Picofarad #14 Movie reviews

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The Dark Knight (2008)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 152 minutes

Trivia question: What do the late Dale Earnhardt Senior and the late Heath Ledger have in common? Answer: A community of fans so rabidly loyal, they will send death threats to anyone who has the nerve to suggest Their Hero might possibly maybe not be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

If you are one of those people--that is, a fanatical fan of the late Heath Ledger--then this will be your only warning: Do Not Read Any Further. (If you are a Dale Earnhardt Senior fan, then you can sod right off just on general principles.)

The Dark Knight is set about one year after Batman Begins; in that time, Gotham City's criminal element has found itself caught between Batman's (Christian Bale) rock, and D.A. Harvey Dent's (Aaron Eckhart) hard place (which, just by looking at him, appears to be his hair). Being the sort of congenital imbeciles who commit crime, they hire The Joker (Heath Ledger), a self-described "agent of chaos", whose plan is, in the finest Holmesian sense, absurdly simple--Kill Batman. This is the intellectual level of the villains in this piece, folks--at any moment, I expected the late Graham Chapman to appear dressed as a new superhero, Captain Obvious.

The Joker, who is established early on as being about as trustworthy and reliable as a Yugo, proceeds to engage in the sort of overly-convoluted Dastardly Plots which end comically in reality, but here are aided and abetted by the fact that everyone else in the movie is incapable of figuring out "hey, this guy's whole act is about being unpredictable; why then are we carefully marching along the route he's laid out for us?"

The one plot of The Joker's which actually works is his removal of Bruce Wayne's one-time love interest, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, vice Katie Holmes), who at the moment is going out with Dent. The Joker's plan to remove Dent results, to the surprise of absolutely no one, in the creation of the Two-Face character--though the effects job done on Dent means calling him Half-Face would be more appropriate (for those who've seen it, think of the Crypt Keeper from HBO's old Tales from the Crypt series, and you're there). Two-Face's role is fairly short-lived; the second finale of the movie (what is it these days with films having multiple endings?) has him trying, and failing, to kill Commissioner Gordon's (Gary Oldman) family (Gordon manages to go from Lieutenant to Police Commissioner in one hop; not even the Royal Navy was this profligate with promotions).

There are some decent aspects to this flick--I was pleasantly surprised to see the film's makers had heard of the Fulton Skyhook Recovery System (for a description, read Richard Marcinko's Rogue Warrior), and decided to use it-- and some decent performances, as well: Gary Oldman's Gordon actually looks and sounds like a cop; Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is neither over- nor under- done; and Michael Caine's Alfred is as good as Michael Gough's, which seems to suggest if one wants a good Alfred, get a Michael. (I don't know what that means, either.) Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne could be improved by remembering "Bruce Wayne is eccentric, not a jerk", while his Batman needs elocution lessons to make him understandable while he's trying to growl out his lines, but is passable otherwise. Harvey Dent is, well, about as offensive as a baked potato.

Heath Ledger's performance, on the other hand, is complete and utter Rubbish. I have read and seen far too many reviews and related programming saying "he's the most terrifying thing to ever hit the screen", "he's the perfect Joker", blah blah blah. If this is what truly terrifies people these days, then I now understand why so many people I talk to are convinced this country is doomed--these people are running scared from an overglorified masochist who walks like a five-year-old who's waited too long for a trip to the bathroom, wears so much pancake makeup even Tammy Faye Bakker would tell him "Hey--tone it down", licks his chops like a dog who's just been introduced to peanut butter, and spouts off about how all of life is chaos and nothing's fair like some sort of Nietzschean wannabe in the sort of pathetic wheedle reserved for John Lovitz's Annoying Man character, interspersed with the sort of phony giggle teenage girls use when they're trying to see if they can get a boy to embarrass himself publicly. I did not find this Joker scary; I found him irritating (though not half as irritating as the buzz-bums mentioned above). Also: The Joker is supposed to have some level of Style; John Wayne Gacy had more style than this Joker.

