Inception

  • Title:  Inception
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2010
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  SF, Action, Suspense
  • Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“What is the most resilient parasite?  A bacteria, a virus, an intestinal worm? … An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain – it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood, that sticks.”  – Cobb

“Do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man – filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” – Saito

“It’s the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world.” – Cobb

Inception is a film about dreams, but it is not the typical film about dreams – such as the person who dreams of being a famous musician then becomes one, or the young man who dreams of becoming a professional sports player – then makes his dream come true.  This film is literally about dreams, and as such, the entire film is a commentary on films themselves.  But for all the meta implications, it’s not a nod-nod-wink-wink type of film that pokes fun at anything.  Rather it suggests a type of caper film, though the caper doesn’t take place in the physical world at all.

Cobb (DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are professional extractors – men who, for a price, will enter a person’s dreams to steal information, often as a form of corporate espionage. However, in this case, when their plans don’t quite work out, the man they are trying to steal from instead hires the two for Inception – the concept of planting an idea in someone’s head, so that they themselves believe that they came up with the idea – themselves.  Like many other caper films, after some debate among themselves, Cobb and Arthur agree to perform the crime – Arthur, because he knows the corporation that hired them in the first place will kill them for being unsuccessful, and Cobb because he’s a wanted man – and Saito has promised to make his charges go away so he can return home and to his own children, if he’s successful.

Cobb and Arthur to find their crew for this special job:  a chemist – to create a special sedative to put the victim under during the crime, Eames – a spy and con-man – to gather information on the victim, an architect – to build the triple-layered dream world, Arthur, and Cobb.  Their architect is Ariadne, a young student of Miles – Cobb’s old teacher, and the grandfather of his children – Phillipa and James.  Arthur and Cobb train Ariadne in shared dreaming.  Cobb finds the chemist and an old friend who becomes their spy and investigator.

The “heist” involves getting Fischer – the victim – on a ten hour flight, slipping him a mickey, then entering his dreams.  The dream will be three layers or levels deep, and at each stage, the crew – specifically Cobb and Arthur (with some assistance from Eames) work different angles into their con to convince Fischer Jr that he should break-up and sell his father’s near monopoly energy company so he can become his own man by building something new.  In the end, Cobb and Ariadne end-up going to a fourth level – Limbo, or the subconscious – for two reasons, for Saito – who was shot in the first level of the dream, then died in the third level (normally dying in a dream would wake up the dreamer – but not when under sedation) and so Cobb can confront his dead wife, Mal – who’s been haunting him throughout the film.  In fact, as the film goes on – it becomes less about the plot to convince Fischer Jr to break-up his father’s company, and more about the question of Mal and Cobb and just what happened between them.

Inception is also circular in nature. The film opens with Cobb washed up on a beach, captured by Asian gunmen, and taken to a wealthy, older Asian man. We will learn this is Saito, who has lived for years in his subconscious world, because time moves differently in the dream world as to the real world. The film, at the end circles back to Cobb on the beach, and Cobb confronting the Asian man. But then the film adds a couple of scenes at the end that leave the film mysterious and open-ended.

The second major point about the film, Inception, and the reason I can watch it over and over again, is it is visually stunning.  Where else would you see roads folding in on themselves? An endless staircase? A freight train moving through a crowded downtown city street? Or the vanishing point of a set being revealed as a mirror, then being moved by a character to form an infinity box?  Yet these impossible scenes, rather than breaking the fourth wall in the traditional sense, are used to clearly show that a particular moment which seemed “real” is actually part of a dream – so they fit into the larger world of the film.  It is truly a visual masterpiece of film.

Recommendation:  Must see!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Memento

Advertisements

The Prestige

  • Title:  The Prestige
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date 2006
  • Studio:  Touchstone, Warner Brothers
  • Genres:  Drama, SF, Historical
  • Cast:  Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Mark Ryan, William Morgan Sheppard
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  Blu-Ray, R1

“But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back.  That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call… The Prestige.” – Mr. Cutter, narrating

“I love you.” – Alfred Borden
“Not today.  Well, some days it’s not true, and today you don’t mean it.  Maybe today you’re more in love with magic than me.  I like being able to tell the difference, it makes the days it is true mean something.” – Sarah Borden

“I don’t want to kill doves.” – Robert Angier
“Then stay off stage.  You’re a magician not a wizard.  You gotta’ get your hands dirty if you’re going to achieve the impossible.” – Mr. Cutter

“I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it.” – Nikola Tesla

“The truly extra-ordinary is not permitted in science and industry.  Perhaps, you’ll find more luck in your field – where people are happy to be mystified.” – Tesla

The Prestige is a film about envy, jealousy, and obsession. But rather than jealousy over someone else’s relationship with a third person; or obsession with a person, The Prestige is about professional jealousy and obsession with an idea. Add to that it’s unusual structure, and it’s a fascinating film, that’s intriguing to watch.

