I'm running out of ways to complain about the shift from original ideas to known properties. Art as opposed to commerce. Chances, compared to a sure thing. The summer is about the blockbuster and everything else is counter-programming. But I'll put aside any frustrations I feel writing about the fourth Superhero flick I've seen in two months, a frustration I feel a little more for this, since I don't think I can add much to what has been said already. This isn't a paying gig, but even so, it's hard to bitch about writing about films for those who care about movies and even spend time to read my shit. Least of all The Dark Knight which is the best film I've seen in a theater this summer. Just note I did qualify that. I haven't seen Space Chimps.
One year after Batman Begins Wayne Manor is still in shambles, Batman (a stoic Christian Bale) is still fighting crime with the help of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine, who should be Knighted) and his R&D man Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). Gotham is still in the grip of the Mob but newly elected DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has become the literal White Knight of Gotham City, blazing a trail of convictions and making massive inroads into bringing down the Mob and its leader Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts!?). All the while Dent is the significant other to Batman's simmering flame, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who loves Dent but still has an inexorable connection to Bruce Wayne.
Meanwhile Dent, crusader in the Elliot Ness vein, is smart enough to partner up with Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman like a ma' fuck) and enlist the services of Gotham's most famous vigilante, despite the fact that's not really kosher. Unfortunately Dent is so good at his job that the mob winds up garnering the unwanted help of The Joker (Heath Ledger), after he robs them of millions and offers to give it back so he can barter his way into killing Batman. From there, as they say, the plot thickens. I'll try to stop using parentheses now.
The Dark Knight succeeds on many levels. As a film it is beleaguered by expectations that I'm sure it fulfills for the fans, but at its heart it's more concerned about Gotham City and the myriad trials that come with trying to clean it up. Gotham becomes a character that is tired of being a victim. That's a good background to exploit when you use it in the ways director Chris Nolan has, and he runs with it this time. Batman Begins was an origin story where Gotham was afterthought, but The Dark Knight uses Gotham to frame the whole portrait. It's a quasi-noir crime film built on a shared knowledge of its iconic antagonists, be it Batman or The Joker, and what it does best is give you a sense that they're a true danger to a real place, which brilliantly makes you care for protagonists that might otherwise be faded into a labyrinthine background. Batman is the foil that brings them into focus, but it's Dent, Gordon and The Joker that that drive the story.
At that point it's all about the performances, and where to begin, you can take your pick. I loved Oldman rocking his '70's 'stache as the stalwart Gordon. He's given much more to work with then in Batman Begins and he eats it all without chewing the scenery. Aaron Eckhart brings an old school Atticus Finch feel to Harvey Dent, as the un-caped crusader. His arc was the most emotionally moving and he realizes Dent with such assurance that it's easy to give the script a pass when he somewhat-too-rapidly loses his faith. The fact is, like most everyone else, he's firing on all cylinders. Caine and Freeman are reliably sage as always. Christian Bale conflicts me a bit because I know his quality, and while he's solid I can't understand some of the choices he makes, in particular with his Batvoice. I remember hearing an interview with him where he said he always approaches a character with the voice first. He's picked the wrong one for Batman. That said, he seems a little more light-hearted at times when he's playing Bruce Wayne, the playboy millionaire. One scene in particular almost seemed to reference his turn as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and the barely contained nuttiness of that role. I relish that element of Bale, but he's ultimately riding shotgun in his own movie and overall that's what makes this flick work as well as it does.
That and Heath Ledger.
Everything you've heard is true. Heath Ledger re-defines the role of The Joker so well it relegates Jack Nicholson to the back of the lunch line with Cesar Romero bickering over who gets the better looking cup of creamed corn. He's that superb. If he went this method for Brokeback Mountain he'd be gay. He disappears into the character and creates one of the best all time screen villains and certainly the best of this new century. The script short changes him more then anything. For a madman he's pretty fucking functional, and his initial arc doesn't make as much sense once you realize what his relationship to Batman really means to him. But Ledger owns every bit of the role and the posthumous Oscar buzz is deserved. It's just a shame that he's out of the picture.
