Tag Archives: Summer 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Review

In 2004 Hellboy made a ripple on the ever-growing superhero movie scene that was swallowed up in the wave of larger fare such as Spiderman 2. It was somewhat of a shame, as Hellboy featured one of the comic world’s more interesting and most entertaining of protagonists; one third repentant demon, one third Dirty Harry, one third moany teenager.

What Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy should be admired, particularly in light of the fact that the film is essentially a big amusing failure. Part of the agreement in casting the ideal Ron Perlman in the lead role was that the budget ended up slashed. As a result, demon-hunter Hellboy ends up fighting the same monster over and over and over. And over. It wasn’t even that interesting a monster (on a barely related note, Sammael in fact looked far more like the hybrid of a Predator and a xenomorph than that monstrosity that turned up in AVP2 did). Also, the introduction of the character of John Myers, who was meant to be the awestruck human who eased us into this not particularly alien world of demons and whatnots, managed to weigh the film down more than any number of budget constraints could.

But due to an abundance of style and wit the film was crowd-pleasing enough to take a decent handful of cash and run for the hills. Combining that with the numerous Oscar wins and noms for del Toro’s stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, and a sequel to Hellboy was almost guaranteed.

So comes Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an embarrassingly colour-by-numbers sequel. Oh sure, they’re pretty spectacular colours (gone is the obnoxious dark blue tone of Hellboy that made the film too dark at times to even see – yes, it was nearly as obnoxious as that nauseating green hue from the Matrix sequels). But as I will continuously point out here again and again, production values cannot excuse a bad film’s badness.

Hellboy II has much of what you could ask from a sequel (and what many sequels nowadays fail to cash in on): the best of the cast return, the worst character has been written out and the action and spectacle have ante-upped considerably. Ron Perlman is so perfectly comfortable as Hellboy we could imagine he never took the make-up off in the last four years. Selma Blair sexes up her goth image from the first film to a far more pleasing degree. And while Doug Jones’s Abe Sapien still fails to crossover from comedic support to central character, his own voice is actually far more suited to the character than David Hyde Pierce’s over-stuffy re-dubbing for the first film. Best of all, Agent Myers is gone, although the fact that the film should even take a second to explain where he has gone (Antarctica) shows a level of compassion for the terrible character that he does not even deserve – no doubt audiences would have been happier to be left imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to him since the last film and be done with it.

What’s missing is the sense of doom from the first film. Here an embittered elf is determined to reap his revenge on mankind. Hellboy has to stop him. But the first film (and the comics as well, I understand) spent so much time highlighting how Hellboy himself was the doom of the world, that this plot seems bizarrely secondary, like an episode of a Hellboy TV show, or one of the admirable but similarly ignorable animated Hellboy movies, Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. There are a few references to Hellboy’s greater (evil) purpose, but by in large the plot of this film seems to wish to overshadow it, which it simply cannot.

So yes, there’s evil elf (Luke Goss), and he has a trollish henchman, and they try to control a giant mechanical army. And Hellboy tries to stop him, by going largely against the book, and against his new father figure, ghost-in-a-suit Johann Krauss (whose very existence raises far too many questions). And all the way along it’s very very pretty. And Abe falls in love with evil elf’s twin sister. And it’s utterly unbelievable.

The fairest way to continue this review is to completely tear the film apart and then talk for a time about how pretty it is. Cause then we’ll all feel much better.

Hellboy was a funny film. There was wit, and an underlying sense of fun and joy in the subject, but that is largely gone here. Hellboy’s quips have become so stock that the film asks us to laugh purely based on the delivery. “And stay down” shouts Hellboy as he slams his bulky opponent to the floor. Ok, why not? Maybe there is no more suitable line available, but I’m certain anything would have been funnier. Even the cleverest line of the film, delivered by a disturbing infant growing out of some monster, is delivered with clumsy gurgling. It’s quite a shame really.

There are numerous other things to nitpick at, such as the sequence battling the tooth fairies in which the “red shirt” agents are boringly picked off one by one, or the Men in Black-stolen scene at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense where Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI chief stumbles through his lines so awkwardly it seems he never saw the script (oh yes, it’s clearly meant to look like he’s flustered, but it makes for terrible cinema).

But Hellboy II’s biggest failing is it is patronising – oh so patronising. Perhaps more so than recent Spiderman or Superman films. And it’s a tragedy coming from the same filmmaker who broke so many rules with Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Agent Myers looks like a helpful narrative construct compared to some of the scenes in this film. For example, the emphasis on the connection between the two elf twins could not be any more heavy-handed. By the time we reach the film’s climax only two people in the audience don’t know what’s going to happen to the villain and neither of them are expected for another five or six months. Speaking of babies, the baby plot adds almost nothing to the film bar a bone of contention between Hellboy and Liz. So Hellboy has to grow up now; well he always did – that was the point of the first film, why does he need a baby (babies) to change that?

Countless parodies have been done in the last few years of how to make a sequel to a superhero film, and disturbingly it is Hellboy II, a film that could have been groundbreakingly (or at least tremoringly) different, that hits almost every single clichéd note. The superhero is unveiled to the public (in a slow-motion musical explosion sequence that is simply terribly executed), the villain implies that the hero is more like the villain than those he protects (queue Willem Dafoe-style cackling), the people he protects turn against him, he is left mortally wounded but saved by love, etc. It’s so by-the-books it could bring you to tears. It even concludes with Hellboy triumphantly “quitting the force”, only to leave himself and his team stranded in Northern Ireland (they strut triumphantly in the opposite direction of their plane). There are no excuses, not from a director who has become such an icon filming a source material that has been considered so out of the ordinary. He co-wrote the script with Mike Mignola himself!

All that considered, it is very pretty, and in the end this was always going to be a test run for del Toro’s shot at The Hobbit. And the clockwork-fetishist has undoubtedly impressed, with his team creating some remarkable visualisations. The Troll Market, although perhaps not as grand in scale as it might have been, is so brilliantly laid out, and populated by such bizarre and interesting beasties that one doesn’t know what to admire most. Make-up, puppetry and animatronics create creatures that are as much Uruk-hai as they are Skeksis, a wonderful combination of available technologies – further hinting at what joys The Hobbit might bring.

