Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

(This review contains spoilers.)

Christopher Nolan has done a rare thing - created a sequel that is better than the original; even more rare, he has created a summer blockbuster that stays absolutely pure to previously-established characters and added layers of complexity to a story that we've never seen in a comic book film.

The Dark Knight
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine


Not since Cloverfield has there been this much pre-movie hype for a film. This is thanks to The Dark Knight's massive viral marketing campaign, which included viral websites, online games that revealed pictures from the movie, actual campaign rallies in major cities for the fictional Harvey Dent, sending fans real cell phones with recorded calls from the Joker and Lieutenant Jim Gordon, a made-up newspaper called The Gotham Times, and more. Read a near-complete synopsis of the campaign here. Needless to say, the company behind this campaign should be pleased with their efforts, since the movie has already broken the record for highest opening day sales of all time. And besides all of the online work, the trailer won the prestigious Golden Trailer Award for Trailer of the Year.


Another aspect that added to The Dark Knight's hype was that Nolan decided to shoot about 20 minutes of the movie with IMAX cameras. This has never been done before in a Hollywood film. At first, I didn't really think it would make that much difference, since the IMAX experience is generally overrated and not worth the extra money. However, by actually shooting for the medium, Nolan blew away expectations and the result is something that literally caused a collective gasp from the audience I saw the film with. If you can make it to an IMAX theater, the experience is totally worth whatever extra cost may be involved - in fact, you can't truly experience the movie the way it was intended if you just see it in regular theaters. Trust me, even if you've already seen the movie once, try to get out and check it out in IMAX - it's that cool.


The other obvious element that sent the publicity for the movie skyrocketing was the accidental overdose of Heath Ledger. The dude had talent, ladies and gentlemen. His Joker was (in my opinion) by far the best role he's ever played, and it's fitting that the last full role he ever completed will be his most memorable. Nolan's world of Batman is dark, realistic, and layered - and who better to come tearing through it like a shark than The Joker? Heath has done for the Joker what Hopkins did for Hannibal Lecter - inhabit a persona so intensely that you forget there's an actor there at all. There's been talk of Ledger winning the second-ever posthumous Oscar, but no one really knows if that'll happen. Suffice it to say that his performance is already legendary and it's destined to be talked about for years whenever villains in film are mentioned. Amazingly enough, Ledger never watched his performance in the dailies at the end of each day's shoot - he didn't want there to be any consistency to his character at all. There's a great interview with him over at FHM where he says the role is "the most fun he's ever had." So all of those people who assume that he sunk himself so deep into the role that he killed himself can think again. Plus, the guy would go out of his way to get into full makeup (even for scenes that he wasn't being filmed for!) to help his fellow actors react better to his character.


While we're on the topic of The Joker, Nolan and Ledger agreed that the character should represent anarchy and chaos and therefore be as destructive and random as possible throughout the movie. Traditionally, we think of the Joker as more of a "gag" villain who shoots acid out of a flower and occasionally robs a bank. The Joker in The Dark Knight is a much smarter one; one who indirectly supports theories that the character is actually a super-intellect - one of the smartest people in the world, explaining why everyone else thinks he's crazy. "I'm not crazy," he tells some gangsters in the Gotham underworld, and the tone in his voice indicates he's serious. There have long been theories that The Joker is so smart that he figured out Batman's secret identity years ago, but wouldn't dare give him up because, as he tells Batman in the movie, "You're just too much fun." The idea that Batman and The Joker need each other is one that also has been around for years in the comic books and other media: the notion of escalation from the end of Batman Begins is captured in the relationship between the two ends of the spectrum - one who is trying to shake up the status quo, and one who is trying to restore it. In The Dark Knight, The Joker stands for anarchy, which ties back to nihilism. He thinks that nothing matters, and therefore tries to make situations as wild as possible. Even his own history seems contrived and ambiguous, as if he doesn't even care enough about his own past to keep his story straight. He tells different people different stories about how he got the scars on his face, each story being effective for the moment it was told. That's what The Joker believes in - what serves him best right now until he can escape from this world and those who are in it. The "it's all part of the plan" speech that he gives Harvey in the hospital bed is a perfect summation of these beliefs. But Batman gives him new life - an adversary almost as twisted as he is, with whom he can share all of his distorted perceptions of the world. They understand each other, they need each other, and as The Joker says, Batman "complete[s]" him.


