Monthly Archives: July 2008

Trailer: Oliver Stone’s “W.”

This trailer popped up on Youtube yesterday and I think I’m intrigued. While this film will undoubtedly be far from the best film of the 21st century, it will certainly be interesting to see what Oliver Stone has to say. Good for Cromwell for not doing a Carvey impression, and Thandie Newton looks terrifyingly realistic as Condi. As for Brolin, the trailer really doesn’t offer any clues to how he’s going to tackle the character. Whether you think this film is being made too soon, or not soon enough, or doesn’t even deserve to be made… it’ll definitely be a historically… interesting piece? Let me know what you guys think.

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Review: The Dark Knight

It’s an awfully good year to be a comic book fan in the movie theater. That being said, it’s just been a great year for moviegoers in general. The biggest film of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” was released last week to record box office numbers. Not only is it deserving of those earnings, it is without a doubt one of the best comic book films ever and features one of the most hauntingly, unsurpassed performances by a prime actor who left us laughing and left us way too soon.

In 1997, the Batman was discredited as a movie star. Joel Schumacher’s vomit-inducing garbage receptacle titled “Batman & Robin” was perfectly described by “Mystery Science Theater 3000” writer/star Mike Nelson as “not the worst movie of all time, but the worst thing of all time.” 2005’s “Batman Begins” not only healed the wounds of batfans but ushered in a new generation of superhero filmmaking. We not only looked up in pride of our long lost hero, but found ourselves with a British director as our savior (all of this taking place in Movie Heaven of course, whereas Schumacher had descended us to Movie Hell in which the formal look always includes rubber nipples).

“Batman Begins” was a masterpiece – a purely perfect comic book film. It had all the elements that both literary critics and comic nerds had always exclaimed in excitement over graphic novels. It created a star out of Christian Bale, the new man in the cape and cowl. The end of that film promised a sequel starring Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, and since then there had not been one whisper of doubt in the second film’s success. That is until January 2008, when “The Dark Knight” became the center of controversy as we lost Heath Ledger. Months have passed, wounds still open and the movie has finally arrived.

“The Dark Knight” takes some time after the events of the first installment. Batman’s intentions are still debated by the people of Gotham, although it seems as though he is deemed a hero by the majority. Carmine Falcone’s reign has ended and his protégé Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) is the new mob boss in town. Luckily for Gotham’s citizens, the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) with a little help from the pointy-eared hero, Maroni’s big plan is foiled and over 200 criminals are tried and convicted. Unfortunately for Batman and Dent (who is deemed Gotham’s new “white knight”), fear has a new face as the bizarrely maniacal Joker (Ledger) takes the town by storm.

The first film dealt more with the origins of Batman and felt a respectably singular film. “Batman Begins” concerns were more about engaging the audience in what was felt as a dead character. It succeeded by delivering a layered, and emotionally perfect Bruce Wayne as portrayed excellently by Bale. Bale was to Batman as Connery was to Bond or Ford was to Indy. This second film is much more complex and presents intricate portrayals of each and every character in ways that its predecessor never could. Instead of thinking a character is cool or fun to watch, we are actively engaged in their depiction.

The performances are mostly to blame for this incredible viewing experience. Bale proves his mettle again as Batman, and even though his Bruce Wayne doesn’t make enough appearances Bale’s few scenes as the marauding playboy are terrific. His job in the batsuit is strikingly, profound and moreover Bale proves he is not just interested in entertainment but superb acting and imperial showmanship. This Batman is a flawed hero, and he begins to realize the real damage that his personal hatred for the Joker could bring him down to the very same crime he vowed to erase from the beginning. Nolan brilliantly brings a very emotional side to his Dark Knight, and Bale churns out another fantastic show.