Most enjoyable of all is the film’s opening, in which the story’s prologue is narrated in a marionette-style fashion that recalls Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s 2004 film Strings. Charming, if far too early a peak for the film.

The sequence in which the elemental god covers the city in glowing grass could not have been done better without flying Miyazaki in to show them how it should be done. Character designs, such as the legless goblin (with a surprisingly authentic Northern Irish accent), the elf king and Death (truly noteworthy) are all the signs of a master filmmaker, who is simply slumming it with an incomplete script. The final battle against the clockwork army in the clockwork palace atop a clockwork floor is notable not just for the impressive choreography but also for being a CG action sequence which never really feels confusing. It’s a sign of just how far the technology has come and the good it can do in the right hands.

Alas these were the right hands at the wrong time. A beautiful experience does not a good film make. While del Toro is clearly still learning – he has admittedly created here a villain who is not just evil for the sake of it as in his previous films – we certainly should have expected more from this, and it goes to show that in terms of storytelling he is still far behind his compatriots Cuarón and Iñárritu. It had been such a strong summer in terms of blockbusters, it’s somewhat of a tragedy that a director so reliable should let himself down so greatly.

2/5

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The Sorrow and the City

Sex and the City

It must be quite reassuring for producers to make a movie based on a popular TV show. It’s pretty much a sure-fire success. Provided the original show is not too long forgotten (*cough* The X-Files) and you can get enough of the show’s original cast involved you’re more or less guaranteed a huge box-office draw.

Take this film for example. It was based on a show that was not only popular, but managed to change the culture of its time. It changed the way people talked, the way people consumed and what people did with their spare time. Those who didn’t watch it and didn’t want to watch it were utterly aware of its existence and knew it couldn’t realistically be avoided. There’s no doubt it was a phenomenon.

The film could exist because the show made its fans cry out for more. Even if the film could win no new viewers, at least the fans would come in droves. The film was thus utterly critic proof.

Everything about the show made the film a good idea, right down to the characters portrayed in it. The lead is confident, even arrogant at times, but there’s an endearing quality on show that wins viewers over. Then there are the three best friends; the sex-mad one, the feisty, sarcastic redhead and the cute adorable one who, no matter what people claim is really everyone’s favourite. Yes, from the very get go, Pokémon: The First Movie was always going to be a hit.

What? You thought I was talking about something else? Fine then. If I must.

So I finally allowed the opposite sex to drag me to see Sex and the City just as it was disappearing from the cinemas. However, I had rather atypical reasons (i.e. other than my being male and straight) for being apprehensive. It was not just the modest reviews and overwhelming box office gross that made me cautious. I didn’t want it to undo the good that had already been done.

Yes, that’s right, I like Sex and the City. It’s a good show. At the best of times it was a very good show. Unrealistic it was, but there was enough sass and attitude on display, dressed up in colourful and (I can only assume) “fabulous” designer decor that it stood out from all other comedy and drama shows. HBO’s use of real locations instead of constant sets made the show a visual breath of fresh air. Very often plots seemed to be written around a climactic pun, but the plots were fine and the puns were funny. Sex and the City was, and reruns still are, perfectly entertaining viewing.

So what about this film then? Well it’s not as bad as some have suggested. The problem is that given the budget, the length and the hype this should have been essentially “the best episode ever”. But it’s not. It might just about make it into the top 10.

Sex and the City: The Movie is surprisingly low on jokes, and overbearingly high on drama. Sex and the City was a funny show. This is not a funny film. The wit that was half the appeal of the TV series has been replaced with obvious gags – leg waxing humour, what can women dress as for Halloween humour, dogs having sex humour – with the only laugh out loud moment, when prissy Charlotte soils herself, seeming more at home in a Farrelly brothers screenplay. The event is later mentioned again as if to say “come on, laugh once more at the one joke we’ve offered you”. It’s a harsh criticism to throw at the film, but since the show was funny, one expects the film to follow suit.

However, the actual emotional drama on show, notably Carrie’s never-ending suffering with Mr Big but most evident in Miranda’s break-up with Steve, may in fact be stronger than what was on display in the series. There’s a lot of heartfelt stuff going on; regardless of how obnoxious you may find the characters, you can’t help but feel sorry for them.

Of course, the show was always able to balance the four characters between episodes; two would have emotional crises while the other two would have amusing sexual/relationship hi-jinks. Here, over nearly two-and-a-half hours, there are three emotional crises and one boring pregnancy. This is part of the reason Sex and the City: The Movie fails; it’s really, really grim.

Carrie, Miranda and Samantha all go through hell for 140 mins (not just 35 as we were once accustomed to) before everything turns out ok in the end. Regardless of how happy the ending is, it’s all a bit heavy for light entertainment. It may be ambitious, but it’s a bit dull, and if it isn’t dull for some, they can hardly call it life affirming. Sex and the City was a show that brought people out of slumps and cheered them up, here we have to see Carrie so emotionally demoralised that she has to be spoon-fed yoghurt. It’s enough to make every single and spoken-for woman on earth throw themselves off the nearest available precipice. Most of the men might as well too out of sheer guilt.

Miranda and Steve’s relationship issues are a great story unto themselves; by the resolution of their subplot we can mostly agree that both had faults, both have suffered and both will be happier staying together. It’s not exactly profound but it does the trick. In between, however; OH THE MISERY!!! Miranda, like Carrie, cries and cries and cries. They cry with one another, they cry alone, they cry and scream at their lovers. It’s all just far too heavy.

Samantha’s story is even worse, as she regresses to a character she was before the show finished and seems happier that way. Her perfect love story falls utterly flat, as she (allegedly, I saw no signs of it) gets fat due to being miserable with her more successful boyfriend. As she repeatedly teleports across America to see her friends, we’re left praying she’ll just shut up and stay there, so she can be happy, we can have less misery dumped upon us and we no longer have to have that scene where the girls all scream because Samantha has suddenly appeared in New York, for like the eighteenth time.

