Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)

To describe this film in one word is easy: wow.

This film is big, it's loud, it's harsh, but it's also reflective, deep and twisted. Featuring a plethora of heroes as conflicted as its villains, the film is as complex as it is visually entertaining.

This is block-busting cinema at it's finest. Every face punched, engine revved and building blown up is as exciting as the last, but the film is dark. It's incredibly violent, made even more unnerving by its lack of explicitness. The film has no happy ending - the Joker really does win, as we see our heroes become more and more engulfed by shadow.

And so, the Joker. A role that has drawn so much attention following the untimely death of Heath Ledger, and what a role it is. By far the powerhouse of the film, Ledger's performance is so massive, so immense, that it's easy to see how it would have become all-consuming. Every inch of him is the Joker - he twitches, he blinks, he pokes out his tongue in an absolute embodiment of a highly disturbing, yet highly attractive, character.

But to sing the highest of high praises for Ledger is not to detract from the rest of the cast. Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart provide fantastic foils for Ledger. Christian Bale utterly owns the roles of Bruce Wayne and of Batman, wonderfully portraying the conflict that drives the film. Equally Eckhart, as District Attorney Harvey Dent, provides an equally effective hero as he does, later, villain.

Nolan's vision of Gotham city is a wonder to behold. While less grimy than in Batman Begins, it somehow feels scarier. The film's more intimate scenes are handled with as much talent and creative flair as the visually stunning action sequences. Pile on top of this a superb score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard and this film nears perfection.

It's not perfect, though. It does feel somewhat meandering - there are lots of twists and plot threads that don't appear to tie together, but this, fortunately, does not make the film any less coherant.

Next week, I'll be seeing this film on an IMAX screen. Considering how big this film feels on a regular screen, I'm preparing myself to be truly blown away.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wall-E (Stanton, 2008)

Anyone who knows me will know that I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Wall-E for a long time. For months I've been telling everyone how amazing the film will be - the teaser trailer had me in tears, and with each and every snippet released to promote the film my expectations grew higher and higher. This was it: the film that could possibly become my new all-time favourite, a film so cute it'd make me teeth rot and I wouldn't care. Of course, people kept telling me - it'll disappoint! Don't expect too much!

Absolute rubbish. My sky-high expectations were met, beaten to the ground, piled higher and trampled on. This film, to me, is utter, utter perfection. However, I will admit that I'm finding it very difficult to think about the film in a critical way - the fact that the characters are so damn cute, the message is one that I feel so strongly about and that there's one Kubrick reference that's so genius it floored me, the film's flaws fall on rather blind eyes.

So, I will try to pick them out. Once the actual plot of the film gets going, it all does seems a little thin and a little rushed. Once characters appear who, y'know, talk, their dialogue is a little bit wonky. And...

...yeah, that's all I've got. In a film as stunningly beautiful as this, I'm finding it very hard to find fault.

Wall-E himself is an utter triumph of design and character. That an animated machine conveys more emotion than so many of his human counterparts is simply stunning. Each and every twitch of his eyes or whir of his cogs is made to make us feel everything he does. And it's not a simple case of: "look, cute robot, aaaw!" - he's a fully-developed character. He's kind-hearted, intelligent, practical, lonely, hopeful, caring...utterly, utterly lovable.

Thankfully, Wall-E is not the only one so wonderfully brought to life. Eve, the robot he falls for, has completed my trinity of feminist icons - Dana Scully and Eowyn of Rohan being the other two. It's not just because she packs a wicked gun - Eve works hard. Nothing will stand in the way of her directive - and what an important one it is! - but that doesn't mean she's not a dreamer. Left alone on Earth to scan for life, she relishes the freedom. It takes meeting Wall-E, the most heart-breakingly lonely character in cinema, for her to realise her own loneliness, that sometimes there are things more important than directives.

That I so completely and utterly related to two computer-generated robotic characters is baffling and only a slightly worrying reflection of myself. Wall-E and Eve aren't just about the angst or the romance, they're about the funny too. Joined later by a gang of robots - Mo being the most adorably memorable - their innocence and playfulness lead to some wonderfully funny moments.

So far, I've not even mentioned the animation. Pixar have utterly outdone themselves. From the bleak landscape of Earth to the sleek designs of the Axiom, the animation is faultless. Some sequences could easily be from any other big-budget effects movie. The use of music and sound in the film is vital - there's virtually no dialogue for about the first thirty minutes - and Thomas Newman's score is wonderful. Of course, it goes without saying that Ben Burtt's chirps and beeps are glorious.

