Saturday, August 16, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I feel a bit out of place reviewing Star Wars: The Clone Wars, because it isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. The film actually serves as the first installment of an animated television series that will air on Cartoon Network later this year. It should not have been released in theatres, because everything about it is suited for the television medium. As a niche tale intended mostly for children and serious Star Wars fans, it’s also completely immune from criticism. It is, therefore, as a hardcore Star Wars fan, rather than a film critic, that I proceed.

The story unfolds during the Clone Wars, the terrible three-year struggle that eventually leads to the creation of the Galactic Empire. This story takes place between Episodes II and III, and it still boggles my mind that George Lucas omitted most of this war from the prequel trilogy. The central focus of this installment is the dynamic between Anakin Skywalker and his new Padawan Learner, Ahsoka Tano. As Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin transition from a teacher/student relationship into a genuine friendship, Anakin learns what it means to be an effective mentor.

Because Time Warner owns Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers served as the distributor for Clone Wars, rather than Twentieth Century Fox. Seeing the Warner Brothers logo at the film’s opening jarred me immediately, and several other differences within the opening five minutes made it clear that this is a television show, not a true Star Wars feature. The story has multiple arcs, as though four 22-minute episodes were loosely strung together. Everything about this series will feel more at home once it arrives on Cartoon Network.

The visual style used here appeals to me, though I’m sure it won’t please everyone. The animation doesn’t compare to the beauty of Pixar’s films, but again, this film isn’t really a theatrical effort, and the animation quality of Clone Wars easily surpasses television’s typical standards. Some elements, like environments and battles, are incredibly realistic, while characters’ faces are intentionally stylized. I’m glad they didn’t attempt the level of realism employed by Robert Zemekis in Beowulf (2007) or The Polar Express (2004). The cartoonish faces in Clone Wars just feel right.

Feisty teenager Ahsoka Tano is a fun new addition to the Star Wars universe, bringing some serious spunk to the table and proving difficult enough to earn Anakin’s respect. Ahsoka, Anakin, and Obi-Wan are the central characters, while familiar faces like Padme Amidala and Yoda only make fleeting appearances (they will probably be featured more in the television series). The only unfortunate new character is Jabba the Hutt’s uncle, aptly named Ziro the Hutt; he’s a zero, all right. By my estimates, he makes Jar Jar Binks look Oscar-worthy.

I return to my belief that Star Wars: The Clone Wars should never have premiered in theatres. It pales in comparison to the six feature films and won’t hold the interest of most viewers, but then again, it’s not intended for most viewers. If you don’t have young kids and you’re not a serious Star Wars fan, then maybe don’t bother. It doesn’t work too well as a feature film, but compared to most other shows currently airing on Cartoon Network, it’s quite impressive. It ultimately won me over, and I’ll be tuning-in to watch the television series once it airs this Fall.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking.

The brief language and momentary smoking are nothing to worry about, but the violence is occasionally intense. Alongside the usual battle droid carnage, many human soldiers fall in the line of duty, and some of the battles are a tad fierce. Still, it’s about on par with the battles in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I think PG is fair, and we can probably expect similar content from the upcoming show.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dark Knight

With The Dark Knight, comic book movies have officially evolved beyond their source material. Such adaptations have typically been in the surreal spirit of the originals, but not this one. Even more hard-edged than its predecessor, Batman Begins, this story is but a few adjustments away from unfolding in our world, with no suspension of disbelief necessary. While I don’t see this style as the future of all comic book movies, because it wouldn’t work for many comic characters, it’s perfectly suited to the gothic lore of Batman. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece from start to finish.

As Batman (Christian Bale) continues to fight crime in Gotham City, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is quickly becoming a public hero for his swift prosecution of criminals. Batman/Bruce Wayne’s prior love interest, Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is head-over-heels for Harvey Dent. All seems well in Gotham, until a brilliant, psychotic criminal known only as “Joker” (Heath Ledger) unites the Mob under a common goal: restoring chaos to Gotham by killing Batman.

Most of this movie’s hype has rightfully surrounded Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. His make-up looks like it was applied in the dark and then splashed with putrid water. His would-be-blond hair isn’t dyed bright green, but is just green enough to seem wrong. Perhaps most unexpected is that Ledger’s Joker rarely smiles. Instead, his mouth is scarred from having been slit upwards at both corners. If he does find humor in his work, he’s mostly laughing on the inside.

Ledger gives a perfect performance, but the Nolans (Director Christopher and his brother Jonathan) wrote a wonderful character to begin with. This Joker fits perfectly within the recent reinvention of Batman, but he is certainly not the Joker from the comics. He rarely smiles, he doesn’t tell jokes, and even his laugh rings hollow. Traditionally, the Joker always used jokes to commit murder, but this time, murder itself is the joke. He doesn’t kill in amusing ways; he kills and finds it amusing. There has been a lot of talk over whether Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson should be remembered as the definitive Joker, but having seen both performances, the comparison seems utterly irrelevant. The two characters are both named Joker, but that’s about where their similarities end. Both performances work well and are completely right within their respective Batman universes.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman reprise their supporting roles, and both are given key moments in the story. Several relevant political issues are explored, including phone-tapping and the right to privacy. The fine lines between hero and villain become increasingly blurred as the story unfolds, and no one seems sure what to think of Batman. At times, not even Batman is completely sure what to think of himself. He remains haunted by the Joker’s blunt observation: “See, to them, you’re just a freak … like me.”

Nolan has made realism the hallmark of his Batman films, and that’s a masterful choice on his part. I can’t think of any other comic character better suited to operate realistically, for Batman has no fanciful powers. There is even an ongoing debate in the comic book community over whether Batman should be considered a superhero at all (some prefer “Costumed Crimefighter”), but it is exactly this sense of reality that makes Batman so interesting. Christopher Nolan and crew play the material entirely straight, yet it never becomes too dark; it retains the proper feel of Batman. The filmmakers show equal measures of daring and restraint.

Moral dilemmas are at the heart of The Dark Knight, and characters are often pushed to make impossible decisions. Mourning also plays a large role, for the characters lose much, and it seems strange that even as we watch a film about mourning, we ourselves mourn the loss of Heath Ledger. He was on the verge of a great career, and he will be sorely missed. The Academy has a chance to get this year’s Oscars right; Heath Ledger should be posthumously nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and would probably win), and both The Dark Knight and WALL•E should be among the Best Picture nominees. We’ll see if the Academy is feeling brave enough to step outside itself and truly honor this year’s best.

I hope Christopher Nolan decides to make one more Batman movie. His vision has breathed new life into one of the greatest of all comic book characters, and The Dark Knight feels very much like the middle installment of a trilogy. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) ignited the comic-to-film revolution, and the character of Batman has helped advance the genre once again with The Dark Knight. Everyone who worked on this great film has helped to achieve a new level in comic book storytelling.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.

The Dark Knight was never intended for children. It pushes the PG-13 limit, but avoided an R rating by steering clear of profanity and blood. The violence is still pretty rough, and the Joker is one creepy dude. There’s nothing fanciful about this story that would remove it from reality and make it less frightening, and there’s even a scene where a hero turns bad and holds a gun to a child’s head. I wouldn’t take anyone under 13.