The supporting characters are also magnificent. While he had only a few scenes in “Batman Begins,” Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon receives a lot more screen time and a much more fleshed out character. Unlike Pat Hingle’s comedic portrayal in Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s movies, Oldman brings us a noble yet beautifully exhausted Gordon. This Gordon is much like the one Frank Miller created in “Batman: Year One” and it is exceedingly refreshing to see an actor with the prestige of Oldman dedicating such grace to a once laughable character.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman also return for this bat-venture. The latter is his typical self, however his humorous timing works very well for his particular role and it would be hard to see anybody else in the role at this point except for Freeman. Michael Caine was Oscar-worthy in the first film, and shows why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time with another lived-in performance as Alfred. Like Hingle, Michael Gough was always enjoyable to watch in the other flicks, but Caine notably researched his role and like the title of Nolan’s previous film he shows why he has prestige.

The only cast change that was made for this film was in the character of Rachel Dawes. In “Batman Begins” the role seemed phoned-in by the one-hit-film-wonder Katie Holmes. She was recast and the great Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped in to fill her heels. In this movie, Dawes is not as profound a character as she was when we met her three years ago but Gyllenhaal does add a refinement that was missing from Holmes’ performance.

For fans of Aaron Eckhart, his performance is eerily insurmountable. He offers trustworthiness to the character of Harvey Dent that had never really been translated to the screen. Billy Dee Williams wasn’t Harvey Dent in the earlier films; he was just Lando Calrissian taking a break in Gotham City. In “The Dark Knight” Dent is a major character and the talent of Eckhart shines through wondrously. When he makes the inevitable change into the villain he is destined to become, Eckhart’s physical appearance and voice transform into a sickly cool son-of-a-bitch whose penchant for coin-flipping is the embodiment of a great movie bad guy.

In the history of acting in film, there have been moments of absolute consummation that rarely take place. And even in those occasions, a lot of people tend to miss the genius that was delivered. Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is a privileged look at one of these rare instances. His personification of pure, unfettered evil is downright terrifying. He is the unadulterated fire to Batman’s oil or as his character describes, “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Early reviews announced an instant Oscar nomination for Ledger, posthumously of course, and it would be easy to take the critical route and say that it would be a pity vote. After watching his immaculately insane performance it’s much easier to say that had we not lost one of the best young actors of our generation, he would still have found himself not only being nominated but winning.

After years of being sort of an enigma in a range of smaller independent films to big budget adventures, Ledger won international acclaim as Ennis Del Mar in the gorgeous “Brokeback Mountain.” Instead of leaving that performance as his only critical legacy, it’s absolutely gratifying to see an actor at the top of their game delivering poignancy to a character that had never been seen. Ledger’s joker is the best performance on screen this year, and without any question the best villain rendered in any comic film ever.

In comparison to Jack Nicholson’s classic job as the clownish criminal, there can be no comparison. These two Jokers are completely different characters in a completely different series. Nicholson’s Joker does seem to be degraded as a sort of a who’s-your-uncle type mob boss after Ledger’s demented maniac. Jack’s jester would be shaking in his boots if he ever ran into the new clown in town.

Performances aside, Nolan confirms he’s not giving up on our new favorite screen hero. His respect for the character, the series, the fans, the critics, and the audience validates a superb cinematic experience. The script is near flawless, and Batman has never been better. Nolan demonstrates a real talent for filmmaking, and it’s hard to say if there are any other superior contemporary directors with the amount of intrigue and explosive addiction to the screen as Batman’s most literate artist.

A notably darker film attributed to the never-before-seen self-doubt to Batman, “The Dark Knight” is simply the perfect film we all wanted it to be. It is an undiluted masterpiece, timed excellently and never dull. A third film is not only inevitable, but ultimately deserved. For now, Nolan & Co. have delivered us an expertly moving masterpiece and we get the privilege to watch one of the best performances from a truly great actor.

Grade: A

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“Watchmen” Trailer is better than most movies

Watch, immediately.

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Review: The Wackness

In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival has been known as the essential prognosticator of the following year’s great independent movies to come. The festival has brought us great cinema such as “American Splendor,” “Once,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “The Station Agent.” That latter film won the Audience Award in the Dramatic category as did the recently released drama “The Wackness.” While the fest has been losing credibility since last year’s misguided praise for the horrid “Rocket Science,” this new piece is not only one of the best things to ever come out of Sundance, but one of the better coming-of-age tales since “Almost Famous” and “Ghost World.”

