Thursday, July 31, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe, or as we'll more accurately call it from here on out, The Boring-Files: I Want to Borelieve, failed to capture my attention unlike any film I've seen all year, and I saw The Happening. I went in hoping to see an exciting fight for the future, but instead found myself fighting to stay awake. I'm sure everyone involved with it meant well, but let's just put it this way: I watch the credits to movies 90% of the time. I enjoy them; I consider it part of the experience. Sometimes if I'm in a hurry or didn't care for the movie much or have already seen it, I'll leave after the above-the-line people. Here, the second that "Directed by Chris Carter" appeared onscreen, I got up and bolted for the exit. I haven't done that in three or four years.

Like many episodes of the TV show it continues from, the plot involves a life-or-death mystery with a bit of a science-fiction / paranormal gloss to it, but it's all just presented so goddamn sedately. Nothing about the execution in terms of cinematography, acting, narrative scale, special effects, or anything ever rises above feeling like it belongs on broadcast television or maybe straight-to-DVD. The central murder mystery, in fact, could easily be the plot of a completely typical episode of CSI or Law & Order or basically any other cop drama.

But the biggest problem, by far, is Scully's fuckin' cancer kid. The ads smartly eschewed this in favor of bleeding eyes, but Dana Scully is a doctor now, and she has a patient who is a little boy dying of cancer. All the other doctors think she needs to let go and let the kid die, but she believes she can save him. It's a schmaltzy, even more made-for-TV melodrama that I swear to god got a third of the screentime of the movie. Every few minutes we have to hear what Scully thinks of this kid and see her cry over the kid and bring up the kid and visit the kid and talk to other doctors about the kid and oh god all I wanted was for the kid to die so we could get back to the X-Files mystery. I get that it's supposed to symbolize Scully learning to believe, but this was a poor, poor plot device.

I will admit that I was not a regular viewer of the show back when it was the hottest thing in sci-fi, so the references to the show (if there were any) went over my head and I don't much care about Mulder and Scully's relationship. But I know that I just wasn't engaged, even at the theoretically brisk runtime of 100 minutes. Maybe if you cut out the most boring 48 minutes you could have an average-quality 42-minute episode of The X-Files, but that's the warmest compliment I can give it.

1 Star out of 5

Step Brothers

Some movies have deceptive advertising, over or under-emphasizing certain elements and presenting them as something they are ultimately not. Step Brothers is not one of those movies. The ads were honest to a fault, displaying the film as exactly what it is - 90 minutes of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly acting like manchildren. This is not an ambitious movie, to say the least. You could call it many things - juvenile, puerile, and scatological all leap to mind - but ambitious is not one of them.

But I felt compelled to go see it, not because of Will Ferrell who I can leave or take these days (I watched Anchorman, Old School, and Blades of Glory, but had no problem skipping Talladega Nights, Kicking & Screaming, and Semi-Pro), but because I love seeing John C. Reilly do this type of role. The sheer cognitive dissonance of watching an Academy Award-nominated actor who starred in Robert Altman's last film as well as multiple films by both Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese and had several scenes across from Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York do the dumbest comedy you can imagine is worth the price of admission for me.

And the film did not disappoint in that regard - grown men ran around in their underwear, cried, gibbered like fools, knocked things down, and fell over, people got punched in the face, there was at least two jokes involving urination, testicles were exposed, at least one fart was unleashed, and I'll be god damned if a grown man did not eat a dog turd right on camera. But god help me, because I did laugh out loud at least two dozen times. Director Adam McKay (who also did Anchorman) arguably brings out the best in "dumb version" Will Ferrell, and for all one might accuse John C. Reilly of stooping below his Scorsese-honed level with this material, he is never, ever for a split-second anything less than 110% committed to making his idiotic character as funny as possible. The lack of shame from the two leads and the utter lack of pretension on display salvage what in any other hands could have been unwatchable.

And to give all credit where credit is due, three other relatively minor actors also stole plenty of scenes - Adam Scott as Will Ferrell's asshole brother, who plays the "jackass comedy villain" stereotype with commitment that rivals that of Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore, Mary Steenburgen of Back to the Future Part III fame who does a lot more with her straight-(wo)man beleaguered mom role than you would expect, and Kathryn Hahn, who I'd never actually heard of before this movie, but who gives a graphic quasi-monologue about what she wants John C. Reilly to do to her vagina that had me rolling in the aisles and might have just stolen the whole goddamn movie. Committed actors make for good comedy.

I won't attempt to defend this movie on any intellectual or artistic level whatsoever. It's absolutely retarded. I doubt I'll ever watch it again unless it's on TV and it's 3 AM and I can't sleep or something. But in the interest of full disclosure I cannot pretend that I didn't have a few hearty belly laughs while watching. So I give it the thumbs up of guilty pleasure uber-shame.

2 Stars out of 5

Friday, July 25, 2008

Batman Begins - Retrospective Review

The Dark Knight just snagged the most lucrative opening weekend in box office history, and although the X-Files movie and the new Will Ferrell / John C. Reilly comedy are opening up, it seems likely that Dark Knight will in its second weekend outgross both of them put together. America has Bat Fever, baby! So I figured it a good opportunity to "wind the clocks back" three years and retrospectively discuss Nolan's first Bat-caper, Batman Begins, in lieu of the Caped Crusader's latest film (with very minimal Dark Knight spoilers, in case any silly person hasn't seen it yet, but full Batman Begins spoilers).

