WHAP Reviews 3 Movies

August 17, 2008

I’ve been trying to plow through movies of late to get a better handle onĀ  the releases of the first eight months before Oscar season really hits. With Vicky Christina Barcelona, Hamlet 2 and Burn After Reading all on the horizon, it won’t be long. So in the interests of being able to talk about those in detail down the line, here’s three semi-quickie reviews of the movies I got through this weekend.

In Bruges — The film welcomes British playwright Martin McDonagh into the feature film business, as McDonagh plunges into the writer-director fray with this unique dramedy. The film centers around two hit men that have been sent to Bruges (in Belgium) to wait out the windfall from their most recent murder. While the veteran hit man Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is content with the wait, the rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) is intent to move on after a bad first experience. If only he was so lucky, as the boss (Ralph Fiennes) has banished Ray with intent. If anything from the movie is clear, it’s McDonagh’s theatre-yearned ability to write dialogue. Ken and Ray are developed beautifully in the first act, as we learn much about their characters through their witty conversations. Both are likable characters, even despite Ray’s malevolence toward Bruges and his current situation. A friendship is ultimately developed between the two, and just when Ray seems to be reaching maturation, Fiennes comes into town. Farrell and Gleeson act beautifully in creating this unlikely friendship, and both, specifically Gleeson, work very well in their roles. If only Fiennes, who is normally brilliant, had done more. The real problem with the film is McDonagh writes characters so much better than he writes plot, so the story lacks any sort of motion that it aspires to. We like Ken and Ray enough to care, but for a movie that turns from comedy to drama on a dime, we just can’t stay afloat enough. WHAP Rating: 3.1/5.0.

Be Kind Rewind — I wanted to like BE KIND REWIND from the moment I heard the premise. It’s a movie with a true soul, a movie about the power of a community to come together. A movie about the underdog triumphing with the support of common people. It’s about an old man who leaves his historic video store in the hands of young Mike (Mos Def), who is followed around constantly by Jerry (Jack Black). Jerry accidentally erases all the tapes in the video store, so the two hatchet a plan to re-shoot all the movies themselves, offering heartfelt, low budget, 20 minute versions of classics like GHOSTBUSTER. The community falls in love. But in the end, there’s just not enough emotion built up in the first two acts to generate any ethos for the third. In part, this is because Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) movie relies a bit too heavily on Mos Def, who shows a lack of any real acting chops in a part that calls for a real connection to three characters. Jack Black is his usual self, and in a sense, calls back to his Barry character from HIGH FIDELITY. However, while Black provides all the comedy in the movie, his ridiculousness also detracts from any emotive quality the film strives for. Throw in a Danny Glover performance that is a clear mail-in, and you have a well-designed movie that never gets there. Also, I would be remiss to not blame Gondry for the film’s mistakes, as the French director needed to develop more in his second act. What could have been, I wonder, even if this is a clear improvement upon THE MAJESTIC, which I suppose offers a premise in the same neighborhood. WHAP Rating: 2.5/5.0.

Stop-Loss — When news hit about this film, easily the most compelling aspect was Kimberly Peirce’s return to cinema, her first feature since the powerful BOYS DON’T CRY. It was a bit shocking, in fact, that Peirce was drawn to writing a script about the Iraq war, a script that is so male dominated. The hope was that Peirce would again manage her protagonist so precisely, like she did with Hilary Swank in 1999. In STOP-LOSS, the protagonist is SSgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who believes his actions in Iraq were responsible for the death of three of his soldiers, and the severe wounding of another. By the time the brigade returns to Texas, the hometown of King and boyhood friend Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), both are ready to end their duty and begin to lead normal lives. This plan is halted when King is told to report back to Iraq by the United States stop-loss policy, a backdoor draft that has sent roughly 1/6 of soldiers in the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts back into duty. The movie wants to be unique and follow the bad politics of this program, but it doesn’t make it there, and is instead yet another film about the problems of young soldiers assimilating back into American culture. As she did with Chloe Sevigny in BOYS DON’T CRY, Peirce’s best character is the supporting female, in this instance Michelle (Abbie Cornish), the fiancee of Shriver and partner-in-crime of King. The other characters are written to be unique, but no one else seems to be something we have not seen before, most recently in JARHEAD. In a sense, I’m grateful that Peirce didn’t dig too deep into politics in the film — this isn’t INTO THE VALLEY OF ELAH — but ultimately, the path she chose to walk is too well-traveled to mark this as anything but ultimately forgettable in the lexicon of war movies. WHAP Rating: 2.9/5.0.

