Friday, July 25, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Batman, more than most comic-book heroes, has always been about dichotomies- Batman vs. Bruce, good vs. evil, law vs. order, and so on. But all too often, the series has either expressed these themes in the broadest of terms or smoothed them out to the point of becoming negligible. Thankfully, Nolan plays a different game than his predecessors, exploding the existing dichotomies and throwing in some others for good measure. Nolan’s Batman (Christian Bale) is still a hero, but it’s questionable how much of a good guy he is. Raymond Chandler once wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” but Batman can be awfully mean at times, and get his hands dirty. More than once in The Dark Knight, he makes morally questionable decisions (such as monitoring every cellular phone in the city) in the name of doing good. The Dark Knight poses the fascinating question of whether we’re able to deal with that.

Most superhero movies square their protagonist off against a nefarious counterpart, but The Dark Knight has more on its mind than a hero/villain showdown. For much of the film’s running time, Nolan contrasts Batman/Bruce with district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), newly elected with the goal of bringing Gotham City’s criminals to justice. The two men have similar goals, but while Batman lacks faith in the system to accomplish his desired end, Dent is the face of that very system. Even though he admires the swift justice administered by the Dark Knight, Dent positions himself as “the white knight,” seeking to eliminate crime through due process. If Bruce Wayne is a pragmatist, Dent is a seemingly incorruptible idealist, a point driven home by his Obama-esque campaign slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

For a while, Dent’s brand of justice works, cutting a large swath through Gotham’s criminal underworld. But all this changes once The Joker (Heath Ledger) enters the picture. We first see The Joker in the film’s opening scene, staging a robbery on a mob-owned bank only to kill all of his cohorts and escape, alone, with the cash. The Joker isn’t like the other villains prowling the streets of the city. Whereas the established crime syndicates live by their own codes and rules (and have made arrangements with the police in order to survive), The Joker’s sole purpose in life is to stir up anarchy- to leave the populace of Gotham teetering on the edge and let them push themselves over.

Heath Ledger’s Joker has gotten a lot of attention from the press since his death, but I think the character would be one of the great villains even if were still with us. To begin with, Ledger is a far cry from the statelier style of Jack Nicholson. Whereas Nicholson’s Joker was too similar to the Jack persona to be truly scary- more kooky uncle than stone-cold psycho- Ledger immerses himself fully in the character, making him a knife-wielding punk-rock criminal mastermind.

Like Shakespeare’s Iago, this Joker is evil, pure and simple, and every mocking attempt on his part to provide a context or rationalization for his actions only underlines how reductive such rationalizations are when they’re presented seriously in other films. It’s a genuinely disturbing performance, not least to my Knight’s Tale-loving girlfriend. But at the same time, there’s something fiendishly pleasurable about the way Ledger operates in the role, from his delivery of the line, “no, I kill the bus driver” (and its priceless aftermath) to his final fade out. Ledger is in rarefied territory here, joining a murderer’s row- ranging from Alex DeLarge to Daniel Plainview- of irredeemable heavies we can’t help but love.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Nolan’s screenplay is the way he integrates probability problems and game theory into the storyline. Time and again characters are forced to play the odds in order to make a difficult decision. Many of the Joker’s threats carry a heavy price- to name one example, Batman can turn himself in, or the Joker will kill one person every day until he unmasks himself. Or the film’s climactic sequence, in which Nolan employs a variation of the classic game theory problem The Prisoner’s Dilemma to pit two ferries full of people against each other.

But again, Nolan isn’t just showing off here, but setting up perhaps his most important dichotomy- choice versus chance. For all his love of justice, Harvey Dent believes in luck, jokingly flipping a two-headed coin whenever he has to make a tough decision. But when he’s horribly disfigured by an accident (causing him to become “Two-Face”), this belief in chance takes on a deadly undercurrent, as the lives of those who’ve wronged him rests on a coin flip, Anton Chigurh-style.

By contrast, Bruce- who of course is a “two-face” himself- represents choice. As long as he continues fighting crime by night, a happy life with his true love Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will be out of the question (can it be a coincidence that Rachel is not only Dent’s current girlfriend but also a prosecuter herself?). Eventually, he must turn his back on the police department and the populace itself in order the catch the Joker. And in the end, Batman takes the rap for Two-Face’s crimes in order to protect the good name of Harvey Dent. In other words, he inverts the prisoner’s dilemma- rather than letting Dent take the fall in order to free himself, he chooses to become a fugitive and face the maximum punishment. This decision affirms not only Bruce’s sense of morality, but his humanity as well. It’s a bold choice, but a necessary one, allowing the city to keep its white knight even while it turns on the dark one.

