Friday, July 18, 2008


Review: The Dark Knight (revised)
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Here it is, the movie of the summer, and beyond any doubt, one of the major movie events of the year. Writer/director Christopher Nolan's “The Dark Knight” is the kind of all-consuming, larger-than-life picture that makes me want to shout out a mouthful of cliches - the ones that show up in ads all the time nowadays but should really be reserved for only the very best films.
“Pulse pounding.” “Thrilling.” “Brilliant.” “Perfect.” Did it make me think and feel all of those things in one way or another? Yes. Is Heath Ledger's twisted turn as The Joker worthy of an Oscar? Yes. Is it better than the first? Hell yes. To use another cliché, “everything you've heard is true.”

With 2005's franchise revamp “Batman Begins,” Nolan (whose credits also include “Memento” and “The Prestige”) took a novel approach to committing a high-flying hero to film by boldly bringing his caped crusader down to Earth. He presented an origin story that was firmly grounded in reality and accounted for all of the unanswered questions about a figure as unbelievable as Batman, from the birthplace of his gadgets and martial arts skills to the cocky playboy persona of Bruce Wayne that he presents to the public. In the process, Nolan made a thinking person's adventure tale in a gritty and grown-up way that Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Batman Returns”) could only touch upon and that Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever,” “Batman & Robin”) couldn't even see. With its hotly anticipated sequel, he takes that same approach not steps, but great leaps forward, fashioning it into a sprawling crime epic on a par with Michael Mann's “Heat” (think bank heists, mobsters, shootouts, urban drama, and international intrigue).

Returning with Nolan is most of his shockingly strong original cast, including Christian Bale, who again dons Batman's cape and cowl better than any of his predecessors. Also back is Michael Caine as the benevolent butler Alfred, Gary Oldman as the venerable Lt. Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Wayne's trusty gadget guru, Lucius Fox – the Q to the masked vigilante's Bond. Replaced is Katie Holmes, as assistant district attorney/love interest Rachel Dawes, by the markedly more talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, finally making this wonder of an ensemble feel complete. New to it is Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You for Smoking”) as Harvey Dent, the fictitious Gotham City's shiny, new, white knight of a D.A. As fans of the comics are well aware, Dent has a much larger part to play in the Batman anthology and, to their sure delight, Eckhart has a larger part to play in the film than its trailers and TV spots let on.

Indeed, the most buzzed about new arrival is The Joker, a maniacal, anarchic villain whose opening bank robbery sets the tone for the reign of terror he eventually holds over Gotham for the sheer, psychotic joy of it. The timing of Ledger's tragic death and the extraordinary amount of press his performance is receiving enhance the magnitude of this character in the viewer's mind but the way The Joker is wisely placed as the looming, omnipresent shadow over the film would have made him feel big nonetheless. He's unhinged, unpredictable, seemingly unstoppable, and you'll be unable to take your eyes off him. In the role, the late actor's work is, in a word: perfection. How someone can transform from the tight-lipped Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain” to this jerky wacko is beyond my comprehension but, however achieved, it's the type of transformative movie acting (that cackle!) that makes going to the movies so much fun in the first place. His serpentine, borderline epileptic take on the makeup-wearing menace renders the heartthrob unrecognizable and probably left Jack Nicholson (who played The Joker in Burton's “Batman”) in a state of “shoulda, coulda, woulda” shock.

Nolan stages the layered and surprising chapters of his brilliantly detailed script (co-written with brother Jonathan) with a patience and diligence that's rare in movies today. The focus is tight, but the story is vast and, in true epic form, characters within it see significant arcs and even deaths. At over two and a half hours, the film is long, but not too long, because nearly every minute and frame is necessary and can't-look-away entertaining. Even when “The Dark Knight”'s less exciting segments teeter on the brink of tedium, such as a romance that isn't quite nurtured enough to warrant its eventual, deadly side effects, something new and even more exciting reveals itself and draws you right back in. The cinematography by Wally Pfister (who earned an Oscar nomination for both “Begins” and “The Prestige”) is stripped of all ostentatious glamorizations, leaving only a crisp and flawless lens through which to view the action. The style of the film's appearance comes from his composition and soaring aerial views, as well as the masterfully executed core elements of editing and production design. There's so much to look at, so much to behold, so much in which to be engrossed in this dark saga, that I eventually gave up taking notes and just succumbed to its power.

