Archive for July 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

July 26, 2008

At first, the new X-Files movie confused me: Where was the paranormal creepiness? There’s a man who may or may not be a psychic, but otherwise, to paraphrase John D. MacDonald talking about one of Stephen King’s “straighter” stories, there’s nary a rustle nor breath of other worlds in it. That’s not to say there’s no creepiness, though: pedophiles and organ harvesting — are those creepy enough for you? Ten years after the last X-Files film, and six years after the show excused itself from Fox’s schedule, director/cowriter Chris Carter has brought former agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) out of mothballs in order to tell a psychologically and ethically twisty yarn about faith (check the subtitle).

The alleged psychic is Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a pedophile priest who has visions connected to various missing people, including an FBI agent. Scully is pulled away from her physician gig (where she’s trying to get stem-cell therapy for a dying little boy in the face of the Catholic bureaucracy at her hospital) to go fetch Mulder, who sits in his clippings-covered hiding place wearing what I guess we’re supposed to take as a real beard. ($30 million doesn’t buy much these days.) Soon enough the duo are back in the thick of weirdness, as body parts turn up and Father Joe bleeds from his eyes, and people are always waddling around in deep snow or getting snowplowed off the slippery roads in their cars.

The consensus is that I Want to Believe feels like an episode (or a two-parter) of the medium-budget show, and in a way that works for it. The smaller scale allows Duchovny and Anderson to work together quietly — the movie is unexpectedly hushed and emotional. There are no explosions, no vast black-oil conspiracy or mystification accessible only to those who’ve memorized every episode (a big problem with the previous film). What the movie boils down to is a rather queasy rumination on good science vs. bad science, good faith vs. bad faith. This being an X-Files film, it involves, at one point, a team of surgeons preparing to graft a gay man’s head onto a woman’s body. (I don’t even really feel like unpacking whatever Carter and cowriter Frank Spotnitz think they’re saying about homosexuality and gender.)

Dark and steamy as the plot is, there’s a good dollop of humor, mostly emerging from within Duchovny’s beard (and, later, his clean-cut mug). There are a couple of callbacks to Mulder’s eternal search for his alien-abducted sister, but most of the subtext falls heavily inside Scully’s gut. She has lost one child and does not want to lose another; she may also be aware that the authorities at the hospital (who run their decisions past a Higher Authority) possibly consider her surgical experiments as barbaric as those of the organ harvesters. Scully, a drifted Catholic herself, may also see herself in Father Joe, the ultimate drifted Catholic, and doesn’t much enjoy what she sees (does God hold her and him in equal wrath?). I don’t think Carter is drawing a moral equivalence in either case — it rhymes literarily, not literally.

So here’s an X-Files adventure without aliens or snot monsters who can fold themselves into origami, or whatever the early Creature of the Week episodes spooked us with. It’s pretty light on action, too. Yet I was compelled by the lurid storyline and its impact on our old friends Mulder and Scully. This is a solid character piece, of the sort that I’m surprised 20th Century-Fox was willing to finance (albeit for a relative pittance). It reminded me why I liked these two when I was sampling the first season. It will, no doubt, disappoint fans who were hoping for the Dark Knight of X-Files movies, a soaring epic tying up the entire show and paving the way for more sequels. But for casual viewers like myself, it’s a compact and unusual thriller with two underrated actors climbing comfortably back into old skins. It could’ve been a whole lot worse.

The Dark Knight

July 19, 2008

The first misconception about The Dark Knight is that it’s a superhero movie. It’s not a superhero movie, or a crime drama either. It’s a horror movie — an epic one, and a great one. Madness and mutilation are on the menu, as well as disturbing ideas about the nature of humans. In the corrupt Gotham City as presented by cowriter-director Christopher Nolan, Batman (Christian Bale) might actually be making things worse. He operates outside the law, giving rise to loutish copycats with guns and makeshift Batman garb. He takes it upon himself to represent order, giving rise to a cackling agent of chaos known as the Joker, who wants to fiddle — or giggle — while Gotham burns.