Charlotte meanwhile is too lovely to have sad things happen to her. Everything goes lovely for her. Unfortunately it is really dull and we see practically nothing of it. Worse still, the show’s best character, Charlotte’s husband Harry, is inexcusably absent throughout most of the film. Sex and the City no longer wants us to have fun.

Yes, in the end everything works out for close to the best, even for the token Oscar winner (see what I did there?) who finds dull love with her dull first boyfriend back in her dull home city. But as Carrie narrates about important love and friends are, we suddenly realise we’ve been here before. The ending is pretty much the same as that of the TV series.

Wait a second! After all that, 140 more minutes of not first rate TV, we’re right back where we left off? Carrie is with Big (does it matter that they’re married now?), Miranda is with Steve, Charlotte has just got a baby, Samantha is sassy and carefree. We went through all that just to end up exactly as we were back in 2004, if not slightly worse off?

Nope, it’s true, after all this time things are not as good as they once were, and we’ve gone through boring emotional hell to get there. No amount of Carrie’s pseudo-philosophical pap can disguise what is essentially a tragic ending disguised as a happy one.

Every story should serve its purpose, and since this film makes the TV series’ finale less truly happy than it seemed four years ago, one gets the sense that the film serves no function other than to make money. Where has the city gone? New York was once a character in this show, now it’s all set indoors or in Mexico. All direction has been lost in order to make the film essentially on the cheap (the Mexico scenes in particular look like they might as well have been filmed on Long Island). Indeed, the fashion shoots and fashion shows that litter this picture serve no purpose as their equivalents did in the TV series, they are just time-wasting distractions that beg you to remember happier times.

And they were happier times. It was a happy fun show. But it grew up, and when it did, it finally stopped being interesting. That’s the saddest part of all.

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Oh George…

A bus stop poster for Star Wars: The Clone Wars announces “Star Wars as you’ve never seen it before”.

As I’ve never seen it before? How’s that, George? Hideous? Utterly devoid of acting humans?

Honestly!

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Notes on a Small Robot

Things have been far too slow on here as of late, largely due to a painful two-week lull where I was devoid of internet access (ironic seeing as dependence on technology is a major theme of the forthcoming blog entry). Since then, the time to review Wall·E has come and gone, so rather than tiptoe around plot points and hint at what to look for, I have instead decided to opt for a more discursive approach, which will observe the film under the assumption that the reader has either seen it, has elected to not or never see it, or feels that what merits the film will have for them cannot be damaged by certain revelations or “spoilers” found within.

Wall·E was always going to be special. Pixar have so far had one of the greatest strings of successes in animation history; nay, in cinematic history. There have been blips of course. Cars is somewhat hackneyed and becomes utterly confusing when analysed beyond being a simple kids film (just how did that world evolve?). The Incredibles is, alas, not to everyone’s liking, and A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. suffer moments of weakness. But from the moment Wall·E first appeared in trailers a year ago he captured instantly a piece of the magic that has made Pixar the rightful successor to Disney’s practically vacant throne.

His eyes of course instantly remind audiences of Lenny the clockwork binoculars in Toy Story. He also recalls E.T., particularly with his rising neck, brownish colouring, voice and curious nature. There is even a generous sprinkling of Johnny 5 in the mix. The loneliness and humour portrayed in trailers made for adorable Pixar shorts of their very own, so the fact that this was to be a full-length feature, after the witty and ambitious Ratatouille, was a favourable sign for Pixar and audiences alike.

So much has already been said about Wall·E and its messages, with political and social backlashes and support seen from all sides. There are few punches pulled, as was the case with Cars, but the message being presented here is far greater than the disappearance of small town America. In Wall·E, by 2815 America, and the whole world, has become a dusty trash pile representing a long since forgotten human presence. Skyscraper-filled skylines (made up of both actual skyscrapers and monolithic slabs of compressed garbage) echo our modern cities, while the hazy pollution is all too familiar from previews of Beijing’s pre-Olympic cleanups.

Wall·E is the typical last man on Earth, barring the fact he is a robot. He plays with the objects he finds, with the emptiness around him, and befriends an unlikely companion in a cockroach. By observing the remains of human society (summarised by segments of the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly!) he becomes considerably more human than the humans he will later encounter. Ironically, while we can see the worst of ourselves reflected in the evolved abominations aboard the Axiom cruise spaceship, the best of humanity is summed up in Wall·E, the little robot that could.

Buy n Large, the hyper-Wal-Mart monstrosity responsible for the current state of affairs in Wall·E, is about as unsubtle a satirical creation as can be. The company owns everything from banks to shops, giving it complete control of all financial and capital movements. Its president, played by Fred Willard in live-action video footage, addresses customers from a White House press room look-alike podium, implying that Buy n Large literally ran the world, and not just from behind the scenes. Indeed Willard is an odd casting choice, so often playing the buffoon, that parallels are instantly drawn to the current US president; both joke about their apparent cluelessness, both are aware of corporate agendas beyond the greater good. Even a scene where Willard wears a gas mask on his chest recalls George W Bush’s photo op in full fighter pilot regalia.

One could go on. Aboard the Axiom the people are so pandered to by Buy n Large, who wish only to satisfy their customers fully to ensure that they remain content, that they have evolved into nightmarish visions of white middle-class Americans. Quite literally everything is controlled by the market, which is solely Buy n Large. Indeed, when the final credits have rolled after the film, the Buy n Large logo flashes one last time, as if to imply that the company is so all-encompassing that it has somehow retroactively co-financed this film!

So that’s enough about the worst of humanity. Let’s get back to Wall·E, and also on to EVE. EVE’s introduction, heralded by a cooing “ooooh” from Wall·E, is truly when the film begins. In appearance half iPod, half swaddled baby Jesus, the life-detecting robot (and arsenal of hugely destructive capability) is a complete mismatch for the living robot, with a girly laugh the only indicator of the humanity she will come to possess. She is an Asimovian robot; free to do whatever she wills until a rule that must be obeyed (referred to repeatedly as her “directive”) rebukes her freedom.