Leaving “The Dark Knight,” I let out a heavy sigh - the kind that comes when one's breath has been occupied by an exhausting but, ultimately, supremely gratifying experience. You'll likely do the same because you'll have just experienced the finest superhero-themed movie ever made.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Review: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

The summer of 2008 will probably be remembered – in film buff circles, anyway – as the summer of the comic book movie. First, there was “Iron Man,” then “The Incredible Hulk,” then “Wanted,” then the offbeat twist “Hancock.” Did I miss anything? Oh yeah, Warner Bros. still has yet to release Christopher Nolan's “Batman Begins” sequel “The Dark Knight,” and I suppose one could argue the origins of “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.” That's enough geek lit.-inspired BIG pictures for three blockbuster seasons, let alone one. To add to this year's pile, here's “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.” Only, there's a catch: unlike its much inferior first installment (which simply couldn't hang with the cool kids like “Spider-Man” and the “X-Men”), this isn't a comic book movie. It's a pure-blooded fantasy, through and through, forged with streamlined Henson-esque imagination by growing master of the genre Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan's Labyrinth”), whose movies look better and better as studios agree to give him more and more money.

In this one, Hellboy (a rejected demon that the U.S. government picked up in Scotland in 1944, who files down his horns and likes TV and junk food) is in trouble with his superiors at the Trenton paranormal studies stronghold where he lives for unabashedly making himself visible in public. Meanwhile, the immortal elf prince Nuada, who's supposed to be hiding in the woods with his pale-skinned kin, is also making quite a stir, ascending from Manhattan sewers to terrorize wealthy auction-goers. It turns out the prince has quite a grudge against humanity. An ancient truce between the two races has gone stale, and Nuada is tired of literally living in the gutter. He needs only the final piece of a sacred crown (which is held by his estranged, do-gooder of a sister to which he has a type of psychic link) to possess the power to call upon The Golden Army, a battalion of indestructible machines that could wipe out mankind. Time to call Hellboy and his friends.

“Hellboy II” is better than its predecessor because the ingredients have changed. No doubt putting confidence in him after “Pan's” nabbed 3 Oscars, the producers of this flick have wisely given Del Toro carte-blanche to sprinkle on as much of his signature dark pixie dust as he pleases. This time, the hero is given a little more backstory in the beginning of the film, when a flashback to his childhood that's really only included to explain the history of the title's shiny force shows him as a wee pipsqueak with teeth like Alvin the Chipmunk. A bit too rubber-masky, this one element of this one sequence is the only misstep of Del Toro's perfect look for the picture, which is at once old fashioned and wildly inventive. Like Peter Jackson, Del Toro is a purist who favors makeup and puppets over the current industry-wide overuse of showy CGI. He uses computer enhancements, of course, but apparently only when necessary. This is a creature feature first, with monsters big and small, aside from the main characters. Scenes are populated with fairy-like crawly things, a winged grim reaper with a half-moon shaped head, an elven king with a tree branch growing out of his skull, and of course, the dreaded Golden Army: 4,900 individual masses of shimmering metal and animate lava. It all looks so organically dreamy, and it would make the recently deceased effects wizard Stan Winston proud.

It's a good thing Del Toro has that fantastic vision and artistic sensibility with which to dress this film up, because he doesn't get much magic out of his lead actors. Back as the cigar smoking, beer guzzling, demonic badass of the title is Ron Perlman, an actor who must be in great physical shape just to be able to move under what has to be dozens of pounds of red prosthetic flesh. But Perlman can't give much of an expressive performance buried beneath that crimson exterior, and when he does come to life, it's to deliver cheesy lines of bad boy dialogue that get old after the first act. Selma Blair, reprising the role of Hellboy's squeeze Liz Sherman, once again delivers some of the most lifeless movie acting I've ever seen. As if she's trying like hell to win a Razzie, everything Blair says and does lands with a heavy 'thud.' It's a cruel joke that her character has the ability to spontaneously combust at will, because she's dry and hollow enough to go up like firewood. Though he too is hidden behind fake skin and fins, the best of the bunch is frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones (he played Pan and the Pale Man in “Pan's Labyrinth”) as Hellboy's erudite, amphibious sidekick Abe Sapien. One of the industry's most sought after physical actors, Jones (whose buffed-up C-3PO build also landed him the role of the Silver Surfer in “Fantastic Four 2”) has much more screen time in this sequel than he did the first time around, and the movie is better for it. Watch for he and Perlman's drunken rendition of Barry Manilow's “Can't Smile Without You” - it's an unexpected delight.

It was recently confirmed that Del Toro has signed on to direct, possibly in two parts, “The Hobbit” - the prequel to Jackson's momentous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Jackson's are some incredibly large shoes to fill, given the fact that his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary classic forever changed the way epic pictures are made (and it raked in about a bajillion dollars). When legal disputes with New Line Cinema resulted in Jackson (who's currently wrapping the screen version of Alice Sebold's novel “The Lovely Bones”) stepping down from the director's chair to executive produce the “Hobbit” films, legions of fans (including myself) grew nervous about who could possibly take the reigns of this beloved franchise. Watching his newest creation not only put me at ease, but made me excited to see what Del Toro will bring to the table. His woodsy, autumnal aesthetic is perfect for Middle-Earth. Although its story is a little too reminiscent of his other superhero sequel, “Blade II” (what with the pasty villain and his family problems), if “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” is a preview of what's to come from this filmmaker, he could also steal Jackson's crown as the new king of fantasy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Combo Review: Wanted and Hancock
"Action Double Feature"
by R. Kurt Osenlund

For action lovers, there's a double dose of fireworks currently blasting through theaters, in the form of one reluctant superhero and a whole league of bullet-bending assassins. Both Columbia Pictures' “Hancock” and Universal's “Wanted” feature enough stunts to satisfy even the hungriest adrenaline junkie, with the latter offering up some of the cinema's niftiest visual effects to date. At the movies at least, there'll still be plenty to “ooh” and “ahh” about even after the 4th of July has passed.

