Saturday, July 19, 2008

Batman Begins (2005)

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Batman Begins came out in 2005 and made a stir among its guaranteed audience, the legion of comic book and video game fans, but wasn't a huge hit because of its dark, nature, favoring dialogue and realistic action to the bombast action and explosions of all the previous Batman and other superhero movies. For the same reason it wasn't a blockbuster, Batman Begins developed a somewhat cult following as a truly good film, not just a box-office hit. One thing is for sure, upon its release Batman Begins was the best Batman film of all time and is solely responsible for the mega-hit Dark Knight which was to follow. Director Christopher Nolan, who gained acclaim for his 2000 thriller Memento, took the groundwork laid by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher for the first four Batman movies and threw it in the garbage, starting anew at the most appropriate place, the beginning. Whereas previous directors framed the saga of Batman within a theme park, thrill ride atmosphere, Nolan gives Batman, the only superhero without superpowers, the realistic treatment he deserves. Gone is the superfluous action and slapstick humor and silliness, as Nolan welcomes accomplished actors such as Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Cane, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, and more into the story. Batman Begins chronicles Bruce Wayne's metamorphosis into the Dark Knight, starting with scenes that we have seen in other movies and culminating in his pursuit of justice in Gotham City. Christian Bale, one of truly great actors in Hollywood, is a perfect for Batman and dons the Batsuit with more authenticity than anyone to date. He is surrounded by a plethora of solid actors, all of whom (disregarding Katie Holmes as childhood friend and love interest Rachel Dawes) deliver rock-solid performances. The script is sharp and the only action is what is absolutely necessary, but the strongest point of the film is the astounding depth, particularly for a superhero film. Batman Begins pays homage to the true essence of the original comic, exploring the nature of vigilante justice, crime, punishment, terror, and order and uses the Dark Knight as a metaphor for these deep and complex issues. The use of the Scarecrow, although played devilishly by Cilian Murphy, may disappoint some as Scarecrow is one of the less exciting on the remarkable list of Batman villains. Batman Begins isn't perfect and has some of the comic book film cliches that are nearly impossible to avoid, but Christopher Nolan took a big chance, reinventing Batman in the dark world of Gotham City with great actors, a realistic perspective, and an honest look into pertinent issues.

Good for: Batman fans, fans of the original comic, Bale fans

Bad for: action movie fans

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Wanted (2008)

* *

Wanted does exactly what it was set out to do; that being to appease the appetite of the mindless summer movie watcher with guns, girls, and gore. This film is the very definition of a Hollywood action movie and boasts all the necessary ingredients including dazzling fight sequences, stunning CGI, a mind-bending plot, and Angelina Jolie. To top it all off, the writers try to add layers upon layers of depth and allusions to societal pressures to fit in, be successful, and do the right thing, a message that resonates perfectly with the target audience. James McAvoy (Atonement) stars as Wesley Gibson, a down-and-out office worker frustrated with the repetition and monotony of his everyday life. When he finds out his dad, who has been missing since the day he was born, was a deadly, superhuman assassin, he realizes his destiny to become a member of "The Fraternity" and follow in his father's footsteps, avenging his death. Morgan Freeman plays Sloan, the leader of the Fraternity, in a performance that could literally be exactly the same as at least five other Freeman roles in the past decade. Jolie as Fox and Common as Gunsmith are members of the Fraternity and help train Wesley to attain his supernatural assasin abilities. Wanted may be one of the most cliched movies of all time, and is essentially the textbook example of an action movie. There are so many elements contrived from other films its difficult to keep count by the time the credits roll. Some scenes are so generic they become painful to watch, while others are so fast-paced, visually impressive, or downright hot (Jolie) that you can't take your eyes off the screen. The last twenty minutes involve so many plot twists that they seem to happen just for the sake of throwing the audience off the right path. The nerdy action lover who can recite lines from the Matrix series will probably follow along and find genius within the writers efforts to make a statement about taking control of your life and creating your own destiny. The rest of us won't understand what happened or why and won't care enough to figure it out either. Wanted is pure sleaze and proud of it, and people will either love or hate it for exactly that reason.