I said at the time that Batman Begins was my favorite movie of 2005, and although I'll admit I've been wrong in my initial judgments of a few movies in the past (No Country for Old Men is better than I initially gave it credit for, Superman Returns is worse than I initially gave it credit for), that's an opinion I stand by unflichingly - it's my favorite of '05 and like its brand new baby brother The Dark Knight is also one of my favorite films of all time. Which is funny, because going into this movie I really didn't care about Batman or the Batman mythos. At all. In fact, I still honestly don't care about the Batman mythos in the comics or graphic novels or Animated Series or old live-action variations - I just love the so-called "Nolanverse." While I think The Dark Knight is a slightly better film altogether, Batman Begins is closer to perfect in light of its goals and except for two flaws which I will explain briefly, is as close to perfect as all but a few movies I've ever seen. So why does Nolan and Bale's first movie rock so goddamn hard?

In a word: ambition. I've seen Batman & Robin; I know the dreadful, grotesque spectacle that Chris Nolan had to follow up to. Some people have compared Batman Begins and Casino Royale in terms of their quality as reboots, but Die Another Day, while silly and flawed, is Citizen Kane next to Batman & Robin. Nolan had his work cut out for him with this movie, and although artistic integrity and storytelling excellence has paid off extremely handsomely with The Dark Knight, it's impossible to accuse him of just being out to make a buck. He wanted Batman Begins to be something special. He wanted a talented, all-star cast. He wanted to pony up the budget necessary to shoot in Chicago. He wanted his special effects to be invisible, his story to have thematic weight, his art design and cinematography to be gorgeous beyond the limitations of a "comic book movie," and his movie to be dark and true to the spirit of Batman.

"Dark" is perhaps the first word the critics seemed to gravitate towards three years ago with this movie, which is curious because between it and the Batman movies that proceeded it, it has the lowest body count by far (even I think including the toddler-aimed Batman & Robin), with just six on-screen deaths - Mr. and Mrs. Wayne, Joe Chill, fake "Ra's al Ghul," Rachel's boss Finch, and Ra's al Ghul. But it goes to show that the cinematic concept of "darkness" transcends literal violence (which many wannabe "gritty" filmmakers have yet to figure out) but is more about thematic density and atmosphere, and the Gotham presented here feels more grounded, real, and dangerous than any previous iteration, and Bruce Wayne's moral journey and conclusion not to kill, while not quite Shakespeare (or The Dark Knight for that matter), is more in terms of depth than most action movies at the time asked of you as a viewer.

But while Batman Begins is more ambitious as a reboot from beneath-scratch, I will say that The Dark Knight is certainly more thematically ambitious. Begins is really more of a character profiling / character study of Bruce Wayne, the genesis of Batman, and how he begins to take on Gotham's underworld, and the morality and philosophy therein is mostly contained to the first act and important only inasmuch as how it effects Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight, from the end of the first scene to the last frame before the end credits, never ceased having thematic depth and being a commentary on the natures of morality, order, justice, and chaos. Consider the two films to be the mirror images of each other - The Dark Knight is centrally a work of themes, philosophy, and morality that happens to have some terrific action scenes, whereas Batman Begins is a terrific action movie that happens to have some thematic density.

And if you rewatch Batman Begins after seeing its sequel I think you'll be struck, as I was, when you realize how wildly different the two films are. A lot of producers and directors - in fact the vast, vast majority - settle for their sequels (be it action, drama, horror, or comedy) to be straight-up retellings with no structural changes that just have a new, slightly stronger villain or new jokes. Not Nolan. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are INCREDIBLY different stories - one is a superhero origin story almost entirely centered around the protagonist, and one is a ensemble crime epic analyzing the moral fabric of a city. They happen to share seven characters (albeit six actors) - Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox, Rachel Dawes, the Scarecrow, and Commissioner Loeb - but Batman Begins is about Bruce Wayne only and the city and the other characters only matter in how they effect him and the development of his alter-ego, Batman. In The Dark Knight Batman is much more of an observer (elements that pervade the entire first film, like his parents, are never even brought up), and the backbone of the story is Gotham City and Harvey Dent. And while they do have different villains (and the stakes are upped from Ra's al Ghul to the Joker), neither of them wants to "rule Gotham" as all the old villains did; each espouses a completely different philosophy on his central goals.

The two movies even look completely different. Gotham feels recast as surely as Rachel Dawes does - In The Dark Knight, Gotham is Chicago, period. It's filmed in a bright, wide, open fashion and no attempt is made to hide the atmosphere of the city. Batman and the Joker have a showdown on what is very, very obviously LaSalle Street. Nolan wanted his gritty, Heat-inspired crime epic to be in a real city and in this movie there is no reason to think that Chicago just doesn't exist in this universe, with Gotham City, Illinois standing in its place. In contrast, Batman Begins takes place in a Gotham that, while far removed from the obvious soundstages of the Burton era, is darker, narrower, more gothic, has a tiny splash of art-deco flavor. Look at the scenes where Batman confronts Flass in the alley or the scene where Joe Chill guns down the Waynes to see what I mean - it's Chicago, but not obviously; it still feels like a fictional place. The main color motifs are also different. The Dark Knight is hued with shades of blue from end to end. Even in the scenes that don't take place in Gotham, blue is very, very clearly the featured color of the movie, whether light or a near-black hue of it. In contrast, after returning to Gotham in Batman Begins, rich golds and blacks are the colors of the day. Blue is nary to be found. So that right there makes the atmosphere palpably different.