The film stars once child star now budding actor Josh Peck as Luke Shapiro, a drug dealing high school grad living low in the East End of 1994 New York City. Dealing with the confusion of teenage sex drive and not used to being “the cool guy” after years of being terribly unpopular, Luke’s about to learn a whole lot about life. One mentor is his psychologist Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who actually turns out to be Luke’s number one customer. Luke becomes acquainted with his pothead shrink’s daughter, the wildly sexy Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) and soon enough she becomes the unreciprocated love of his life.

The film is deceptively simple. While the plot doesn’t exactly draw in its audience, it is the excruciatingly profound characters that both excites and titillates. Sharply written, and both strangely comic and touching, “The Wackness” is an awe-inspiring vision of teen angst and a huge step forward for its two young stars and a wonderful re-emergence of its legend.

It is wondrously refreshing to see an actor Peck’s age with such a resume (he’s most well known for his debut in “Snow Day” and the kiddie series “Drake and Josh”) taking on a role like Luke Shapiro. He was featured in 2004’s dark tale “Mean Creek” as the schoolyard bully accidentally murdered by his victims, however this role in “The Wackness” called for much more than his previous indie effort. Peck is surprisingly wonderful. Luke tries desperately to be cool, and while his attempts do not have a comic effect they are instead rather moving. The actor shows he wants to make an impression in the new world of indie filmmaking and exhibits terrific showmanship in an obviously researched role. He delivers an honest performance, one of young Brando-esque quality.

Also captivating is Thirlby, who is much more impressive and shows a different range than her turn in the indie-comedy “Juno” as the title character’s best friend. Her performance is at times wildly addictive and extremely seductive. Stephanie is an absolute tease, although curiously as confused and lost as her admirer. Thirlby intertwines these characterizations with ease and is effortlessly becoming the new (Sorry, Ellen Page) indie “it-girl.”

As for the legendary Ben Kingsley, he delivers nothing but one of his best performances. He exhibits a bizarre peculiarity and throughout the entire film it is obvious that he fully savored the juicy role from beginning to end. The character of Dr. Squires is actually the most profound accident within “The Wackness.” His realization of what he believes to be an empty life is heartbreaking and through what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance that deserves exhaustive recognition, Kingsley scores.

The most appealing aspect is the remarkable chemistry not between Peck and Thirlby, but between the young man and his doctor. Their relationship blossoms into cinematic moments of perfection. It is a joy watching each character learn about life from one another whether it’s through drugs, music, laughter, or sex. Seeing them together on screen is honestly the best part about the movie and in some ways the best scenes on film in 2008.

With his first major feature film, writer/director Jonathan Levine has achieved a definitive new classic. The film sparkles with originality and has inventive detail. At times we’re allowed into the mind of Luke Shapiro, and through visualized bubble dream sequences and fun set pieces Levine has crafted a terrifically offbeat style of storytelling. With its limited time period and setting, the film would seem to have a niche audience, but transcends into a widely accessible work. Also, in some ways it is matchless in its genre in terms of its portrayal of the real misery of growing up in terms of love, heartache, and happiness.

At times the film is a bit predictable and somewhat formulaic, but it is the heartbreaking realizations of the characters of Luke and Dr. Squires that carry the entire piece. Also, the film has a relatively strong ending, coming full circle to add closure but also keeping somewhat open.

“The Wackness” is a breath of fresh air in a dead year of independent film, and its under-the-radar nature is truly a crime. Kingsley is Oscar-worthy, and hopefully this will open a veritable number of doors for its younger stars. Like this film’s motif – the heat of the summer – this film gets hotter and hotter and so do its stars. Go see “The Wackness,” yo.

Grade: A

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“The Dark Knight” has arrived!

Here it is… the weekend we’ve all been waiting for. Get ready for the biggest movie OF THE YEAR with this little video.

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Review: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

In 2004, the relatively unknown filmmaker Guillermo del Toro released a film adaptation of Mike Mignola’s underground comic “Hellboy.” The film received a majority of good reviews and the general consensus was that it was a very fun albeit somewhat forgettable movie featuring a career performance by its lead actor Ron Perlman. In 2006 the under-the-radar director became the hottest auteur with the release of his historical, fantasy masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth.” His newest film is the big-budget sequel “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and is a lot of fun, but unfortunately has distinct construction issues.