The Dark Knight isn’t quite a perfect comic book movie- the action sequences are too haphazardly-directed for that- but it lingers in the mind far more than more conventionally exciting superhero movies can hope to do. Unlike most movies of its kind, the film carries a real feeling of danger, as Nolan isn’t afraid of exploring some terrifying areas most movies wouldn’t touch, even killing off more than one significant character in the interest of thematic resonance. Most blockbusters feel like fairy tales- there’s some tension, some suspense, but in the end the bad guys are punished and everyone lives happily ever after. But the events of The Dark Knight will change- even scar- the characters forever. The Dark Knight isn’t just a classic comic book movie, but a pretty great movie in general, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo Del Toro)

One of the reason so many self-professed "geeks" feel a degree of affection toward Guillermo Del Toro is because he's always been something of a geek's geek, in that his work is clearly fueled by fanboy favorites like fantasy fiction, comic books, and classic fantasy movies. As much as anything by Peter Jackson or the genre films of Sam Raimi, Del Toro's films appropriate the highlights of his pop-culture-steeped youth (a touch of George Lucas here, a pinch of Ray Harryhausen there) while doing so in a way that makes the work feel inimitably his, rather than simply the sum total of his influences. Hellboy II is in keeping with this tradition, and while the film is a big-budget summer blockbuster, Del Toro hasn't had his creativity hemmed in, but rather has used his greater resources to create as many magnificent beasties and visual splendor as any film he's made to date. Some critics have complained that Del Toro's primary talent lies in creature design, but with so much creative richness on display it seems churlish to complain. Yet these detractors aren't exactly wrong either. While Hellboy II is awash in visual splendor, the human elements of the movie aren't up to that standard. Many of the more potentially dramatic elements in the narrative- the rivalry between Red and Agent Manning, the romantic subplot involving Abe and Princess Nuala, Red's conflicted relationship with the human race- are ignored for large chunks of time rather than exploited as they might have been by a more assured storyteller. The biggest casualty is the love story between Red and Liz, which should have been poignant but just kind of lays there for a while when Liz takes some time away and Red promptly gets drunk and sings Barry Manilow songs with Abe. It doesn't help matters that Selma Blair is too blank-faced and stilted to make the character work, and when Liz is supposed to be upset she mostly just comes off as a pouty high schooler, whether she's on fire or not. I was also disappointed by the new character of Dr. Johan Krauss, who is an intriguing idea (a sentient, super-intelligent gas being) but doesn't really work onscreen, partly due to the Sig Rumann-esque vocal stylings of Seth MacFarlane, creator of the godawful animated sitcom Family Guy. For his part, Ron Perlman is as perfect for the title role as ever, although it takes a while for Del Toro to really give him much to do here. Still, I enjoyed Hellboy II as a whole, and frankly I loved it in parts, especially when Del Toro really allows the audience to drink in the inventive visuals (the puppet-based prologue, the aftermath of the fight with the Elemental, the Star Wars cantina-inspired Troll Market). I anticipate the possibility of Hellboy III with a certain amount of pleasure, although if it does happen, I hope Del Toro has the good sense to find another co-writer to really keep the screenplay focused. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

WALL*E (2008, Andrew Stanton)

(Originally written for a work newsletter)

Disney and Pixar Animation Studios have made another winner with the new computer-animated film WALL*E. Set in the distant future, the movie tells the story of a little robot, the Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class (or WALL*E). WALL*E spends his days roaming the abandoned landscape, cleaning up the trash left by the people who’ve abandoned the Earth. Centuries of sifting through human garbage have made WALL*E intensely curious about the planet’s former residents, and he keeps a collection of “treasures” in order to study them. Then one day, a ship descends from space bringing another robot, the sleek, ultra-modern EVE, whose mission is as mysterious as her origins, and who eventually becomes WALL*E’s friend. But when the ship returns to take EVE away, WALL*E sneaks aboard as well, and goes on a journey beyond anything he could have possibly imagined.