The only gripes I really have with The Dark Knight lay with Nolan and some of the story. He could have trimmed 15 minutes of sub-plots out of this and the movie would have been better paced. It doesn't drag by any means but some tangents don't pay off. Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) feels like an unnecessary cameo that introduces the Bat Copy Cats, but it goes nowhere outside of giving Batman a reason to get a new suit that lets him turn his neck. Another subplot involves a Wayne Industries hack that has figured out his boss is Batman. It seems to hint at stuff for a third film, but the resolution of this one seems to negate those possibilities. Nolan's direction is superb as long as it doesn't involve an action sequence, though he seems to have gotten a little better at that. The Hong Kong sequence was thrilling, if superfluous, and the Bat-pod vs. Joker-driven 18-wheeler scene was pretty much kickass. But fight scenes are still a spatial nightmare, and the use of a strange sonar cell phone gizmo that lets Batman see through walls seems overbaked for the purpose it's ultimately used for. The message it sends is an obvious shout to the current state of wiretapping in our Fourth Amendment Free America, but it's trite, and somewhat naive.
Even with those small missteps, it's still an amazingly well conceived story, and a wonderful concession between art and the commerce it was always destined to be. I feel relieved that the Superhero Summer of 2008 is over, but this film did one thing a bit different. It seems like it could end here. There are no obvious allusions for a third film. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there will be one (it made 65 million dollars in one day), but The Dark Knight goes out like it's the last.
8.5 of 10
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo del Toro is a visionary film maker, of that there is no question. Every film he's made that I have seen I've felt like a pinball bouncing around his creative id. Everything I've read or seen about him only cements the perception that this man is a very fortunate and hard-working kid in a candy store. Even when his budget is micro-small his ideas get the most dedicated motherfuckers in the biz to excel at bringing them to the screen. That has made for a string of either very good or sometimes great film craft. From Chronos, The Devil's Backbone, Blade II and Pan's Labyrinth to Hellboy, even Mimic, del Toro is the 21st Century version of H.P. Lovecraft and Steven Spielberg rolled into one. He deals in horror but not cynicism. His imagination and visual acuity are simpatico with a singular, nearly universal, signature. It's no wonder Peter Jackson handed off The Hobbit to del Toro while he goes and makes some Tintin films. With Spielberg.
And with Hellboy II: The Golden Army it's plain why Jackson had the confidence (and even the agreement of the geekverse) in giving del Toro the reigns of the most beloved fantasy trilogy of the 21st Century. If anything Hellboy II feels like a resume for it.
After the events of Hellboy (and yes, you need to see it first) we open with a flashback of Dr. Broom (John Hurt) and Hellboy in 1955, where Broom tells a disconcertingly young Hellboy a bed time story. It involves the pact Men and Monsters created with each other after some vampire elf motherfuckers (I thought Elves were our aloof friends?) decide humans have fucked the environs up enough and create an indestructible Golden Army of auto-mechs that will kill the shit out of them. The Golden Army mows through ass like an amyl nitrate powered lawnmower, so much so that the weird old vampire elf calls off his Army out of guilt for killing so many flesh bags, breaks up his Golden Crown into three bits, and barters a truce with the freshly fucked.
From then on shit is cool as we join our much beloved Red (Ron Perelman) and Liz (Selma Blair) and Abe (Doug Jones). And their boss from Arrested Development. That's not a dig. I love me some Jeffrey Tambor (Max Headroom represent!) but chances are that's what a cold audience would recognize him for. But after some catch up on the relationships and the absence of Special Agent Meyers (again, see Hellboy first) the alarm goes off and the B.P.R.D. goes into action. See, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), son of the old Elf King that called off the War eons past decides to attack because the Deal has been broken. Man has encroached too far and now Nuada will unleash all the elements of the Earth, all the monsters at his disposal, and his horn-toothed buddy Wink (Brian Steele), while he searches for all the pieces of his fathers crown so he can revive The Golden Army and annihilate mankind.