The second misconception is that the late Heath Ledger gives a great swan-song performance as the Joker. I didn’t see Heath Ledger anywhere in this movie; there is only the Joker, unexplained, unreachable, unstoppable. The Joker is perhaps the most frightening character seen onscreen since Anthony Hopkins hissed at Jodie Foster behind Plexiglas. If it would amuse him to kill you or disfigure you, he will. If it would please him to take Gotham’s avatar of white-knightism, the incorruptible district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and sculpt him into a hideously ironic distortion of Harvey’s public image, he’ll do that too. The horror of the movie is that only a select few build nobility on a foundation of trauma; the rest fall away into hatred and psychosis.

The third misconception is that this is a Batman movie. It is, sort of, but only incidentally. As usual, Batman gets upstaged by his more colorful foes, though the glowing eyes in his cowl when he activates his new sonar device are a neat touch. It’s really an ensemble piece, with people all over Gotham — good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman/Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Batman’s tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Harvey’s girlfriend (and Bruce’s ex) Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — getting drawn into the vortex created by the Joker’s insistence on Batman’s revealing his identity and Batman’s hesitance to do so.

The Dark Knight is beautifully shot (by Wally Pfister) and edited to within a millimeter of its life in order to come in at a manageable two hours and thirty-two minutes (which fly by). It feels rushed, especially towards the end; I look forward to an extended cut on Blu-ray. Nolan’s films seldom have any flab on them, but this one could’ve used a bit more breathing room. I would’ve liked more of crime-family head Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, suavely amoral in what will undoubtedly be his most-watched performance ever), and a little more going on between Harvey and Rachel so as to prepare better for where Harvey’s character arc goes. And I would’ve enjoyed the action sequences more if they were conceived and composed with more clarity. Back when action films demanded practical stuntwork by men and women who were risking their lives, directors made damn sure you could see what was going on. With CGI, everything’s too easy, too manipulable in post-production.

Still, this is a remarkable achievement in suspense and mood. The near-mythical clash between Batman (whose darkness and rage are forever held just barely in check) and the Joker (who happily lets his darkness and rage off the leash — if they were ever on a leash) dominates the film in a way it didn’t, quite, in Tim Burton’s mordantly amusing Batman (1989). Burton used the midnight-blue world of Batman to express himself (you could hear him telling Batman, “See, to them you’re just a freak — like me”); Nolan uses it to make points about our psychological DNA. Bizarre and pulpy as it may seem on the outside, The Dark Knight speaks uncomfortable truths about why we are what we are, as many classic horror films do. It’s a contest between evil men who fiercely show their ravaged faces to the world and a good man whose face is unscarred but hidden anyway.

Open Season on Critics

July 15, 2008

Perhaps he erred in judgment. Perhaps he should’ve kept his opinion to himself. But he aired his opinion anyway, on the wild, wild internet, and the internet forum exploded with scorn and derision.

These were some of the responses to his opinion:

You do not deserve to live.

As Morgan Freeman would say, “Shoot this mother******”

I hope you die.

Douchebag! I’m gonna friggin kill you!

This guy is gay. I think I should go down to his house with my boys and tune his asss up until he comes out clean…

please drop dead

I should go over to your house and beat the living ***** out of you low life son of a b!tch.

I hope you contract AIDs

…So what was the opinion that drew such rage? What did this guy say? Did he say that Hitler was right? Did he say that child molesters are awesome?

No, he said that The Dark Knight is flawed.

Meet David Denby. Currently one of two film critics for The New Yorker (Anthony Lane alternates weeks with him), Denby has been writing about movies since the early ’70s. He is also the author of two books, the engaging Great Books (about Denby’s experience taking college courses and reading all the classics) and the rather drier American Sucker (about his stock investment foibles). I’ve been reading Denby since 1990 or so, and stuck with him over the years. He used to be considerably looser and funnier than he is now. But writers change. He’s still one of the finer, more serious critics out there.