This is the story of two stage magicians in the 1890s. They start off as friends, working with an ingenue (or magic trick designer) and a female magician (Julia, played by Piper Perabo) who is married to one of them (Angiers, played by Hugh Jackman). Bordan (Bale) seems to be jealous of Angiers relationship with his wife, though this is not obviously stated. And when Julia dies performing a water-tank trick, after Bordan tied her hands – Angiers becomes angry and blames Bordan for the accident. However, this definitely doesn’t become your cut-and-dried “you killed my wife – I’m going to get revenge” film. Even by the end of the film, we don’t really know if Bordan deliberately tied the wrong knot or if it really was an accident. However, the death of Julia is the spark that turns a friendship into a rivalry – and then into professional jealousy, and finally into obsession. As the film unfolds Angiers and Bordan both one-up each other, and both simply do horrible things to each other – physically harming each other, undercutting each other’s stage acts, and simply just not letting the rivalry rest but escalating it with each act of the film.

The structure of the film is also different.  It starts with the end, then tells the story through a series of interweaving flashbacks that tell the story in short scenes that not only move forward and back in time, but change point of view as well. The film begins with Angiers dying in a stage magician’s trick and Bordan being arrested and charged with his murder. The flashbacks explain their history, their rivalry, and Angiers growing obsession with Bordan’s trick:  The Transported Man. Angiers follows his obsession to Colorado where he meets Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis), and convinces them to build a special machine for him. Angiers both gets what he wants and gets much more than he bargained for. But, as the story unfolds – and different parts of the story are told first from Angiers point of view and then from Bordan’s, the audience learns more and more about these characters – the doomed characters.

Because the flashbacks are interweaving, as an audience member, not only is one forced to pay very close attention in order to follow the film – but one is also, constantly rearranging the scenes in one’s head. Especially the first time I watched this film, as I watched it, I found myself thinking, “OK, so this goes before that, and this goes before that, etc.”  But unlike other films with a lot of editing and scenes that aren’t presented in chronological order – with The Prestige, that the film’s story is essentially presented in reverse order before returning to the present and then again turning on a dime, everything in the story is crystal clear.  You will not be confused by the story – at all, once you get used to the style and concentrate on the plot.

I’m determined to not spoil this excellent film, but it is also very dark and even somewhat disturbing. To explain just what is going on, and how, would destroy the experience of seeing this film.  It’s excellent, with an excellent cast, incredible direction, and it’s very thought-provoking. However, it is very, very dark.  I mean, I’ve seen film noir before, but the final implications of this film really push the envelope into disturbing territory. Oh, and by disturbing – I do not in any way mean “gross” or bloody, or any of the typical tropes of horror. I wouldn’t even call this a horror film. Do not avoid this film simply because of a prejudice against horror – that is not what it is at all.

Recommendation:   See it
Rating:  5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Inception

The Dark Knight Rises

  • Title: (Batman) The Dark Knight Rises
  • Director: Christopher Nolan
  • Date: 2012
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Genre: Drama, Action
  • Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Burn Gorman, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Matthew Modine
  • Format: Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“You hung-up your cape and cowl but you didn’t move on – you never went to find a life.  To find someone…”— Alfred Pennyworth
“Alfred, I did find someone.”— Bruce Wayne
“I know, and you lost them. But that’s all part of living, sir. But you’re not living, you’re just waiting, hoping for things to go bad again.”— Alfred

“I never wanted you to come back to Gotham. I always knew there was nothing here for you except pain and tragedy and I wanted something more for you than that. I still do.”— Alfred


“I take what I need from those who have more than enough. I don’t stand on the shoulders of those who have less.”— Selina Kyle

The Dark Knight Rises opens with a James Bond-like opening sequence, the CIA flies into some country to “rescue” Dr. Pavel, a nuclear physicist. But Bane, a mercenary, and his men take the doctor from the plane and kill everyone on board by causing the plane to crash. The film then quickly moves to Gotham City.

In Gotham City, the mayor, and Police Commissioner James Gordon are at a celebration / benefit / ceremony for “Harvey Dent Day”, Gotham’s solemn civic acknowledgement of the death of Harvey Dent. The mayor also mentions that the “Dent Act” has allowed Gotham’s police to arrest those involved in organized crime and keep them in jail without parole. Gordon looks at a speech he’s written out, but at the last minute he folds it up and doesn’t give the speech. We learn later that this speech was Gordon’s “confession” of the truth of what Harvey Dent did after he became Two-Face towards the end of The Dark Knight – as well as the truth of what Batman did and did not do. That is, that eight years ago, Batman took the fall for Dent’s actions, then disappeared.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. He catches a maid stealing his mother’s pearls from his safe, and later realizes she lifted his fingerprints too. Bruce uses his computers in the Batcave to find out who the maid/catburglar is – she’s Selina Kyle.

A young man’s body is found in Gotham’s tunnels. One of the investigating officers from Gotham’s PD realizes it was someone he knows and goes to St. Swindon’s Boys home to tell the man’s younger brother the bad news. Later, Officer Blake goes to Bruce Wayne’s home. He lets Bruce know that he knows that Bruce was the Batman, and that he doesn’t believe “he did what they say he did” – but also casually mentions the boys’ home is no longer receiving aid from the Wayne Foundation. Bruce is puzzled by this and decides to clean himself up and head into Wayne Enterprises and Lucius Fox to find out what is going on. He discovers that Wayne Enterprises is on shaky financial footing, following Bruce’s mothballing of a fusion reactor clean energy project.

