#70 - Judgment Day
1946 - 2008
Greetings, lovers of the filmic arts and welcome back to the internet’s favorite irregularly-published webazine. Travels up and down the left coast of these United States have caused an embarrassingly long gap between Electric Theatres. Odds are that you’ve either already seen all the movies I’ll be talking about this time or have forgotten they existed or both. Nevertheless, if you’ve been losing sleep wondering what Jahnke thought about The Dark Knight, go fluff your pillow and get ready for a good night’s rest. Your questions are about to be answered.
When reviewing Pixar movies, it becomes all too easy to lapse into superlatives. I’ve probably already named three different films as the best thing the studio has ever produced. I could probably defend each of those choices, too. Comparing one Pixar movie to another isn’t as easy as lining up all the Disney classics in a row. They are, after all, mostly fairy tales. But how can you compare the Toy Story movies to The Incredibles or Ratatouille? Each one is unique and, in its own way, perfect. Now comes WALL-E which might just be, you guessed it, the best thing the studio has ever produced.
Purely as a technical achievement, WALL-E is unrivaled. The detailed, hyper-real animation is absolutely breathtaking. But what makes the movie so special is its story, its characters and the beautiful storytelling artistry at play. The first act is virtually silent, allowing the audience to take in the details of the animation. Remarkably, WALL-E himself comes across as a vivid, fully-formed character from the first moment we see him. Credit the incredible character animation and extraordinary work of sound legend Ben Burtt for that. Once the story shifts into outer space and speaking, human characters begin to appear, WALL-E and EVE remain just as fascinating, their relative lack of speech and expression proving to be no obstacle at all. The movie is funny and fast-paced but surprisingly dark, offering a dim view of humanity and our future on this planet.
Yes, I’m well aware of the irony of Disney distributing a movie with what appears to be a blatant anti-consumerism, anti-corporate message. However, subversive work has snuck out of monolithic corporations for ages. Plus, I don’t believe the message of WALL-E is as simple as all that. More than anything, the film is anti-apathy and its image of future generations of mankind as little more than TV-addled blobs unable to even lift a cup of coffee to its mouth unassisted seems frighteningly apt from where I’m sitting. This is perhaps what makes WALL-E so remarkable. It succeeds as a satire, as science fiction, as an adventure story, and most affectingly, as a romance. The love story between these two robots is as heartfelt and touching as any between two humans.
As I said, it’s tempting to over-praise films from Pixar. It isn’t simply that the movies are good. It’s that they leave you as an audience member feeling good on any number of levels. Satisfied by the story you’ve been told and optimistic about the state of animation, filmmaking or even just good movies you can enjoy with your entire family. Bearing in mind the tendency to lavish praise on Pixar, I won’t say that WALL-E is the best film the studio has ever made. I will say that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year and if I see another this good, I will be a very, very happy moviegoer. (* * * *)
The Dark Knight
First off, as a dyed-in-the-wool comic book fan who loved Batman Begins and could not wait for this movie to come out, let me just say The Dark Knight is a very, very good movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s totally worth seeing on the big screen and I think it’d be kind of cool if something this unrelentingly dark overtook Titanic as the highest-grossing film of all time. I’m prefacing my review like this because the tendency has been to go on and on about how great this movie is (witness its current standing as the best movie of all time according to IMDb) when the truth is, it really isn’t THAT great. I don’t even think it’s the best superhero movie ever made and that’s a pretty small and relatively goofy subgenre to rule. Consequently, I’ll probably spend an inordinate amount of this review discussing what I didn’t like about the movie, even though I really, really did like it a lot, I swear.
Sure, the movie does plenty of things right. The action sequences are remarkable, the cast is uniformly superb, and the tone is consistent and spot-on. The opening sequence gets things off to a great start and it hardly lets up from there. However, let’s be honest. This movie is too long by about twenty minutes at least. And yes, there are sequences that could be cut. There’s a scene early on with the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy returning briefly from the first film) that really only exists to establish that there are Batman copycats in Gotham. The whole thing could have been cut in half. Fun as it is to see the Scarecrow back, he’s dispatched quickly and sort of wasted here. More problematic is the lengthy ferry sequence. I was never convinced that this scenario would play out the way it does here. Furthermore, it’s simply hammering home a point that the Joker is already making with Harvey Dent, so why bother? It simply goes on and on with no real payoff and very little suspense.
Then there’s the late Heath Ledger’s much-praised performance as the Joker. Don’t get me wrong, I thought he was great in the role. But as my good friend and esteemed colleague Mr. Todd Doogan pointed out, he wasn’t really the Joker. It makes sense in the movie world that Christopher Nolan has created. He’s a Joker-esque bad guy. But he’s missing something vital from the comics. Namely, the deranged idea that this guy will shove a knife in you over and over again not to prove a point but because he thinks it’s genuinely funny. That deranged Joker laugh emerges once or twice but it never feels uncontrolled or genuine. As broad as Jack Nicholson’s performance seems in comparison, it does capture that sick sense of humor. This Joker is more of a Dick Tracy villain. Someone who just happens to look somewhat clownish and therefore takes that as his trademark. Having said that, how cool would that have been if Nolan had decided to make a dark, grim version of Dick Tracy instead of Batman?