Wall·E, through his isolation, has evolved beyond these I, Robot limitations, and thus while rusty and broken, he is indeed the most advanced machine of all. When EVE temporarily shuts down, Wall·E acts not like a loyal dog, but like a loving human to a bedridden partner. He cares for her through wind and rain and sandstorm (her egg-like shape adds an extra natural aspect to his protective behaviour). Arguably his attempts to have her address his loneliness through handholding verge on cybernetic necrophilia, but we can chalk it up largely to his rather childlike and human misunderstanding of the situation.

In one of the film’s most touching sequences EVE bares witness through security footage to the kindness Wall·E showed her during her hibernation, and the human feelings she experiences allow her to overcome the confines of her robotic existence. She breaks the directive that is her sole purpose because she has found a greater good in Wall·E. The message is simple, but it is sweet and delivered note perfect.

Wall·E’s humanity is as contagious as a virus. It’s a wonderful life he ends up leading, as like George Bailey before him, the most minor of events make the lives of others better. M-O, a teeny robot with OCD, is forced to stray from his set path by Wall·E’s bio-hazardous presence, and discovers adventure and friendship on the way. John and Mary (voiced respectively by Pixar must-have John Ratzenberger and King of the Hill’s Kathy Najimy) are two generically named human blimps aboard the Axiom whom contact with Wall·E frees them the Matrix-like hold of Buy n Large. The ship’s captain (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin) discovers the importance of learning, humanity and taking action after being inspired by one brief encounter. The idea is of course that what makes us human cannot be undone even if it is buried behind layers and layers of fat and stupidity, it just takes the right little something to reignite the spark.

What’s amazing about Wall·E is just how dystopian its clean white future is. The grungy mess on Earth is nowhere near as hellish as the beautiful decks of the Axiom. At least on Earth man, robot and roach can be free. The customers of Buy n Large on board the Axiom are slaves of the worst kind. They are slaves to their bodies, which can barely move for them given their size, shape and weakened states. They are also slaves to the system; their tastes and styles are selected for them. By the look of surprise on their faces when John and Mary touch hands, we can assume human contact is utterly new to them, implying that the babies we have seen were hardly produced by coitus (not something that a children’s film will dwell on of course, but subtly implied). Indeed, the children are hooked to the corporate Matrix from birth and even then receive no human contact, somewhat of a throwaway gag in the film (“A is for Axiom, B is for Buy n Large…”), but truly disturbing when considered in depth. Unlike the world of The Matrix, where being in the Matrix is arguably favourable to living in a sewer and attending horrible raves, there is no evident pleasure to be found in the lives of the Axiom’s cruise passengers. John and Mary on the other hand, unhooked, can enjoy the stars, the pool, and life off the lighted track.

Portends to classic sci-fi don’t end there, there are also numerous references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, most notably in the ship’s malfunctioning-due-to-clashing-orders auto-pilot, Auto, who as a red dot in a ship’s wheel is quite literally a maritime HAL-9000 (one is left wondering how much easier Dave Bowman’s last day might have been had HAL simply had an AUTO/MANUAL switch!). Sigourney Weaver voices the ship’s main computer, which might as well be called MOTHER given how it dotes on the captain. One could even question if the fact that Wall·E feeds his pet cockroach on cream-filled pastries is in reference to a gag in TV’s Family Guy that the only things that can survive a nuclear holocaust are cockroaches and Twinkies.

Not all of Wall·E is as faultless as I may be implying, and to be honest I am rather looking at what should be taken from the film than putting forth reasons that demand it be adored. The misfit band of broken robots that Wall·E befriends for example is a little too in-your-face nice. The message that it is ok to be different is already evident without a robot that puts make-up on everything and a robot umbrella that can’t stay closed – although admittedly the sequence where a broken massage robot goes twenty-ninth century on the asses of countless robot guards rouses one of the film’s greatest belly laughs.

The film’s final return to Earth does leave us wondering whether the cycle of history will repeat itself. Can these jelly-filled excuses for humans ever hope to bring Earth back to its former glory, even after discovering the joys of individuality and working for oneself? Surely they’re screwed, or will the robots help them out? The idea of history repeating itself is suggested (although this negative spin is perhaps unintended) in the gorgeous closing credit sequence, where future history is played out in the styles of our own history of art, from hieroglyphs to a stunning Monet/van Gogh fusion of Wall·E and EVE in a field. These are followed by an 8-bit computer graphics retread of the entire film around the scrolling credits (in which, perhaps intentionally, Wall·E looks all too like the Atari envisaging of E.T.).

Worth mentioning is the usage of live-action footage to represent the humans that were circa 2105. While the imagery is effective and clever, one does get the idea that Pixar may finally be admitting that they do not have faith in their rendering of human beings. Whatever the case may be, they have escaped persecution this time around, but it will be worth seeing how humans appear in their future films. If they are to take Disney’s crown for good, their humans must appear as charming as those in Disney’s animations.

Morally you can’t argue much with a film this sweet. Humanity triumphs, albeit emerging from an unlikely source. Pollution is bad, we know this. Corporations should be kept out of politics and out of our private lives (I’m talking to you, Google!). Sacrifice is a necessity. The heartbreaking finale, where Wall·E reverts to a mechanoid state with no emotions or personality spells it out. Wonderfully, in a classic fairytale twist, it is a kiss from the heroine that wakes him from his death-like slumber. This touching gender role reversal is a fitting ending to a film that hits so many of the right buttons from the get go, in its attention to detail and in its genuine sense of rightfulness and humanity.

Wall·E is a robot that’s built to last, and he will continue to touch and entertain audiences well into the future.

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The Dark Knight – Review

“Do you know what I am?” asks the Joker in a pink dress. “I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” The demented nature of Heath Ledger’s Joker, violently obsessive in his nihilism, is the greatest indicator of how The Dark Knight is not traditional comic book fare.

Even 2005’s Batman Begins, also directed by Christopher Nolan, seems very by-the-books when compared to this dark character drama in a comic book setting. While Begins should be and has been lauded for its style and character development, it still obeys all the comic book movie rules. Just like this summer’s Iron Man, the lead hero has an enlightening experience in the Far East, realises he can do more with his life and starts to save the day before correcting an evil that he is partially responsible for.

