Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years: Part II

December 31, 2008

The continuation of my Top 10 comic book movie adaptations (once again, the likes of Road To Perdition, American Splendor and A History Of Violence simply exist on such a different plane that I’d rather not consider them in these rankings, as excellent as they are).

5. Spider-Man 2 (**** ½; A-)
This film really surprised me. I saw the first one in theaters and found it a tedious, boring, unimaginative and poorly executed endeavor, and naturally expected more of the same from the second. But it soared majestically on a well-realized love story that became the crux of the film, never mind the rather ridiculous A-story with Doc Ock’s incredibly lame plot. It has gained staying power with its lovely insight into Parker’s real world problems. On top of that it managed the excellent monorail battle, which is one solid action sequence more than either the prequel or the sequel could muster (and the less said about the travesty that is Spider-Man 3, the better).

4. Batman Begins (**** ½; A)
Now this is where the gloves come off. Batman Begins marked the first true live action incarnation of the Caped Crusader on the silver screen – all prior were just flashy impostors dressing the part. Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan gave us a fully realized Bruce Wayne, brimming with palpable and gripping angst that carried over fantastically into the psyche of the Dark Knight himself, finally giving audiences an inkling of what it was for him to do what he does. There have been endless complaints about the cutting and shooting of the action sequences, but I’m having none of it: that’s the way I’ve imagined Batman handing out his beatings (it just sucks when you see it in IMAX). On top of that, it’s perhaps the best plotted film on this list, and the pyramid scheme of multiple villains (knock off one to find another bigger and badder underneath) is very richly orchestrated. Definitely took its cues from the best origin story of all (see #2).

3. Superman II (*****; A)
This is the near-perfect blueprint of what a sequel should be: more of the same, but bigger. It fleshes out the Lois-and-Clark love story, introduces us to a troika of villains as powerful as our esteemed hero, and raises the stakes from saving California to saving the Earth. This is the Godfather Pt II of superhero movies – on par with the original on so many levels, but just missing that very negligible X-Factor that will always make it a second generation. But what really stops this film from being the A+ that it should have been, is knowing what this film could have become. Director Richard Donner had shot the bulk of this but was fired to be replaced by Richard Lester (a shared first name was about as close as these two came to matching talents), he who wrought upon us Superman III. Do yourself a favor and pick up Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut; there are one or two inferior elements there, but everything else is on a grander, more incredible scale. And even in its rough cut, the climactic interaction between Jor-El and Superman (sans his superpowers) is absolutely heartbreaking.

2. Superman (*****; A+)
The film that started it all, and that for 30 years held the top spot uncontested; I naturally expected that would never change. It took its subject matter seriously, creating a fully-fleshed out universe where you could honestly believe a man can fly. It’s almost three movies in one: the opening on Krypton, the second phase in Kansas (I remember being so fascinated and so moved by this part, especially around Father Kent’s death), and the bulk of the story in Metropolis. And these boast three different tones, with three different looks, that blend into a delicious, mind-boggling whole. Whether it’s simple but spectacular set pieces (the helicopter rescue, the pursuit of the nukes, spinning the world on its axis) or the well-plotted narrative that focused on character above all else (Clark in Kansas, or Superman’s midnight flight with Lois), it worked on level few blockbusters could. And the music – who could forget the music? Easily John Williams’s greatest ever score, from the Krypton theme to the main title to the incredibly moving Love Theme (‘Can You Read My Mind’?); all this showed that this was the kind of superhero movie that would (and perhaps could) never be undertaken again. And there’s no justice without mentioning Christopher Reeve’s bravura performance as Kent/Superman – you’ve got to watch carefully to realize the slight of hand and amazing ability he brings into the role. Watching his physical transformation (that encompasses emotional and psychological) when he contemplates spilling the beans to Lois? Priceless. It’s the best bit of casting since they got Brando as the Godfather, and the best acting ever in a movie like this (until the next, equally tragic case, 30 years on).

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

You'll believe a man really can fly, which is all we ask of the great movies

1. The Dark Knight (*****; A+)
There’s not possibly enough I can say about this movie. It’s epic; it’s personal; it’s brooding; it’s thrilling; it’s violent; it’s hopeful. What it is not, however, is just another blockbuster. From its phenomenal score (of course no threat of comparison to Maestro Williams’s Superman symphony) to its phenomenal cast’s phenomenal performances to its ridiculously epic (in a great way) set pieces to its well-oiled plotting, deep-seeded themes and impactful emotional resonance, there’s little this cinematic achievement is lacking. Nolan has done the unthinkable among beloved indie directors: top even his most cherished low-budg masterclasses with a gigantic spectacle of a summer blockbuster. It represents genuine hope for the future – that big-budget blockbusters can be crafted with indie flick thoughtfulness and sensibilities: caring for characters, justifying their every controversial move, fleshing out the world they inhabit and drawing strong parallels to ours. It is the most intense blockbuster I’ve ever seen in theaters; probably one of the most intense and relentless ever. Once it gets its screws into you, it doesn’t let up or let go, and returns haunting you, with resonance and sometimes heartbreaking clarity, long after the lights have flickered off the screen. Here’s to 30 years (at least) at the top of the food chain; Superman has (barely) lost to a very worthy adversary, and it might take just as long if not longer for such a realistic and sustained challenge to rear its head. Yes, I said it: these two films represent quality that’s almost once-in-a-lifetime, so enjoy them as you’re privileged to. Chris Reeve and Heath Ledger (among a worldful of others) never got to.

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From ‘Superman’ (1978) to ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008): Comic Books Come to Life and (finally) Come of Age – over 30 years

December 24, 2008
It took 30 years, but Superman, director Richard Donner’s seminal 1978 superhero saga – and my favorite film of that year – has been toppled from the top of the standings of the genre it founded. By Christopher Nolan’s sweeping morality play/action-adventure masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly) The Dark Knight.

Coming up with my favorite comic book adaptations is a bit tricky, given the presence of films like American Splendor and Road To Perdition which are, let’s face it, real movies (most of the others, with the exception of my Top 4, can’t comfortably claim that). So I’ll leave the non-fantastical out and label them honorable mentions (alongside the surprisingly endearing combo of Hellboy/Hellboy 2).

10. Batman Returns (*** ½; B+)
A huge favorite of mine when I was a kid, my taste in it waned a bit as I fell more and more in love with the comic book incarnation and recognized layers of depth Tim Burton couldn’t be bothered unearthing (with his focus on garish sets and fetishistic nipple-bearing costumes, Joel Schumacher couldn’t be bothered with anything at all).

9. X-Men II: X-Men United (*** ½; B+)
Much better than its solid predecessor (and much better in hindsight after seeing Brett Ratner’s atrocious third entry), this exciting and intelligent film was still missing a spark, a secret ingredient of some sort…oh to hell with it – it was missing its X-factor. There, I said it.

8. Batman (****; B+)
I suddenly feel conflicted naming this one ahead of Returns. Maybe my memory’s a bit fuzzy and I’m mixing up my love for both (the more I think about it, the more likely it becomes). I would’ve gone back to watch them to make sure, but Christopher Nolan’s kinda burned those bridges now. After his Batman movies, “there’s no going back”; he’s “changed things forever…” Ok, I’ll stop now.

7. Sin City (****; A-)
Rodriguez’s stylish noir jaunt is the auteur’s best film since his debut: hard-boiled, hard-fisted, and wonderfully shot and cast. Its three-story structure is a bit of a flaw, but at least it opens with a bang with the audaciously over-the-top and awesomely cool Marv, proving that Tarantino isn’t the only one gifted at single-handedly resurrecting film careers from the grave. Act II is its weakest by far, before Bruce Willis taps into one of his more affecting performances in a lifetime (plus Jessica Alba doesn’t suck! How shocking is that!)

