Archive for the ‘Comic Book/Superhero’ Category

The Dark Knight

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

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Dark, indeed. Christopher Nolan’s new Batman film takes the conventions and expectations of the Batman films (and super hero films in general) and throws them out the window. Here is a Batman film that is as unrelenting, spellbinding and, yes, dark, as the best Batman comic books. Nolan has created a sequel that outdoes his previous Caped Crusader film, Batman Begins (and I thought that was a four-star picture), daring to take the franchise to places where most big-budget Hollywood action films don’t dare go.

If you want to make a great sequel, you have to be willing to push the envelope, take the story and the characters to places the audience hasn’t been before (think Empire Strikes Back, think Godfather Part II, think Aliens). That’s what the filmmakers do here, creating a comic book film that will be remembered as one of the great superhero films (definitely in the top 10). Nolan understands that Batman is the great tragic hero (something that Burton understood with his Batman films, and Joel Schumacher refused to acknowledge with his silly BatFlicks), at least the great tragic superhero.

The film opens with the introduction of a new villain to Gotham: the Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger, in a performance that hinted that he could’ve been the next Christopher Walken), a sadistic, remorseless monster. Unlike most movie villains, who have a back story or are driven by revenge, or lust for power or money, the Joker kills and destroys for the sake of…who knows? It is a chilling character, and Ledger’s performance is astounding (there were times during the film when I forgot that the Joker was simply a role in a movie). His strange voice crackling and snapping with electricity, his smile slit from side to side like a demented Jack-O-Lantern, his pasty, dried, smeared clown make-up. The Joker, in Ledger’s hands, is a shocking creation.

I don’t know if it’s “better” than Jack Nicholson’s work in Batman, it’s simply taking the character in a completely new direction. Ledger’s approach to the Joker is wholly original from any other version of the Joker I’ve seen (in TV shows, movies or the comics). He takes a character who is over sixty years old and breathes new life into him.

Ok, back to the movie. So, the Joker brings chaos to Gotham City, and strikes an agreement of sorts with the crime syndicate to bring down Batman. Meanwhile, Batman (Christian Bale), Lt. James Gordan (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) join forces to bring down crime boss Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, yes, you heard me, Eric Roberts). Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne struggles to control Wayne Enterprises while dealing with the Joker and trying to win the love of Rachel Dawes (this time around played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes, who was the weakest element of Batman Begins).

As I said earlier, The Dark Knight feels and looks just like a great Batman comic book (fans of the books will recognize several elements from many story lines in the film, most notably “The Long Halloween). It pulls you in the way few Hollywood super hero films ever have. Of course, Christian Bale is perfectly cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne, just as he was in the previous entry in the franchise. Bale plays Bruce Wayne with the right mix of pathos, humor, cocky pride and drive; if you thought he was messed up in Batman Begins, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And, of course, his work as Batman himself is the only Caped Crusader that’s ever actually been scary.

As in the previous film, Batman’s allies Alfred, Bruce’s loyal butler/sidekick (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox, Batman’s own version of Q (Morgan Freeman), are crucial to the film’s success. Caine’s Alfred, especially, gives the film its heart. Gyllenhaal is a far more capable actress than Holmes, but I also think Dawes’ role in the sequel is much more substantial, rather than just a damsel in distress. Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon is a terrific supporting role, and the chameleon Oldman makes his role as “the only honest cop in Gotham” his own (again). Gordon was always a great character in the comics, but I thought that he was always misrepresented in the Burton/Schumacher films (though it was no fault of the actor who played him, the great Pat Hingle, Gordon’s role was just never that well written in the movies). Anyway, Oldman’s Gordon is so good I’d watch a film focusing on his character.

Aaron Eckhart’s performance as Harvey Dent is also key to the film’s success, and I would say that his work is every bit as good as Ledger’s. It is an edgy, unnerving, compelling performance. I never would’ve thought of Eckhart for the role, but now I couldn’t think of anyone else. If you are familiar with the character, than you’re aware of the complexities of the role.

I love this movie. It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s also thought-provoking and challenging, and pushes the Batman franchise into uncharted waters. I can’t wait for the next one!

