Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie Review: "Spider-Man 2" by David Pretty

Howdy, Web-Slingers and Slingerettes!

When I first saw Spider-Man 2 in theaters in 2004  I considered the film to be a huge quantum leap in terms of character depth and technical sophistication.  But after eight years worth of comic book movie "evolution", I don't regard Sam Raimi's second spider-flick to be quite as hallowed as I originally surmised.  In fact, it seems to port over some of the more annoying flaws of its predecessor and also introduces a few tonal bugaboos which would eventually go on to overwhelm the third film of the trilogy.

Mercifully, Raimi's undeniable love for the comic book's iconography and lore still shines though.  And although no-one should ever believe that a trailer is truly indicative of a film's overall quality, I gotta admit that this one is pretty durned slick:

Two years have transpired since the end of the first film.  Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) is doing his darnest to prevent his Spider-duties from interfering with the rest of his life but it just isn't working.  He's chronically late for his pizza delivery job and gets fired.  His grades are slipping.  He lives in virtual squalor.  J. Jonah Jameson is using his position as publisher of The Daily Bugle to turn the court of public opinion against our favorite web-head.    

His personal relationships are also in the dumper.  When he confesses his involvement in Uncle Ben's violent death to Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), she's understandably disturbed.  His tenuous friendship with Norman Osborn (James Franco) is dangling by a thread since the industrialist's son still believes that Spider-Man killed his father and Peter is guilty by association. 

To make matters worse, his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is on life support.  After foiling a street crime as Spider-Man, he arrives late for M.J.'s performance of The Importance of Being Earnest (natch!).  He's barred from the theater by a power-mad doorman (played to asshole-ish perfection by Bruce Campbell) and his absence is the last straw for Ms.Watson.  The next thing you know she's engaged to John Jameson, J.J.J.'s pride and joy.

When all of this comes to a head at once, Peter also inexplicably begins to lose his spider-powers.  After coming to the realization that his life's been crap ever since Spider-Man came into it, he turfs the costume and instantly finds himself in a comically cheery montage featuring the vocal stylings of B.J. Thomas.  I just love how Raimi channels his inert geekyness here by recreating an actual comic panel from Amazing Spider-Man # 50.


Little does he know, there are circumstances brewing that will make Spidey's retirement more premature then that of Brett Favre's.  Brilliant physicist Otto Octavius is attempting to create a "manageable" method for nuclear fusion.  To accomplish this, Octavius has developed four prehensile robotic arms which posses a form of independent intelligence.  As one might gather, the experiment goes horribly wrong, Otto's wife is killed, his robotic arms go rogue and Spider-Man's final intervention makes for the perfect scapegoat.

Honestly, there's reason to check Sam Raimi's fanboy papers a this point.  In addition to the example shown above we also get Aunt May's hair in a bun,  J. Jonah Jamesons' mathematically precise flat-top, Spidey swinging creatively on his web-line and "Doc Ock" wearing sunglasses, smoking a cigar and stealing sacks of coin-filled bags from a bank.  All of these images are gloriously iconic and a real thrill to see up on the screen.

The CGI models for the actors are also vastly superior to anything seen in the previous film.  No longer does it feel as if we're suddenly watching an old cartoon whenever a fight breaks out.  This vast improvement to the visual effects really helps sell the inventive action set-pieces.  Raimi and company clearly put a lot of thought into how these two deadly enemies would use their powers creatively against one another in a fight.  In fact, the train car and bank heist scenes make me positively giddy with excitement whenever I watch them.

After the resounding success of the first film, Raimi is also clearly more comfortable in employing his own unique visual style.  In fact, if you comped in some strategic gore effects in the scene where Octavius escapes from the hospital, you'd end up with a moment just as intense as anything on display in the first two Evil Dead films.  I love his gratuitous use of close-ups, reflections, and shadows as well as the goofy shots which track alongside moving objects.  This sequence also features more hyperactive zooms then a Hong Kong martial arts flick.


Again, the performances are quite solid.  Although Tobey Mcguire is still playing Peter Parker as if he's Toby Flenderson from The Office, he's still very sympathetic and we really want to see him succeed.  This all comes with a very major gripe, however.

The annoying trend established in the first film in which Spider-Man whips his mask off at the drop of a hat almost becomes parody here. In fact, there's at least three scenes where Mcguire willingly unmasks.  The only motivation I can see for this is pure actor's ego.  After all, you don't see Christian Bale tearing off the cowl every twenty minutes in the new Batman flicks.  Frankly, I consider this to be a laughable affront to the character's integrity and one that's barely excusable for such a petty reason.

Macguire's obvious insecurity doesn't make a lot of sense to me since Alvin Sargent's script gives him plenty to do as Peter Parker.  Almost too much to do since there are a few baffling moments that really don't go anywhere.  For example, what the heck was the point of the Russian girl-next-door/cookies n' milk sub-plot?  It really adds nothing to the story and, if anything, seems to herald the Titanic-like mistakes that eventually sunk Spider-Man 3.  

There are even more overt signs which presage the coming fall, including some barely-appropriate moments of oddball humor.  This isn't completely unheard of in a Sam Raimi flick.  Even when he was making some of the goriest movies in cinema history, Raimi just couldn't resist injecting subversive, coal black, Three Stooges-style humor into the proceedings.   

Spider-Man 2 is no exception.  Tobey Maguire gets serially abused by the background actors.  Spider-Man is forced to take an awkward elevator ride during which he tells a fellow passenger that the outfit "rides up in the crotch".  Peter Parker also endures a montage which features a barely-ironic application of the brainlessly cheery anthem "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head".

Tonally this makes the film rather schizophrenic; a pall which would eventually consume the third entry.  But Raimi seems to know his boundaries here.  As a result, we're left with a relatively deep, nuanced and consistently cock-eyed little comic book film.  I just wish someone has done an intervention at this point and convinced him show some restraint in the finale. 

As for Kirsten Dunst, I honestly would have shit-canned my agent by now if I was her.  Although the costumes, effects and action sequences are all vastly improved, Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope keep finding creative ways to photograph her poorly.  Kirsten is still as cute, charming and authentic as ever, but man, they have no clue how to film her.  Sometimes she looks incredible but other times she looks as if they only gave her five minutes to get onset after she'd fallen asleep in her trailer.

