Friday, July 25, 2008

Step Brothers

Remember way back three years ago, when Will Ferrell popped up in Wedding Crashers as a guy who still lived with his mom an insisted on crashing weddings and funerals for kicks? And remember how utterly embarrassing that scene (let alone that whole movie) was? Well, that character and that mentality are alive and well in Ferrell's latest movie, Step Brothers. That's not to say that this movie is about the same character, because it's not. But in spirit, at least, the idiot-manchild that became his cash cow is in full effect here.

Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) and Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) get married and move in together, and their respective children, Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) are forced to live in the same house. The two forty-somethings start out hating each other's guts, only to become best friends after a couple days. That's seriously all the plot that Ferrell, director Adam McKay, and producer Judd Apatow can come up with. Oh, sure, there's a subplot about Nancy's younger son (Adam Scott) rubbing his overachievements in Brennan's face while his wife (Kathryn Hahn) tries desperately to get it on with Dale, and he and Brennan try and fail miserably to grow up, but that's all beside the point.

My point is that this utter lack of a plot would be perfectly fine if the movie were consistently funny. However, the fact of the matter is that the movie is only funny in fits and starts. There are a small handful of scenes that are ridiculous on an epic scale, and they're utterly brilliant (the final scene, for example). But for every sight gag or one-liner that really hits the mark, there are a dozen that don't even register a grin. Most off the jokes here are made up of random screamed obscenities, exaggerated death threats, or bizarre outbursts of over the top violence. Strangely, these things work in almost every other movie in Will Ferrell's catalog. So what's wrong here?

Well, for one, the whole idiot-manchild thing is kind of staid. For example, it would be one thing if the movie had starred Seth Rogen (who makes a brief appearance here) and Jonah Hill, or really any combination of the Apatow stable, as 20-somethings who acted like preteens. That, at least, would kind of make the premise work. As it is here, there's simply too great a disconnect between 40 years old and 10 years old, the way that Ferrell and Reilly play it. With a pair of 25 year olds, it might be oddly endearing and maybe even a little melancholic. The audience might have actually connected with two young adults who just can't bear to let their childhood go. With a pair of 40 year olds, it's just embarrassing. Apatow himself treated this kind of character with much more care in The 40 Year Old Virgin. So why couldn't the same have worked here?

I know, Will Ferrell et al were going for a kind of childish, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach here. That's fine. But the way the two leads play their characters, I would much rather see these two for a couple minutes every week on Saturday Night Live. Furthermore, I can't imagine that the film took very long to get from script to screen. A little incubation might have actually worked in the movie's favor. And I further can't believe that this movie cost $52 million to produce. Where's all that money? It certainly isn't on the screen.

There's no reason why a comedy like this couldn't have worked. In the end, it's simply too in love with it's own childishness to even be bothered trying to make you laugh. Unlike Adam Sandler in Billy Madison or even Andy Samberg in Hot Rod, the guys in Step Brothers simply have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

1.5 stars (*1/2) out of five.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight

When discussing this movie, it can be easy to slip into a lot of hyperbole, especially when most of the critics out there have already had their say, and seem to pretty much agree that The Dark Knight is the best superhero movie ever made, the best crime thriller of the year, and perhaps the best movie of the year. To which I say: It's definitely a possibility. I want to wait and see what the rest of the year has to offer before making such bold claims. For the most part, however, I completely agree with the majority opinion.

The Dark Knight is not just a behemoth of comic storytelling, it's also a complex study of morality and duty in the face of terrorism. In a summer of (mostly) exemplary superhero films, The Dark Knight caps off the summer of 2008 as perhaps the greatest summer for geek cinema since 2005, if not longer.

It's been a year (presumably) since Batman (Christian Bale) took out Ras al-Ghul in Batman Begins. With the help of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's 'White Knight', new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman's taking down the mob one gangster at a time. Enter The Joker (Heath Ledger), a scarred and clownfaced sociopath who just wants to 'introduce a little anarchy' and kill the Batman. His asking price: 50 percent of the mob's next big transaction.