But speaking of Rachel Dawes - as you may have predicted, Katie Holmes' pallid interpretation is easily the biggest flaw of the movie. She needs to be believable as two things - the one peer Bruce Wayne cares about, and a competent, aggressive attorney who Gotham's criminal underbelly loathes, failing sorely at both. Some of her line readings are just flat-out bad ("Enjoy your party, Bruce, some of us have work to do!" and "This is the third of Falcone's thugs you've had declared insane and moved into your asylum!" leap to mind), her chemistry with Christian Bale is passable at best, and it's a shame they didn't think of hiring Maggie Gyllenhaal back when they cast in '04.

But outside of Katie Holmes - wow.  One of the best goddamn ensembles in any film, ever. The cast must have cost a lot to put together, but it was worth it because the talent on display is just staggering. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Wilkinson in one goddamn movie? I mean, shit, that's just not fair to the other movies! The cast here is so fucking good that you actually have brilliant actors like Rutger Hauer and Ken Watanabe filling out the edges of the story, and everyone delivers a top-of-their-game, fiery / intense / funny / scary / whatever they need to be A+ performance, with no telltale "we're in a comic book movie" winking at the camera whatsoever. The acting outside of Mrs. Cruise is perfect (okay, and maybe the "it's gonna blooow!" water main operator, but who cares).

The only other problem I have in the film is the final fight in the subway between Batman and Ra's al Ghul. It's perfect in terms of tone, atmosphere, drama, and performance but it just doesn't feel very well choreographed and the super-quick cutting and overly in-your-face! camera angles give me a few nasty Michael Bay flashbacks. That's the only action scene where it bothers me, though. The earlier training swordfight between Bruce and Ra's al Ghul is very well-shot and well-choreographed, as is duel between Bruce and fake "Ra's al Ghul." The first attack on the criminals by Batman is similarly quick-cutting to the final fight, but Nolan's explanation is that this is to show the chaos and terror of fighting Batman from the criminals' point of view and I totally believe that (plus "WHERE ARE YOU?!!" "Here." is incredible), although that explanation doesn't fly for the ending fight since Ra's would not panic or become terrified while fighting Batman. And the Batmobile chase at the end of the second act is a wonderful bit of good old-fashioned blockbuster filmmaking action.

There are a couple other gripes some people had, like Christian Bale's growling Batman voice and the technology of the microwave emitter at the end. But neither bother me in the least, because A) Bruce Wayne is a celebrity and it makes sense that he needs to disguise his voice (plus I'd be fucking terrified if a giant man bat speaking in that voice started beating the hell out of me), and B) Gadgets and mild fantasy are a part of the Batman world, and while a microwave emitter like that is a bit sci-fi, it's no more outlandish than Bruce Wayne's suit or a mysterious clan of ninjas that have sacked all decadent cities for a thousand years. Suspension of disbelief is no problem for me there.

But for whatever flaws the film might have the place it succeeds in beautifully, flawlessly, and with utter filmmaking perfection is in structure. "Structure" seems like a strange thing to label as a film's best element, but in Batman Begins it's just perfect. Nolan spends the first half-hour laying down the Batman mythology and backstory like greased lightning, and what could be dull in other hands rockets by with thrilling speed thanks to the three intercutting stories of Bruce and his parents' murder as a child (which also lays down the story of Gotham, its poverty, the train, and Bruce's fear of bats), Bruce's botched attempt at vigilante justice against Joe Chill as a young man (which also lays down Carmine Falcone's hold on the city and the Rachel relationship), and his training in the east as an adult and conclusion not to kill (which also unknowingly at the time introduces our primary villain and his motives) - Nolan's practice with unique narrative timelines in Memento pays off richly in the first act of this film. The structure of the first thirty minutes is absolutely terrific, every shot, every line, it's all relevant, all pays off, it's just virtuoso screenwriting.

And after that, we arrive in Gotham. What's really interesting here is the use of villains. Three major villains - Carmine Falcone, Jonathan Crane / the Scarecrow, and finally Ra's al Ghul, each of which seems like the Big Bad at first and each of which turns out to be using the former. And it's flawless; the story manages to stay centered fully on Bruce Wayne / Batman even while juggling the three bad guys, largely because each plot flows so seamlessly into the next. Falcone and Crane are working together at first, but then Batman shows up and captures Falcone for the cops. Crane doesn't need Falcone anymore so he gasses him and moves on to finish the plan himself. Then Batman takes Crane out via Crane's own fear gas and Ra's al Ghul, who it turns out was Crane's master all along (and who we met and developed in act one), shows up to take advantage of Crane's work and finish the plan, sending us rocketing forward to the climax. Sam Raimi attempted three villains in Spider-Man 3 with Sandman, Venom, and Harry, and compared to this it really just feels haphazard and lazy. And that Begins does this all while fleshing out other great characters like Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Lucius Fox and weaving in seamless action scenes and Bruce continuing to hone his abilities, persona, and gadgets is really a marvel. The structure is perfect, and the reveal of the Joker card in the final moments is just the beautiful cherry on top.

