Aug 25, 2008

Vantage Point (2008): D-

A crowded highway, panic abound. The President has been shot! A young Spanish girl seeks her mother fearfully, uncautious of the danger as she wanders into the road. A van approaches at high speed, coming right towards her! Will they break in time!? The frame rate slows and the screen fades to white as the child screams, in shrill accent, "Ma-ma!" Now, the film retreats for the umpteenth time, flashing through previously glimpsed images as if on rewind, so as to show us this overly calculated series of events from yet another character's viewpoint. If this moment alone isn't the most shrill concoction to yet come out of 21st Century cinema, then keep me steered clear of any Ron Howard or Paul Haggis films yet on my blind spots list. Condensing the worst elements from both nighttime television programming (from shows like 24 to similarly rank stuff like CSI) and Greengrassian neo-realism into a trashy game of cat-and-mouse between the filmmakers and audience, Vantage Point aims to thrill with what amounts to a disingenuous and perpetual dick tease devoid of both stamina and payoff, trading in bland, phony archetypes that feign humanity while the film attempts ceaselessly, almost impressively, but ultimately horridly, to suggest that something of excitement or importance is happening during any one of its mentally numbing 90 minutes (needlessly busy editing schematics and overwrought, pummeling musical scores be damned). When the president is assassinated at an international political convention, chaos ensues and various characters -- reporters, cops, potential terrorists, secret servicemen, officials, and civilians -- each hold a piece to the puzzle. Except that there is no puzzle, only patchy storytelling, and from the unimaginatively literal implementation of narrative fluctuations to the film's inconsistent means of doling out information -- a phony attempt at manipulation that better serves to expose the film's contempt for viewers than it does hide the complete lack of otherwise purported sophistication -- Vantage Point proves so idiotic and paper-thin that it makes the canonized bullshit of The Usual Suspects look almost profound by comparison. More substantive than the endless running, shouting, double-crossing and identity confusion to be found in this debacle is, in my mind, the sad fact that even so many talented and well-cast performers couldn't raise this above its nearly bottom-of-the-barrel status. For movies like Vantage Point, life is too short.

Aug 24, 2008

Step Brothers (2008): B

As was the case in Adam McKay's previous films, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers stands as a pristine example of excellently realized, largely improvised comedy given shape and form via the synchronized methods of both actor and director. Insofar the only director to have effectively and unwaveringly tamed Will Ferrell's serio-comic tendencies, McKay's brand of parody channels his cast and their unlikely, almost profound ability to embody the most intellectually obtuse and outright idiotic of characters with the same level of intensity one would expect in a Shakespeare performance. Why, then, is this newest pairing between the two so noticeably off? Step Brothers is knowingly and deliberately downbeat, sporting a scenario at once hilarious and frightening, the humor compounded by the sheer level conviction granted to it. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are Brennan Huff and Dale Doback, two ne'er-do-wells still residing at home even as they have both reached over-the-hill status. Emotionally and socially stunted beyond repair, their insulated lives are thrown for a proverbial loop when their single parents meet cute and promptly wed, ultimately pressuring them both to find jobs so as to establish lives of their own. Whether apparent in their endless social deficiencies (on a job interview, both choose to wear tuxedos) or their alternating bouts of love/hate behavior, Ferrell and Reilly so encapsulate the regression of their characters that each actor respectively disappears into their role, inviting empathetic speculation just as much as crotch-grabbing bouts of laughter. If Step Brothers is in any way an unqualified success, it is in the implementation of truly crude and boldly tasteless humor, initiated by the must-be-seen-to-be-believed image of Brennan rubbing his testicles on Dale's drum set and furthered by various button-pushing moments of adulterous sex, erotic fantasies, living burials and dog feces. Insofar as its characters go, however, Step Brothers leaves things hanging too much to equal the structurally satirical brilliance of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, in part because the film's central premise is more intrinsically limited on a dramatic scale, but furthermore because the script's core development is less fleshed out than said previous works, rendering the experience satisfactory in the moment only to appear empty in hindsight. Props to the short running time, then, for keeping things closer to the excellent short film buried somewhere within this feature length product, a cumbersome work but one nevertheless blistering in its excavation of our deepest fears, desires, and the inherent absurdities therein.

