Monthly Archives: July 2005
To many film critics, director Michael Bay is the devil. He’s the man behind such ADD-edited hits like Armageddon, both Bad Boys, and Pearl Harbor. Each film was more or less savaged by critics and each film was a hit. Bay has always said he makes popcorn movies for audiences and never listens to the critics. That would probably be a good thing since they don’t exactly have a lot of nice things to say about Bay and especially his editing techniques. But how would someone like Bay, who dreams about blowing stuff up with every night’s sleep, handle material a little more subtlety than, say, corpses filled with drugs being thrown at oncoming traffic (see: Bad Boys II or better yet, don’t)? The Island is Bay’s first film without uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and it’s also Bay’s first encounter with science fiction. Can he make The Island into another popcorn miracle or will his blockbuster tendencies get the better of him?
In the year 2020, the Earth has been contaminated by pollution. The survivors live in a series of isolated towers and are monitored, given strict diets and jobs, and even matching white jump suits. There is an upside to this life; every so often there is a lottery where the winning inhabitant gets a trip to The Island, the last uncontaminated spot on Earth. They’ll spend the rest of their days living it up in paradise, or so they think.
Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) has been at the facility for three years. He has questions for the good doctor Merrick (Sean Bean, your go-to guy for villains when you can’t afford Al Pacino), the man in charge of the place. Lincoln questions his purpose and wonders why he keeps having recurring nightmares with images he can’t place. He’s also been having a very close friendship with Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), though they?re not allowed intimate contact and the living quarters are separated by gender. One day Lincoln finds a butterfly on a different level of the facility and investigates the higher levels. In a few minutes time, Lincoln discovers the truth about the facility: it’s a station harvesting clones to keep rich people going when they need an organ or two. There is no Island but there is an operating room that you won’t return from. Lincoln escapes back into the facility’s population but springs into action when he learns Jordan has been selected to go to The Island. He fights the facility’s staff, grabs his girl, and the two are off to learn the truth of their world and to live.
McGregor is on autopilot with this one but still manages to have some fun, especially when he’s playing two different versions of himself (“What’s with all the biting?”). Johansson looks more beautiful than ever but does little more than stare vacantly. It doesn’t help that a majority of the dialogue after the half-way mark consists of one-word shouts like, “Go!” and “Move!” and of course, “Lincoln!” The best actor by far in The Island is Michael Clarke Duncan who plays a clone who wakes up on the operating table. His mad rush of screaming, tears, confusion, horror, and betrayal may be some of the finest two minutes of acting from the year. Duncan’s cries will hit you square in the gut.
The fish out of water scenario does provide some fun moments of humor, like Lincoln being confused by the phrase “taking a dump.” The Island also asks how people who have never known sexuality deal with their expressions of sexuality (plus it doesn’t even come close to viewer discomfort of something like The Blue Lagoon). The always welcomed Steve Buscemi provides the biggest laughs in the movie as the wise-cracking outsider who helps the runaway clones.
It’s comforting to know that in the future product placement will be as large as ever. I?m normally not too offended by product placement in ads, but The Island seems like it’s contorting to show company names. In one scene, Jordan gazes at an image of herself in a perfume ad, and it’s a real ad Scarlett Johansson did. This got me thinking, what if The Island‘s villains were really today’s actual flesh-and-blood movie stars that wanted fresh parts. The real McGregor and Johansson would become the bad guys. Unfortunately, it seems a little too meta to pull off for a Bay film.
The Island is an intriguing sci-fi movie that doesn’t know what to do once it gets to the surface. As soon and our clones go on their Logan’s run, the movie devolves into a series of bloated, mediocre chase scenes. If the first half is Bay at his potential best, the second half is Bay at his lazy, expected self. The chase scenes aren’t too lively and, except for a late subplot involving McGregor playing dual roles, The Island wilts as soon as it turns into an action movie. There doesn’t seem to be enough plot for this overlong 140 minute movie. Bay’s requisite chaotic grandeur and spectacle has a ho-hum feeling and dulls the viewer right when they should be racing with excitement. Bay’s done this all before and better, and that’s why the first half is so exciting a change for him. It’s thoughtful, tense, interesting, well plotted and visually fun, and then we regrettably hit the second half and it all goes downhill from there.