So as you can see, I really do love this movie. It's the complete package of wonderful mythology, a truly amazing cast, peerless structure, timeless characters with solid heroes and villains, a great soundtrack, entertaining summer blockbuster action, and gorgeous cinematography and design. And although comedy is nearly not as central to it as Spider-Man and Iron Man, there's even a hearty laugh or two amid the darkness ("What would you call that?!" "Damn good television." and "It's a black... tank!" both leap to mind here). I would place it in my top fifty films of all time, and if only they had cast Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes and the final fight was better shot and choreographed it could be in the top forty. But those are flaws in casting / acting and staging / editing, respectively, not found in Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's script.  Viewed as a work of character development, mystery, and structure, I would place the screenplay to Batman Begins right up there with Die Hard and Back to the Future.

And I only like it more in retrospect of its sequel. It can partially neuter a film for me if the same story is told again in sequel form, even if it's still entertaining, but these two completely independent films supplement each other wonderfully as totally different stories tied only by a few characters. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight form what is thus far probably the best duology since Star Wars' sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, came out twenty-eight years ago.

5 Stars out of 5

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I don't post numerical ratings with the movie reviews I do here, because I feel that putting such a specific quantitative rating alongside a qualitative analysis of a film undermines the latter.

But on the other hand I DO actively maintain a profile on, where I have as of today rated and reviewed 1,200 movies. You can check out my account and table of film rankings by clicking right here. Click on the rating number to the right of each film's name to read my mini-review, and sort by years or genres on the far right.

Everyone else should sign up and rate some movies too, even if you don't feel like reviewing. I'm always curious to know how other people feel about movies, and hey, it's mega film nerd fun!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Dark Knight

[Note: This is a spoiler-free review, inasmuch as it reveals no plot points, specific scenes, twists, or character arcs, because anyone who does that in a movie review is an asshole. I'll discuss the themes, tone, and pacing of the movie some, so if you want to know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING except how much I liked it, just read the first paragraph.]

As the followup to one of the most beloved action movies of the last decade and the end result of years of speculation and hype, The Dark Knight bears a heavy burden of expectation and is basically review-proof. But I must say that this movie, to put it as bluntly as I can, is a towering work of epic crime fiction that effortlessly lives up to every expectation, surpasses the original (which was already one of my top ten movies of this decade thus far), and will continue to be watched and discussed for many, many years to come. Christopher Nolan's vision is bold and daring, and this movie is not the easy but surely bankable sequel that it could have been; The Dark Knight is risky, thematically dense, bravado filmmaking. I'd forgotten what it was like to have my pulse genuinely quicken in excitement in a movie theater and I have a new favorite movie of the year, if not the last four or five years. People declaring it the Empire Strikes Back to Batman Begins' A New Hope speak the truth. Basically, I liked it.

Like Empire, it's darker than the original - dark on a nearly groundbreaking scale, in a pervading, thematic way. "Dark" is definitely one of the more overused adjectives in film discussion, one often applied to juvenile works like Sin City where things may be bloody and violent in a pulpy fashion, but Nolan's second Batman tale is one of the cases where the word is truly aptly used. The film is drowned in a sense of panic, terror, and pervading hopelessness, the violence is startling and gritty. Tonal and thematic comparisons to Heat are completely justified. While the movie is incredibly entertaining - it's thrilling, it's fast-paced, it's full of twists and spectacular action set pieces, it's vibrant and rich and gorgeous - I would not use the word "fun" to describe it. Fun is not a bad thing; Iron Man is fun, and I love Iron Man. Spider-Man 2 is fun, and I love Spider-Man 2. The Dark Knight makes Iron Man and Spider-Man 2 look like Looney Tunes, and makes Batman Begins look like the light-hearted appetizer leading up to the main event. It's difficult to explain why in a spoiler-free context, but I think you'll believe me by the end of the first ten minutes.

And this is largely due to the justified man of the hour, the most talked-about film role of the year, Heath Ledger's phenomenal performance as the Joker. When I discussed Batman '89 I lamented the lack of danger around the Joker - well, consider that fixed about infinity times over. The Joker Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger have created innovates the very foundations of what film villainy can be, a character that transcends a criminal, or a terrorist, but becomes nothing less than a demon of woe, chaos, disorder, and destruction raining anarchy upon a city. He takes every line and turns it into a symphony of unbridled, absurdly entertaining evil; edgy, scary, funny all at once, and certainly one of the all-time greatest villains in a motion picture.

Christian Bale is of course Bruce Wayne / Batman and as is as awesome as ever. There's not really too much for me to analyze in his acting outside of specific scenes a.k.a. spoilers, but you've seen Batman Begins, you know how he plays the character. For me he's the definitive version by about a billion miles. Batman / Bruce Wayne has a smaller percentage of screen time and scenes in this movie than in Batman Begins, but unlike Batman '89 it doesn't bother me at all. Pretty much every second of Batman Begins was about Bruce Wayne the man, his origins, his training, his life philosophy, his character arc, his rise to Batman. We had a whole movie about Bruce Wayne, now he appropriately takes his place in a larger ensemble in a movie about Gotham City.

Gary Oldman's understated work as Jim Gordon deserves applause, and I love the way Jim Gordon is used in Nolan's saga as the avatar of hardworking Gotham as opposed to the barely-there side character he was in the old Batman movies. Alfred and Lucius Fox return to back up Batman; Michael Caine remains brilliantly charming and funny and is perfect for the role. And Morgan Freeman surpassed my expectations; the trailers barely showed him ("Now that's more like it Mr. Wayne!") and I assumed Lucius Fox was basically just Batman's Q, but he actually has an arc - one played out in subplot, on the same scale of the first movie, but it's a meaty, real role, not a cameo or an "appearance."