Catwoman sells Bruce’s prints… but she’s also prepared for the deal to go south, which it does. She has the bad guy she sells the prints to call her friend outside using the cell phone of a politician she kidnapped at Wayne’s party. When the police arrive, she screams, cries and “acts helpless” as a cover so the police ignore her as a victim and she escapes.

Gordon, meanwhile, is investigating in Gotham’s tunnels. He’s captured by Bane’s men and brought to Bane. Bane isn’t happy about this, kills two of his own men, and shoots Gordon – dumping all three in an underground river or conduit that leads to the sewers and eventually out to the river. But Bane takes Gordon’s speech about the truth of what Harvey Dent did and Batman’s innocence. Blake finds Gordon, washed onto a concrete shore.

Blake tells Bruce Wayne about Gordon getting shot, and Bane’s underground (literally) army. Blake knows that Bruce is Batman and asks him to help. He tells Bruce, “I don’t know why you took the fall for Dent’s murder but I’m still a believer in The Batman, even if you’re not.”

Bruce goes to Miranda Tate’s charity ball, where he runs into Selina Kyle. Miranda was one of his main investors for the fusion clean energy project. While they dance, Selina warns Bruce that a storm is coming.

When Bruce goes to Wayne Enterprises – Lucius Fox shows him “The Bat”, a stealth urban helicopter (similar in design to the Tumbler car, but for the air).

Bane and his gang attack the Gotham stock market. Batman arrives to chase the “robbers” of the stock exchange. However, all he really does is distract the police. One particularly enthusiastic cop decides he rather take down The Batman than catch any of Bane’s men from the stock exchange action. Batman fails to stop Bane’s computer program from uploading into the stock exchange, but does grab the Netbook they used. Batman escapes the police in The Bat.

Selina, in her Catwoman outfit, goes after Daggett, the man to whom she sold Bruce’s fingerprints. He’d promised her the “Clean Slate” program to wipe her name, details, and police record from every database in the world. But when she claims what’s hers – he tells her it doesn’t exist. Batman arrives. Batman and Catwoman fight Daggett’s troops, then escape in The Bat.

Batman lets Selina off, and returns home. He’s admonished by Alfred, who’s had enough. Alfred tells Bruce the truth – he burnt Rachel’s letter than explained she was going to marry Harvey Dent – to spare Bruce pain. In the ensuing argument – Alfred says he will leave.

The next morning, Bruce is woken up, not by Alfred, but by the front doorbell. And his faithful butler is no where in sight. Fox tells Bruce he’s broke and Wayne Enterprises will soon be in the hands of Daggett. The energy project is in danger, though “Applied Sciences” is off the books and all the weapons and tech hidden there are truly hidden.

Daggett meets with Bane – Bane tortures him and off screen, kills him.

Bruce sleeps with Miranda on the floor of his mansion, before the fireplace – since he has no power or heat in the old house.

Batman meets Catwoman, she takes him to Bane, but locks him in. Bane and Batman fight. They are in the wet tunnels, near the underground river/sewer. It’s a wet, dark, echo-y place for a fight.  Bane breaks into Wayne Enterprises’ Applied Sciences, blowing the floor. He then breaks Batman’s back and his Cowl – holding it up as a trophy, and making Bruce’s physical and psychological defeat complete.

Blake goes to Wayne Manor but finds it abandoned. However, he catches Selina Kyle at the airport.

Bruce, meanwhile, wakes in the Pit prison. Bane says it’s the worse prison, because with the chimney leading out… there’s hope, in the midst of despair, which for Bane makes the despair worse.

Selina is jailed in Blackgate. Bane takes Fox, Miranda, and a board member into the sewers and to the fusion reactor. When Blake tells Gordon – he asks one of his cops to start and all-out search of  the tunnels.  He promotes Blake to detective and asks him to investigate Daggett and his enterprises.

Bane gets Miranda to activate the fusion reactor. Bane also lures all the Gotham PD police into the Gotham tunnels.

Bane pulls the core from the reactor, creating a bomb, plus the core will decay and explode in five months.  Blake realizes Daggett’s cement pours were actually laced with explosives.

A boy soprano sings the American National Anthem at a Gotham Knights football stadium, just as he finishes, Bane walks in and blows the concrete, trapping all of the Gotham police force in the underground tunnels. Blake was just a moment too late to get the cops out. The football stadium also collapses as do streets and bridges all over Gotham – and all but one bridge off the island. Bane has Dr. Pavel explain about the bomb, then kills Pavel. The bomb is mobile and “an ordinary Gothamite” holds the trigger. Seeing the police trapped, Blake goes to the hospital for Gordon.

Anarchy soon reigns in Gotham City. Bane and his men let all the inmates out of Blackgate Prison.  His men “patrol” the streets in cameo tumbler cars stolen from Wayne Enterprises. Looting, robberies, beatings, and total chaos take over as Gotham City is left as a city without any government or police whatsoever. The few police not in the tunnels during the collapse are hunted and killed (again, off-screen). A very few start an underground resistance movement. Meanwhile, the US president makes an appeal than Gotham isn’t forgotten, but won’t risk the terrorists in the city exploding the nuke. Also, with all the bridges and tunnels in and out of the island blown, and Winter starting, soon food, especially fresh food, is hard to come by.

