Archive for July, 2008

DVD Review : ‘Superman Returns’

July 27, 2008

Movies are a vicarious medium.  We watch people do things we could (or would) never do, and if we suspend our disbelief, are able to get a glimpse of what it must be like to do what we are unable to do.

I have always wanted to fly.  A totally cliched notion, I know, but when I watch Superman Returns, I’m breathless.  The scenes where Superman sails through the sky still–two years since its theatrical release–give me goosebumps.

Don’t get me wrong; the film has its share of problems.  I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety since it first came out, and I wanted to know how it would hold up, particularly in this new post-Dark Knight era of superhero films.

Despite some head-scratching plot elements that bothered me before (Superman fathered a kid?  Lex Luthor’s making an entire continent out of Kryptonite?), Superman Returns is still an entertaining and sometimes exhilarating film.

It didn’t fare so well at the box office–it cost $200 million to make and grossed the same amount domestically.  I suspect that if there is a new Superman film in the relative near future, it will be a reimagining as opposed to a continuation of director Bryan Singer’s vision (which in turn was a continuation of Richard Donner’s from the 1978 film).

What’s it about?  It’s been five years since Superman (Brandon Routh) disappeared.  The world has moved on.  Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on.  She now is engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), an editor at the Daily Planet, and has a five year-old son, Jason (Tistan Lake Labeau).

Superman returns to earth after searching for remnants of his home planet, Krypton. His alter ego, Clark Kent, also returns to Metropolis and gets his old job back at the Planet.  Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) also returns, out of jail early because Superman wasn’t around to testify in court.  And of course, Luthor is once again bent on destroying Superman.

Luthor and his henchmen discover Supe’s Fortress of Solitude, where he steals crystals that produce land formations when put in water (this is one of those plot elements that I’ve never fully bought, even way back in Donner’s film).  Long story short: he launches a hybrid crystal/Krytonite thingamajigger off the East Coast, causing massive destruction and pushing Superman to the brink of destruction.

What’s good about it?  The flying sequences are amazing.  Such rich detail to the special effects make me feel like I’m truly up in the sky with Superman.  And I still get goosebumps when he saves that airplane from crashing.

What’s bad about it?  First, Kate Bosworth is a terrible Lois Lane.  For a film that tries to recreate the essence of Donner’s first two Superman films, Bosworth has none of the spunk that exuded from Margot Kidder’s Lois.  (Rachel McAdams would have been a much, much better choice.)  There’s also some fuzzy math: Richard thinks that Jason is his and Lois’s kid, but we discover that the real father is, in fact, Superman, which means Lois would have had to have hooked up with Richard immediately following Superman’s departure five years earlier.  And the whole notion of Superman having an illegitimate child seems a betrayal of his character.  For all intents and purposes, he’s a secular messiah, and though not bound by Christian moral codes, wouldn’t knock a girl up and then take off for five years.

Perfect for: anyone who’s forgotten that Superman, while currently overshadowed by The Dark Knight‘s box office power, still has the ability to make us believe a man can fly.

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Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ – My Voyage to Secret Lady World

July 24, 2008

Let me first say that I am open to learning about the opposite sex, and not in a dumb how do I know she likes me? kind of way.  A few years ago I went to a local production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, where women talk discuss in rather frank terms about what makes them…women.  I was shocked–do women really talk that way when men aren’t around?–but I sat through it.  My female friends appreciated my tolerance (it was very crude) and assured me that not all women talk about lady business.  

Last summer I attended a women-only improv workshop at a national improv competition.  It was refreshing to see how women perceive how men perceive women.  I’ve even read He’s Just Not That Into You.  Sure, women still frighten me a bit, but at least I’m trying my darndest to understand them.

Mamma Mia! is a movie about women, starring women, made by women (first time film director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Catherine Johnson) and made for women.  Being a straight dude, I bravely entered into the theater with my date, knowing full well that I fall nowhere near the film’s target demographic.  I had weathered the Monologues and an improv exercise called–no joke–The Womb, and survived.  Two hours of singing and dancing to ABBA tunes won’t kill me, right?