Next on the list: THE BANK JOB.

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Summer Schedule

August 16, 2008

From the perspective of a TV fan, I do relish the summer a bit. While it means no new episodes of my favorite shows, it does give me the ability to catch up with shows in time for the fall season. This autumn, I’ll be watching “House” and “It’s Always Sunny…” on a regular basis, and neither was previously in my wheelhouse.

As far as original series go, the summer tends to be pretty nasty. Still, I managed to watch four shows regularly this summer, which is pretty good. Interestingly, not a single one is on network TV, compounding my theory that the nostalgia of “network television” is dissipating as good programs head to USA, FX, HBO and more.

Anyway, that’s not important, so with the help of Hulu, here are the four shows I have enjoyed this summer, ranked in order of favoritism:

1. Mad Men (AMC) — The movie channel launched a full-scale guerilla marketing campaign for their Emmy baby this summer, as advertisements for the show were seemingly everywhere. Here in Chicago, I’m pretty convinced AMC paid the Chicago Tribune to pimp the show for weeks. It did this with the July 27 start date in mind, offering an award-winning show months before its significant competition. It was a good strategy, and I know quite a few that have jumped on the train since the dynamic first season in 2007. This time around, things seem to have a darker resonance, and with every character, a nasty cloud looms in the distance. The addition of Duck Phillips to the roster isn’t one I welcome with open arms, and I am concerned that the accusations of the show being masochist have effected the storyline. Still, Don Draper is one of the most compelling characters on television, and this is one of the most real shows on television, moving at a pace that builds characters rather than additional plot lines, a decision I think we should applaud.

2. Burn Notice (USA) — It took me awhile to buy into this show, but with Hulu offering all the episodes, I did manage to get through them all. The show’s voice is relatively obnoxious, but I do like Michael Weston. At first, I regarded him as a character conceived from Dr. House, but that’s not really fair, as we aren’t talking about self-loathing, just sarcastic. The premise of the show is unique, and while the overarching plot is rather dry, the individual episodes play nicely. I like the character Sam quite a bit, and even Michael’s mother hits the right notes most of the time. The show is not without it’s flaws, falling into too many cliches and containing annoying voice-overs, but in the end, the juice is worth the squeeze.

3. Weeds (Showtime) — The first two seasons of Jenji Kohan’s comedy were two of my favorite comedic seasons since Arrested Development left us. Nothing on television was as unique as detailing the suburban drug business. And in Mary-Louise Parker, Showtime found an actress capable of handling Nancy’s voice, while also bringing a sexiness to the role that television hasn’t known for a long time. However, the show is getting worn, and in Season 3, Kohan realized a big change would be needed to keep things afloat. However, the huge nature of the changes have created a problem by itself, and the writers are having a difficult time keeping up with themselves. While the voice of this show — Nancy and Andy, particularly — are still the same, everything else is so different.

4. In Plain Sight (USA) — It hasn’t been, but it has sure seemed like for years, TNT has done the female-led drama thing by themselves. Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick have made careers — Emmy-nominated careers, now — thanks to the TNT shows that center around them. It’s an underexposed style, and “In Plain Sight” is a show that heightens the brand. Mary McCormack was a nice find for USA, she is just good-looking enough and just funny enough to work. She plays Mary, a U.S. Marshal for the Witness Protection Program, accompanied with a best-friend male partner and family of misfits. The show is not particularly exciting or irreverent, but it works just enough to make it into my lineup in a dull season. I’m not sure I’d heartily recommend it, but I can’t really dissuade it after this many episodes, eh?