This plot would've been a perfectly acceptable plot for a Batman film (or any other film, really), but the brothers Nolan don't stop there. With Batman's origins sufficiently dealt with, more screen time is open for more plot, and we get a substantial subplot concerning Batman/Bruce Wayne's interest in Harvey Dent, as well as The Joker's interest in both of them. It's clear early in the film that The Joker's plan is, essentially, to destroy Batman's entire image, to make him break his one rule. However, that he figures Dent into this equation is a masterstroke, and proof that The Joker, and director Christopher Nolan is considerably smarter than you, the viewer.
The film consistently stays one step ahead of you at any given time, playing very conservatively with it's elaborate bag of tricks.

Probably nothing in this film is more talked about than Heath Ledger's swan song (though not his final) performance as The Joker. It's certainly a sight to behold, and he's terrifying and terrific in the role. He plays The Joker not as a character with an established history in Gotham City, but rather a force of nature that comes to town seemingly to wreak havoc. Unlike the manic clown portrayals of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Hamill, Ledger plays him like a man who simply listened to one too many Megadeth songs as a kid and took it all a little too seriously. His Joker is a man who, unlike Batman, truly has no limits. He is not above killing people in gruesome ways just to make a point (or not, whatever strikess his fancy), and you can always see the gears turning just behind his black, hateful eyes. When The Joker makes a joke, you absolutely loathe yourself for laughing along, and by the end of the film, you want Batman to exact bloody, horrible revenge on him.

This, in the end, simply proves his theory, that even the most noble of individuals can be turned into a ravenous dog if pushed hard enough. With this in mind, if you even have a passing knowledge of Batman lore, you know how things are going to play out. What keeps things from stagnating and turning into another by-the-book comic book film is the grandiosity of it all. What The Joker does to Batman and Harvey Dent is the kind of villianous plotting that would make Shakespeare and Sophocles proud.

And yet, for all of the film's technical proficiency, Oscar-worthy performances (both Eckhart and Ledger deserve consideration for Best Supporting Actor), and epic grandeur, it never forgets to play by the rules of a comic book. Batman enters and leaves a scene in the blink of an eye. Batman, for once, does a bit of honest detective work. On more than one occasion, The Joker concocts a scheme in which Batman must choose to save one victim over the other. The Joker can appear in any place at any time, and when he does, he's accompanied by one of the most simplistic yet utterly bone-chilling pieces of orchestration since the theme from Jaws.

Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman are all back to fill their respective roles, and each brings a suitable amount of gravitas to their roles. Of the three, Oldman gets the most to do, and he takes Lt. Gordon from being the bumbling officer of all the previous films (including Batman Begins) and turns him into a badass detective, the kind that deserves to be made commissioner. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as the assistant D.A., a role that she doesn't necessarily perform better, but simply looks the part better than Holmes did in the last film. For a change, her story arc in The Dark Knight actually holds some weight to it, and tugs at more than a couple heartstrings before all is said and done.

Each character gets a fair shake here, and the cast makes perfect use of their screen time. Admittedly, Nolan's film is considerably more serious than most (if not all) of the superhero films in recent years. And the film isn't for everybody. Personally, I wouldn't dare show The Dark Knight to anyone under the age of 13. The film does indeed earn it's PG-13, and it's sometimes hard to see how exactly it escaped an R rating. If I have any complaint about the film, it's that it's many subplots sometimes seem to be cut between at random. A little more time in the editing room might have done this film some good.

But at the end of your 150 minutes, you're guaranteed to be challenged, angered, provoked, manipulated, and above all else, entertained. Only time will tell if The Dark Knight is truly the best film of the year, but as it stands now, it's at least in the decade's upper echelon. If Nolan and co. can find a way to break the second sequel curse, I'll be the first in line.

...But it'd better work this time.

4.5 stars (****1/2) out of five.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mongol, The Foot Fist Way, Kitt Kitredge

I've been meaning to write reviews for all three of these films for the past couple weeks and simply have never gotten around to it.  While I believe that each movie deserves a fair shake, sometimes I just get behind and the only way to catch up is to suck it up and offer you bite size reviews instead.  Here, then, are three films in limited release that I've had the opportunity to check out.

Mongol  -  Unlike many sword-&-sandal epics, Sergei Bodrov's biography of Genghis Khan's early years lives and dies by it's quiet moments between characters, not its noisy action sequences.  The film owes a lot to movies like Braveheart, but with some truly gorgeous cinematography and subtle portrayals of the film's major characters, Mongol proves to be the best of it's kind in years.  4 stars (****) out of five.

