Saturday, July 19, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Cane, Morgan Freeman Director: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: July 18, 2008
Running Time: 152 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Warner Bros.

I have done my absolute best to keep my expectations in check for The Dark Knight. Considering the fact that the viral marketing for this film started 2 years ago, the very notion of the film succeeding on any level under the weight of its own designed expectation isn’t simply preposterous – it is unimaginable. The truth is, for as overdone as the marketing seemed to be, the greatest prank the campaign pulled was fooling us all into thinking we were prepared for what we were about to experience.

For those who haven’t seen it I will keep it spoiler free but for anyone reading this, you already know enough of the plot to get started – Batman and the Joker battle for supremacy in Gotham. The first thing I noticed about the film that it has a completely different feel to it than any other movie based on a super hero or comic book character. You almost immediately forget you are watching a superhero, or even a Batman movie, as it hits the ground running with a bank heist. Instantly it has the feel of Michael Mann’s Heat. As the movie tears on, you realize that you aren’t watching a comic book movie at all but rather a sophisticated crime drama that happens to be housed in the walls of the superhero genre. That is just one of the many surprises Christopher Nolan has in store.

As a general rule of thumb, comic book/superhero movies stick to a couple basic ground rules: good versus evil where the hero is matched against a villain attempting to inflict peril on an unsuspecting city or group of people. To simply say The Dark Knight is different may be the understatement of the year. Nolan digs so much deeper and gives us a movie that is far more complex than that simple premise. In Batman Begins, we saw the the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman. The Dark Knight asks, “What now?” That ‘what now’ is that Wayne has grown weary of his role as Gotham’s savoir after being unjustly labeled a vigilante killer by the very city he has been trying to protect. The timing of the Joker’s introduction only further compounds this dilemma. He is at first, hell-bent on destroying Batman by way of humiliation by repeatedly asking him to reveal his true identity. He continues his murderous rampages while laying the blame at Batman’s feet. And everyone buys into the Joker’s plan. In the meantime, Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gotham have put all their faith in the city’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent to rid the town of crime once and for all. It’s quite a little love triangle as each man realizes they need one another to fulfill their own agenda. Wayne realizes he needs Dent to help leave the life of Batman behind, the Joker realizes he needs Batman to feed his own anarchistic tendencies, and at one point or another Dent needs them both. The line of morality gets further blurred as we go. What is right and wrong in the name of right and wrong becomes the greater question as we further decent into the darkness of the human soul. It is that exploration that gives this film its bite and sets it apart from anything else before it.

The creation and application of Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego, is contingent on spending his time developing new weapons and armor in an effort to make himself as indestructible as he can because as a superhero without super powers. Batman is merely human and he knows his limitations. Where the Joker succeeds as an adversary is not attacking him physically but in his awareness of what makes Batman the way he is, or has become. Any of his attempted physical attacks are manifested from his understanding of the darkness where Batman exists. His weapon is knowledge and it is with this that he inflicts the most damage to Batman.

For all of this movie’s haunting moral complexities, it would be nothing without the excellent performances from its cast, of which there are many. Where do you start? Heath Ledger gives the performance of a lifetime – his or anyone else’s – as the Joker. His performance will go down as one of the greatest movie villains of all time, right next to Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, Darth Vader in Star Wars, and Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. It should come as no surprise that he seemingly pulled inspiration from all three. His Joker is sadistic, nihilistic, shows no empathy and is completely devoid of any character arc. What’s more, Ledger disappears into the role not just in his over the top approach to the character, but in the subtleties; the way he carries himself, the way he licks his lips like a rabid dog in between lines of dialogue, even the Joker’s trademark maniacal laugh has a psychotic tinge to it. As sad as it is that Ledger is not around to see and promote the film, it only fuels the performance that much further. The same way we are not given any explanation as to the Joker’s origin in the movie, we are all left to wonder just how Ledger brought that character to life as he did. It is perfect in every sense of the word and the lack of clarification as to how it happened makes it that much more haunting. It is hard to overlook the impact his death has on the movie but if he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, like he deserves, it will be because he gave us a brilliant performance, not because he can’t do it again.

As great as Ledger is, you can’t overlook the performances from the rest of the cast. Aaron Eckhart as the no-nonsense DA Harvey Dent and his eventual transformation into Two-Face is beautifully tragic and he plays both sides to the hilt. Dent balances out the film as he provides the character arc that the Joker could not. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes us all (happily) forget Katie Holmes ever had anything to do with these movies. Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox provide balance and wisdom in their respective roles. And Gary Oldman gives another understated performance as James Gordon. With a cast as strong as this, you start to gravitate away from the silly notion that seasoned and accomplished actors don’t belong in a genre movie like this.

