The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Movie Review

dark knight rises

First of all, Nolan has made the greatest trilogy of all time, and while the film probably won’t demand repeat viewings like The Dark Knight, it’s narrative structure and beautiful photography by Pfister, make this film the superior one in the series.

Where the first movie explored fear and the second movie chaos and anarchy, this film is based on redemption and pain, because as many people have stated, both Bane and Bruce experience pain throughout the movie.

And this is what makes Bane an interesting villain; he is very similar to Batman. As Nietzsche once said, “you stare into the abyss long enough, it will stare back at you”. Bane is Batman’s abyss, what he would have become if he had joined the League.

Structurally the movie fits in perfectly with the others, and this is what makes this the best trilogy of all. Everyone is dedicated to Nolan’s vision; from the cast to the crew, they believe in what he has done, and this makes it a better viewing experience for the audience.

The cast are fantastic and the ending is perfect. Wayne has paid his debt to Gotham, and Gotham to him, after all it took away his parents and made him unhinged. But this movie finally shows him at peace and the last scene confirms that this epic trilogy is over.

Nolan resurrected a franchise that died with the release of Batman and Robin, and has managed to give the movie a conclusion that not only respects the source material, but the audience as well.

A must see, and the best film of 2012.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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The Dark Knight (2008) – Movie Review

dark knight

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most admired men in the film industry of late. Having been handed a superhero franchise crumbling under its own campiness and trusted with the task of revamping it, adding a firm undercurrent of complexity without sacrificing the inherent enjoyment associated with a man dressing as a bat battling the criminal underworld, Nolan thrived upon the challenge, his Batman Begins providing a new height in the genre and one of the most acclaimed films of the year. And as seemingly impossible as it may have seemed to top his first effort, Nolan appears to have tapped into even more film-making genius, his peerless imagination, courage and unwavering control over every facet of his production making The Dark Knight a seamless, dazzlingly complex sequel to an already essentially flawless first effort – it is near impossible to envision the film being any stronger.

Though the film embraces similar themes and plays to all the strengths of the genre, in the end the film proves a ‘comic book movie’ essentially in name only, as it feels as if Nolan has seamlessly melded several films into one, the tone varying from ultra realistic crime dramas (such as Nolan’s inspiration, Michael Mann’s Heat) to using the template of the traditional superhero/supervillain conflict as a parable of good, evil and the constant ambiguity and overlap between. In a particularly chilling passage, the Joker disturbingly dissects the effects of Batman and himself on Gotham city and how the friction between “an unstoppable force and an immovable object”, or Batman’s unwavering dedication to justice counterbalancing the Joker’s obsession with chaos and disarray simply leads to everlasting conflict. “I feel like we could do this forever”, the Joker wryly states, and with such chilling, exhilarating and fiendishly complex results, the possibility is mouth-watering indeed.

In fact, if one was to extract any form of complaint from such a complex marvel of a film it would be that through the film’s consistent breakneck pace and flurry of new plot points and story arcs, the audience is somewhat deprived of the chance to savour some of the film’s elements, to take a moment to drink in the all-around-mastery, from the quiet character moments to the jaw dropping stunts or flooring performances. But there can be little doubt that this is fully Nolan’s intent, as The Dark Knight proves an entirely different animal than its predecessor: less about characters (though their development in the simply superb screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is near flawless) than broad statements, and the lack of quiet, reflective moments simply furthering the chaotic, uncertain feel of the story. However, despite the vast, epic array of content, it never feels like Nolan has bitten off more than he can chew, but rather the viewer is challenged to keep up with his immense vision.

However, those expecting a light-hearted, carefree action romp will find themselves somewhat taken aback, as the film is aptly titled, ‘dark’ being the operative word. Never before has a comic book film boasted a tone of such crushing realism and devastating, visceral wrenching of emotions. Yet despite the absence of outright bombastic fun, never does the question “why so serious?” emerge, as The Dark Knight could never have been anything but, yet never proves overly morose to the point of preventing entertainment. Similarly, those fearing the genre becoming overly cerebral need not fear the action frontier being sacrificed, as Nolan somehow manages to again up the ante on his first effort’s already breathless action sequences, providing enough explosions and brief but ferociously intense combat scenes to sate any action enthusiast without sacrificing an ounce of complexity. The sweeping, sumptuous cinematography and soaring score by two of modern cinema’s finest composers, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard completes the sublime package, making for a technically savoury masterpiece.