Forty days until The Office, by the way. 40 days.


WHAP Reviews: Tropic Thunder

August 15, 2008

As an actor, Ben Stiller’s career is littered with two gears. On the one side, is the unassuming unlucky, a regular guy that runs into irregular circumstances: “There’s Something About Mary”, “Keeping the Faith”, “Meet the Parents”, and “Along Came Polly”. The other side of the ledger, one that usually results in hits or misses from Stiller, is when he ventures into ridiculous overacting for the sake of laughter: made popular by his Tony Perkis in “Heavy Weights”, carried on in “Happy Gilmore”, “Zoolander”, “Mystery Men”, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dodgeball”.

Stiller’s multi-gear ability is why he’s considered one of Hollywood’s top acting talents, and it’s why he’s afforded a directorial project like “Tropic Thunder” — a reportedly $100 million cost, aimed at one of the most unique storylines in recent memory.

However, frustratingly, Stiller has not had the same versatility behind the lens that he offers in front of it. Gone is our unassuming unlucky protagonist, and in is memorable hyperbolic characters like Derek Zoolander, The Cable Guy, and now, Kirk Lazarus. Clearly, Stiller’s preferred brand of comedy ventures away from his success with the Farrely Brothers and Robert De Niro, and more into Will Ferrell’s ridiculous low brow comedic culture.

“Tropic Thunder” is a practice in overacting, overdirecting, and overwriting, but it’s all done for the purpose of laughter. Stiller’s fourth directorial flick is his largest in scope, his largest in ambition, and ultimately, his largest in laughter. Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux go to every well — no matter how cheep — for laughs, and the result is the most side-splitting I can remember at a movie theatre.

Simply, “Tropic Thunder” is the apex for low brow comedy, as Stiller continues the quest he began in “Zoolander”: to attack and expose the notion of celebrity.

The film is supposed to take place on the set of “Tropic Thunder”, a Vietnam War epic calling on actors from all genres of the Hollywood universe: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action hero whose recent attempt at leaving his genre to portray the mentally handicapped in “Simple Jack” resulted in the worst movie of all time. Jack Portnoy (Jack Black) is the white, fat version of Eddie Murphy, only with a chemical dependency. And then there’s Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), five-time Oscar winning Aussie, who is famous for his immersion into a role. For “Tropic Thunder”, Lazarus undergoes a pigmentation surgery so he can more accurately play the African-American sergeant in the film.

Things go awry when director Damien Cockburn decides to shoot his movie guerilla style, tossing his acting legends into the Vietnamese (or so he thinks) jungle. While Speedman does his best to play along, the others realize there’s far more surrounding them than Cockburn’s hidden cameras.

I’m not sure who is credited for the casting of Stiller’s film, but it’s clear that with Stiller at the helm, he deserves the praise for the talent in the film. Would Downey Jr. have donned black face paint and reduced himself to cheap racial humor for anyone else? There’s no chance Tom Cruise, known to be a good friend of Stiller, would have taken his cameo as an insane studio executive for anyone else. From there, whether it’s Nick Nolte or Matthew McConaughey, we’re just glad Stiller has connections.

In a sense, the film suffers from Stiller’s inexperience behind the camera. It’s poorly edited, and has one too many gaps to achieve it’s high-aiming aspirations. However, Stiller is an actor’s director, without question, and the result are acting performances that keep the film afloat. Contrary to other critical opinions, there is not one performance that carries this film single-handedly. Downey Jr. and Cruise have the most memorable roles, for obvious reasons, but every dog has its day here.

The first half-hour of the movie is a showcase for Nick Nolte’s comedic talents, as he’s brilliant as Four Leaf Tayback, the writer of “Tropic Thunder”‘s source material. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson both manage to have their memorable moments aside three huge actors, with Baruchel contributing numerous memorable moments. Jack Black might dive too deep into Stiller’s overacting goal, but he also gives the most jaw-dropping monologue in the movie.

This is a film that never takes itself seriously at all, and is 100% designed for the audience. While I still have hopes that one day Stiller finds the versatility as a director he offers as an actor — can we ever see situational comedy from behind the camera? — he has succeeded seemingly as much as jaw-dropping, side-splitting, low-brow comedy can offer.

WHAP Rating: 3.7/5.0


Lollapalooza: Day 2

August 6, 2008

If you call Lollapalooza ’08 the best music under the sun, you mean it quite literally: this year’s Chicago-area festival rocked and rolled through three days of over 90 degrees in scenic Grant Park. And with a lineup boasting area faves like Wilco and Kanye alongside modern-day legends like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, some are calling it Lolla’s best year ever. I was there to test that claim — and I continue today with coverage of Saturday, a largely unfamiliar day of music for me.


MGMT
4:00-4:30pm, MySpace Stage

Counting Bonnaroo, I’ve now seen the last half hour of two MGMT shows — and the band certainly plays by the “all’s well that ends well” rule of spectacle. During the final stretch of their Lollapalooza set, the band went from “Electric Feel” to “Time to Pretend” to “Kids”: all three huge songs from their critically-beloved debut Oracular Spectacular. “Time to Pretend,” as usual, exercised one of the catchiest riffs from all of Saturday; better yet was “Kids,” whose central electric motif sounds like something the Killers would’ve loved to have written. And sure, MGMT will eventually need to learn how to amplify its guitar and rhythm sections as not to be overpowered by pre-recorded synth lines — but I guess when you write riffs like this and this, guitars are the least of your worries.

Explosions in the Sky
4:30-5:30pm, Bud Light Stage

Certainly there’s an injustice in Explosions in the Sky — a trippy instrumental outfit from Austin — playing their entire set in broad daylight while Wilco played “Sky Blue Sky” in nighttime darkness on the same stage. (Maybe not injustice; at very least irony.) That’s because Explosions specializes in writing slow, sad, psychadelic songs, few of which clock in at less than eight minutes. And being entirely unfamiliar with their recorded output, I can’t name a single track they played on Saturday — but suffice it to say this: in their quieter moments, Explosions is content to ingrain simple, repetitive guitar lines into your head; at their loudest, the band consistently evokes the sheer paranoia of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” with nary a lyric. Great things, evidently, happen in the sky.


Okkervil River
5:30-6:30pm, PS3 Stage

Another bout of new music for me, Okkervil River was billed as The Cure-meets-Spoon by my Lollapalooza brochure. And with lead singer Will Sheff — who looks like a less mainstream David Cook — decked out in a suit and skinny tie, at least Okkervil’s image was half Cure (the emo part) and half Spoon (the sophistication). But their sound was not — teaching me that not even in a festival as credible as Lolla should you trust a band’s reputation, nor should you judge a book by its cover. Instead, judge a band by its covers: like Okkervil’s mid-set take on the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” which turned their whole show into a damn good time. Similarly enchanting were new songs like “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene,” played live with a full brass band. Ultimately, Okkervil’s entire set turned my expectations on their head.

Broken Social Scene
6:30-7:00pm, Bud Light Stage

Broken Social Scene is kind of a giant indie family, with a roster that’s incorporated nearly twenty members over the years. But for ‘Palooza, the band numbered about ten — with a few extended introductions for more famous members injected throughout the show. The band’s sound, however, is still a mystery to me: shades of punk, emo-pop, blues-rock and even shoegazing floated in and out, with nothing really resonating during their first half hour. (I left to see Lupe at 7:00.) That said, BSS is taking some of the highest praise in the wake of their hourlong set, which makes me feel like I missed something either while I was there or during the show’s last thirty minutes.