At the end of it all, you have a swiftly paced 2 ½ hour movie that realizes every bit of ambition and scope that it set out to, and with respect, actually makes all previous Batman films worse by comparison. Nolan has created a masterpiece that will stay with you long after you finish watching it. Superman may have laid the foundation and Spider-Man may have made it a profitable business, but The Dark Knight transcends the genre by raising the bar and turning it into an art form.

And there’s the rub.

* * * * out of * * * *

Friday, July 18, 2008

tMF Top Five - Best Superhero Movies

Comic books and superheroes have been around forever. Almost as soon as they rose to prominence in popular culture, TV shows and movies began taking shape as a popular vehicle for the art form. Superman started it all but it wasn’t until the 2000’s X-Men that the genre was considered a profitable business. The upside is that over the last decade, a lot of our favorite comic book characters were brought to life on the big screen. The downside is that some of them sucked. 2008, in particular the summer, has been the year of the superhero/comic book movie. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, and Hellboy II, have already wowed us in one degree or another, but on the eve of the granddaddy of them all – The Dark Knight – tMF takes a look back at the best of the genre so far.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: Hancock

Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman
Director: Peter Berg
Release Date: July 2, 2008
Running Time: 92 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

With the exception of the title, I have been starring at a blank word document for about half an hour. In my head, this film has rated 1 star to 4 stars and back. Even now, I have no idea how it’s going to end up.

Hancock (Will Smith) is the anti-superhero. When he’s not saving peoples lives he is passed out drunk on a street corner somewhere or drinking himself into a stupor on his way to being passed out somewhere. He is a mess. When he isn’t drunk, he is helping save the city from random low-end thugs. I use the term “helping” loosely because his nonchalant approach to property damage mid-rescue seems to be a great source of displeasure for those in the city he is trying to help. His antics finally become too much of a cross to bear and the city turns against him. It is curious that he doesn’t seem at all phased by the fact that people seem to despise his existence yet still keeps coming to their rescue.

When he saves the life of a fledgling PR executive, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), Hancock is given an interesting proposal: allow Ray to help him clean up his image so the town can realize that they really do need him around, thereby giving him renewed purpose. Sounds like a win for everyone but Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron) has her doubts. The interaction between Hancock and Ray are some of the best parts of the movie. As for Hancock himself, I liked him more when he was the bitter asshole that nobody liked more than the “corporate” superhero they tried to turn him in to. Story-wise, it would have been an interesting concept to allow Hancock to continue to being the sarcastic jerk he always was and make the city change their approach to dealing with him. After all, they were the ones who stood to gain the most from his abilities.

For as upbeat and silly as the movie is portrayed, there is something very dark lying just below the surface. That is part of the problem with Hancock. There were traces of really interesting angles on the superhero cliché, but always just out of reach. The premise itself is intriguing but it’s almost as if they weren’t sure how to play it consistently. The beginning of the movie had fascinating story elements but the CGI was so bad it was almost a distraction, the middle had some great starting points for plot advances that went nowhere to make room for more action, and the end was just a sloppy, shameless pile of sappy Legend of Bagger Vance-type sentiment. Mixed bag doesn’t begin to describe how I felt watching this. Every time it felt like they were heading in a direction that could get things back on track, something stupid happened that made me shake my head in shame. It’s like watching Deal or No Deal and seeing some moron piss away offer after offer from the banker that would change their life forever on the slim chance that they have the million dollar case until you finally get so frustrated with their ignorance and arrogance that you hope they walk out of there with the penny just to prove a point.

But for all of its problems, Hancock wasn’t a complete waste; just a fistful of wasted opportunity. There is something to be said about watching the story of a superhero that isn’t based on material we are all familiar with beforehand. There are inherent risks to this approach but the originality is refreshing. If only they could have figured out how to harness those ideas into a movie worthy of its intentions.

And there’s the rub.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

tMF Top Five - Worst Movies of 2008... so far

Earlier this week I posted a top five list of the Best Movies of 2008… so far. For the most part, people seem to agree with the list (a lot of Cloverfield haters out there…). People agreed for a pretty simple reason; there haven’t been a lot of great movies to come out this year. Probably more seasonality than anything, but they have been few and far between. In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, it’s only right to present the other, uglier side of the coin. I actually had a lot more trouble narrowing down this list to only five. There have been some bad movies so far; some due to failed expectation and some because they were just plain awful. For me, these were the worst of the worst.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

DVD Review: My Blueberry Nights

Starring: Norah Jones, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Natalie Portman
Director: Wong Kar Wai
DVD Release Date: July 1, 2008
Running Time: 90 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