Mamma Mia! produced a new level of discomfort for me.  I have no doubt that to enjoy this film, I would have had to have unholy doses of estrogen sashay through my veins.  I could actually feel my body physically reject this movie.  This is not a slam on the quality of the movie (that’ll come later); I’m simply saying that there are certain places I shouldn’t go, and this was one of them.  The whole time I was in the theater my soul whispered, you shouldn’t be here.  Never ignore that still, small voice that tells you you’re in way over your head, especially when taking a voyage to Secret Lady World. 

What’s it about?  If you watched the above trailer, you know the entire story.  20 year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting married.  She sends wedding invitations to three different men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) who may or may not be her father.  See, twenty-one years ago Sophie’s mom Donna (Meryl Streep) had an extra hot summer, and nine months later Sophie appeared.  The only–and I mean ONLY–problem is that nobody knows who the real father is; not Donna, not her old beaus, and not a doctor who could do a DNA paternity test, because this all takes place on a remote Greek island.

The flimsy plot is weaved through a seemingly endless array of ABBA songs (as opposed to regular musicals, where songs cater to story and character) as people dance and sing and squeal and hug and kiss and drink and run away when flustered.  (This movie could have also been titled Everybody’s Running, and probably would have had ABBA wrote a song with the same name.)

What’s good about it?  Seyfried has genuine charisma and a pleasing singing voice–we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.  And Streep, in true form, owns her role and gives 110%.

What’s bad about it?  Lloyd’s direction is quite flat.  The dancing is sloppily choreographed and edited poorly.  Isn’t that one of the reasons why people go to musicals?  And to see Pierce Brosnan–the former James Bond–warble through his songs made my soul die a little.  He’s a good sport for doing it, but he was grossly miscast.  The supporting cast play their parts so broadly they leave no room for subtlety.  You can tell everybody had fun making the film, but after a while it just feels like they’re having so much fun they forgot to invite you.  

Perfect for: Women.  And only women.

Review: ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’

July 22, 2008

I’ve only seen the first Hellboy once and didn’t care much for it.  And I’m a little puzzled as to why there would be a sequel to a movie that only grossed $99 million worldwide.  Yes, I am aware that it probably gained a following on DVD, but on the Movie Superhero Ladder of Awesomeness, Hellboy’s placed somewhere between the Fantastic Four and Daredevil (read: not very high). I’m also questioning Universal’s decision to open Hellboy II: The Golden Army in such a crowded marketplace; there have been numerous superhero films this summer (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Hancock and the 800-pound gorilla, The Dark Knight) with bigger followings (all the hero films have grossed over $100 million).

Hellboy II is not a terrible movie–it’s highly watchable–but it’s not that memorable, either.  It’s the perfect film for a September opening.

What’s it about? Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a self-loathing demon (sans horns–he’s files them down) is still fighting big bad monsters for the US Government’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), an amphibious telepath,  and his live-in girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic (she’s a human torch).  A millennia-old truce between humans and elves is in jeopardy when elvish Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wages war against mankind, pitting 4th-century tooth fairies (they eat your teeth), a menacing giant and an enormous plant monster against Hellboy and co.

What’s good about it? Director Guillermo Del Toro (who directed the first film and the Academy Award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth) has a wildly inventive imagination.  The monsters are great and great in number.  There are some fun action sequences and a great scene where Abe and Hellboy sing Barry Manilow.

What’s bad about it? For all the imagination crammed into two hours, Hellboy II feels kind of dull and not that memorable.  It kind of feels like you’re watching the season finale of a really expensive television series.

Perfect for: Hellboy fans, those who root for underdog movies.

DVD Review: ‘My Blueberry Nights’

July 21, 2008

My Blueberry Nights is a light and airy movie, sweetened by some heartfelt (if somewhat misguided) performances.  And while there are parts of the film that are a little bland and others that feel underdone, it goes down fairly smoothly with no bad aftertaste.