The Foot Fist Way  -  An ultra-low budget comedy about a North Carolina Tae Kwon Do instructor (Danny McBride) who is the epitome of the idiot-manchild that Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell play so well (or not, depending on your view).  It'd be easy to compare The Foot Fist Way to Napoleon Dynamite, but this film is considerably angrier in it's outlook and not nearly as subtle in it's execution.  A funny character study if nothing else.  3 stars (***) out of five.

Kitt Kitredge: An American Girl  -  A film very particular in playing to it's audience, preteen girls, yet at the same time not all that terrible for anyone else.  Abigail Breslin does well as the title American girl, but the rest of the children here aren't anything special.  Also, the adults here seem to know exactly who they're playing to.  It's a simple, idealized version of the 1930s, but then not really one that warrants scrutiny.  Not a bad movie, but definitely not for everyone.  3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Guillermo del Toro is quickly becoming my favorite current director. I was introduced to his particular brand of madness four years ago when I took a chance on the original Hellboy. Not only did that film turn me on to the comics (which themselves are some of the best stories in comics today), but it also introduced me to a man who wasn't afraid to put anything up on the screen, no matter how grotesque and strange it may be. With Pan's Labyrinth, he proved he could meld his brand of weirdness with the kind of fearless storytelling that modern fantasy films desperately needed.

In Hellboy II, del Toro shows that he can use that same style to tell a whiz-bang kind of adventure that not only gets the adrenaline pumping, but also tugs at a few heartstrings and stirs the imagination all at the same time. The film opens in the 1950s, where we meet a young Hellboy getting a bedtime story from his adoptive father, Dr. Broom (John Hurt, back from the first film). Broom tells him about the ancient war between the humans and the realm of the fantastic, in which the forest king's Golden Army lays waste to thousands of human armies before a truce is struck and the Army is put to rest.

Cut to the present, in which Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) are struggling in their relationship in their home at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. After an investigation goes awry, a new agent is sent to the BPRD to straighten things out. This turns out to be Johann Krauss (voice of Seth MacFarlane), a gaseous being housed in a diver's suit. Meanwhile, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), son of the mythical forest king, sets out to declare war on humanity and awaken the Golden Army once again.

What may sound like too much plot for one film is actually handled very deftly, never letting things slow down enough to become boring. It helps that the film was written by director Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola, the man who created the character in 1993. And it's here that the film takes a hard turn away from all the other comic book movies of recent years. So many of these films try so hard to adhere to the source material, that they inevitably feel too bound by the colored page. X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3 ran into this problem. Instead of following the continuities or stories set down in the comics, del Toro and Mignola decided to create a completely original story for their characters. This story honors what has come before, yet forges it's own identity and path, but at the same time never betrays the essence of the comics. From a strictly narrative and thematic standpoint, Hellboy II is more faithful to the heart of its source material than many films that try desperately to stick to the comics.

All of the Lovecraftian notions of the first film (and the comics it is based on) are still hinted at here, notably in a scene featuring the Angel of Death (Doug Jones, pictured above), and hint at where a third film might eventually go. But here, we get to see things that not even the Hellboy comics can offer us. Hellboy saving a baby from the clutches of a giant, tentacled tree monster; the troll market, which offers more eccentric creatures and goblins than the Mos Eisley Cantina; Johann corporeally inhabiting a tooth fairy (and several other, more thrilling things); the list goes on. For every great idea that Hellboy II offers, it gives us an equally brilliant special effect, and more often than not the effect is achieved with intricate makeup and animatronics rather than the CG cop-out.

And yet, for all of the film's technical and thematic wizardry, the cast imbue their parts with real emotion. Not a single person here is phoning in their performance. It feels as though each and every one of them truly cares about the character they are portraying, whether it's Perlman in the horns and red makeup or Seth MacFarlane pulling a convincing German accent or Luke Goss, who paints Prince Nuada as a more sympathetic character than one might expect. Each character is given their moment to shine, and each actor seized the opportunity.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is an amazingly fun flick that makes us thing about the world and our place in it much in the same way that WALL-E did a few weeks ago. If the film has any misstep at all, it's merely in the inconsistencies and plotholes that plague any fantasy story. One need only accept these as part and parcel with the genre in order to overlook them. In the end, Hellboy II is the kind of fist-pumping fantasy storytelling that comes along maybe once or twice a year. If you're a fan of the comic, or simply fantasy film in general, you owe it to yourself to see this film.