Christian Bale once again gives a remarkable performance, breathing consistently credible life into each of the title character’s dual identities, providing a wistful desperation for a Bruce Wayne tantalised by the prospect of abandoning Batman while his alter ego is needed more than ever by his crumbling city. However, despite Bale’s powerhouse lead there can be no doubt that the film’s primary selling point is the flat out terrifying yet mesmerizing performance by the tragically late Heath Ledger. His anarchistic Joker unquestionably steals the show (no easy feat), flipping between darkly hilarious and chilling while remaining a consistently fascinating and compelling creation – a frighteningly real antagonist for the ages, and easily one of the most visibly unsettling and powerful performances in decades. Aaron Eckhart is similarly superb as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new tenaciously dedicated district attorney, and his inevitable fall from earnest grace is truly affecting, with Eckhart perfectly essaying the shift from charismatic to horrifying. Michael Caine offers a perfect dose of wry humour and inspiration as Wayne’s trusted butler Alfred, and Gary Oldman gives a rousingly sympathetic performance as fiercely honest cop Jim Gordon, with Oldman giving one of the most credible heroic performance in recent memory. Morgan Freeman remains pure class as Wayne’s CEO and Batman’s secret outfitter, and Maggie Gyllenhaal proves a far superior replacement to Katie Holmes, adding a witty spark to an otherwise standard love interest role.

Never once patronising its audience, The Dark Knight proves easily the most mature, staggeringly intelligent, insightful, breathless and pitch black comic book adaptation to grace the screen in recent memory, and arguably ever. Indeed, the Joker’s declaration of Batman’s effect on Gotham’s criminals proves prophetic and parallels the effect of the film itself on its medium – there can be little doubt that The Dark Knight has changed the face of what can be expected out of a comic book movie, dispelling critical scorn and rivalling any “serious film” in terms of complexity and film-making mastery. Never again will the face of comic book movies be the same – “there’s no going back”.

 

5 out of 5 stars

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Batman Begins (2005) – Movie Review

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It sickened me in the past to see the Batman movie franchise slowly digging it’s way to an early grave. After the quality Tim Burton films, the series pretty much went down the toilet, beginning a horrifically campy age of ‘Bat credit-cards’ and an armored Arnold Schwarzenegger tossing cringe-worthy puns at a Batman who seemed to be trying not to be embarrassed by the fact that his costume had nipples. So what could Warner Brothers producers hope to do to resurrect the franchise? Pretend it never happened, and start the whole series over again with a talented director, compelling story and capable cast.

Enter Christopher Nolan, the mastermind behind 2000’s ‘Momento’, widely praised as one of the most innovative films of the decade. As director/co- screenwriter, Nolan creates a richly dark, atmospheric world for Batman to inhabit, similar to that of the Burton films, but less cartoony. The film’s screenplay, written by Nolan and David S. Goyer is quality stuff, it’s true that some of the dialog exchanges can seem kind of contrived, particularly between Wayne and Liam Neeson’s character, Ducard, but it sounds so classy you tend not to care.

Nolan also puts a lot of trust in his audiences to stay put while the first hour of the film comprehensively explores Bruce Wayne’s backstory, with no cape donning and few fight sequences. Nevertheless, the pace never slows, and the story is so unexpected and fascinating (who would have expected a Batman film to begin in a prison in Tibet? only Nolan could pull it off!) there’s little chance of us losing interest. And this way, we really get a sense of who Bruce Wayne is, a trait none of the past movies were able to capture, including the Burton films. We see what drives him, what leads him to become this iconic crime fighter, and the reasoning behind the mask.

Of course, to help the audience get under Bruce Wayne’s skin, it doesn’t hurt to have such a talented lead as Christian Bale. Bale has been emerging as one of the most talented actors of his generation, and he brings that talent to a peak here, playing the darkest of all superheroes. If you were to break down the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne, you would find that it is essentially three characters: Wayne as Batman, behind the mask; Wayne’s public facade as the billionaire playboy; and the real, brooding Bruce Wayne. Bale plays all three of the characters to absolute perfection, and molds them together well enough to make it clear to show they are still the same person. He has been given tons of accolades for his performance already, and needless to say, he deserves every one.

And the sheer quality of the supporting cast is mind-boggling, if for the number of big names only. It’s very hard to find a weak spot in the incredibly strong array of performances here, but if one had to be found, it would have to be Katie Holmes. It’s not that she gives a bad performance, on the contrary, but just she seems too young to be convincing as a district attorney. For me, Michael Gough will always be the definitive Alfred, but Michael Caine does an excellent job of taking over the role, giving a very strong (and often funny) performance. Liam Neeson is sheer class as Ducard, Wayne’s mysterious mentor, as is Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne’s arms manufacturer and provider of the Batman gear. It’s wonderful to see the incredibly talented and much underrated Gary Oldman as Sgt. Gordon, the only decent cop in Gotham, and he truly makes the role his own. Even cult favorite Rutger Hauer makes an appearance as Richard Earle, the ambitious head of Wayne Enterprises. And (surprise surprise!) the villains are also actually menacing for once, as opposed to cartoony and corny. Cillian Murphy just about walks away with the show as the truly chilling Scarecrow (the sequences involving his ‘fear gas’ are surprisingly frightening) Ken Watanabe is mysterious and creepy as guild leader Ra’s Al Ghul and Tom Wilkinson is very convincing as Carmine Falcone, head of the Gotham city mob.