Lupe Fiasco
7:00-7:30pm, AT&T Stage

Back in May, it surprised me when Lupe played Chicago’s United Center without a full band; granted, that was an ephemeral opening gig for some dude named Kanye. Then in June, Lupe showed up for Bonnaroo without a band — once again testing the appeal of two mics and a giant soundsystem to a crowd of thousands. But an hourlong slot at Lollapalooza, set in the heart of the city he calls home, was finally enough for Lupe to bring out the brass, as hip-hop’s deftest emcee rolled through a full sixty minutes with accompaniment fit for a jazz show. I only caught the last half, which was enough to hear new hits like “Paris, Tokyo” and a Matthew Santos-assisted “Superstar” — which eventually turned into six minutes of jamming and freestyle to close the show. And wake up, Mr. West: Lupe Fiasco’s “Daydreamin’,” still the best live rap song I’ve ever heard, is enough to put your whole ego to sleep.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
7:30-8:30pm, PS3 Stage

Perry Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction fame, was supposed to wow Lolla’s Saturday crowd with a ‘Special Guest’ at 3:30pm. That unearned anticipation cost me thirty minutes of MGMT’s afternoon set, and the special guest (who strolled out well past 4:00) turned out to be Samantha Ronson — whose “Built This Way” was barely a hit after making the soundtrack of Mean Girls in 2006. My point is this: much more exciting were Sharon Jones’ special guests, who turned the soul singer’s hourlong set into the premier non-headliner slot of all of Lollapalooza. First came Syl Johnson, a Chicagoan blues legend, who duetted with Jones on his day-old hit “Diff’rent Strokes.” Johnson ended the jam with 20 consecutive hits of his signature dance move — quite a display for a man of 72. Then Jones went from an old man to a young man: she invited a cargo-panted, college-aged gentleman on stage for “Be Easy,” admitting that she was looking for someone “she could go to jail for.” The ensuing scene (see below) was one of comic genius: the dude introduced himself as ‘Adam Love,’ and his wife of one year as Dana; Sharon mock-humped Adam to teach him how to “slow it down” for the ladies; Adam danced in perfect step throughout the entire extended jam; and Jones ended the ordeal by dedicating the song to Love’s long-forgotten wife. (“Was it Donna?” she asked.) The rest of Jones’ set was incredibly enjoyable, including rollicking takes on “Nobody’s Baby” (during which audience members were her backup singers) and “100 Days, 100 Nights.” So while Jones might not yet be a household name, she’s undoubtedly the hardest-working woman in show business.

Rage Against the Machine
8:30-10:00pm, AT&T Stage

For me, seeing Rage Against the Machine was a culmination of five years of introverted teenage angst. Back in middle school, the band’s self-titled debut was my album-du-coeur — with the ensuing Evil Empire and Battle of L.A. representing two discs to which I knew every lyric. So I can’t exactly call RATM’s Saturday-night set anything less than magical, despite countless interruptions by lead singer Zack de la Rocha to ask the moshing crowd to back up “5 to 10 steps.” Sure, it was weird hearing rock’s angriest band plead with its crowd to simmer down. And sure, the band could have sounded tighter, more focused, and better synchronized on huge hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerrilla Radio.” But nothing can take away from the highlights of Rage’s set: an extended “Wake Up,” in the midst of which de la Rocha launched into an anti-Republican, anti-Democrat rant; a brilliant “Bombtrack,” with Tom Morello’s guitar and Timmy C.’s bass pairing perfectly; and the one-two punch of “Freedom” and “Killing in the Name” during the encore, the two Rage songs that stress Brad Wilk’s two-toned cowbells. The set was probably more enjoyable for me as I was removed from the mosh pit; at one point, a friend of mine sputtered out from the crowd, dazed and covered in dirt, with the singular goal of getting the hell out of Grant Park. But my intentions couldn’t have been further from that: I would have rocked with Rage until the dawn, and the band left the impression that — if not for Lolla’s tight scheduling restrictions — they would have too.


