Sorry there have been no reviews of recent. I was off backpacking in the Highlands of Virginia (yes, Virginia has highlands) with my father and brother, and then went with the wife to Chicago for her best friend’s 30th birthday. Before all of these fun adventures, the wife and I did manage to check out the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. I will keep this review brief because everyone has seen this movie, but I do have a couple of points to make.

1) The Dark Knight is the best movie I have seen so far this year, but it is not the revelatory masterpiece that some have proclaimed it to be. It is a very good superhero movie, but does not transcend the genre. I imagine it will end up toward the bottom of my top ten list at year’s end.

2) Heath Ledger is very good. He is exactly what you want out of a supporting actor–you want to see him when he is not on the screen. Part of the reason he is so good is he got the best and most profound dialogue.

3) This movie is exhausting. I am glad it did not end before it did, especially since the second half of the movie is better than the first half of the movie, but this movie is as relentless as a serialized story can be and is about 20 minutes from needing an intermission.

4) Maggie Gyllenhaal is about a 1,000 times better than Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, but is still very much wasted. As a general, but not absolute, rule comic book writers do not write women characters well. They lack nuance and depth and tend to be relegated to the love interest role, and that is unfortunately the case in The Dark Knight. This is particularly frustrating because the Nolans are very good writers, and they have to skill to address this classic comic book problem.

5) The reason The Dark Knight does not transcend its genre to become a broad cinematic classic is because it lacks much in the way of layering concepts and ideas. It does not have much new to say about the plight of our society (don’t get me wrong, I am always fine with a subtle to not so subtle critique of the Bush White House, but beyond fiscal greed and the roll of power in corruption, what, at a societal level, is this film dealing with?) and falls back heavily on the metaphor of light and dark and good and evil. These are fine things for a movie to deal with, and The Dark Knight does a good job with them, but it is nothing terribly profound.

6) There are a lot of characters with not a lot to do, including, at times, oddly, Christian Bale as Batman.  

7) The special effects are pretty amazing (I still prefer the visual wonderment of Hellboy II, though)–I wish I had seen this on an IMAX–and I appreciate the role they play in the psychology of Batman, but they tend to be too much the focus of the film. There is a lot of action in The Dark Knight, but not a lot of story.

It is a good movie, and everyone should see it, but I really feel its brilliance has been overstated. Perhaps, we are just starved for good cinema and we elevate accomplished work to the realm of genius in the hope that we can trick ourselves in to believing in what we just saw.

My score…80

I have come to view movies based off of comic books (and sometimes graphic novels) as falling into one of two types: comic book movies and superhero movies. Comic book movies are a cinematic representation of the paper and ink comic book. To me, this means a basic, but not stupid, story containing a few moral lessons and a slightly sketched creation story, engaging, if not terribly deep, characters, and brilliant visuals.  Superhero movies, on the other hand, take a different tact. The story and character development, including the creation story of the superhero, are of central importance to the entire arc of the film, and special effects, while important, are certainly a tertiary element.

 Any comic book, be it the Punisher or Superman can be made into either a comic book movie or a superhero movie. It is a decision largely controlled by the vision of the director and writer(s). A problem arrises, however, when the movie, or more likely the movie franchise, attempts to be both. Great superhero movies and their franchises, like X-Men II or Spiderman II, were lessened when X-Men III and Spiderman III were changed to comic book films (and pretty poor ones to boot). It would be extremely difficult to combine the traits of both comic book movies and superhero movies into one film, though if done successfully, it would probably win itself some Oscars (Here’s hoping Batman II is just such a film). 

One thing that may have become obvious from my depiction of films based off of comic books is that superhero movies represent the attempt at “high art” –at least in the literary sense of this term–within the broader genre, while comic book films represent the more purely entertaining side. I think this is a fair characterization, but I do not regard one form of these films over the other. Both, if done well, are a joy to see in the theaters, and if done poorly, can be excruciating.

Hellboy II falls squarely into the realm of the comic book movie, and is a pretty good example of the subgenre. This film is the story of Hellboy–the spawn of Satan who was raised by a scientist and works for the federal government–and his team (Abe, an aqua man who can see the past and future in objects, Liz, a fire starter and love interest, and the newly introduced Johann Krauss, a physically formless individual who can control physical forms) as they try to save humanity, despite itself, from a mythical army and its leader who feels, rightfully so, that humanity has forgotten and broken a truce it made long ago. The theme is simple, humanity is destroying itself and everything else through greed and over consumption, particularly in terms of the environment, but that they are worth saving if only for the small moments of good that can be found in them. This is nothing new, and nothing that cannot be found in The Lord of the Rings in much greater detail, but it is a perfectly satisfactory story through which the real stars of Hellboy II can shine–the wonderful, wonderful creatures from the mind of Guillermo Del Toro.  

