>> The Dark Knight (9/10)

The Dark Knight

I was fourteen years old during the Summer of 1989, and I absolutely could not wait to see Batman.  When the first rumblings were made that Michael Keaton, then known for his comedies, and Jack Nicholson were teaming up to star in a Batman movie by the guy that directed Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, everyone I knew assumed it would be some kind of wacky reworking of the 1960’s television series.  I saw the trailer attached to Rain Man almost a year before Batman was released in theatres, and it was not what I was expecting at all.  It was everything my fourteen year old brain could want from a Batman movie.

That Summer changed the course of my life in many ways.  I saw Batman five times in the theatre that Summer (I’ve only done that one other time since then, managing to see Pulp Fiction five times on the big screen in the span of a year), and it was the start of my mother allowing me the independence to see movies on my own.  I would walk or bike to the Alvin 6 and watch movies.  It didn’t matter if I had anyone with me or not.  I even started to read newspaper reviews (Jeff Millar in the Houston Chronicle, R.I.P.) to inform my movie-going decisions.

Tim Burton’s Batman was the first thing I could point to and say “See?” when people would wonder why I liked comic books so much.  It was darker and more serious than any other comic adaptation to date, and absolutely kick-started the superhero genre of film–a genre that is alive and kicking, now more than ever, nineteen years (!) later.  The experience was big and bold and changed the way I considered films.  It also validated my hobby with loads of mainstream acceptance.

Oh, to be fourteen years old in 2008…

The Dark Knight is like 1989’s Batman all over again, in a way that makes Batman Begins feel like distant memory.  If Batman made superheroes acceptable action templates for cinema, then The Dark Knight makes superheroes acceptable entertainment for adults.  This is the next evolution in comic films, and it’s interesting to see everything becoming 1986 again, to reference another year.

In 1986, the comic world was dealt the one-two punch of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, both of which elevated comic readership from the corner shop geeks and comic rack kids to the literate press and curious adults.  Both comics challenged the readers with mature themes, moral questions, and difficult, decidedly adult challenges, and changed the comic landscape forever.  While The Dark Knight is not an adaptation of Frank Miller’s classic work, it is without a doubt the first grown-up superhero film, recognizing that the character has been around long enough to have adult fans.  (Look for the Watchmen movie in 2009.)

This film will influence the landscape of superhero films to come, and if they can come close to capturing a fraction of this movie’s dense complexity then we are very lucky viewers.  The Dark Knight is a crime thriller in every sense of the word, humming with palpable dread, taut suspense, and richly drawn characters.

I’m not going to get into any plot summaries here.  If you want details, I’m sure there are plenty of “spoiler”-filled reviews already up all over the web.  Here’s all you need to know–It’s better than you think it is.  Heath Ledger IS the Joker–the version I’ve been reading in my head all these years and have never seen on film until now.  Never heard of Aaron Eckhart before this film?  Well, you’ll surely remember him now.  Gary Oldman continues to be my favorite bit of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman ensemble.  He’s simply Jim Gordon; the same way that J.K. Simmons is simply J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies.  I literally can not envision any one else in this role.

I guess now is as good a place as any to mention the interrogation room scene.  This bit of one-on-one between Batman and the Joker is as perfect a scene as I’ve ever seen in my life; so chillingly spot-on and well-done that I had goose bumps.  I loved it; like, I am in love with it.

Hype yourself up, and you’ll still have your expectations exceeded.  Maybe it’s too long.  Maybe Batman is almost a bit player in this grand drama set against a very real, relevant Gotham City.  Maybe it will be too heavy for some; certainly too heavy for families expecting a Saturday morning cartoon hero come to life.  It plays rough, and elevates the entire genre while doing so.  If you liked Batman Begins at all, then you are absolutely going to go wild over this.

9 on a 1 to 10 scale

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>> Hellboy II: The Golden Army (7/10)

Hellboy II

Hellboy II

I was susprisingly unaffected by Hellboy II:  The Golden Army.  Suprising, because of my love for monsters and comic book action, and also surprising due to my passing interest in the Hellboy comics themselves.  I remember this feeling from 2004, when the first Hellboy film came out–a film that was sporadically fun and odd, but with a plot that was vague, pitting interesting heroes against underdeveloped villains.  Sometimes it felt like the comic, but mostly it didn’t.  Hellboy II is better than its predecessor in ceratin aspects, namely a more concise plot, but still fumbles around with the property.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics read like an occult Indiana Jones, full of globe-trotting quests into the darkest, scariest corners of the world.  Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies are silly, oddball confections filled with karate fights and relationship woes.  I accept Del Toro’s Hellboy on its own terms, but forgive me if I like the comic book version better.  The frustration here is that Del Toro is actually the perfect director to bring Mignola’s universe to life, but he’s more interested in Summer Movie Sequelitis than in creating a film that reflects Mignola’s creepy adventures.  Hellboy II is all about bigger, badder, and louder–so loud that even the “quiet” moments are noisy.

In an awkward opening sequence in which John Hurt reads a story that is acted out with CGI wooden puppets to a distracting-looking young Hellboy, it is explained that many years ago elves conspired with goblins to create an unstoppable clockwork Golden Army to defeat the humans.  The slaughter at the hands of these robotic brutes was so horrifying that the king of the elves decided that the crown that controlled the Golden Army should be split up amongst the races, never to be used again.  Cut to modern day and Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) of the elves is seeking the crown so that humans can be driven back once more, and the supernatural and fantastic creatures can once again live in the open on Earth.

Standing in Prince Nuada’s way is the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development, consisting of Ron Perlman’s ape-like Hellboy, Doug Jones as the amphibious Abe Sapien, Selma Blair as pyrokentic Liz Sherman, and new BPRD leader Johann Strauss, voiced by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlene.  Hellboy does his best to work alongside Liz, despite their sticky relationship issues, and Abe is distracted from his duties by his attraction to an unlikely ally, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who shares a psychic bond with her misguided brother Nuada.

There’s plenty of spectacle here.  Big colorful sets, outlandish production design, and rubbery monsters abound in Del Toro’s unusually childlike vision of Mignola’s world.  Hellboy II is, at times, downright weird.  Weird is wonderful.  And yet…

Del Toro is delivering a big budget action film here, not an esorteric creep-out.  He doesn’t linger on the weirdness; he’d rather have characters shooting and punching and shooting some more.  He’d rather assault your senses with pure volume and crazy visuals, practically shouting to the world that he too can make a noisy Summer blockbuster.

Yes, Guillermo, you can.  But you can also craft quiet tension.  I’ve seen you do it before (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth).  Here, even the emotional moments are either played for laughs or inflated with bombast.  Granted, it’s what I expect from Summer movies.  It’s just not what I expect from Guillermo Del Toro.

Hellboy II is a silly action movie, wrapped in a thin, pretty promise of something more.  There’s a measure of charm in its strange world, but never enough to satisy.  The things that worked in the first Hellboy film continue to work here, but there’s a lack of depth that make these films little more than curious, lavish big-budget “cult” action movies.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale