Lawless (2012), directed by John Hillcoat

I’ll tell you what, if ever there was a movie made for me it’s Lawless (well, and Drive). It’s got it all: Hill people. Bluegrass soundtrack. Fast cars and hooch running. A campy Guy Pearce law enforcement character. A screenplay by Nick Cave, a favourite musician of mine. A grunting Tom Hardy. Jessica Chastain doing anything at all, ever.

What could go wrong?

Well, certainly not everything. But some things.

I did have a good ole time watching Lawless but it never hit the campy, Bonnie and Clyde-type feel I think it was going for. Actually, I’m surprised the film even got made. I wouldn’t have thought there would be much call for a moonshining story. I mean, I’m interested, but then again I have a friend who moonshines and I play the banjo, so, you know.

Anyway, I had hoped that with Cave involved and the weird premise that the film would be a little off the wall. Pearce certainly is, with his shaved eyebrows and penchant for gloves, and the soundtrack has this great Cave take on hill music thing going on. On that level the film does revel in its hillbilly-ness.

But on the other level the story is pretty standard. And really, even having the weird law enforcement agent is nothing new. The film felt like an extended episode of Boardwalk Empire at times, in that regard. And then you have characters that sort of appear once in a while and then are put aside for awhile, like Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner. Even Pearce, the nemesis, disappears for long stretches, which makes us care less about him.

Pacing is the primary issue. A film like this needs to be tight, because it really doesn’t have that much for the audience to grab on to other than the action and development of the story. It needs to move along like a bootlegger running from the law. And I think it really could have benefitted by working more with the Hardy versus Pearce aspect.

Some of the time-passing moments are awkward and it has some sections that meander like the lazy sections of the Mississippi River rolling by the cotton fields. Or something like that. There’s far too many characters to keep track of. Too many things happen that aren’t directly related to one another. It’s just kind of muddle.

Here’s the thing, if a film is going to be a tight, action, story-driven movie then it needs to keep things simple. One creepy lawman. The brothers as a tight unit. One love story. A tight timeline. A definitive finale. Make it the best Hollywood film it can be.

Or it needs to go the other way and totally mix things up. It needs to take itself less seriously, get a little out there, drink some ‘shine and let loose. Maybe go for a Terrence Malick-type thing, but only if you let him get drunk with Malcolm Lowry and Hunter S. Thompson.

Lawless tries to be both and ends up neither. Which is really unfortunate because it started with a good idea and had the talent behind it to make it into something special. It’s a fun watch at times, and, in case I didn’t mention it, Jessica Chastain is in it, but it could have been so much more.

Lawless is in theatres now.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012), directed by Christopher Nolan

Well what should be a fun and feisty discussion about one of the biggest movies we will ever see open in our lifetimes has been marred by one of the worst tragedies we will hopefully ever witness.

A movie, no matter how popular or brilliant, is, of course, pittance compared to the lives of those who died in a cinema in Colorado. We all know that. My heart goes out to all those affected by this act, especially to those still fighting for their lives in hospitals.

But that doesn’t mean the actions of one disturbed individual has the right to take away the joy, meaning and sense of community that many of us find in movie theatres. I had already purchased my ticket for The Dark Knight Rises before the shooting took place. I thought about not going. In the end though I decided that the shooting wasn’t about the movie, the movie was not to blame, and that I wasn’t going to let this coward ruin what is for me a safe haven, a place of joy.

That’s what I have to say about that.

As for the film itself, well, this is the big one. Whether you love them or don’t mind facing the wrath of fanboys, it’s hard to argue that Nolan’s Batman films aren’t one of the most important and popular series of films from the past decade or two, perhaps rivaled only by Potter or The Lord of the Rings.

Early negative reviews of this film brought on some intense reactions from fans, including death threats. Rotten Tomatoes actually shut down their comments section for this film because they didn’t want to deal with curating the madness. It felt like you had to like The Dark Knight Rises, and if you didn’t the only possible explanation is that you’re the biggest snob in the world. Like the citizens of occupied Gotham, these harbingers of the internet rose up and wrote poorly spelled, disparaging comments asserting that the people have chosen. Batman is the king.

I think all that has died down in the wake of the shooting, but that’s the atmosphere this film opened to.

Luckily, for my own health and reputation, I’m a fan. I almost wish I wasn’t, it seems cooler to not like Nolan’s take on The Batman. But it’s hard because, well, they’re generally so darn good. Batman Begins (2005) was really unlike any other comic book movie that came before it. Dark, moody and serious, it chilled you to the bone while at the same time inspiring fist-pumping zeal for the action and the main character.

The Dark Knight (2008) upped the ante with one of cinema’s greatest all-time villains in Heath Ledger’s Joker. I would say it’s the best in the series for having such amazing characters and being able to present the story in such a tight, impressively paced manner. It works incredibly well as a large-budget superhero movie.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to the saga and another excellent film from Nolan. I don’t think it’s the best of the series and I think it would have been impossible to top The Dark Knight. But Rises certainly gives its all to do so and I think comes off as an extremely apt and fitting finale.