I have always enjoyed Del Toro’s films, and while Hellboy II does not have the depth of story as The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, and its special effects are perhaps not as emotionally impactful as in those films, they are the most visually (and viscerally) satisfying of any of his works. I am deeply appreciative to the movie exec(s) who decided it would be a good idea to let Del Toro go wild and give him the money to do so. This was not the case with the original Hellboy, and though that is a decent film, it suffered by not being completely in the hands of Del Toro. Honestly, words cannot really do the brilliant hues, rounded and elongated faces, and playful eye placements of Hellboy II’s mythological world justice, so I will stop attempting to do so, but I will say again that this is one of the most fascinating cinematic worlds to look at in recent memory…and that under no circumstances should anyone watch Hellboy II and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly back to back because it may cause one’s head to explode.

There is one other element of this film that should be brought up because it is such an improvement over the original film, and that is the character development. Hellboy as played by Ron Perlman is great in both films, and while he is certainly still the physical and emotional center of Hellboy II, his supporting cast has been given a lot more to do here and through that action we are able to learn their motivations for being a part of this otherworldly crime fighting team. The most noticeable character improvement is to Abe. In the original Hellboy he was every bit the classic sidekick, but in Hellboy II he is his own ‘person’, complete with feelings of love and loneliness (I do wish  he had still been voiced by David Hyde Pierce, though). Selma Blair’s Liz was also better, if not still a little dull. She paid great dividends just from the subtraction of her rival love interest from the first film Agent John Myers (as played by Rupert Evans) who sucked the life out of the first film every time he came on screen. Also, the introduction of Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane–Family Guy) who was not in the first film really rounds out the team nicely, and sets the stage for more enjoyable Hellboy films in the future.

My score…73

There are no specific movie critics who I always agree with, but I do find that generally my feelings about films are similar to the averaged scores of movie critics compiled at Metacritic. Every once in a while, though, there comes a film where my views about it fall well outside the norm. Wanted, and its favorable metacritic score of 64, is just such a film.

Now, it is not that Wanted is awful; it is just that it is not good, and it is not really all that close to being good.

Wanted is the story of a regular, boring Joe of a guy with a shit job in a cubicle, a small, noisy apartment and a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his friend who through some combination of genetics and vaguely religious underpinnings gets brought into a secret society of assassins who blindly do the work of what they believe to be the righteous.

That is the crux of the story. A few attempts are made to fluff out this story, but they fall flat and feel like they were put together by someone who half-watched, presumably while doing a ton of speed, a number of recent hit films. There is a clear link to Fight Club and its statements on machismo and father/son relationships, but Wanted has none of the depth or scathing indictment of male dominance, not to mention the psychology and social commentary, ingrained in Fight Club. There is also some strange religious element to Wanted that many have compared to The DaVinci Code, which I understand, but at least in that film and book they take the time to really create and explore the backstory (whether you like or dislike the backstory is up to you). I think a better comparison might be Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, which has a bunch of Kaballah stuff in it, but is presented in such a way that none of it makes sense (and as some might suggest, it was not over my head, it was just ridiculously inane). Finally, in terms of the story arc and visual representation, the film that immediately jumps to mind is Shoot Em Up, an overtly cartoonish action flick starring Clive Owen. Oddly, that film was panned by critics and ignored by theater goers, while Wanted is receiving praise on both fronts.

The main reason for this has to be the dazzling special effects. They are, at times, quite ingenious. And there are a few action sequences that really work well, where you find yourself completely viscerally, if not mentally, absorbed. Still, I was not as enthralled by the special effects as some were, not so much because of the effects, but because of how silly they were in relation to the story.

One last element of Wanted that must be mentioned is the dialogue. Most of the time it is passable, but every once in a while it is so spectacularly bad that it will take your breath away and make you laugh uncontrollably at the same time (coughing is the inevitable conclusion to this combination). This awful dialogue does not just occur when the film is trying to create clever comic book catchphrases, but at random and unexpected moments and delivered by some great actors (Also, James McAvoy has been very good in some recent films, but he appears to be one of the very few UK or British colonies actors who cannot do an American accent. It was in and out, especially during scenes involving yelling, and even when it was in, it sounded plastic). I don’t want to share any of this dialogue, as I think you should have the joy of discovering it on your own, but be warned, you may have to leave the theater to get your coughing fit under control.