Aaron Eckhart has been the highlight of a huge number of movies through the years - his performance in The Black Dahlia was by far the best thing in that awful fucking movie - and his Harvey Dent is fully believable as a politician but with a dark edge befitting the path the character takes, probably the fullest and deepest character arc in the movie. And while recasting is always unavoidably awkward, Maggie Gyllenhaal is definitely a step up from Katie Holmes. The character is Nolan-created (I almost typed "fictional," then reminded myself that Batman isn't real) and inherently less important to the saga than Wayne, Dent, Joker, or Gordon, but Gyllenhaal succeeds at the two things Holmes could not - seeming like a competent attorney that the criminals of Gotham detest and the one person who throws Bruce Wayne off guard.

The other gripe besides Katie Holmes that some people (including myself) had in regard to the first film was that the fight scenes seemed a little jumbled in the way they were shot and cut, in particular the final fight between Batman and Ra's al Ghul. The fight scenes in The Dark Knight aren't worlds apart, but then again there isn't a ninjitsu master like Ra's al Ghul to fight, so less choreography doesn't bother me much.

But while Nolan may not be a born director of fights, some of the other action scenes in this movie are absolutely breathtaking on a scale I haven't seen since Spider-Man stopped the out-of-control subway four years ago, just with 95% less CGI. Nolan's action once the Batpod is unleashed has a ragged, visceral quality surprisingly grounded in reality, and there's one particular scene that has been featured in both trailers that lived up to everything I could have hoped it would be. While this film is a lot more than just an action movie, and anyone who goes hoping for an Iron Man-esque pure popcorn flick may be overwhelmed having stumbled into a heady treatise on the rule of force versus the rule of law, the five or six major action set pieces organically woven into the story are pretty thrilling.

People will talk of Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, but the greatest (relatively) unsung heroes of this movie are definitely director of photography Wally Pfister and the city of Chicago as a whole. Leaving behind the rich blacks and golds of the Gotham in Batman Begins, this movie gleams with a bruised-blue sheen of glass and metal; the framing, lightning, and camerawork is stunning. I will consider it as much of an outrage if this movie fails to get a cinematography nomination as if Ledger fails to get an acting nomination, because it's a technical marvel. Gotham is vividly brought to life (especially if you see it in IMAX, which you should, because it's incredible) by the Chicago location shooting. In contrast to Batman '89, which ALWAYS feels like a soundstage, this movie NEVER feels like a soundstage; the art direction and costuming (except on the Joker, of course) is grounded in a reality just 1 or 2% heightened, visually realistic yet artfully rendered and appropriate for the story Nolan weaves.

If there's one soon-to-be-frequent complaint about the movie I can predict, it's that the Joker's plans are so ridiculously intertwined, muti-leveled, factoring in the actions of so many people at once directly to his whim that it easily approaches Xanatos Roulette-level absurdity - it's ingeniously clever screenwriting but a bit unlikely. However, if you like Batman Begins that means you accepted the story of a world-famous billionaire who goes and trains with ninjas on the mountain slopes of an Eastern country, returns home and dresses up as a bat to fight criminals without a firearm, and then does battle with the same ninja clan now wielding a gas spray that instantly drives anyone crazy and a microwave device that can vaporize the water supply of a whole city. If you could accept that, then you should be able to accept a robber who dresses up as a clown and is such a genius he can predict the actions of multiple parties several steps in advance.

Nonetheless, this is a riveting, masterful work that unlike so many sequels rejects the idea of retelling the first story with new bad guys, instead opting to analyze the very fiber of morality in a rich, vast, structurally unique crime epic. It's a perfect example of all the best of cinema coming together - virtuoso directing, monumental performance, technical perfection, a taut, thrilling screenplay, rich themes and concepts, exciting action, a great score, and even the goddamn Batman. Between Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, I earnestly believe we are seeing in Christopher Nolan the rise of a new director who will one day be a Hitchcock / Scorsese / Spielberg filmmaking legend. He's only 37 years old and I can't wait to see what his next films hold - but most of all I have to admit I want to see him round out his Batman saga as a trilogy.

5 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Batman (1989) - Retrospective Review

Here I sit a few hours out from seeing The Dark Knight, easily the most I've anticipated a film since The Return of the King five years ago. But something weighs heavy on my soul, a confession I must make, if you will. Batman is probably the most beloved superhero of all time - Superman is more classic and more symbolic, but he's so simplistic and goody two-shoes that most people don't LOVE him - and between Batman's comic books, graphic novels, animated shows, live-action show, and of course films he has become legend. But I haven't read any comics (with the exception of The Dark Knight Returns, which was good) or watched the shows, so until June 2005 the only audio-visual media I had to judge Batman on was the Burton and Schumacher films - Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin.

And, frankly, I thought Batman was stupid. Christopher Nolan's stewardship of the series has obviously 360ed my opinion, but until then, when I was engaging in conversations with fellow nerds about nerdiness and the awesomeness of Batman came up, I had to either keep mum or be "that guy," because I didn't think Batman was cool, I thought Batman was the most mediocre thing I could think of. I won't find much argument there in regard to the Schumacher duo, but most people will go to bat (pun?) to defend the Burton films, some even passionately. To some Batman is as nostalgic and beautiful a masterpiece as Star Wars or Back to the Future or The Princess Bride is to me. And that's fine - I certainly respect nostalgia - but through five or six viewings, starting from as a really little kid of five or six years up through my last attempt at enjoying it a couple days ago, I've always thought Batman is perhaps the most overrated action film of the 80s.

