Movie Reviews


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

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.

Here is another one of those year end movies that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on seeing in the theatres. So here is the DVD review:

I am a big fan of Tim Burton and a very big fan of Johnny Depp. Their work together has generally been good, if not the best of their respective careers. I still find their first collaboration, Edward Scissorhands, to be their best, but I have also really enjoyed Ed Wood and Corpse Bride and liked Charlie and Chocolate Factory (I still prefer the original). Sleepy Hollow was a disappointment, though I still liked the look of the film and Depp’s performance. Sweeney Todd, unfortunately, falls toward the bottom of this list, just above Sleepy Hollow.

Oddly, the reason for this has little to do, so far as I can tell, with either Burton or Depp or any of the other actors for that matter. I loved the look of the film and all of the actors (singers) were good to excellent depending upon their singing abilities. Their is a ton of blood–cartoonish blood–in this film, and I thought it was handled appropriately given the fairy talish type of story. The pacing is a little slow, but this does no real damage to the film. No, my real problem with Sweeney Todd; the reason I don’t like it, is the source material. There are, by my tastes, fatal flaws in the story of Sweeney Todd that I could just not look past.

Sweeney Todd is clearly a tragedy, in the Greek sense (filtered through Shakespeare and Jack the Ripper). This is clear from the beginning, and I have no problem with a tragic tale. There is a moral resonance to a tragedy that can be felt across cultures, which is why this brand of story has been around as long as it has had. The problem with Sweeney Todd–For anyone who has not seen the film, I am not going to spoil anything for you, so this will be brief–is that to achieve the arc of a tragedy it sets up too many silly coincidences and absurd (and absurdly obvious) twists that when they go to their inevitable conclusions feel, to me, completely unearned. I know people love Sweeney Todd, particularly as a play and a lot have liked this film, but it simply did not work for me at the story level.

My score…57

This is another one of those movies that came out around award season, and I just couldn’t quite pull the trigger on seeing it in the theatres. Was I right to save the thirteen bucks (I am a sucker for some Swedish Fish)?

Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of how Congressman Charlie Wilson clandestinely helped Afghanistan wage a war against Russia, ultimately leading to the defeat of Russia and the ‘end’ of the Iron Curtain. The film, at least for the first two-thirds, focuses on Wilson’s hard-charging life of drinking and women, how he got invested (emotionally) in the plight of the Afghan people and how he got Congress and others to foot the bill for the weaponry needed to properly fight the Russians. I was enthralled by this part of the film. The writing by Aaron Sorkin was quick and smart, circa early West Wing. The acting was by and large fantastic. Tom Hanks, as Charlie Wilson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his CIA lead, were almost magical together. Julia Roberts as a religious conservative who was pushing the Afghan tragedy publicly was fair. Amy Adams was good as Charlie Wilson’s assistant. I loved the history lesson. I loved the intimacy in which Charlie Wilson’s War began to be waged, but there were signs of trouble.

Inherent in this story, indeed, inherent in the very name of this film is a dichotomy. There is the individual (Charlie Wilson) and the universal (War). The trick of any good story that is attempting to tackle this dichotomy is matching the power presented in one side with the power presented in the other. For example, a film that comes, in my opinion, very close to addressing this dichotomy successfully is Saving Private Ryan. The first half of that film presents War as universal, and does so in such a fashion that no one who watches it can be left unaffected. The rest of the film generally focuses on the individual, and the toll of the universal on the individual. This part of the film is good, not great, as the premise is a little thematically contrived. Ultimately, you don’t quite feel the individual toll on Private Ryan (you do, however, feel it with Tom Hanks’ character; in fact, you could have taken out the Private Ryan storyline and you might have ended up with an even more powerful film.). In Charlie Wilson’s War, unfortunately, there is no balance to the dichotomy. There are a few scenes in the first two-thirds that hint at this, like when Charlie Wilson goes to Pakistan and sees the refuge crisis. Indeed, any time the set pieces got big the emotion got lost. For such a phenomenal director as Mike Nichols this failure might seem surprising, but if you look over his rather astonishing filmography, you will see that his greatest accomplishments are films of a rather personal nature, and the world of action and effects may not be within his repertoire.

The last third of Charlie WIlson’s War rarely gets back to the individual, and suffers for it. It also seems very rushed and choppy. I did appreciate that they did not back down from showing the U.S.’ failure to help Afghanistan form a functioning democracy after the war ended, which ultimately led to the emergence of the Taliban, but those few scenes were not enough to save a dud of a third act.

I would still recommend checking this film, just don’t expect greatness. If you, like me, did not see it in the theatre, you made the right call.

review…64.      

 

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