I doubt Denby knew or cared that his dissenting Dark Knight review would cause such a ruckus. I don’t picture him poring over the 329 (and counting) comments on his review on Rotten Tomatoes — some of which, to be fair, are calls for sanity, the gist being “Jesus, you fucking fanboys, shut up and let someone have a different opinion — you haven’t even seen the damn movie yet.” But if the fanboys get ahold of his email address, or if it occurs to them to fire off snail-mail to the offices of The New Yorker, he is going to be inundated with seething hate letters.

Just ask efilmcritic’s own Brian Orndorf. A few weeks back, he dared to bad-mouth WALL•E and watched as his in-box became a teeming maggot-fest of vituperation. Before that, this asshole you’re reading right now got slammed — I dared to say bad things about Iron Man. I caught flack in emails, in comments at Rotten Tomatoes, and in comments underneath my review on  (some of the dimwit commenters said stuff like “This critic sucks,” not realizing that the comments appear under everyone else’s reviews there too, even those that gave Iron Man five stars).

What’s the deal here? Well, some readers of Rotten Tomatoes can’t stand it when their favorite movies don’t get a high or even perfect Tomatometer score. The Dark Knight was 100% fresh before Denby and a few other critics weighed in, bringing the film down to a measly, grotesque 88%. This, apparently, is not acceptable. How dare someone say that a movie the general public hasn’t even seen yet is less than a masterpiece? Hell, Nick Nunziata of CHUD came right out and said, in effect, “Look, overall it’s pretty awesome, but it’s not a masterpiece.” And he got slammed by the fanboys. Who … hadn’t seen the film yet.

I enjoy having my reviews linked at Rotten Tomatoes — it brings more traffic to this site and, hell, it gets more eyes on my writing. And I like being in the company of Denby and Roger Ebert and J. Hoberman. What I don’t like is that Rotten Tomatoes has — quite without meaning to — fostered groupthink to the exclusion of any possible dissent. Either you’re with The Dark Knight or you’re against it, and if you’re against it, we will smoke you out, you evildoer.

The anti-intellectualism in a lot of the comments on Denby’s review shouldn’t surprise me by now, but it does. Many of them excoriate Denby for liking X and not Y, where X = a movie many people disliked (say, Hancock) and Y = a movie many people liked (say, Iron Man). It’s painfully obvious most of these commenters didn’t read the actual review; they’re knee-jerking about the pull-quote and the green splash that indicates a “rotten” rating. (This is another thing I don’t care for about Rotten Tomatoes: the rating system allows for no middle ground — it’s either fresh or rotten. Well, what if some parts of a movie are fresh and some parts are rotten?) Because Denby liked a movie you didn’t like, and/or disliked a movie you liked (or, horror of horrors, disliked a movie you haven’t seen yet but are looking forward to with an insane amount of adrenaline), that apparently invalidates everything he has to say about movies.

Another idiocy: Denby got roughed up by some commenters because he only agrees with the Tomatometer 68% of the time. Well, so the fuck what? Are we all supposed to agree on what the fanboys want us to agree on? There’s no respect whatsoever for an honest dissenting view. If he agreed with the Tomatometer 100% of the time, would that make him the greatest critic ever? (I agree with the Tomatometer 70% of the time, which I guess makes me almost as egregious as Denby. Yes, I write every review intending to tear down whatever’s popular and go against the grain just for ego’s sake — that’s why I gave five stars to WALL•E.)

Presumably, Denby is catching all the shrapnel because he was the first to file a “rotten” review. Others since have expressed their doubts about The Dark Knight being a chocolate orgasm on Christmas, and they, too, have attracted the pinheads in the comments section. And, like Nick Nunziata, several critics who gave the film a fresh rating are still being festooned with venom because their reviews — or, more precisely, their pull-quotes — aren’t sufficiently ecstatic over The Dark Knight.

This isn’t genuine intellectual give-and-take discussing a critic’s take on a film; this is bullying, and since these are fanboys, it’s probably a case of the once-bullied turning into bullies. They can sit there anonymously, without fear of reprisal or getting their asses kicked, and make comments like “Douchebag! I’m gonna friggin kill you!” They make fun of a critic’s appearance, as if these fanboys were golden gods themselves; they make many, many homophobic remarks involving what a critic receives into various orifices, and if the critic is a woman, the comments get astronomically rancid.