It doesn't help that I don't like Tim Burton much at all. I've seen nine of his films - this one, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd, and of those nine the only one I could unconditionally recommend is Edward Scissorhands (Mars Attacks! is also goofy but fairly amusing); he knows how to craft visuals but has a forcedly quirky tone and an off-kilter aesthetic that I personally find lends itself to a really manufactured atmosphere. For me he may be the most overrated filmmaker outside of Lars von Trier. And my problems with the aesthetic style he crafted for Gotham City begin with the second shot of the film:

What's the problem? Well, just look at it! It's an orgy of visual nonsense that looks nothing like an actual city! The entire movie has a very synthetic fiber to it and not a single shot that supposedly takes place outside convinces you for even a split second that the actors are anywhere but a soundstage. There's not a frame of sky that actually looks like sky, there's not a plant that looks like anything but plastic, and everything from chemical plants to back alleys to news studios all scream "THIS IS A MOVIE." at you - something that bothered me even as a kid but now plays especially bad in light of Nolan's Chicago location shooting.

The atmosphere is just as synthetic. Okay, I DO recognize that it was surprisingly dark at the time, in contrast to the Adam West style people associated with live action Batman, and it deserves props for pushing it further than a lot of people expected. It's still "dark" inasmuch that it has a relatively high body count - higher than Batman Begins by quite a bit - but of course there's more to mood than that, and everything takes place in such a one-dimensional comic world that seeing these people getting taken out isn't really particularly engaging. The plot involves the Joker poisoning the makeup, cleaning, beauty, and other common chemical products of Gotham City, killing lots of people and holding the city in a fearful captivity. You'd think that there might be some kind of tone of panic or terror, right? Or if Burton didn't want to push the mood that far, even some kind of, say, tension or drama? Instead it's treated with all the tension of Dr. Evil's ransom demands in Austin Powers. I understand the movie wasn't meant to be as heavy as Nolan's films, but if you've seen Spider-Man 2 or Iron Man, you know a superhero movie can obviously balance a lot of comedy and an overall light tone with an actual villain who exudes some degree of a threat, and some sense of drama.

The lack of drama bleeds into the action scenes - since the whole thing is a joke, why should our pulse quicken when Batman starts driving his over-the-top oversized action figure Batmobile around Gotham, set to Danny Elfman's circus tunes? And the fights between Jack Nicholson's old man Joker (which I'll get to in a minute) and Batman are such a muted exchanging of blows that it's all I can do to not fast-forward them. And Batman's propensity to have a gadget for any obstacle rivals that of James Bond in any Roger Moore movie. In fact I just overall dislike Batman in this movie, a lot of which is due to:

Michael Keaton. When you think of the action heroes of the late 80s - Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Timothy Dalton, and so on - Michael Keaton clearly stands out as the one least likely to kick your ass in real life. His Bruce Wayne comes across as just an unlikely millionaire playboy as his Batman does a vigilante warrior. And his character is given so little psychological depth that he's pretty much the "designated goodguy," appearing fully-formed in the first scene because this movie needs someone to fight the Joker and it might as well be him. He's given a two-minute flashback of his parents' murder near the end, although they have no dialogue and no explanation of what happened between the murder and him becoming Batman is given (and the decision was made to have the Joker murder his parents, which is hokey and embarrassing). And despite the movie being called Batman, he has a shockingly little amount of screentime, having just a tiny handful of scenes as Bruce Wayne throughout the entire movie, most of them spent with Vicki Vale, a.k.a. Kim Basinger, a nothing character who bizarrely has as much screentime and dialogue as Bruce Wayne / Batman himself. Her first line is "Hi, I'm Vicki Vale!" but it might as well be "Hi, I'm Romantic Interest!" She is given no background, motivation, or reason she loves Bruce Wayne so much. Not to claim that she's any more shallow than some of Roger Moore's Bond girls, but last I checked Mary Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun didn't have more goddamn screentime and dialogue than James Bond.

And that brings us to the most significant of the movie's scant few developed characters (four or five at the most), the Joker, as played by Jack Nicholson, in a performance that some still claim to be nothing short of brilliant. He's first-billed, and he deserves to be, easily having more screentime, development, and dialogue than Batman. And I won't deny for a second that he is probably the most entertaining thing in the movie and the thing that elevates it to somewhere approaching watchability - it's impossible to deny that "I'm glad you're dead. Hahahahahahahaha! I'm glad you're dead!" is incredibly amusing - but it's not really a performance at all. Jack Nicholson does not play the Joker, he does a song-and-dance routine of Jack Nicholson as Jack Nicholson as the Joker, with the filmmakers going so far as to give the Joker the name of Jack Napier. Yes, Jack N. Real good, guys. It's like in The Fresh Prince when Will Smith plays a "character" named Will Smith. And I'm not to deny the legend of Jack Nicholson - he's been awesome in Chinatown, The Shining, and The Departed - but his Joker has nothing resembling a hint of menace. You don't feel like he's a criminal mastermind ready to run a town, let alone battle Batman. He dances through museums tossing paint on portraits and all you get the sense of is bizarre, semi-funny performance art.