I loved every single minute of Hellboy II, and I can't wait for del Toro to make The Hobbit, if only so that I can see how things turn out for HB, Abe, Liz and everyone else at the BPRD.

4.5 stars (****1/2) out of five.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The New Classics

If you've read Entertainment Weekly at all in the past month or so, you've no doubt seen their feature titled 'The New Classics'. 1,000 of (supposedly) the best movies, books, television shows, music, etc of the past 25 years. Last week, Orson Scott Card eviscerated their list of the top 100 novels of the past quarter century. (Actually his article is a really fun read, if only to hear him complain.)

So, if you haven't seen their movie list, follow this link, check it out, then come back here.

Go on, I'll wait.

Ok. Now, any discerning individual will see that something is fundamentally wrong with this list. Oh, sure, I'll defend and agree with probably one quarter of this list. Another quarter I can tolerate. But half this list is complete garbage. Napoleon Dynamite better than Back to the Future? NO. WAY. IN. HELL. I think the foreign films on this list, while some are certainly good, are really obscure (thereby no way the classics EW thinks they are). Documentaries? Nah. And I must be one of the only people on the face of the planet who thinks Pulp Fiction is decent, but in no way groundbreaking enough to be #1 on this list. It does everything that Tarantino did in Reservoir Dogs three years earlier, but with the cardinal sin of being only half as entertaining.

So, I've compiled my own list of the top 100 movies since 1983. Enjoy.

100. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
99. Hero (2004)
98. Office Space (1999)
97. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
96. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
95. The American President (1995)
94. Men in Black (1997)
93. Dead Alive (1992)
92. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
91. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
90. Gladiator (2000)
89. Memento (2000)
88. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
87. The Abyss (1989)
86. El Mariachi (1992)
85. The Big Lebowski (1998)
84. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
83. The Little Mermaid (1989)
82. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
81. The Karate Kid (1984)
80. Robocop (1986)
79. Chasing Amy (1997)
78. Ed Wood (1994)
77. Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986)
76. The Truman Show (1998)
75. Stand by Me (1986)
74. Speed Racer (2008)
73. Fargo (1996)
72. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
71. Babe (1995)
70. The Fifth Element (1995)
69. Jerry Maguire (1996)
68. Clerks. (1994)
67. Oldboy (2003)
66. Sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
65. Best in Show (2000)
64. Snatch. (2000)
63. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997)
62. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
61. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
60. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
59. The Matrix (1999)
58. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)
57. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
56. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
55. Sin City (2005)
54. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
53. True Lies (1994)
52. Goldeneye (1995)
51. Glory (1989)
50. Children of Men (2006)
49. Misery (1990)
48. Reservoir Dogs (1991)
47. Stranger than Paradise (1984)
46. The City of Lost Children (1995)
45. Dark City (1998)
44. Akira (1988)
43. Finding Nemo (2003)
42. Groundhog Day (1993)
41. The Mist (2007)
40. Se7en (1995)
39. Rain Man (1988)
38. Field of Dreams (1989)
37. No Country for Old Men (2007)
36. Lethal Weapon (1987)
35. Apollo 13 (1995)
34. The Host (2006)
33. The Breakfast Club (1985)
32. Aliens (1986)
31. There Will Be Blood (2007)
30. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
29. The Lion King (1994)
28. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
27. Brazil (1985)
26. Ghostbusters (1984)
25. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
24. The Iron Giant (1999)
23. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
22. Return of the Jedi (1983)
21. Platoon (1986)
20. The Incredibles (2004)
19. The Last Emperor (1987)
18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
17. Almost Famous (2000)
16. Jurassic Park (1993)
15. La Haine (1995)
14. Do the Right Thing (1989)
13. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
12. Serenity (2005)
11. Unforgiven (1992)
10. Toy Story (1995)
9. Goodfellas (1990)
8. Braveheart (1995)
7. Die Hard (1988)
6. Forrest Gump (1994)
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
4. Dances with Wolves (1990)
3. Back to the Future (1985)
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
1. Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth!