Standing between Batman and The Joker is Harvey Dent, brilliantly played by Aaron Eckhart. Dent's political rise and eventual transformation into Two-Face is The Dark Knight's real story arc. Gotham's White Knight (as opposed to Batman, the Dark one), District Attorney Harvey Dent is Batman's one chance to lead a normal life again. With do-gooder Dent cleaning up the streets in a legitimate, legal way, Bruce Wayne can finally hang up his Batcape and pass the hero mantle on to an elected official in Gotham, restoring a sense of normalcy to a city that's been through hell and back. Dent's character is not to be taken lightly - we all know that he is to become Two-Face, but it's mesmerizing to watch him fall to those depths after hitting such extreme heights. Eckhart brings a nuance to the DA that isn't noticed unless you're really looking for it - flashes of the eyes when situations don't quite go his way, and little hints of things to come highlight one of the best performances of the film. It's especially evident in the scene where Dent has captured the assassination conspirator and is trying to frighten him into giving up Rachel's whereabouts. We see that he wants to cross that line into the world of the vigilante, yearning to be Batman (he even claims the mantle in a press conference) while the Caped Crusader ironically wants the opposite. Batman himself steps in, diffusing the situation and reminding Harvey of all he represents to Gotham, not allowing him to go any further. And after Rachel's shocking death due to The Joker's trap, Dent allows The Clown Prince of Crime to talk him over onto the dark side, completing his transformation into Two-Face and showing exactly what can happen when good people are pushed too far. Harvey has lost everything he loves, and there's no going back.


Katie Holmes declined to reprise her role as Rachel Dawes due to "conflicting schedules" (read: Tom wouldn't let her out of the house), so Maggie Gyllenhaal ably stepped into the characters shoes, doing a much better job than Holmes could have anyway. Maggie brings an air of pride to the character that wasn't present in Batman Begins, and showcases a personality that warrants two of the most eligible bachelors in Gotham vying for her attention. The love triangle between Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes is a key element in The Dark Knight's equation: without Rachel, as we eventually see, nothing goes as planned. Bruce's love for her keeps him hoping that Dent can replace him as Gotham's hero, but Rachel has already fallen for Dent. There has been some discussion about whether or not Batman went after Rachel or Harvey when The Joker gives him the ultimatum: either can be justified, since they are both of equal importance to him on a personal level. But I think I recall him saying "I'm going after Rachel," choosing potential love over the safety of Gotham in Dent's hands. Because what good is a safe Gotham if he can't be safe in it with the woman he loves? Alas, The Joker switched the locations of the two hostages (or did he?), and Batman arrived in time to save Dent instead of Rachel. If he had truly gone after Dent, that would mean that he abandoned Rachel, implying that his love for Gotham outweighs any love for a woman. Both are valid arguments. What did you guys think?


The third group of three (Wayne, Dent, Dawes - Batman, Dent, Joker) can be found in the triumvirate of Batman, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon. Gordon is the head of the Major Crimes Unit, and the three of them try to clean up the city. It's interesting to see all of the different sets of three that are presented to us in relationships throughout this film (Wayne, his secret identity of Batman, and Alfred, for another). Everything about The Dark Knight, from its fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to the ensemble cast and the story, elevated the movie to a level that rises above any other summer blockbuster I can remember.


Here's the part where I go off about a little thing that I picked up that may or may not be legit. Was it just me, or did anyone else think there was an Obama reference when Wayne handed off the power (spying on citizens) to Lucius Fox (black dude) and left the decision to use it in his hands? Regardless of the possible Barack allusion, the technological invention that allowed Wayne to see the location of every cell phone carrying Gotham citizen was directly referencing our own government and the measures we've taken since 9/11 to keep an eye on our own. The destruction of the machine at the end was slightly hopeful for Nolan's dark vision, but a little wishful thinking never hurt anyone.