Selina is appalled by what has happened to her city.

In Bane’s prison, Bruce is heart-broken by what has happened to his city, but he also begins to re-build his back. In prison, Bruce learns of a child, the child of Ra’s al Ghul and his lover then wife was the only one to escape the prison. This child had a protector in the prison. Bruce remembers what he learned from Ra’s al Ghul, and his heart-break at the loss of his wife. With the help of another inmate, Bruce slowly rebuilds his strength.

Bruce ends up trying to climb out of his prison twice, and failing. The second time, he remembers his father rescuing him from his fall down the well on Wayne Manor property.

In Gotham, Gordon and Blake explain what’s going on to the special forces. Fox and Miranda explain the bomb is a time bomb and it will go off. Bane’s men attack and the special forces guy is killed by Bane.

For the third time, Bruce attempts to climb out of the well – he takes supplies, and doesn’t use the rope. As the inmates chant, “rise”, in a foreign language… he makes it. Bruce throws a climbing rope down to the other inmates as he leaves.

In Gotham, Selina beats up a couple of guys who are beating up a kid. Bruce returns to Gotham.  Bruce offers her the clean slate program for her help.

Gordon is arrested and tried in the Scarecrow’s court. He’s sentenced to death – by exile.

Catwoman rescues Bruce and Fox. Bruce takes Fox to The Bat to get an EMP Emitter to block the trigger of the bomb.

Gordon’s inching across the ice of the Gotham River when Batman returns and his sign burns on the bridge. Batman rescues Gordon and his men – then rescues Blake. Batman and Blake free the cops. Batman sends Blake to get people out of the city. Selina gets the Batcycle and a route out of  Gotham. There’s a melee between Bane’s men and the police.

Gordon searches for the truck (one of three) with the bomb. Blake rescues the boys from St. Swindon’s and does a quick house to house warning.

Batman defeats Bane, demands to know who the trigger is. Miranda is Talia, the child of Ra’s Al Ghul, Bane’s her “protector” from the prison, and she holds the trigger. She knifes Batman in the back. Gordon finds the bomb and tries to block the signal. However, the bomb is still a time bomb.  Catwoman rescues Batman. Cops from outside Gotham blow the last remaining bridge, despite Blake’s warnings.

Bruce in The Bat, and Catwoman on a Batcycle challenge Talia in a Tumbler. The heat seekers that chase The Bat hit the Tumbler instead. Fox discovers the reactor’s being flooded – they won’t be able to reattach the core to stop the meltdown. Talia dies. Batman will fly the bomb over Gotham harbor. When Gordan asks who he is — Bruce gives him a hint, and Gordon realizes he’s Bruce Wayne.

Batman literally flies into the sun, and the bomb explodes “harmlessly” over the Ocean.

Gordon quotes “A Tale of Two Cities” at Bruce’s grave. Fox, Alfred, and Blake are all there at the grave site. Alfred cries and blames himself. Blake quits the force. Gotham unveils a statue of The Batman. The Wayne Estate goes to Alfred, but the house is turned into a home for orphaned children. John Blake is “Robin John Blake” and he gets GPS co-ordinates to the Batcave which he explores. Fox discovers The Bat had an autopilot after all, despite Bruce saying it didn’t. Finally, in a small cafe, abroad, Alfred sees Bruce and Selina — and they see him. And Gordon has a new Bat Signal.

I loved this movie when I saw it in the theater — three times. What Nolan did particularly well was he managed to create a Super-Hero trilogy, that was a trilogy — with a definite beginning, middle, and end, rather than the normal run of sequels one gets for the genre. I loved how The Dark Knight Rises ties up the story, and I thought the flashbacks were particularly well realized.

Bane’s attack on Batman is much more deeply psychological – and personal (once you know who he is) than the physical attack in the graphic novel set (all three volumes of it, known collectively as Knightfall). In the graphic novel, Bane starts by letting all the villains out of Arkham — Batman has to fight them all, becoming exhausted. Alfred and Dick Greyson (Nightwing) warn him about exhaustion – but stubbornly Bruce doesn’t listen, and thus the steroid-enhanced Bane is able to physically beat him and break his back. Nolan’s film has Bane, step by step, take everything from Bruce:  his fortune, Wayne Enterprises, Alfred (who’s manipulated into a “tough love” confrontation that goes horribly wrong), even his city. Yes, Bane breaks his back, and symbolically, the cowl too, thus breaking The Batman, but it’s the psychological devastation that really breaks Bruce’s spirit. And it’s Bruce’s comeback from that psychological “bottom” that makes the film so interesting and triumphant. Bruce is physically thrown in a well, a Pit, and he’s in physical agony and psychological despair… but he comes back, which makes it a heartening film, and a joy to watch. Bruce also seems ready to finally hang up his cape and cowl for good… though the film places enough hints for a “Nightwing” film for “Robin John” Blake.

