Friday, July 25, 2008

X-Files: I Want to Believe

“Let’s just say that I want to believe.”

The abduction of one of their own and arrival of a psychic (Billy Connolly) on the scene leads Agent-in-Charge Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) to ask for the help of a former member of the bereau with experience in the paranormal.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), now a brain surgeon, is asked to bring in her former partner from the wilderness. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is living like a hermit cutting clippings of unexplained activity out of newspapers. Reluctant at first, he agrees under the condition Scully comes with him.

Fans of the show should feel right at home here in terms of tone, mood, and storytelling. Those unfamiliar with the mythology of the show should still able to follow the events, though you may miss some of the layers of the film, and specific moments added just for fans.

I was never a big fan of the show, although the episodes I did see were well done, I just never connected with its bizarre nature and subject matter. Much like the show the film includes good acting, storytelling, and a fair amount of teasing about the bizarre and inexplicable, along with some really disturbing subject matter. The movie is the same, in fact it feels very much like a special two-part episode of the series.

Much like the show the film plays with the possibility of the paranormal and supernatural, Mulder’s unwavering search, and Scully’s scepticism. The film also includes a subplot involving Scully’s patient and the struggle between faith and science. Although it creates an interesting point of debate it never really pays off, though the story does find ways to interweave it into the main plot of the film.

I wouldn’t call this a great film, but those who enjoyed the original TV-show more than I will have much more to sink their teeth into. Is it worth your time? If you are a die-hard fan yes, otherwise you might want to look around for something else in which to believe.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Christian Bale returns to the role of Bruce Wayne, and his pointy-eared alter-ego Batman. The sequel takes place months after the end of Batman Begins. Batman and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) have been busy squeezing the Gotham mob, and with the help of the golden-haired District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), they hope to make real changes in Gotham.

However, there’s a new player in town. A psychotic mystery man named the Joker (Heath Ledger) who, after robbing them blind, offers his services to Gotham’s crime families to kill the Batman.

There’s so much to discuss. And I haven’t even mentioned the love triangle between Bruce, Harvey and Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role Katie Holmes played in Batman Begins) or the in-fighting among the mob, or the cops on the take. Whew! The film is a bit long at 152 minutes, however it’s also chocked-full of plot; there’s barely a wasted moment. This is the Batman movie fans have been clamouring for. I’m betting good money that more than one fanboy will wet himself.

And there’s much that co-writer and director Christopher Nolan and company do worth praising. First, the costume is updated from the one used in Batman Begins. Although still a bit too armored for my tastes, especially around the arms, it does flow better and gives Bale a much more movement. Not to mention making it more plausible he could skulk about in the shadows of the city.

Even more than the first film, this one borrows from Batman: The Long Halloween (read that review) and I love how much time passes before Batman comes in contact with the Joker or Dent is gruesomely transformed. The film is patient enough to build the characters and still smart enough not to give everything away too soon.

Bale has really grown into the role of Bruce Wayne, both the public persona and the troubled man behind the cowl. Though, for some reason, his Batman voice has become a bit more gruff. There are times when he barks at the baddies I wondered why they didn’t raise their hands and ask for him to speak more clearly.

Now, about those villains. Heath Ledger’s Joker is terrific. I’d like him to have a bit more of the whimsy, but he’s certainly got the homicidal parts of the clown down cold (though his insanity seems to come and go as called for by the plot). I also have to applaud Nolan for not forcing a mediocre origin tale on use for the character (like Batman) and instead letting this unfathomable character remain, well, unfathomable. Over the course of the film the character himself gives conflicting stories about his past which only further muddy the waters.

As good as Ledger’s Joker is at acting creepy and munching scenery, Aaron Eckhart is even better as Harvey Dent, especially after his transformation into Two-Face. And the effects used on the character will make you instantly forget the Tommy Lee Jones version from Batman Forever. As Dent Eckhart is earnest, honest, funny, brave, and everything you’d want a hero of Gotham to be. Which means his fall from grace and actions taken after his disfigurement are that much more meaningful.