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

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Guillermo del Toro is one of the most visionary directors working in mainstream cinema today, and his unique vision helps make this sequel much better than it has any right to be. Of course, the commanding performance by Ron Perlman as Hellboy is a big part about why this film works, but without Guillermo the film would not be as visually compelling. The dazzling creatures, sets and effects help make up for a story and pacing that is not quite up to the level of the original Hellboy film.

Hellboy II opens with a flashback: it’s Christmas in 1955 on a military base, and Professor Broom (John Hurt) is telling young Hellboy about an ancient war between the creatures of the earth and humankind, and an elusive crown that was broken into three and controls the unstoppable Golden Army. Fast-forward to modern day, when the solemn, revenge driven Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), looking like an elfin Edgar Winter, decides to find the missing pieces of the crown and declare war on humans. Uh oh.

Only Hellboy, his fire-starting girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) and the aquatic genius Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) can stop them. Joining them on the mission is Johann Krauss, a paranormal specialist voiced by Seth MacFarlane, in a silly German accent. Like in the first one, comic relief is provided by Jeffrey Tambor as FBI director Tom Manning, the thorn in Hellboy’s side. In fact, Hellboy II is pretty much the first Hellboy, with better effects, more monsters and sillier jokes. Some of the funniest moments really don’t fit in the context of the film, like Hellboy and Abe’s sing-a-long (it’s funny, but does it fit with the movie? Probably not).

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is great in places (such as when the gang journeys to the Troll Market, and in the eerie depiction of the Angel of Death), and mediocre in other places (the love story between Abe and Princess Nuala, played by Anna Walton, didn’t really add anything to the story). I wish that del Toro would’ve given the same attention to the script that he did to the look of the film.

Ron Perlman, of course, is reason enough to see the film, in a film with larger than life creations and monsters that threaten to engulf the city, his performance stands out (Tambor is a hoot as usual, and Blair holds her own, which is interesting since she was so bland in the first Hellboy). The Golden Army is a visual feast that suffers from pacing and a repetitive storyline, but it’s still manages to be a good super hero movie, nonetheless.

Hancock

Monday, July 14th, 2008

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Superhero films are, let’s face it, a dime a dozen. If you write a comic book, a graphic novel, a strip for the funny pages, chances are it will someday be adapted for the big screen. That’s the way it works. So, you’d think when a superhero movie comes along where the super hero was CREATED for the film, it would be a refreshing change of pace (like The Incredibles). With Hancock, what we have is a film that’s tone is confused, that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s like the filmmakers started the film with one vision and changed it halfway through the filming.

The movie was stuck in development hell for about a decade, and it shows in the disjointed, confused final product. There are aspects to the film I liked, of course, but overall Hancock doesn’t work. Will Smith plays the titular character, a misanthropic, alcoholic super hero who “protects” Los Angeles, although most people find him more a nuisance than anything else. In fact, most people downright hate him.

One day, Hancock saves a struggling PR executive (Jason Bateman) for an oncoming train, and the PR man makes it his mission to make Hancock a hero once more. This does not please Bateman’s wife (Charlize Theron), who doesn’t trust Hancock one bit. Of course, along the way, complications arise and Hancock must become a hero to the city once more.

There are a few “twists” in the film, but there handled like sitcom complications, and are therefore hard to take seriously. Also, the big “twist” doesn’t really make that much sense when you think about it. This is another Will Smith on auto-pilot role, and he never really seems to be willing to commit completely to the character. Jason Bateman is the saving grace of the film, and he does what he can with the role. Charlize Theron tries with the script, but her character is the most obvious victim of rewrites, many of her decisions and choices don’t make logical sense.

It’s also hard to make a good superhero film without a central villain, they kind of give us one in the form of Red (Eddie Marsan), a bank robber with a vaguely foreign accent, but his character is really explained or developed much. It is a kick to see Don Gibb (Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds) in a few scenes, though.

Hancock is a great example of a big-budget film with a large marketing campaign that leaves absolutely no impact on the viewer. Rent it and forget it.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

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    Five years ago, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee helmed Hulk, which was a fascinating, very original take on a super-hero movie. Not only did Lee, get this, focus on character development (!), he also created a film style that looked and felt like a comic book. It was fresh, it was remarkably well-done and it was considered a box office disaster (never mind it had generally positive reviews and opened number one at the box office the first week.) Then, the Hulk backlash came, and you would have thought that Hulk was the worst film ever made (remember, this was the year of Gigli, Hulk was like Citizen Kane compared to that movie).