Good for: action fans, drunk people, someone not in the mood to think, Jolie fans

Bad for: artists, people bothered by violence

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

* * *

Compared to the weak war films of the past few years, Charlie Wilson's War stands out as the smartest, funniest, and easiest to watch. That's not saying too much, though, when you look at the competition. For having the word "war" in the title, the film, like the Cold War, has very few guns fired and focuses much more on the behind-the-scenes aspects of American politics. Starring Tom Hanks as politician Charlie Wilson, Charlie Wilson's War is based on the true story of a Texas politician and his overt and covert efforts to defeat the Soviets, chronicling from the late seventies to the end of the eighties. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage, Closer) assembled a star studded cast with Hanks, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman to deliver a witty script written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing). The Charlie Wilson character is perfectly suited for Hanks who embodies the southern playboy congressman's clever and charming personality. Roberts and Adams hold their own alongside Hanks as his love interest and assistant, respectively, but once again Hoffman steals the screen and is clearly the best actor in the film despite being only a supporting character. As an obnoxious CIA agent and Wilson's partner and, at times, antagonist, Hoffman turns an average character into a memorable one with a nuanced performance equal parts funny and annoying. If only more actors could bring such depth to characters as Hoffman does; in any size part the story is enhanced by his intricate approach to his roles. The film is to the point, running right on time around 100 minutes, and for the right audience is thoroughly entertaining. Nichols manages to make a decade of political struggle and slow progress fun to watch by only including the important parts of the story, particularly the parties, sex, spying, and backhanded deals. The film isn't that thought provoking and comes across more as a "can-you-believe-this" true story than a reflection on the Cold War or politics in general. For some this will be refreshing, as Hanks and Hoffman together on screen are great fun, and for others it will be too run of the mill. Charlie Wilson's War doesn't fail on any levels, and succeeds in telling a story most people didn't know about in a way that will keep their attention.

Good for: people who study history, politicos, fans of true stories

Bad for: people who dislike politics, uptight people

The Gallery
The Economist: * * *

Friday, July 4, 2008

Get Smart (2008)

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For the casual movie fan looking for a mindless summer diversion, Get Smart fires on all cylinders. Equal parts action and humor, the big screen adaptation pretty much picks up right in it's predecessor's footsteps. Starring Steve Carell, Get Smart starts before Maxwell Smart is promoted from analyst to special agent and details his first mission alongside Agent 99, played by Anne Hathaway. Carell essentially carries the movie on his shoulders and proves once again how extremely talented and versatile he is. Ten years ago, when this film was first pitched to studios, Jim Carrey was slotted to play the lead role, but Carell saves this questionable idea from being another pointless summer bust. The supporting cast was well chosen, including Alan Arkin as the Chief, James Caan as the president, and a cameo by Bill Murray. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stands out as Agent 23 in what is easily his funniest and most natural performance to date. The usually spot-on David Koechner, however, delivers a forced performance that seems too similar to his characters in Anchorman and the Office. The screen writing duo behind Get Smart are veteran TV writers and it shows as the film feels like a two hour prologue to the series. The humor is absurd but sharp, and some jokes will undoubtedly fly way over the target audience's head. There are some surprisingly raunchy jokes that will make even the most stubborn comedy fan laugh, but there are also too many lines that are completely predictable and sound like they were taken from a children's joke book. The action is up to modern standards, will impress action aficionados, and is far more over-the-top than anything ever seen in the series. Director Peter Segal has stood behind plenty of duds including Anger Management, 50 First Dates, The Longest Yard, and the last of the Naked Gun series, but also directed the gem Tommy Boy. Get Smart falls somewhere in the middle, a bit closer to Tommy Boy. Segal rode Chris Farley to huge success, and will likely ride Carell into a big payday with the fun and funny Get Smart.

Good for: fans of the original series, Carell fans, casual movie fans

Bad for: people looking to think, uptight people

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wall-E (2008)

* * * * *

Part of the magic of movies is the feeling you get when the credits roll and you know you've just participated in artistic brilliance. Pixar has become accustomed to providing movie-goers with this experience, but never more so than with their latest creation, Wall-E. The story of a robot on an Earth displaced from human habitation for 700 years and his space-journey to find love stands head and shoulders above Pixar's recent successes and everything else released this year. In fact, Wall-E isn't to be compared with this years films, but stands tall among the film classics of all-time. Wall-E is like a five-tool baseball player, strong in every possible aspect and nearly flawless in some. The combination of impeccable visuals and sound transplants the viewer into a futuristic world from the very first minute. The attention to detail by the creators, including writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), is astounding. Film references, deep symbolism, and clever observations abound throughout the entire 98 minutes, and, like usual, the Pixar visual team has created stunning animation to accompany a rock-solid script. The first 45 minutes of the film is the most phenomenal and unique sequence to appear on the big screen in years. Nearly dialogue-free, the lens follows Wall-E as we come to understand his existence on a barren, trash-filled Earth and his programmed, artificial-intelligence version of a personality. The creative minds behind Wall-E took unbelievable chances, and their fearless vision pays off time and again. The film begins to become more conventional, but no less stunning, when humans are first introduced to the story. The story that follows leaves the viewer rooting for not only Wall-E, but the entire human race. Stanton loaded Wall-E with metaphor and allusions concerning mankind and the future, but nothing is forced and every jab of wit, sarcasm, and innuendo fit perfectly into place. Ultimately, Wall-E is a film about love and companionship, and using robots as a vehicle to portray this drives home the universal nature of the subject matter. And that is what Wall-E truly is, universal. Some of the references may go over the head of the kids, but Wall-E has something for everyone to relate to. Wall-E will make you laugh, and think, but more than anything, smile. The climactic scene between Wall-E and Eve is instant film lore, and Wall-E, the robot with more personality than most humans, will be no doubt be mentioned in the same conversations as Forrest Gump, ET, Vito Corleone, Darth Vader, and Hannibal Lecter. Wall-E is the culmination of excellent film making from every imaginable angle and unthinkable creativity.