The Dark Knight shares very little in common with similar comic book sequels. In fact, characters and actors aside, it feels like an entirely different film to Begins; a development, an improvement. The huge hype that precedes the film (attributable to its admirable predecessor and the passing of Heath Ledger, who it should be remembered was being much talked about for his performance even before his unexpected death) will not have escaped many, and given the sheer intensity of the storyline and the film’s surprising length (2 and a half hours), the film may alienate the fun-seeking public in what has been quite a crowd-pleasing summer so far.

But it is because of this maturity and ambition that it will be the most memorable film of summer 2008, and its potential failure to find a sustained audience (it will no doubt burst the banks on its opening) would suggest only that audiences are so used to being spoon-fed their entertainment that they can no longer accept anything with sophistication and class. But its success is almost assured – this is superb filmmaking.

The film begins a short time after Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale once more) is still balancing businessman, playboy and midnight avenger roles, focusing largely on the latter as he cleans up the various factions of the Gotham City mob. “Batman has no limits” he insists, but as he learned Batman’s power for good in the first film, here the limitations of his secret identity are laid out for him all too clearly.

The Joker is the one who teaches him this lesson. No longer the giggling crook of previous incarnations, Ledger’s Joker is as insane as he is genius. Like a young Hannibal Lecter with Asperger’s he robs and kills not for profit or power, nor really for fun, but because there is sport in it; because someone else must lose for him to succeed, and even if he fails he might just bring the opponent down with him. Although as cold, calculating and unpredictable as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (not the last reference I will be making to that film in this review), it is not that which makes him terrifying, but rather the realisation that because Batman cannot kill him he simply cannot be stopped from killing.

Stepping back from the camp and outlandish interpretations of the Joker in the past, Ledger spends the first half of the film relaxing us into the role, making us comfortable with how incredibly unsettled he makes us. As his schemes become wilder so does his performance, he begins to laugh his horrible laugh more. Jack Nicholson’s Joker created panic through poisoning the masses. Ledger’s Joker creates panic by declaring that a single innocent civilian must be killed to save hundreds, making everyone a violent vigilante. His sadism is almost cartoonish in its villainy, if it weren’t so utterly gruesome in its body count.

Between Batman and the Joker is Harvey Dent (the regularly excellent Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney and boyfriend to Wayne’s ex, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal acceptably replaces Katie Holmes’s acceptable performance in Begins). Dent is idealistic like Wayne, but works within the system. His rise, rise and crashing fall is actually the main focus of the film, as by trying to be more of a hero like Batman he ultimately becomes a monster like the Joker, highlighting the difference between the two “freaks” in his huge character arc.

While Ledger’s name has been repeatedly (and prematurely) touted for Oscar glory, and he is admittedly excellent, Eckhart really is the soul of this film, though understandably not the main attraction. His performance is simply excellent, and often difficult to watch knowing where it will lead to. For the second time this year a man has decided life or death with the flip of a coin (Chigurh in No Country being the first, of course) and the tension it creates is not traditional summer blockbuster stuff. As opposed to the raving lunatic Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in Batman Forever (1995), where he appeared to be channelling Cesar Romero as the Joker, this Two-Face is a ghastly spectre of vengeance and chaos – the effects used to create his scarring are indescribably unpleasant, though brilliant.

Of the returning cast members all are notable improvements on already great performances, though much of this has to do with the tightness of the script. Gary Oldman is far more comfortable in the Jim Gordon role, while Michael Caine continues to excel in a role that sometimes feels as if it might have been created for him. Morgan Freeman, little more than a likeable black Q in Begins, here has enough screen time to develop the limited character of Lucius Fox into something much more than a few one-liners.

So unlike such comic tripe such as last month’s The Incredible Hulk, story and character are the main foci here. But what about the explosions and punches that many come to see this sort of film (or rather the sort of film that this is being advertised as) for? There are some superb set pieces; a scene-setting bank heist, a Mission Impossible-style infiltration, an explosive road battle and a climactic sonar-vision brawl (you think I made that up, but I didn’t). Batman equips a new suit that unfortunately appears indistinguishable from the previous one (err, it’s also black), but his new gadget of choice is the fantastic Batpod (the lovechild of a ménage à trois between a tank, a motorcycle and a massage table), which makes a jaw-droppingly awesome first appearance.

The film has decidedly less humour in it than the first film, not including the not-sure-if-you-should-be-laughing-or-squirming contributions of the Joker. The romantic subplot is inoffensive. What this film really has going for it is just how smartly it has been developed. The Nolan brothers’ script is loaded with Memento-ish detail. What would be a minor subplot in other superhero movies – a Wayne employee stumbles upon his dual life – becomes, like a beer mat in a dead man’s jacket, a pivotal cog in the story’s development. Every iota of information is relevant and connected. There is no apologising here for the story originating in an “inferior medium” – this is complex, intelligent and stylish storytelling, as mature and dark as its title implies.

Certainly it does run a touch long (the major action sequence seen in trailers ends with an hour to spare), though one would be hard pressed to find what to cut without raising the Spiderman 3 “who needs another villain” argument. The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is still lacking as it was in the first one, always building to a crescendo it never quite reaches. Bale’s Batman voice does become grating, and Cillian Murphy’s appearance as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow is pointlessly brief. But beyond those there can be few complaints that aren’t simply a matter of taste, bar perhaps the potential for young viewers to be upset or disturbed by what is really quite heavy entertainment.

The hugely affecting ending will no doubt have audiences and studio execs begging for a second sequel, making ever-more tragic the loss of Ledger, but we should hope that they are not disappointed. The Dark Knight (alternative title: No Country for Bat Men ?) is the best and most memorable film to be released this summer thus far. Do not miss it.

5/5

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Mamma Mia! – Review

Mamma Mia!

It’s been a funny couple of years for the Hollywood musical. Moulin Rouge! was the film that made the change, in that it made mainstream pop music usable in musicals, as well as making it acceptable for famous actors who don’t have strong singing voices to give it a try without being dubbed over. Both of these things are debatably good.