Marvel wasn’t thrilled with the film either, and decided to give the franchise a reboot, so they could make more sequels from a more action-oriented (read: generic) source film. So, you had an original, unique film (basically an art film disguised as a super hero movie) which the audiences ultimately rejected, replaced with a generic, run-of-the-mill action film five years later. You replace Eric Bana, who was well-cast as Bruce Banner, with the finely-toned Edward Norton with his barrel-chest and perfect abs (I’m sorry, but no scientist has a rock solid chest). This version proves what Hollywood thinks of its audiences: you are idiots that do not appreciate story or character, but rather mindless action.I wonder, though, are they wrong? Because I notice that Incredible Hulk was number one at the box office, and will probably be next week also. Don’t get me wrong, I dug Tim Roth as the baddie and all of the references to other “Hulk” comic characters (Doc Samson, The Leader, Abomination) were fun, as was the special super hero cameo from another franchise, but the fact is, I really don’t think this movie needed to exist. Hey, why didn’t they just do a Hulk sequel, with Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott all reprising their roles? Too much of a stretch?Ed Norton is a tremendous actor, but I just didn’t buy him as Bruce Banner. Liv Tyler as Hulkie’s true love Betty Ross isn’t given a lot to do (neither was Connelly, but Connelly’s a more talented actress, I think, and was able to transcend the limitations of the character on paper). The real slap in the face to the original cast was replacing Sam Elliott as General “Thunderbolt” Ross. I think Elliott as General Ross is one of the best comic book casting decisions ever, and William Hurt just comes off looking like a schlub in bad makeup.Maybe I’m complaining too much. Maybe I need to lighten up, it’s just a movie. But, c’mon, you take a great comic character and give him a silly little action movie when you had another film (MADE JUST FIVE YEARS AGO!!!) that was so much better. I don’t know, it kind of pisses me off. I know Hollywood is a land where money rules everything, but seriously, this is a little ridiculous.

Iron Man

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

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In an age where superhero movies are churned out as mindless, empty commercials designed to sell burgers and toys, it’s refreshing every once in a while to see a superhero film that actually seems to capture the spirit of the comic in question. One of my main gripes with the awful Spider-Man 3 was that the filmmakers didn’t care too much for Spidey, there wasn’t a real love for the character or material. Say what you want about Iron Man or its director, Jon Favereau, but one criticism you can’t make is that he doesn’t love Iron Man. This film has a real understanding for both Iron Man and his alter-ego, Tony Stark.It doesn’t hurt that Favereau has cast Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, in a performance that pretty much makes the movie. Downey has always been a terrific actor, but he has especially blossomed in the last couple of years, you must remember of course he’s phenomenal work in last year’s Zodiac (a performance that I think should have clinched him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Watching the film, I felt that casting Downey was a no-brainer (I can’t imagine anyone else in the role), but kudos to the filmmakers for making the right choice. It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard.The film is works not only as a superhero film, but also as an origin story, a comedy, a character-study and a corporate thriller. It also posits some pretty heady ethic questions, especially for a big-budget summer blockbuster. Tony Stark is a weapons manufacturer, and has made his fortune on the pain and misery of others, like his father before him. The film sends Stark on a quest for redemption, and talks about responsibility and the consequences of your actions in ways most superhero films don’t. Well, the original Hulk did, and you remember how well that went over (so well that the remake/sequel comes out in a few weeks and most people are pretending that the 2003 version didn’t exist).Downey’s work here is superb, of course, and really anchors the film, but he has some help from his friends. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Downey’s right-hand woman Pepper Potts, and her and Downey create real sparks in their scenes together. Terrence Howard plays Col. James Rhodes, Stark’s buddy/foil/future superhero colleague (there is one War Machine reference, to placate all us comic nerds out there). Jeff Bridges plays the wonderfully named Obadiah Stane, and gives a scenery-chewing performance. It’s a special treat to see him completely bald with a giant beard. I also liked Shaun Taub’s performance as Yinsen, the prisoner who helps Stark escape from certain doom in Afghanistan.Iron is a well-made, well-acted superhero film that’s funny and intelligent (for a superhero movie), with a perfect Downey in the lead. I’m already looking forward to the inevitable sequel. FANBOY ALERT: there’s a surprise waiting for the patient after the final credits, so stay seated.