Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight Review

Overall Grade: A

It has been some time since I've walked out of a theater with a mix of depression, hope, exhaustion, admiration, and trepidation. Let me get this out of the way now, in my estimation, The Dark Knight is the best Super-Hero film of all-time. The experience of watching the film is something similar to allowing your emotions to run a marathon. Its a breathtaking and brutal affair, and I can't wait to do it again.

What The Dark Knight's director Christopher Nolan has accomplished is remarkable. Not only has The Dark Knight surpassed its genre mates, it has obliterated them. There are all the hallmarks of the superhero comic book genre here, but what Nolan provides us with, elevates the film into an epic crime saga between Greek Gods, where everything has implications not only for our characters but for humanity as well. The ideas of a costumed crusader and a villain with a flair for theatricality is squeezed for everything its worth. From these ideas spring a deep pool of themes ranging from what a hero really is, hope vs. despair, anarchy vs. civilization, and the basic goodness of humanity. We've left the simplicities of "I don't want to make weapons that harm our own soldiers" that we saw with Iron Man, and "With great powers comes great responsibilities" that we got with Spider-Man, and entered into a brave new world (not of the Aldous Huxley type).

Its as if the entire genre has come of age in one film. Nolan has given us a movie thats as dark as Zodiac, as nihilistic as No Country for Old Men, as dualistic as Heat, as noble as The Untouchables, as heroic and action-packed as Superman, Die Hard, The Bourne Supremacy, and as good hearted as The Lord of the Rings. One of the movie's tag lines is "Welcome to a World Without Limits", and it seems Nolan has taken that to heart.

I won't detail the plot here (its epic and its twisty), but I do want to take a moment from praising the film as a whole, to praising the film's individual ingredients, as they are all exemplary. The director and his brother Christopher Nolan co-wrote the screenplay and much props has to go to them. This is as layered a screenplay as I've seen since No Country for Old Men or Munich. Its equal parts engaging crime saga, as it is philosophical and symbolic. Its also the first adult, intelligent, and fair-handed dissection of the issues America deals with in a post 9/11 world. When Heath Ledger's Joker says to Batman, "You've changed things, there's no going back", its clear that there is more going on to this story than meets the eye.

Even though the film is a Batman film, it really is an ensemble piece. All the actors are given meaty parts, purposeful roles, and excellent lines. Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal (a welcome change from Katie Holmes), and Christian Bale all do exemplary work here. The real standout is Heath Ledger. What can be said? Ledger's Joker is spectacular. He is more than a villain, more than a nemesis for Batman to fight, Ledger embodies a Joker that in the end comes to represent chaos himself. While remaining completely human, Ledger transcends his character to create something of an archetype, a symbol of evil; much similar to the way Bale's Batman embodies Good in the end. Whether or not its nominated for any awards is outside the point, this role will be remembered for a long time to come. Its simply iconic.

I haven't mentioned the action yet, have I? Suffice to say, the film has some great action sequences that truly define grandiosity. I liked the sequences here a lot more than those found in Batman Begins because I felt like they served the story better as well as were just put together better. They are intelligent and smart, as well as pulse-pounding and fun. The technical aspects of the film are all top-notch. A special shout out to the score (Joker's theme is a revelation) and the cinematography, both are exquisite. The film has some minor flaws that I noticed, but they are easily forgivable flaws, and ones that never hurt the story or the central themes behind it.

Easily the best film of the year so far (will anything top it?). Blockbusters of this kind are the rarest of finds. Most of the time we are stuck with films that shoot for the usual and make it (Iron Man) or films that try to be ambitiously different and miss it (Hancock). The Dark Knight is that rare blockbuster film that dares to reach for the moon, and actually achieves it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Hey Everyone

I've posted new reviews of Funny Games and Wall *E (just scroll down a bit to see them) and updated my 2008 list with all apropriate movies. I've got reviews for Wanted (C+) and Hancock (C+) coming soon so keep a look out for those!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Funny Games Review

Overall Grade: B

Funny Games is a very interesting film. Its one of the best examples of a film where a director goes all out to support what he wants to say. Clearly the director is not satisfied in giving us just an entertaining story, the sole reason for the story is that it can be a vehicle for him to comment on society and how we view “entertainment”.

The story itself is fairly simple; Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play an upper middle class couple that travel with their son to their vacation home on a lake. Once there, they are visited by two young men dressed in white polo’s and white gloves (one of them played excellently by Michael Pitt), who initially seem harmless, but ultimately injure the father and force the entire family to begin play a game. The game is simple, the family bets they can survive for 12 hours and the boys bet they will be dead. The rest is simply the premise playing itself out.

What makes the film interesting is not how the rest of the plot plays out, but how the director decides to show it to us. Several times he makes some great decisions to either turn upside our pre-conceptions, or to obviously (with a wink) feed us what we think will happen. I don’t want to give away some of the tricks the movie uses, but it really forces the viewer to examine why this kind of story can be entertaining, as well as the motive of the viewer; and I really like that about it.

For example, the director at times will use long extended takes where the camera does nothing but sit and watch our captive family. It’s a brutal experience for the audience to be forced to watch this family go through this horror, but the extended takes actually began to make me squirm and feel very awkward; something the director wanted me to do, rather than the emotions of shock and awe or pleasure that a typical horror film might go for.

It’s a smart and bold film, but it’s not for everyone. Although much of the violence is off screen and there is no nudity to speak of (purposefully), it is still a very intense view and I recommend it only to those interested in films that like to present arguments and commentary. The film has a few faults, but its clear-minded vision and audacious boldness makes up for it in the end.

Some of you might not have heard of this film before, so I've included a trailer to check out below

Wall *E Review

Overall Grade: C+

The latest entry into the Pixar canon is a generally good one. Wall *E features all the requisite Pixar craftsmanship and truly does push the boundaries and standards have computer animated films yet again. Sincere congratulations and acknowledgment should be given for yet another step forward in the genre of animation for the guys and gals at Pixar.

This is Pixar’s most visually epic endeavor to date, and on visuals alone they succeed immensely. There is a simple charm about Wall *E that certainly does evoke some of the great silent comedians of the past, whether that’s Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Like those comedians (especially Chaplin), the Pixar team here (headed by director Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo) is able to use simple slapstick comedy and shtick to touch a deeper nerve, so Wall *E may have some funny moments with a few objects he finds left behind in the trash, its his connection and desire to keep those things that really hits home with us. I think Wall *E can be recommended for a viewing, on these merits alone. Unfortunately, there is much more to this movie than just what is mentioned above.

I included the positives of Wall *E within the first paragraph because if you just wanted to know whether or not it’s worth a viewing, the answer is yes. If you want my full opinion and review of the film, follow me for the next few paragraphs as I analyze what I felt to be major drawbacks and faults of the film. Please note that there are spoilers about key plot points contained in the following review, so proceed only if you don’t want to know most of Wall *E’s plot.

My main criticisms of Wall *E is that it’s half-hearted, convoluted and contradictory. The film takes place many years into the future when over consumption by the human population (that seems oddly limited to Americans only) has left the earth a barren wasteland of trash, completely uninhabitable by humans. The humans have taken off and live in a giant spaceship where they await their eventual return to Earth. Left behind is Wall *E, a trash compacting robot who’s job is to compact all the trash into little squares and stack them tall like skyscrapers. Eventually, along comes Eve, a sleek scout robot whose mission is to search for signs of life on earth, so that the humans may re-inhabit it. The film clearly blames over consumption by humans as the clear cause of the environmental disaster and apocalypse that engulfs the earth, and it also indicts large corporations like Wal-Mart for their comprehensive success (In Wall *E’s world the company is Buy-N-Large, or BNL for short).

This BNL Company also runs the spaceship that the humans currently reside in, and their reach is total. On the spaceship, humans (through years of inactivity and self-absorbing consumerism) have turned into fat blobs of human beings, eternally residing on floating sofa chairs while they chat away on their virtual screens, at times with their chat partner floating right next to them. Of course, this is all by design of the BNL company who wishes to cater to every need and I guess have 100% market saturation, they even created food in a cup, to make the job of eating even easier.

I charge the movie with half-heartedness because the setting that the film takes place in (post apocalyptic environmental disaster zone, spaceship filled with humans who have turned into gelatinous blobs) is a setting that begs for explanation. We are told that the humans are responsible for it, but we aren’t given any insight into just how this took place. What was the process that leads humans to a fate of inactivity and mindless chatting? I honestly feel that a setting that seems to not only blame humans for ecological disaster and then insult humans by insinuating that this is the eventual future for us, begs for more context and more specificity in how we can turn from this terrible fate. This is what makes the robot meet cute scenes a little disingenuous; for while they are having one cute slapstick moment after another, the movie never takes the time to explain itself. The movie is less interested in explaining its inherently insulting premise than bowling us over for cuteness. Even the film’s resolution and the return of the humans rings hollow, for how could the preceding events in the film have actually lead to real change from these humans?

I say the film is convoluted and contradictory because the messages of the film are all over the place and even at odds. If over-consumption is really the problem that the film wants to tackle, then why not show how over-consumption has ruined their spaceship as well, instead of the ship being a perfectly cleaned and pristine environment? Why not have dwindling resources? Instead, over consumption manifests itself as producing too much trash and producing all encompassing corporations. So is the film not so much about over-consumption as it is about producing too much trash? Or is really about the danger of companies that grow to large? These issues are not the same and they are only loosely connected to over consumption. On the spaceship, the movie seems to be saying that over consumption has lead people to be fat, lazy blobs, but I don’t see how that makes sense. Just because I consume things doesn’t make me lazy. If the film wants to take on human laziness that’s alright, but to connect it to over consumption is a stretch.

It’s the same with communication technologies, how are these part of the over consumption problem? Are cell phones, internet chatting and texting really leading us down a path where human interaction will be out the door? I tend to feel its opposite, humans interact with each other more today than ever before. Most people use these as tools, but I don't think the human spirit would ever accept the future that is presented. Isn’t the film really warning against becoming absorbed in a virtual world and not enjoying others around you? Isn’t that really an argument about true human interaction and not consumerism? One of my favorite examples is the food in a cup joke; point being that humans have become so lazy and consumer driven that we enjoy our meals in shake-style. Does anyone think that’s where our society is headed? I could never conceive of a future where humans accept that, we idolize food too much. Heck, we have entire TV channels devoted to it. It just rings not true.

I honestly believe the film has things it wants to say, and I want to give the film the benefit of the doubt, but reading an interview with the director himself has kind of cemented my view. Stanton says this,

“To be honest, I reverse-engineered the whole idea. My first idea was “the last robot on earth.” I knew I wanted him to be a trash robot because that would allow him to be able to go through the evidence of humanity and be able to convey that without having to use dialogue. Trash is very visual. I was raised in the 70s where I was told not to litter every ten minutes on TV. So I went backwards from that and I had to go “Okay, I still can’t talk about it. I still have to just get it in the first fifteen minutes going through this movie, so how would you explain so much stuff?” And I decided, “Well, we just bought too much.” So I reverse-engineered it. It wasn’t that I had an agenda of any sort.”

It’s a little telling of the movie and is a bit disheartening that the topic of over consumption and the destruction of earth from trash was born out of the desire to have a sole robot rummage through garbage. Wall *E isn’t truly aware of message, because its more interested in making a robot that rumaged through the remnants of humanity. Stanton then goes on to say, “I do think it’s a cautionary tale about taking anything too far. I wasn’t necessarily pushing “anti-consumerism,” I was just pushing against something that has gone to an extreme.” I think this is a bit disingenuous of him, how is it not anti-consumerism if your main cause (and the sole on-screen cause) of the apocalypse is (in his own words) buying too much stuff and all from one all encompassing company that controls and advertises to every aspect of our lives?

I know that my review is in the minority, but I feel strongly about it. As I stated in the beginning, it’s definitely worth a view, as Stanton and Pixar give us a beautifully conceived piece of art. It’s a marvel of art direction and sound as well. However, the story feels sloppy and at odds with the message in several parts. I ask everyone to look past the cute two robots (and boy they are cute, a point beaten to death), and ask of the film, what does it say about humanity? Is the message something that rings true? I think the answer to that question is no.