Sunday, August 29, 2010

DVD Review: Batman: Under the Red Hood

Despite the new cast, Under the Red Hood, in many ways feels like it's part of the 90's animated series.  It isn't, of course: the continuity explored is more or less the same as the comic's, though the story plays out differently than when it appeared in print.  But the art and design echo the series, down to the interplay between fire and shadow and the cut of Batman's cowl.

The story, our readers are no doubt aware, deals with the death and resurrection of Jason Todd, the second Robin.  If by some happenstance you were not aware of this, do not fault us: we've spoiled nothing.  Unlike the comics, no effort was made to construct the story as a mystery.  Aware their audience knew the "twist" going in, the filmmakers dropped it.  The movie doesn't dangle the identity of the Hood for any appreciable amount of time or treat it like a revelation.

Instead, the story focuses on the psychology of those involved.  And that is why it works.

Under the Red Hood reminds us of Mask of the Phantasm.  It's carefully constructed and eloquently delivered.  It's not epic: the characters are waging war for their souls, not to save Gotham or stop an alien invasion.  It's dark without being gratuitous; dramatic without being sappy.

And, most importantly, they've delivered a fantastic version of the Joker.  Connoisseurs of the character will detect similarities with Ledger's version, along with echoes of the Joker in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. 

This is a more calculating version of the character than those usually presented.  He's sadistic and psychotic, but nowhere near as random than, say, the Joker who generally appeared in the animated series.  He's a far cry from the Joker we'd have imagined, and yet there are no fewer than three scenes we'd include on a top 20 list of our favorite Joker moments in film or TV.

The voice acting is solid, though it's hard not to miss the cast of the animated series.  As all things do, Under the Hood has its flaws, the most notable of which being its portrayal of Nightwing.  While they certainly give him some great scenes, he's in far too little of the movie.  And, when he does appear, he comes off as a sidekick, not a hero in his own right.

In terms of quality, Under the Hood falls just short of New Frontier, but it comes extremely close.  It's now available on Netflix, and we strongly suggest seeing it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a great movie, in that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do.  The story is competently told, the tone is conveyed, the direction and acting are good, and the visual style is incredible.  But, with the exception of that final aspect, the movie still managed to disappoint us, not because it failed to achieve its goal, but rather because we never clicked with the movie.

Simply put, we weren't really compatible with Edgar Wright's vision for this movie.

There were several wedge issues, beginning with this version of Scott Pilgrim.  Many have blamed the casting, but we actually rather liked Michael Cera in the role.  It was the role itself that grated on us.  Scott was whiny, shallow, and self-obsessed.  This wasn't exactly a flaw, though, because it was clearly intentional: the movie was a story of self-discovery and personal growth.

That, incidentally, was our second issue.  We've seen these sorts of character journeys before: they're a dime a dozen on the sitcoms we grew up with.  From this movie, we wanted something a little lighter or, barring that, something as original as its appearance.

And, from a visual standpoint, the movie was absolutely awesome.  The fights were fast paced, intriguing, and fun, and the effects were a joy to watch.  Unfortunately, the movie dragged when the punches stopped.  The characters, while adequately developed, weren't particularly likable, making it difficult to care what happened to them.
Still, where the substance disappoints, the style reigns.  Michael Cera was an action hero, and an imposing one at that.  The battles were engaging and exciting, and the movie is well worth a trip to the theater.

In terms of tone, the movie almost reminded us of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; a jarring experience since we'd entered expecting something along the lines of Shaun of the Dead.  Of course, Eternal Sunshine offered a more original story to support its innovative use of effects.

The visual style is almost reminiscent of Speed Racer, which time and reflection has elevated to five-star status.  Against that metric, we award Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World three and a half stars.

Scott Pilgrim demands respect, and the action sequences are a joy.  Unfortunately, the movie is easier to respect than to love.