The storyline of this movie was basically flawless, possessing everything necessary to top the first film and cement this one as the best comic book movie yet. The little things they captured so well - from the Batpod, to Wayne taking off with the Russian ballet - really served the bigger picture to its best possible effect. The only issues I had with it were small ones: why was The Scarecrow featured for like 4 minutes and never heard from again? Why did they kill off Two-Face so soon (or DID they? Hmm...)? Why were none of the other mobsters remotely competent? And, more importantly, why did Bale's Bat-Voice get deeper and more ridiculous as the movie went on? Again, these are minnow-sized problems in an ocean of ass-kickery, but they need to be mentioned nonetheless.


Speaking of Bale, I thought the script didn't quite allow him the acting range that he obtained in Batman Begins. He was pretty much confined to the Spider-Man 2 formula of "I don't want to do this anymore," but that's not Bale's fault. He's still in the top two Batman's ever (Adam West won't be knocked down so easily), but I wish he was allowed to do some more things that we haven't seen in other comic book sequels. I guess there can only be so much originality in one script, and The Joker pretty much held that end down.

As for future sequels, there hasn't been an official announcement made yet as to whether the main players are returning for a third outing. However, with the movie breaking the record for the biggest box office opening in history, I'm sure Warner Brothers will pay whatever they need to in order to secure them for the next film in another three or so years. I haven't felt THAT satisfied coming out of a movie theater in a long time. I felt about half of it after Speed Racer, because that was such an unexpected surprise for me. But with The Dark Knight, the hype was SO huge that I really didn't want to be let down, so I set my expectations a little low. The movie was unbelievable, as you all know by now if you're reading this, and it's a testament to everyone who was involved in the production as to the great product they put out for us. I feel like there's still more to say about this film to do it justice, but I can't think of anything else off the top of my head. If anyone wants to continue discussion, please feel free to do so in the comments and I'll respond there. Until next time...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Editorial: Could Movies Be Free in the Future?

[Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, has a book coming out in the beginning of 2009 entitled "Free." My article you are about to read is basically a summary (with some of my own insights) of this article, a preview piece for the upcoming book, and this one from SlashFilm, who delved a little deeper into the concept of free movies.]


In his book, Anderson theorizes that because of the online success of companies like Google and Yahoo!, products and services are inevitably heading toward lower prices - so low, in fact, that they will eventually become free. The concept of "free" still seems to be a strange one to us, even though there are things right now that are offered that we have come to accept as normal. You no longer have to pay to read The New York Times, G-mail and Yahoo! mail are offering nearly limitless storage, and bands like Radiohead are offering entire albums online for free, increasing their overall sales because of it. Because of the ever-lowering costs of digital technology, it's becoming cheaper and more convenient (for both businesses and consumers) to offer their products and services through the Web.

So how does this relate to movies? Anderson predicts that this revolutionary idea could spill over into theaters. The idea is that if theaters offer movie tickets to everyone for free, they will still end up making a profit from concessions. With more people coming into the theater than ever before, those people will presumably purchase more concessions. We all know what a joke movie theater food is - they charge outrageous prices after we have to pay 10 dollars for a ticket. Who's going to go the extra mile and splurge on food and drinks when they have to pay that much just to get in? With today's prices, a family of four or five might as well head off to an amusement park instead of the multiplex if they want to get their money's worth. If tickets were free, though - that same family would be much more apt to see movies twice a week, which we all know means more money for the concession stand.

There's also the idea that if theaters charge a certain amount (let's say $20) for a "premium moviegoing experience," then the people who choose to voluntarily pay for that would nearly offset those who coast in for free. The premium experience could include something like leather recliners set up in the middle rows, with unlimited drinks and popcorn. [On a side note, I think it would be a lot more interesting if they didn't allow you to pick which ticket you got - if they instituted an on-the-spot lottery to see who has to pay the $20 and get the good seats. Then going to the movies would be something you could gamble on.]


In addition, payments theaters make to the film studios would drastically decrease, because they would be no longer be running films at all - it would be a digital projection onto the movie screen. This cuts costs of converting film stocks and operating the reels and the entire process could be automated, allowing for the person who used to operate the film up in that back window to move to the concession stand to help with the increased traffic. We may or may not lose quality due to the digital projection, but by the time this new practice would be instituted, there may have been large enough advancements in technology to lessen or remove this loss of quality altogether. If this happened, individual theaters wouldn't have to pay as much to the studios, so they would retain those costs and be able to use them to make a more efficient concession station, or possibly to drop the overall cost of concessions (in turn fooling people into purchasing more than they normally would). Fear not, film traditionalists - there will always be film because they have to use the actual filmstrips to convert things to high definition. And since there's always going to be some new form of technology that improves on the last wave, they have to keep the film around in order to reconvert it when the next big thing rolls in. That's how old John Wayne movies are available in Blu-ray right now.

This whole concept doesn't seem that far-fetched, guys. There are already movies that are coming out simultaneously online, in theaters, and on demand. And in a market where high definition is becoming the norm, ultra-high definition is quickly approaching, and some on-demand movies are offering "choose your own adventure" themed entertainment, theaters are going to have to do more and more to make people leave their homes to see a movie. I'm sure this whole thing is still years away from implementation (if it ever even happens), but it's cool to speculate about how this could effect us in the future. What do you guys think about this whole thing? What aspects of it do you like? What would you change? Sound off in the comment section, and let's get a good old-fashioned discussion a-brewin'. Until next time...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Vantage Point

I skipped seeing this back in February when it was in theaters, due mostly to negative reviews from people who had seen it. But since it just came out on DVD, I decided to check it out for myself.

Vantage Point
Director: Pete Travis
Starring: Dennis Quaid, William Hurt, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker


I didn't think the movie was nearly as bad as people made it out to be. The concept was a variation on the old "interlocking stories" trend that's become prominent over the past few years: an event occurs, and we see it unfold from eight different perspectives of people who were involved. The event (a presidential assassination) is revealed with more clarity with each perspective, leading us eventually to find out how the entire thing was set up and who was directly involved. That's a pretty sweet concept if you ask me. I can't recall seeing something like that before, and I'm a proponent of originality on screen (I'm also a proponent of comic book movies, but get off me: I can enjoy both at the same time). I'll take this opportunity to refresh your memory with this trailer, one of the most chaotic trailers in recent memory.



Director Pete Travis makes his American debut similar to an episode of "24" with the camera work and subject matter. But make no mistake about it - this is not a recent season of "24" where nothing happens and there are generally boring things going on. Vantage Point features one of the best car chases of the past five years. If you'd like to ruin it for yourself, or you have no intention of ever watching the film but would like to see the car chase, then check it out below. It actually started before this clip picks up; this is just the last half of it. BUT BE WARNED! There are major plot details about the movie revealed by watching this clip, so just know that ahead of time and make your decision.



As far as overall quality of the movie goes, Vantage Point was enjoyable but not something of great artistic merit. I was entertained the whole time, but it's not the most in-depth political piece you'll ever see. In the opening scene, a reporter goes off on a little tirade on the air, launching into political content that shouldn't be featured in a news report. Sigourney Weaver (the news director) tells the reporter to "save the punditry for people who get paid for it." It almost seems like director Pete Travis took that advice to heart. He didn't make Vantage Point an overly political movie, which was surprising because that's what I thought it would turn into. Wisely, I think, he concentrated more on the POV gimmick and keeping the film cruising along at a good pace rather than taking the opportunity to deal low blows to President Bush or any other political figures. The only real political commentary I found was at the very end when they falsely announced on the news that the assassination plot was all done by one man (that's not really giving anything away, since you could infer that from the trailer). But even that commentary was almost more directed at today's partisan (and some claim, corrupt) news media than the people in the White House.

"Are you not entertained?!"

The acting was passable due to a script that didn't give the characters a whole lot of range. Forest Whitaker's "dad on vacation" and Dennis Quaid's "secret service agent looking for redemption" can only go so far when the other characters aren't complex enough to hold their own storylines. I respect them, though - they did what they could. And who needs a good script when you've got a gimmick to rely on? Just look at the upcoming Journey to the Center of the Earth. Give Vantage Point a chance if you're in the mood for a nicely-paced mystery thriller. Until next time...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hancock

Hancock was a mystery to me. Before I went in, I really couldn't tell if the movie would be good or not due to some iffy trailers. But, in keeping with the recent trend of not showing too much in the previews (like Wall*E and Wanted), Hancock took a left turn by featuring scenes that weren't even hinted at in the initial trailer. Man, I love it when that happens.

Hancock
Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron


Directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom), produced by Michael Mann (Collateral) and Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend), and with an all-star cast, this movie has some serious talent attached to it. According to Wikipedia, the script was written way back in 1996 and has been bouncing from director to director ever since. Going through a couple of rewrites before finally hitting the big screen, Hancock gives the audience a unique take on the superhero genre. In today's competitive marketplace where films based on comic books are being greenlit before the comic even gets released, it's nice to see a legitimately original concept make it to the screen and still incorporate that "summer" feel to it. [It's always good to feature superheros when you're going for that "summer" feeling.]


When it comes down to it, I thought Hancock was enjoyable. Every aspect of it certainly wasn't original (we've already seen a hero who drinks too much in The Punisher), but the one twist they threw was totally unexpected and I didn't see it coming at all. I wasn't too impressed with the acting from an otherwise-proven cast, but that was because none of their characters were particularly likeable. Will Smith's Hancock was a patronizing alcoholic jerk (don't call him that other name!) for the first half of the movie, and the character almost seemed too dumbed down for Smith to embody. I know, it may be laughable to say that about someone who made his career as The Fresh Prince, but Will Smith has grown into one of the most bankable actors working today. He has a great business sense and he knows how to throw himself into a role (see: I Am Legend). I just think that Will Smith (the actual guy) is a lot smarter than Hancock (the character), and it was hard for me to connect them because the perceived intellectual difference was so distant between the two. Jason Bateman was kind of whiny and not overly funny, and Charlize Theron (beautiful as she is) just gave weird looks to everyone for the first 45 minutes.

SPOILERS NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS

The funny thing is, you might have forgotten that Charlize was in the movie if the marketing people had their way. Her name was noticeably absent from most of the ads and her presence in the trailer was almost nonexistent. That's a strange tactic from an advertising standpoint when you've got an Oscar-winning actress in your cast. But like I said above, I think it served the whole film for the better. I was genuinely surprised when Mary threw Hancock through her front wall. I mean, I'm sure we all knew that they had met before based on their CONSTANT glances at each other for the whole first act, but I didn't even consider that she had powers as well. Nice touch. And while that whole shtick got a little My Super Ex-Girlfriend-ish, it still had its moments. The history of the heroes, for one thing, really set this film apart in my mind. The concept of the two of them being the last remaining heroes on Earth left as an "insurance plan from the gods" is awesome. They've been stomping around the world since who knows when, and they don't age. This also allowed for some cutesy dialogue at the end about Attila the Hun and other historical figures.

The problem (of course, there's always gotta be a problem) with Hancock for me was that it was a bad mix of reality and fiction. We're supposed to believe that these two people have been around for thousands of years, living across the world in different times, but yet we've never heard of them before? They weren't reported on in history books? Captured by the early days of photographs? Chiseled onto a cave wall? Nothin'? There were times when it was supposed to be completely believable that this bum superhero was living in LA saving people and causing general disarray while doing it. But then there were times like the fight scene at the end that mirrored Transformers in the scope of its destruction. Hundreds of people must have died because of all that fighting. There was rubble EVERYWHERE, and that storm probably didn't help matters any. But these were little problems that can be easily overlooked based on the subject matter we're dealing with.

END OF SPOILERS


Hancock was decent as far as superhero movies go, and it's always fun to watch Will Smith on the big screen. We saw a sneak peek yesterday, so I'm not sure about it's theatrical performance yet, but I'm sure it'll make a lot of money and bring back "Big Willie Weekend" in full force. Hopefully this will give the studio execs a little elbow room and allow them to put out this kind of new material mixed in with the established titles in the future. In a summer of sequels and big blockbusters, I think Hancock will do just fine. Until next time...