As you might guess from the plot synopsis above, WALL*E is not your standard-issue kids’ movie. Since their founding in the 1980s, Pixar has always been committed to expanding the possibilities of animation, and WALL*E continues their almost unprecedented winning streak. In many ways, WALL*E may be their boldest and most experimental movie to date. To begin with, the story doesn’t rely on a comfortable plot so much as it tells a story, seeing its hero’s experiences almost entirely through his eyes as we follow him on his travels. The effect is disorienting at first- the movie doesn’t give us any more information to work with than WALL*E himself would get. Likewise, the story features surprisingly little dialogue, especially from WALL*E and EVE, who have few words at their disposal. But if you’re willing to pay attention and give the movie a chance, your patience will be richly rewarded.

Like all of Pixar’s movies, WALL*E is a feast for the eyes. The early scenes on Earth are wonderful- I could have watched another half-hour or so of WALL*E going about his daily routine- and the animators pack them with all sorts of perfect little sight gags. But the movie’s cleverest visual surprises occur once WALL*E travels into space. I won’t spoil any of them here, except to say that the world WALL*E encounters is a far cry than most movies’ speculations on the future. WALL*E is above all a work of true vision and imagination, one that’s sure to captivate children and adults alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Kung Fu Panda (2008, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)

(Originally written for a work newsletter)

Martial arts has a new legend in Kung Fu Panda, the latest family-friendly blockbuster from Dreamworks Animation, who previously gave the world Shrek. Kung Fu Panda tells the story of Po, a roly-poly panda who finally gets the chance to realize his dreams of kung fu glory, and much of the reason why the movie works is because of Jack Black’s vocal performance in the lead role. Black’s natural exuberance can be hard to harness in live-action roles, but it’s perfectly suited to the childlike, overly enthusiastic Po. Also good is Dustin Hoffman, who voices the role of the wise but skeptical Master Shifu, but the other recognizable names in the cast don’t get a whole lot to do. Why cast a star like Jackie Chan if you’re only going to give his character a handful of lines?

Of course, anyone who is even remotely familiar with kung fu movies (or movies in general, really) will be able to successfully predict where the story is headed. But the movie is entertaining enough that you probably won’t mind. And kids will eat it up- the 7-year-old boy sitting next to me certainly did. Compared to other Dreamworks Animation releases, Kung Fu Panda is surprisingly free of wholesale pop culture references, to say nothing of the bodily-function humor that has become a far too common hallmark of family entertainment. The slapstick humor about Po’s weight gets a little out of hand at times, but in the end it serves a purpose, as our hero learns to accept his size and even use it to his advantage in the kung fu tradition. But the best parts of Kung Fu Panda are the action sequences, which are unimaginable in live action. The tradition of animators bending the laws of physics to their own ends goes back to the Road Runner, and here the filmmakers take advantage of the medium to create exciting (if impossible) fight scenes. All in all, Kung Fu Panda is not a great family movie, but it’s a lot of fun for kids, and surprisingly entertaining for adults as well.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Get Smart (2008, Peter Segal)

(Originally written for a work newsletter)

Popular TV secret agent Maxwell Smart makes the jump to the big screen in Get Smart, starring Steve Carell in the role immortalized on television by Don Adams. The movie is entertaining, but it’s also an uneasy mix of silly comedy and slam-bang action that doesn’t always work. Part of the problem may be the summer release date, a time when the movie has to compete with mega-budgeted spectaculars, causing the filmmakers to inject special effects and action scenes in order to keep up. However, the action almost always gets in the way of the funny stuff, causing the movie to drag in spots. This is especially true near the end of the movie, when Max and his partner Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) are called upon to save the world. Whereas an out-and-out comedy like The Naked Gun took its climactic scenes to almost surreal extremes to uproarious ends, Get Smart plays its plotline fairly straight. As a result, the movie never quite pays off as it should.

That said, a lot of the movie is pretty funny, in an agreeably silly vein similar to that of the original series. Hathaway has little to do but play straight (wo)man to Carell and look great, both of which she does fairly well. Terence Stamp’s super-villain is a bit of a bust, a victim of the filmmakers’ unwillingness to give him anything funny to do. However, other supporting cast members make more of an impression, especially Dwayne Johnson as the hotshot Agent 23, and the ever-priceless Alan Arkin as the unflappable Chief. But it’s Carell who owns the movie, mostly by treating the role of Max as an engaging character rather than simply a schtick. Carell may be the most talented actor among the current crop of funnymen, and he’s quite good here, resisting the urge to mug for the camera like, say, Steve Martin in the Pink Panther remake. Carell gives an honest-to-goodness performance here, turning what it other hands might have simply been a bumbling idiot into a kind of everyman who always means well, even when the results are disastrous. Max made me laugh, but I also genuinely liked the guy, and as a result I liked GET SMART enough to make me wish it had been better than it actually was. As Max himself would say, “missed it byyyyyyyy… that much.”

