Friday, July 25, 2008

The Dark Night Review

I had at first favored the cartoony style of the original Batman film, and I had kinda hoped this new Batman movie series would lean back toward that. I no longer feel that way, now that I've seen just how cool the story of Batman is when it takes the form of truly intense storytelling.

The film opens with our introduction to The Joker. Batman may be the protagonist, but Joker is undoubtedly the star of this film. Actor Heath Ledger has perfectly portrayed the true essence of Joker; that is, as he openly acknowledges far into the movie, "Hey, I don't have a plan. I'm like a dog chasing cars: if I ever actually caught one I wouldn't know what to do with it!" He's a psychotic killer with no long-term plan or destination. He's a man "who just wants to watch the world burn." We've repeatedly witnessed this aspect of The Joker in Batman films and TV over the years. It used to be a cliche. Now, here it is in it's most definitive form, and it somehow comes across in an amazingly believable way and cool way. I can't emphasize enough what an amazing accomplishment this has been for Heath Ledger. It's something you have to see to believe.

Batman(Christian Bale), too, is much darker this time around. Violent and reckless well describes many of his actions, and self-contemplation causes him to fear for the city of Gotham, and for himself; the monster he's capable of turning into. In a new way, his character lends an essentially dark tone to the story.

The story's plot is incredibly extensive. So much had happened in so many intense ways by around the end of act two, I half expected the film to end right there. To my delight the story picked right up and kept going, the remainder of almost an hour of film time delivering more action and drama than the rest of the film put together! It was gripping, beautiful, and a rare quality. Less than a handful of films I've witnessed have achieved this level of quality plot construction.

There was hardly any blood, gore, or swearing, and yet it's the most intense superhero movie I've ever seen. It strikes the perfect balance: dark enough to be engaging and fun enough to be genuinely enjoyable. The only complaint I have is that the ending felt somewhat abrupt after all those plot twists and turns.

I didn't quite expect to see a better superhero film than Iron Man any time soon, but I'd have to say that The Dark Knight takes the cake.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hancock Review

I recently got a chance to check out the new film Hancock, starring Will Smith. I remembered how I liked his performance in I Am Legend and was in the mood for more.

John Hancock is a basically an antisocial superhero that nobody wants. He's always coming up with brutally straight-forward solutions, instead of thinking things over. Every time he saves the day he costs people thousands(sometimes millions) of dollars in damages in the process. When a warrant is obtained for his arrest, a public relations expert suggests that he let himself get incarcerated. The expert claims that within two weeks the crime rate will go up and everyone will want him back, and Hancock will get the acceptance he's wanted deep down all his life.

The story is interesting at first, but soon loses most all sense of coherence. Most all the characters are stereotypical, accept for Will Smith's part, and I even had trouble relating to him when the second act of the story started to grind. The truth is the plot doesn't have a very concrete sense of direction, and becomes even less solid at the twist point around two-thirds into the movie. Of course the dullness of the action didn't help, either. There was one part that had real potential for a good fight scene, but ended up so terribly choreographed I almost cried.

But most importantly, it's just an unintelligible tale. It can't decide what it's all about. It's sad really, because the first act and a half could have been great simply as a short story or Twilight Zone episode, if properly structured.

If Will Smith hadn't starred in Hancock, it would have been a bad film. Real bad. Smith's charm has improved the atmosphere of the story a good amount. Still, it's a mediocre movie that I'm quite sure I never want to see again.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Wall-E Review

For those that may have missed the previews or don't know: Wall-E is a small, domestic robot that was designed to clean up and sort litter and waste. He's been doing it for over seven hundred years, and has developed a very interestingly curious(and somewhat lonely) personality. It seems a great shame to give away much more than that, so I'll leave the summary there.

For those that have seen the previews, you already know that Wall-E features some awesomely realistic landscape visuals and cute robotic voice-acting. What you don't learn from the trailer is that the film is both charming, and genuinely dramatic; two things that are hard to find in a movie these days, and especially together. In fact, I won't lie to you: I was blown away by this story. Everything from the sheer amount of character portrayed in every robot's movements, to the dramatic plot points(which are surprisingly concrete and emotional for a kids' movie).

Wall-E is absolutely everything it's hyped up to be: a philosophical, uplifting, and charmingly memorable adventure. Never before has the phrase "An amazing movie that kids and adults alike can enjoy and appreciate" been so true. Miss out on this film and you are missing out on something real special.