Good for: everyone, Pixar fans, children, a date, film buffs

Bad for: mean people, uptight people

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * *

Flight of the Red Balloon (2008)

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Flight of the Red Balloon is a remake of the 1956 short-film The Red Balloon, directed by Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou and shot in Paris in French. The story revolves around a young boy, Simon, who continually eyes a red balloon as the everyday chaos of urban life surrounds him. His mother, played by Julitte Binoche, is a stressed out single mother trying to earn a living as a voice over actor for puppet shows while maintaining a somewhat normal family life at home. She loves her son, but has little time to spend with him if she intends to pay the rent, so she hires Song (played by Fang Song), a Taiwanese student, to babysit him. Simon and Song develop a close relationship and share their imagination to pass their time together. Hou's shooting style is very unique, as Flight of the Red Balloon plays out as an extremely slow paced movie, and his choice of a quiet, ambient score suits his camera work well. Individual scenes may last up to five minutes with the shot at the same camera angle, and there are many long, silent shots of Paris, the sky, and the ever-present red balloon. The calm, reflective pace is juxtaposed against the unsteady lifestyle of the characters, and the film is deep in symbolism. As in the original, the balloon represents the innocent spirit of childhood as Simon seems oblivious to the disordered adult-life surrounding him when he has his Playstation, piano, books, and love for his mom to worry about. The cast fit together quite well, and at times appear as if they are a real family, which makes the film successful as a meditation on urban life and unconventional families. The visuals are appealing, and the acting is engaging, but the pace is so slow that some may have trouble maintaining constant attention or even alertness for the entire film. The original short was only 34 minutes, and this remake comes in at under two hours but feels like every bit of 113 minutes. Flight of the Red Balloon is pretty and worthwhile, but material seems stretched. Perhaps Hou should have split the difference between his version and the original at around 80 minutes.

Good for: fans of French films, art film fans, diehard fans of the original

Bad for: easily bored, people who dislike subtitles, tired people

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

* * * * *

Too often filmmakers tie together complicated plot structures in the last 5 minutes of a film, explaining how the pieces of an intricately woven narrative fit, leaving the viewer with little to do but sigh. Some find this mesmerizing or even a required duty of the director, while others feel cheated out of their own interpretation. In Mulholland Dr., director David Lynch leaves the viewer with absolutely nothing at the end of a brutal two and a half hours, and in doing so has created a masterpiece. At first glance, the entire film feels like a punch to the face for no reason, but less than ten minutes after the film, the events that preceded the punch start to come back into memory and the more that you recall the happier you are you got punched in the first place. There have been few films in the past decade that leave more up to the viewer's judgment than Lynch's classic, and this works because in the 144 minutes before the credits roll he gives the viewer everything the visual and auditory senses can handle. The story is so convoluted that it is difficult to summarize, but the plot essentially involves an amnesic actress and friend trying to sort out how she arrived at a random apartment in LA after a car accident. The two lead roles are played by Naomi Watts, in her first starring role, and Laura Harring. Both actresses are beautiful, horrifying, sexy, and repulsive as they portray emotions across the spectrum in scenes most actresses would melt in and in situations most could not lose themselves within. The star of the film, however, is the writer/director, who has invented and captured some of the most creative scenes in modern cinema. Jealousy, lust, passion, greed, and countless other sins and virtues are painted on the screen in haunting detail. Scenes involving a particularly intense acting audition and a dream-like opera sequence stick with the viewer for days after, and bizarre side-plots and recurring characters tickle the imagination. Putting this Lynch film into words is difficult, which is strange because, as it becomes apparent after a first, second, or tenth viewing, there is so much to say. The imagery, symbolism, allegory, metaphor, and rhythm are nearly overwhelming, and to try to see the film through Lynch's eyes may induce nausea or insanity. Repeated viewings are a must and become more enjoyable as they become more inexplicable. Mulholland Dr. could have failed on so many levels, and it almost seems as if this massive, unthinkable assembly of thought was just the right fit, one stray piece from an explosion forming a cinematic black hole. But the glorious, otherworldly vision of David Lynch proves that film can be both entertaining and art. No film in the past decade better illustrates this.

Good for: fans of art films, smart people, people who like psychological mysteries

Bad for: the easily confused, people who give up fast, uptight people, someone not in the mood to think

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * *
The Writer * * * *