The movie limps to its over-extended climax and saps all the potential from the opening. The Island really is two disjointed movies slapped together. The first hour is a classic science fiction setup and we are given morsels of information like bread crumbs, which heighten the tension. The second half is an unimaginative, plodding thrill ride that never seems to take off. Sure, the first half may be derivative of a hundred other sci-fi films (most notably Parts: The Clonus Horror) but the second half is derivative of a thousand other action movies. I’ll take smart sci-fi over dumb action most days, even during the bombast of summer. It feels like The Island began as a scary sci-fi film and in order to make it to the big screen the studio had to piggyback a lifeless action movie on top of it. The Island‘s action sequences feel like Bay fell asleep at the wheel.
It may seem like I’m being over cruel about The Island, but the reason I lambaste the second half is because I was so thoroughly entertained by the first half. For many The Island will be enough to quench their summer thirst, but for me it only showed flashes of life in the first half. Once all the explosions, noise, and flying debris kicked in, The Island transforms into any other dumb action movie. Such promise, such vision, all quickly flushed down an embryonic feeding tube. Even if someone prefers the noisy second half they would still take issue with the first half, calling it slow and boring. Fans of Bad Boys II and Logan’s Run don’t exactly mix well. How can a movie possibly work this way?
Bay may be a master maestro of explosions and gunfire, but The Island flat lines when it transitions from thoughtful, eerie sci-fi parable to rote action flick. This feels like two very different movies slapped together, and most audiences are going to like one half stronger than the other so the film won’t work. The action sequences feel unimaginative and all of the film’s potential gets stranded by its about-face in tone. We’ve seen all of these things before, and that’s what’s most regrettable about where The Island leaves you after flashing an iota of glossy potential. Bay may not be the devil but he’s certainly losing his edge, and The Island would have been all the better for it.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In the vein of 2003’s Winged Migration, comes the newest nature documentary, March of the Penguins. A French film crew spent several months in the Antarctic and documented the mating habits of the adult Emperor penguin. Originally the film was told from a first-person point of view with the penguins narrating their lives. There was supposedly even a song by the baby penguins chirping for food. Eegads. Thankfully, the American distributor dropped this Milo and Otis approach, wrote some brand new third-person narration and tapped Morgan Freeman to voice it. Now that?s a step in the right direction. The results are a dazzling family-friendly documentary about birds that seem out of this world.
At a certain age, the adult Emperor penguins will leave their fishing grounds and begin their long march. No one knows how they know when and where to go, but scores and scores of penguins will travel hundreds of miles to a fertile breeding ground where the ice will be thick enough.
Once they’ve reached this spot the males must choose a female companion and then make with that hot penguin love. If the conception is successful the mamma penguins must now pass the egg off to the males. To do this both birds must keep their toes together the whole time. It doesn’t take much exposure to the harsh Antarctic elements to freeze the egg and null the penguin’s efforts. If this exchange is successful, the mamma penguins must now march 70 miles to fill their bellies with fish. They’ve given up fifty percent of their body weight birthing the egg and are literally starving to death. It’s now the daddy penguin’s responsibility to hatch the egg and guard it from the frigid temperatures until their mate returns. This perilous process will repeat until the baby is strong enough to be left on its own.
Throughout the many months, we watch the penguins endure incredible hardships. They begin by walking (or by waddling) hundreds of miles and then bracing temperatures as bitter as 80 degrees below zero. While the males carry the egg, they will go as long as four months without eating. The community will huddle together for warmth against the elements, and they even cycle teams out so that every penguin gets a turn in the center. The daddy penguins can pick out the voice of their baby even though they haven’t heard their voice since birth. Penguins are freaking awesome.
It’s amazing how characteristically human the penguins can appear. It’s striking to see penguins show affection for each other, from rubbing their beaks to craning their heads and pushing their bodies together. In one remarkable scene, we see the fields of penguins after most of them have decided on a mate. As far as the eye can see there are penguins pressed together in twos declaring their monogamous affection.