So yeah, I wasn't crazy about this movie. Never have been, never will be. I won't bother reviewing the other three of this series, because Batman Returns is if anything more Burtonesque than this one and the less said about Schumacher's films the better. However, I will say that I'm glad Batman & Robin was made - had Schumacher's second film been crashingly mediocre like Batman Forever rather than apocalyptically awful like B&R, then it might have eeked out just enough profit to make a fifth utterly mediocre film in 1999, then a sixth in 2001, and so on, rendering it impossible for Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise from scratch with his awesome movies. Batman & Robin was the killing fire necessary to burn the franchise to the ground, allowing the phoenix of Batman Begins to rise from the ashes. Speaking of which, it's about time for me to drive to Universal Studios and get in line for The Dark Knight.

2 Stars out of 5

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

The original 2004 Hellboy is the quintessential example of a third-act problem. It starts off extremely fun, strong, and clever with a wicked backstory about Nazi demon summoning and black magic, flashing back to a 1940s adventure bursting with vibrant visuals and action that evoke an almost Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque feel. It then shifts to the present and builds some neat characters, including of course the great Ron Perlman as Hellboy, terrific use of makeup and prosthetics and CGI to bring the world to life, and what seems like an interesting mystery of occult horror. But then it goes askew and buckles under its own weight - the bad guy's plot, which we knew involved summoning a demon god to earth and killing everyone and assumed that was a base plot that would be elaborated on, turns out to be just that simple and bland. And the climax involves Hellboy and his friends stalking down into a blue and gray-hued enemy dungeon, fighting off CGI monsters, and Hellboy's final, generic battle against a giant CGI tentacle beast - it almost gives off the musky stench of Van Helsing (not THAT bad, but it's reminiscent), and if you've gone from Raiders to Van Helsing in one movie something has certainly gone askew.

But I'm pleased to report that I found Hellboy II: The Golden Army to be a couple ranks up in quality from its predecessor (even if the cruel coincidence of where its release date landed will forever brand it as "That Movie People Went to Go See to Pass Time Until The Dark Knight"). From the word go it has a different flavor than the original, abandoning the dark occult / Lovecraftian horror vibe in favor of a modern high fantasy, with elves, goblins, golems, and forest gods, and it also seems to take itself a hair more lightly (not that the first was heavy or anything, but this even less so), gently undermining nearly every potentially dramatic beat with an off-kilter bit of humor or subtle twist into the comically absurd.

It doesn't fall into the trap of generic action that the first one did - not to say any action beat in this movie innovated, but everything had enough goofy, energetic whimsy and such neat design behind it (more on that momentarily) that I was entertained by pretty much every action scene. There are also epic movie-style spear fights, which you don't see much in the movies (I think the last one I've seen might have been the opening fight in Hero), which I rather enjoyed. And this movie is paced like greased lightning, spacing the start of a new action scene no more than ten minutes after the end of the last from the beginning onwards, interspacing them with special effects showcases, quick, entertaining plot building, and comic bits. Only an ADD-saddled toddler could get anxious for quicker pace in this flick. Other than the legendary B-movie badass Ron Perlman, who returns as Hellboy, the cast isn't too much worth mentioning - Doug Jones inhabits makeup and strange creatures well, Selma Blair's fire-summong superheroine is hot (pun?), and Jeffrey Tambor is deadpan, but this movie doesn't really belong to the actors but solely to Guillermo del Toro and his art team.

Above all else the movie is a visual showcase of del Toro's imagination, something that was hinted at in Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth but explodes off the screen scene-by-scene here, as incredible makeup, prosthetics, graceful, well-implemented CGI, and animatronics are married under wildly clever art design to produce a monumental amount of exotic foreign races and neat creatures. It's clear that creature and world-building and art design is del Toro's great love, and the sheer number of monsters that he and his team designed for this flick is pretty ridiculously awesome; there was one scene where the good guys walk through a "Troll's Market" with dozens of bizarre foreign creatures, most all of them seemingly suits and prosthetics that lack the synthetic quality of being all CGI, that echoed to me the feel of the Mos Eisley Cantina or seeing the quartet in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first time. This is a movie that could have been crap with the identical script if not for the crazy-ass visual stylist behind the camera. Everything from the design of goblins to giant stone men to forest entities to golden war golems to spears and swords has an ethereal, high fantasy sort of vibe to it. It's extremely easy to see why Peter Jackson picked del Toro to direct The Hobbit.

Now, this isn't to claim in any way shape or form that this was a perfect movie - the whole thing was shallow as a saucepan; if there was so much as a theme or an idea behind beyond "Hellboy and friends vs. fantasy bad guys with crazy visuals" then it flew over my head. Some people online complained that the relationships between Hellboy and Selma Blair / Jeffrey Tambor had regressed since the ending of the first movie, which is true, but I'm not nearly invested enough in the Hellboy story arc to have so much as thought about it. Hellboy II is goofy, shallow, glitzy popcorn fun done fairly well, and that's all. Go see it for the creatures and the spear fights and a few chuckles and you'll have successfully passed time until The Dark Knight.

3 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Walk Hard - DVD Review

Both surreal comedy and spoofs have been in the shitter for the last few years, thanks almost solely to the unspeakably foul and excruciatingly endless "______ Movie" series (Date Movie, Epic Movie, etc.), all composed of nothing but horrid shit. But Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan did a fantastic job of reviving both forms with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. I have no doubt that it's much funnier if you've seen Walk the Line and Ray (I'd say it's about 3/4ths a spoof of the former and 1/4th the latter), but if you have and you like comedy, I would immediately see it. It's cleverly written, has a deft touch of parody, skillfully milks patterns and surreality and comic conventions with hilarious results, and has a dick in it. What more could you want from a comedy?