Further condemnation is aimed at the plot itself--this is quite possibly the least-subtle attempt by Hollywood to declaim against the War On Terror since the WTC/Pentagon attacks (and if you don't think the destruction of the hospital is an unsubtle attempt to invoke "Der Tag", I suspect you know where Osama is, 'cause you've been hiding in the same cave he's been using). The Joker as an "agent of chaos" who uses bombs, chemical weapons, and Terror (note capitalization) to serve his ends--I suppose the fact that Ras al-Ghul ate it in the previous flick is all that stopped the film's makers from putting Ledger in a headscarf and having him shouting "Allahu ahkbar" every two minutes. There are "adult films" out there with greater subtext than this. (The "turning Batman into a hunted outlaw" sequence is simply icing on the Crud Cake.)

As mentioned above, there're some good performances--just not the one everyone's prattling on about--and some nice scenes, but not enough to save this flick from a solid Avoid. Sorry, folks--Chris Nolan, Chris Bale, and Heath Ledger cannot hold the capes of Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson.

Review by Chris French

WALL-E (2008)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Andrew Stanton
Running Time: 98 minutes

Pixar's films have often been denigrated for being excellent technical exercises wrapped around plots dredged directly from Ebert's Little Movie Glossary. This flick is no exception--had they tried making it with humans, Disney's response would have been--well, try to imagine if Harlan Ellison hadn't been fired for suggesting making X-rated animated films, and had instead gone on to take Walt's place, and you'll have some idea of just how far the film's makers would have been drop-kicked from the studio.

The title character (voice by Ben Burtt) is essentially a mobile garbage- crusher. It's the only one left of a failed project by the ConHugeCo corporation running Earth in the 2100s to deal with the epic amount of garbage left by said corp's Conspicuous Consumption policies (that the corporation's name is "Buy 'n' Large" should tell you what level of Subtlety the makers are using). Several hundred years have passed, and WALL-E is still mashing away--and occasionally collecting detritus which strikes its fancy (cigarette lighters, Rubik's Cubes, etc.), as well as stripping failed WALL-E units for replacement parts (so he's a cannibal, in a way...). In the course of two days, two interesting things happen to it: The first day, it finds a plant, which it collects and takes "home"; the very next day, a ship arrives and deposits a probe droid, EVE (voice by Elissa Knight), which WALL-E follows (stalks?), and eventually befriends (well, WALL-E actually seems to want More, but this is a Kiddie Flick...). Eventually, WALL-E shows EVE the Plant--and we learn that EVE's existence revolves around finding signs of plant life on Earth, so the humans living on a starship in another part of the galaxy can return home. Problem: Due to a misinterpretation of a message given to the ship's autopilot by BnL's President back'n'th'day, the autopilot and its subordinate robots will not go through with the actions needed to send the ship back to Earth. The results should be fairly obvious to anyone who's read any sort of SF involving a Generation Ship and its Command Staff. Do I even need to tell you that when WALL-E shows up, its actions result in getting the otherwise-slothful humans to look around, and in one case quite literally stand on their own two feet again? (The Current Captain (voice by Jeff Garlin) could have been more interesting, but is cast as too much of a buffoon to be believable.)

As noted above, this flick is box-stock Pixar fare. The visuals are excellent. WALL-E looks like it's been living on a rathole planet for seven hundred years. EVE looks like it was built many tech levels after WALL-E. The Security Robots on the ship look like the security turnstiles at a subway station (or, perhaps an amusement park). The ship itself looks like a cruise ship translated into a deep-space liner. Everything looks like it ought to--at no point did I say, "That doesn't belong there."

It also succeeds in actually being funny, in the way such films are-- there's the usual levels of chaos, and "violence", though only robots are "killed" in the course of events.

Unfortunately, the flaws of a Pixar flick are also present. Most obvious is the unsubtle bashing on Consumerism--the skyscraper-sized garbage tips WALL-E builds; and the fact that every human on the ship has machines waiting on them literally hand-and-foot, to the point they have all turned into fat, bloated tubs of goo who spend all their time watching TV screens attached to floating recliners as opposed to actually looking around at the world around them and interacting with other people (in contrast to the ads showing thin, muscular folk; also noted are the pictures of the various past, and the current, Captains of the ship, who become progressively rounder as time passes) are but two examples. I guess someone at Pixar had seen the sort of Jabba-the-Tourist types shambling around the Disney parks like Hawaiian-shirted shoggoths, and decided to take the Mickey out of them (please excuse the expression...); but the fact is: Those are exactly the same people who buy tickets to Pixar movies; openly mocking the people who, after all is said and done, pay your wages is not a good idea, OK, folks? (For what it's worth; I'm 6' even and vary between 200 and 210, so I'm actually not one of those being bashed--and I was offended.