I was lucky enough to view the IMAX version of the film, which I recommend. At first the jumps from the regular footage to the IMAX footage may seem a bit distracting (the regular shot footage doesn’t take up the entire IMAX screen) but the story is engossing enough and the effects are so good, that you soon just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Although I enjoyed myself, there are still a few nagging issues here. As much as some fans will praise it, this isn’t a perfect Batman film. Once again Batman is a bit of a dummy. It’s Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) who develops the technology necessary to catch the Joker. It’s Alfred (Michael Caine) who makes obvious remarks about his new adversary which put Batman back on the right track. It’s “The Dark Night Detective.” The missing word makes all the difference. Still, two movies into the franchise, the character has shown none of the legendary bat-detective skills so inherent in the character’s make-up. If Michael Keaton and Adam West can get it right, what’s the problem?

He’s not even smarter than the guy in make-up! It’s the Joker, not Batman who’s in control here. I don’t mind this as the Joker’s unpredictability should give him an advantage, but Nolan decides not so much to make the Joker crazier and more unpredictable than Batman, but smarter than the Dark Knight. And, I must say his intricate plans require a huge amount of set-up time and rely on others all to make one of possibly many decisions for his plans to succeed. Yes, the pay-offs are cool, but often unlikely as well.

There’s also the BatPod, which, don’t get me wrong, is cool (even if we have to see it drive-up a wall in one of the film’s few groan-worthy moments), but if feels a bit like the door to the merchandising department taking over the franchise has been opened. This is a slippery slope that, along with Joel Schumacher, killed the franchise for a decade, and needs to be watched carefully. Just because you can clutter a film with cool toys doesn’t mean you should.

Finally, Nolan also makes a Tim Burton mistake with a choice coming late in the film. Although I won’t give away what happens (and I’m not talking about the final scene, but the actions which cause it) limits future use of a character that plays well on screen when it isn’t really necesary (or a good idea).

The year of the comic book movie continues. Although I still have issues with this film, it’s a big improvement over Batman Begins. Nolan and his team have learned from some of their mistakes and have raised the bar with this second entry. Even with my quibbles it’s an easy recommendation and at least as good a comic book film as Iron Man (read that review) from earlier this year. The film is packed with effects, performances, stunts, new Bat-gadgets, and more, which should send most fanboys home deliriously happy.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mamma Mia!

“This is very Greek.”

On a small Greek island Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is preparing for her wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper), but something is missing. Sophie has been raised on the island by her loving mother Donna (Meryl Streep), former lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos who now owns and runs a small villa on the island. Sophie loves her mother and her life, but she has always been kept in the dark about the identity of her father.

After stealing her mother’s diary, Sophie invites to her wedding three men who her mother was seeing at the time of her conception. They include an American architect named Sam (Pierce Brosnan), a British banker named Harry (Colin Firth), and an Australian writer named Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). Sophie hopes to discover the identity of her father before she walks down the aisle.

Of course none of the three know about Sophie’s plans or that she believes one of them may be her father, though understanding comes to each of them separately the night before the wedding. Sophie, who has never had a father now has three proud papas waiting to walk her down the aisle.

The movie is based on the musical which has become an international success. All the music used is from the Swedish band ABBA. Although I’ve never seen the musical performed on stage, here the songs fit the boisterous and larger-than-life mood of the film. The men struggle a bit when called to sing but the women, especially Streep and Seyfried, are terrific.

I want to take a second to discuss Amanda Seyfried, perhaps until now best known as Veronica Mars’ dead best friend Lily Kane. Perfectly cast, she’s the heart and soul of the film and adds spirit and rambunctious energy that’s contagious. Streep, no doubt, will get most of the attention here, but it’s Seyfried who steals the show.

There are also several supproting performances with noting including Donna’s friends, and former Dynamos, Tonya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Waters) who show up to help with the ceremony. And, though too numerous to list here, there are many extras who provide nice moments as the locals during the film’s big musical numbers (plus, look out for cameos by ABBA members!).

The film has a larger-than-life style to it in both the musical numbers and in its comedy. I’m not sure I would classify it as a farce, but it does have much in common in terms of going for the big laughs, often caused by absurd situations. Not all of them work, but enough do to allow you to enjoy the craziness.

Beginning on August 29th, Universal Pictures is releasing a special Sing-Along Edition of the film with karaoke subtitles and encouraging audiences to sing along with the film. This experience (read here for more) adds something to the film, improving the overall experience. To get the full effect you’ll have to go during peak times to near sold out theaters, but it’s the best way to see the film.