Best of all about Wall-E is that it's a kids' film for adults, an adult world made for children. A film both sweet and terrifying all at once, the combination of innocence lost and found is makes for an incredibly moving piece of cinema. In addition to the little robots making cute, the cinematic references are wonderful. When the Axiom's Captain takes his first steps on legs that humans have forgotten how to use - all to the sounds of Also Sprach Zarathustra - I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Like I said, reviewing the film is difficult, because I'm struggling to get past that "blub, blub, oh god the cute, blub, blub" stage of things, but I don't really care how much my hyperbole makes me sound uncritical. Wall-E deserves all the praise it receives - for creative bravery, for social commentary, for pure romance and cuteness - cinema does not get much better than this.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom (Minkoff, 2008)

The Forbidden Kingdom surpassed all my expectations for it - I was looking forward to a fun film with some cool fights. That's definitely what I got, but the film, although outwardly generic, was a lot more satisfying than I would've hoped for.

Primarily this film is about the fight scenes, which are beautifully choreograhped, as expected, by Yuen Woo-Ping. The face-off between Jackie Chan and Jet Li more than pays off in what is one of the most breathtaking sequences in an action movie that I've seen for a good while. There's nothing particularly new here, but the fight sequences are riveting.

Chan and Li are both superb, and even if this was a vehicle for the two of them to star together, they are perfectly cast as their - various - characters. Li gets to show off both a serious and a playful side to his art, Chan excells as the comic core of the film, while also providing the film with its most emotional content.

The characters may be quite cliched, but that's the nature of the story. It's a myth, a fable - the only character I was worried about no working was Jason, but he works brilliantly. Despite this being a story of American boy falls into Ancient China, the film doesn't fall into the trap of making him a) annoying or b) all-knowing. Jason succeeds because of what he learns in the Forbidden Kingdom, and not through anything he already knew from his own world.

Similarly, there are certain story threads - most notably Sparrow's story - that could have been handled in a horribly Hollywood-type way. Thankfully, this doesn't happen, and while, of course, the film is a nice, shiny big-budget production, it never gives away its heart and is a much better film for it.

The film isn't original, but it succeeds in entertaining and engaging from the outset to its end. The characters are colourful, the spectacle impressive and importantly the film has just the right amount of heart to make a perfectly light fantasy adventure. The people of Narnia could learn a thing or two from this film - warmth and a sense of humour really elevate this film beyond mediocrity.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hancock (Berg, 2008)

The trailers and marketing for Hancock all quite clearly identify the film as an action-comedy, stars Will Smith and Jason Batemen further cementing the impression. However, Hancock is vastly different to this, and I'd say for the better.

Personally, I'd label Hancock a very funny action-drama. There is no evil mastermind, no end-of-the-world and a thoroughly un-super hero. Will Smith is, as expected, wonderful in the title role, pre- and post-reformation. Alcoholic, bad-tempered John Hancock is an absolute hoot who is easy to root for despite the bad attitude.

That this is a film about people and not about heroics is clear - from Hancock himself to PR Guru Ray's impressionistic son. The set pieces and action are visually brilliant, but are caused and driven by the very individual characters and situations, rather than any grand scale world-dominating supervillain.

The 'mythology' the film introduces does sit a little uneasily, despite being a nice idea. The twist, although enjoyable, never quite makes total sense. The film's ending is touching, Hancock's arc being nicely played out. Charlize Theron's character is a lot more difficult to understand, but not to the extent of ruining the relationship that exists between them.

Hancock might be better in conception than in execution, but the film is highly enjoyable, very funny and importantly very different. Perhaps Will Smith the comedian has been tempered by Will Smith: Serious Actor, and in Hancock this works absolutely for the better.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Adamson, 2008)

Only three years have passed since the previous and first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, but I'd hazard a guess that that's about two years too late for Prince Caspian not to fall a little short.

Cinema has been rather saturated by children's 'epic' fantasy films in the interim - Eragon and The Golden Compass most notably - few of which have lived up to the giddy heights of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Although Narnia is lucky to have a highly recogniseable and marketable name, I think it would have done better to have been produced/released sooner.

Having said this, Prince Caspian is a solid, entertaining film, just like its predecessor. It just lacks that certain something that has made a franchise such as Harry Potter so successful. I dare say this is due to the rather less substantial story, but it's not all C S Lewis' fault.

There's nothing really that exciting about Narnia - yes, that battles are impressive enough and the landscapes breathtaking, but it's all so very twee. These battles needn't be blood-drenched, but there is a distinct lack of grime that makes it all a little too choreographed to be truly heart-stopping.

The characters are just as bad - lovely though they are, the Pevensies are just. so. boring. Edmund is the most interesting of the lot and he is sorely underused. Prince Caspian himself makes for wonderful eyecandy, but his dodgy accent and unconvincing angst don't help him rise to anything more than just that. The villains are suitably villainous but nothing we've seen before. Narnia does have talking animals which are convincing, at least - Reepicheep and Trufflehunter are fabulous (and are quite possibly more exciting than the children...).

But really, I'm nitpicking. Prince Caspian does what it should - it entertains. The film goes on for too long with too little to fill the time, but regardless it is distraction enough that certainly, for me at least, leaves a longing for a portal to appear to a magical world of my own. Of course, it doesn't really take much to get me wanting that.