Another major departure of the film from the graphic novel set, is Bane is quite different. The costume is different, his back story is different, Bane’s connected to Talia and Ra’s al Ghul is different, and Bane’s dependence on the addictive steroid, Venom (not to be confused with the Marvel character Venom), is dropped. I was really surprised by that first time I saw the film, but each time I saw it, I found the connections from Bane to Talia (Miranda) to Ra’s al Ghul, just suit the plot so much better… and bring the entire story line to a very satisfactory conclusion.

Overall, I really, really liked it. The script crackles with great dialogue, as did the previous two in the series. Though I think Alfred would never leave Bruce, the film makes it work as both a form of tough love on Alfred’s part, and really a challenge between father and son. For Bruce to be his own man, he both has to lose everything and he has to regain everything, and that includes his surrogate father. Though I do wish he and Alfred had spoken when they see each other in the cafe. But, on the other hand, they don’t need to. Alfred and Bruce understand each other without having to speak.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman was not the “bored socialite cat burglar” or the “hooker trying to make a living” of previous Batman stories (both in print and on tv/film). She’s rough, and tough, and she thinks she wants what Bane promises — an end to the wealthy, privileged, useless upper class. But when she sees what’s happened to Gotham, she hates it. Selina realizes that without any law, anarchy rules – and in anarchy the poor and the weak suffer even more than they did under the rich, something Selina hadn’t thought was possible. This is why she allies with Batman. For once, this Selina does not have any physical attraction to Batman, not ‘til the end, when she and Bruce run off together. Selina even appears to really, really hate men.

 

A word needs to be said about Anne Hathaway’s costumes too. Her Catwoman costume was great… it looks more like armor than the sexy, sorry, catsuit, of other catwomen, and it has long sleeves and what looks like a corset underneath. I actually really liked it, and would like to know more about the construction from the costume designer. Because, wow! Selina’s other clothes were equally impressive, she reminded me a lot of Audrey Hepburn, a classic actress known for her clothes and unique sense of style. The hat Selina wears to the airport is particularly Hepburn-esque. I have no idea if this was intentional, but the styles, mostly in black, looked great on Hathaway.

 

Audrey Hepburn – in a classic hat.

 

Anne Hathaway – looking very much like Audrey Hepburn (note the hat).

 

 

Anne Hathaway, in a classic outfit.

 

 

The score by Hans Zimmer was excellent, as have been all three Nolan Batman film scores by Zimmer. The score for The Dark Knight Rises is haunting and dark, and is very effective in how it adds to the film. Also, I thought it was really very neat the way that several times the film becomes almost silent and it’s simply images and music – including the end, after Bruce Wayne’s graveside funeral service. Nolan really knows how to use imagery and light and how to integrate that with the musical score, for a uniquely filmic quality. It’s a rare talent in a modern director and should be celebrated.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars


Batman The Dark Knight

  • Title:  (Batman)  The Dark Knight
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2008
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Action, Drama
  • Cast:  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Keith Szarabajka
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

I simply adore The Dark Knight, the action-packed sequel to Batman Begins. Actually, I saw it first, in the theater, and then saw Batman Begins second, and on DVD when I did see it for the first time. But, re-watching it, it still strikes me as an incredibly well-crafted film. Yes, it starts big and fast-paced and gets bigger and bigger and bigger — but like the Legend of the Batman itself, it gets darker and darker as it goes along. It’s also a very enjoyable film to re-watch because of the little touches and attention to detail that come from a fine director.

The Dark Knight in some ways is The Joker’s film, played with maniacal insanity by Heath Ledger. The film starts with his violent robbery of a mob bank, that includes the systematic killing of each of his accomplices, and ends with The Joker’s death. But, Ledger’s performance, as compelling as it is, isn’t scene stealing — and the rest of the cast also performs extremely well. Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne is even better, and now Bruce seems to have grown up a bit. He is, however, still capable of playing the “dumb playboy” as when he crashes his Italian sports car to protect a witness transfer and then claims to Gordon it was an accident. (Gordon: That was a brave thing you just did. Wayne: What? Trying to beat the light? Gordon: Protecting that transport van. Wayne: Why, who was in it? Gordon: You don’t watch the news much, do you Mr. Wayne?) Christian Bale does a particularly believable “dumb blonde” act (or “fluffy bunny” act as a famous blonde actress once described it, wish I could remember who). Anyway, he’s also equally marvelous in the various scenes where he’s supporting Harvey Dent’s political career.

As Batman, they made one change in Dark Knight from Batman Begins that I didn’t like, and that was messing with Batman’s voice. It sounds like “Bruce” is speaking through some kind of voice changing box, which in turn, sounds electronic and artificial. In Begins, Bale gave Batman a deeper, more resonant, gravely voice that also sounded scary. Though I could see Bruce Wayne, billionaire at large, trying an electronic voice altering box to protect his identity – overall it was one effect I don’t think worked.

Michael Caine is wonderful as Alfred. You can see how much he loves and cares for Bruce, and how much he understands him. After the opening scene, when Bruce gets mauled by a Rottweiler, among other things, and is trying to stitch himself up, Alfred arrives, and admonishes Bruce for making a mess of things. He calmly stitches the wound. Bruce then turns away as he’s pulling on a white business shirt, and Alfred winces at the bruises on Bruce’s back. But, equally, he will not say anything, because he knows it’s what Bruce must do.