Harry Osborn continues to de-evolve into a bitter, greedy corporate prick and James Franco does a serviceable job with the material, even though delivering most of his lines through clenched teeth seems to be his default interpretation.  Rosemary Harris, on the other hand, continues to be the heart and soul of these films and she effortlessly exudes genuine charm as Aunt May.

Pity the screenwriters saddled her with that horrendously transparent "I believe there's a hero in all of us" speech.  The sentiment is strong and I understand why it's there, but man, it just doesn't sound like anything that would ever come out of someone's mouth in the real world.  Although Harris does her best with it, it comes off as hack screenwriting; like something theoretical that probably looked better on paper.  

The two stand-out performances actually come courtesy of the film's antagonists.  Audiences got their wish and J.K. Simmons has an expanded role here as J. Jonah Jameson.  He's gleefully capricious, abusive and bombastic as he barks out one comically acerbic line after another.  He's like a human machine gun of avarice and venom.  Frankly, I'd love to see a sitcom featuring him and Ted Raimi running The Daily Bugle together.

But it's Alfred Molina that really steals the show.  He has enough of the Doc Ock's physical attributes to inhabit the part and he also does something very interesting with his portrayal.  In Spider-Man 2 Otto Octavius isn't just a megalomaniacal nutcase who wants to spread anarchy for financial gain or get revenge on a world that's doesn't understand his "brilliance".  Molina's "villain" just wants to vindicate himself.  The only problem is, his octo-arms have short-circuited his ethical barometer.

Melina is well-equipped to bring all of these facets of Doc Ock to life.  Aided by a patient script, we get to see him affectionate towards his wife, crushed by his failures, enslaved by his scheme and ruthless in its execution.  Credit the screenwriters for keeping the final resolution in the conflict between Spider-Man and Doc Ock true to their original story, even if it isn't exactly in step with comic book lore.

All told, Spider-Man 2 succeeds in expanding the world of Peter Parker, while it fires way on its technical cylinders and increases expectations as to what a comic book movie is capable of.  Unfortunately you can also see destructive, self-indulgent influences beginning to creep in.  I really firmly believe that this is what  caused the third film to crash and burn.

But that, True Believers, is a tale for another time...

  Tilt:  Up. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Movie Review "Spider-Man" by David Pretty

Hey, All You Web-Heads!

Despite the wall-crawler's universal appeal, Batman beat him to the Silver Screen by thirteen years and Superman did it by twenty-four.  Although the film was dragged through the knothole of development hell, it popped out the other side right into the arms of some talented, high-profile fans who really wanted to make a good movie.  Mercifully we're left with a final product that I firmly believe doesn't require rebootery.

Here's the trailer:

 The movie contains a healthy dose of comic book lore.  Geeky and abused science nerd Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) secretly yearns for girl-next-door hottie Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).  While on a  
field trip together, Parker gets chomped by a radioactive super-spider which soon gives him incredible powers.

He uses his newfound abilities to prevent M.J.'s nasty slip n' fall, inadvertently beats up abusive douchebag Flash Thompson and spends his evenings scuttling up walls, aiming his ejaculatory webbing and jumping from rooftop to rooftop.  His resulting odd behavior generates some friction with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), prompting Ben to bust out his classic "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" line.

Of course, a large part of Spidey's origin story deals with Peter coming to grips with this unearthly nugget of wisdom.  Peter assumes the identity of "The Human Spider" in order to win cash by surviving a wrestling match against "Bonesaw" McGraw (the late, great Randy Savage).  Mercifully he's re-christened "The Amazing Spider-Man" by none other then Bruce Campbell in a brilliantly mounted sequence.

After winning the match, Peter gets short-changed by the promoter but gets the last laugh when he lets a thief escape with the winnings.  Unfortunately, the same gunman ends up shooting Uncle Ben during a car-jacking attempt and then tries to flee from the police.  He manages to get away from the cops but can't elude our newly minted, arachnid-flavored super-hero.

Meanwhile Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), wealthy industrialist dad of Pete's best bud Harry (James Franco), begins to conduct strength-enhancing experiments on himself after the military threatens to cut off his funding.  At face value the test works, but it also turns him crazier then a shit-house rat.  Eventually Osborne dons a green battle-suit, hops aboard a deadly attack glider and becomes the Green Goblin.  Needless to say, Spidey and the Goblin become immediate rivals and the balance of the film documents their city-wide power struggle.

As reverential as his approach is, Sam Raimi also manages to tweaks a few things.  Initially I despised his choice to make Spidey's webs an organic part of his radioactive mutation instead of having Peter invent some web-shooters.  But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  After all, wouldn't the dude need a ten gallon drum of the stuff strapped to his back just to get across town?

The "natural production of webbing" angle also gives Raimi more ammunition to underscore a few cheeky observations about puberty and body control. When Peter wakes up the next morning after his spider-bite illness Aunt May calls up the stairs to ask "Feeling better this morning? Any change?"  After discarding his glasses and marveling over his newly-ripped physique, Peter appears to check himself out below the belt before replying: "Change? Yep. BIG change."
I also love the scene where Aunt May knocks on her nephew's door and asks: "What's going on in there?" while Peter is inadvertently breaking shit during web training.  Since his room now looks like Shelob's lair from Lord of the Rings,  Peter just opens the door a crack and tells her "I'm excercising. I'm not dressed Aunt May."  After she proclaims "Well... you're acting so strangely Peter..." all he can do is reply "Ok... thanks.", shut the door and then get back to bidness.

With all the lively visual cues, it's pretty easy to tell that Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi is behind the camera.  When Willem Dafoe as Norman Osbourne talks to his reflection in the mirror, we know that Raimi is using one of his most beloved movie gags.  Peter costume design montage recalls shades of Ash preparing to confront the Deadites.  The Goblin's pumpkin bomb breaks into a slew of deadly whirling blades and the camera dutifully follows along.  And the extreme wide-angle, hyper-zoom close ups during the film's vicious and brutal finale are culled straight from movies like The Quick and the Dead and Darkman.     

The fight sequences really take advantage of Spidey's agility and make for some really dynamic action beats.  The creative method by which he dispatches a pack of bank robbers at the start of the film is particularly inventive.  My only issue is that Peter seems to go from being a tentative and clumsy noob to bouncing around as if he's already mastered his powers.  I would have preferred that Raimi and company had left some room for his improvement.