There's also the unsubtle bashing of the 2000-2008 US President; BnL's President (played by Fred Willard, in a rare addition of live-action to a Pixar flick) shares all too many mannerisms and catchphrases with George W. Bush, and the scenes in which he appears look an awful lot like a POTUS press conference; I suppose making mockery of GWB's predecessor's foibles would have put the film outside G-rating territory.

The title character is himself a stereotype--look carefully at WALL- E's head; don't those lenses look awfully like Coke-bottle eyeglasses? Note the fact that its "home" is decorated in Random Collectables and Dirt. Note also how the place is cross-wired six ways from Sunday. And the less said about WALLE-s predilection for show tunes, the better. I guess Pixar's writers couldn't find a way to "TRISHA Effect" the word "nerd". (It's in Ebert's Little Movie Glossary--look it up.)

As a technical exercise, this film is excellent; as a piece of storytelling, there's as much rubbish in the plot as on the screen. Due to the nature of the flick--on the tech side a Watch; on the plot side, an Avoid--it winds up with an Eh.

Hancock (2008)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Peter Berg
Running time: 92 minutes

As I've mentioned before (I think), I've never been big on comic books, at least not the variety most folks are familiar with (no, this doesn't mean what you think it means, you degenerates). So I've never been big on the Superhero Mythos; if anything flies or has other such powers in the comics I'm reading, chances are it's not friendly.

Which leads to the titular character of Hancock--he flies, he has superpowers, and he is decidedly not friendly (or, at any rate, not so much "not friendly" as "not personable"). The character, John Hancock (yes, he comes by his name in exactly the manner one would expect him to have come by that name), drinks too much, looks (and smells) like a hobo, and causes inordinate amounts of property damage in the course of Stopping Crimes. He saves an image consultant (in the course of which derailing an entire freight train), who is the sort of persistently-optimistic twit who thinks he can fix Hancock's image by using the Power of Public Apology, a jail sentence (thereby consigning Los Angeles to the sort of crime wave which, well, makes L.A. what it is now), and a spiffy new leather costume which looks like he's trying out for a World Superbike racing team. Right about the time Hancock finally gets his act together, he gets catapulted into a completely different movie, and the usual city-destroying havoc ensues.

This last is one of a series of flaws with this movie--in the course of 97 minutes we get no less than four different Superhero Movies: The Introduction of the Hero; The Reintroduction of the Hero for the Modern Age; The Hero Facing A Mortal Opponent Who Makes Up For Lacking Superheroic Abilities With Cunning; and The Hero Facing A Threat With Powers Equal To His. The Simpsons Movie was the last time I saw so many plot arcs crammed into so short a time.

On Cramming: Hancock has a fixation on shoving one person's head up another one's ass; do I even need to tell you that, thanks to modern SFX, we are finally treated to the sight of the aftermath of Hancock's Tab-A-Into-Slot-B fetish?

Another problem this film has is indicated by the ad campaign, which started off playing up the humorous scenes, then suddenly shifted to "oh my god, he's becoming mortal"--the makers aren't sure if they want the flick to be a Comedy, a Drama, or some other sort of Action film. The problem isn't helped by the fact that the jokes aren't that funny (the whale-rescue scene in particular is ineptly handled), and the drama isn't anything a filmgoer hasn't seen done before. The "how much collateral damage does the hero inflict" theme could have been interesting, but The Incredibles already did it, and did it better. Will Smith's leaden handling of the main character, and the please-god-someone-strangle-this-moron image consultant, only make me happier this flick isn't any longer than it is. The image consultant's wife's angle is only a surprise if one is totally unaware of the rudiments of human behavior.

I can't say I especially wanted to like this movie, but neither did I want to hate it. In the end, I was left with the feeling of having sat through a condensed version of the four Christopher Reeve Superman movies, with the color control inverted. Had it been any longer, it would have solidly rated an Avoid; the fact that the film's makers decided to not make it a two-and-one-half-hour bladder-cracker allows to just squeak by with an Eh.

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