July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

Director Christopher Nolan has avoided the dreaded Sequel-itis with his second Batman movie.
The Dark Knight is an ambitious, epic length (but not tedious) battle for the soul of Gotham. As the movie begins, a fragile power triangle forms between Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Batman. Their goal: crush the Mob in Gotham City. Meanwhile, The Joker uses the Mob to tear the city apart. In a romantic subplot, Bruce Wayne imagines a life after Batman, while his would-be girlfriend A.D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is stuck in a triangle between Wayne and Dent. From the moment Rachel was introduced in Batman Begins, I thought that a romantic subplot was a poor idea, but it appears Nolan (who also co-wrote the movie) had important plans for her character all along.
Just like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight explores the psychological motivation of the heroes and villains of the Batman comic books with an exciting postmodern, 21st century perspective. The classic comic book relationship between the Batman and the Joker, the relationship which makes these characters worth watching, is faithfully depicted, and the Joker is shown as the demented and sadistic yet playful terrorist that he is. Instead of killing people with his killer laughing gas, he tends to use a knife, gun, or a bomb. He doesn't care about money or power- he's determined to show Gotham the true face of human nature, and have some fun doing it.
Heath Ledger does a great job as the Joker- he doesn't let out the oversized laughter too much. He speaks with a nasal twang, with his pauses in all the wrong places, while he plays with his greasy hair and his knives, and licks his distorted face like a wormy maladjusted pervert. The hair and makeup contributed a lot to the overall effect. I think all the Oscar talk is a little overblown, but he still did a sufficiently creepy job.
I thought Aaron Eckhart did a good job introducing a complex character. I don't want to say too much about his part, but he's perfect as a big talking politician, slightly less believable as a honest and crusading attorney, and powerfully scary when he crosses the line between passion and madness. Boy that sounds dumb but I don't want to say too much!
I was worried that the Batman would become a supporting player in his own movie, but he has plenty to do in this sequel- that's one of the reasons the movie is 2 hours, 32 minutes long. He has several very satisfying adventures, including one trip overseas. He does some actual detective work, a side of the Batman which isn't explored enough. His unlimited wealth is good for more than weapons and vehicles, he also uses his R&D resources to improve his detecting ability.
The plot details are a little overcomplicated, but the pacing is brisk so I didn't ruminate about it too much. The Joker's mayhem and murderous plots are all sufficiently sick and funny, but all his puzzle pieces fall into place a little too perfectly. His traps and practical jokes are too implausibly synchronized. However, the nature of his plots and mayhem were perfect- they captured the nature of the Joker well, and I really appreciated how Gordon and the GCPD are so easily predictable. Near the end of the movie, Gordon is taking one of the Joker's schemes at face value, and Batman has to step in to say "with the Joker, it's never that simple", which is a classic Batman comic book scene. Later, Batman braces the Joker and yells "where are the detonators!", a pure comic book moment which gave me chills.
Strongly recommended. The movie has a lot of beatings, shootings, and several buildings get blown up. The Joker is fond of knives, but the movie is more suggestive of gruesomeness than explicitly gruesome.

ALSO by Gary Oldman on STUB HUBBY:Batman & Stub Hubby

July 18, 2008

Will The Dark Knight Suffer From Sequel-itis?