Morgan Freeman is wonderful at Lucius Fox, particularly when someone at Wayne Enterprises thinks he’s discovered that Wayne Enterprises is supplying Batman his toys, and he intends to get $10 million a year for the rest of his life not to reveal the secret. Fox shuts the guy down… then asks Bruce about the re-funding of the R&D department. Fox also shuts down Batman when he discovers Batman’s plan to use cell phone signals to create a sonar map of Gotham City – but Batman know Fox well, giving him the key to destroying the mapping software without telling him what it is.

Lucius Fox and Sir Alfred Pennyworth — the two men who keep Bruce sane, and allow Bruce Wayne the time to be Batman — running interference, covering for him, and producing cover stories and alibis.

Gary Oldman, again, is a wonderful young Jim Gordon, who gets appointed to Commissioner in this film. Eckhart is an inspired choice for Harvey Dent. Physically, he’s quite different from the Dent of the books, but his performance as Dent is perfect — and even better when he becomes Two-Face — he, also, is truly nuts — and the scene in the hospital between Joker and Two-Face is brilliantly written and brilliantly played by both Ledger and Eckhart.

First time I saw the film, I saw Harvey Dent, and being a fan of the books, knew who he would turn out to be, but I thought, especially with Joker in the picture, maybe not in this film. Then, when Dent proposed to Rachel my first thought was, “oh no, she is so dead”. Because in the Batman universe, pretty much no one can be happy, and everyone just endures. Re-watching the film, of course, I know where they were going with Dent — and it becomes even more tragic. Watching Gotham’s Golden Boy DA being destroyed has almost a mythic quality. (And yes, he “dies” at the end, and no, I don’t believe that one for a moment).

Finally, the city of Gotham itself is brilliantly played by Chicago. From the first scene, looking at skyscrapers on the edge of the Chicago river, to Commissioner Loeb’s funeral on State St — this movie is very obviously filmed in Chicago. And Chicago, with all it’s Art Deco architecture and the modern extremely flat glass skyscrapers is a perfect Gotham. The area near the River is used a lot. Lower Wacker Drive is actually used several times, especially in the car chases (yes, that’s not a super long parking lot, it’s Lower Wacker Drive). There is actually even a line spoken by a cop in the film “turn on to Lower 5th”) as they turn onto Lower Wacker Drive. The Chicago River bridges are used again, even more effectively and more often than in Batman Begins. But the best “oh, that is so Chicago” scene is the funeral for Commissioner Loeb, right on State St. in front of Marshall Field’s (or what used to be Field’s — it may be a Macy’s now), those narrow, tall windows that Gordon wants checked for snipers? That’s a style so identified with Chicago that it’s called the “Chicago window”. Also, there’s some nice shots of Art Deco decoration on the buildings during some of the pans, as the camera moves around looking for the snipers. And, the Pipes and Drums band playing for the funeral? That is the real Chicago P.D. pipes and drums band playing – they even get a credit. Also, I imagine several of the “extras” in uniform were real Chicago cops. Ah, it’s “my kind of town”.

The filming again is brilliant. Although not as intimate a movie as Batman Begins, which centers on Bruce becoming Batman, The Dark Knight, again based in Graphic Novel canon, including Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, and Loeb’s The Long Halloween trilogy, opens up the film’s universe and brings in two of Batman’s best known enemies, The Joker (Batman’s Moriarty) and Two-Face. Yet, there’s still very nice filming tricks like a full circular sweeping shot, and brilliant use of light and dark (such as the scene in the interrogation room, where, in the end Gordon leaves Batman with the Joker). I also liked the sound design, with the high-pitched squeal that sounds half like a scream and half like nails on a chalkboard being used whenever the Joker was about to do something particularly nasty.

Overall, a film not to be missed. I happen to own only the single-disc edition, and I’d considering upgrading to a Blu-Ray player just to get this movie (and Lord of the Rings) in an expanded edition with more special features.

Recommendation: See it! Show it to your older children. Own it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Batman Begins

 

  • Title:  Batman Begins
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2005
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers Pictures
  • Genre:  Action, Drama
  • Cast:  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC, 2-disc Special Edition

“Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” — Alfred, quoting Thomas Wayne

Batman Begins is an excellent telling of the origins of Batman, that also manages to bring in two of Batman’s best and scariest enemies from DC Comics books – Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. The movie begins with young Bruce, falling into a well, being frightened by bats, and being rescued by his father, Thomas. Flash forward to adult Bruce having nightmares about those same bats. We also, fairly quickly, see flashbacks to That Fateful Night – the death of Bruce’s parents. Interestingly enough, in this version – rather than Bruce and his family seeing Zorro at a local movie theater and having a good time — they are at the Opera, where some costumed witches on wires remind Bruce of bats, frightening him, – and he urges his parents to leave the theatre early. Either way, Bruce Wayne has a deeply felt guilt about the death of his parents.

Batman Begins then shows Bruce literally slumming around the world, learning the ways of the criminal. He’s found and “rescued” by Liam Neeson who brings him to the League of Shadows to train him as a Ninja. The training sequences are well done, and especially a training fight on a frozen lake is breathless to watch. When Bruce is ready to graduate, he faces one last test – killing a thief and a murderer. Bruce refuses, and in the ensuing fight destroys the mountain top hideaway, and Ra’s Al Ghul, he thinks.

Bruce then returns to Gotham City, to take his revenge by killing the man who killed his parents. Fate intervenes, however, and the man is killed by one of the gangster Falcone’s people before he can testify against Falcone and win his release. Bruce takes this for what it is – a sign. As do arguments against blind vengeance from his once girlfriend now Assistant DA Rachel Dawes. And so Bruce is set on another path, a path also suggested by Neeson during their training sessions — that of a symbol for justice, instead of a man seeking his own vengeance.

Bruce develops Batman, including picking up a few toys from the Applied Sciences/R&D department of Wayne Enterprises – the basis for the Batsuit, the Batmobile (now a modern tank), mono-filament grappling wire – the basics. But this Batman is not tech or gadget heavy. The classics and necessary are there (I love the memory-wire cape) but nothing silly or over-wrought is present.

Bruce then needs to test out not just the costume and his toys, but his mission. He goes after Falcone, the gangster. In the process of catching Falcone and his thugs during a drug bust, he finds out about Scarecrow, who has developed a lethal hallucinogen toxin (Scarecrow’s “fear gas”). When Bruce is exposed he ends up being rescued by Alfred, and then Lucius Fox, and is out of it for two days. Later, he rescues Rachel from the same gas, but is too late to save “the narrows” an island in the Gotham River and home to Arkham Asylum. Bruce, as Batman, also discovers that Scarecrow’s plot to pour his toxin into Gotham’s water supply is the tip of the iceberg – the man behind the curtain is Ra’s Al Ghul – not the man Bruce thought he killed in Tibet, but the man who taught him how to fight – Liam Neeson. Neeson trails Batman back to his manor, fights him, and burns down the house. But he also plans on destroying Gotham by using a Wayne Enterprises prototype Microwave Emitter to vaporize the city’s water supply and thus release Scarecrow’s toxic fear gas – causing Gotham to tear itself apart in mass panic. Batman succeeds in stopping Ra’s al Ghul.

Batman Begins is a very successful film. I enjoyed immensely the building up of all the little moments that made Bruce into Batman, not just the death of his parents, though that was certainly tragic enough, but his learning how to fight, and Bruce’s own drive not for simple vengeance but to see to it that no other little boy (or girl) goes through what he did.

I also liked the portrayal of the relationship between Alfred and Bruce in this film. Michael Caine plays Alfred perfectly – Bruce’s close friend, his advisor, and the only one who can stop Bruce when he starts to go too far. Alfred also has not only a deep caring for Bruce, the boy he’s raised like a son, but a deep understanding of why Bruce does what he does. For his part, Bruce trusts Alfred completely. Once he’s finished his training in Tibet – it’s Alfred he calls for a ride home (albeit in a private jet, but still). And when Bruce is nearly fatally poisoned with fear gas toxin by Scarecrow – it’s Alfred he calls, and Alfred who has to pick up the pieces. And when Bruce tears through Gotham in his tank-styled Batmobile, wrecking several police cars in the process – Alfred tears into Bruce, and although he gets through, Bruce also stops Alfred cold – by saying he did it to save Rachel, before asking Alfred to take her home. Caine is a perfect Alfred, and Bale is extremely good not just as Batman – but as Bruce Wayne, something other versions of Batman have often ignored. The rest of the cast also does an excellent job, especially Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox (Bruce’s man at Wayne Enterprises, though at the moment he’s been kicked down to the lowly Applied Sciences/R&D dept), and Gary Oldman as Sgt. James Gordon.

This film also goes to the roots of Batman in the DC books — borrowing story elements from Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween/Dark Victory. I appreciated seeing less obviously well-known Batman villians, namely Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. I also really liked seeing how Bruce Wayne became Batman.

Finally, something has to be said about the excellent filming. I enjoyed seeing Chicago as Gotham City, though it’s not as obvious here as in The Dark Knight.  But I also like how light and shadow, so important to the myth of Batman, are used — and in a color film, too. There are moments when the lighting on Christian Bale’s face, where he’s half or even three quarters in shadow, that reminded me of  the great film noir films. And Noir has always been an inspiration for and important background to the Legend of Batman.

Recommendation: See it! Buy it! Show it to your (older) children.
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Bewitched

  • Title:  Bewitched
  • Director:  Nora Ephron
  • Date:  2005
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Genre:  Romantic Comedy
  • Cast:  Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” — Jack  Wyatt

“I can’t be normal because I’m a witch; I can’t be a witch because I really want to be normal.”  — Isabel Bigalow

Since I reviewed this movie when I saw it in 2005 at the theater and when I finally picked up and watched the DVD in March 2010, I figured I would save a little work. Below is my original review. New comments at bottom.

