination. Burka-clad women snacking on KFC, inept Government employees, and a nation easily distracted by the celluloid escape/fandom fantasy of Hollywood come to mind as pieces of the diverse American identity Argo seems to hate.

Affleck spends plenty of time attempting to convince us that America—Hollywood in particular—is filled with capitalistic, power-tripping pigs, but by the same token the artifice of the film industry is credited as the saving grace of the six American lives stranded in Tehran after a Revolutionary mob storms the U.S. Embassy, the Canadian Ambassador agreeing to shelter them in secrecy. C.I.A. specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) enlists the help of movie industry power players John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to craft an elaborate plot to “fake” the production of a film (press kits, magazine articles, table reading and all) which will scout locations in Tehran, allowing the six potential rescuees to pose as members of the crew for their secret extraction. Still, capitalist Hollywood/blood suckling America rears its ugly head; “If I’m going to make a fake film, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Chambers asserts.

Much of the action revolving around the rescue itself is exciting, if rather formulaic. There’s no doubt Affleck is a skilled filmmaker. His ability to harvest thick wads of newfound suspense from historical molds with well-known, pre-established outcomes is a testament to his precision and tact as a director. But, after the smoke clears, I’m left clawing for traction, searching for an auteuristic mark amidst the sheen of suspense for suspense’s sake. It makes for a fun ride but a muddled message—especially when the outcome is already rooted in the history of reality.

Affleck breaks the “Tell me something I can’t look up on Google” rule with Argo, but ultimately the biggest problems I have with the film are its wishy-washy, conflicted values. On one hand scenes of increasingly hostile, violent tension between the United States and Iran pepper the film with a sense of impending doom. On the other, it’s a film hell-bent on assuring us that as long as you live in America, everything is going to be OK. The sentiment is inspiring, but simply doesn’t bode well–especially with the climate of contemporary foreign affairs. Scenes of Iranian officials declaring revenge upon all parties (including Canada) for their involvement in the rescue are sprinkled throughout the closing moments of Argo, bringing the reality of worldwide conflict crashing through the dream veneer the celebratory comfort the success of the mission provides. For a moment you find yourself thinking that this is a film that finally gets it; a film which touts happiness as the fleeting, momentary emotion that it is. The world is not perfect, and Hollywood processes real-world conflict into spectacular fodder for a willing audience. In the ideal world of Argo Mendez returns to his home, embraces his wife, reunites with his son, and all is right after a wave of Uncle Sam’s magic wand. The biting reality Affleck dangles over our heads for the majority of the film, however, proves problematic as it begs to reroute that sappy conclusion at all costs.

Argo is a ultimately a prelude to contemporary American sentiment, to the War on Terror, and to every ignorant New Yorker who smashed the windows of Persian-owned restaurants after 9/11. It’s a film that fully acknowledges that the world isn’t full of rainbows and sunshine—never has been, never will be. It’s a stark reality mainstream film tends to generalize far beyond the scope of any real-world implications. Glimpses of such critique are present in Argo, but the overarching, influential hand of Hollywood control destroys any effects it might have had thanks to a hokey ending and melodramatic tricks. Argo ultimately falls victim to too many fantastical “fixes” that force the film out of touch with the reality it so desperately seeks to correct. Argo might end with a macho movie icon embracing a hot blonde while the American flag flies conspicuously in the front yard of their suburban home, but reinforcing the traditional pageantry of idealized American values means nothing in the face of those pissed off Iranians whom actually informed the world that “Canada will pay.”

Why Carly Rae Jepsen Will Work

Sweet voice. Dimpled smile. Tiny frame sporting clothes stripped right off the freshest rack at the hippest Justice in the world. The girl in question looks no more than seventeen years old. An average, suburban-bred cutie pie indiscernible from the hordes of others who sing along to the multi-platinum single she released earlier this year when it makes its rotations on the local eight at eight.

The reality is that this “girl” is Carly Rae Jepsen, nearly thirty and poised to ascend the ranks of worldwide pop royalty with the release of her new album, “Kiss,” today.

Of course any pop artist would kill to have a track like “Call Me Maybe” in their repertoire; the single reached #1 in major markets around the globe within the first few months of its release. Jepsen joined the ranks of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry as one of the biggest successes for contemporary pop in the past year. The question on everybody’s mind, however, soon turned to how exactly Jepsen would turn a massive single hit into an extended career as a pop superstar.

