The Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan rescued one of the most self-destructive franchises in movie history when he resurrected Batman in “Batman Begins”. What began as a promising run with Tim Burton in 1989 devolved quickly once it was taken over by Joel Schumacher in the mid-90’s; and the culminating film, “Batman & Robin”, promised that the franchise had completely fallen apart. After that film, I think we were all sick of Batman. At least, we were sick of *that* Batman. But, Batman as a symbol of justice, as a comic book hero, is still intriguing. The costume, the super rich alter ego, and the inner struggle of the character, are still something we yearn to see.

And so, Christopher Nolan, who at the time was still making his way into the Hollywood mainstream, rebooted the whole thing and started from scratch. At the time, we didn’t have an onslaught of comic book movies every year, so it didn’t feel as much as a saturated genre (as, say, watching “The Amazing Spider-Man” did). And Nolan took a serious approach to Batman, someone who wanted to do a character study as well as an action film. The result, “Batman Begins”, was a smashing success. Finally we saw Batman as a real character. The film was dark and brooding much like Burton’s 1989 version; but we learned so much more about Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. With champion efforts by good actors like Michael Caine and Chrisitan Bale, this Batman movie was thorough, thought-provoking, and sensational.

His follow up was one of the biggest and best comic book epics brought on screen with “The Dark Knight” in 2008. Though that movie was surrounded by the hype of the passing of Heath Ledger, the film stood as a fantastic, big scale action thriller with one of the best “villain” performances in film history. It would be hard to top an achievement such as “The Dark Knight.”

This time, Nolan tries his best with “The Dark Knight Rises”, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us with big explosions and massively complex action sequences. The result? Well, I said it’d be hard to top “The Dark Knight”. And, it certainly doesn’t come close. In fact, this to me was the weakest of the 3 films. It spends so much time on the action and too much time on corporate politics, and so little on character, that this was an imbalance.

“Rises” begins big with an escape by the villain Bane (played by Tom Hardy), a hulking cross between a roided up bomber pilot and Darth Vader who has a curious wit that could be appreciated if we could understand what he was saying half the time. While the voice is a bit bass amplified and broadcast through surround sound, sometimes it’s so muddled that you just have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Other times, his voice goes so over the top it’s hard to tell if he’s aware of how silly he sounds. But when Bane throws his hands, it’s no laughing matter. There’s no question that he is the most physically imposing villain that Batman has faced in the entire movie series, dating back to the 60’s.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is bankrupt after a venture with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who seemingly comes out of nowhere to help Wayne Enterprises, and has invested in a fusion power project that has ultimately cost him his fortune, and his board removes him from the company. She and Wayne share a brief romance; but there isn’t a lot of time spent on their relationship, and perhaps it’s for the best in the end.

As for Batman, he’s retired. Wayne suffered an injury that has left him a bit crippled. This is taken advantage of by another adversary, who is Selina Kyle, or, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). She’s a burglar who only steals from rich people…like Robin Hood. Only with much more sex appeal. There are two sides to this character, though, and she is actually one of the stronger ones in the film thanks to a brilliant performance by Hathaway. There is a vulnerability inside her; but she “masks” it (ahem) with a hard edge that says she can’t be manipulated. Wayne somewhat sympathizes with her; she feels something for him as well, but she just can’t show it.

Batman does make a comeback, however, as expected. Otherwise I guess the movie would’ve only been 45 minutes long and called “The Dark Knight Says I’d Rather Not”. He’s not as strong as Bane, however, and routinely gets dominated by Bane’s strength and agility. The reason Bane is so similar to Batman physically is because he was trained by the same man, Ra’s al Ghul (reprised by Liam Neeson) in the League of Shadows. Bane was excommunicated, and is seen as Batman as a “rogue”. But Bane wins out, and Batman is cast into the same prison that Bane grew up in, with his only hope of escaping is by climbing out of a hole and leaping to freedom. Allegedly, Bane is the only one who could ever do this, and it was when he was a child.

The city of Gotham is at Bane’s mercy, and he destroys a part of it with explosives in the ground that erupt and blow up a football stadium (one of the more breathtaking sequences in the film), and some of the bridges. It also encases the entire police force underground, leaving the city to a Lord of the Flies-like Martial Law. However, this won’t last very long as he has coveted a nuclear bomb after releasing the core from its fusion power chamber, that will detonate in 5 months. Whomever programmed a time bomb for that long either forgot to carry the one, or is a very patient madman.

The only cops that are above ground are the disgraced former Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a bright young cop named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Blake still believes in the Batman even though he’s part of a police force that was after him when Batman was still capering in Gotham City.