Mamma Mia! is a fun, if somewhat flawed film. Fans of the musical should enjoy themselves, and newcommers should have an enjoyable time. The film is structured to go for only big laughs and big moments which means it hits its fair share but, as these types of films often do, misses a few as well. It’s far from subtle, but it pretty entertaining which some good performances, mostly from the women, and some Swedish pop songs. It may not be for everyone, but if that sounds good to you I’d suggest you give it a chance.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Absolute Batman - The Long Halloween

“The promise I made to my parents, the promise to rid this city of the evil that took their lies, may finally be within reach.”

“I believe in Harvey Dent.”

The thirteen-issue maxi-series from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale is collected in this handsome Absolute Edition oversized hardcover complete with an introduction from Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer discussing the influence the series had on Batman Begins, the transcript of Richard Starkings interview with Loeb and Sale, the original proposal for the project, and a look at cover art, sketches, and the toys inspired from the tale. All in all a nice collection bundled together in a handsome package.

The idea, inspired by Sale and Loeb’s colaberation on Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Specials and the characters from Frank Miller‘s Batman: Year One, continues the story of the Falcone crime family only months after the end of Year One and follows Batman over one year as he attempts to stop a murderer who kills on every holiday (who becomes known as Holiday) and his shared obsession with Harvey Dent to bring down the Falcone family with the help of James Gordon.

Several of Batman’s rogues gallery make appearances in the piece including the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter, Calendar Man, and the Penguin (how exactly Batman accummulated such a vast and varied group of villains after only a few months on the job is never adequately addressed). Aside from the Holiday and Falcone storyline the series also retells the origin of Two-Face when Harvey Dent gets acid thrown into his face in court by Sal Maroni. Harvey Dent’s tragedy is well explored from all sides - his, his wife’s, and the Batman’s. As the story reaches its climax Two-Face will unite the super-villains to get his own brand of justice on the Falcone family.

Nolan and Christian Bale are both big fans of the tale and it shows strongly, in good ways and bad, in Batman Begins. Although I like the art I’m not fond of this look of Batman (which sadly has become the norm since this series which part of the blame goes to Sale) or of some of the villains, especially the Joker. As a tale of corruption and what a person looses by fighting crime the story succeeds very well for both Batman and Dent. It’s dense and at times the numerous colorful villains seem to get in the way of the story (in stark contrast to Year One), but there is much to enjoy. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Sale and Loeb’s follow-up Batman: Dark Victory re-telling the origin of Dick Grayson and Batman dealing with the fall-out of the events from this storyline which is a better condensed and focused tale.

As a collection Absolute Batman - The Long Halloween has few flaws. Aside from what is mentioned above, part of the cover of the book catches inside the slipcover causing wear and tear each time you remove it from its sleeve - not a great negative given the hefty $75.00 price-tag. Even with this annoyance, and the issues I have with the the look of some characters, it is an easy recommendation, and for those who enjoy it I would heartily recommend the follow-up Batman: Dark Victory.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the center of the Earth.”

Years ago Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) lost his brother. Now years later clues written in an old copy of Jules Verne’s novel lead Trevor and his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) to Iceland. There, with the help of a local guide (Anita Briem), the explorers learn the fate of the missing scientist and discover a hidden world deep under the Earth’s surface which is eerily similar to that which Jules Verne described more than 140 years ago complete with a subterranean ocean, giant mushrooms, extinct species, and even dinosaurs.

There’s much to enjoy here, especially for those who get a chance to see the film in 3-D. The entire project was shot in Real D Cinema and provides some great 3-D moments (though, like other such films it also includes stretches without much to mention 3-D effects wise).

In terms of the non-3-D effects the film holds up pretty well capturing the unique look and style of the world at the center of the Earth by largely copying original illustrations from the novel. It captures both the wonder and danger of the tale quite well.

For a family adventure flick like this the acting is better than passable. The three leads work very well together. I was particularly impressed with Briem, who aside from an episode of Doctor Who I haven’t seen much of. There’s some nice unforced chemistry between her and Fraser which is better than what you find in most romcoms these days. Fraser and Hutcherson have a few good moments together as well.

If you are going to see the film, and I would recommend you do, I would strongly encourage the 3-D version. Although I think the film will still work without the added effects you will be missing out on part of the experience. Remember this isn’t a film which was adapted to be 3-D, but one which was shot completely for this format. For a list of theaters with 3-D screens able to show Real D films like this one click here.