6. Blade II (**** ½; A-)
Is that shock I register on your face? Well pick up your jaw and revisit this bloody vampiric action tale and you’ll realize it does more than pass muster. Wesley Snipes is perfectly cast (as he was in the first one), but the introduction of Guillermo Del Toro at the helm raises the style and furious pace to borderline unbearable highs. Add a wickedly cool yet tragically sympathetic villain, a decidedly badass (and pre-Hellboy) Ron Perlman, some excellent plotting and slick fisticuffs, plus a near-heartbreaking finale, and you’ve got the perfect template for the legendary vampire hunter. Before David Goyer emasculated him and handed the third film over to two pretty white people. The horror.

I’ll finish with my Top 5 after Christmas, but will leave you with some excerpts from Roger Ebert’s review of Blade II – not to bolster my case, but merely because this man’s a writing genius, and for him to exert those energies on a film like this pleases and tickles me senseless:

Blade II” is a really rather brilliant vomitorium of viscera, a comic book with dreams of becoming a textbook for mad surgeons. – Roger Ebert

"Pure action, bloody well done" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Pure action, bloody well done" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

JCVD: An introspective satire of uncommon intelligence and grace (***** out of 5; Grade: A)

December 18, 2008
When the listing came out for the Toronto Film Festival, I was shocked to hear a Van Damme movie would be screening.

JCVD was best described by a Toronto critic as being the sort of film you’d expect if Charlie Kaufman was an avid fan of Bloodsport. A surrealist romp of blazing wit, insight and heartrending honesty, it features the one-time action star Jean Claude Van Damme playing himself (or a version of himself): mocked in the industry and labelled a bad father in court during a custody battle. He returns to Belgium to unwind after the disastrous (but blackly funny) trial before he takes on yet another mundane action film (the scene in which he negotiates with his agent, is an insightful if heartbreaking moment when he reveals his desire to sacrifice financially in order to improve the film in question; it shows how something that must have started off as a quest for fame and fortune has become one for respect).

He is a local hero Belgium, accosted by taxi drivers and store owners for photographs and autographs. But the trip devolves into a fascinating comedy of errors as a bank heist breaks out, complete with a sticky hostage situation, with all signs pointing to JCVD as the perpetrator. As the police, media, and a battalion of adoring fans descend upon the scene, the question arises: could the cash-strapped Van Damme (who just lost a film role to Steven Seagal because Seagal offered to cut off his famed ponytail) be so desperate to raise the money to fight for his daughter’s custody?

The first act unfolds from several perspectives, reminding me a bit of another clever heist film, Sidney Lumet’s under-appreciated Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It may seem a bit like a gimmick at first, but on reflection one realizes the significance in getting the audience to appreciate the varying perspectives surrounding the man (in order to separate him from the myth), and the value in seeing cause and effect reversed. This is probably the strongest portion – emotionally – of the movie, when we get to peer behind the superstardom veil of Van Damme (the 3rd act, by comparison, feels a bit flat – even if the final frame is gold).

The heist puts things into overdrive without ever once becoming an action flick. The effect of this brush with celebrity on everyone – from the cops, to the spectators, to those inside the bank – is fascinating and brimming with comic genius at nearly every turn. The scene when Van Damme is very politely asked to flick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth with a kick is gold; it gets several shades more brilliant when someone else tries to replicate the feat. My personal feat was not falling to the floor from my seat in hysterical laughter.

The revelation here isn’t that the French can make a genre-defying, razor-sharp film, but that a) one could be fashioned around Van Damme, and b) he would live up to his end of the bargain. It is a brave, intelligent, honest, charming performance, from the exasperation during the custody hearing and his disarming desire to placate fans, to his naked regret and worry about the meaning of his life, should it end badly during the standoff.

This brings me to the most daring and divise scene in the movie: JCVD’s floating, piercing and brutally introspective monologue. It is a riveting moment, whether you agree with its use or not, and indisputably the high-point of Van Damme’s career. I’ve always liked the man, in an off-hand kinda way (Universal Soldiers, Timecop and Lionheart are pretty sweet flicks), but this pushed the love-and-respect meter through the roof. It has to go hand-in-hand with the comebacks of 2008: Robert Downey, Jr and Mickey Rourke, neither of which were as surprising as JCVD.