Hellboy II is a much bigger picture in comparison with its predecessor. You will probably not see a better looking fantasy film this year. The FX are pretty gangbusters and joyously not all CG. This is foremost (and to its detriment) a monster movie and del Toro delivers on that in all the best, most fantastical ways. Even if he was half-assing this (which he wasn't) there is no way the craft and the recklessness wouldn't capture the imagination. It is a really good movie, and better yet an original one. Despite being yet another summer comic book film it's not a re-tread or a "re-imagining". Yes, it's a sequel, but it was one that needed to be made because that's just how that shit needs to be. Nobody else is making Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal anymore.
The Troll Market sequence is wonderful. It's been compared to the Cantina Scene in Star Wars and I can see why. I loved the sheer amount of practical FX. Even where the CG comes into play the amazing level of design detail tricks the eye into not giving any of the phantasmagoria a second thought. There is so much embedded in the frame it would easily take three viewings just to absorb it all. And that's in almost any given scene in the film. More than The Incredible Hulk, more than Iron Man, more than Indiana Jones and the Frank Darabont Script Was Better, Hellboy II deserves the movie theater palette. It's a visually stunning film.
It's too bad the story felt light as a feather, like The Empire Strikes Back without the gravity. The first Hellboy was no New Hope, but it had a comparable back story. A supernatural kid raised by adoptive parents that hide his true nature from him until he discovers it for himself and defeats it. I wanted something bigger in this story that I didn't get. Danger rarely feels like an issue unless it involved what Blake correctly nailed as "red shirts" from the B.R.P.D. The film has a warm visit from old friends appeal but the relationships aren't really expanded upon in a way that builds to a cliffhanger tension. The first film exceeded in that regard, even when it didn't make sense, but here it seems like del Toro is using Mike Mignola's characters to blow an ideological cellu-load when he should have been building bigger tension and holding back. Sure, Abe gets a love interest in Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) but it's obvious that'll go nowhere. Hellboy is still a big kid that wants to be the center of attention. He has an ego that he indulges but still he digs kittens, Baby Ruth candy bars, and Liz Sherman. He may be the worlds greatest paranormal investigator but Hellboy's true nature should always be a threat to the people he seeks approbation from while he protects them. He possesses, after all, The Right Hand of Doom.
I never got much of a sense that he sided with Nuada's plight as much as he should have. A rift between his job and his nature. The first film amplified that schism to much better effect.
That said, everyone's on their A-game and it shows. There is no way you can watch this film on the big screen and not enjoy it since crowd-pleasing moments abound. Perelman is Hellboy and he owns every bit of the character and its deadpan humor. Selma Blair takes a page from Dana Scully and emotes. The addition of Johann Kraus (Seth MacFarlane) was more sensible and funny than Agent Meyers. Doug Jones finally gives voice to the Incredible Abe Sapien and the role is better for it (plus he's given more of a role), and del Toro does take the gossamer story and run with it like a man who realizes he only has so many movies left in him. Often with a vengeance that makes his love for these characters shine and makes Hellboy II an amalgam of every film he has done before it, for better and worse.
6.5 of 10
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a multi-billionaire entrepreneur and the titular head of Stark Industries, the worlds leading purveyor of weapons that kill the shit out of terrorists that in no way resemble Al-Qaeda, in a country that is most definitely not Iraq. He's a mechanical genius, arch-womanizer, and raging alcoholic, though a functional one. His loose cannon traits aside, he runs his late fathers company like a chess player with a God Complex, assisted by his late fathers partner Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his plucky personal assistant with the even pluckier name of Pepper Potts (a surprisingly likable Gwyneth Paltrow). Stark's cynical yet patriotic world-view gets a major shake up though, when the military convoy he's riding with while on a sales meeting in the desert of a country that is not Iraq, to pimp some badass Jericho missile systems that in no way resembles a SCUD designed by someone who saw the bombardment of Planet P in Starship Troopers and thought that kicked ass, gets hit by an attack from Not-Al-Quieda and is kidnapped, though not before taking some near fatal damage from a mini-clusterbomb manufactured by his own company.