“Kiss” is armed with an artillery of songs that sound like a raging battle of young love, where lollipops take the place of swords and Hershey Kisses burst out of candy-cane shaped cannons. It’s sweet, catchy, and represents a much-needed escape from the pretentious, watered-down theatrics of some of today’s biggest pop acts. The one thing that separates Jepsen from the aforementioned poster children for contemporary pop music is her image. She doesn’t really “fit in” with any of the industry’s other leading ladies. The dichotomy between the “old” and “new” has never been more apparent as it is today. We still have tried-and-true traditional icons from past decades like Britney Spears, P!nk, and Christina Aguilera still impacting international charts; then you have the “newcomers” (as Xtina so lovingly refers to them) in the vein of Gaga, Minaj, and Rihanna making a colorful (albeit an arguably superficial) splash with their outlandish costumed antics both onstage and off. Jepsen lacks the maturity which anchors the former group firmly into our iPods (she’s 26), nor the “freshness” the latter possessed when their “originality” first impacted the industry (um, she’s 26).  In essence, Jepsen is the first “traditional” pop star we’ve seen sift through the bullshit, feathers, and pseudo-subgenres to the top of the mainstream charts in years.

Of course she’s done it all without bleeding to death on stage or kissing Madonna, but that’s not to say Jepsen hasn’t had any “help” along the way. Her career, persona, and musical output at this point strikes me as such an interesting dichotomy between forced and genuine that it’s hard to discern whether or not she’s actually a “pop star” or she’s simply hit the industry jackpot at a time consumers crave simplicity and no-strings-attached innocence over anything else.

Take, for example, Jepsen’s alternate medium equivalent, Bella Swan of the Twilight novel and film series. The girl is a vapid, lifeless character who resonates with young readers (particularly girls) largely due to her “non-existing” existence. She has no personality, wholeheartedly emotionless, and is played by perhaps the most boring, stony-faced actress of our generation, Kristen Stewart. At the risk of sounding like a generalizing asshole, it’s hard not to think the female fanbase of a series like Twilight is simply indulging in a cut-and-paste series of events where they’re subconsciously interchangeable with a lifeless protagonist and her experiences. After all, Bella is paired with a hunky guy she’s “forbidden” to “have” (uh oh, cue rebellious teen girl phase), ultimately portrayed by arguably the most intense-looking, attractive young man in contemporary Hollywood, Robert Pattinson, who really looks at them when he’s framed, close-up, on the silver screen in front of them (really, now, how many shots can you have of one actor looking into the camera in a single film?).

How many times have you seen a “Will you be my Edward Cullen?” Facebook posting, message board comment, poster, sticker, binder, trapper keeper (still using those, right?), or any other form of studio propaganda convincing girls this is the type of man they want—the type of man they need—and is ultimately a fictional creation whose only contributing a blank slate for which girls to project their desires unto with (no return) in a one-sided “relationship” rooted in fantasy. The only way they can “have” him is by, well, buying more Twilight bullshit.

Jepsen’s music, as gleaned from a quick listen to “Kiss,” calls upon listeners to fill the same set of shoes. The lyrics are almost unbearably saccharine, too sweet to be taken entirely seriously as a 27-year old woman’s deepest confessions, yet tinged with just enough suggestive flirtation to make her fit in with the contemporary Top 40 crowd. Her appearance begs us to disregard her body as a canvas (something Gaga or Ke$ha cringe at) and as a mere playful vessel just being cute and “doing what girls do” as she dances onstage with all the coy innocence of a high schooler at their first boy/girl party. She’s relatable for lacking a concrete personality. Her songs don’t require much thought to really enjoy, and she’s singing them without the theatrical flair that make her industry counterparts so readily accessible at awards shows and on magazine covers. They come with previously established standards of eccentricity, Jepsen merely comes with a song and a smile—there is a superstar, and then there is a famous girl. Gaga is revered as a performer, as a star, as someone associated with the outlandish, a clear border between her and the “normality” of the consumer. Jepsen, however, is simply “a girl with some cute outfits and catchy pop songs.” How does that manage to burst through the corsets, pink wigs, and glow-in-the-dark capes?

I’ll tell you how; with the help of a male pop star. Jepsen’s rise to fame came as a contestant on “Canadian Idol,” where she placed third. Her superstardom, however, didn’t come until after she exchanged tweets with Justin Bieber, who then signed her to his record label. Bieber’s commanding force of millions of young girls swayed the tides in Jepsen’s favor. She didn’t necessarily “do” anything besides bask in the spotlight Bieber fixed on her. Clearly we’re past the social mindset that men “need” women and the other way around, but it’s hard not to think that Jepsen would never have succeeded if it weren’t for the sexually-crazed girls blindly following wherever Bieber’s dic—erm, point of interest—directed them. In interviews, magazine articles, and even on “Kiss” where she sings a duet with him, she’s consistently associated with the teen heartthrob. A point of reference for teen girls, a simple façade, but the receptor of Bieber’s attention, something these fans so desperately seek.