But for all its silliness Moulin Rouge! took itself far too seriously. As did Across the Universe, Dreamgirls and the abominable Chicago. Hairspray did also, perhaps, but had the talent and style behind it to make it work. Mamma Mia! on the other hand is something entirely different.

No film has revelled in its own preposterousness as much as Mamma Mia! since Crank. It is absurd, it is silly and it is camp as can be, but it is entertaining as hell from start to finish.

The setting is a Greek island. A young woman, raised by her single parent workaholic mother, is getting married, somewhat in defiance of her strong-willed mother, and invites the three men from her mother’s past who could be her father to the wedding. When they get there, situation comedy breaks out, with music and lyrics by Abba.

Meryl Streep is on typical likable diva form as Donna, now a struggling entrepreneur, formerly of a suspiciously Abba-esque pop band: Donna and the Dynamos. Her two former back up singers, played by the odd but amusing pairing of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, bring the fun and plenty of sexual innuendo. Walters has the time of her life with the role of Rosie, while Baranski’s Tanya is the best she’s been onscreen since Cybill ended, playing admittedly a similar role to her Maryanne.

Meanwhile the three men, played with excessive energy by Colin Firth (formerly rebellious, now prim and prissy), Stellan Skarsgård (formerly mysterious, still mysterious) and Pierce Brosnan (formerly dreamy, now perfect) steal the whole show.

Amanda Seyfried, who played the borderline brain-dead Karen in Meangirls, radiates here (perhaps easy in the gorgeous Grecian sunlight) as bride-to-be Sophie, an unrecognisably different character. She is sweet and lovable as one would expect from the female lead of a romantic musical (take note, Nicole Kidman). Her fiancé, named Sky (a name, apparently), is played by Dominic Cooper, most memorable from The History Boys and here little more than handsome young padding.

The eye-catching Greek backdrop is all very pleasant, but what about the music. Well, Abba really are pop personified. A pure shot of liquid pop would no doubt cause spontaneous outbursts of ‘Dancing Queen’. While I could imagine someone preferring countless bands to Abba, to genuinely dislike Abba would require a Scroogean heart of stone. Since the lyrics are more or less unchanged from their original forms, they only barely make sense half the time, but that is some of the fun, catching when a song is likely to be played.

Some don’t quite work. The first full number, ‘Honey, Honey’, falls a tad flat, as Sophie and her generic girlie friends discuss her mother’s sex life. Apparently ellipses are synonymous with intercourse. I’m not sure what I’m implying by this sentence then…

‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is a touch too Madonna video, as Sky and Sophie roll in the sand before a macho brigade of lads perform a flamboyant dance on a jetty – easily the film’s most heterosexually alienating sequence.

Streep’s power ballad delivery of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is simply too much, and pales in comparison to her blind duet with Brosnan of ‘S.O.S.’, where the two sing to one another without the other hearing them singing as well – providing a smart irony to the lyrics “So when you’re near me darling can’t you hear me?”

‘Money, Money, Money’ just about works, but a puerile fantasy sequence in the middle of it nearly kills it. It’s up to songs like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Take a Chance On Me’ to really up the ante, which admittedly they do. Tanya’s version of ‘Does Your Mother Know’, to a much younger suitor, includes one of the cleverest fellatio jokes you’re likely to see this year.

The camp cannot be contained, and this film is rolling in it. Brosnan relishes the chance to ham it up in a non-Bond-like role, Firth gets the film’s best and gayest line, while Skarsgård, who would normally be more at a home in a hard-hitting drama about a woman whose addiction to Abba music was slowly killing her and estranging her from her family, slips into this silly role perfectly.

If musicals aren’t your thing then of course this will not be for you, but this much unbridled fun rarely makes its way into cinema screens. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have once again struck gold producing a camptastic stage show for the big screen. Even if it is more flamboyant than an Orlando gay pride festival, Mamma Mia! is the most harmless film that is utterly self-aware of its ridiculousness that you will see for some time. The (unmissable) performances over the end credits really do say it all – this looks like it was even more fun to make than it is to watch.

4/5

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The Forbidden Kingdom – Review

When two famous actors, renowned for playing similar roles but with a very personal touch, come together for the first time to make a film together, it almost always makes for… disappointing watching. Why? Well who knows! Perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Perhaps it is not only that opposites attract in onscreen personalities, but also that like and like repel. We were thankfully spared Arnie and Stallone’s originally set co-appearance in Face-Off. While The Forbidden Kingdom does have its moments, it’s teaming up of China’s answer to America’s action stars is never quite as much as any adventure they have starred in apart.

Jackie Chan has been likened before to Buster Keaton, an athlete/comic prone to getting everything brilliantly wrong before everything finally works out just right. Jet Li meanwhile is usually a more straight-faced, sombre type of action star. Here strangely, he is on equal footing in a clownish role, playing a Chris Tucker-ish role alongside Chan, which seems to defeat the purpose of placing the two alongside each other onscreen.

That said, the action is very pleasing to observe. Chan’s Lu Yan, a drunken kung fu master, is at his most entertaining when kicking and punching several guards while continuing to imbibe from his gourd. Li’s quiet monk also makes considerable use of his fighting skills, but his occasional outbursts of peculiar scatological humour bring the mood down on a character whose purpose is inexplicable until the film’s end (in, admittedly, a clever twist). But it is when the two stars fight one another that one feels let down; they both give it their all, and it is entertaining, but neither manages to outclass one another and since neither is the villain and the contest cannot thus have a victor, it all seems a little in vain. It would be like that famous scene in Heat if only both Pacino and De Niro were cops.

The story, bizarre as it is, runs like Last Action Hero mixed with The Dancing Cavalier (hope that’s not too obscure for you) in dynastic China. Obnoxious American kid Jason (Michael Angarano – expect not to hear too much more of that name) needs to learn courage and self-belief, and is transported through time and space by a magic staff, and only he can defeat the evil Jade Warlord from blah blah blah evil blah blah.