I was going to give you a top ten list of movies to watch on the 4th of July, but then decided against it. Other websites have better lists and better explanations. Instead, I'll tell you to go watch Glory. Go watch Independence Day, Forrest Gump, The Longest Day, The Music Man, or any number of vaguely patriotic movies. While one isn't necessarily as good as another, different movies work for different people. You might prefer a war movie over a summer blockbuster, or a musical over a war movie. That's how it's always been.

For my money, the best movie to watch on the 4th of July has always been Jaws. Sure, it kickstarted the whole summer movie season trend. But it's also a great movie about small-town America, manifest destiny, and a modern Moby Dick tale all rolled into one. Plus, it's just one hell of a fun movie.

So instead of all that, here are a few music videos to enjoy.

Jimi Hendrix's "The Star Spangled Banner"

The 1812 Overture

AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)"

Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World"

Happy 4th, everybody!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


There will be spoilers below. Fair warning.

"You deserve better from me. I will be better." Such is John Hancock's declaration early into Will Smith's latest 4th of July blockbuster. Sadly, 'better' is not what we get. Instead, we get a frustrating mess of a movie that doesn't know whether it wants to be a deconstruction of superhero archetypes or simply a more aggressive spin on what we've already seen done better three or four times this summer.

On the surface, Hancock offers a lot to enjoy. Though director Peter Berg does tend to subscribe to the 'closeup shots must be handheld' school of directing, the film looks pretty great. The visual effects are consistently impressive, incorporating both practical and CG work very nicely. The principal cast are all in fine form, too, particularly Will Smith as the titular hero and Jason Bateman as his all-too-willing public relations man, Ray. Both men dive headfirst into their characters and, more often than not, are a lot of fun to watch. But the same problem that Wanted had last week somehow plagues Hancock and all but derails the film entirely.

I'm talking, of course, about the lead actress. The way Charlize Theron plays her character (Ray's wife, who secretly knows Hancock better than anyone else) is fine. The fact that an A-list actress like Theron plays the character in the first place is the problem. The problem in this instance is the fact that her character is the film's one and only twist, and once we see Charlize Theron onscreen, we know something's up. It doesn't take a genius to figure out where things go once she enters the picture. Theron's character is indicative of the real problems with Hancock, which are more structural than they are visual.

It doesn't help that when she starts explaining the backstory to Hancock (and to us), everything out of her mouth is more preposterous than the last thing she said. It turns out that she and Hancock are the last in a long line of gods 'built' on Earth for a further unexplained reason, and that Hancock in particular was 'built stronger' to protect the people of Earth. Never mind that, earlier, Theron gloats about how she's so much more powerful than Hancock. Never mind a half dozen other points that are completely incongruous with what's already come before.

The 'super couple' plot might have worked if it had been the film's only major story. As it is, it's built up as a B story that eventually takes over as the A story, after they'd already set up a plot about Hancock's PR makeover, which by itself was very interesting. That right there, coupled with an exceptionally interesting character in Jason Bateman's Ray, would have been an excellent jumping off point if they'd wanted to give us a true deconstruction. Superhero politics and public image counseling would have launched Hancock into a level of superhero satire alongside Mystery Men and The Incredibles.

Instead, the movie drops this line of satire early in favor of the plot involving Charlize Theron's character, which ruins any chance for Hancock to be about something more than superhumans breaking shit and cursing like sailors while doing it. The writers, producers, director Peter Berg, et al seem content to offer us a fascinating premise, only to renege on it in favor of cheap (yet well executed) thrills that ultimately mean nothing more than eye candy.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that Hancock clocks in at a lightning fast 92 minutes. In trying to tell these two stories, one is rushed through in order to shoehorn in the second, less interesting story. I doubt any well-made movie can accomplish a feat like this. Let's not forget that Spider-Man 3 tried the same thing last year, and it was nearly three hours long! So if a hodge podge of neat ideas and tons of cool effects are your idea of great summer entertainment, you might enjoy Hancock quite a bit. I, on the other hand, expect more from my superheroes, not to mention the films in which they appear.

2 stars (**) out of five.