The film opens with a furious, stylish (if mechanical) action sequence done in one seamless shot. JCVD, winded and out of breath, complains that he’s 47 and can’t do these things in a single shot. The aloof director deadpans “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane.” By the time the end credits rolled, writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri had come as close to anyone will probably ever in making a Sidney Lumet film written by Charlie Kaufman.

My Best Films of The Decade By Year: 2001 & 2002

August 6, 2008

I started seeing films theatrically, in earnest, in December 2001, when The Lord Of The Rings trilogy started wowing audiences. I knew little to nothing about the books themselves, so I wasn’t exactly rushing to theaters (plus, despite being a child of the ’80’s, I despised sword and sorcery fantasy flicks). But I was in New York for Christmas, and my brother and cousin wanted to go, and I sure as hell wasn’t getting left behind.

The Fellowship Of The Ring blew me away, easily becoming my best theatrical experience ever (a title it held until the midnight screening of The Dark Knight), and ushered in the phase where I started to critique and rate films seriously.

Considering how (relatively) scant my theatrical jaunts in 2001 and 2002 were, I list a rather abridged version of my best of for both years:

2001

1. The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring (*****; A+): Yep, wasn’t joking about it being abridged. I’ve seen this a couple of times since then, and it holds up much better than the sequels. People have complained about it being slow, but it’s merely prodigiously paced, deliberate and thoughtful with plenty of character development and internal strife to go with the battles – a rarity for a blockbuster. Enya’s musical contribution is outstanding – a perfect marriage of sound and film, and the general pathos it induces and conduces (in conjunction with the measured performances and expertly weighted atmosphere) make this an instant, unforgettable classic.

2002

5. Blade II (****½; A-): Don’t laugh; Guillermo Del Toro’s vampiric action flick is a hidden gem; gloriously bloody and excitingly plotted and paced. And it boasted a rarity in comic book flicks (besides a black hero) – a sympathetic, if ruthless villain. Sure the CGI fights are a little too much (though it’s got nothin’ on The Matrix Reloaded), but the performances are solid, the action is thrilling and the overall atmosphere and excitement beats Del Toro’s pet Hellboy projects.

4. About A Boy (*****; A): I like Hugh Grant as much as the next guy, but will gladly admit his range is limited and his shtick can get tiresome. But never has he been more wining, more nuanced and more bloody watchable than here. This is the role he was born to play. The Weitz brothers, fresh off American Pie, outdo themselves here in a story that deftly taunts then avoids the minefield of clichés it seems destined for. It’s a Christmas movie, a buddy comedy, a sweet romance, and an unconventional coming-of-age tale.

3. Spirited Away (****; A+): My first foray into Miyazaki, and my favorite. What an unbridled imagination to give birth to as fantastical as world as this, so potent that it effortlessly transports you to the mindset of a child, wide-eyed and curious. There is also a budding sense of danger in Miyazaki’s world, and it is a deft balancing act of unparalleled dexterity that pulls it off without making it menacing. Simply put, the must-see animated film of the decade, Pixar or no.

2. Adaptation (*****; A+): Charlie Kaufman won me over with this blisteringly hilarious and insightful tale of a talented writer struggling to adapt the unadaptable. Nicolas Cage put all naysayers to rest with a wickedly on-the-nose portrayal of Charlie and his fictional twin, two performances so adept that neither character needs hair, wardrobe or makeup tics to distinguish them. The supporting cast is gold, the film as a whole an instant classic.