All of these stories meshing together do make for an ok 165 minute lark. There’s never a moment of boredom in the film because it’s packed with so many intense sequences and climactic action scenes. It does not wear you out. However, because of the scale of the epic, and a drop off in character development, there are some lulls in the storylines that leave some very wide open plot holes. I’m all for suspending disbelief, but this really tries your patience on more than a few occasions, especially at the end. Then it goes beyond suspending disbelief to the point where you have to damn near expel it. Also, Bane is not nearly as interesting or consistent as the Joker was. Granted, it would be hard to top Heath Ledger’s performance. But Bane really doesn’t have much of a personality; and, as I mentioned before, it’s hard to understand a word he’s saying sometimes. Hardy does as much with his eyes and body language to convey his meaning; but the overpowering inability to hear his words really hurts the performance. I blame this on post production and Nolan’s stubbornness more than Hardy’s acting chops, however.

The film’s pace is fine, and it does have some superior effects; on balance, I would have still recommended it…had it not been for the ending, as I mentioned above. Nolan has always seemed to rise above standard movie cliches and even with the somewhat bloated “The Dark Knight”, he still told a compelling story rich in story and character, and here I just felt left out. But beyond that, which I could still forgive, the ending is not only cliched, but ultimately impossible. And in its final shot, more groan inducing than moving. Nolan is an intelligent writer and filmmaker; but here, he seems to take the easy way out to appease the audience. I would’ve expected a more complicated or compromising climax out of such a grandiose trilogy. Instead, it’s very predictable and relies so heavily on your belief in comic book hero magic that it just felt out of place in a film series full of so much…reality. And that’s what had separated Nolan’s Batman series from the others.

This is still a strong trilogy; in time, I may forgive the film for its flaws. For now, I can only give a mixed review and say I would’ve liked to see more out of a filmmaker I respect as much as Christopher Nolan.

My rating: :?

Midnight in Paris

June 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Woody Allen has been making films for nearly four decades, and he somehow has remained a prominent filmmaker even today. His films have ranged from screwball comedies (“Sleeper”, “Bananas”) to poignant dramas (“Another Woman”, “September”), and he’s always had a knack for blending comedy and drama (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”, “Sweet and Lowdown”). Sometimes he’s just been plain whimsical, like in “Purple Rose of Cairo”; and here, in his latest feature, “Midnight in Paris”, he seems to have recaptured some of that magic again.

It’s almost impossible to know how Woody Allen continues to do this. He’ll be 76 years old in December and he has shown no signs of slowing down. Sure he’s made some weak films in the past decade (his worst being “Hollywood Ending” by far); but instead of giving up after all of the bad press, he kept going. In his last few years he’s had some more success with “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “Whatever Works”. But “Midnight in Paris” really is the film that’s brought him back to his original form.

Every Woody Allen formula is in here: the bickering married couple who’s joined incidentally by an old friend, usually of the woman, and of course the friend is a sniveling jerk. The husband of the married couple is a bit neurotic or awkward. Here he’s played by Owen Wilson, invoking just enough of Allen’s spirit to be charming and just stopping short of an “impression” of Allen. His wife is played by Rachel McAdams, who does a fine job with Woody Allen’s always witty and snappy dialog. The sniveling jerk is well played by Michael Sheen, although you know if this were made 20 years ago, it’d be Alan Alda most likely playing that role, Woody playing the husband, and Diane Keaton playing the wife.

The plot revolves around the couple, Gil and Inez (Wilson and McAdams respectively), staying in Paris while Gil is trying to complete a novel–his first in his career as a writer. He’s a Hollywood “hack” screenwriter who I suppose would be your David Keopp or Shane Black. Someone who can whip up a blockbuster but has no real “soul” as a writer. He feels lost; but he’s found something in Paris. He wants to stay there. His wife wants to live in Malibu and continue being rich. You can already tell these two will not get along in most of their scenes together, and certainly their chemistry for this kind of banter works because Wilson and McAdams just devour their roles so well. Wilson has those big blue wondrous eyes that make you believe how much of a dreamer he is. And that’s exactly what you need to believe because one night after a dinner, Gil decides to walk the streets of Paris instead of going out dancing with his wife and her friends. He claims he needs some inspiration for his novel, which is about a man who owns and operates a nostalgia shop. Gil himself identifies with the character because he, himself, is sentimental about the past and would love to live in Paris in the 1920’s.

That night, as the clock strikes midnight, Gil gets his wish. He’s approached by an old automobile, a Pugeot, and he gets in and realizes he’s sharing a cab with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Later that night, he meets THE Ernest Hemingway and asks if he’ll read his book. Hemingway won’t because he’ll “hate” it (“If I don’t like it, I’ll hate it; if I do like it, I’ll hate it because I’ll wish I wrote it” to paraphrase). But he says he’ll let Gertrude Stein read it because he trusts her opinion.

Once Gil is transported into this world, the film flows like a Monet. It is an absolute joy to see all of these classic artists (which include Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali) mingle with each other, and with Gil. You can see in films like this, and “Radio Days”, how sentimental Woody Allen can be. And when he is, he really delivers.