On the way out of Hellboy II last night, a line of college kids had queued up for the midnight screening of The Dark Knight. One kid had a vintage 1989 Batman t-shirt on, and another needy teenager was wearing Joker makeup + hair, very similar to the Heath Ledger makeup from the trailer. That's a pretty bold move, isn't it? You have to be pretty confident in a sequel to dress up in honor of a performance you haven't seen yet! What if the movie sucks? I have a feeling that this kid's aesthetic sensibility isn't refined enough to care.
I have been looking forward to a new Joker since the last scene of Batman Begins in 2005, when Lt. Gordon shows Batman the iconic playing card. However, the trailers, early reviews, and word of mouth have me worried about this sequel. I am posting this in order to go on the record in advance with my concerns about this sequel, and to chastise myself for learning nothing about sequels from all my experiences in the past.
During casting, shooting, and promotion, most of the news has been good: All the principals were returning for the sequel, except the one actor I was happy to see missing: Katie Holmes was too busy raising Tom Cruise's alien child; Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced her.
However, there are some signs that the new movie will suffer from Sequel-itis.
The Symptoms Of Sequel-itis
  • Characters from the last movie return for no good reason&nbsp• We'll see if it's worth it bringing back Rachel Dawes as Bruce Wayne's love interest. The some more egregious unnecessary encores include Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters 2 and Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 3.
  • The protagonist gets less screen time than the antagonist&nbsp• This problem got worse and worse in the Batman sequels of the 1990s. It's almost as if we learned everything interesting about Batman in the first movie, so there's no new character development in the sequels. Therefore, the development of the villains takes center stage, and the ostensible hero of the movie becomes secondary. In a non-superhero context, John Lennon once complained that he felt like a supporting player in the full-color Beatles sequel Help! in favor of wacky, Indian hijinks.
  • The superhero gets new gadgets or vehicles&nbsp• Do we really need to give Batman a Bat-cycle?
  • Too many opponents&nbsp• Batman Begins somehow managed to include three bad guys and make it all work: Ras Al Gul, The Scarecrow, and the mob guy Falcone. Only because this first movie pulled this off so successfully am I not too concerned about this issue in the sequel-- besides The Joker, Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face at some point, which seems like overkill? Isn't the Joker enough character for one movie?
Will The Dark Knight suffer from sequel-itis? Click here to find out!

Stub Hubby & Batman




July 17, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Funnier, looser, and more fun than the original, Hellboy is the rare box office flop which got a miraculous second chance. Writer / director / visionary / Mexican wunkerkind Guillermo Del Toro pulls out all the creative stops in a wonderful blend of Men In Black, Lord of the Rings, and X-Men. Words like "vision", "inventive", and "unique" get overused in Hollywood, but they all apply here. Every beastly character has a special Guillermo stamp to it- and exciting blend of Star Wars-style beasts with impossible fairy tale imagination. This movie has got me even more thrilled that Del Toro is directing two Hobbit movies!
The returning cast is much looser and sillier in this story- Hellboy's relationship with his girlfriend is causing them both grief; Abe Sapien is lovesick over a princess; and their boss resorts to bribery (Cuban cigars) to keep rebellious Hellboy in line. In the introductory scenes at their headquarters, the unloved boss (Jeffrey Tambor) strolls down a hallway, griping about employee morale. The tone is the same as any workplace drama, except Tambor is talking to a turquoise fish-man in leather pants, and unholy creatures squirm and roar through every doorway. The contrast is hilarious.
The plot was your basic fairy tale construction: A long exiled, but powerful and determined prince, royalty of all the beasts and creatures of earth, seeks the magical pieces of a crown which will allow him to wage war against humanity. Despite his devious and murderous nature-- and his hatred for humanity-- the prince is quite sympathetic. After all, this is a movie, like the X-Men films, where all our heroes are "freaks", separated from humanity by their uniqueness. All our protagonists have a beef with humankind, so they all can relate to the prince's anger.
Del Toro did a fine job trying to balance the pacing with the texture of the movie. My wife and I agreed that the movie was a little soggy in the middle- there's maybe a scene or two where I was getting itchy for some plot movement- but the trick is to keep the detail and texture which makes the movie interesting but also keep the pace up, especially in the last third of the movie. Unfortunately, the area which needed the briskest pace included one of our favorite sequences- Hellboy and Abe get drunk and discuss their women trouble, including an off-key singalong with Barry Manilow. I wouldn't want this scene removed, but this was the critical area where the pace should be quickening, not slackening. I should consider it a minor miracle that most movies' pacing turn out so well, when you have to judge them by a screenplay, months or years before any footage is shot.
I have never read the Hellboy comic books- hell, I didn't see the first movie all the way through until a week ago-- but part of me occasionally cringed at the marshmallowy emotions and silly slapstick which the Hellboy character endured in this movie. Is he really like that in the comics? I guess I shouldn't care if I have never read one.
I hope this movie's tight budget (reportedly $85 million) combined with good receipts, means we may see another Hellboy someday. Del Toro may be too busy making the Hobbit movies to get around to it anytime soon, so The Golden Army will have to do for awhile. (AMC Boston Common with my wife, plus les freres Pelletiers)