Aug 21, 2008

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (2008): C-

Super Size Me spent 100 minutes telling us what amounted to common sense decked out in infomercial aesthetics: fast food is bad for you, and here's a schmuck crazy enough to prove it by converting himself into a human Happy Meal. In the unfortunately titled follow-up Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, director Morgan Spurlock similarly trades in obvious and contrived gimmicks as markers on the path towards enlightenment, here having moved past the evils of fatty McFoods and into the realm of international terrorism, purportedly driven by his desire to create a safer world into which his still gestating son can be born. Though certainly (one would hope unavoidably) less pat and redundant than its overrated predecessor, there are moments of the film's questionable thesis that might suggest otherwise. Rather inadvertently, Spurlock's approach routinely brings the material within arm's reach of "dumbed down", the film constructed as an in-action argument against knee jerk political extremism from the inside out, aimed squarely at the apathetic; any U.S. citizen that's encountered any remotely radical American news source in the past six years will already know most of what Spurlock has to say, though the fact that knowledge about anti-U.S. sentiment around the world in response to our oppressive foreign policies is to date not as well-known and accepted as that concerning the unpleasantries of McDonalds, is reason enough to justify the film's existence. Needless to say, Spurlock never encounters the 9/11 mastermind, though his self-aware “journey” does afford him the chance to speak with many throughout the Middle East as regards their thoughts on America, foreign policy, Israel, terrorism, religion, and how the social ailments conducive to extreme acts of violence are reinforced by the political powers that be. Aware of its own, rather off-putting sense of American privilege, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? takes care to never condescend to its audience or subjects, despite the inherent stupidity in its titular, core premise, and a tendency to employ caricatures and hyperbolic anecdotes in its quest to dispel trademark American fears. Recognizing his own relatively uninformed place in the world, Spurlock turns his own ignorance (first evident in an ego-driven and off-putting opening animated sequence) around to unexpectedly sincere effect, "discovering" that not all Muslims are terrorists and are by and large, in fact, like you and me. Recalling the criminally underseen Walking to Werner, Spurlock’s journey ultimately becomes about more than one man, though it is one only intermittently made meaningful in ways more substantial than its reliance on rapid-fire, Spark Notes-like factoids on American history and the War on Terror. That it chooses not to go further in addressing connective issues such as the responsibility for governmental foreign policy or the relationship between economic privilege and political apathy is less a failure than a deliberate choice (if not an admission of known limitations), one befitting the majority of the film’s intended, closeted audience, if endlessly aggravating for just about anyone else. For a film about finding the world’s most infamous needle in a haystack, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is woefully small-scale, often misguided but never disingenuous.

Aug 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008): D+

Is The Clone Wars really the pilot for a Star Wars television series, or is it a last-ditch effort to make the prequel trilogy look better via retrospective comparison? I, for one, have always enjoyed the much-derided Episodes I, II, and III, problematic though they are and somewhat in spite of the zealotry held for/against them by varying devotees of Lucas' long ago, far away universe (as religious extremists once force others to re-examine their faith, so too can unreasonable and unpleasant movie lovers ruin it for more pacifist fans). Defend this hunk of crap, however, I cannot. Bad television and worse cinema, no change in format could hope to repair the insulting flaws abound in this tossed-off junk pile; if kids are what Lucas and company had in mind in their preparations here, then we should all feel as though the very fruit of our loins have been directly insulted. Transpiring between the civil breakdown of Attack of the Clones and the political upheaval of Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars can only be incidentally blamed for carrying with it some degree of preordained conclusions. Lacking characterizations (let alone sufficient ones), visual dynamics and anything resembling pacing or narrative development, this pilot encapsulates everything wrong with the prequel films -- stilted dialogue, inane storytelling devices, flimsy attempts at narrative tension via undeveloped personal conflicts, and characters repeatedly stating the obvious as a means of forwarding the plot -- even as it takes them to entirely new levels of embarrassment. Facing a droid army on some far-off planet (no, I don't care enough to look up the name), the duo of Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) becomes an unexpected trio when the former learns that he has been assigned a pupil, the eager-to-learn Jedi in training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein). Coasting on autopilot, The Clone Wars mistakes moldy sound bytes for character interaction and moral insight, an affront to even the purportedly lowered standards of children's television. In both style and substance, the film likens itself to what Jim Emerson calls "Ferrari" filmmaking -- sleek and fast, and in this case seemingly deliberately so, so as to cover up the almost complete lack of anything beneath that superficially shiny hood. Never mind the fact that the animation style itself looks blocky, creepy, and un-emotive: actions scenes zip by without any weight or substance, lazily framed, choreographed and edited (though a vertical battle along the rise of a plateau held my attention), and save for some amusing antics provided by the less-than-capable artificial intelligence sported by the droid army, the film proves depressingly, fleetingly devoid of anything comparable to genuine human emotions -- pure, pulse-deprived exposition posing as morality-lined action extravaganza. There are no feelings here, nor legitimate characters -- merely shadows of their existence. The force is gone with this one.