Apparently this Jade Warlord is an immortal tyrant of sorts, and has imprisoned the amusingly hyperactive Monkey King, the only one who can best him in combat, in stone. Only the Monkey King’s staff can free him, and so Chan and Li have to train annoying Jason, through the English language, in the ways of kung fu. An attractive female rebel is thrown in for eye-candyish and potential romantic purposes. She also has suspicious mastery of the English language. An extra villain is thrown into the mix in the form of a sexy albino witch whose platinum blonde hair also doubles as a whip. It’s silly, but it’s fun.

The film’s use of English is a major problem. Subtitles are occasionally used as characters converse with one another in Chinese, and it is only then that the Chinese actors sound like they control the language they are speaking. Chan and Li are, obviously, far more skilled speakers of Chinese than English, and it shows through when they speak their native tongue. While the film should be commended for starring so many Chinese and Taiwanese actors (as opposed to Chinese-Americans etc), it is a shame that they are so often reduced to speaking in English. One of the Jade Warlord’s most ruthless lines of dialogue is ruined when the actor, Collin Chou, makes the understandable mispronunciation of an “l” as an “r”. In a film where so much belief must be suspended, it would have been far nice if characters could have spoken their native tongues and just magically understood one another – the “wizard did it” mentality. If you’re going to use some subtitles, why not go all out?

So why this American crossover? Is it purely to deliver kung fu to a wider American audience? Well, yes! And the film’s financial success is testament to this. The actual use of Chinese locations for filming gives a huge amount of authenticity to the proceedings , as does the relative absence of digital effects work. Unfortunately the whole “Jason loves kung fu films and thus should be sent to China to learn a lesson” mentality that the filmmakers have gone for is just a bit too much to swallow. The opening credits show a great passion for old kung fu films that the rest of the film hardly cashes in on. Jason buys obscure kung fu films from a Chinatown pawn shop, but his spouting of references reeks of someone who has read Halliwell’s Guide to Kung Fu Movies* cover-to-cover rather than a true expert. Indeed, when bullies root through his recently purchased selection, Enter the Dragon is amongst them, and surely it is the first film every kung fu fan comes across (hell, I own a copy!). So perhaps I’m nitpicking here, but these are some pretty huge nits since the film’s premise is built around them. You’d need a tongs to get these things off!

So reference-wise you’re left feeling that this is another dumbed-down homage (see my comments on Madagascar’s despicable Planet of the Apes gag in the Kung Fu Panda review below), somewhat embarrassed to revolve around a topic that its target audience is more or less utterly ignorant of. When did films start patronising people to this degree?

In fact, now that I think about it, if you pulled Jason out of the film and replaced him with a Chinese Bilbo Baggins-ish in-out-of-his-depth character and made the whole goddamn film Chinese, with the two different masters bickering over how to train him, it might have been a lot more fun. But really all this has is a few amusing action scenes and some rather splendid art design. The rest little more than passes the time until the final 20 minutes, which should wake you up somewhat even if you couldn’t care less about the characters.

I’m left wondering if a team up between Chan and Li could have worked with better material. But then I just think about how much their previous films have been without one another and I smile as this little blip on the radar fades into memory.

2/5

*not a real book, but just imagine if it were…

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Stellan Skarsgård’s leg is terrifying

What is it about Stellan Skarsgård’s let in the poster for Mamma Mia! that I just can’t look away from? Like some sort of massive traffic accident my eyes are drawn toward his manic grin and preposterously raised limb. My curiosity is unquestionably peaked. This poster may single-handedly be the greatest moment in advertising history.

Semi-dancing/grinning Skarsgård manages to simultaneously be more terrifying than his rapist role in Dogville, his shellfish demon in Pirates of the Caribbean and his poncey scarf in Good Will Hunting, combined!

That’s it. I’m going to see Mamma Mia!

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Hancock – Review

There is simply no means by which we can avoid the superhero film. As a sub-genre of a sub-genre, it is unquestionably here to stay now that special effects and editing styles have reached the same level of visualisation potential that comic books reached in the mid 80s.

Hancock takes a slightly different slant, and also introduces an entirely new hero character. John Hancock (yes, as in the signature) is practically homeless, living in a beachside trailer straight out of Lethal Weapon II, drinks far too much and has serious issues with socialising. He is also the most powerful force on the planet. And he just doesn’t care.

Rather than take the oft-trodden path of Spiderman and Batman films where the hero is rejected by the people, here we get the opposite, Hancock rejects the people, and they thus reject him in turn. Attention is called in early scenes to the amount of damage he does in what could theoretically be simple missions for him. He doesn’t just catch the crooks, he impales their car on a monument.

Superman regularly does needless damage, ripping things from the ground to throw at enemies, so it’s fun to finally see a superhuman get abuse for not doing things the quick and easy way. It is of course one thing to criticise when you’re the ones who don’t have superpowers nor the self-restraint to use them properly.

But Hancock isn’t just alienated for being different. We learn he doesn’t age, and has, since at least the 1920s, been immortal. As Queen asked, ‘Who wants to live forever?’ Well in Hancock’s eyes, not him, it’s a lonely existence. Upon the release of I Am Legend, an Irish critic commented that Will Smith’s casting in the lead role was inspired because Smith is the actor in this world who relies most upon the love of his audiences, so it was clever to leave him with no one but a dog to worship him. Here Smith plays completely against type, adding some of his badass attitude from Bad Boys but underlying it with genuinely disdain, distrust and a degree of hopelessness.

The film’s main theme is Hancock’s rehabilitation into a “real” superhero of sorts, not by a shrink or lawperson, but by a PR executive, played by a cheesy but charming Jason Bateman. His plan to reinvent Hancock’s image is some sort of personal crusade, we never quite learn why he is so keen, other than a dream of his to change the world. But Hancock is, as is regularly repeated, an asshole, and making him change is far from easy.

Scenes in which Hancock goes to anger management therapy and undergoes a stint in prison are fun, but one feels that the actual entertainment is being delayed. Revelations upon his release turn the film somewhat upside down, as Hancock discovers who he truly is, but the emergence of this mythos behind his powers feels original rather than borrowed from any other superhero’s backstory.

The film is shot in a largely handheld style, which at first can be distracting to the point of being unpleasant, particularly when we are first introduced to Bateman’s character. But from there on in it gives us an intimate sense of fly-on-the-wall-ness that actually works quite well, with the exception of one stormy action sequence where it is impossible to see what is going on at all.