Pros: Awesome visuals. Touching and philosophically insightful storyline. Genuine drama. Undeniably charming voice-acting and robot animations. Beautiful romantic elements. Emotional plot points. Satisfying character arcs and development.

Cons: Certain aspects of the ending are a little hard to believe.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Iron Man Review

Iron Man has got to be one of the most genuinely different super hero films I've ever seen. The reason for this is not better action or special effects - though they are some of the best I've ever seen - but rather, a sense of detail and development that has never so well captured the spirit of the series it's based on.

The main character is Tony Stark, a world-famous weapons manufacturer. At the inciting incident, he's captured during a presentation in a foreign country by terrorists using his own "Stark Industries" technology, in an attack during which all Stark's comrades are killed. His captors tell him they'll set him free if he builds them a Jericho missile. They give him all the materials he needs, and set him to work. But, though his captors don't know it, he's not building a missile. He's building a suit.

If you've seen the trailers, you get the basic idea. The suit is made up of a titanium alloid that protects Stark from the weapons of the world and has the technology that allows him to fight back. Having said that, the action can be very fast and satisfying, yet also quite smart and tactics-based. Think Gundam with a superhero twist.

But what really stood out to me was how detailed the storyline was. Many people have said that the pace grinds, but I would hardly say that. The supposed "slow" moments in the story have just as much momentum and sense of development as the other areas, which is really what the meaning behind the success of this film comes down to. Not to mention the fact that renowned actor Robert Downey has become to Tony Stark what Christopher Reeve was to Clark Kent at Superman's release in an amazing performance. It's an incredible thing when an actor is absolutely perfect for the job, and even more so when he does a next-to-perfect job as well.

Pros: Great action, character arcs, and storyline. Manages to capture the feel of a superhero show.

Cons: Okay, maybe it grinds at a couple parts, but it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Alvin And The Chipmunks Review

Alvin and the Chipmunks is neither entertaining or insightful. It is badly written, badly casted, and badly acted out. Kid's movies don't get much worse than this. Why has it sold so well since it's DVD release, even when review scores have been so low? Who knows. I guess some people find the presence of talking chipmunks more than enough compensation; namely parents who can't tell a good movie from a bad one, or simply don't give a care.

Pros: Talking chipmunks?

Cons: Shamelessly constructed out of terribly executed cliches. Really, super predictable. Not much of a point(except for the talking chipmunks).

Rating: 2 out of 10

Bee Movie Review

Bee Movie is witty, charming, and inviting. Unfortunately, these aren't the only things a good story requires, and a few structural problems make it rather hard to recommend.

Jerry Seinfeld voices the protagonist, Barry B. Benson; who just so happens to be a bee. Barry is experiencing what could be called an early-life crisis. After graduating from bee collage he discovers that the career he chooses will be permanent. In other words, bee jobs last for the rest of their lives. Barry fails to see the point in the making of honey, and puts off choosing a job. He contemplates the purpose of work, and finally decides he wants to see the outside of the hive before commiting himself to a life of labor.

This may sound like the beginnings of a solemn tale, but it's far from it. The characters are charming and jokes, big and small, are pretty constant throughout the story. What's more, some very interesting themes and ideas resonate, concerning work and duty. The same can't be said for most animated films out there.

At the same time, though, I couldn't help but notice just how slow the pace is. Though the story is ultimately somewhat meaningful, there's just barely(if truly) enough momentum and development to take you there. It was interesting at times, but again, I can't say I'd recommend it.

Pros: Funny. More meaningful message than alot of kid's movies.

Cons: Slow pace, shallow storyline.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Why Disney's Robin Hood Isn't A Classic

Definition of "Classic":
a. Belonging to the highest rank or class.
b. Serving as the established model or standard
c. Having lasting significance or worth; enduring

Here are some reasons why Robin Hood, though remarkable and influential in it's time, is not a classic, and Disney should stop pretending it is. These reasons are not opinions, but truths according to structural flaws. These flaws include:

1. Too Much "Fluff": Today's movie scriptwriters have learned to begin scenes as late as possible and end them as soon as possible. They've also learned to throw out any material that doesn't further the story. The reason for this is that they have only two hours to get their message across. "Fluff" is any meaningless line of dialogue or pointless action. In other words, it's screentime without story. Robin Hood is overflowing with examples of this. It's scenes come in early and exit much too late with too many details without exposition or movement. The result is that viewers, especially young kids, become bored and stop watching. Also, it's just bad storytelling.