Even the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift have their identities carved out for them, whether by genuine artistry or by studio analysts. Adele is brooding, not physically atypical for a “pop star,” and has a voice that elevates her beyond the Katys and the Rihannas; Taylor Swift dabbled in a genre that’s all about consistency and wholesomeness far before she dipped her hands into the well of pop. She got her start crooning about idolizing a country icon, Tim McGraw, as many women have, and has ridden the waves ever since. What Swift does, however, is pen her own tracks in the vein of authenticity. She publicizes breakups and turns trivial moments like Kanye West stealing her microphone at the VMAs into a song that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place if sung to someone who raped her. Carly Rae isn’t really doing any of this on her own. She kind of wants you to “know” her, but kind of really wants to have her song played in a club, too.

But, what’s fueling this desire to return to pop’s roots as a traditional outlet for “normal” people turned superstars? Have we finally tired of putting effort into caring about Gaga’s meat dresses, about the vomit in Ke$ha’s hair? The truth is that people like Gaga and Ke$ha are genuine artists. They pen their own tracks, compose their own music, and even write for other artists. They’ve established themselves as a business with an edgy shell that happens to involve a little glitter and grease. But has the public given up on recognizing their artistry in favor of the glitzy bits? Carly Rae represents the opposite in a time where it’s convenient to simply say “fuck this mardi gras bullshit, I just want a pop star I want to fuck.”

I hope none of this sounds like a sexist rant, because industries like the music business have always banked on gendered appeal whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Whether Carly Rae Jepsen’s success will ride on the genuinely catchy tunes that provide the bulk for her “traditional” pop album, “Kiss,” or her ability to “happen” at a time when simplicity and innocence provide a convenient escape from the cluttered state of the world is still yet to be seen.

Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 1 of 2 (10-6)

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It’s rolling around again; that time of year I’m forced to see Oscar-baity emotional low-blows by myself at the local art theater, weakness tissues in-hand, ready to cry my little heart out as strangers stare in judgment; the time of year that makes cinephiles, fashionistas, and Meryl Streep wet with anticipation. Although the latter has nothing to really look forward to this Oscar season (sorry, Hope Springs, no Academy “due wins” coming your way this year), it’s a joyous time to celebrate nonetheless. With major film festivals winding down (Cannes, Telluride) and a few others yet to come (Toronto), 2012 has thus far spoon-fed us heapings of potential. Already, offerings from Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen earlier served only to wet our appetites for what the next few auteur-saturated months have in store. We’ll see films from the likes of Haneke, Tarantino, Spielberg (sit down, haters), and Bigelow (I’m still pissed about 2009, though), all before the year’s end. But the real surprises have come in the form of the art film, as beautiful pieces like Damsels in Distress, Magic Mike, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Celeste & Jesse Forever have already made their marks on the hearts of millions.

It’s still too early to pinpoint frontrunners in any major categories and this list will undoubtedly change in a month’s time, but let’s take a look back at what, in my opinion, stands out from the rest of 2012’s early releases.

My Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 1 of 2 (#s 10-6)

Close Call: #11Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)

To challenge the very notion of what a film “is” or “should be;” that, I believe, is the intent of writer/director Whit Stillman with his latest, “Damsels in Distress.” Stillman exacts his revenge on conditioned filmgoers as a Dada mastermind, using actresses and a self-aware pretentious vocabulary in place of recontexualized urinals and hat racks. We’re plopped smack dab in the center of a prestigious east coast university, following the trials and tribulations of its most elite (at least they think so) group of well-to-do girls, headed by the self-important-but-with-a-tinge-of-pitying-empathy Violet (Greta Gerwig), who takes it upon herself to bestow the gift of social relevancy upon new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton, of “America’s Next Top Model” fame). We see the gaggle of girls interact with other students, flirt with boys, juggle relationships, and ultimately forcibly insert themselves into a young peoples’ generation that’s forgotten the value of pomp and circumstance, although the girls aren’t free from various social trappings themselves. Violet is self-destructive, like June Cleaver and The Joker birthed a baby with a time bomb inside, hoping to correct in college society what she fears about herself. The “plot” doesn’t evolve much beyond that, the film mainly functioning as a showcase for Stillman’s (often ironic) construction of verbal exchanges that function more as exertions of existential musings than actual conversations. The results are often hilarious only because we, as an audience, are fully capable of recognizing the ludicrous outlook of the group, which involves giving away a free box of donuts at a self-help and suicide group meeting; perhaps the other students don’t care, or maybe their blind-eyed aloofness to the hilarity going on around them is what makes Stillman’s mirror to youth so infectiously amusing.