For all my problems with Nolan, especially with Inception, I still think what he’s done with his Batman films is among the greatest achievements by a modern director. Maybe more as a phenomenon than as films themselves, but certainly one has lead to the other. He’s a cold, calculated director, who has trouble finding heart at times, but for the Batman trilogy he has proven himself to be the man for the job.

I enjoyed the way Nolan associated the movie with the Occupy Movement and politics. I don’t think I would like the film if I was an Occupy person, as it shows the dark side the mob mentality that the 99 per cent can create, but it was still one of those touches that helps it to rise above (pun intended) the typical blockbuster. It’s an example of the scale this film goes for, which is grand in scope, something that is hard to pull off well. Nolan does it.

Despite the concerns over the audibility of his voice and so on, I also thought Tom Hardy’s Bane was an excellent villain. Hardy had a few moments to show his Bronson-esque exuberance and the physical presence of the character really worked. That classic comic shot of Bane holding Batman up over his knee is a pinnacle of the movie.

There were a few issues that bothered me, mainly as the film tried to tie up loose ends or make tenuous connections. It’s an ambitious film, with a large complicated finale, so it’s inevitable that you have to suspend your disbelief for a few points, but there were a few unanswered questions.

For instance, how is it that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is the only one who has managed to put two and two together and figure out Batman’s identity?

Oh and I’ve never managed to take Bale’s tongue-hanging-out, expressionless Batman voice seriously. I may have made fun of it after seeing the film.

It’s also been determined by Vulture that, believe it or not, the correct way to fix a broken back is not by punching it.

But these are small points that I make mainly for fun, because really it doesn’t get much better for summer cinema than fare like this. Nolan went for it, pulled out all the stops and made a finale fitting for this ambitious series.

Don’t be afraid, don’t ruin your own fun in the name of someone’s twisted actions. Go see The Dark Knight Rises with the same anticipation you had before all this and enjoy the heck out of it. Because it’s worth it and because that what movies are for.

The Dark Knight Rises is in theatres now.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson

I feel like I should write this review in a tremendously dry and detailed manner, with vast amounts of nuance and subtle observance. I guess in some ways I should write every review that way, but hey, you’re not reading an academic journal, this is a blog for heaven’s sake. Get over it.

That’s not to say that such an approach can’t work for a movie and it really works rather well for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is a dry movie. Dialogue is minimal. Atmosphere is everything. There are no explosions or car chases, most of the action and turning points revolve around conversations in stuffy British government offices. What violence that does occur is quick and harsh. Emotions are suppressed at every opportunity.

And that’s sort of the point of John le Carre, who wrote the book this film is based on. Le Carre has always been the antithesis to the James Bond vision of espionage, of international jet setting, of exciting violence and sex and, most importantly, of moral certitude. John Le Carre’s vision of nation states and their more dubious relationships is not one of good versus evil, or right and wrong. It’s one of treachery, manipulation, uncertainty and moral ambiguity.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Le Carre, but I blame age more then anything. I tried to read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold when I was a teenager and of course found it dense and boring. Maybe I still would now. And even watching this film last night it did take a force of will to pay close attention, follow the plot and discover its intricacies. I was mostly successful in following the plot, but a little synopsis reading today really helped.

So basically, if you are in the mood for some kick-ass, motorboat chase spy movie, this ain’t it.

But, however, if you are in the mood for something that runs a little deeper, this is a superb film. It has that feel of a 1960s British political drama, which is a good thing in my books (my books are a little weird though, I admit). The film has a grainy, textural quality about it, both in the actual look of the images, but also in its sets and characters who, Tom Hardy aside, aren’t your average superstar, chisel chinned stars.

They are fabulous, however. This film is a who’s who of talented British actors, from Gary Oldman to Colin Firth to John Hurt to Toby Jones. They’re all in wonderfully dubious roles. The power struggles we are watching on screen are pronounced all the more by the power of the actors involved. Oldman, for instance, is perfect as the quiet, observant George Smiley, the man who is called in to figure out the identity of a mole in the highest level of British intelligence services.

Smiley peers through these thick lenses, a blank expression, constantly assessing everyone around him, both blessed and cursed with a keen understanding of what makes humans tick. Oldman gets all of this across with great subtlety, through looks and body language. Smiley is the kind of man who can say more with a stare then a sentence. I’m a big fan of ‘less is more’ acting, and Oldman’s performance here is a stellar example.

What is most interesting about this world is that it is one where emotion is a liability. It asks humans to be something less, to be cold, calculating appraisers of information and character. To be constantly on guard and vigilant, to keep secrets at any cost and to do anything to discover others’. Relationships compromise their abilities to function properly, as do any feelings of jealousy or revenge. The characters in this story are not humans, they are spies.

But of course they are humans, and that’s why the whole operation is so duplicitous and messed up. Emotions do come up and they cause agents to act out. Love cripples. Ambition destroys. They are in the unfortunate position where personal mistakes can lead to international crisis. This is too much to ask of any man.

These are the types of issues that the film explores with impressively deep observance. A degree of interest in these sorts of things is probably essential to enjoying it. There is no flash or pizzazz. There are only shambles of men trying navigate non-navigable waters and drowning in them. Not exactly your average James Bond film.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is available on DVD and Blu-ray.