LOVE this DVD cover.

LOVE this DVD cover.

What’s it about?  Elizabeth (Norah Jones) enters Jeremy’s (Jude Law) New York City diner on the culinary trail of her boyfriend.  When she discovers her boyfriend has dined there with another woman, Elizabeth leaves his keys there, hoping that one day he’ll come back to the diner and claim them.  She keeps coming back, and instead of seeing her now ex, she develops a close friendship with Jeremy.

For reasons not entirely clear, Elizabeth ups and leaves, heading to Memphis, Tennessee, waitressing by day and tending bar by night.  At the bar she encounters Arnie (David Strathairn), an alcoholic incapable of letting his estranged wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) move on with her life.  Elizabeth then heads to Nevada (just as inexplicable as her exodus from New York) and befriends Leslie (Natalie Portman, who looks twenty years older), a gambler with a patch of bad luck.

What’s good about it?  As mentioned before a nice performance from Jones is the highlight of this film.  The only other real standout from the cast is Strathairn–you see the ache and rage in Arnie’s eyes when he sees his wife in the arms of another man.  Some beautiful cinematography and a great soundtrack featuring Jones, Otis Redding, Cassandra Wilson, Ruth Brown and Cat Power (among others). My Blueberry Nights is like a dessert from Denny’s: it’s sweet, it tastes okay, but it’s not something you’ll tell all your friends they HAVE to try.

What’s bad about it? This is one of those films that you’re supposed to like because of the pedigree behind it.  The only problem is that it doesn’t live up to its reputation.  Weisz’s performance is particularly jarring–it feels as if she took the role simply to try out her Southern accent.  She’s a good actress, but in this film she seems out of place.

Perfect for: Anyone who’s a fan of the cast.

Batmania Part 10: ‘The Dark Knight’

July 18, 2008

I had a lot riding on this movie.

In Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan proved that Batman’s story is worth telling.  Previous films had infused either style (Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns) or camp (Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin), but none had really established character development or believable writing.  Batman Begins raised the bar not just for Batman, but for all superhero films.  (Iron Man passed, Spider-Man 3 failed.)

Nolan set such a high standard for himself with The Dark Knight.  And prior to seeing the film, I told myself that if it’s almost as good as Batman Begins, I’d be satisfied.

I am happy to report that The Dark Knight is just as good–if not better–than Batman Begins.

My review will keep plot details to a minimum; I loved watching this movie because I purposely stayed away from reviews, news, buzz and hype relating to the film.  I hope you’ll appreciate that I’ll do the same.

What’s it about? Gotham City’s a safer place thanks to Batman, but also Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).  The bad guys don’t like the stranglehold these three have on organized crime and are forced to use extreme measures in order to maintain their operations.

Enter the Joker (Heath Ledger).  Nobody knows who he really is or where he came from.  But he’s crazy.  And oh, so evil.  He wants to tear Gotham City apart.  And, if things don’t improve for themselves, the mafia just might let him.

What’s good about it? Where Batman Begins established Batman as a character, The Dark Knight establishes Gotham City.  We dig deep into the politics of the city.  We see the struggle of Gordon against corruption in his own police force.  We see the legal red tape Dent and assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) must fight to clean up Gotham’s streets.  Things are messy.  Things are not what they seem.  And things are never black and white.

Backing up Nolan’s expert direction is a phenomenal cast.  Ledger’s Joker is like nothing I’ve ever seen before–he is absolutely frightening.  This is a performance that will stick with you.  Whereas Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a scenery-chewing villain, Ledger’s Joker is truly bipolar, switching from manic to maniacal, often within seconds of each other.

Gyllenhall, replacing Katie Holmes (who played Rachel Dawes in the first film), brings a much-needed spark to what essentially was a throwaway part in the first film.  This time Rachel is less of the token damsel in distress but an integral part of the story.  Eckhart is also great as Havey Dent–he crackles with charisma.