Nolan’s knack for realism also comes as a breath of fresh air in this age of CGI bloated blockbusters – there are next to no computer generated shots in the movie, even a sequence with Batman standing on top of a high building staring down at the city was filmed with a stuntman. And it really works, the Batmobile actually interacts with it’s environment, and looks so much better real than computer generated. But don’t think that the film will come across as too serious and stuffy because of Nolan’s realism – true, Gotham seems too dark and dirty to come across as a fantasy world, but Batman Begins retains that unmistakable sense of fun that seems to only be present in comic book movies. We jeer and fear the villains, and cheer the hero as he lays his life on the line to vanquish evil and save the city. And that is how it should be. There’s even a surprising twist near the end, which is doubly surprising because it actually comes as a shock. What’s not to love here?

(and, further cudos to director Nolan for finally managing to make a swarm of bats actually frightening for once)

Overall, I’d have to label Batman Begins ‘A must see movie’ – it’s a well written, authoritatively directed, impeccably acted (especially by Bale’s powerhouse lead performance and Cillian Murphy’s sickly menacing Scarecrow) and very high quality production. Indeed, most other summer blockbusters could learn a thing or two from Batman Begins. If the Batman franchise died under it’s own gaudiness years ago, let us rejoice this glorious rebirth – Batman truly does begin here.

 

5 out of 5 stars

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Robocop (2014) – Movie Review

When I saw that Robocop had been remade (or rebooted maybe?) my feeling was one of apathy. I have seen the original film quite some time ago now and for sure I wondered why they would remake something that is a shade over 25 years old, but I certainly wasn’t up in arms as if it was blasphemy – ultimately it is just another product to be sold and brand recognition is going to give you a good base to your marketing. This is also the reason it appears to have been remade – because the target audience really isn’t anyone over 25 years old.

The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen the original film (and if you haven’t, you should) as we have a cop, near death, selected for a program of integrating robot drones with organic (human) material to make it more acceptable to be on the streets of the US as law enforcement. As a basic plot it has lots of opportunity for commentary, color, fun and excitement, because this is what the original had in spades. It starts well and it looks good enough to win me over early on and I did think “this is actually okay” – for a while. As the film went on, I was surprised by how little of everything there was below the surface. There was no commentary or satire in here, despite it being a massive open goal in terms of relevance today. However, this wasn’t as big a problem as the fact that there seemed to be no heart or spark to the film either; the plot felt flat, there was almost no sense of fun to it and for all the gun play, there was really no tension or excitement to it. Ignore the original, even on its own terms as a generic sci-fi action movie, it still didn’t work.

The effects and the production standards are high as one would expect, but director Padilha really doesn’t bring much grit or energy to the film. The focus seems to be all about making a safe product with no rough edges – and in this regard it achieves its goal, just making it bland as a result. The lead actor fits that mould and Kinnaman doesn’t make too much of an impression. This is perhaps not a huge surprise but it is a surprise to find that Oldman, Keaton and Jackson all are pretty much by the numbers too. Keaton in particular is no Ronny Cox and he never convinces. Oldman is at least reliable while Jackson is fun but has too little time and context to make it impact the wider film. Supporting turns from faces such as Jean-Baptiste, Williams and Dexter’s Garcia all provide distraction but are not used much beyond that. Haley is a good presence but not given the space to have real teeth.

Generally the film is bland and quite dull. It ticks its way through the plot checkboxes without ever really having much in the way impact, fun, thrills, satire or anything really. It is a product designed to sell, primarily off the back of the famous established brand, but also off the fact that there is really nothing in here that would offend any potential customers – the downside of this is of course that there is really nothing to be excited about either.

 

6 out of 10 stars

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – Movie Review

Among Hollywood’s recent output of mediocre (and in some cases: downright abysmal) remakes of Sci-Fi classics, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ was the rare movie which stood out, for it had as much of a brain as it had a heart – plus an original approach to the well-known material and great visuals. Having said that, ‘Rise’ practically pales in comparison to Matt Reeves’ sequel: the upcoming ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is as close to a Science-Fiction masterpiece as a 170 million PG-13 Hollywood summer blockbuster can possibly get.

The storyline picks up ten years after we saw Ceasar and his fellow simian escapees seek refuge in the woods near San Francisco, and although the film’s trailers already gave away pretty much everything that happened during that time (and alas, way too much of what will happen), I’m not going to spoil anything for those who carefully avoided watching said trailers. As with all my reviews, instead of giving away any details about the story, I’ll elaborate on all other aspects of the movie.