I'll also mention that in addition to John C. Reilly's great performance as Dewey Cox, it's got one of the sickest casts ever. There's players from The Office (Jenna Fischer has a leading role, and Craig Roberson and Ed Helms show up), a couple from 30 Rock (Chris Parnell, Jack McBreyer), tons of people who have been in previous Apatow Production movies (David Krumholtz, Kristin Wiig, Martin Starr, Gerry Bednob, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Harold Ramis, Jane Lynch, and more), and a shit load of other recognizable faces (Jack Black, Frankie Muniz, Jack White, Simon Helberg, Justin Long, Jason Schwartzman, and Tim Meadows - all here). Most of them are cameos, but it was like a whos who of most of the best players in comedy today, and it was a lot of fun seeing a familiar face every few minutes.

Also, for Office fans, I would be totally remiss to not mention that Jenna Fischer wears a transparent neglige in one scene. So there's that too.

In Roger Ebert's review of the movie he mentions with pleasant surprise that John C. Reilly actually "plays" the character of Dewey Cox instead of playing down to the material. Not that I don't agree - it's a wonderful performance - but it speaks rather disappointingly to our lowered standards of an entire genre that we're surprised to actually catch actors acting in comedies now. Not only that, but the songs in the movie are actually full-fledged and well written, and the cinematography, camera work, and makeup is all up to the standards of any film.

But I don't think that should be unique, and I think it's retarded to treat comedy like a sub-genre - something else I would say that Epic Movie and it's abysmal ilk are partially responsible for. And that's something I think Judd Apatow has done well in 2007 and 2008, between Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Walk Hard, in raising the standards of comedy back up again. I have hope that comedy, the greatest genre, can continue its ascent.

3 Stars out of 5

Monday, July 7, 2008


The word "okay" was invented so that mankind would one day have a concise way to describe Hancock. One could make a legitimate case for "mediocre." "Good" is definitely too forgiving.

Don't get me wrong, I WANTED to love Hancock, for three reasons: 1) I really want to see director Peter Berg have a long, successful career. The Rundown and Friday Night Lights were very good, but more importantly he developed the NBC Friday Night Lights series which I truly love the holy shit out of. 2) Like any Arrested Development fanboy I love Jason Bateman. And 3) I'm always ready to support any non-sequel, non-franchise, non-book / comic adaptation action movie, because there are so few original action flicks written directly for the screen. The only three I saw all of last year were Grindhouse, Hot Fuzz, and Shoot 'Em Up. It's a rare thing these days, and I always hope I can endorse a new one when it comes along.

Starting positive, I have nothing bad to say about the actors. It's pretty much a three-person show with no other developed characters (although there were a couple Friday Night Lights series cameos I appreciated); Will Smith is of course Hancock and although he may be the poster boy for mediocre summer action (I personally don't feel he's ever topped Men In Black) he never seems less than 100% committed to entertaining the audience. He has energy and screen presence. Jason Bateman is largely in the same persona we usually see him in but is always funny (in the constraints he's given, at least, in this case) and a personal favorite of mine. Charlize Theron's performance is nothing special, but hey, she's hot, and her and Jason Bateman together make this a minor Arrested Development reunion, so it gets points for that.

But the script for this movie is INSANELY schizophrenic. It's apparently an ancient script that's been floating around Hollywood for a decade, cycling through dozens of rewriters and dozens of drafts, and it shows - the thing is a goddamn Frankenstein, wildly and disjointedly cobbling together elements of action, comedy, drama, and romance into something of a genre soup. Don't get me wrong, there have been movies that have successfully combined those four (Spider-Man 2 leaps to mind), but this just feels overstretched for a 92 minute movie. The ads chose to focus mostly on comedy with an action backdrop, but don't be deceived, these ads are rather misrepresentative and show pretty much every non-profane joke in the entire movie. Instead of each genre feeling well-implemeneted, Peter Berg tries a mild hand at each, not outright failing at any, but just doing a staggeringly "okay" job at each.

The action scenes have a few clever beats and find a few neat ways to challenge a man with Superman-level powers. For example, Hancock goes up against a bank robber with a dead man's switch and hostages strapped with explosives, and it's actually exciting for a minute or two. But by and large the action is standard stuff you've literally seen hundreds of times that will keep your attention but won't linger in your memory. The comedy is supported much more by Smith and Bateman than the script itself; the biggest running joke in the movie is people calling Hancock "asshole." Nothing more than that, just asshole. This happens well over a dozen times, maybe two dozen, and I guess it works for some people because some audience members at my screening laughed every damn time, but I found it pretty derivative. And the drama and romance dips into melodrama with a lot of excessively dramatic, swelling music and slow motion and had me a little more impatient than moved.

I could continue, explaining that the story fails to impress, there is a twist partway through that feels like it's supposed to be the twist of year but just kind of had me nod and go "hmm," and the villains are probably the most underdeveloped (and I truly mean that, as in five or six lines in the movie), bland, and forgettable in an action flick in the last decade, but I reckon you get the point. Hancock is alright. I wasn't bored; there were a couple neat superpower bits, and Will Smith and Jason Bateman have good interplay. But I was really far from impressed either. Netflix it at the most.

2 Stars out of 5