My score…45

Untraceable, starring Diane Lane and Colin Hanks, is about…well, a story we have seencountless times. It is a story that starts with a crack team filled with a demographically diverse group of individuals who through humorous banter and superior intellect ward off/capture/put an end to the crimes of, evil doers. In the case of Untraceable their intellectual ability falls in the realm of fighting crime cyber-style, but it could just as easily be about conflict negotiators or S.W.A.T teams. After the first scene establishes the expert status of our protagonists, we learn that not all is great at home and that these are real people with real problems…the same real problems that we all face, or at least that we all face in the movies.

Moving the narrative forward and with character development out of the way, we can get to the heart of the movie, the diabolical actions of an evil doer who is the best our crack team has ever seen. He–it is almost always a ‘he’–befuddles the team at every turn. Murders pile up, the community gets scared, and–oh no!–the evil doer begins to hone in on our protagonists. Tragedy strikes. But wait, our evil doer, while certainly evil, is not a psychopath. He has been forced to do the things he is doing. He is making a social commentary, and in the case of Untraceable he is using the internet, tubes and all, to rail against the exploitative nature of our society and, more specifically, mass media. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the irony! Oh, Christ.

After all this, can we take anymore?

No.

Cue the CLIMAX, where our main protagonist fights our evil doer, one-on-one in some secluded area. Somebody has to win–I think we all know who that is going to be–somebody has to die–again, we know–cue cinematic cigarette. One thing I must say specifically about Untraceable is that I found it really odd that the major climactic scene had nothing to do with the internet or computers. In fact, Nothing about how our crack team figured out the identity of the evil doer had anything to do with the internet. It was regular police work. I am not sure the makers of this film, know anything about the internet.

Anyway, there are plenty more cliches and stereotypes that I could have mentioned–this movie has just about all of them–but what is the point. This is a bad movie. If you want to watch some mindless action, something I like to do a great deal, I suggest watching Speed. Untraceable and Speed have the same exact story, and Speed, while far from great in its own right, is far more entertaining, plus it has a bus and Dennis Hopper.

My score…25

I am taking a break from the novel I started because I don’t have the time to do the historical background research that is definitely needed to flush it all out. With the dissertation and all the summer teaching I need to write something that is purely a creature of my mind. Luckily, I have an idea for that. So with any luck the first chapter of this new novel will be up soon. In the mean time, here are a few poems. I like to write poems in a quick and dirty manner. With all of my scholarly work I have to write and rewrite and poetry for me is a burst of thought that I prefer not to touch up, even though it would probably make them better. Anyway here you go.

The Bickering Blacks and Whites

The leaves had begun to fall

The crisp had come

But was not present on this day

A rebirth of summer

If only for a moment.

I drank bottled beer

On the front stoop

Watching the bickering

Blacks and whites,

At least they all bickered together.

I saw you two blocks away

Without acknowledgment.

When you walked past me

In the door

The same.

You came out

Sat in your chair

Next to mine

Twisted the top off your bottled beer

And began watching the bickering

Blacks and whites.

At least they all bicker together

You said.

 

Three Drops

I forged three drops of water in my hands

Then allowed them to drop to the Earth

The land succumbed to the water

Waves overran the prairies

Washing themselves over the mountaintops

The fish and water mammals went on,

Business as usual,

The coyotes and foxes grew wings and webbed feet

The bears,

Blow holes,

Giraffes,

Gills.

The humans swam with all their might

The bravery they speak of was in full display

‘Twas a glorious sight for all to see!’

Many perished in the swim

But a few,

A few reached the last bastion of land

A mountain they have named

There

The survivors embraced

Speaking highly of the human spirit

And began making plans

For the extraction of the water

And the return of the land

A Life in Parts

She led her face away from a cringe

For a moment

Clapsing collapsing her hand around my forefinger

I dared in closing

With no thoughts of risk

Lids which had no business not thinking on their own

And she left

Softly (I did not hear)