The costumes are also a mixed bag.  Thank god Raimi had the sense to keep our friendly, neighborhood wall-crawler garbed in the classic colors.  Having said that I would really like to know why the web pattern is raised on the costume.  I'm sure it was done to prevent the outfit from looking like your average spandex  Halloween jobbie.  The design for the eyes in the mask also seems a bit angular and wonky, but these gripes are small potatoes compared to the Goblin design.

Honestly, what the fuck were they thinking?!   The Green Goblin costume makes Defoe look like a reject from Ultraman.  Frankly I'm stunned that the veteran actor willingly let himself be encased in this hideous green ski-do suit and confining full-face helmet.  This is especially baffling after you stumble across rejected designs like this:

We'll probably never know why this concept was jettisoned but it does show what's possible for future Goblin film appearances.

The cast is generally solid.  Tobey Maguire has the nerdy/awkward thing down cold, but I never really envisioned Peter being quite this "sad sack".  I always thought of him as sharp, insightful, moody, sarcastic and tormented by others only because they don't understand his fascination for science.  Maguire does a boffo job creating sympathy for the character and taking Peter on a convincing arc.  But I really lost count of how many times our hero looked flummoxed, dull-witted and/or half-conscious.

The other thing about putting A-list celebrities under a mask is their inevitable kick back against having their pretty faces covered.  As a result, there are tons of scenes where Maguire has his mask in hand or it gets conveniently blown off.  Remember in the comics when Peter would hide his face like the Phantom of the friggin' Opera if his mask ever got removed in public?  Not anymore, folks.  This would eventually become a running joke throughout the other two films of the trilogy.

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson was just an odd choice.  Although I think she's talented and there's genuine chemistry between her and Maguire, she just isn't the "Marilyn Munroe as a Ginger" knockout that was originally envisioned by Stan Lee and John Romita.  I really wish that Sam Raimi had gone with the Gwen Stacy character first and then introduced Mary Jane in a later film as a rival.  

I partially blame Raimi and cinematographer Don Burgess for shooting Dunst so awkwardly.  Despite her nuanced performance, her close up reaction shots never seem to be captured in a very flattering manner.  Often she looks like she's on the verge of crying or having an epic allergy attack.  As a viewer I kept reaching for the Puff's Plus whenever she was trapped within the confines of a particularly awkward close-up.

For the Green Goblin/Harry Osborne role, both Sam Raimi and Willem Dafoe seem to be fine with maintaining a certain level of cartoonish flair, a la Jack Nicholson's in Batman and Gene Hackman in Superman.  It actually plays out alright here, since Spider-Man has always been a lighter comic book character and really doesn't need to be constantly swaddled in the highly-vaunted fan-boy cloak of "darkness".

Dafoe has a blast, coming up with a plethora of priceless facial expressions to help sell the Jekyll/Hyde nature of Osbourne and the Goblin.  His reaction to having his hand slapped away by Aunt May during Thanksgiving dinner is priceless and so is his ultra-pervy leering at Mary Jane.  It's just a shame that half the time his entire face is concealed behind that ridiculous helmet, especially while he's trash-talking Spidey in the burning tenement or during the colorful World Unity Festival sequence.     

The supporting cast does more then just support.  James Franco finds subtlety and pathos in the thankless role of Harry Osborne.  Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris both succeed in making Uncle Ben and Aunt May three-dimensional characters during their economic screen time.  But J.K. Simmons seems to have been built to spec for the role of J. Jonah Jameson.  The already-hilarious dialogue is augmented by Simmons' surly, point-of-fact delivery, giving viewers ample reason to hope for his expanded role in the sequel.

If Bryan Singer's X-Men movies opened up the floodgates for modern superhero flicks, then Sam Raimi's Spider-Man cemented the genre's mass appeal.  I'm reserving a fair bit of hope for the Marc Webb re-boot, which I believe will really take advantage of the realistic Chris Nolan/Dark Knight approach currently in vogue.               
But even if the re-boot is wildly successful, I still don't believe Raimi's film will be eclipsed.  Spider-Man is chock-a-block with retro appeal and gets a helluva lot more right then it gets wrong.

Tilt: up.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Movie Review "Watchmen" by David Pretty

Greetings, Watchers!

I first read Watchmen as the original twelve issues were published in 1986 and 1987.  I've re-read it almost every year that followed.  To say that the original work is dense is an understatement.  Even after several re-visitations I still notice things that I'd never seen before.

Despite it's delivery through the oft-maligned medium of comic books, I truly believe that those original twelve issues of Watchmen still rank as one of the most mind-altering pieces of art I've ever encountered.  Talk of film adaptations go back nearly as far as its original publication date.  At one point visionary Fruit-Loop Terry Gilliam was supposed to take a run at it.  Allegedly he looked at the material and concluded that the story would be best served as a five-hour miniseries.  It was a wise estimation.

When I first heard that wunderkind director Zach Snyder was going to take up this burden of self-flagellation, I was slightly encouraged.  After all, he'd proved me wrong with his re-make of Dawn of the Dead, which transformed the epic Romero classic into a lean and savage action flick.
Watching Snyder's resulting take on Watchman was a riveting experience.  Even though the film clocks in at a hefty two hours and forty-three minutes, it flew by for me like the duration of an egg-timer.  My fear, however, is that people with no Watchmen prerequisites will liken the experience to paint drying.  Indeed, the task for the neophyte Watch-phile is pretty daunting.  There's tons of lore, intertwined back stories, political asides, visual throwaways, biographical tidbits and a million other things to try and piece together.

Even the trailer can be baffling to some movie-goers:

Anyone expecting the gratuitous action of Snyder's earlier comic adaptation 300 will be sorely disappointed. I suspect that even fans of The Dark Knight will be alternately bored and/or confused by the avalanche of plot and visuals.

Having said that, I think the material in Watchman is rewarding for the patient viewer.  There's a nearly limitless vein of thematic relevance for people to take away.  I was completely transfixed by the level of respect Snyder brought to the film, practically transcribing entire chunks of the graphic novel into loving celluloid detail.

The actors are well-cast for the most part.  Jackie Earle Haley embodies Rorschach with the same coiled menace that (dare I say it) Heath Ledger brought to a certain Clown Prince of Crime.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan actually engenders a bit of pathos in the otherwise vile role of the Comedian.  Billy Crudup is an appropriately cold and otherworldly Dr. Manhattan.  Patrick Wilson does a great job as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl and is likely to be the character most audience members will relate to.