The first film served as an introductory piece on the characters of the demon Hellboy (Perlman) and his supernatural cohorts Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones in the first, although voiced by David Hyde Pierce – in the sequel Jones was able to voice his character) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Hellboy is a large, satirical demon who desires to be normal and thus tries to keep his unnatural horns at a short cut. He is aided by Abe, a fish-man with clairvoyant hands and Liz, the fiery (literally) love of his life. In this sequel, all the characters are back and in much better form than the first piece.

The story of “Hellboy II” is a classic fantasy tale: The villainous Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) breaks an ancient truce between his race of elves and humanity. As the age of humans rises, the elves become secluded and Nuada goes into hiding. It is now present day, and Nuada has returned to achieve that archaic crown the can rule the indestructible golden army that once decimated our kind. Enter our hero Hellboy who is the only one who can stop the heartless prince and his unstoppable force.

The story is sufficiently strong and works well on many levels. Sadly, the last half hour of the film is hopelessly devoid of a deserved ending. The golden army is set up to be a horrible force that cannot be stopped and their introduction, fight sequence, and eventual take-down is all a bit underwhelming. The actors are all performing wonderfully while the weak script drives itself off the edge into a truly bad ending.

Also unsuccessful are many of the action sequences throughout. Each one starts quite abruptly, and ends awkwardly. With the exception of one particularly superior scene involving our big red hero and a giant forest monster, the rest just feel too inopportune. Hellboy as a character is identifiable as weakened by his yearning to be accepted by humanity and while it is fun to see a movie hero win every single fight, it isn’t necessarily comforting.

One thing that the script does succeed in is its use of comedy. There were comedic elements in the first movie but this one is a heck of a lot funnier, especially due to the wondrous talents of the cast. At some points, you may actually bust a gut.

However, the real treat of the film is its excellent characterization. Hellboy and his pals are joined by the psychic Johann Krauss (voiced by “Family Guy” creator and voice actor Seth McFarlane). Krauss is an instant classic character, and in fact deserves a film of his own. McFarlane adds a delectable voice to the mechanical, ectoplasmic German and he’ll be the reason you might end up loving the film.

The three other heroes are wonderful as well. Perlman is consistently outperforming himself in every role and deserves the oft-mentioned title of the Lon Chaney of our time. His Hellboy is pure fantastical humor, fun, and action blended by a superior performance. Selma Blair really stepped up her game for the sequel, adding so much more to her character who was a bit one-note in the first installment. Also welcoming is the voice of Doug Jones along with the body of Doug Jones as Abe Sapien. The character regrettably has a pointless relationship that develops with Nuada’s sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). However, Jones is brilliant in the part and one can’t help but wonder what executive made the wrong decision to not let him do the voice in the first movie.

While his script is a bit muddled, Del Toro’s direction is spectacular. He creates an excellently original vision that tantalizes the eye and connects eerily with the audience. He’s one of our best directors working right now; showing sparks of Spielbergian construction and Gilliam-esque innovation. The really exciting part about watching “Hellboy II” is the anticipation of Del Toro’s upcoming dual workings of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” If he can bring blazingly inventive characters and styles to the tale of Bilbo Baggins that he has with Mignola’s story one can’t help but jump for joy and count the days until its premiere.

Overall, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” is a technical marvel and generally a lot of fun. The characters are superb, as are the actors in their career-high parts. It would have been great to see a film with a stronger script but in many some ways this probably works much better as a fun, run of the mill popcorn pleaser. If you find yourself missing out on “The Dark Knight” this weekend, this is not a bad second choice.

Grade: B

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Review: Hancock

My fellow Americans: You may find yourselves at your local megaplex, going to see the newest Will Smith 4th-of-July blockbuster extravaganza. For some reason, this Smith guy has a monopoly on the celebration of our independence and this seems to motivate the entire population of Earth to arrive in droves to see ANY movie he’s made. Please try to avoid his newest cash cow “Hancock,” an exercise in the ridiculous that ranks with the worst of both superhero films and of all time.

It was 1996 and America had fallen for Will Smith’s antics and fun humor on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and it was only inevitable that he was likely to become the next box office superstar. “Independence Day,” Roland Emmerich’s rather fun guilty pleasure, was released and made millions and billions of dollars. Almost every year since the release of that film, Smith has owned that weekend. “Hancock” is 2008’s Will Smith moneymaker and while it is unlike the rest of his film it is a classic lesson in what happen when a good goes bad.

Smith plays the title character of the movie, an average Joe who for whatever reason has superpowers. Although we are never given a full explanation to his endowment, Hancock can fly and is super strong but he is something of an anti-superhero. Regularly inebriated, seemingly homeless, and a bit of a jerk, our “hero” is not well-liked by the citizens and authorities of Los Angeles, California.

Hancock attempts to assist the police force in accosting criminals, but his methods are not like that of your friendly neighborhood Spider-man or that of the Dark Knight. Hancock is sloppy, and selfish. In the first sequence of the film, Hancock is called to action to stop three offenders in a gun-fight/high speed pursuit against the cops. While he finally stops the hoodlums, he destroys $9 million in city property through his efforts. Hancock is deemed as reckless as the crime he fights and a warrant is put out for his arrest.

Enter Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman, the only saving grace of the entire movie), a PR exec and a family man with high career dreams. Hancock saves Ray from a near-pancaking by an oncoming train. Although Ray’s savior knocks the train off the track and destroys his car in the process, Ray feels indebted to Hancock and decides that he should help. Hesitantly, the hero accepts and Ray’s first resolution is to send Hancock to jail to better his image as a reformed man. Through silly montage Hancock becomes changed and a hero of the people.

It sounds like it couldn’t be that bad, but the movie plays more like a parody than the so-called serious hero film it’s trying to be. While Will Smith has always been quite likable in his foray of blockbusters, he becomes quite the opposite in this role. It seems as though the writers of this film attempted to mesh both of Smith’s styles of film roles, both the big-budget superstar and the dramatic, passion roles. The mix-up doesn’t work, and the charming star we have always depended on for a first-rate performance disappoints beyond anything we could have ever imagined.

Unfortunately, “Hancock” has been advertised as superhero-comedy, and even in this genre it fails. It neither garners the right laughs nor works well as a superhero flick. First of all, it lacks a supervillain and a sufficient back-story. We are given only tidbits of information and will have to wait for a (gasp!) sequel to learn who or what this guy really is.

The biggest problem with the film is its disastrously weak script. One can’t help but wonder how long it took to write, but a booze-filled weekend seems an appropriate estimation. Peter Berg’s (“The Kingdom”) direction is also to-be-desired. Much of the film is unforgivably bizarre, and it might have helped to have a more capable man behind the camera. There are many moments in the film that achieve levels of insipience that would make Ed Wood laugh in disappointment. Also unforgivable is the shoddy visual effects, which appear to not only be unfinished but also made during the previously mentioned “Hancock” party weekend.

The only thing that makes “Hancock” watchable is Bateman. With his re-admittance into the Hollywood club with hits like “Juno” he is one of the best comedic actors currently working. Needless to say, with this script he really doesn’t have a lot to work with but Bateman’s natural charisma is undeniably addictive no matter what he does.

Starring with Smith and Bateman is the incredibly talented, Oscar-winning Charlize Theron in a completey throw-away performance. She’s utterly wasted and her character is just plain pointless. Much of “Hancock” is utterly pointless and at many points during the film any level-headed audience member will definitely find themselves thinking, “This is a joke, right? I mean, this movie is supposed to be a joke, right? RIGHT?!?”

It would have been really cool to see a superhero film with the ambition of “Hancock” with a better creative team. Not since Tobey Maguire’s imbecilic dance sequence in last year’s atrocious “Spider-man 3” has a comic book film imploded on itself like this. If you must see “Hancock” please find a way to see it for free. You have been warned.

Grade: D

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