But these flightless birds also display painful emotions. After one strong windstorm, a mother penguin searches for her baby and finds it sprawled against the ice and dead. She starts poking the body at first but then lets loose a wail of grief. It’s remarkable how much you can feel for grieving penguins. We’re also told that, though rare, some mama penguins that have lost their little one will try and steal a baby.
The biggest draw of March of the Penguins is the wonderful photography. Covering the majority of a year, we see the entire mating and birth cycle in surprisingly candid and beautifully realized detail. It’s easy to get lost staring at the gorgeous images, from the vast and desolate Antarctic landscapes, to the long lines of hundreds of marching adult penguins, to the irresistibly cute and fluffy baby penguins (they look like stuffed animals come to life). This is what separates March of the Penguins from every day, run-of-the-mill TV nature shows, though National Geographic did help produce. The high-quality cinematography, absorbing story, and sheer adorability of the penguins make this a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
March of the Penguins is also a perfect film for families. The plight of the penguins will be enough to ensure younger kiddies keep watching. The images will dazzle people of all ages and make you feel all warm and fuzzy, like a baby penguin. There’s great humor in watching these birds but there?s also great wonder. You’ll be surprised how often you may discover yourself narrating along; my favorite comment apparently was “Damn, that’s a whole lotta penguins.” What’s even more mysterious is that I didn’t care at all overhearing other people doing the same thing. March of the Penguins is an experience that also easily lends itself to viewer involvement, which makes it perfect for kids. There are some scarier moments when predators hit the scene but nothing that should be too traumatic.
March of the Penguins is a wonderful, heart warming, dazzling documentary that should charm audiences of all ages. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be amused, impressed, or delighted by the penguins and their fuzzy brood. The photography is amazing in its scope and detail, and you?ll want to take a baby penguin home with you (just look at that picture! Look at it!) This is a lovely and enchanting summer entry that should pick up steam as it picks up additional screens. Catch those penguins now before they march out of your town.
Nate’s Grade: B+
My friend Amanda Evans is quite possibly the biggest Vince Vaughn fan in the United States, nay, the planet Earth. She used to watch Dodgeball every day. Her brother-in-law even went so far as to stage an intervention for her Vaughn addiction. She has been talking about Wedding Crashers for months and months and counting down the days like a kid waiting for Christmas. It’s safe to say that Amanda loved the movie but how would your otherwise non-obsessed moviegoer feel?
Jeremy (Vaughn) and John (Owen Wilson) are divorce attorneys by day and ladies men come nightfall. Both men crash weddings they were not invited to with the strict purpose of getting laid by horny bridesmaids. They have got their honey hunting down to a science, from what relative they’re related to, to when to cry, to whom to slow dance with to convince those bridesmaids that they’re sweet gentlemen. Jeremy says that one day when they?re old men they’ll both look back on these days and smile. John retorts, “We’re not that young.”
The Super Bowl of all weddings is the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury (Christopher Walken). John has his eye on his other daughter Claire (Rachel McAdams) while Jeremy sets his sights on the Secretary’s other daughter, the wild and vivacious Gloria (Isla Fisher). The only problem for John is that he’s actually falling in love with Claire, oh and she’s engaged to a real jackass (Alias‘ Bradley Cooper). Jeremy and John are such big hits at the wedding that the Secretary invites them both to vacation with his family at their summer home. Jeremy is hesitant and wants to stick to the love-em-and-leave-em lifestyle he and his buddy are so accustomed to, but John drags him along convinced he can win Claire over.
Vaughn kills in every single scene. He hits punchline after punchline like some king of comedic prizefighter. His mile-a-minute delivery gels ever so nicely with Wilson’s homesy charm and drawl. These two have never been matched before as leading men but now their marriage seems like a match made in heaven. Their chemistry is off the chart. Wilson is essentially the straight man to Vaughn. In most comedies, “straight man” is just another term for boring. However, Wilson gets his shots in as well especially with his give and take with Vaughn, who is in a comedic zone all his own.