While it surely won't be the smartest, unless Hollywood unveils some explosive secret weapon between now and December, “Wanted” will take its rightful place as the coolest film of the year. It's the latest in a growing line of post-”Matrix” actioners that seek to stretch the limits of computer enhanced thrills (see also: “300,” the underrated “Equilibrium,” and countless others), and it stretches them until they snap like broken bones. A well-oiled machine of awesome gunfights and even more awesome car chases, the stylish comic book fantasy is 104 minutes of trigger-happy hysteria.

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the lukewarm reception of his “Night Watch” films (2004 – 06) as a springboard from which to launch his high-octane talents to new heights. He translates Mark Millar and J.G. Jones' “Wanted” graphic novel – about a dissatisfied, anxiety-stricken accounts manager named Wesley who's destined to join a thousand-year-old fraternity of hitmen - to celluloid with the zeal of a popcorn filmmaker in his prime. An inner-city pursuit involving a Dodge Viper sends you weaving around medians, soaring above police barricades and flying through buses at breakneck speeds. Rippling, dizzying camera tricks illustrate moments of distress and built-up suspense with equal intensity. And a climactic assault is staged like an engrossing video game, brought to life for a few fleeting moments. Bekmambetov keeps the tone of his movie young, hip, funny and rude enough to still draw in wisecracking fanboys, but make no mistake: this is about as slick as modern action movies get.

James McAvoy (ditching the Brit accent) dutifully tackles the film's heroism and comic relief as Wesley, who's hilariously naïve before he transforms, via some obligatory time-lapsed training sequences, into a one-man army. Still, his spotlight doesn't stand a chance against the burning glow of Angelina Jolie, who it's now safe to conclude has the most seductive, bewitching face of any living actress. As Fox, the seasoned hitwoman sent to rescue Wesley from his cubicle hell, she gives “Wanted” an additional boost of energy that doesn't let up from the moment her character makes her first abrupt appearance. Although Fox is a supporting role, Jolie's star power is what the film's producers are using to promote it - and it's worth every penny. The magnetism of this woman's screen presence is priceless, to the point that a scene that's meant to focus on a bullet curving past her perfectly formed head may as well have included no bullet at all. She's pure dynamite, and she's the nearly flawless “Wanted”'s main event.

“Hancock,” Will Smith's latest star vehicle, casts the two-time Oscar nominee and top earner as a Los Angeles superhero for whom truth, justice and the American way are anything but top priorities. Lazy, dirty and depressed, Smith's titular character is introduced passed out on a bus stop bench surrounded by empty whiskey bottles. When he does engage in the occasional fight against crime, Hancock – the name comes from a cute origin story in which amnesia caused him to take a hospital's playful signature request quite literally – causes more harm than good, leaving millions of dollars of damage and hordes of disgruntled citizens in his haphazard wake. When he meets struggling PR consultant Ray (Jason Bateman), the two form an unlikely partnership that might just revive Ray's career and turn Hancock into a superhero for the makeover age.

“Hancock” sports a fun and clever script, written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan. At a time when Marvel is known more as a movie studio than as a comic book publisher, films of this genre are popping up everywhere and quality is in short supply. Here is an offbeat twist on the formula, that puts its heart in the right place without losing its punch. Hancock is not all-powerful and one-dimensional, but flawed, fragile and layered. Smith, the fine actor that he is, breathes believable life into him, even if it does feel like he's trying to fill his summer blockbuster quota. It's a kick to see the oft-dashing leading man take on a change-of-pace role, and as Ray's disapproving wife, fellow super-performer Charlize Theron matches Smith scene for scene.

The punch, in fact, is something of which “Hancock” could use a little less, as big budget and glossy as its effects may be. To viewers' delight, Smith derails freight trains, whizzes by 747's and tears up superhighways, all to the tune of a fortune in production costs. But the story and the actors are good enough that director Peter Berg needn't bombard those same viewers with scenes like a seemingly endless battle in which lightning, hail and even tornadoes demolish LA buildings. “Hancock” comes so close to being that rare superhero movie that practices restraint. If only it knew its own strength.

Wanted: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Hancock: 3 stars (out of 5)