With her sparkling blues

No longer reflecting

Lips hands curled hairs minds

No longer reflecting mirrored perfection

No longer two molded from one

Away to dusk in October

With grays whites surrounding a kind face

Meant for one last look then

Releasing her hand from around my forefinger

To wherever it may end

In a face without feature

In a life without

Connected to a life still with what

I enjoyed writing my first television review a few weeks back so much that I have decided to do it again, this time with a show I like. My Boys is a summer show on TBS that centers around P.J. (Jordana Spiro), a fun, funny and attractive 30ish girl-next-door/tomboy who works as a sports journalist in Chicago. P.J. has one ‘girly’ friend, Steph (Kellee Stewart) who is into fashion and make up and men and is essentially a satiric, yet loving send up to the Sex and the City gals (last season My Boys had an episode that lampooned the whole Sex and the City gang, and it was quite funny regardless of your feelings about Sex and the City). The rest of P.J. friends are guys (Kyle Howard, Reid Scott, Michael Bunin, Jamie Kaler, and Jim Gaffigan). Guys’ guys. Well, kind of. As a guy who likes sports and beer and poker (these are the basic events–yes ‘beer’ is an event–that most My Boys episodes are centered around), but is also into a few other things, I am self-aware enough to know how nerdy, silly and fun it is to spend so much time on these pastimes. My Boys is clever enough to understand this and its male characters are all alternately nerdy, silly and fun, while pretending and failing to be macho. These types of characters on other sitcoms have only one trait: that they are insanely stupid (and not in the smart, Homer Simpson way). These idiots all have gorgeous wives who are way too good for them, but love them anyway. I hate this. Moving on.

Nothing big happens on My Boys. In fact, it is a pretty classic sitcom, in that it is a bunch of friends who have jobs, but don’t work much during the show, hang out a lot at a central location (on My Boys it is either the local bar or around the poker table at P.J.’s house), deal with love/relationship issues and have those mini, semi-mundane daily adventures that we all have. Obviously, these very same ideas have been dealt with countless times with great success (my generation always looks to Friends and Seinfeld for sitcom comparisons and these comparisons are certainly apt with My Boys), but it is a testament to the writing of Betsy Thomas and to the comedic/improvisational talents of the actors (there a few stand up comics in the cast, most notably Jim Gaffigan) that make My Boys seem somehow fresh and likable. I promise you will actually find that you care what happens to these fictional characters, and that is a pretty rare find in sitcoms these days.

my score…75

 

My apologies for not writing in a while. I have missed writing, but it is the thing that had to fall by the wayside as life got busy. So where have I been?

Well, there was a wedding back in Delaware (Delawho? Delawhat?). One of the boys who goes back to elementary school. We got the band back together and had a grand time. At the same time, it was finals week (we are on quarters here, which is why we are done so late.), so I have been grading papers like crazy, while…preparing to teach high schoolers for the first time–starting this afternoon. I will be teaching this group of twenty-four, hopefully future first-generation college students how to write a proper collegiate research paper. And I handed in my dissertation proposal to my advisor (a brisk 98 pages-without references or appendices). Oh, and my wife has got strep (antibiotics in full effect), the house was experiencing plumbing issues (resolved for $$), and two of our computers have gone on the fritz (not yet resolved for $$).

It should be stated that while I would prefer that my wife not have strep (I am sure she feels the same way), this is a good kind of life. I am pretty lucky. I am afforded a great deal of time to let my mind wander, and I try to let it wander in positive directions. But, occasionally, it just gets too busy for me to write.

Before getting back to grading, I should review some things, since that is what I normally do here. How about the cuisine of Newark, Delaware?  Don’t go to Newark for fine dining (check Wilmington), but check out the many great takeout options. For the best subs check Capriati’s and Cleveland Avenue Sub Shop (Cleveland Ave is the more traditional philly style sub place–and gigantic–a large is about thirteen feet and they have a jumbo size), Wings to Go and C.R. Wings are the places to go for wings (many wonderful sauces), I hear Cluck-U is good for chicken, though I have not had it myself, and for the best burgers and shakes (the fries are only ok), perhaps in the world, but definitely in all of Delaware, Jake’s Hamburgers. Jake’s looks like a cheap, little dive and it is; a cheap, little dive with fantastic burgers and brilliant milkshakes.

Also, I kind of liked that Polanski documentary on HBO, Polanski: Wanted and Desired. I liked it mostly for the fascinating story, which I had only a cursory knowledge of before. It was a bit of an odd feeling having some sympathy for a person seemingly guilty of statutory rape, but I ended up feeling this way. The film ends up being a pretty interesting examination of Hollywood, complete with the interweaving relationships between the judicial system, big business, and media, and how the person who should be the focus–the young girl-who has the most important needs to be met, got abandoned and lost in the spectacle (luckily, she seems to have turned out fine, though it is unfortunate that her life is defined by this event). I’ll give it a 71.

Back to grading.