#10Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)

Whether it’s global politics or a simple conversation with your neighbor about how they were able to afford their new car, skepticism runs rampant everywhere you look. “Safety Not Guaranteed,” earlier this year a Sundance hit, forces the audience into a skeptic’s nightmare  as we follow pessimist Darius (Aubrey Plaza) as she investigates a local man for a magazine article. This is no ordinary man, mind you; he’s got a reputation as the local whackjob, claiming he can travel back in time. He seeks a partner to do help him, places an ad in a newspaper, and Darius responds. She’s had a rough life of her own, losing her mother at a young age, fumbling internships and asshole bosses, and a stagnant love life; all the trappings our increasingly glum outlook on life as young adults has afforded us. We’re set up for failure, and our attitudes certainly reflect that. However, the big question that looms over the audience’s head (can he really do it?) becomes more satisfying as the film progresses, giving us (and Darius) something to actually look forward to, a blinding light on the other side of the everyday murk and grime. The film successfully builds a sweetly subdued (thanks in part to Plaza’s wonderfully placid demeanor) romantic relationship between the non-believer and the champion. The payoff isn’t quite as satisfying as I would have hoped, ending a bit too abruptly, but the film is charming nonetheless, with characters and relationships standing in for the audience’s growing affections for the alluring fantasy of the impossible.

#9 – To Rome, With Love (Woody Allen)

If it’s a love letter he wants to write, it’s a love letter I will accept. Woody Allen’s latest euro-indulgence comes in the form of the aptly-titled “To Rome, With Love,” a fairly seductive portrait of a city he’s very much in love with, albeit characters that are often forgotten in the wake of his affections. Allen’s one-a-year film philosophy fails more often than not (the success of last year’s “Midnight in Paris” likely won’t be repeated), but there’s always something of value to be gleaned from even the most lukewarm of exercises. Here, we’re given the standard Allen treatment; numerous vignettes unfold, the most satisfying of which involving an aging, pessimistic, neurotic American opera director musing on life and death (and the apprehensions that come with both) amidst his daughter’s budding engagement to an Italian man. Other characters include an average Italian Joe (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day only to find that he’s literally become an overnight superstar, and a middle-aged American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisiting his past experiences of love and loss in Rome. The locales are beautifully shot, with Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography lapping up the beauty of Rome more effectively than Allen’s writing captures the spirit of his subjects. It can’t be denied, however, that the earnest intent of Allen’s latest is altogether charming, begging us to indulge in a ninety-minute cinematic vacation with one of the most prolific auteurs in history.

#8The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)

“The Cabin in the Woods,” simply put, is a film buff’s wet dream. If the words self-reflexivity, the male excessively campy assault on the decades of research by film scholars like Carol Clover and Laura Mulvey, who dissected horror films, in short, as exploitations of the female entity for the sexually insatiable gaze of the male spectator. The film systematically deconstructs all notions even casual moviegoers have regarding the horror genre; if you go to X place, Y monster will kill you. If you fit X personality or racial profile, you’ll die in Y order. “The Cabin in the Woods” functions as a satisfyingly critical (and altogether hilarious) vision of the horror genre, playing on elements we know and expect from horror films but recontextualizing them to mean something much greater about the social, sexual, corporate, and ethical norms that most often find their outlets in a medium that’s meant to be pure entertainment; film.

#7Prometheus (Ridley Scott)

This mid-year delight’s greatness comes as no surprise, as anything Ridley Scott touches generally turns to gold (Robin Hood and G.I. Jane, you’re obviously not invited to this party). Prometheus sees the 74-year old mastermind behind Alien and Blade Runner return to his sci-fi roots after a string of lukewarm dramatic releases during the latter half of the 2000s, proving that while his edge as a maestro of “shock” has worn dull, the visionary’s flair for grandiose fantasy has only sharpened with age. The film (is it an Alien prequel or not?) functions as part space-opera thriller, part existential babbler. While the ideas posed by characters in search of the race of superbeings that supposedly created humans stimulate our curiosity and probe the deepest corners of our miniscule human brains, the film finds its footing as it couples such existential ennui with an intense pulse bursting classic sci-fi action. Prometheus’ scope is far too encompassing for one film, so let’s hope the planned sequel(s) allow this would-be series to forge a path of its own amidst the constant onslaught of contemporary space-horror dreck.

#6The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)

The line between pop culture trash and legitimate art is growing increasingly thick, what with reality shows, media sensationalizing, and a growing audience’s insatiable desire for subjects that bear only superficial traces of originating from the human race. While “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” are contributing to the intellect-ocalypse, Suzanne Collins managed to channel inspiration from such programs into a powerful comment on our society’s willingness to abandon our own reality and indulge in a fabricated one, with her “Hunger Games” book series chronicling the fictional nation of Panem as it hosts an annual competition which pits children against each other in a televised fight to the death. The novels are refreshing and cleverly written, with Collins crafting a powerful parable for our times that criticizes at once the rift between bourgeois sense of entitlement and daily lower class struggles, and further the prevalence of “reality”-based media and its damaging consequences for our society. A film based on a written critique of visual arts sounds like a no-brainer; alas, it’s of utmost importance to judge an adaptation and its source material as two separate texts, and thankfully Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games makes a substantial claim as a fantastic film in its own right. As we’ve seen with the Twilight film series, an adaptation can be mere cut-and-paste moving images merely lifted from a young adult novel, but Ross’ film takes full advantage of the cinematic medium to craft an uber-coherent (surprisingly) film that takes inspiration from Collins’ series and rebirths it into something fresh and tangible for the big screen. Lush cinematography, symbolic juxtapositions, and meaty socio-political commentary make The Hunger Games the first film in a (as of this publication) four-part series that was entirely dependent on its freshman release to build credibility as more than just a teeny-bopper distraction.

Part 2 (#s 5-1) coming soon!

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Coming Full Circle; “The Dark Knight Rises” Runs Rings around the Superhero Genre

Eternity; the pang of our unyielding hunger for more Batman goodness has endured for what seems like one. An insatiable need for the raw, the real, and the nitty gritty from the underbelly of the often overly commercialized “superhero” action subgenre birthed itself after our exposure to the cinematic tools (rising above mere goodie-slams-baddie-with-amazing-CGI gimmicks) contemporary auteur Christopher Nolan brought to the table in 2005’s Batman Begins. It was a reboot of an aging film franchise no one dared rouse from its defeated slumber since Joel Schumacher’s 1997 disastrous Batman & Robin, a rebirth which not only taunted the sleeping giant but forcibly prodded its awakening with brute force and cinematic mastery.

The release of Begins’ sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, saw Nolan exacting a razor sharp precision and understanding of the essence of his iconic subject; the aura of darkness which surrounded the mythos of the Batman universe oozed from every corner of the film, fully deconstructing our ideas of what a “superhero movie” should be. With these two films, Nolan became the “fantasy” killer; a harbinger of a new breed of “superhero movie” that wasn’t a “superhero” movie at all.

And so, we come full circle. Seven years; the amount of time its taken The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, to see the light of day. Seven years well-spent, building to a momentous finale that’s as viscerally pleasing as Batman Begins yet lacking the lyrical, sinister darkness that made Rise‘s direct predecessor the crowning jewel of the entire franchise, Nolan or non.

In Gotham City, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (a political figurehead and defender of Gotham) is dead, the crime rate is down, and the city’s sole beacon of hope hobbles around its decrepit mansion like an old man after one too many whiskey sours. This is a mere shell of a man, limping and struggling to regain composure after one scene sees a woman half his frame and a quarter of his build literally knock him off his feet; this isn’t the man who went toe-to-toe with the Joker but a single film ago—that’s the point exactly—this is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the “human” behind the mask, fading away in the shadows of Batman, a face Mr. Wayne can no longer wear thanks to the murderous accusations which taint it. Gotham no longer needs a hero, for Harvey Dent lives on in post-death legislation and honorary holidays immortalizing his protective legacy…or so they thought.

And alas, the image of security can only sustain for so long; Gotham needs Batman once again after a devious plot to destroy Gotham comes via Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious brute originating from the Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson, who makes a brief cameo here) school of villainy, hell-bent on carrying out his forefather in crime’s wishes of scraping scum like Gotham City from the bottom of earth’s boot. Bane’s plot involves shutting Gotham off from the rest of the world, making routes into and out of the city impassable via some impressive explosion sequences, staging a jailbreak of Gotham’s most vicious criminals, and instigating an all-out overthrow of the bourgeois world people like Bruce Wayne inhabit. After a few weeks of the underdogs rising against “the man,” a nuclear weapon will detonate, destroying everything within a six mile radius.

The initial “attacks” range from visually stunning (an airplane sequence which opens the film) to socially commentative (an attack on the stock exchange) to a combination of the two (a football stadium is eviscerated), culminating in a grim tone that, in true Nolan fashion, forces the audience to examine their own commercially conditioned morals, seeing as bourgeois societal control is an equal partner in crime here.

Bane’s villainous intentions share similarities, in many ways, to those of Heath Ledger’s now-infamous Joker in The Dark Knight. Anarchy is key for both men; at the very least it’s stripping power from those who have been deemed worthy only by a public system of urban politics and blind submission of Gothamites, citizens who have been taught to fear Batman because he supposedly killed Harvey Dent, but willingly indulge in the monetary splendors Bruce Wayne pumps into the city. Once Bane shows up, however, they’re more than willing to embrace the former. The point being; power (through fear or through money) rules Gotham, and once fear trumps money and renders it useless, well, what else is left to do other than submit? And it’s here that we truly start to miss the antics of the Joker. Where the Joker played upon the morals of his victims, Bane is a mere brute wall (literally and figuratively) of villainous flesh, a chunk of evil who’s too bulky and cold to inspire empathy yet too fantastical to take entirely serious. Bane is a force where the Joker was a presence, and in that transition of evil we lose a sense of depth (and a key character with whom we could have identified with) along the way.

The Joker, in essence, is the sort of villain birthed from the societal confines of depravity, going after the elite social order that it was, at times, hard not to will the destruction of in The Dark Knight. Part of his appeal (and the film’s appeal, for that matter) was the ease with which we could understand (not necessarily “agree with”) his intentions. Attempting to fill that void in The Dark Knight Rises is an outcast in the form of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), also born into the lower echelon of Gotham’s class structure, who’s made a career of stealing from the rich and willing the demise of the bourgeoisie; her ideas of overthrowing Gotham’s first-class citizens are realized, albeit not by her own hands. Willing something to happen means nothing if action isn’t taken, and she straddles a fine line between “light” and “dark” that only a wishy-washy, pseudo-villain-with-heapings-of-charm could. While Hathaway is the best “performer” of the actors in the film, her character’s presence is unjustified and, to be honest, entirely unnecessary except to balance the unmotivated “necessity” for Bruce to find love where the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight left a void. It’s difficult not to compare Hathaway’s Catwoman to that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only to place into perspective the former’s frivolous presence. Hathaway is playfully sassy and Pfeiffer was darkly sinister, the latter a consummated affair where former is but a mere striptease.

In fact, it’s the film’s superfluous elements which ultimately detach The Dark Knight Rises from any level of supreme greatness it could have achieved. The screenplay is bloated with far too many characters, events, subplots, and other excess fat which could have been easily trimmed to narrow the focus. But, I get it; the scope of the Batman universe has never been about downplaying anything, and the task of wrapping up one of the most inventive reboots in cinematic history is no easy task. The strength of the film lies within its ability to simply remain faithful to the tone and scope of Nolan’s initial blueprint in Batman Begins; whereas the evils of The Dark Knight were much more disturbing, complex, and brimming with the passion of indulging within its own sinister mythos, The Dark Knight Rises feels cold and calculated, thrilling on the surface but, thankfully, twisted and morally ambiguous in its own right. It is, at times, difficult to choose a moral “side” of the battle, primarily because the power of Nolan’s Batman saga as a whole has always been the ability to present the material slightly ambiguously; yes, we think killing is “wrong” and there is a clear distinction between “hero” and “villain,” but who can’t feel inclined, at least in part, to side with someone like the Joker, morally corrupt but with intent to destroy an equally corrupt system of bourgeois politics and societal oppression?

Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical for my own good. The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

Shitting in a sink, dinosaurs with morals, and Meryl Streep; The Very Best Films of 2011

It’s become a standard for me to disagree with close to 99% (I’ve done the math) of what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has to say this time of year. They’re the ones who, by some force of divine intervention, managed to convince thousands that Kate Winslet’s supporting role in “The Reader” was that of a Lead actress (and that it was worthy of praise in the first place); they were the ones who shoved “The Blind Side” into the Best Picture category, tacked on to soften the blow of Sandra Bullock’s wholeheartedly political win for Lead Actress (at least they got the category right). This is also the same organization I’ve slathered with praise in a gut-reaction post earlier today for nominating “The Tree of Life” for Best Picture (though I’ve had time to reflect; my sense of dread in realizing I praised an institution who left out Michael Fassbender and Shailene Woodley grew as today sloshed on).

While my relationship with the Academy has been Whitney/Bobby at best (I’m addicted and can’t walk away to their, um, “substances,” but they’re bound to be the death of me at some point), I always find it necessary for those of us who have no need to be political come awards season share our opinions on the best of the best of 2011. Granted, I’ve yet to see Shame, Pariah, A Better Life, A Separation, W.E., or Pina (Holla C-Market Pittsburgh status!).

Without further ado, here’s my personal Top 10 films for 2011 (#1 being the best, qualifier is being released in the United States theatrically sometime between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2011) along with my personal nominations in every category the Oscars deems worthy to acknowledge in their own right (plus an ensemble acting category. Suck it, AMPAS).

Honorable mentions: Carnage – Roman Polanski, Hanna – Joe Wright, Like Crazy – Drake Doremus, Contagion – Steven Soderbergh, The Iron Lady – Phyllida Lloyd, Moneyball – Bennett Miller, The Descendants – Alexander Payne, The Debt – John Madden, The Help – Tate Taylor, Life, Above All – Oliver Schmitz, Viva Riva! – Djo Tunga Wa Munga, Crazy Stupid Love – Glenn Ficara + John Requa, Untouchable Girls – Leanne Pooley

10 – Beginners – Mike Mills

Imagine your father is dying. Imagine he was married to your mother for decades. Imagine the foundation of your life shattering to pieces once he tells you he’s gay. Your reaction might be very similar to that of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Mills’ Beginners, a film which chronicles the post-rock bottom resurgence of a man who did each of the aforementioned. Christopher Plummer gives a beautifully intimate performance as the “born-again gay” in question, enveloped within a gorgeously crafted screenplay that ponders not only the mysticism of life itself, but the importance of finding a new one if yours isn’t, you know, working out. Melanie Laurent rounds out the superb cast in this wise, contemplative, progressive drama.

 

9 – Submarine – Richard Ayoade

Coming-of-age tales are a standard in any year-end film arsenal. Richard Ayoade’s Submarine introduces us to Oliver, a meek English teen whose demeanor perfectly matches the dreary, rain-soaked landscape which contains him. The film is characterized largely through its gorgeous aesthetic quality, with ingenious cinematography and intelligent editing elevating a somewhat standard tale to greatness. Submarine is, at its core, just another coming-of-age tale, albeit in beautifully alternative fashion that values the retention of the teenage experience as one ages.

 

8 – Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin

State of mind was a large theme running throughout the films of 2011, and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene takes no prisoners as it immerses you into the mind of a runaway schizophrenic. Big on atmospherics and narratively disorienting editing (intentional effect and affect, of course), Durkin’s film showcases the power of the medium when a talented mind takes advantage of its power to force an audience into submission and feel it instead of simply seeing it. Elizabeth Olsen takes out the entire 20-plus year acting career of her sisters in one fell swoop to round out this disturbingly underappreciated masterpiece from a first-time director.

 

7 – Bridesmaids – Paul Feig

“If this is only a chick flick, then call me a chick!”. Such is the most prominent text on the back of the DVD case for 2011′s smash hit Bridesmaids, written by The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern in his review of the film in May. There are two glaring issues here. The first being the fact that such a statement (no doubt wank to his own clever pairing of words) was made in the first place. The second being the decision of the marketing team behind Bridesmaids chose to feature it in their promo. It’s this kind of gendered pandering (that the marketing for Bridesmaids is fully guilty of as well) that unfairly pigeonholes a film like Bridesmaids into a categorical hole the critic in question clearly felt the need to dig it out of before he even saw it. It’s got an all-female focal cast. It’s written by two women. Thematically it tackles issues of feminine companionship and coupling–hell, it even concludes with a Wilson Phillips (cue the bro at the back of the bar, hands cupped to mouth; “GAAAY!”) musical number–most of which are explored while its leading ladies parade in four inch heels. But its elements like that which force a simple “comedy” one way or another into the realm of being “unacceptable” for a male audience to consume and, as Morgenstern would suggest, enjoy. In recent popular culture, critics and audiences alike will have you believe that ”Bridesmaids” is only “correct” when it’s trailblazing in the romantic comedy genre; when it’s “women telling really dirty jokes and succeeding” and not just “a really fucking fantastic script written by one of the most endearing comedic writers and character performers of today,” which a more appropriate form of praise would be. Bridesmaids is a film which relies more on the charismatic persona of Wiig to shine both on script and screen. It’s a seamless fusion of her screenwriting talents and her ability to work that script into a physical comedic spectacle. The screenplay for Bridesmaids doesn’t succeed on a “Film Studies” level, if you will, but rather simply on being an unpretentious, consistently hilarious vessel for an artist’s infectious talent. Is it so wrong to champion Wiig and Mumolo’s screenplay for simply being “funny?” Or have we in the realm of entertainment consumption strayed so far into self-important territory that we’re afraid to praise something simply for succeeding on the most basic of levels? (the millions who tune in to “Saturday Night Live” every weekend to watch Wiig’s character creations would probably argue otherwise).  Must we really pad a movie that includes a scene of a woman shitting herself in the street as a defining piece of “feminist” comedy in order to legitimize its presence on the awards circuit this year? Some will say yes, it’s not a high enough form of praise to analyze something on the basis of simplicity. I’d rather sit back and laugh.

 

6 – Young Adult – Jason Reitman

If there ever was a time where I enjoyed being whipped around in the “wrong” direction, it was when I saw Young Adult, Juno-writer Diablo Cody’s brilliant concoction, for the first time. The film is a challenge not only to the waning morals and standards of America’s women, but also to our classically-conditioned notions of what a film should and should not “do” for its audience. Closure and satisfaction are two things Cody’s screenplay denies its audience here; we’re presented with a character, Mavis (Charlize Theron), who we dislike at the beginning of the film and despise by its end. The screenplay flashes bits of hope in front of our face and snatches them away and punishes us for ever thinking we were right in the act of expectation. Young Adult is a powerful social comment thematically and structurally that succeeds largely on its refusal to let its audience win.