1. Minority Report (*****; A+): Spielberg’s (short-lived) return to form, a muscular, breathless, intelligent and rousing piece of entertainment that only a true master of the game could have up his sleeve. People complain about its length or false endings, but the fatalism implied therein makes an interesting and curious counterpoint to on of its central themes. The ideas bandied about here are fascinating, the future so deliriously well realized, and the performances are raw and effective – all held together by some sublime set-pieces (the jet-pack chase, car factory fisticuffs, the ‘spyders’ sequence, and especially the abduction and escape of Agatha through the mall). With this Spielberg, the founder of the summer blockbuster, delivered the best one in years, and certainly the boldest ‘til Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

With Flying Colors: My Film Grading System

August 6, 2008
The Four-star rating has become the most widely used by professionals – notably my two favorite critics, Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli – and has become a near-must for respectability. Since I am neither professional nor respectable, I have opted to use a 5-star rating system. It gives me greater leeway and allows for more specificity, separating the bad from the good and the good from the great and the great from the mind-blowing awesome.

To further buck the trend, I’ve coupled my rating system with a letter grading system, ranging from ‘F’ (Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Queen Of The Damned) to A+ (The Godfather, Unforgiven). That way, there is a difference between a very, very good film meriting 5 stars and an ‘A’ (The Life Aquatic), and a great one of 5 stars and an ‘A+’ (Magnolia). This allows me to dole out a handful of 5-star ratings every year, while reserving my highest grade for those all-too-rare films that are rapturous, veritable religious experiences.

Last year I gave out two 5-star ratings (Michael Clayton and Hot Fuzz), one the year before (Pan’s Labyrinth) and none in 2005 (at least until I re-examine the charms of Batman Begins). This year I have given two thus far, including one A+, my first since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (still my reigning choice of the decade ‘til date).

In total, I have given out 6 A+’s this decade for just over 20 five-star-rated films. The ratings and gradings work hand-in-hand, with the gradings elevating or tempering the degree of the rating, and works roughly as thus:

5 stars: A (Excellent) or A+ (Brilliant/Masterpiece)
4½ stars: A- (Great but Flawed) or A (Top Notch)
4 stars: B+ (Very Good) or A- (Very, Very Good)
3½ stars: B (Above Average) or B+ (Pretty Good)
3 stars: B- (Not Bad) or B (Pass Mark: Rated ‘Fresh’)
2½ stars: C+ (Barely Worth It) or B- (Touch-and-Go)
2 stars: D (Very Poor) or C (A Flop)
1½ stars: D (Not Fit For Cable)
1 star: F (Epic Failure)

Think of it sort of the sharps and flats in playing music; after all, many will tell you that writing reviews is an art unto itself (then again, many haven’t read my reviews…).

Imitation of Life: WALL-E strikes a chord at the very heart of matters (***** out of 5; Grade: A)

July 22, 2008

Andrew Staunton has delivered the most bravura animated film this side of Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, proving once again that the genre (at least Stateside) is divided into two classes: Pixar, and everyone else. With this Staunton (Finding Nemo) claims his place alongside Bird (Ratatouille, the non-Pixar The Iron Giant) as the 2 auteurs of animation in North America.

What sets the Pixar brand aside is their adherence to the credo of Walt Disney himself: “you’re dead” if you aim “just for kids.” But Bird and Staunton are raising things to another level, to where parents are guaranteed a better time than their tiny tots.

WALL-E is a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, an allegory of the self-destructiveness of mankind’s excessive – and growing – consumerism. The titular robot – looking like the bastard love child of E.T. and Short Circuit’s Johnny 5 – is a garbage compactor assigned to clean up the earth in preparation for the return of humans, who fled on a luxurious space cruise once the earth became overpolluted. But WALL-E seems to be the last of his kind (he utilizes the rusting carcasses of his dead colleagues for spare parts) and the job is clearly far from done. Mountains of neatly compacted garbage jostle for prominence against rotted husks of once-glorious skyscrapers – a simple and powerful visual allegory if ever there was one.

WALL-E is also a love story, and a more potent one you will rarely find in a mainstream movie. How can you fall in love with two characters falling in love while nary uttering a word? Chaplin did it, and WALL-E revels in such illustrious roots. The two leads are true flesh-and-blood characters, and you root for them, fear for them, and share enthusiastically in every heartbreak and triumph. That two virtual characters embody the significance of human touch is a testament to the power of the story.