News flash: relationships are hard. They can be very frustrating at times. The way men and women attempt to communicate has always been a source of equal parts fascination and bewilderment to me. Everybody wants to know what the other person is thinking but unlike any other interaction in life, we find these odd methods of approach when dealing with the opposite sex. Rarely do people just come out and say what they think or ask what they actually want to know. Women seem to always want to know what guys are thinking. Men, on the other hand, seem less interested in wanting to know what women are thinking than they are finding ways to not let on what they are thinking. I think everyone can agree that the whole thing is absurd, yet we still find ourselves doing exactly that, from time to time. My Blueberry Nights a character study that dissects this very concept.

Elizabeth (Norah Jones) goes into a New York café looking for her boyfriend. The man who runs the café, Jeremy (Jude Law) possesses this uncanny ability of identifying and remembering his customers by remembering what they order. The suggestion that everyone that comes to the shop orders the same thing is not questioned, for fear of devaluing the plot device, I imagine. Anyway, through a series of quick questions and answers, Elizabeth gets enough information from Jeremy to suspect that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Over the course of the next several nights, she comes in to the café after hours and the two bond by way of conversation and blueberry pie. Just when the meetings are starting to hit their stride, she comes in one night and suggests that she is going to give the boyfriend another chance. A few nights go by in her absence until she sullenly returns, silently conceding defeat. The two rekindle their conversation and the next night, she is gone.

By way of the title cards sporadically placed throughout the movie, we find out that she is now in Memphis, Tennessee. She is working two jobs, a bar at night, and a restaurant during the day, to save for a car. Where she plans to go is not discussed or even eluded to. She sends Jeremy postcards for the purpose of staying in touch, but doesn’t reveal her whereabouts. During this stint she encounters a local policeman named Arnie (David Strathairn) and later his soon-to-be ex-wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). She learns that Arnie has tried to quit drinking on several occasions but has yet to accomplish it fully. The meetings of consequence Arnie and Lizzie (she changed her name with her location, I guess) share are the strongest parts of the movie. They keep running into each other and divulging a little more to each other about each other along the way, until something happens that makes Elizabeth/Lizzie leave town.

Now she ends up somewhere cocktailing at a slum casino. She meets Leslie (Natalie Portman) who just lost a decent chunk of money on a bad beat at a poker table. Leslie talks Beth (oh, she goes by Beth now) into loaning her all the money she saved with the promise that she would either get it back if she won, or get her car if she lost. She loans the money, the money gets lost, and the two end up going to Las Vegas so Leslie can get her hands on more loot. Until something happens that makes Elizabeth/Lizzie/Beth hit the road again.

The problem with any character study as a movie is that the character(s) have to be interesting enough to sustain the runtime of the movie. On the surface, Elizabeth’s conflict was enough to generate inaugural interest but the more the story progressed, the less we knew about why it was all happening in the first place. Apart from her being an angsty 20-something that needed some sort of adventure, we never fully grasp her intentions.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is well shot. Director Wong Kar Wai (in his first English language feature film) goes to great lengths to evoke emotion from the surroundings. But trading style for substance is a problem My Blueberry Nights was too broke to afford. It is worth mentioning that Norah Jones does a decent job in her first acting performance. She is helped by the fact that her character seems as much out of her element as she. A truer test would have been to give her something of substance to sink her teeth into, but she does well enough with what she is given.

Like a woman or two I have encountered in my life, My Blueberry Nights looks really good, tries to be sexier than it should be allowed to be, but in the end is pretty hallow and boring. And slow. I had a conversation about this movie with someone recently and they said they hadn’t seen it but thought the poster was one of the best of the year. When they asked for my critique of the film, I gave them the most honest response I could think of:

“If that’s the case, you’re better off looking at the poster for 2 hours.”

And there's the rub.

* * out of * * * *

tMF Top Five - Best Movies of 2008... so far

We are almost exactly halfway through the year and smack in the middle of the summer movie season. Sounds like as good a time as any to take a step back and grade the movie year thus far. This article was written last week in preparation for the end of the month and wouldn’t you just know it! Pixar had to go and ruin the party! Thanks to WALL*E my list is now in complete shambles. I know it is only June but mark my words, six months from now I will still be talking about WALL*E as one of, if not THE best, movies of 2008. It is a masterstroke of filmmaking, and not only as an animated film. I defy you to come up with a more beautifully shot and wildly romantic live action movie in the last few years. With WALL*E resting quietly atop the list as my favorite movie so far, I decided to leave the rest of the list unedited so you can get a look at the top five other best movies of the year.

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