Of the major cast, Malin Akerman is very charming but I think she's a bit miscast as Silk Spectre II.  I feel that Snyder needed someone a bit more world-weary in the role.  Matthew Goode is also not quite the "ubermench" I would have expected as Ozymandias but I think his character is hurt considerably by having most of his origins scenes jettisoned.

The only thing that really irks me about the film are the (mostly) necessary changes.  The comic version of Watchmen has been around for so long and has inspired so many creative people that it's been ripped off mercilessly.  For example, one scene which has Rorscharch punishing a child killer has been pilfered by lesser fare such as the Saw movies and Snyder was forced to change the scene to his detriment.

Most strikingly, the original ending (which has always been problematic to realize cinematically and likely would have added an additional forty minutes of run time) has also been altered.  I see Snyder's motivation for the change but it does distort the spirit of the original storyline somewhat.

I guess my biggest worry is that people will watch the film and write it off as derivative of The Dark Knight.  I assure you that it isn't.  Watchmen is the alpha and omega of modern superhero stories.  Go read the comic. Watch the recently released five-hour long and likely Terry-Gilliam-approved motion comic.  Then see this movie.

Tilt: down.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Movie Review: "Daredevil" by David Pretty

Greetings, People Without Fear!

After my recent review of The Dark Knight, I wanted to have a look at a super hero flick that fell into all the traps that Chris Nolan's film avoided so well.

At best Daredevil is a third tier Marvel character that the general populace is barely aware of.  Turns out he's actually one of my favorite super heroes for the same reason Batman is: he's three-dimensional, relatively vulnerable and betrays several interesting character flaws.

Here The Man Without Fear is burdened by a film adaptation that is not outwardly terrible but is built on a rotten foundation of missteps, some of which are painfully obvious in the theatrical trailer:  

The origin story is quickly (and wisely) dispensed with since it's always been a weak element of the character's comic book genesis.  There's just no way to get the whole "toxic-waste-spilled-on-my-eyes-making-me-blind-but-now-I-have-radar-vision" thing to work cinematically and it results in a few unintentionally funny scenes.  At least the CGI interpretation of how Daredevil's "radar sense" works is pretty well done.

Affleck's voice over in the first part of the film and most of the dialogue that follows is pretty ripe and this really deflates any drama that might be building.  When Affleck appears in costume for the first time we're witness to one of the film's worst blunders since Daredevil ends up resembling a gay biker.  Unlike a lot of people I'm actually with Kevin Smith in my support for Affleck ("A Jaws re-boot?  Affleck could play the shark!") but he seems stilted and self-conscious here.  Even when he's not in the suit he's undone by a terrible haircut and often comes off as unintentionally smarmy.

Around the mid-way point the film's bad calls really start to pile up.  Jennifer Garner, though pleasant to look at, is terribly miscast as the Greek femme fatale Elektra. I can see why she was considered due to her experience in Alias, but to me Garner has always been more of a "girl next door" than a "girl proficient in the deadly use of a sai". 

And then there's the truly horrendous use of music in the movie.  Elektra's training sequence and a somber funereal scene are cast down into "TV-movie-of-the-week" territory with the questionable use of music by Evanescence.  

Colin Farrell seems to realize that he's in a flick without focus or discipline and goes off the deep end with a performance that's totally unbridled.  He ends up chewing scenery as if it's made out of vanilla wafers.

I understand Mark Steven Johnson wanting to create some dynamic fight scenes but when he uses a CGI Daredevil and Bullseye to scamper around a church organ I was looking at my DVD remote as if it were a video game controller.

Finally, Michael Clarke Duncan, though physically imposing, is far too "gentle giant" to really pull off the intimidation factor as Kingpin, Daredevils' arch enemy.  The only role that I really thought was well cast was John Favreau's fantastic turn as Murdock's legal partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson.

As the director of the vastly superior Iron Man I'd love to see Favreau reboot this puppy himself.  The best way I can summarize Daredevil is that although the film has it's heart in the right place, it also has rocks in its head.

By the way, this review is for the Director's Cut and not the theatrical release. Just knock a star off the rating for the theatrical cut which dispenses with the scant plot and character development and actually feels unfinished.

 Tilt: down.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Movie Review: "The Dark Knight" by David Pretty

Greetings, Vigilantes and Vigilettes!

In revisiting The Dark Knight recently I'm reminded of the first time I ever saw Bryan Singer's X-Men.  I couldn't believe that a director had actually afforded some semblance of respect to a comic book property.  Well, that was twelve long years ago (yikes!) and in that ...(read more) time we've seen a veritable host of talented film-makers take a stab at these pop-culture juggernauts and really do them justice.

The Dark Knight, in my humble opinion, is the high water mark of this partnership. In fact, where X-Men just managed to treat its character's with respect, The Dark Knight is essentially a brilliant crime drama that just so happens to have a few abnormally colorful characters in it.

See if you get a sense of this in the film's trailer: 

The first ten minutes of the film really drives home my "Heat with superheroes" comparison.  A gang in clown masks attempts to knock over a mob bank, all the while getting picked off by their own numbers.  By the end of it, only the Joker (Heath Ledger) remains, standing alone with a bus filled with cash and no-one to share it with.  It's an incredible sequence; brilliantly staged, flawlessly acted and directed with verve and passion.

With the obligatory origin story already dispensed with in the previous film, director Chris Nolan is free to put the eponymous Caped Crusader through his paces immediately.  After tangling with a pack of dogs, a cameo Scarecrow and some Bat-imposters, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is forced to admit that his Bat-suit's immobility is hazardous to his health and he immediately commissions Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to design a lighter upgrade.  In doing so, it's almost as if Chris Nolan is responding to griping of fans and refashion the costume into a less dorky-looking itiration.

Employing the financial sorcery of Chinese mobster Lau (Ng Chin Han) and the street level guidance of Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), the mob continues to put the blocks to poor Gotham City.  Batman and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) opt to partner up with the city's new lantern-jawed District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in an effort to bust Lau.  In a stunning sequence which really drives home the point that Batman's juristiction is truly global, Lau is sky-hooked right out of his own Hong Cong highrise stronghold.

Amidst the resulting anarchy, the Joker begins to seize control of Gotham's criminal element.  He threatens to kill an innocent person every day until Batman reveals his secret identity.  Unwilling to see the real Caped Crusader unmasked, Harvey Dent outs himself as the Dark Knight.  The gambit seems to work after the Joker is captured during a failed attempt on Dent's life.

This sets up a colorful and thrilling chess match in which Batman begins to realize, all too late, that the Joker isn't motivated by the same things that other criminals are interested in.  The appeal of power, sex, and money are completely lost on the Clown Prince of Crime.  Chaos, havoc and discord are the Joker's raison d'être.  The resulting conflict becomes the stuff of cinema legend.

Honestly, there are only a few minor quibbles that keep The Dark Knight from attaining complete perfection. Christian Bale's gravelly Batman voice is even more grating and overwrought here. I honestly don't understand his motivation for this, since it almost nudges the character into the realm of self-parody.  This is unfortunate since Bale's overall effort is stellar.  We really do share his burden of responsibility as the Joker's collateral damage hits increasingly close to home.    

The dialogue callback cliche is regrettably carried over from the first film, embodied in the "I told you so" exchange with Alfred and the "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." re-run.  Mercifully this script contrivance isn't nearly as overused as it was in Batman Begins and I'm pleased to report that the dialogue as a whole is vastly improved over it's predecessor.

The first half of the film is also a tad over-plotted.  I can't help but feel as if the subplot with Lau could have been truncated a bit, thus freeing up more screen time for the two principals.  It almost seems as if Chris Nolan knew that he had precious little time with Heath Ledger and packed two movies into one. The film isn't hobbled by this as much as, say, the atrocious X-Men: the Last Stand or Spider-Man 3.  In fact, after my third viewing I have to admit that Nolan juggles all of these concordant plot threads so effectively that it actually contributes to the film's repeat viewing value.

It's all well and good when actors turns in a serviceable job, but its another thing entirely when a performance becomes a major reason to watch a film.  And so it is with Heath Ledger's Joker, a now-legendary role which should all give us plenty of incentive to kick his ass in the afterlife.  Just when I thought I'd seen every possible interpretation of the character, Ledger comes along and gives us this hunched, twitchy, lip-smacking sociopath who has absolutely no regard whatsoever for human life.  It's an amazing experience just to watch his wheels turn in every scene.  

Again, Nolan deserves praise for not dwelling on The Joker's origins.  It would have recreated the same sort of schism that mortally wounded Tim Burton's Batman, whereby the villain completely overshadowed the hero.  Admittedly this wasn't likely to happen with Christian Bale at the helm, but this decision to make The Joker an inexplicable symptom of societal breakdown ultimately ramps up the character's mythic status.  It also gives Ledger a chance to have a blast with his constant re-canting of "how he got those scars".

The tremendous performances aren't limited to the two main players.  Morgan Freeman is even more sly, unctuous and self-assured.  The scene where he's bemused by an underling's extortion attempt actually made me laugh out loud.  Aaron Eckhart  is relatively understated as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, but his performance comes as some much needed ying to The Joker's yang.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is winning as Rachel Dawes and makes us forget about all Katie Holmes within six seconds of screen time.  If at all possible, Michael Caine is even more charismatic, driving home Alfred's role as "Batman's Batman".  But the real unsung hero here is Gary Oldman, who's realization of James Gordon isn't showy, but still note-perfect. 

As if the intricate plotting, cracking dialogue and historic performances weren't enough, Nolan also took great pains to turn in a film that seems to be composed of one memorable scene after another.  The Joker's pencil trick, the tunnel sequence, the interrogation scene, the explosive escape from police headquarters, the hospital visit and the hand-wringing finale all add up to a masterpiece.  

If anything you have to admire Nolan's self-restraint and his ability to plan ahead.  For the first film, he denied himself The Joker as the lead villain and still turned in an incredible film.  Now, armed with all of the optimal toys to play with, he turns in a film that is truly the stuff of legend.

Like The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I suspect that The Dark Knight is a modern genre classic that can easily be included within this hallowed pantheon.

         Tilt: up. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Movie Review "Batman Begins" by David Pretty

Hello, Cape n' Cowlers!

Along with Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2, Batman Begins deserves to be included in the top echelon of "best superhero flicks evar". Chris Nolan brings the same meticulous plotting and character development that he exhibited in Memento to the Batman mythos and simultaneously manages to preserve the integrity of the character's origins as well.

Unlike the Tim Burton films, Nolan doesn't treat the genesis of Batman like a dead albatross hanging around his neck.  Quite the opposite, he seems to relish the challenge of prospecting for unexplored territory in this now-familiar story.  What he finds serves as a revelation for the general populace and a geeky treat for fans.

Scads of comic lore is reproduced here with love and respect.  We see young Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) fall into a well, where he's traumatized by a colony of bats.  We see his philanthropist parents gunned down by tweaky street hood Joe Chill.  We watch him turn his back on his inheritance as an adult and walk the earth in a quest to understand the criminal mindset.

After a tough stint in a foreign prison, Bruce seeks out the appropriately mysterious League of Shadows, led by the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul.  There he  falls under the tutelage of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), where he's privy to the strategies and tactics of ninjutsu.  He also learns the value of refashioning his own fear into a weapon to use against criminals.  Unfortunately, he ends up having a teensy disagreement over ethics with the League, burns down their temple and then promptly heads back stateside.         

All of this is fascinating stuff, but it gets even more interesting after he re-acquaints  himself with the workings of Wayne Enterprises.  After running afoul of the morally reprehensible C.E.O. William Earle (Rutger Hauer), Bruce befriends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) the scientific genius who runs his company's research division.  He instantly sees the inventor's amazing designs as the vehicle through which his crime-fighting dreams can become scientific reality.

Now reborn as "The Bat-Man", Bruce challenges a trifecta of villainy in Gotham, including mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the fear-mongering super-villain Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and a  re-incarnated Ra's.  With him are a small handful of stalwart allies, including inscrutable cop James Gordon (Gary Oldman), childhood-friend-turned-District-Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) as well as unflappable family butler/father figure Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine).

Unlike an entire legion of film-makers who came before him, Nolan clearly sees comic-book lore as a goldmine of insight into the human experience and a veritable wellspring of thematic relevance.  He doesn't view these pop culture legends as low-brow concepts that require the talents of a visionary "artiste" to bring the buried nuggets of profundity to the surface.  And that's why he's so beloved by Bat-fans.

Also, unlike Micheal Keaton, Christian Bale is possessed of all the characteristics to make for a perfectly balanced depiction of Batman/Bruce Wayne.  Physically he's prototypical and he certainly has the acting chops to carry off such a challenging dual role.  He's able to complete the character's arc seamlessly, taking Bruce Wayne from righteous youth to determined apprentice to shallow playboy to intimidating enforcer, all with incredible conviction.

A few things hinder his efforts, however.  The over-dramatic gravelly voice while in costume would be considered overdone for Dirty Harry let alone Batman.  The outfit itself  is still a goofy pastiche of matte-colored rubber, glossy mismatched fabric and turned-in cowl ears.  In other words, it still looks like an over-glorified Halloween costume.

Also screenwriters Chris Nolan and David Goyer are guilty of writing some truly cloying self-referential dialogue that the actors are forced to revisit like a touchstone.  There's a slew of these chestnuts in the script including (but not limited to) "Why do we fall?", "You never learned to mind your surroundings", "Didn't you get the memo?" and "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me".  Look, I'm okay with a call-back to a previous lines for thematic reasons, but when you get a whole host of these things cropping up, the script starts to feel like a cheesy 80's-era Schwarzenegger flick.

The supporting cast is almost uniformly brilliant, particularly Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson and Micheal Caine. Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow is either distractingly deadpan or he's mugging shamelessly, but that just makes his screen time more fun.  As opposed to poor Katie Holmes who just gets left in the dust here.  If you think she's actually passable in this role, just watch Maggie Gyllenhaal playing the same part in The Dark Knight and then try and make that claim again with a straight face.

Despite some minor gripes, this is truly a dream come true for comic book fans and movie-goers alike.  Nolan puts emphasis where it belongs: on the Batman/Bruce Wayne character and all of the psychological underpinnings that along go with it.  Like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Christina Bale is a strong enough presence that we actually enjoy watching his scenes as Bruce Wayne and we aren't left counting the seconds before he's wearing the cape and cowl again.

The film is well-shot and the effects are convincing.  The fight sequences are appropriately vicious, bringing to mind the desperate and nasty train car brawl in From Russia With Love.  Knowing that Batman would have limited mobility in an inflexible rubber suit, Nolan had Bale train in Keysi, an abbreviated fighting style which teaches effective, devastating economy of motion.  It's an amazing thing to watch and once again shows the level of consideration invested in every aspect of the production.

The highest form of praise I can give to Batman Begins is that it managed to ground the once-ghettoized comic book genre in gritty realism while remaining completely faithful to the bountiful source material. The fact that they managed to put the "originality" back into "origins" is a feat unto itself that deserves major plaudits.

         Tilt: up.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Movie Review: "Batman" (1989) by David Pretty

Greetings, Dark Knights!

Notwithstanding Return of the Jedi five years earlier, Tim Burton's 1989 release of Batman was one of the first movies to disappoint me profoundly.  Hoping that the same respectful treatment given to the Man of Steel in 1978's Superman would be given to the Caped Crusader, I followed the development of this production constantly via the now-defunct Comics Scene magazine.  During that time my expectations were inexorably dialed up well past "11".    

But it wasn't just me who'd been swept up in the film's omnipresent marketing blitz.  Prior to the film's release, everyone was going Bat-shit insane.  Critics and movie-goers alike debated the selection of Tim Burton as director and the unlikely casting of Michael Keaton in the titular role.  Kids were getting the bat-symbol faded into their skulls.  Batman comics were flying off the shelves.  People began mining for deeper meaning in Prince's inexplicable "Batdance" video.  And through it all long-term fans were just hoping that it wouldn't be a disastrous repeat of the campy Adam West T.V. show from the 1960's.

The film's bat-tastic trailer certainly went to considerable distance in ramping up the hype...

Since everyone who's reading this probably already knows the story of Batman's origins, I certainly won't rehash it here.  Which is also one undeniably smart thing about the script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren.  It dispenses with the turgid back story and begins with a preamble which sees Batman whaling the bejesus out of two petty thieves who appear to be Tim Burton's prediction of what meth addicts would eventually look like.

Meanwhile, reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photog Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) are trying their darndest to quantify this mysterious, pugilistic, cape n' cowled figure that's been terrorizing Gotham City's criminal underworld.  To try and get an inside track on this "Bat-Man", they infiltrate a gala ball held at stately Wayne Manor, where sparks immediately begin to fly between Vicki and billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Micheal Keaton).      

We soon learn that Gotham City is in the grips of a ruthless crime boss named Carl Grissom (played by a wonderfully asthmatic Jack Palance).  After learning that his major-domo Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) has been making time with his trophy wife Alicia (Jerry Hall), Grissom orders Jack to march willingly into an ambush.  During his resulting tete-a-tete with the Caped Crusader, Jack falls into a vat of goop and later re-emerges as the decidedly pallid and cheerfully homicidal Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker.     

The Joker wastes no time ganking Grissom and assuming control over his crime syndicate.  The balance of the film then documents the turf war between Batman and the Joker, with Gotham City and its residents caught in the middle. 

The film certainly certainly begins on the right foot, with the aforementioned in media res treatment of the main character.  Tim Burton's keen visual eye is further complemented by some top-notch production design from Anton Furst, which establishes Gotham City as a grimy fusion between Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
The costumes are also pretty cool, ranging from the gangster's zoot suits, to the Joker's many tasteless outfits, to the proto-fascist cop uniforms.  The Bat-garb itself is still a bit too "fetish gimp" for my tastes and it just astounds me that, fifteen years later, Chris Nolan failed to significantly improve on this design for Batman Begins.  At a distance, the suit looks better but in closeups Michael "Babyface" Keaton just looks like some diminutive shmoe sealed up inside a rental Halloween costume.   

But this is just a minor quibble compared to film's noncommittal nature.  Although the movie was sold to fans as a darker treatment of Batman, it suffers terribly from incongruous moments of levity which make the film's tone almost schizophrenic.  Robert Wuhl's Alexander Knox sounds as if he's ad-libbing from a painfully unfunny stand-up comedy routine.  Many of the action sequences have the same slap-stick quality that hobnailed Richard Lester's version of Superman II.  Prince's soundtrack contributions are totally out of whack, sticking out like Macy Gray's presence in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man flick.       

I said it when the film was first released and I'll say it again: Tim Burton stunt-casting Micheal Keaton was a wrong-headed moment of hubris. Keaton does a servicable job as Bruce Wayne, but he just doesn't posses the physical presence nor the gravitas to properly inhabit the role of Batman.  Also, casting Jack Nicholson might have seemed like a no-brainer, but at the time he was just too old for the part.  Someone like Ray Liotta, who was only thirty-five at the time, would have been a more suitable and interesting choice.  To make matters worse, they also gave Nicholson one of the worst makeup designs imaginable.  So poor in fact, that I spent the duration of my last viewing constantly reminded of a reverse Edward G. Robinson.

Nicholson is also permitted to run completely amok in the film.  He soaks up more screen time then a ten year old kid in his own birthday video.  In fact, I might humbly suggest retitling the movie: Joker.  I'm not sure who's more to blame: Nicholson for his imposing personality or Tim Burton's unhealthy obsession with the grotesque.  I tend to believe it's the latter since Batman Returns also suffers from the villains getting more marquee value then the supposed hero.      

In a completely unrelated point, I'm also reminded of how much of an uber-hottie Kim Basinger was at the time.  I'd claim that she was underused here, but that's more of an observation about the sad state of roles for women in movies lately.  In fact, if you compare how much Kim has to do here compared to Rose Huntington-Whiteley's turn as a mobile mannequin in the latest Transformers flick, the character of Vicki Vale looks like Blanche friggin' DuBois in comparison.  Amidst all the bombast of this massive production, even the gorgeous Basinger seems diminished and self-conscious.

By the mid-way point, the relative tightness that characterized the first half of the script goes right down the Bat-dumper.  At one point during a chase scene, the Batmobile just stops in the middle of the street, presumably just to show off it's "shielding" ability and engage it's driver in yet another round of street-level fisticuffs.  And although I really treasure Hammer horror veteran Michael Gough in the role of Alfred, I'm convinced that the Bruce Wayne of the comics would have deported him after he willingly admits Vicki Vale into the Batcave.     

More idiocy is apparent.  When the Joker appears on his parade float, why the fuck don't the police arrest him?  And why does he take Vicki Vale to the top of that cathedral?  I know the Joker's crazy, but he's never been depicted as stupid.

And which monkey at what typewriter decided to link the Joker to the death of Bruce Wayne's parents?  And what on earth possessed the writers to make such a colossally stupid decision RE: the Joker's final fate?  Honestly, large swaths of this script appear to be written either by a Magic 8-ball or (worse) though executive decision.

I'm beating up on this movie pretty badly, but it really was a huge disappointment to me and it hasn't gotten any better with subsequent viewings.  In my opinion, it wouldn't be until Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000 before Hollywood began making good movies that just so happened to include super-heroes, versus wallowing in the shlockier aspects of comic books.

In spite of its many flaws, Batman was still important if only because it finally forced the general populace to give a shit about something that only us geeks had loved and felt protective over for years.  Pity the final product wasn't good enough to inspire comic book nerds to collectively stand up and shout: "See?!?  This is what you've been missing all of this time!"

    Tilt: down.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: "Logan's Run" by David Pretty

Hello, Runners and Runnettes!

Honestly, I'm convinced that sci-fi has such a dubious reputation as a genre because of movies like Logan's Run. With it's overwrought performances, stilted dialogue, terrible costumes, obvious sets and trippy visuals it's sure to alienate a lot of viewers. Which is a friggin' shame since it also happens to be one of the most damning remonstrations against the last acceptable form of discrimination in modern society.

Unfortunately this isn't made particularly apparent in the film's cheddar-riffic trailer:

In the 23rd century mankind has sealed itself inside a huge domed city, away from a world that's been ravaged by ecological ruin, war and overpopulation. In this sterile environment, its citizens are freed from toil and responsibilities and are now only preoccupied with pleasure, entertainment and vice.

There's only one minor hiccup: as infants every citizen is implanted with a Lifeclock in their palm.  It's a crystalline object that starts to break down as soon as its owner approaches adulthood. When citizens reach their "Last Day" at age thirty, the Lifeclock begins to blink and turn black, signaling that their time is nigh. When this happens, people are sent to "Carousel" where the promise of reincarnation awaits.

Well, as you might well imagine, a few folks who don't blindly believe in the revitalizing powers of Carousel start to get slightly twitchy around age twenty-nine and try and make a break for it. This is where our hero comes in.  Michael York plays Logan 5, a "Sandman" who's job it is to catch and kill "Runners".

During one of his assignments Logan recovers a small silver ankh pendant amongst the personal effects of a dead runner and takes it with him. Later, while at home browsing for casual sex on "The Circuit", Logan encounters Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), a beautiful civilian who's also wearing an ankh pendant. Logan is instantly smitten with her but after they get into a debate about the pros and cons of Running, Jessica gets upset and leaves him alone and unfulfilled.

The next day Logan heads to Sandman headquarters and the command computer analyses the ankh. Turns out the symbol represents a Runner resistance cell in the city that helps people approaching Last Day escape to a place called "Sanctuary". Logan is given a secret assignment to make contact with the rebels and destroy this Promised Land and everyone in it.

In order for him to infiltrate the group, the computer excellerates Logan's Lifeclock to "the blink". When Logan asks the computer if his time will be restored after his mission his complete, the silence is deafening.  Needless to say, Logan's mission starts to go awry almost immediately and soon he goes from being the hunter to the hunted after he ventures out into the forbidden world outside the dome.

Since the engine of social commentary purring underneath it's hood is sound, Logan's Run could never be characterized as a terrible movie.  I truly believe that its intelligent premise is what prevented the film from vanishing into oblivion, in spite of being the perfect candidate for a cinematic version of What Not To Wear.

The domed city exteriors are represented by a stupendously fake-looking model. The interiors appear to be a set-decorated shopping mall.  The costumes look like they should be worn by Bob Mackie-clad back-up dancers for the Sonny and Cher show. The maze cars are about as convincing as golf carts set on train tracks. The weapons used by the Runners are laughably inept.  It was as if director Michael Anderson had only ever seen B-grade sci-fi films from the 50's and decided to "update" them with the most tasteless and garish fashion and decor that the decade could offer.

This extends into technical aspects of the picture as well. Compared to the film's insanely bold color palette, the camera set ups are static and boring. In fact, most episodes of the original Star Trek television show was shot with more energy and verve. To match the stagey look of the film, most of the dialogue is alternately impenetrable or workmanlike and delivered by the actors as if they're appearing in Invasion of the Saucer Men.  Only perennial pro Peter Ustinov bothers to invest any subtlety whatsoever into his performance as the "Old Man".

This is one of those rare occasions where you'll actually see me excited by the prospects of a remake. In the hands of a (hopefully) capable film-maker, we could be in for a real treat. Despite it's visual pall, the original film is chock-full of thematic relevance.  Indeed, since Logan's Run rails so strongly against ageism, vapid living, overindulgence, ignorance and blind civil obedience, I'm convinced that modern audiences would be ripe for it's Swiftian-style commentary.

Indeed, if someone can just give Logan a much-needed makeover, we could have a real winner on our hands here.

Tilt: Way (the fuck) up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movie Review: "Gattaca" by David Pretty

Greetings, Valids and Not-So-Valids!

Y'know, as much as our Canadian-flavored Netflix pisses me off (with its constantly varying video quality, lack of selection and over-representation of films starring giant sharks, crocodiles and/or octopi), there are still some pretty cool things about it.  For one, it's kinda like home video's answer to The Gong Show.  After all, if you're watching a movie on Netflix and it starts to suck like a Dyson, you can just abandon it without feeling as if you paid money to see that specific thing.  You can then promptly move on to something else.

Another good test is to see how many sittings it takes to get through a film.  If it's a three or four night slog, then you probably would have been better advised just watching a half-dozen old X-Men cartoons instead.

But the opposite also holds true.  We live in a time when a million things are constantly vying for our entertainment attentions, so it's pretty high testimony when you fire up a flick at home and it keeps you absolutely rapt for a hundred and six minutes.  Hell, nowadays, that's positively miraculous...

And so it was with Gattaca.  The premise is intriguingly odd and original, revelations are doled out economically and the characters are fully-realized.  In other words, it's a one-sitter.

Here's the trailer:

In the early 90's there were emerging concerns about genetic engineering.  Herbicide-resistant crops were being produced.  In 1996 Dolly the sheep became the very first artificially cloned mammal.  Genetic knockout experiments on mice altered their appearance and behavior.  Gattaca cleverly extrapolated the headlines of the day to create an original sci-fi dystopia in which people are locked into societal roles based entirely on the genetic hand of cards dealt to them at birth.

In the "not too distant future", prospective parents routinely use eugenics to select the gender of their children and eliminate any unwanted characteristics.  The hero of our story, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is conceived the old-fashioned way and comes into the world burdened by a whole host of passé deficiencies.  His poor eyesight, short stature and bum ticker immediately disqualify him from most desirable career paths, including his ultimate wish of becoming an astronaut.

But the film wisely posits that for every societal inequity there's always an illegal solve.  Vincent opts for the  "borrowed ladder" route and assumes the identity of Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically pristine ex-swimmer who became irreparably "marred" when an accident left him paralyzed from the waist-down.  Using Jerome's hair, skin, blood and urine samples, Vincent manages to weasel his way into Gattaca's space training program, all the while risking constant danger of exposure.

After taking great pains to forge the perfect public mask, Vincent proves to be a crackerjack navigator and eventually he's selected for a manned space mission to Titan.  At the same time, he begins a tentative relationship with a co-worker named Irene (Uma Thurman), who's own genetic lottery has curtailed her own progress and left her envious of Vincent's illusory "perfection".

Things are complicated when an on-site director is brutally murdered, prompting the authorities to sweep the facility with a fine tooth comb (literally).  When Vincent's real eyelash is discovered close to the crime scene, he's forced to avoid a series of increasingly tough snares designed to drag his real DNA kicking and screaming into the light.

Sci-fi, good sci-fi, should operate successfully on two levels.  First, it should take advantage of modern day cinematic whiz-bangery to create a visually compelling story.  Second, it should be about big ideas.  Both of these qualities need to be complementary.  One shouldn't outstrip the other yet both elements ought to be thoroughly enjoyable when taken by itself.  This is where Gattaca shines.

In fact, it's one of those rare films where the big idea is actually allowed to rise above the spectacle.  Wisely director Andrew Niccol fosters the film's powerful premise by lensing things as realistically as possible.  There are no elaborate visual effects to speak of.  Most of the sets are real locations in and around Los Angeles.  His cool, crisp shooting style is successfully married to genuine moments of cinéma vérité, all of  which foster a sense of realism.  For example, the scene where Vincent and Irene witness the sunrise is particularly evocative.

Of course the film has loads of subtext and social commentary to boost its pedigree.  I'm particularly keen on the philosophy that aptitude and hard work can overcome the limitations of physical imperfection.  I appreciate that Vincent is able to best his genetically superior brother Anton (Loren Dean) because he's   hungrier, more determined and doesn't feel entitled for being blessed with a perfect double-helix.

Ethan Hawke is well-cast.  He's able to convincingly sell Vincent's transformation from mawkish dweeb to illusory Übermensch.  Even though he's asked to adopt a convincing air of swagger, there always seems to be a little hint of susceptibility lurking just under the surface which always threatens to betray him.  His performance is a great mix of steely determination, desperate guile and tentative bravado.

Uma Thurman has no problem whatsoever convincing us that she's a genetically superior entity.   Although only 27 at the time of Gattaca's release, she clearly had the acting chops to pull off refined, dignified and self-assured even then.  It certainly helps that Niccol didn't write Irene as a lowest common denominator love interest and actually had the temerity to invest her character with a real arc.  Thurman does a stellar job taking Irene from a perfection-obsessed drone who's resigned to her lot in life to a willing rebel.

Jude Law is a particular treat as Jerome.  The first time we see him, he's sitting slumped in his wheelchair like an unwanted pet while Vincent and German (Tony Shalhoub) casually discuss co-opting his identity as if he isn't even there.  In some odd way, Vincent's mission seems to renew his purpose in life.  Living vicariously through his new charge, Jerome diligently toils away at maintaining Vincent's facade as if railing against the system itself.  When we learn the true story behind his accident, his circumstances become even more tragic.

Which brings me to a few of the film's flaws.  Above and beyond the anachronistic trappings (such as the inexplicable proliferation of smoking in the film and this future's dogged insistence on using standard keyboards), Jerome's final fate is almost inconceivable to me.  I understand why he does what he does, I just can't wrap my head around the method he uses to see it through.

But these are minor quibbles.  Perhaps the most encouraging thing Gattaca says is that human nature will always rail against inequities.  We even see this in the role of Lamar (Xander Berkeley), the test scientist who's own genetically imperfect son longs to follow in Vincent's footsteps.  Even if shady forces lead the development of the human race down dark paths, there will always be enough people wronged by the system who will do whatever they can to dismantle it from the inside out.

And that, for some reason, is supremely comforting thought.


                     Tilt: up.