Another gem is WALL-E’s fascination with ancient relics of human civilization – little things like toothbrushes become treasured items. An old VHS (the format isn’t throwaway) tape of Hello Dolly fascinates him, and it is then that we begin to understand that this little hunk of metal has become more human than humans.

WALL-E raises an interesting question: if mankind did eventually succeed in blowing itself to Kingdom come, what would an alien species think of us when they discover our uninhabited planet millennia in the future? Would they too be fascinated with the little quirks of our nature, the lush green fields of our earth and the deep blue of our seas, of our dances and ritualistic mating habits, at our capacity for love and good and understanding and life? Would they be in awe of all that, and ask themselves how something so good could have gone so terribly wrong?

Sometimes it helps to think outside the box – to look at the world through eyes unfettered by prejudices and weighty misconceptions and preoccupations (the eyes of a child, perhaps?) to boil down life to its essence. Such a view would provide us a mirror for our own foolishness and stubbornness, before that reflection becomes a very real, barren wasteland of broken dreams and wasted potential. WALL-E provides us the first necessary glimpses towards such a realization – without ever once being preachy or bogged down in melodrama – which is a testament to its power, its verve, and its vision.

Welcome To A World Without Rules: ‘The Dark Knight’ – ***** (out of 5); A+

July 22, 2008
A World Without Rules

A World Without Rules

Amid the fanfare and tragic recollections of a phenomenal talent cut down in his prime, brewed something very real, very potent, and very daring: The Dark Knight, a film bustling with such bravura, brains and brawns, that it bowled over this reviewer’s sky-high expectations and trod fearlessly on sacred ground only the greatest dared glimpse at. Not one for making such declarations easily, but The Dark Knight is the best superhero film of the last 30 years, the best sequel since The Empire Strikes Back, the most rousing and intelligent mainstream entertainment since Spielberg’s Minority Report and Peter Jackson’s LOTR: FOTR, and easily the best film of 2008 thus far (I’d love to see any in the next 5 1/2 months try to compete).

It’s a dense tapestry of images and ideas, weaved into a sumptuous whole that is a feast for the senses and food for thought. Shakespearean in its grandeur and fatally flawed characters, Greek in its fatalistic sense of tragedy, I never could have dared to believe that a summer blockbuster could strive to such heady heights.

I shall not – MUST not – give away spoilers, except to say that I laughed; I cried; I gripped my armrest till I lost sensation in my fingertips, and for 2 1/2 hours I never once sat back in my chair relaxed. Christopher Nolan did the unthinkable with this film – the celebrated indie director who topped both of his low-budget wonders with a spectacular big-budget extravaganza.

The Batman universe is a well-established one, with some inalienable truths about the outcomes of certain key characters. Yet – major kudos to Nolan – you forget this right from the get-go, as a deathly pall settles over everyone, and you realize that no one in Gotham City is safe. Outcomes will shock and surprise you – even if you’ve deduced them, the ingenuity in which they are orchestrated is bound to catch you off-guard.

And of course I cannot leave without mentioning Heath Ledger, a wonderfully talented thespian who died tragically at the high-water mark of his fledgling career. I had not historically been a fan of Ledger, until I watched Brokeback Mountain – a film I found risible, silly, overblown and hollow. But Ledger was so standout phenomenal there that I found myself visibly moved by the end – especially with his poignant, vibrant scene at the end. So when I heard he was cast as The Joker, the confusion lasted all of 3 secs; this was the man for the job, and he certainly had the chops to pull it off handsomely.

But in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have pictured Ledger’s Joker – dark, anarchic, wickedly funny yet terrifying at the same time. In fact I would go as far as to say that his Joker – wild, dangerous, unpredictable and riveting – is the most frightening villain I can recall ever seeing onscreen, and he strikes an unquenchable terror that cuts through the heart of The Dark Knight and propels it from fiction to infamy and legend. What a fitting tribute to this fantastic talent, and what a monumental loss. God bless and God rest Heath Ledger; long live The Dark Knight.