Trailer Predictions

July 25, 2008

August is going to be a pretty lame month of movies. As we watch “The Dark Knight” topple record after record, “Pineapple Express” is likely to be the only thing that gets me to the theatre. So, that’s a good excuse to start looking toward Oscar season, because believe it or not, we know more than we did four months ago. Using Kris Tapley’s list of Best Picture contenders, I found that eight movies currently have trailers released. I don’t know if it’s possible to judge a movie by the trailer accurately, but since many people decide whether they will see a movie depending on the trailer, I think it’s fair to judge its Oscar prospects in the same mentality. Here’s my best attempt:

Australia: This is, I think, going to be what “Pearl Harbor” wanted to be. Baz Luhrmann’s project looks like an epic, but it’s impossible not to wonder if he’s aiming a little big here. It’s funny, because in the trailer, Nicole Kidman’s look is very similar to hers in “Moulin Rouge” and it took a minute to remind that both are Luhrmann’s. I think Nicole has a better shot at an Oscar nom than Jackman from the look of things, but I’m not convinced we have a Best Picture nomination here. If it connects, if Luhrmann doesn’t miss a note, it’s epic enough to win Oscar gold from the look of things. But if it misses, even a little, I don’t think it gets nominated.

Blindness: I saw this trailer during my first “Dark Knight” viewing, and boy, I didn’t see that coming. It is, for me, the favorite right now to win Best Picture. I mentioned to a friend in the theatre it has a “Children of Men” vibe to it, and if Cuaron has had an influence on Fernando Meirelles (“Constant Gardener”), watch out. The reviews from Cannes weren’t great, but we all know there’s a long time between Cannes and release day. This looks like a powerful movie believing in people, and it looks like both Julianne Moore and Gael Garcia Bernal will put in dynamic performances. I’m excited.

Body of Lies: Not surprising that after the success of “American Gangster,” Ridley Scott’s next turn is another movie that looks to be about 99% between two actors. This goes against about everything that I normally believe, but the trailer actually makes Russell Crowe’s performance look better than Leo’s. I think it’s going to be one fun movie, and one Hell of a ride, but I don’t see it being a product the Academy would love. If they can fit Crowe into the Supporting Actor category, it seems like that might be the best road to a nomination.

Burn After Reading: This is obviously going to come with big expectations, because it’s the Coen Brothers first effort since “No Country.” It’s a monster cast, but it’s a different vision than most Oscar contenders. I don’t deny that with this cast, this is going to be a good movie. But it also looks like the Coens went to humor here, and it probably means an 0-for-nominations. Maybe something in supporting for Malkovich or McDormand, and maybe another screenplay, but no wins and no Best Picture. Move along.

Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I know better than to predict too much from a David Fincher movie, who is an all-or-nothing director if there is one. At worst, in my opinion, he makes the movie 200 minutes long and feel longer than “Zodiac.” At best, Brad Pitt wins an Oscar, and Cate Blanchett and the fabulous (fabulous!) Taraji Henson get Academy talk. I think it’s more likely to see a win from an actor in this movie than the movie as a whole, but that’s only after a 90-second trailer.

Defiance: Not everyone loves Edward Zwick, but one can only hope that his WWII epic is the compilation of what he learned in “Glory” and “Blood Diamond” and “The Last Samurai.” It looks fabulous; for me, second behind “Blindness” in the best trailers of the bunch. I think Liev Schreiber might be in good position to get a nod from the Academy, which is nice. I don’t know if I believe in Daniel Craig enough to say he gets a leading nomination. Instead, I think it’s more likely the film, which looks a little more put together than WWII counterparts “Australia” and “Miracle at St. Anna”, is nominated for Best Picture.

Happy-Go-Lucky: An off-the-wall choice by Tapley, clearly trying to throw in a few underdogs on his list. Surprised this made it and “Hamlet 2” didn’t, frankly, but Tapley spent time in London so I’ll give him credit here. It seems like Sally Hawkins might just be in line for a surprise nomination for playing Poppy, but I doubt this movie has the legs to make it all the way. Too cutesy, and while some would say that about “Juno,” I think Diablo Cody’s script did have some edge.

Miracle at St. Anna: This is Spike Lee’s biggest undertaking in years, certainly more so than the forgettable “Inside Man” that is referenced in the trailer. I haven’t liked a Lee movie a great deal in 16 years, since Denzel Washington nailed “Malcolm X” into my memory. This is much more of an ensemble cast than this, so this is the opposite of Benjamin Button: it’s more likely a Best Picture nomination than anything from the actors. I think it misses the mark slightly, though, falling short to Defiance and aiming a bit too large like Australia.