Charlize Theron does her best with the material she has been given, which does improve towards the end, but there is little doubt that she has been cast largely because she is so radiant, here perhaps at her most perfect looking. The addition of a villain of sorts seems a little too easy, but Eddie Marsan, playing the criminal mastermind with the voice of a Baptist preacher, manages to be quite disturbing in a Robert Mitchum-esque manner; quite intense stuff for a supposedly family movie.

This raises the serious question as to who this film is aimed at, and how well it will do? Smith has an all round appeal that should bring audiences from many backgrounds, but they may not take to this grumpier, angrier Smith. Bateman and Theron will no doubt bring in content white middleclass families, but it remains to be seen if this film is family friendly. The language is cruder than most summer blockbusters and there are implications of sex and violence that might be too much for some children, or more specifically too much for parents to sit through with their children, especially one sequence in prison where Hancock takes revenge on two harassing inmates, with some ghastly sound effects and one bizarre shot.

Several cuts were made to the film to allow it a PG-13 rating in the States, and the film’s greatest success seems to be to have brought in a coherent and entertaining summer film at only 90 minutes. After so many years of painfully long blockbusters, this is quite the breathe of fresh air, interestingly the shortest summer blockbuster since 2002’s Men in Black II, which also starred Smith.

Smith is often at his best when he has someone to play off of, be it Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Lawrence or even Uncle Phil. Here, his relationship with Bateman’s character, though somewhat unbelievable, manages to carry the day.

Hancock is very far from perfect, but it’s big and its different and that’s really what we all need right now.

3/5

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Kung Fu Panda – Review

There is no doubt I was dreading this. I have been a huge critic of Dreamworks’ digitally animated production since Shrek, and it’s hard not to see why. By in large they have been confused disasters.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a Pixar purist. I have loved every film of theirs I have seen (admittedly I have evaded A Bug’s Life and Cars). But I resent how Pixar has decimated Disney’s animation studios. Similarly I resent how Dreamworks have repeatedly produced hackneyed digitalisations of airport bookshop children’s stories with added pop-culture tripe and successfully sold them to the masses.

The resounding death knell, as far as I could see it, was in Madagascar, when Ben Stiller’s New York lion builds a faux Statue of Liberty on the beach to remind him of his lost home. This subsequently burns down, and he collapses in front of the rubble and à la Charlton Heston screams “you blew it up… darn you! Darn you all to heck!”

Wait the fuck – Darn? Heck? That’s an awful lot of censorship for a children’s film. And a reference to a film that children won’t likely have seen. So who is the joke for? If it’s for the beleaguered adults forced to sit and watch with their accompanied child, then the removal of “bad language” only serves to be outrageously condescending. And why would one even need to make a pop-culture reference to Planet of the Apes in a film that appears to have a solid plot structure (fish out of water zoo animals fend off the wild)? It boggles, and insults, the mind.

So yes, Dreamworks = shit. We’ve established that. But their latest film, which I have managed to resist mentioning for some 300 words, is actually moderately charming. In fact, it might even be deemed somewhat charming.

Kung Fu Panda is a film that if we took too seriously we would bemoan the lack of Chinese voice-actors and storm out of the cinema in a pseudo-political protest. But why bother? This film shows enough sensitivity to the land from which its story sort of derives (references to actual forms of kung fu, mahjong, various types of dishes etc) to be deemed well researched, for a kids’ film.

There is even some maturity in the script, most notably the cleverness of the film’s MacGuffin and the means by which the villain is defeated. There are also no references to popular culture (films, TV, music or forms of speech) bar occasionally toying with Jack Black’s traditional film personality, which is perfectly acceptable (and in fact leads to one of the film’s funniest sequences). Obnoxious use of modern music (most notable in the progressively disastrous Shrek series) is completely avoided until the closing credits, when ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ plays – and by then they’ve earned the right to it.

The story is fun if simple. Po, a Jack Black panda, is a food-loving panda who works with his father, a duck (amusingly never explained) who owns a noodle bar. His dream is to be a kung fu artist, and is accidentally given the chance when chosen in an apparent accident by Master Oogyay, the local mystic, and wittily a tortoise. The seemingly random choice (it is insisted by Oogway there are no accidents) outrages his disciple Master Shifu who has five excellent students, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, Crane and Tigress, all more suitable than Po, who is without training. But when the evil Tai Lung, a Siberian tiger, escapes from prison (in a rather exciting manner), it is Po who must train and face him.

The plot has few diversions from the basic “chosen one must find his path” tale, but there are clever things to be found. Po is not told to diet, as his equivalent in another film – instead he learns to master his desire for food into a martial art. While Tigress is utterly offended at not being the chosen disciple, the other four animal characters reveal themselves to be far more understanding. Tai Lung is not only undone by his own hubris, he is sat upon by it.

The gags come at regular intervals, mainly from Po, though many also from Shifu, who is voiced by Dustin Hoffman; clearly having the most fun he’s had since he played Captain Hook. Angelina Jolie, as in Shark Tale (let us never speak of it again), is utterly wasted as Tigress. As an actress, Jolie requires her face and body to carry her characters, as a voice alone she is nothing. Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu add Chinese-(ish)-ness to Monkey and Viper, while David Cross gets one terrifically awkward scene as Crane, typical of his Arrested Development persona. James Hong makes up for his turn in the vile Balls of Fury, where he managed to both offend the Chinese and the blind in equal measures, in a pleasant turn as Po’s father.

The film’s greatest problem is that it never lives up to its opening five minutes, which set the scene too well, as Po dreams of being a great warrior, entirely illustrated in traditional Chinese forms. The gorgeous drawings, combined with the music and Black’s comic narration (the word awesome has not been used so effectively since Wayne’s World) make for an introduction to film that alas is not followed up on.

This is nothing to rush out to, but it shows a step in the right direction for Katzenberg and co. who have for once managed to deflect my wrath with a smile or two. It would be nice to see people try and animate humans again, but for now a panda will more than suffice.

3/5

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