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Michael Caine as Alfred have less screen time than in the first film, but that is expected, seeing how we already know who and what they are.

Bale, as Bruce Wayne/Batman, also has plenty of screen time but less development, for the same reason as Freeman and Caine’s characters.

What’s bad about it? At two-and-a-half hours, The Dark Knight may feel a little long (because it is), but not to the point where you want the movie to end (because you don’t).  And it’s a hard PG-13; leave the kids at home.

Perfect for: anyone looking for an excellent movie, comic book-themed or otherwise.

Batmania Part 9: ‘Batman Begins’ – the best Batman film of them all…

July 17, 2008

Batman Begins is the best Batman film ever made. I say that even though Tim Burton’s Batman is one of my all-time favorite films and that The Dark Knight may be even better. (I purposely avoid publicity/advertising for Dark Knight, but even I can’t fully escape the buzz. I haven’t read any reviews but I hear it’s pretty good!) Finally, somebody got Batman exactly the way I’d always imagined–dark, complex, conflicted and sometimes vulnerable. Too bad Batman creator Bob Kane passed away in 1998 (after the dismal flop Batman & Robin); I would like to think he’d be proud of what director Christopher Nolan achieved with his creation.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

What’s it about? Batman Begins is the story of how Batman…began. Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) uses his resources and channel his fears into Batman, his vigilante alter-ego who’s figuring out the best way to weaken corruption in Gotham City’s police force and judicial system. He finds an ally in Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), the only good cop in a police force owned by mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson).

Meanwhile, Dr. Johnathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) has been developing a fear toxin that causes severe hallucinations. He’s planning to put it in Gotham’s water supply at the orders of Bruce Wayne’s old mentor, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson).

Ducard trained Bruce to become a warrior, but the two had a falling out (to put it lightly). Now Ducard is putting his ideals to the test, starting with the erradication of Gotham.

What’s good about it? The story is great. Batman doesn’t appear until halfway through the film and yet the story is so compelling, so entertaining, that the filmmakers could have called it good right there and set it up for a sequel. But wait, there’s more! Much more! And it’s amazing! The cast is, for the most part, outstanding (Katie Holmes being the exception, bringing nothing memorable to her role as Assistant DA (and Bruce’s love interest) Rachel Dawes).

Superhero films have the difficult challenge of making the audience believe in the world of the hero. (Spider-Man 2 completely had me; Spider-Man 3 was completely ridiculous.) Batman Begins succeeds in this regard. There are few, if any, “yeah, right” moments.

What’s bad about it? You really think I’m going to knock the greatest superhero film ever made?

Perfect for: restoring your faith in superhero films (especially after watching Catwoman).

Batmania Part 8: ‘Catwoman’

July 17, 2008

In 2004 Catwoman may have seemed like a good idea at the time. Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry? Great! An untested director with mostly special effects experience? Okay. Spin-off from a movie franchise that died seven years before? A bit risky. $100 million budget? Oh, dear. Sharon Stone as the villain? Oh, crap.

Catwoman went on to become a huge bomb (total international box office gross: $74 million) and earned a whopping seven Golden Razzie award nominations (Worst Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Couple and Screenplay) and left Batman fans (and everybody else) wondering why this film was even made. Thankfully Batman Begins would arrive in theaters the following year and most people would forget that Catwoman ever happened.

But it did happen. And seeing how I’ve reviewed the good, the bad, and the campy, I’m including Catwoman as part of the Batman film canon (even though this film has nothing to do with the Batman mythology and just uses the Catwoman name to tell a completely unrelated story).

courtesy Warner Bros.

courtesy Warner Bros.

What’s it about? Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is a frumpy graphic designer working for Hedare, a cosmetics empire about to launch a new product called Beau-Line. She stumbles upon some unflattering information about Beau-Line (it’s toxic!) and is whacked because she knows too much. A bunch of CG cats resurrect her and now she has cat-like abilities, like landing on all fours and hissing at dogs.