Aug 9, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008): B+

The former, a sound-deprived wall of blue flame from which the Batman logo emerges – silently and swiftly, as if closing in on prey – scored to the dissonant, unnerving strings of a barely audible soundtrack. Consumed by the darkness, the effect is that of both condensed madness and the thrill of anticipation, as if waiting for the gunfire to mark the beginning of a race.

The latter, quite unexpectedly in its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it immediacy, a variation on the traditional into-the-sunset exit (a single cut that, in this critic’s opinion, alone demands the film be nominated for an achievement in editing), elevating all that has come before into the realm of modern pop mythology.

Were films judged entirely by the emotive impact of their opening and closing images – those ever-so-important first and last impressions, ushering us into and out of the darkness – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight would be a masterpiece. That these respective shots, detailed above, are brief moments anything but lingered upon speaks to Nolan’s growing sensibilities as a visual storyteller, their impact not merely heightened by, but manifest of, their barely-glimpsed presence – temporary sensory overload that’s gone before you’ve quite gotten hold of it. Ironically, though, it is the presence of these and several other moments of transcendent greatness that serve to highlight the relative inferiority of much of the product, like a massive house of cards build on an otherwise unstable foundation. A key moment sees The Joker (a consistently brilliant Heath Ledger) describe his conflict with Christian Bale’s Batman as that between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, the shot and actor aligned in such a way that it suggests the heady immensity of his claim. In a way, his words effectively summarize the conflict inherent within The Dark Knight itself, a blockbuster as finely crafted as any of its kind even as it stands guilty of more cardinal offenses, a irrevocable schism between concept and execution

At The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich articulates his own disappointment as a “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of artistic hodgepodge. After multiple re-reading and three viewings of the film itself, I think I’ve a handle on his exact meaning(s) (as his thoughts often throw my own perceptions for a loop), and while I sense agreement as regards parts of my own viewing experience, overall I feel something more akin to two steps forward, one step back. Though not meant to its detriment, The Dark Knight feels not unlike an ultra-high concept theme park ride: the film is always moving forward, quite unlike any I’ve ever seen, not merely kinetically but narratively, like a freight train too heavy for even the strongest breaks. Not a moment isn’t meant to expose something – a character trait, an unfolding tragedy, the indication of a death, the presentation of a conflict, the resolution to a crisis, etc. – and if the film has any singular flaw (of which there are many arguable), it’s that it often smothers itself with excessive exposition. Not simply free of anything that could be called relative pacing or mood (such are present, but always attached to facts, facts, facts), let alone languishing, the film flaws itself via numerous redundancies – overemphatic repeats of ideas and questions meant to impart philosophical or emotionally probing thought. In his own 2005 franchise reboot Batman Begins, Nolan abused dialectic development of theme by saying “fear” more times than in George W. Bush’s combined 2002-2005 State of the Union addresses. The broken record nature of the screenplay reached inadvertently comedic heights when Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) purportedly wise statements played like parenthetical comments never erased from the screenplay, like markers leftover from sketched lines of screenplay architecture. Similarly in The Dark Knight do themes start fresh, turn ripe, and suddenly rot on screen in distinct phases, though whereas Begins often meandered on its emotions – never quite grand, but always feeling and poetic – TDK (as the fans like to call it) feels like a rush from one point to the next.

In a way, this approach is absolutely right: the characters of the film themselves face continual battles with limited choices at their disposal and unpleasantries at every turn, their very lives often sacrificed in their perpetual effort to survive. By turning the central cat-and-mouse conflict into a narrative tool on audience expectations, the film posits said scenario onto our own sensibilities. Implicitly reflecting 21st Century physical and psychological warfare, The Dark Knight renders its tale with sufficient timeliness without explicitly vocalizing such connections, much in the same way that 12 Angry Men still serves as a reminder of Great Ideas regardless of how long ago the movie was released and the original play written. Pity, then, that The Dark Knight can’t settle for good enough, throwing in the mix a last-minute anti-Patriot Act diatribe via Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox that feels less like genuine character thoughts than a lame grab at cinematic legitimacy via lip service to timely issues. In using the comic and crime genres to wax philosophical on our political moment, the film overdoses on talking points excessively and almost unforgivably, often utilizing the same description or miniature catchphrase, two, three or four times in the same scene. Praise be to Heath Ledger and company for making even the most mundane of dialogue sound passionate and meaningful (hollow though the oft-repeated words become), and damn Nolan for his pounding away at our heads with a rusty hammer. It’s called a thesaurus, Chris. Use it.