Nolan is trying to skate a fine line between establishing his own vision and remaining faithful to the source material of the comics and, for the most part, he’s succeeding. But Batman’s rogues’ gallery is somewhat more limited. Perhaps the Riddler will turn up in the next film but will anyone be able to make a version of the Penguin that’s more twisted and disturbing than what Tim Burton came up with in Batman Returns? But that’s a concern for the next installment in the franchise. For now, The Dark Knight is a terrific albeit overlong entry in the Batman saga. It’s dark, exciting and engaging. If I only enjoyed it as much as Batman Begins and not more, it’s simply because I had no expectations walking into Nolan’s first effort. He raised the bar for himself with that film and cleared it on his second time out. If he didn't raise it again, well...that may have been asking too much. (* * * ½)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Speaking of comics (which it seems you kind of have to if you want to talk about movies this summer), I’ve been a fan of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy since he first burst on the scene over ten years ago. I haven’t followed the ins and outs of all of the various spin-off series but always seem to come back to the big guy himself. I enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s movie version and am happy to report that his follow-up does not disappoint, especially if you’re a fan of the director.
This time, del Toro has more of a chance to play in the Hellboy universe, mingling his own unique vision with Mignola’s original concepts to create a movie that isn’t beholden to the comic book but remains true to it in spirit. The story isn’t based on any particular Hellboy comic, although its roots in folklore and mythology give it a spiritual link to some of Mignola’s best work. Hellboy II isn’t a great movie but it is loads of fun, with some enjoyable interplay between Ron Perlman’s Hellboy and Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien and thrillingly imaginative setpieces that make you want to pause the film and step inside the screen to explore the sets and creatures. The movie ends both predictably and abruptly and there’s more than a couple of moments where you wish things would shift into high gear instead of idling in neutral. But in the final analysis, Hellboy II isn’t about the big picture. It’s about the individual moments that take your breath away. At its best, the movie’s scope and imagination recalls the most memorable sequences from the legendary Ray Harryhausen. For a movie like this, there can be no higher praise. (* * *)
The Incredible Hulk
When I was putting together what I’d be reviewing in this column, I almost forgot I had even seen this movie. That’s never a good sign. Oddly enough, I sort of enjoyed this while I was watching it, which is more than I can say for Ang Lee’s Hulk. Edward Norton makes for a fine Bruce Banner in this not-a-sequel, capturing both the angst of living with the creature that’s inside him and the pressure of living a life on the run. But perhaps more than anything, The Incredible Hulk proves that this character is more suited to the familiar tropes of a weekly television series than the demands of a feature film. It’s a classic Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy but the Hulk himself isn’t all that interesting. All he really does is smash, which is fine for awhile but doesn’t ever add up to much. The movie follows that pattern as if director Louis Leterrier thought he’d be thrown into movie prison if he deviated from it. Banner hides. The Army catches up with him. Banner turns into the Hulk and escapes. Army finds him again.
Curiously, The Incredible Hulk feels less like a stand-alone film than a connecting point between the ambitious slate of movies Marvel Entertainment has lined up. This is an audacious gambit and one that I worry will backfire. Every comic book fan in the world gets all twitterpated at the idea of seeing their favorite superheroes together on the big screen but Marvel is catering to a small audience by pursuing this tact. Yes, I enjoyed Iron Man and Spider-Man and X-Men but when it comes down to it, all of these movies are basically the same. Sooner or later, non-comic-fan audiences will tire of this repetition. If all Marvel is doing with this film is laying more groundwork for an eventual Avengers movie, they’re wasting a lot of time and money. And yeah, the comic-nerd part of me enjoyed the various nods to the comic books in this movie. But at the same time, I thought that anyone who wasn’t familiar with the comics would simply be puzzled and frustrated by the allusions to things that may or may not happen in the movie franchise.
The Hulk is an interesting character. He has sustained his own comic book for over three decades now, not to mention a pretty awesome TV show (quite frankly, I enjoyed the little winks to the TV show in this movie a lot more than the homages to the comic). But we have yet to see him reach his full potential on the big screen. I hope we do someday. Hearing the not-so-jolly green giant bellow “Hulk smash!” in a movie theatre was enough to make me remember what I enjoyed about this character in the first place. (* * ½)
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
For the record, I consider myself an X-Phile. Chris Carter’s nine-season series is one of the best television shows ever broadcast, managing the delicate balance between an intricate through-line and a weekly dose of creepy and compelling entertainment. When I heard that a new movie was in production, I was downright ecstatic. I didn’t care if it had anything to do with the show’s labyrinthine mythology or not. I just wanted to see Mulder and Scully back, doing what they do best, chasing monsters and seeking the truth. I’m not willing to say how much that colored my perception of their latest big-screen adventure, but I’m sure it has a lot to do with the crushing sense of disappointment I felt.
Is I Want To Believe a bad movie? No, not in the same way that the latest Indiana Jones flick or Battlefield Earth is. But it is a sub-par X-Files movie. Things start off promisingly with an enigmatic prologue and Mulder (David Duchovny) exactly where I hoped he’d be, in hiding and going batshit crazy from isolation. But after the first 20 minutes or so, you get the idea that this isn’t going anywhere and that idea is proven correct. The case that Mulder and Scully are asked to investigate doesn’t seem all that urgent to warrant their assistance. The dialogue, which includes much speechifying about the existence or non-existence of God and endless pleas from Mulder about how much he needs Scully on this one, has been heard countless times before on any number of episodes of the TV series.
Most troubling is that nothing we see here is anywhere near as frightening as what we were subjected to in the best episodes of the television show. Even stranger, the movie is almost entirely devoid of humor. All of the best episodes of the series had a wry sense of humor about them. This film is downright depressing. Billy Connolly comes off well as the supposedly psychic priest and it is refreshing to see a big summer movie where not even a single shot is fired from a gun. But overall, the movie is a big letdown. The first X-Files movie had a sense of scope that elevated it beyond simply an extended episode of the series. This one feels like a kind of cool but generally forgettable episode padded out to feature-length. I really hope this isn’t the last we see of Mulder and Scully because if it is, they’re going out with a frustrating whimper instead of the colossal bang they deserve. (* *)