Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dark Knight Review

Few, if any, movies have been hyped to the degree that The Dark Knight has. After the successful reboot of a series that was languishing in exile after nearly a decade, the deadly serious interpretation of this classic character from Christopher Nolan was just waiting for the sequel everyone knew it was going to get. And after the tragic death of Heath Ledger, things kicked into overdrive with the hyperbolic talk of Oscar nominations and The Joker literally causing Ledger to go insane.

Yet, when walking into the theater last night, I attempted to put all of that aside. Forget the reviews, forget the hype, and forget all the talk about Ledger's interpretation of The Joker. Just enjoy the movie for what it is and accept what is up on screen.

Fortunately, The Dark Knight delivers, but not in the way that some reviewers or fans would have us all believe. The Dark Knight is in fact an incredibly solid movie, a complex morality tale that finds itself wading in shades of gray, where other movies in this genre often take a strictly black and white approach to evil.

The story picks up shortly after the end of Batman Begins. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is the new DA, the human face of Gotham who tries desperately to clean up the city in a legal way. He is currently dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes), an assistant DA. Meanwhile, The Joker (Heath Ledger) starts a crime wave throughout the city and offers the mob bosses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rid the world of Batman for good as Batman continues to do his vigilante thing that he does so well.

Much has been said about Ledger's performance as The Joker, and much of it is true. His origins are shrouded in mystery. No one knows anything about him, nor do they have any leads. He is a master of misdirection and offers no real clues as to where he came from. No, he is little more than an insane individual who just relishes in evil. By appearance he seems to be motivated by little else than being Batman's foil, Batman's opposite incarnate. The Joker is equally brilliant as he is mad, hatching incredibly complex plans that often go precisely as he expects them to, regardless of Batman's attempts to stop them. And Ledger plays it with such a ferocity and so calculated that you can just buy it instantly. He is increasingly entertained by carnage and the most disgusting facets of the human experience and that excitement is undoubtedly scary. This is truly the greatest iteration of The Joker to be placed upon screen and frankly, I do not see how it could possibly be duplicated. But whether or not it is Oscar worthy is certainly up for debate. While I would love to see actors nominated for a movie like this, I fear that the only reason the award train is moving so quickly is because of the tragic demise of Ledger. While I certainly cannot think of any other such memorable performances this year, we are only half way through the year and prime awards season does not even start until late fall. So I will reserve my judgment on that for now.

Less has been said, however, about Aaron Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent. This is a man who exhibits true bravery, who is unrelenting in the face of undeniable evil. He truly believes that Gotham can be a better place and does everything in his power to make that the case. Yet, slowly but surely things begin to change. And, without spoiling anything, Dent's transition from upstanding DA to the villain known as Harvey Two-Face is not only believable, but incredibly compelling. You buy his descent into insanity, if insanity is what you want to call it. To devote so much of your life towards a goal, only to see much of that shattered, well, those are certainly valid reasons to lose one's mind. And not only the character, but the Two-Face effects are incredible. With imagery reminiscent of the animated series, whenever Two-Face is on screen you can't help but be mesmerized by the character.

But that's not to say that other performances are weak. On the contrary, everyone in the entire film delivers solid performances. From Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) to even smaller players like the mayor of Gotham (Nestor Carbonell), everyone comes through with compelling conviction.

Bruce Wayne in particular is tormented. While he has become the symbol that Gotham needs, Gotham needs more than he can give. And not only that, he's inspiring people both positively and negatively and doesn't know whether or not it is worth it to continue his journey down this path. There is not a clear cut answer that he can take. If he quits, then things could end up getting worse, but if he continues, then things, again, could also end up getting worse. There doesn't seem to be an easy way out of all of this. But the one strong point, essentially Bruce's moral compass, is Alfred (Michael Caine). Alfred understands what Bruce provides for this city, and Caine plays him with such a history that you understand where he is coming from with the advice that he gives. It is obvious Alfred is more than just a butler and the concern he has for Bruce and for the city delves deep for him.

The complexities of this story and the force with which The Joker delivers on many of the anarchic promises he makes place many of the individuals in this movie in impossible situations. Decisions need to be made for the greater good, but without losing one's soul. Sure, Batman could easily shoot The Joker in the head and be done with it, but that's not what he does. He needs to stay true to himself and resisting that temptation to become the thing he hates the most is a struggle, and it becomes a struggle for all characters with a solid moral center in this movie. The way Nolan explores these themes is not only effective but also a welcome change from a lot of the lighter fare often released during the summer months. Strip away the costumes and the comic book history and at its core, The Dark Knight is a human drama based in the reality we see around us today. How do you fight evil without losing yourself in the process? And are humans as disgusting as The Joker interprets them to be? Questions that do not have easy answers and questions that are explored in many interesting ways in this movie.