2. Limp Protagonist: Every story must have conflict. Without conflict there can be no resolution, and the plot structure collapses. Furthermore, direct conflict only takes place because characters make choices that bring it about. Now, Robin Hood's fault is not in it's conflict, but rather in the essence of it's conflict. It's true that stories require action and reaction, but for some reason the main character, Robin, always seems to be on the reaction end. This is true not only for the Setup, but also the Confrontational and Resolution stages of the plot. Think about it. What happens if a character never makes a direct action to overthrow antagonism, but is always reacting instead? When the antagonist Prince John raises taxes and the town of Nottingham goes into depression, Robin does nothing about it. Instead, Prince John makes another action by ordering that Friar Tuck be hanged(in a crafty attempt to ambush Robin Hood), and Robin reacts by executing a jail break and freeing all the unjustly imprisoned inhabitants. Hmm. Why didn't he just save all those poor prisoners in the first place? The film provides no explanation. Though witty and charming, Robin is ultimately becomes a character we can't relate to or properly cheer for.

3. No Concrete Controlling Idea: A controlling idea is the inner message of the story. It's referred to as "controlling" because it directs the plot's events and characters in order to reflect a meaning. Though there are themes of unjust taxes and oppression in Robin Hood, a controlling idea itself is strangely absent. Interesting, as this element is often the ultimate purpose of a film.

Finally, and most importantly...

4. Abrupt And Anticlimactic Ending: At the ending of the final cut of Disney's Robin Hood, Robin and Little John set out to save the innocent imprisoned villagers. This happened, as I've mentioned, after Prince John announced the execution of Friar Tuck. So, our heroes snuck into the prison in the dead of night and managed to quietly free the majority of those held prisoner, and save Friar Tuck.

Eventually the alert sounds and an action sequence ensues. Robin helps everyone escape from the castle except for himself, who is trapped inside. The Sheriff of Nottingham chases Robin up a tower, lighting it on fire as he repeatedly swings at Robin with his torch. Robin escapes to the roof of the tower, but has nowhere to run, as the fire climbs. Finally, Robin leaps off of the tower and lands in a nearby pond outside of the castle's walls.

Prince John has his archers fire on Robin position. Robin struggles to swim to land, but then appears to be hit by an arrow and sinks. Little John, who was watching from land, mourns for Robin. Just then, he sees a small stalk poking out of the water. Robin had been using it breathe underwater; hurray he's saved! And then, bizarrely, the movie drops from there and ends.

It's really perplexing, because structurally this point where this movie stops should have been the beginning of act three. There should have been another twist that pushed the story on for at least another twenty minutes. However, further research provides at least some answers as to why they made this decision.

In the original draft of the movie, Robin Hood did jump off the tower, and Prince John did for a moment think he was dead. In the original draft, when Robin surfaces from the water, he's mortally wounded, and drops to the ground unconcious. At that point troops begin scouring the area for Robin's body, to be sure. Little John lifts Robin and runs, as Prince John's minions take after him. At about the time Little John loses the soldiers, the Prince has adorned an iconically dark cloak and is following a trail of Robin's blood through the woods. Finally, he comes to the church, and sees Little John run out from it to go to find help. Now is the Prince's chance! He'll sneak in and stab Robin in his sleep! (Isn't this turning out to be a much more interesting ending than the original?)

Prince John creeps into the church and sees Robin lying alone and unprotected. He unsheathes and lifts his dagger, but is suddenly surprised by his brother, King Richard, who comes up behind him. It's then that King Richard rebukes the Prince and puts him in his place. I would have prefered an even more climactic conclusion, such as one where Robin in his weak condition had to find a way to turn the tables on the Prince at the last second, but almost anything would have been better than the ending in the final version. I'm rather puzzled that they chose not to go through with the original ending, because the result is something of an injustice to the audience, who never get to experience the true fulfillment that the storyline should have given.

Disney's Robin Hood has many remarkably charming and influential moments. On the other hand, the flaws listed above would condemn most any of today's movies. Disney is lying to you, and I imagine they're getting paid quite alot for it.

I Am Legend Review

One of the first things I noticed was that the film's atmosphere is horrifyingly intense, and at times, depressing. However, just because it's not everyone's cup of tea doesn't mean I Am Legend shouldn't be recognized as a shining example of a zombie film done very well.

Please excuse a brief "spoiler": The film opens to a TV interview with a female scientist who has found the cure for cancer. But has she? After this brief sequence, we skip three years ahead and are shown a New York City completely devoid of human life. What happened here? It's not hard to guess, but maybe that's why it's such a fantastic hook.