Opinions are like assholes — everyone has one. Combine opinions, assholes, and the internet, and you get the trough of oafish viciousness that the Rotten Tomatoes comments sections have become. I’d like to point out for the record that I don’t always agree with David Denby’s reviews. I read him anyway. Why? Because I like his writing. I don’t use him as a Consumer Reports guide to which movies to see, and I don’t demand that he toe the line in order to keep a film’s Tomatometer rating high on Rotten Tomatoes. Even if I really, really like a film and he hates it and gives it a “rotten” rating, I somehow, mysteriously, don’t lose my shit. I read the review, find interest in where his views diverge from mine, and get on with my life.

Finally, I wonder what the world would be like if these fanboys focused such passion and rage on targets that actually deserve it. Instead of getting pissed off at some critic who didn’t care for a fucking Batman movie, why not get pissed that gas prices are skyrocketing, people are losing their houses, people are losing their lives/limbs/sanity in a bullshit war, tax-paying Americans are being told they can’t marry, Americans who’ve been paying into health insurance for years are being told their illnesses aren’t covered, the environment is fucked and getting more fucked by the minute … and fanboys sit at home like the bloated asshats in WALL•E and type that they hope a critic who didn’t like a Batman movie gets AIDS.

Perspective, fanboys. Get some.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

July 13, 2008

In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro lets his freak flag fly. The Mexican fantasist behind such sui generis dark fairy tales as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (and also the first Hellboy film) clearly spent his childhood devouring every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland he could get his mitts on, and he’s still spending his childhood that way. Hellboy II is densely packed with creatures huge, small and human-sized, particularly in an episode when Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his teammates from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense have a look around some sort of troll bazaar tucked away under the Brooklyn Bridge. So many unspeakable and indescribable beasts lurch, waggle, and slither within the frame — often in the background — that the effect is less horrifying than celebratory. “I’m home,” del Toro might be saying.

Slight bad news first: Hellboy II suffers — a little — from del Toro’s shoot-the-works spirit, just as his friend Peter Jackson got lost in his Skull Island playpen. There’s always a lot going on, though the plot is comic-book simple; del Toro and cowriter Mike Mignola (who created Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics) garnish this dish so heavily that the palate becomes overwhelmed and even a little jaded. Like Jackson, even so fecund a magician as del Toro just can’t keep topping himself, and it must be said that the subtitular Golden Army, which figures in the overstuffed climax, feels like something out of a Mummy film. Whenever del Toro gets behind the wheel of a pop apocalypse like this one, cinematic gigantism takes over, not always to the movie’s benefit.

But still. Del Toro makes plenty of room for beauty and pathos, without which a monster mash is merely an advanced arts-and-crafts show. Hellboy is still smitten with Liz (Selma Blair), who commands fire and wishes the big red lug would clean up once in a while. It’s a clichéd conflict, but it also gets to the heart of their unstable relationship: bad enough he’s a stogie-chomping alpha male — he’s also a demon. Against all odds in this creature-infested summer blockbuster, Perlman and Blair do honest, hurtful work together. Hellboy’s teammate, the amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), also gets weak in the knees over a dame — in this case, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), of a dying race of elves, whose twin brother Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to squash all the humans and make the earth safe for inhumans again.

The multiplex hasn’t exactly been safe for humans lately; WALL•E told us we were becoming bloated simpletons, and Hellboy II considers us inelegant little monkeys whose reaction to the extraordinary is fear and loathing. But I can’t say these movies don’t have a point: we do suck in a lot of ways. Yet our complicated response to movie monsters, a mix of dread and pity which redeems us, has powered dark fantasy film since its birth. At least twice, del Toro tips his hat to Universal monsters, with Boris Karloff intoning “We belong dead” on a TV and perhaps echoing Hellboy’s thoughts at a self-hating moment, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon mirroring Abe’s predicament as a fish-man in thrall to a princess. Awkward as the plotting is, the movie is too stubbornly weird, too deeply in love with freakishness, to be waved off.