Most Likely Best Picture Nominees: Blindness, Defiance, Curious Case of Benhamin Button, Australia
Most Likely Best Actor Nominees: Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig
Most Likely Best Actress Nominees: Julianne Moore, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman
Most Likely Best Supporting Actor Nominees: Heath Ledger, Russell Crowe, Liev Schreiber, John Malkovich, Gael Garcia Bernal
Most Likely Best Supporting Actress Nominees: Cate Blanchett, Frances McDormand, Taraji Henson

Best Guess at 5 Best Picture Nominees: Blindness, Changeling, Defiance, Milk, Revolutionary Road.


WHAP Reviews: The Dark Knight

July 24, 2008

In “Batman Begins,” the first installment of Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy, Bruce Wayne is put under a microscope. Nolan went to great lengths to show what makes Wayne tick, and more importantly, how his dogmatic personality translates to becoming a symbol for justice. It’s, reduced, not much more than a character study, but it worked with Nolan’s fabulous film noir take, Christian Bale’s step onto acting’s A-list, and just enough controlled performances from actors that could, and have, been the lead in other movies.

However, we find out now that is was little more than a foundation, enough of a necessary understanding to allow us to delve much deeper. “The Dark Knight”, quickly crashing every box office record known to man as it hunts down “Titanic” for ultimate box office supremacy, pulls out a far larger microscope. No longer do we leave Gotham City for half the movie — we leave it, but only as a quick aside — because this is a movie about Gotham City. What does it say about a town that allows a masked man to become their vigilante for justice?

One thing that it allows, as we see, is for a masked juxtaposition. Just as the mob has begun to become scared by the Batman’s light in the sky, a new “class of criminal” arrives in town that is unafraid of everyone and everything. The Joker’s first course of action is to steal $70 million from the mob, but it’s only done to turn their heads. HIs true destiny is against Batman, as a symbol for justice meets an “agent of chaos.”

The Joker is a character that, for his own ridiculousness, is pretty smart. He claims to be a spontaneous criminal, but doesn’t give himself enough credit, as we never see a plan that isn’t well-thought out and designed to turn things on his head. Against Batman, he uses everything Batman stands for against him. The vow not to kill? Against Joker’s hunger to kill, it’s truly an “irresistible force meeting an immovable object.” His mask? Joker calls for it to go off, and the movie is set into motion by his vow to kill until the human beneath Batman’s armor is revealed.

Throughout the movie, there is one “ace in the hole,” that has an effect on this battle between good and evil. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s new D.A., is Gotham’s white knight. Wayne develops a great deal of respect for Dent, who is unafraid taking down the entire mob at once, unafraid showing his own face. It Batman is a symbol, Dent becomes a face.

And then, on the flip of a coin, he becomes Two-Face. In a series of events that leaves Dent on a vengeance quest, and he flips, becoming Nolan’s No. 2 villain and giving the Joker what he wants — to show the line between good and evil can be crossed by anyone. The film is about, no less, whether or not Gotham City is a town that can believe in the good of people. Bruce Wayne and Batman believe that it can be, that it is, and the Joker believes it’s a desolate environment where everything is headed South.

As much as it’s a story about Batman, it might be more a story about The Joker. Unlike Tim Burton’s “Batman”, Nolan gives us no explanation, just hints, at the Joker’s backstory. His insanity is unchanged, which offers Heath Ledger a chance at controlled consistency in an unstable role. Ledger shines in every scene, so much so that he actually outshines everyone else in the movie. Short of Daniel Plainview, it’s probably the best performance of the decade, and almost certainly the best supporting role. Ledger’s humor, juxtaposing his actions, give such life to a character that is so fictional.

My criticism of “The Dark Knight,” which borders on my only criticism after a second viewing, is that the Nolan Brothers screenplay in ways throws the baby out with the “Batman Begins” bath water, and to mix metaphors, throws Bale under the bus in doing so. Title be damned, this is not a story about Batman, and it’s not a story at all about Bruce Wayne. Bale is given nary an opportunity to react emotionally, to show us that underneath the suit lies an actor with some pretty good acting chops.