Not to be out done by the men, both McAdams and Fisher give great performances. McAdams (Mean Girls) is a rising star and it’s easy to see why. She’s a beautiful woman but also has some good teeth for comedy. In comedy terms, she’s the romantic interest, which means she’s an even straighter (read: boring) man than Wilson’s straight man. And handed with all this, McAdams still shines as a leading lady you can fall in love with. The true scene-stealer of Wedding Crashers is Fisher (Scooby-Doo), who goes hilariously tit-for-tat with Vaughn. You might walk away believing she’s truly out of her mind. Fisher has a physical gift for comedy that hasn’t been showcased before, but with Wedding Crashers she gets unleashed and we?re the better for it.
After the brilliant work of McAdams and Fisher, most of the supporting cast’s performances comes off as being too forced. Cooper is a wide-eyed grinning jackass that?s obvious from the get-go. He plays the role so big that his eyebrows seem permanently pressed to the top of his head. There’s also the weird introverted son who Typical Crazy Grandma berates as being “a homo.” But not only is he gay hes also a freak. The role seems quizzically garish and even a bit homophobic. Jane Seymore jumps at her role as mom in heat, but the film forgets about her fast after an awkward encounter with Wilson. Walken can make me laugh just by watching him stare (and he did), but even he isn’t given much more to work with besides the supportive dad role. It seems odd for a comedy with such huge belly laughs to have several supporting players grind the film’s funny down. All of this is excusable though because the far majority of the film’s attention and laughs are derived from our central quartet.
Wedding Crashers is a raunchy delight. You know you’re in good hands when, in one scene, Wilson and Vaughn are dipping bridesmaids on the dance floor and it cuts to these same bridesmaids now falling topless onto hotel beds. This is one R-rated comedy that proudly wears its rating on its sleeve. And for a sex comedy, there’s a surprising amount of laughs mined just out of an adult discussion on sex, which cannot be curtailed or couched with euphemisms and soft language. I don’t know whether to credit the screenwriters or the off-the-cuff improving of Wilson and Vaughn, but Wedding Crashers proves there’s still more under the sun to talk about and giggle.
Usually with movies revolving around hedonistic characters, they meet one of two ends: 1) they find that One True Girl that makes them want to go straight, or 2) they meet their hedonistic match and rethink their ways now that the shoe is on the other foot. Wedding Crashers doesn’t give you one of these options, oh no, it gives you both. Sure things gets awfully predictable after a great rush out of the gate, but the interplay between Wilson and Vaughn and some genuinely funny gags should keep most laughing until the surprise cameo at the end by the founder/guru of the wedding crashing rule book (it should be no surprise if you’ve seen any movie with Wilson and Vaughn the last three years). The climax is a bit drawn out and Wedding Crashers is still another comedy built around deception whose climax involves apologizing for said deception. It’d be tiresome if the movie weren’t so damn funny.
Despite the sleazy premise, Wedding Crashers has a sweet and gooey center. These are two men who know exactly what women want and they’re eager to give it to them. They just don’t know what they really want, but when they find it both Jeremy and John set their minds to romantic conquests outside of the bedroom. It’s this gooey center that makes the characters likeable despite any misgivings an audience may hold over their wedding crashing plot.
Two hours is a near eternity for most comedies and Wedding Crashers seems to lose its sprint in the last 20-30 minutes. The film starts getting repetitious and overly predictable with few laughs to cover up. Wilson and Vaughn still make it work but the setup seems to have been taken as far as it will go and then some.
Wedding Crashers is a loud, jovial, ribs-in-the-elbows funny return to the crass classics of the 1970s R-rated comedy. Vaughn and Wilson are perfectly matched and McAdams and Fisher shine like stars. Wedding Crashers is a bawdy good time that will leave you aching from laughing so hard. This movie is profane, simple, crude, and joyously so. It does run out of gas toward its protracted climax and some of the supporting performances feel forced, but Wedding Crashers is easily the funniest film of the year. Amanda was foiled in seeing the film three times the weekend it opened. She had to settle for only seeing it twice. I don’t think she has slept since (UPDATE: Amanda has since seen the movie five more times).
Nate’s Grade: B+
I have been a Batman fan since I was old enough to wear footy pajamas. I watched the campy Adam West TV show all the time, getting sucked into the lead balloon adventures. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the first PG-13 film I ever saw, and I watched it so many times on video that I have practically worn out my copy. Batman Returns was my then most eagerly anticipated movie of my life, and even though it went overboard with the dark vision, I still loved it. Then things got dicey when Warner Brothers decided Batman needed to lighten up. I was only a teenager at the time, but I distinctly remember thinking, “You’re telling the Dark Knight to lighten up?” Director Joel Schumacher’s high-gloss, highly stupid turn with Batman Forever pushed the franchise in a different direction, and then effectively killed it with 1997’s abomination, Batman and Robin. I mean these films were more worried about one-liners and nipples on the Bat suits. Nipples on the Bat suits, people! Is Batman really going, “Man, you know, I’d really like to fight crime today but, whoooo, my nipples are so chaffed. I’m gonna sit this one out”?
For years Batman languished in development hell. Warner Bothers licked their wounds and tried restarting their franchise again and again, only to put it back down. Then around 2003 things got exciting. Writer/director Christopher Nolan was announced to direct. Nolan would also have creative control. Surely, Warner Brothers was looking at what happened when Columbia hired Sam Raimi (most known for low-budget splatterhouse horror) for Spider-Man and got out of his way. After Memento (My #1 movie of 2001) and Insomnia (My #5 movie of 2002), Nolan tackles the Dark Night and creates a Batman film that’s so brilliant that I’ve seen it three times and am itching to go again.
The film opens with a youthful Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Tibetan prison. He’s living amongst the criminal element searching for something within himself. Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers Bruce the chance to be taught under the guidance of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the equally mysterious warrior clan, The League of Shadows. Under Ducard’s direction, Bruce confronts his feelings of guilt and anger over his parents’ murder and his subsequent flee from his hometown, Gotham City. He masters his training and learns how to confront fear and turn it to his advantage. However, Bruce learns that the League of Shadows has its judicial eyes set on a crime ridden Gotham, with intentions to destroy the city for the betterment of the world. Bruce rebels and escapes the Tibetan camp and returns to Gotham with his own plans of saving his city.
With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce sets out to regain his footing with his family’s company, Wayne Enterprises. The company is now under the lead of an ethically shady man (Rutger Hauer) with the intentions of turning the company public. Bruce befriends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the company’s gadget guru banished to the lower levels of the basement for raising his voice. Bruce gradually refines his crime fighting efforts and becomes the hero he’s been planning on since arriving home.
Gotham is in bad shape too. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend to Bruce, is a prosecutor who can’t get anywhere when crime lords like Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) are controlling behind the scenes. Most of the police have been bought off, but Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the possibly the city’s last honest cop, and he sees that Batman is a figure trying to help. Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) is a clinical psychologist in cahoots with Falcone. Together they’re bringing in drug shipments for a nefarious plot by The Scarecrow, a villain that uses a hallucinogen to paralyze his victims with vivid accounts of their own worst fears. Bruce is the only one who can unravel the pieces of this plot and save the people of Gotham City.
Nolan has done nothing short of resurrecting a franchise. Previous films never treated Batman as an extraordinary character; he was normal in an extraordinary world. Batman Begins places the character in a relatively normal environment. This is a brooding, intelligent approach that all but erases the atrocities of previous Batman incarnations. Nolan presents Bruce Wayne’s story in his typical nonlinear fashion, but really gets to the meat and bone of the character, opening up the hero to new insights and emotions, like his suffocating guilt over his parents murder.
Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (the Blade trilogy) really strip away the decadence of the character and present him as a troubled being riddled with guilt and anger. Batman Begins is a character piece first and an action movie second. The film is unique amongst comic book flicks for the amount of detail and attention it pays to characterization, even among the whole sprawling cast. Nolan has assembled an incredible cast and his direction is swimming in confidence. He’s a man that definitely knows what he’s doing, and boy oh boy, is he doing it right. Batman Begins is like a franchise colonic.
This is truly one of the finest casts ever assembled. Bale makes an excellent gloomy hero and really transforms into something almost monstrous when he’s taking out the bad guys. He’s got great presence but also a succinct intensity to nail the quieter moments where Bruce Wayne battles his inner demons. Caine (The Cider House Rules, The Quiet American) is incomparable and a joy to watch, and his scenes with the young Bruce actually had me close to tears. This is by far the first time a comic book movie even had me feeling something so raw and anything close to emotional. Neeson excels in another tough but fair mentor role, which he seems to be playing quite a lot of lately (Kingdom of Heaven, Star Wars Episode One). Freeman steals every scene he’s in as the affable trouble causer at Wayne Enterprises, and he also gets many of the film’s best lines. Oldman (The Fifth Element, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) disappears into his role as Gotham’s last good cop. If ever there was a chameleon (and their name wasn’t Benicio del Toro), it is Oldman. Holmes works to the best of her abilities, which means she’s “okay.”
The cast of villains are uniformly excellent, with Wilkinson’s (In the Bedroom) sardonic Chicagah accented mob boss, to Murphy’s (28 Days Later…) chilling scientific approach to villainy, to Watanabe’s (The Last Samurai) cold silent stares. Even Rutger Hauer (a man experiencing a career renaissance of his own) gives a great performance. Seriously, for a comic book movie this is one of the better acted films of the year. And that’s saying a lot.
Batman Begins is such a serious film that it almost seems a disservice to call it a “comic book movie.” There are no floating sound effects cards and no nipples on the Bat suits. Nolan really goes about answering the tricky question, “What kind of man would become a crime-fightin’ super hero?” Batman Begins answers all kinds of questions about the minutia of the Dark Knight in fascinating ways, yet the film remains grounded in reality. The Schumacher Batmans (and God save us from them) were one large, glitzy, empty-headed Las Vegas entertainment show. No explanation was given to characters or their abilities. Likewise, the Gothic and opulent Burton Batmans had their regrettable leaps of logic as well. It’s hard not to laugh at the end of Batman Returns when Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. The Penguin) gets a funeral march from actors in emperor penguin suits. March of the Penguins it ain’t. Nolan’s Batman is the dead-serious affair comic book lovers have been holding their breath for.
The action is secondary to the story, but Batman Begins still has some great action sequences. Most memorable is a chase sequence between Gotham police and the Batmobile which goes from rooftop to rooftop at one point. Nolan even punctuates the sequence with some fun humor from the police (“It’s a black … tank.”). The climactic action sequence between good guy and bad guy is dutifully thrilling and grandiose in scope. Nolan even squeezes in some horror elements into the film. Batman’s first emergence is played like a horror film, with the caped crusader always around another turn. The Scarecrow’s hallucinogen produces some creepy images, like a face covered in maggots or a demonic bat person.
There are only a handful of flaws that make Batman Begins short of being the best comic book movie ever. The action is too overly edited to see what’s happening. Whenever Batman gets into a fight all you can see are quick cuts of limbs flailing. My cousin Jennifer got so frustrated with the oblique action sequences that she just waited until they were over to see who won (“Oh, Batman won again. There you go.”). Nolan’s editing is usually one of his strong suits; much of Memento’s success was built around its airtight edits. He needs to pull the camera back and let the audience see what’s going on when Batman gets physical.
Another issue is how much plot Batman Begins has to establish. This is the first Batman film to focus solely on Batman and not some colorful villain. Batman doesn’t even show up well into an hour into the movie. As a result, Batman Begins perfects the tortured psychology of Bruce Wayne but leaves little time for villains. The film plays a shell game with its multiple villains, which is fun for awhile. The Scarecrow is really an intriguing character and played to gruesome effect by the brilliant Cillian Murphy. It’s a shame Batman Begins doesn’t have much time to develop and then play with such an intriguing bad guy.
Batman Begins is a reboot for the film franchise. Nolan digs deep at the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne and come up with a treasure trove of fascinating, exciting, and genuinely engrossing characters. Nolan’s film has a handful of flaws, most notably its oblique editing and limited handling of villains, but Batman Begins excels in storytelling and crafts a superbly intelligent, satisfying, riveting comic book movie. The best bit of praise I can give Batman Begins is that I want everyone responsible to return immediately and start making a host of sequels. This is a franchise reborn and I cannot wait for more of it.
Nate’s Grade: A