The production values are sky-high here, and del Toro scored a coup when he recruited Danny Elfman to compose the music this time; Elfman fills the soundscape with basso-profundo drama, knockabout comedy, and even a bit of Godzilla larking when Hellboy faces off against a giant Forest God, the last of its kind. Prince Nuada almost derails Hellboy by reminding him that this creature Hellboy wants to destroy is unique, much like Hellboy and his friends, and Hellboy has to make a choice: the monster or humanity? It’s nowhere near an easy choice, and the bizarre and conflicting feelings this sequence — not to mention the rest of the film — raises is worthy of a fantasist at the top of his game. I sort of let the story — the official excuse for why we’re really there — go by in a blur; the meat of it is in the shedding of a single tear by monsters who didn’t think themselves capable of it. At its best, Hellboy II conjures with delicate and very human magic.


July 7, 2008

A powerful being who does more harm than good isn’t funny — it’s scary. Scarier still, at least to some citizens of this great land, is a powerful black being. (Remember that in the fall, when what Jon Stewart calls “Baracknophobia” swings into high gear.) Still, Hancock, starring Will Smith as a drunken, surly übermensch who costs Los Angeles more in property damage than the bank robberies he’s wantonly trying to stop, doesn’t get much into race — at first. Hancock isn’t hated because he’s a black superman — he’s hated, like Jack Smurch in James Thurber’s satirical story “The Greatest Man in the World,” because he has remarkable gifts and yet is still a dickhead. (He’s like Mike Tyson without the clammy psychosexual unease.) At the same time, he’s every racist’s worst stereotypical nightmare — an embodiment of what crackers think blacks will do with a little power (get drunk, bust shit up, sleep on park benches).

It’s good — isn’t it? — that Will Smith, probably Hollywood’s most valuable African-American player, feels comfortable enough to take on a role like Hancock. (Much as I admire him as a filmmaker, I shudder to think what Spike Lee will have to say about it.) Smith invests Hancock with enough of his offhand charisma to put us on his side no matter how much damage he wreaks. Hancock isn’t evil; he’s just lost, the only superhuman on earth (as far as he knows), and he’d rather be left alone to drain bottles and forget how weird his life is. He muscles through the movie under a cloud of sarcasm: at this point he’s so bored by criminals he just plants himself in their back seat during a police pursuit, waiting for them to be stupid so he can make this outing somewhat worth his while.

Teaming Will Smith the alcoholic Superman with Jason Bateman was a stroke of casting genius. Bateman is Ray, a struggling worker bee in public relations, whose life Hancock saves; Ray pays him back by offering to improve Hancock’s image. Ray’s young son (Jae Head) idolizes Hancock; his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn’t — she can hardly stand to be in the same room with him, it seems. Theron summons up some power in her sparring with Smith, who makes Hancock baffled and intrigued — who is this woman who seems to have as much contempt for him as he does for most humans? Scurrying around all this, trying to make everyone happy, Bateman draws on his quick-witted Michael Bluth groundedness and keeps the movie founded on humanity. (It’s also a treat for Arrested Development fans to see him reunited with Theron, his girlfriend in the “Mr. F” storyline.)

Directed by the perpetually underrated Peter Berg, Hancock delivers the comic-book thrills with a twist — the movie may have scooped what the Iron Man sequels probably intend, making Tony Stark an erratic drunk useless as a hero. (It also scoops the Watchmen movie with its sequence of Hancock jailed among all the criminals he put behind bars.) The script’s iconoclastic take on powerful immortals took me back to Alan Moore’s Miracleman, of all things, wherein the god met a goddess, making his mortal wife feel like a weak bag of meat. The film leaves us with a lot to chew on vis-à-vis race and power, especially when Hancock learns more about his past (shrouded in amnesia) — it’s not the usual toothless riff on Richard Pryor’s “Supern—–” routine. Some have voiced issues with the third act, but that’s where I felt it got really interesting. Though not based on an existing comic book, Hancock is like a graphic novel that perhaps leads to a regular series — at least I hope it does, either onscreen or on the comics racks. It’s certainly the most complexly ornery superhero flick we’re likely to get this summer.