Per usual, Nolan handles the rest of his supporting cast with a watchful eye. Eckhart is brilliant as Harvey Dent — for which his role in “Thank You For Smoking” was an interesting precursor — and okay as Two-Face. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to show great selflessness in reprising their small roles, but Caine is such a good Alfred, I can’t imagine we ever saw the butler as someone different. The lone issue most have is with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who just seems an awkward fit; her fire just comes off different from Katie Holmes.

However, the beauty of this movie is the combination of blockbuster and film noir. The movie will almost certainly win an Oscar in sound editing or mixing, in art direction or because of The Joker’s make-up. However, Nolan has veered from cheesy at every take in this series, and it never feels like it belongs in the superhero genre. Nolan goes after his characrers mercifully, showing us motivations and weaknesses, and showing us that every town has an underbelly. It might not be led by capes, face paint or the Mob, but it’s there, and it’s up to the good to repel it.

With “Batman Begins,” Nolan built himself a foundation. With “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s interest in this series was truly unveiled, and thanks to Ledger, Nolan’s scope doesn’t feel too big, even if it might be.

WHAP Rating: 4.5/5.0


The Last Performance

July 18, 2008

I will indeed get around to reviewing “The Dark Knight.” But, after seeing the 12:01 show tonight, I texted a friend that the movie was: “very good and very complex.” So until I come to terms with some of the questions in my head, this will have to do.

This was the role that Jack Nicholson played. It was, infamously, the role that Jack warned about. It’s a role that demands two faces, Harvey Dent be damned — between humor and anger, between psychopathic and plotting. It’s a role that has been getting Oscar talk since the first day Michael Cain was on set. It’s also, of course, the last role of a great actor’s life.

Put it all together, and the following is hyperbole that fits: it is the most anticipated performance in the history of cinema.

Needless to say, with anticipation comes a divergence in strange opinions. Some claim that this is the role that killed him. Some claim that it’s an injustice that the last time we’ll see Heath Ledger on screen is portraying a delusional face of evil. Some claim the posthumous Academy Award already belongs in the grave. It’s expected given the man, the death and the role, but it’s all a bit ridiculous.

I’ll first say that I don’t think this is the role that killed him. I believe Christian Bale when he says that he saw Heath having fun with this movie, having fun with this role.

Why do I believe that? Because it shows on screen. Looking back, if I can say one thing about Ledger’s performance, it’s that he was pitch-perfect in every comedic note. More than anything else, he made an anxious theatre erupt in laughter more than once. Personally, it came as a relief, that the darkness of the role was overshadowed by the comedy of it. Heath didn’t go out as some face for evil, he went out painted like a clown and acting like a brilliant comedian.
As far as the Oscar, this is dangerous territory, especially seven months out, especially without a deep knowledge of the performances yet to be seen. Speculating or handicapping his chances is a fool’s errand. But I’ll say that Nolan’s script is monologue-heavy, and if Supporting Oscars are awarded to the man that steals the most scenes, Ledger is in good position. That Batman’s actions speak louder than his words allows for Joker’s voice to be the most vocal in the movie.

Walk out of the movie, and think of a scene. It will be one of Heath’s, almost assuredly.

Before his death, Ledger talked about the difficulty of the role because — and I’m paraphrasing — the Joker is a character without conscience. He kills, but there’s not an ounce of remorse. He doesn’t kill to make a point. If I recall correctly, the Joker refers to himself as “an agent of chaos.” It’s a nuanced role, and for the first third of the movie, I questioned whether Heath was giving the nuanced performance that was promised. For awhile, the comedy was shining too bright, it was casting a shadow over the other aspects of the character it was supposed to balance with.

And rather than overstep my boundaries, I will say that he flips on the switch, turns the performance on the head and takes off. Nolan’s monologues get some of the credit, but halfway into the film, Ledger toes every line.

We wondered, and some worried, whether “The Dark Knight” would be the fitting conclusion to Heath’s legacy. In the end, I’m happy to report, Heath Ledger will be “The Dark Knight”‘s legacy.