 

5 – Pariah – Dee Rees

 

4 – Take Shelter – Jeff Nichols

Another film which forces us into a daze of its beautiful atmospherics, Take Shelter showcases not only some of the finest performances of 2011 (Jessica Chastain shines as usual, Michael Shannon gives the best male performance of the entire year) but also some of the most inventive storytelling we’ve seen in years. The film is, at times, a muddled comment on our society’s clouded values, stifled prophets, and familial complacency.

 

3 – The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius

It could have easily become a gimmick; a contemporary picture paying the most intense of homages to the silent era which laid foundation for what we see on screens at megaplexes and art theaters alike, becoming a “silent” film itself. It was through the silence of the early 1900s that cinema was able to become heard throughout the rest of the world, and Michel Hazanavicius’ gorgeous tribute to the “father” era doesn’t rely on its best selling point as a crutch to tell a ho-hum story. The Artist doesn’t just use silence (and the eventual interplay of sound towards the middle and ending bits) as a gimmick, but rather utilizes aural emptiness to mean something within the context of its thematic structure, updating the style of 1920s silent cinema for a contemporary audience and intermixing it with modern cinematography and editing. Gorgeous aesthetics (costumes, makeup, and performance are all spot-on here) round out one of 2011’s most ingenious entries.

 

2 – Melancholia – Lars von Trier

Von Trier’s films aren’t the easiest to digest,  and Melancholia is no different. It’s a deeply depressing voyage into the mind of one of the most pessimistic (misogynistic) artists working in cinema. But judging a filmmakers’ personality versus their input is ludicrous, and Melancholia channels that personality into a cinematic representation of the apocalypse. Von Trier sets the tone for his film on a grim note and lets its implications simmer for the next 120 minutes, building upon the already infectious sense of dread in a gloriously terrifying crescendo. Gorgeous cinematography, haunting performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, and the darkest tone this side of Dogville make Melancholia one of the most deeply disturbing films I’ve ever seen.

1 – The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick

The Tree of Life does everything the medium of cinema is supposed to do. It transports, it mystifies, it astounds, it affects, it makes dynamic the world we take for granted all around us. It’s a powerful testament to the medium, reflecting its crafter’s soul in a highly personal, lyrical encapsulation of life through the eyes of one of its subjects. It’s a film that largely defies words, that deserves to be experienced versus watched, absorbed versus interpreted. At its core it’s a tale of familial dischordance, but Malick’s inventive methods of filmmaking convey much more to us than could ever be reduced to a mere plot description. It’s a masterpiece of cinema, one which speaks to us through power which can only be conjured through visual language and affect. A true testament to why “film” gets under our skin, and why dreams like The Tree of Life blur the line between experiential fantasy and the reality  binding you to the couch you sit on, basking in everything Malick wants to show you.

My personal nominations for films from 2011 (Winners announced the same night as the Oscars):

BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR: My Top 10 Films of 2011

1 – The Tree of Life

2 – Melancholia

3 – The Artist

4 – Take Shelter

5 – Pariah

6 – Young Adult

7 – Bridesmaids

8 – Martha Marcy May Marlene

9 – Submarine

10 – Beginners

BEST FOREIGN FILM:

Viva Riva!

The Artist

Life, Above All

Submarine

Trollhunter

BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE:

Bridesmaids

The Help

Melancholia

The Tree of Life

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Contagion

Beginners

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE:

Charlize Theron – Young Adult

Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life

Kirsten Dunst – Melancholia

Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady

Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Rooney Mara – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:

Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar

Michael Shannon – Take Shelter

Ewan McGregor – Beginners

Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life

Jean Dujardin – The Artist

David Hyde Pierce – The Perfect Host

Brad Pitt – Moneyball

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids

Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Jessica Chastain – The Help

Harriet Lenabe – Life, Above All

Octavia Spencer – The Help

Manie Malone – Viva Riva!

Kim Wayans – Pariah

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Christopher Plummer – Beginners

Christoph Waltz – Carnage

Armie Hammer – J. Edgar

Jonah Hill – Moneyball

Hunter McCracken – The Tree of Life

Charles Parnell – Pariah

BEST DIRECTION:

Lars Von Trier – Melancholia

Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist

Jeff Nichols – Take Shelter

Steven Soderbergh – Contagion

Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

Mike Mills – Beginners

Joe Wright – Hanna

BEST SCREENPLAY (ADAPTED + ORIGINAL):

Take Shelter

Beginners

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Young Adult

Bridesmaids

Carnage

Pariah

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Pariah

The Tree of Life

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Hanna

Submarine

BEST FILM EDITING:

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Moneyball

Take Shelter

War Horse

Hanna

BEST SOUND:

Hanna

War Horse

Take Shelter

The Tree of Life

Trollhunter

BEST SCORE:

War Horse

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Hanna

Contagion

The Artist

BEST COSTUME DESIGN:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Artist

The Help

My Week With Marilyn

War Horse