What needs to be mentioned first is what an astonishing achievement ‘Dawn’ is when it comes to the use of CGI. I’m normally very critical towards the (over-)use of CGI – but the level of craftsmanship displayed here simply has to be admired. It only took me seconds to forget I was watching digital characters (brought to life through the outstanding motion-capture performances by Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell and Judy Grier – to name but a few), and I can’t begin to imagine what a task it must have been for the artists and wizards in the animation department to work on every background and every tiny little detail of every character until this level of seamlessness and reality could be achieved.

But nearly every other aspect of the movie has been realized equally well: Michael Giacchino’s haunting musical score fits and reflects the drama on screen perfectly, while the – often terrifying – beauty of the images on screen had me immediately wondering who the DoP was (now I know: Michael Seresin, the genius veteran DoP of such classics as ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘Angel Heart’). When it comes to the action; well, ‘Dawn’ is not your usual summer blockbuster. This is no light-hearted, comic-book-style fantasy film with fun, over-the-top action scenes. What we have here is a gritty, realistic portrayal of a slowly escalating conflict, and when we do get to the battle scenes in the third act, those scenes are a spectacular, mesmerizing visual feast (and ultimately heart breaking).

But the core of this film – and also the reason why the action scenes in the third act really do have an impact and all the mayhem really gets to you – is the intelligent, skilfully told story with its well-drawn, believable characters (portrayed by equally believable actors). The tragic simian/human conflict mirrors our real – and very human – past and present day wars and social frictions in a very credible way and thus makes this film resonate far beyond what any mere Sci-Fi premise would let you expect.

So my verdict: With its beautiful imagery, highly relevant story and breath-taking effects, ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is as close to a Science-Fiction masterpiece as its mass-audience orientated constrictions allowed it to be (which – in this case – is very close); an astonishing achievement and highly recommended.

 

9 out of 10 stars.

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Léon: The Professional (1994) – Movie Review

I have long thought that owning films on DVD or video is a waste of money – you watch them once and after that they are left to fester at the back of a cupboard. Occasionally I make an exception – some films simply cannot be fully appreciated on just one viewing. Every time I watch Leon is as gripping and enjoyable as the first. Sad, funny, violent, incredibly touching – few films manage to tick all the boxes and even fewer are about hitmen.

It obviously helps when your leading man has as much screen presence as Jean Reno. Thin and wiry with toilet brush hair and a face like a bag of spanners, he is hardly your typical gun-toting action hero, but he has an innocence and compassion that makes you fall for him instantly. Leon’s life is as simple as a small child’s: TV, lashings of milk and the odd gangland assassination. He cannot read, he doesn’t sleep, he hasn’t the trappings of family or wealth (the fees for his hits are habitually trousered by his `benefactor’: sleazy small-time Italian gangster Tony (Danny Aiello)) – In short, he lives like a robot. And then he meets Mathilda.

Normally I can’t stand Hollywood kids. They are all doey-eyed, bouffant-haired brats who can cry on cue and are always ready with a cutesy, smart-alec comment that will cause their adult co-stars to tinkle with laughter or tousle their hair playfully. Often they are kidnapped and huge ransoms demanded while their parents go demented with worry. I for one am usually rooting for the kidnappers.

Natalie Portman’s Mathilda is the antithesis of these namby-pamby Dawson’s Creek actors-in-waiting. For starters, she has something justifiable to gripe about, in that her entire family has just been slaughtered by Gary Oldman and his gang of crooked DEA officers. This is a bit of a blow, to say the least, but Mathilda takes it all in her stride and teams up with Leon in a bid for revenge. So begins one of the stranger relationships in silver screen history, but one of the most memorable.

On the face of it, a love story between a twelve year old girl and a hairy French hitman would raise a few eyebrows among more conservative movie-goers, but director Luc Besson handles it so beautifully, it seems like the most natural thing on earth. They are united in being totally alone in the world – indeed, the scene where Mathilda walks quietly down the corridor past the carnage in her apartment and knocks on Leon’s door, imploring him in a tearful whisper to let her in is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. Leon is wary at first, but she soon wins him round and starts to gently bring him out of the shell.

Portman is truly astonishing – one can almost forgive her for being a part of the appalling Star Wars prequels on the strength of this one performance. The iconic image of this tiny, grubby little girl clutching Leon’s beloved plant and trotting to keep up with her lanky hero’s giant strides is one that will live long in the memory.

Aiello and Oldman (at his sadistic, malevolent best) provide predictably excellent support, there is a wonderfully suspenseful yet satisfying ending – heck, there’s even a decent Sting song playing over the credits – for this (if nothing else) it would be remiss of me to give Leon anything other than top marks.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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