But Stark's life is saved by a fellow prisoner named Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who happens to be a surgeon. Thing is the nature of the shrapnel and the wounds won't allow for it to all be removed, so Yinsen mounts an electromagnet in Stark's chest that will keep the deadly shards from making it to his heart. Held hostage for months, Not-Al-Qaeda (they do have a name in the flick, Ten Rings or something but it's been a long day) want Stark to build some bombs for them for use in the unnamed conflict that is not the Iraq War. Stark seems to acquiesce, but instead of a bomb he builds something a little more useful.
It always seems like I have to stress how I've never read any of the comics these Marvel flicks are based on. Maybe I'm trying to excuse ignorance but Iron Man is no different. Most of my knowledge of the character is based on the news stories I've been reading for the last year. It's ironic that I wound up seeing The Incredible Hulk before this. I enjoyed that flick quite a bit, but its cameo by Tony Stark (mirrored in Iron Man by Sam Jackson as Nick Fury) only reminded me how I still hadn't seen Iron Man. How the fuck had I still not seen Iron Man? It's Downey. Everyone says he killed. The movie's made almost 400 fucking million dollars. That's a set of expectations.
It mostly lives up to them, but by no means is it the best superhero film ever made (The Return of Captain Invincible can sleep like a baby), or even great film making. I really like the story of Tony Stark, but what this boils down to is a competently made film that is made better for the casting. John Faverau's direction is workman-like and while he's no Ratner (Faverau's eye for performances is to good for that shit) he doesn't bring any visual signature to the film. No fingerprint outside of his own cameo. The FX are fine, in fact very organic, and he was tossing in geek references that have nothing to do with the Marvel Galaxy. I could see that he was going for an 80's look and the films sense of humor is not without his deft hand for comedy, but this film would be nothing but average if it weren't for the elemental forces of Downey and Bridges. Just another origin story seeking to beget an Avengers franchise.
But like I said, expectations, high though they were, were mostly fulfilled, especially in the acting department. Downey owns this flick. The guy's always had talent and charisma to burn, and he doesn't even look like he's sweating it here. Easily the most unlikely and satisfying marriage of actor and comic book role I've seen since Lori Petty in Tank Girl. OK, that was a joke. Just in case...Jeff Bridges warms the heart in a role that hearkens back to TRON; if he were Dillinger. And that's No Joke. Paltrow is endearing as Pepper Potts. She has a comic timing that she either just came up with or went previously unnoticed, even in Shallow Hal. Again, A Joke. Her chemistry with Downey is good, but the hamfisted way their Not-Romance becomes one just goes back to Faverau. Terrence Howard has an easy rapport with everything that can be filmed. His character, Col. James Rhodes, isn't given much to do (Pepper and even Stark's robotic creations play more pivotal roles), if only because he's being bred for a sequel.
I like the way Marvel is handling its properties now that it is its own studio. But I kind of dread it. I'm not against seeing movies based on comics even if they are remakes (sorry, "re-imaginings") of films made less then a decade ago, but at the same time I can only see the next decade of Summer Blockbusters being eaten up by the same fucking thing. Iron Man might be a bit different as Tony Stark really was a third-tier character in the Marvelverse, but also a character geared toward adults. As I'm doomed to repeat I never read the comics so I don't know who the next super-villain will be or anything. I know there will be one. I just hope my overall Superhero burnout doesn't repeatedly stab my interest in the back of my eyeballs.
I've still got The Dark Knight and Hellboy II to go.
8 of 10
The French have been getting better at horror. If Inside is to be counted with the wonders of '80's American slasher films, as it surely would like to be, you have to take into account the distillation of our exploitation films on the French. Previously they were really good at sex, and not just sex in films, but the sexual politics of film. Catherine Breilliat has shocked from the 70's to 9/11 (it's as if 9/11 somehow replaced A.D.) with her depictions of adolescent female sexual awakening, but even in the New Wave, the sexual politics were something just as groundbreaking, with films like Contempt and Masculin/Feminin not only riveting French audiences, but also cementing France's contributions to international cinema.
But in the last few years I've seen a few French films that have literally fucked with my head in their sheer brutality and realism. Irreversible is the first one that comes to mind, but even a picture like Base Moi (Rape Me), qualifies, and neither one of those flicks are supposed to be horror movies. Just something tragic.Then in 2003 Alexandre Aja comes along with High Tension. I had some issues with the ending but it was a brutal flick with one of the most memorable kills I've seen in forever (credenza meets head stuck in staircase), and despite some tropes of the genre being re-invented, always had me on the edge of my seat. His re-make of The Hills Have Eyes also delivered, and that seems to have helped French horror movies to get more notice.
Inside (À l'intérieur) has a reputation it doesn't totally earn, but it follows through with the trend of brutality. It's not a pleasant film.
Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is a suddenly single mother, as she was nearly killed in the car crash that killed her husband. Four months later, battered but still with the child she was pregnant with at the time of the crash, she is on the eve of giving birth to the last remnant of her husband. She has her mother and editor (she's a photographer) waiting in the wings to pick her up the next day and be there for the birth.
But in the middle of the night comes a knock at the door.
It's a Stranger. No. I saw this movie a month ago right? Fuck. I wanted to go into how Inside owed a bunch to Carpenter, and a little Lynch, but I did that with The Strangers. It's the same fucking thing. Goddamnit! It's not the same movie. It really isn't, for one thing I liked this more than The Strangers, but where that film had no real rationale for The Protagonists actions, Inside most certainly did. It owes a lot to Carpenter, Halloween in particular, but it does take an over-the-top-premise (I WANT YOUR BABY!) and really run with it. The French have the gore thing down (which was almost absent in Halloween), and they are not above having people wallow in their own vomit, an underrated trait in films. But I'm being a bit glib because there are a lot of "what the fuck" moments, like:
1. Why are you developing film?
2. Why didn't you put handcuffs on that bitch?
3. Couldn't you hear you're buddy getting killed?
4. Where's the fucking back up? Don't you watch The Shield?
5. Where did zombie dude come from? (He wasn't literally a zombie but he might as well have been).
6. Goddammit yer stupid.
Outside of that (and a couple of spoilers), I really enjoyed Inside. I'm not to sure what kind of human that makes me, but it seemed like a really mean spirited and violent Twilight Zone episode. The reality of the situation and the claustrophobic competence it was portrayed in had me hanging on all of its brief run time. It's a short film, with a minimal plot, which makes it lean and mean. The only real subtext to be found had less to do with abortion, and more with the Muslim riots that were stoked in the French suburbs early last year. Other than that it's just aspiring to be counted with its colleagues and forefathers. Albeit, with a plot that guarantees it should never be watched by a pregnant couple.
Alysson Paradis delivers with a "freaked the fuck out" performance not seen since Shelly Duvall in The Shining, and Le Femme (as credited by IMBD, genuinely scary bitch Béatrice Dalle), plays as genuine a scary bitch as I've seen on screen in a long time.You seriously never want to meet this woman. Supporting roles don't last long in this flick so I'll pass on François-Régis Marchasson and Nathalie Roussel, though their performances were firm. Writer/director Alexandre Bustillo handles the proceedings with a wonderful visual competence that doesn't necessarily translate to the story he's written, but much like Bryan Bertino (and yet another The Strangers parallel) it's his directorial debut.
There's been an amalgam of "shocking" French films that aren't really horror films. With Base Moi it was real sex in a shitty Thelma and Loise rip-off, and Irreversible was a nausea-inducing mind-fuck that is a much more worthwhile film, provided you're the kind of person that thinks Requiem for a Dream is the best movie you never want to see again. I dare you to watch Breilliat's Fat Girl and not get how these people think, because even that flick devolves into horror. It's a genre they've never been known for, and an opportunity to reclaim a cinematic throne for a great film culture. I think it rests on the shoulders of Aja and now Bustillo. Their New Wave has quality but in the end it is vicarious, and while there are no original ideas left, they can give you that. Mileage may vary for Inside, but I think they are trying to kick-start a Renaissance.