As it turns out, there's only one true man left in New York, perhaps the world. Robert Neville, played by Will Smith, has been living off deer and canned food for years, working to create a cure for a deadly virus that has seized the entire planet. Hosts of the virus experience a massive increase in aggression and a decrease in intelligence. Basically very fast and powerful zombies, they are killed by exposure to sunlight but remain a huge threat at night, the only time they can be found and used as a test subject.

For some of the movie, I found the pace very much like No Country For Old Men; slow, detailed, and steady. The action sequences, however, really stand out, being somehow, amazingly, both physically and emotionally intense. Much of the quality of these scenes should be credited to Will Smith, who was amazingly sincere. Some scenes were so specifically emotional that if anyone besides Smith had acted it out I probably would've laughed instead of taken it seriously.

Zombie movies may have developed something of a bad name over the years, but I Am Legend has shown me there's still life in the sub-genre yet.

Pros: Immersive storyline communicates a deep meaning. Will Smith is genuinely convincing.

Cons: Kind of depressing. Some people may not appreciate the detailed slowness of the first act.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Prince Caspian Review

Prince Caspian has shown me a much darker, cooler side of Narnia, even if it is less deep in terms of storyline.

Much like the first film in the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian revolves around the four Pevensie siblings: Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter. However, it also introduces a new major character to the series: Caspian.

Caspian has been Prince in the world of Narnia for years, cousin and successor to King Miraz. However, one fateful night Miraz himself has a son, and soon after orders that Caspian be killed so that his child can succeed the throne instead. Warned just in time, Caspian makes a daring escape and is on the run from that moment on, from his own family and kin.

Just before his escape he is given a trumpet that, he is told, will summon the four kings and queens of old to aid him. That's where our heroes come in.

Let me just say that this second movie has a very, very different feel from the first. The Pevensies are like the Jason Bournes/James Bonds/Indiana Jones' of Narnia. Slick, cool and experienced, they rapidly dispatch of any extra-personal obstacles in their path. I swear, they're superhuman or something, (and I mean that in the best possible way). An action flick this is, down to it's bones.

For the most part, the film remains faithful to C.S. Lewis' book. Though it utilized some stylish character development, inner conflict, and a romantic subplot, I found that this didn't so much stray from the novel as expand on it. The result is an enhanced storyline fit for a moviegoing audience. When I left the theater, I felt an urge to turn back in and watch it over again.

Pros: Awe-inducing action from beginning to end, dark storyline, deep inner conflict, cool characters and development.

Cons: Kind of shallow storyline. Also, some people may not be expecting a fullblown action flick.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Appleseed: Ex Machina Review

This is a review I originally posted on FrayedWire.

Appleseed: Ex Machina is the second and latest installment in the Appleseed movie trilogy, based on the japanese manga of the same name.

Appleseed has always been a story about the future. It’s world is that of cyborgs, offensive mechs, and, most importantly, a bio-engineered sub-race of humans called the Bioroids, who are designed to be resistant to emotions like hatred and rage. Bioroids are often appointed as leaders and officials. They maintain, uphold, and protect Olympus, the city where this story takes place.

The film takes off as Deunan Knute(a particularly hot and experienced human soldier) and her “friend” and partner Briareos(a cyborg from the war) infiltrate a cathedral occupied by cyborg terrorists. When Briareos gets heavily injured and hospitalized because of a blast, he is temporarily replaced in the battle to stop the terrorists by a Bioroid named Tereus, who was contructed mainly from Briareos’ DNA. So basically Tereus is the spitting image and personality of Briareos before he lost most of his bodyparts and became a cyborg. The result is a setup that may not sound like such a great springboard for a story like this, but looks great in action.

Those that got a chance to check out the first film will find that Ex Machina is a very different yet largely superior animal. However, I urge you to watch it at least the first time in Japanese with English Subtitles. The reason for this is that it was originally released in japanese, so the lip sync, voice acting, dialogue and pace are all superior to the american version, resulting in what is just a plain better quality movie experience. John Woo’s entrancing action sequences don’t need to be dumbed down with swear words that are thrown in where ever possible, which is exactly what the english version attempts to do.

For fans of action flicks all-around, this is certainly something worth checking out. But for fans of japanese animation and John Woo’s choreographic style, Ex Machina is going to be nothing less than a must-see.

Pros: Outstanding visual style and action. Much more character-driven than the first.

Cons: Main plot involving cyborg terrorists relies on what has become a huge cliche in moviemaking. Mediocre english dub.

Final Score: 8 out of 10