After visiting a cat expert/creepy old lady (Frances Conroy), Patience discovers she’s a Catwoman. She dresses up in kinky S&M leather and both fights and commits crime. She’s all messed up inside, you see.

Benjamin Bratt plays Tom Lone, a cop who’s not only Patience’s boyfriend, but determined to put Catwoman behind bars. Oh, the irony–Patience and Catwoman are the same person!

The plot thickens when Catwoman is framed for killing the president of Hadare, George Hadare (Lambert Wilson, who delivers the exact same performance he did in The Matrix Reloaded as the Merovingian). The real killer? George’s wife, Laurel (Sharon Stone, vamping it up every step of the way), who wants to launch Beau-Line even though it kills people! (Damn you, capitalistic greed!)

What’s good about it? This is one of those films that, just when you think it could not get any more ridiculous, surprises you in new and preposterous ways. It’s replete with bad acting, bad directing (the single-named Pitof relies so heavily on special effects that they’re anything but special) and a truly terrible script. It’s a gloriously awful train wreck that’s laugh-out-loud funny (albeit unintentionally).

What’s bad about it? See above paragraph.

Perfect for: People who love their super heroes to have a “you go, girl!” attitude.

One final note: I have to give props to Halle Berry for being such a good sport about being in such a bad movie. After watching this highlight reel from her acceptance speech at the Golden Razzie awards, she deserves to keep her Oscar.

Batmania Part 7: ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’

July 15, 2008

Originally I was only going to write reviews for the six Batman theatrical films, leading up to The Dark Knight which opens in theaters this weekend.  But then I wrote a short essay on how the 1989 Batman film changed my life, and so I decided to broaden Batmania to include other things related to Batman’s presence in film.  I recently watched Batman: Gotham Knight and felt it was worthy of being included.

It’s a direct-to-DVD animated movie, although it’s much better than DC’s most recent efforts, Superman: Doomsday (which was screaming to be made into a live-action feature) and Justice League: New Frontier (which needed to be a tv miniseries).  Batman: Gotham Knight is DC’s first foray into anime, with six different anime directors responsible for one of the six interlocking stories.  I’m not a far of anime by any means (I’m still scratching my head as to what the hell was Spirited Away about), but the animation style works exceptionally well for the subject matter.

What’s it about?  The six stories are as follows:

– “Have I Got A Story For You” A bunch of teenagers recall their eyewitness experiences involving Batman.  (All of them differ greatly.)

– “Crossfire”  Two Gotham City police officers debate Batman’s merits while caught between a violent gang war.

– “Field Test” An examination of the gadgets Batman uses when fighting crime.

– “In Darkness Dwells” Down in the sewers lives a mutant named Killer Croc who is poisoned by the Scarecrow’s fear toxin…and Batman just found him.

– “Working Through Pain” A glimpse into Batman/Bruce Wayne’s training as a young man in India.

– “Deadshot” Batman fights an assassin in the subways underneath Gotham.

All of these stories are much more interesting than I have described them.  I don’t want to say much because I knew nothing about Batman: Gotham Knight when I rented it and would like those who want to see it to have the same enjoyable experience I did.

What’s good about it?  Anime works really well for Batman because it’s a hybrid of comic book and film.  Some of the animation is absolutely breathtaking.  This is less of a cartoon than Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.  (It’s also cool that Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman from the 90’s Animated Series, provides Batman/Bruce Wayne’s voice once again.)  And because it’s Batman and not some crazy weird fantasy crap, it’s easy to follow.

What’s bad about it?  This is more in line with Batman Begins than it is Superfriends.  It’s dark.  It’s violent.  It’s bloody.  People die.  This is a hard PG-13, so if you’re looking for something upbeat, you’ll want to pass.

Perfect for: All those eagerly awaiting The Dark Knight.  This is the perfect little treat to tide you over until then.