Rating: 5 out of 10.

My Blueberry Nights (2007, Wong Kar-wai)

If nothing else, My Blueberry Nights makes for an interesting critical exercise, asking Wong fans to ponder the question of whether Wong’s romantic dialogue is easier to swallow in subtitle form, or if new collaborator Lawrence Block pushed it over the top into abject ridiculousness. Either way, the dialogue is merely one factor in the ultimate failure of the film. Another is the lead performance by singer-turned-actress Norah Jones- the character is written as a passive observer anyway, and Jones lacks the gravity or comfort in front of the camera to really make this work. She never quite manages to engage with her costars, and it’s hard to care about her she seems less like she’s listening than waiting to say her next line. Similarly, Wong doesn’t do his supporting cast any favors- the only one with even a fraction of Tony Leung’s soul is David Strathairn’s drunken cop, but in the end he falls prey to Wong’s inertly romantic vision. It should go without saying that the images are ravishing- not simply for the colors but also the graininess of the film stock- but instead of the seductive qualities they carry in Wong’s best work, they merely hold you at a distance here, inviting you to marvel at their beauty rather than pulling you into the story. Put it this way- as I longtime blueberry pie fan, I was curiously unmoved by the repeated shots of the tasty dessert, even with ice cream slowly melting over it. And friends, that just ain’t right. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Hancock (2008, Peter Berg)

Certainly not the best blockbuster to come down the pipe this summer, but this is almost undoubtedly the strangest. Starts off with a bang, although not in the way you might expect, as Will Smith's reluctant superhero stops a violent crime in progress but leaves a whole mess of destruction and ill will in his wake. Victor is right on in spotlighting the way the film's first hour is primarily a prickly pro-interventionism allegory and satire of guilty-liberal bugaboos- it's so apparent you couldn't even call it subtextual- and it's bracing to see a big-budget summer movie that's not only unabashedly political but successfully works it into the narrative rather than simply paying it lip service. Hancock (that name, I mean duh) is called upon to clean up crime only to be vilified by the people when he doesn't make it pretty or heroic-looking, only to be called back into action when he's put out of commission for his infractions. I'm not remotely the biggest supporter of American militarism out there, yet I'd be lying if I didn't find this part of the movie surprisingly engaging. However, about an hour into the story (following the logical conclusion), Berg and distributor Columbia Pictures suddenly remember that they're trying to make a big summer tentpole superhero adventure, and everything starts to go to hell. After an intriguing, unexpected reveal, we're subjected to a subpar take on the usual formula- the origin story, the moments of doubt, the vulnerability, and finally the hero rising to the occasion. Unfortunately, Hancock doesn't work nearly as well as a loud, self-important superhero spectacle as it does as the satire its early scenes would lead one to believe it is (not sure which is worse, the lame-ass ending, the lame-ass villain, or the awful performance by Charlize Theron). What's more, Berg has no idea how to handle the twists the script throws at him and the tonal shifts that result from them. The most egregious example of this (SPOILER) is the fallout from the unveiling of Theron's character as one of Hancock's fellow superheroes. To begin with, it's not nearly as big a twist as the film makes it out to be, since Berg relies far too heavily on seemingly unmotivated closeups of her staring skeptically at the unkempt superhero that hubby Jason Bateman has brought into their lives. And once it's happened, the movie kind of goes to hell. This is most apparent in a scene where Smith and Theron zip around downtown L.A., fighting like a couple of petulant children. Ideally, this scene is funny because the two of them are obviously on another plane of existence and their issues are out of scope with the mortals who surround them. So when they fight, obviously they'll leave destruction in their wake. However, Berg never gets the scope of the scene right, thus killing the comedy, and the scene becomes nothing more than a series of loud, punishing effects. (END SPOILER) The movie doesn't get much better from there, finishing in a warm-fuzzy ending that it hasn't earned and which doesn't begin to satisfactory wrap up the story. It's a shame- what started as perhaps the summer's best surprise quickly turned to disbelief and, finally, disappointment, and that's not the kind of ride you want to get from a blockbuster. Rating: 6 out of 10, although it's more like a split decision between 8 and 4.