There’s a bit of exposition in the third act that wraps things up with another character a little too easily; but by that point, we’re so whisked away in this world and wrapped up in it like a warm blanket on a chilly night that we don’t care about logic or formula. The ending is predictable as is the journey–but you want to take it anyway. This really is Woody Allen at his best and he’s right at home with this material. There are also some big laughs in the film, but you’ll be smiling the whole way through anyway.

A character in the beginning talks of nostalgia as being a crutch. Something we use to escape reality and live in the past. But what Allen proves is that revisiting the past can also open things up about yourself that living in the present may never do. It’ll teach you things about yourself, where you belong, and what you need to do for the future. In the present we take things for granted, in the past we learn what we’ve taken for granted. I mentioned before who the cast would’ve been in this film if it were made 20 years ago. It’s interesting how watching this movie made me think of older Woody Allen films, as I’m sure it will for anyone who is a fan. But as much as I was looking back on Allen’s career while watching the film, it never took away how much I enjoyed the movie I was watching–in the present.

Woody Allen continues to prove how great of a filmmaker he is, and this is just more evidence of that.

My rating: :-)

Inception

July 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Christopher Nolan has to be one of our most ambitious filmmakers. He’s been compared to Kubrick, in his unique visionary approach to films, and his ability to create worlds that every character lives and breathes in, such as “Memento”, and his “Batman” reboot. He’s made some great films, including “The Dark Knight”, and “Following”; he’s also made more gimmicky films that work only as a trick such as “The Prestige”.

With “Inception”, he takes on the world of dreams. Dream sequences have been a part of film for a long time, and sometimes they work and sometimes they won’t. But what if an entire movie is based in a dream (or is it?) state? How do we define reality in that world?

The plot revolves around Dom Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio, in another strong performance) who operates a business of dream-sharing through a machine that he uses for industrial espionage to steal his clients’ ideas and thoughts in their subconscious for his own gain–and he’s caught by his newest client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants to use him for his own purposes and stage a “dream stealing” with a rival business mogul.

What you must do in order to fully accomplish this complex idea of dream-stealing, is have a team of dream operators. A chemist to make the sedative; a forger to impersonate other subconscious characters in the person’s memory in order to fully manipulate the dreamer; and an architect, someone to literally create the dream world.

What Dom suggests in this case, with entering the subconscious of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), is what’s known as “inception”–planting a thought in someone’s mind before they can, but recognizing that it is in fact their own idea. The suggestion is deemed impossible by his Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but as in any movie–this one JUST MIGHT WORK!

The team runs into issues while they enter the dream world because of an array of “security” (your subconscious trying to protect you from invaders) that can easily kill them–and when you die, you wake up, but in this case they are so heavily sedated that they could wind up in a “limbo” if they were to die in the dream. They go deeper into dream worlds to a point where they’re operating on a third level dream world, and the deeper you go, the slower time goes.

The architect, played by Ellen Page, also notices  a wrinkle in Dom’s plan: he has an unending dream of living with his wife (Marion Cotillard) who has died and he blames himself for her death.

Nolan’s dream worlds are breathtaking. The sequences of the fighting that goes on in one of the hotel corridors in one of the dream worlds is fascinating. Some of the ideas in this film are very interesting, and even at a running time of 148 minutes, the film never drags.

But it also didn’t work for me. I couldn’t buy into the question the film tries to ask (and leaves open) about whether this was all a dream or whether it was reality. Movies that involve dreams can suffer the same kind of problems that movies involving time travel can. You have to create your own rules, which Nolan does, but those rules are based in such a neatly done way that there’s no reason to think that any of the story is real. It’s so deeply based in dreams, and there’s so much logic behind the dream worlds and elements of subconscious that can be manipulated that the “reality” in the film isn’t given enough screen time to be considered credible.

There are a few hints that I think the film gives you that make me lean toward it actually just being a dream. So in my mind, that’s what the film was. It’s an exercise in expanding the subconscious mind and opening it up into this large universe, and existing in it always. So then, what is the point of it? The story is actually quite simple when you strip it down–it’s just about guilt and salvation, ultimately.

The film is, as I’ve said about Nolan, very ambitious. But I don’t think the whole thing works. It has a lot of ideas, and a lot of them are intriguing. But as a film, there aren’t enough stakes, the characters aren’t fleshed out enough, and the plot is actually kind of ridiculous and even somewhat silly. In a film that takes itself and its ideas so seriously, it just comes off as pretentious and stiff rather than enlightening and eye-opening. The one thing that does work in the film is the action; in a way it does work as just that. But because the film wants to be so much more, and seems to want to expand your mind and open all of these questions for you. But it’s just too traditionally told and conventional to match that ambition.

As someone who dreams an awful lot, and has experienced very vivid dreams, I don’t know that I can buy into a reality that someone can “create” a world and actually manipulate it the way that they do in this film; and when you can’t buy into the reality, then it’s really hard to buy into the dream stuff–even though the dream worlds are more convincing and interesting. And that’s where the film ultimately fails for me.

It looks wonderful; but in the end, whether the top is still spinning doesn’t really matter.

My rating: :?