Batmania Part 6: ‘Batman & Robin’ – the nail in the coffin

July 14, 2008

I missed Batman & Robin in the theater. I eventually saw it on video, by myself, in the privacy of my own home. I got about forty minutes into it, and I was so embarrassed with how painfully awful it was I had to turn it off.

Such is my affection for this movie.

In keeping with my Batmania theme, I recently forced myself to watch Batman & Robin, hoping that I could glean something–anything–from this, THE WORST BATMAN MOVIE EVER MADE. Much to my surprise, I did.

These posters?  Meh.

These posters? Meh.

What’s it about? There is discord between the Dynamic Duo. Batman (this time played by George Clooney) doesn’t trust Robin (Chris O’Donnell), and Robin’s just being obnoxious. Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is stealing diamonds to save his sick wife. Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) wants to save the environment by eradicating all humans. Alfred (Michael Gough), is very sick, and his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) is around for no real reason. Corny action sequences on ice and bad puns ensue.

What’s good about it? In a weird way, I came to appreciate Batman & Robin for one reason: if you’re going to fail, fail big. The fourth Batman film makes a spectacle of itself, the same way that Batman Forever did, but only more so. The film is completely ludicrous and over the top. Director Joel Schumacher runs the franchise into the ground on a grandiose scale, flushing Warner Bros.’ money down the toilet (it was a costly bomb–the film cost $125 million and only grossed $107 million domestically) and alienating Batman fans for eight years until Batman Begins.

How is this a good thing? Case in point: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The film is truly awful AND it looks cheap.

What’s bad about it? While I appreciate the film’s “fail big” mentality, it still fails big.

Perfect for: Uh, let me get back to you on that.

Batmania Part 5: ‘Batman Forever’ – Got ham?

July 12, 2008

Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever is a cautionary tale of what happens when movie franchises are used for evil.  After the success of the first two Batman films directed by Tim Burton, Burton passed the reins to Schumacher, who camped up the franchise and pretty much destroyed everything Burton did to distance Batman from the 1960’s tv series.

Batman Forever is also the first film that made me realize that just because advertisements tell me something is good that doesn’t make it so.

 

Sadly, these posters are the best thing about 'Batman Forever.'

Sadly, these posters are the best thing about 'Batman Forever.'

What’s it about?  Harvey “Two-Face” Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) teams up with Edward Nigma/The Riddler (Jim Carrey) to uncover Batman’s (Val Kilmer) secret identity.  They’re not the only ones who wants to know: Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman, still in “Mrs. Tom Cruise” mode here), a beautiful (of course) psychologist, also wants to know who’s the man behind the mask.

At a charity fundraiser at the circus, Two-Face threatens to blow up everybody unless Batman reveals his true identity.  The Flying Graysons, a family trapeze act, saves Gotham’s elite from destruction, however, all are killed by Two-Face except the youngest Grayson, Dick (Chris O’Donnell).

With no family and nowhere to go, Dick is invited to live at Wayne Manor with Bruce.  To no surprise, Dick finds out that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same and volunteers to be his sidekick, thus becoming Robin.

The Riddler’s created some sort of blender-looking thing that sucks people’s brain waves.  He finds out Bruce Wayne’s secret.  Bright colors and explosions ensue.

What’s good about it?  Uh… How about them posters?

What’s bad about it?  Had this movie not made heaps and heaps of money (it was the #1 movie of 1995), Warner Bros. would have taken a long and hard look at doing another Batman movie.  Every frame of this movie makes you cringe because you know the studio paid far too much money on the production (see also Wild Wild West).  Tommy Lee Jones hams it up to the Nth degree, while Jim Carrey is being his early 90’s goofy self while intermittently channeling Frank Gorshin.  And what’s with the pink hair?

With bright and sparkly colors and levels of camp previously unseen since the 60’s tv show (not to mention Batman and Robin’s costumes, complete with nipples and disturbingly large codpieces), Batman Forever is a gay old time at the movies.  But, sadly, even this is NOT the worst Batman movie ever made.

Perfect for: anyone who likes their dark, brooding super hero movies fabulous.