7.0 of 10
|The Incredible Hulk||| Print ||
|Written by Joe O'Shansky|
|Tuesday, 31 March 2009 01:33|
I keep on saying that I think I'm suffering from Superhero Burnout. It's only half true, because honestly I'd rather watch the films the comics are based on rather than read the actual comics. I'm not anti-nerd in this, I'm just anti-spending money, and a bad comic book habit could make a good heroin addiction seem like a discount. Not to mention the time involved. If I had to go back and absorb all these tent poles from the Marvel and DC world (though mostly Marvel), I could probably get my BA in Something. Paying for fucking college might be cheaper.
I wasn't among the people who hated Ang Lee's Hulk a few years back, either. That film is somewhat bloated and it borders on silly (which is sort of relative considering you're watching a flick about a big green, pissed-off, mutant geek), with its Hulk Poodles and Nick Nolte practically aping his then recent mugshot moment, while chewing scenery in ways that would give Pacino a boner. But I kind of liked the Shakespearean daddy issues, the production values we're great, I uniformly liked the cast (though you'd have never guessed Eric Bana is a comedian), and I even liked the FX. All of this puts me in the minority.
And even stranger is that even though The Incredible Hulk goes out of its way to avoid the perceived failings of its predecessor, minus the daddy issues I can pretty much praise it for all the same reasons. But this isn't a sequel. And it's not a remake of the first. It's a "re-imagining", a term which basically means, "Maybe we can still have a franchise here?" The Incredible Hulk must be the first major summer blockbuster ever released that was focus grouped before it was even green-lit. No pun intended.
The Incredible Hulk hits the ground running, basically fleshing out the back story everyone already knows while in the opening credits. Bruce Banner, scientist, in a gamma radiation experiment gone wrong, gets super dosed and while surviving, learns that when he gets pissed, he gets big and green and smashingshit prone. He has a girlfriend in Betty Ross, but an enemy in her father Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (that's a fuckin' name), but he seeks to find a cure because he hates holding The Hulk back as much as The Hulk hates him for doing so.
Oddly, the film starts out where Ang Lee's left off, with Bruce (Bana Killer Ed Norton) holed up in South America, working for a local bottling plant while trying to learn ways of gaining control of his body, and specifically his pulse rate. He keeps in contact with a Deep Throat type, Mr. Blue, who seems willing to help him find a cure for his inner Jolly Green Giant, despite the fact that Betty's (Liv Tyler...again) father the aforementioned Thunderbolt (William Hurt, who is always a good thing) wants to capture Bruce alive, using every means necessary to do so (there was a nice shout out to the misuse of warrantless spying), that he might bring Banner back to a lab for some friendly little experiments. He wants to create an army of super soldiers and he thinks he needs Bruce's body to do it. That's where Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, tucking this film neatly under his arm and hauling ass to the border with it) comes in. He's a mercenary who, when dragged into the top secret (and frankly in-fucking-sane) mission finds himself signing on for more than he ever expected, coming full circle to embrace what Banner wants to destroy.
And speaking of the digital creations, they aren't bad, though somehow I don't think they will assuage all the people that thought the first Hulk looked like marshmallow treat. This Hulk has the advantage of five years of advances in FX, and he does look solid, but there's nothing about him that tricks your eye into thinking he's real. It's a catch .22 that CGI is really the only way to do a character like this, yet no matter how many layers, and radiosity patterns, and ripples you put in, the audience knows it's not real. But in the realm of suspension of disbelief the FX are pretty damn good, and probably an improvement over Gumby Hulk.
Lee Killer Louis Leterrier paces the film very well, never really leaving a gap in the action-to-exposition factor. Having a fairly thin plot helps this out, and gives him time to indulge in a few visual flourishes that make this film a bit prettier then Ang Lee's desert laden vistas. The hill town Banner lives in in South America is shot with these sweeping helicopter runs that looked fantastic, and give rise to a rooftop chase that recalls The Bourne Identity.
It's does feel as though there were some "scene missing" moments that while doing no harm to the pace, seemed glaringly edited. I'm not sure what actually is missing, but Norton pitched a bitch about something, and I'm guessing whatever quiet moments hit the cutting room floor are the reason he's taking a long vacation in Africa now. Maybe there was more stuff with Betty.
Joe O'Shansky is a movie critic and writer for Urban Tulsa magazine, you can follow him on Twitter and find his reviews in this weekly publication.