July 3, 2008

Wanted

I got July 3rd off from work this year, so I decided to take in a matinee, But what to see? Baby Mama is only playing at night at the Arlington Capitol; Get Smart's matinee is too early at Fresh Pond; I will only see WALL-E at a late show to try and mitigate the kinderfaktor; and Hancock got mediocre reviews. That left Wanted, which I hoped would be an mindless and fun action film. Indeed, when I arrived at the Somerville Theater (I got a parking meter right outside the theater, woo!) the concessions clerk raved on and on about the movie. When strangers are going out of their way to recommend a movie, that should be a good sign! Jon Stewart had star James McEvoy on The Daily Show and Stewart went out of his way to say how much he liked the movie, a endorsement stronger than his typical recommendation.

Instead of mindless fun, I endured a sadistic, ridiculous, and joyless grind-fest. I have no problem with violence in movies. But Wanted took all the fun and joy out of brutal beatings, stabbings, and bullets to the brain. Even Fight Club had some black humor mixed in with the fascist violence.
McEvoy is Wesley Gibson, living an Office Space/The Matrix cube life. We're introduced to the mind-numbing world of TPS reports as if office work was a strange and unknown occupation- we all get the idea right away that his boss sucks and his work is meaningless, but Gibson doesn't snap until we're all bored to tears.
Gibson runs around the movie like Marty McFly on Red Bull: He never looks in the same direction that he's walking, his feet never seem to touch the ground, and he has enormous blue eyes like an tweaked anime character. Gibson gets drafted into a secret society of assassins with a twist: rather than selling their killing skills for hire, killing people regardless of their guilt or innocence, their targets are chosen by Fate itself, purely to save lives and make the world a better place. It turns out that Gibson's father was an assassin who was betrayed by a fellow assassin gone rogue- if this is starting to sound like Star Wars, raise your hand?
The brutal part which really turned me off was the assassin training which Gibson endures. I've never shot a gun or punched someone, but I imagine there's skills and techniques which I could be taught to improve myself. The WANTED school of assassin training syllabus works like this: DAY ONE they tie you to a chair and beat you senseless. DAY TWO, they slice you to ribbons in a knife fight. DAYS 3 and 4: repeat one and two. Each night, Gibson soaks in a magical hot tub which heals wounds overnight. I think the point is supposed to be that Gibson has super-assassin DNA, and this meat grinder is supposed to unleash the killer within? The end result is not much fun to watch, unfortunately for me and my $5 I will never see again.
The other super-assassin skill is "bending bullets", which is a magical technique for whipping your pistol through the air so your bullet goes around corners. I say "magic" because it's never explained. I tolerate this shit in The Matrix movies, because they offer a creative and intriguing reason why it's possible, but the ever-believable Morgan Freeman just says "very few people can do it." Sorry Morgan, I cried at the end of Shawshank Redemption, and I would have voted for you as president in Deep Impact, but this magic bullet shit is not OK!
The actors cast as this fraternity of assassins is a fun bunch: Morgan Freeman is the leader, all gravitas and trustworthiness, each freckle spelling out T R U S T M E; Scottish actor David O'Hara (The Departed) is the assassin in the Anakin Skywalker role; Thomas Kretschmann (The captain from King Kong) is the rogue assassin/Darth Vader part.
And then there's Angelina Jolie, who took this role to take an emotional break between filming A Mighty Heart and Changeling. Of course, she can't afford to make small movies like A Mighty Heart unless she cashes in on movies like this. I don't know why critics are enjoying her acting here so much; she does very little acting as far as I can tell. Her role consists of:
  • looking smug and patronizing as she shows Gibson the ropes;
  • showing off her ridiculous tattoos, including one scene naked and soaking wet;
  • Shooting a gun while looking intense;
  • ONE extended scene where she bares her emotional soul. She has maybe 10 lines in the whole rest of the movie put together.
This is not an anti-Jolie bias or a sexist thing either- I found her to be a fun and engaging heroine in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, but in this movie, I just wanted to slap that smug smile off her face.As the lights came up and I sprinted out of the theater, I made sure not to make eye contact with the concession guy-- I wouldn't want to tell him how bad his favorite movie was.