Yet, interestingly enough, on a strictly entertainment level, the film doesn't deliver as much as it could. The first hour and a half felt like nearly three hours. I was surprised when I had realized that there was still another hour to go. I was engaged, but not fully entertained by what was placed before me. I found myself zoning out in some parts, but I think much of that is because it goes against your expectations on what a "Batman" movie should be. By taking a different route and only occasionally going the more predictable route (which is pretty close to never), sometimes it does affect the base entertainment value of the movie. Yet, the last hour essentially grabs on and doesn't let up until its over. And what made this even more interesting was the way that the movie took turns that I didn't exactly expect. Not "plot twists" exactly in the Sixth Sense way, but just going in unexpected directions. And as a result, I find myself a little conflicted about where it leaves the characters going into a third movie.

I can easily recommend this movie to just about anyone. The performances alone are worth the price of admission but there is also so much more to it as well. And one thing is for sure, this seems to be a movie that will continue to add layers upon each viewing, so on that note, I can't wait to go see it in IMAX.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hancock Review

Will Smith is currently the most bankable star in Hollywood, and with good reason. The man never gives a less-than-entertaining performance. Everything he does, he seemingly does with such conviction that it becomes very easy to accept whatever role he is playing. Smith's charisma just emanates off the screen and it's difficult to think of one time where he, personally, has failed in his attempt.

No, the problem is never Will. The problem lies with something else, and that's precisely the issue that Hancock has. Hancock is a tonally inconsistent mishmash of a movie that presents a number of really great ideas but never actually follows through on any of them.

The story is simple enough. Superhero Hancock (Smith) is drunk and disorderly, but still is committed to stopping bad guys, collateral damage be damned. He doesn't seem to care about the financial toll he takes on his heroics, but is apparently still inspired to attempt heroics in general. When PR executive Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) is saved by Hancock, Ray makes it his duty to turn around the public's perception of Hancock and make him a true hero for the ages through a series of PR stunts.

A premise such as this is ripe with possibilities. Many people disagree with me, but I've always thought that one of the most fascinating superhero stories would be if Superman just got fed up with trying to help people and stopped giving a damn or attempted to take things into his own hands regarding the world power (in a more dictatorial role than in Superman IV, in which he asks, and everyone enthusiastically complies, in getting rid of all nuclear weapons). Instead, what Hancock delivers is a watered down version of a similar premise that attempts to cram a number of different ideas into a 92 minute run time while giving them very little time to breathe.

That's not to say there isn't some exquisite imagery in a large portion of the movie, because there certainly is. The way director Peter Berg films this movie is slightly reminiscent of the pseudo-documentary style he employs in "Friday Night Lights", which does ground this movie in a sense of realism. His biggest problems are two-fold. First, the tone switches in such a jarring way that it can sometimes pull you out of the movie. When you're expecting certain themes to be explored, only to have them be inexplicably dropped and another is picked up, the movie isn't helped by this. Of course, this could be rectified by a few extra transitional scenes that would exist to string the movie along a more solid focus. Secondly, the way he telegraphs a plot twist is much too obvious. The lingering shots in a scene that doesn't require lingering shots draws you out of the experience and makes you contemplate the nature of these shots instead of allowing the movie to unfold in a more naturalistic way. The twist certainly should have been alluded to in some way, but it was much too obvious from the outset.

John Powell also turns in a questionable score. I've heard his music before, and none of it was this inconsistant. This is certainly not a score I'm going to be seeking out anytime in the future.

If it feels like I'm being too negative on this movie, it shouldn't. I just find it frustrating when you see the skeleton of what could be an amazing superhero movie, only to be let down. What's so great about Hancock was the way that you could essentially create any story for him. There aren't any comic books or TV shows or old movies based upon this character; no, he was a completely unique character with his own mythology. You can go in with no preconceptions at all about who Hancock is or what he is. A true blank slate. Yet, with the exception of a few small monologues, we never really delve into that history. Why does Hancock choose to save people at all? He obviously has some sort of moral compass, a moral center that allows him to see right from wrong on a base level, but beyond the loneliness, what makes him who he is? What drives him at all? I don't necessarily feel that an origin story is necessary, but answers to these questions would have made the movie all the better for it. I can't really get into any more without getting into spoilers, so I suppose I'll stop with those questions here.

On a strictly entertainment level though, Hancock does deliver. Watching Will Smith tear through the streets of LA with a vague idea of what he's planning on doing does have an inherent entertainment value to it all. The banter between Smith and Jason Bateman is hilarious and they both have their own styles of humor that add immensely to the film. There were plenty of truly funny moments delivered by both characters, yet in very unique ways. Bateman once again plays the straight man and he succeeds just about every time. (Where's that Arrested Development movie, anyway?!) Charlize Theron is somewhat of a weaker point in this movie, but it has nothing to do with her performance, since not only is she playing attractive again (FINALLY it seems!) but you can tell she's actually putting effort into this role, depsite its "type" of movie.

Overall, this is a movie that gets by because of the star power of Will Smith. Giving this role to a weaker, less charasmatic actor could have doomed the movie from having any entertainment value at all. But fortunately this was not the case. The movie was absolutely worth seeing, it was just unfortunate that a structure of what could have been is laid out there, but never truly taken advantage of. I find it difficult to really qualify this movie, but I do think it falls somewhere along a continuum, one that doesn't really have a clear cut answer. So I give it a: