Friday, July 18, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Dark Knight (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, dir. Christopher Nolan)
I am on record as having been disappointed in Batman Begins, and the vast majority of critics seem to have loved this movie an extraordinary amount. So my disappointment may be irrelevant to some, and really, people are seeing this in record numbers regardless of what anyone says. Plus, I wouldn't even say that I don't recommend seeing this movie, unless you really hated Batman Begins. It's definitely worth checking out in theaters, as much to be part of the cultural moment as anything else. It's a solid, well-acted and often entertaining summer movie, but it has a number of flaws that for me kept it from being entirely successful. It's been praised extensively for its scope and complexity, but is far too long and meandering, with a number of tangents and plot points that could easily have been trimmed. Nolan is so obsessed with seriousness and heft that he loses economy of narrative in the process.

He gets good performances out of all his actors, although the talk of Ledger deserving an Oscar is, all respect to the deceased, way overblown. Ledger's Joker is a one-note menace by design; Nolan gives the character no origin and no backstory as a way to make him seem more like a dangerous force of nature, and Ledger embodies that successfully. He's a much better villain than those in Begins, but he there's no diversity or shading to the character. Eckhart, who as DA Harvey Dent has a much more complex and varied role, does equally good work (not that he deserves an Oscar either, though). Both of them are more interesting to watch than Cillian Murphy (who shows up in a brief, pointless cameo), Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson were in Begins.

I complained about Begins that it was too grim, but that was nothing compared to the utter bleakness of this movie. There isn't a single moment of levity, not a single smile that isn't the Joker's sinister one, not one moment of hope or light. I am not against dark movies, but Nolan piles on the punishment to such a degree that the movie eventually stops being fun to watch, and the ending offers very little in the way of redemption. The fact that Nolan is so ambitious is the film's biggest strength and greatest weakness; in trying to create a serious, meaningful epic, he loses sight of the excitement and wonder that make superhero stories appealing in the first place. Wide release

Mamma Mia! (Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, dir. Phyllida Lloyd)
Despite living in Las Vegas, I haven't seen the long-running Mamma Mia! stage show, about which I've heard mixed things. Although I didn't much care for this movie version, it left me with the impression that the production must be much more enjoyable onstage. For starters, this movie is packed with recognizable actors who either can't sing (Brosnan, oh lord) or can just passably carry a tune (Streep), and only one who seems to actually be much of a vocalist (not surprisingly, the least famous of them, Seyfried). No one here is what you would call professional-quality, though, or in any way suitable to sing onstage. Without decent singing, even though the ABBA songs are fun and catchy, you're forced to focus on the lame, contrived story, and that's not a good thing. If this were a movie about music, it would need better singers; if it were about character and story, it would need a better script. Instead, it ends up with neither, and Lloyd, who directed the Broadway version, can't figure out how to shoot the big production numbers to make them look impressive, either. They're all close-ups of faces and hands, as awkward and ill-fitting as the rest of the movie. Wide release

The Singing Revolution (documentary, dir. James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is another one of those movies that there is absolutely no reason to see on a big screen. It'll probably be on PBS in a few months anyway, when you can pay attention only to the most interesting parts. Opened limited December 7 (!); in Las Vegas this week

Space Chimps (Voices of Andy Samberg, Cheryl Hines, Patrick Warburton, Jeff Daniels, dir. Kirk De Micco)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It really makes you appreciate movies like WALL-E and even Kung Fu Panda when you come across something as dismal as this movie, a sloppily produced waste of time that offers nothing more for kids than some pretty colors to look at for 80 minutes, and nothing for adults other than stale pop-culture references passing themselves off as jokes. Wide release

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