That a great deal of the movie ultimately sticks, then, speaks to the filmmaker’s almost-masterful execution of formula, packaging emotions, plot, ideas, and mood into compacted chunks that flow purposefully from one to the next. Nothing in the construction of The Dark Knight hasn’t been carefully thought out, a point on which I think even the film’s detractors can agree (however blatantly misguided some of its choices are). In the Gotham environment of disorder and death – the film itself is driven by a taste for self-preservation and the need to know – the redundancy of plotting info is a major blow to any developed mental buzz, and it horribly upsets the big-budget successes on prominent display, often sending this $200 million tank of a movie off the course. Though damnable in itself, the fact that the problem remains isolated to moments of intended thematic development is, in a way, something to be grateful about: where the entirety of the film this riddled with verbal diarrhea, I think I might petition to suffocate every single last one of the characters. It’d be a quiet threequel, for sure.

If the aforementioned elements do nothing less than bug the shit out of me, rest assured that the extremity of my reservations comes entirely from the fact that they dampen the almost absolute excellence of everything else they coexist with from beginning to end; so great is it that I’m tempted to forgive the systems on life support and pass the whole thing with flying colors. Burdened it may be, The Dark Knight features some of the most immediate and savory blockbuster artistry the medium has ever seen, bringing to mind the feral plow of Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s pro-life Jurassic Park arguments, even if it never quite touches those film’s respective pinnacles of development and articulation. Like a Greek morality play with concise themes and specifically tagged representatives, Gotham City is the fertile nesting ground for these peripatetics in action, figures of power engaged in constant struggle for the upper hand. A love-torn Batman represents democratic virtue, The Joker unbridled chaos, and a late-entry vote by a fallen Harvey Dent suggests that only pure, black and white chance can serve as an issuer of justice. Let the debate begin.

From the opening, Heat-inspired bank robbery through the centerpiece highway chase, Nolan’s spectacle carries with it a sense of formidable momentum – violence, both physical and emotional, enervated by hefty dynamics and a brooding sense that nothing can be taken for granted. Gotham City is under attack and even Batman lacks the resources necessary to combat it, forced to discard all traditional notions of justice in the face of a villain who wants nothing more than “to watch the world burn”. As the plot progresses and the influence of criminal activity deepens, the all-encompassing power of The Joker begins to take on almost-profound, if device laden, levels of magnitude, and Ledger’s much-hyped posthumous performance – though certainly influenced by the dark circumstances surrounding it, in much the same way that any artist’s work takes on new levels of importance in the wake of their passing – entirely lives up to the hype preceding it. Though ticky and quirky in all the “expected” ways, Ledger’s mannerisms reach beyond a mere physical arsenal of gestures and touches on deeper psychological tremors, the inexplicable nature of which is only elucidated by the film’s decision to never provide him with a proper back story. In a way equals with the much-touted 2007 “ambiguous villain,” Oscar-winning duo of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day-Lewis and No Country for Old Men’s Javier Bardem, Ledger goes beyond the written page so effectively that all around him suffer in comparison. Too bad that Nolan botches the character’s finale, a disastrous bit of manipulation in the form of a “social experiment” that plays like a scene from an imaginary follow-up to Paul Haggis’ shrill Crash. Woe too is Aaron Eckhart, who eagerly dives into Harvey Dent/Two-Face only for his arc to be crammed into a poorly developed third act. Such are the sore thumbs that stick out embarrassingly from The Dark Knight’s canvas, valleys amidst an operatic landscape that threaten to swallow up that which surrounds them, no matter how high the peaks themselves rise.

How high, indeed, although “big” seems a more accurate overall descriptor. Though crafted deliberately with IMAX screenings in mind (the screens of which utilize a screen closer to 1:66:1 than traditional widescreen), Nolan’s use of said format’s customized cameras translates quite seamlessly to the 1.85:1 ratio of the standard theatrical exhibition; in both arenas, the camerawork effectively pronounces the immensity of the action at hand, swooping over the urban landscapes like a maze in which various combatants writhe for the upper hand in a titanic battle. Both the narrative and locations are effectively labyrinthine, the series of unfortunate events that plague the citizens of Gotham doubling as an expert – if, in hindsight, blatantly calculated – play on audience emotions, reinforcing the notion that comics have and continue to inform real life in the same way that drama has always aided in the exploration of the human condition. Cluttered though it may be, a great genre movie exists at the heart of this wild and untamed, if occasionally misguided, beast, and one can only hope that Nolan will become more confident in his expressive devices after his experience on The Dark Knight. It’s the Batman movie we need right now, if not entirely the one we deserve.