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

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

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.      

 

The first big summer movie has landed in theaters and Iron Man was huge (about $105 million worth of folks–with tickets prices today I believe that is twelve or thirteen people). If that were not enough, the reviews have been exceptionally good, especially for a comic book movie. So here is one more review,  not quite as high as the paid professional reviewers, but not too far below.

First the movie summary: Iron Man is the story of the creation of the comic book character Iron Man. That is it. That is enough. It takes a little over two hours to tell this story, which travails jihadists, greed, and personal discovery, and frankly, it could have been twenty minutes longer and that would have been okay. Actually, it probably needed twenty more minutes to flush out some of the shallow areas.

OK. Iron Man is a good first film in what will promise to be another comic trilogy. You can see the pattern. Iron Man will no doubt follow along the lines of Spiderman and X-Men (and more than likely, the new Batman, and possibly Hellboy). The first film is good, but has some mid-level flaws. The second film is very near a masterwork. The third film, which many times seems to be the first by a different director from the first two films (I am looking at you Brett Ratner and your awful, awful films), is an utter disappointment that makes a lot of money and sends the series out on a whimper. An aside: of all the recent trilogies including comics and beyond, but not including Lord of the Rings, only the third Bourne film did the series justice (see or better yet do not see the third Spiderman, X-Men, Pirates of the Carribbean, the Matrix, Shrek, Friday, the Ocean movies (the first one is the best of these last five; they do not follow the comic rule, but that is okay because they are not based on comic book movies), every Fantastic Four film, every Rush Hour, every Fast and Furious, the Underworlds, the last three Star Wars, and on.)

The flaws in Iron Man are silly ones, mostly involving plot movement that I suppose could be explained away by saying “It is a comic book movie.” I won’t do that because I think comic books and graphic novels can be as high art as great literature, and I would certainly not let an author off the hook for poor plotting and so I won’t do it here. Examples, without being too specific, include characters not dying when it would be very easy to kill them because they are needed later in the story, main characters being precariously positioned geographically in questionable locales, and the most egregious, the building of something that looks nothing like what our main character is being forced to make, and being allowed to continue to do so.  One other error that is less plot related and is more on the director, is that the passage of time is handled very sloppily. My wife pointed this out because it really irked her. Aside from people randomly stating things like ‘it has been three weeks since…’ it is very difficult to tell how much time passes in the film. In other words, the action and actions of the main characters is portrayed as if it could be happening in no time at all when really the story takes somewhere in the neighborhood of six months to a year to play out. Luckily for Iron Man, and for us, the viewers, these stupid errors mostly end with the end of the first act (except the time passage element), and the last two acts are fun, thrilling, clever and thoroughly enjoyable. They are why this series carries so much promise forward.

One area where I give comic books a pass is on their science or science fiction. What is done in Iron Man is out of this world futuristic, while being presented as the norm. This works for me because the special effects are fantastic without being too over-the-top. The science and the special effects really add a positive energy to the film.

But what this films holds up as its strongest assets, and what makes it show such promise for the future, is its great cast. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic. He is so likable and smooth, and delivers a line with such ease. He was a great choice for this film, seemingly cementing the fact that all superhero, comic book-esque films should choose their lead based on acting chops, not on the most attractive guy available. Gwyneth Paltrow is also very good as is her chemistry with Downey Jr. My one complaint from her, has more to do with the presentation of her character. She is very smooth and smart in some elements of her life and very bumbling in other parts, which is fine, but it seemed like the situations in which she was bumbling later in the film were situations where she was smooth and smart earlier in the film. It might just be me, but I found this a little odd. Rounding out the cast are best buddy Terrence Howard and the mysterious Jeff Bridges (he may be the finest actor to never win a major award). 

I would definitely recommend this film. I recommend it more for the future then for its current form, but either way you will have fun.

My review…69.

When Lars and the Real Girl came out in theaters, I was on the fence on going to see it. The reviews were good and bad, some folks I know hated it, others really liked. So I stayed on the fence, and stayed and stayed and then it was not in theaters any more. When it came out on video (or DVD or blu ray or whatever) I decided to lay down the three bucks and see if I had missed out on anything.

I was right about being on the fence. I am still on the fence.

Lars and the Real Girl is a very small movie about a socially awkward, anxious man (Ryan Gosling) who clearly fits some DSM-IV classification. Reasons from his very early past explain his neuroses. Gosling finally steps over the edge of sanity and gets himself a life-like doll to be his future bride. The small town Gosling lives in loves him so much that they play along, and in so doing, learn about themselves.

This film would have to fall under the category of fantasy, and is using fantasy as a less harsh mode of discussing loneliness. Getting past the mistakes that are made regarding psychology, the film works pretty well as a lesson on loneliness and the power of community and social connectedness. The film has a lot of heart and a decent amount of comedy.

The unfortunate part of this film, and why I remain on the fence about it, is that all of the heart comes from the supporting cast, and I don’t know if that is enough to carry the film. Emily Mortimer is excellent as Gosling’s sister-in-law, as is Patricia Clarkson as Gosling’s doll’s physician and his therapist (though he does not know she is this). Kelli Garner as a potential ‘real’ love interest and Paul Schneider as the brother are also good. The rest of the town fills the role of wholesome, sweet, caring small town (northern midwest) America, which may or may not exist in real life.

For Gosling, this film is an acting exercise. I can imagine the conversation he had with himself before filming:

“How nuanced a performance can I create?”

“I don’t know Ryan. Since my character does not talk very much why don’t I pull from all the great silent comedians, especially alternating between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (but mostly Chaplin) and mix them with my natural charm and ability to portray hurt.”

“Perfect. That should totally get us a nomination.”

“YEAH!!”

Look, I actually like Ryan Gosling. He has been good in good movies, and sometimes good in bad movies. But in this, I had a similar, though not nearly as extreme,  visceral distaste for Gosling’s performance as I had toward Sean Penn in I Am Sam. I have a brother with severe mental retardation and have worked with autistic children and was deeply offended by Penn’s performance. That he was acting like a person with…was very clear and he was pompous in doing it (side note: for a fantastic performance of a person with a disability see Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.). Gosling was just too into himself to make his role have the heart and the hurt needed to make the film work. 

So where does that leave me? On the fence wondering what if.

My score…59