Bewitched was a surprisingly fun, cute movie. Unlike many movie remakes of television shows which are often very poorly done, Bewitched travels quite happily down a slightly different path. In the film, Will Farrell plays Jack, a down on his luck actor, unable to get starring film roles after his last film tanked at the box office. Nicole Kidman plays Isabel, a witch, who like Samantha in the original television program wants to give up witchcraft and lead a normal life. And like any romantic comedy, Jack meets Isabel, the audience knows they are meant for each other, and after a few trials and tribulations, Jack and Isabel do get together, cut to end credits.

However, what makes Bewitched, incredibly fun to watch is the “B” plot, the making of a new –remake — television show called, Bewitched. Farrell’s character, Jack, meets Isabel (Kidman) in a bookshop. He offers her the part of Samantha on his new show. However, once casting her, he realises she is up-staging him right and left, and decides to make Bewitched his show. He overacts, steals scenes, has the shows writers cut Isabel’s lines, insists on delivering all the punch lines, and in short makes every mistake both a bad actor and a remake (television or film) could possibly make. When the focus group blue cards come back, Isabel is tremendously popular (99 points) but Jack isn’t (32 points; the dog did better). Farrell throws a tantrum.

Isabel, meanwhile, is having problems of  her own. She figures out how poorly Jack’s been treating her and decides to quit, but before she can do that, her Aunt Clara experimentally places a hex on Jack turning him into the perfect, and horribly fake, movie-like romantic man hopelessly in love with Isabel. Isabel, to her credit, sees this as a fake, and un-does the hex, starting over again. She then blows up at Jack, calling him out on the carpet for being selfish and self-centered (she’s right).

Jack, seeing the error of his ways, more or less tells Isabel she’s right, and the two begin working on their new television show as partners instead of as competitors. The resulting montage sequence of the creation of a new hit TV show is well done. But Isabel’s and Jack’s problems aren’t quite over — Isabel still has to tell Farrell she’s a witch, a real witch. The next sequence in the film, consists of Isabel revealing the truth to Jack. A truth that he at first does not believe, and once she proves it to him, causes him to reject her — in true romantic movie fashion. It takes Uncle Arthur, a character that Jack (a fan of the original program), imagines — to get Jack to realise the error of his ways, and that he really loves Isabel, which brings the two together.

The entire film, however, full of television in-jokes, manages to parody television, without, necessarily, parodying the show the film is based on. The film breaks the reality/screen wall over and over again, to full audience acceptance, in truly excellent style. For example, in one sequence where Jack courts Isabel, the two chase each other around various sets and partial set-pieces in the television studio where both work — in a sequence extremely reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s courtship of Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain.  (A film referenced earlier in the movie when Isabel, runs into the rain, joyfully, after arguing with her father about whether or not she can give up being a witch). In another sequence, Jack and Isabel chat on what appears to be a romantic balcony, until two stage hands move the background away while they talk. Those sequences, and the parodies of television and film conventions are what make the film Bewitched truly magical.

Update:  Yes, Bewitched is still a very fun romantic comedy with a twist. It’s enjoyable to watch, even when one knows where it is going (which let’s face it – is the case for all romantic comedies). The playing with the “Fourth Wall” still works, even when it’s no longer a surprise. Steve Carell plays “Uncle Arthur”, as a really, really good impersonation of Paul Lynde (even to the point of being a little swish) – but because his character is one that Will Farrell dreams-up, the dead-on impersonation works. Shirley MacLaine is Endora – in the new TV series remake of Bewitched, playing the part in flamboyant style and with the best wardrobe in the film (except for possibly Isabel’s). She also gets her own subplot, in that the actress, Iris, falls for Isabel’s father, Nigel, played by Michael Caine. In fact, that older romance – between Caine and MacLaine – who have fantastic on-screen chemistry, adds to the feel and enjoyment factor of the film. Will Farrell is a bit over-the-top at times, but in a sense, he’s meant to be playing an over-the-top actor/drama queen (drama king?) and it works.

Oh, and by the way, – the soundtrack / music is terrific in this movie.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Billy Elliot

Austin Powers in Goldmember

  • Title:  Austin Powers in Goldmember
  • Director:  Jay Roach
  • Date:  2002
  • Studio:  New Line (et al)
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Cast:  Mike Myers, Beyoncé Knowles, Michael Caine, Michael York, Seth Green, Robert Wagner, Verne Troyer, Fred Savage
  • Format:  Widescreen, Color
  • DVD Format:  NTSC, R1

“All right, Goldmember. Don’t play the laughing boy! There are only two things I can’t stand in this world:  People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures… and the Dutch!” — Sir Nigel Powers

Goldmember begins with four or five title sequences (depending on how one counts them) and breaks the fourth wall twice. This is an excellent example of the problem with this film. Whereas the first two Austin Powers films had a strong plot, this film feels like a series of barely connected short skits, sketches, and ideas instead of a film.

Nominally, the film is parodying many purely 70s types of  films — rollar skating films, trucker films, disco films, prison films, even the 1960s Bond film Goldfinger is referenced. Dr. Evil, who now has his evil headquarters behind the Hollywood sign and is running a talent agency, is captured in the beginning of  the film. However, the plot to kidnap Austin’s father, Nigel Powers, played by Michael Caine goes on. Austin travels into the 1970s in an outrageous pimpmobile (another 70s reference), picks-up Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyoncé) but fails to rescue Nigel. From there it’s a bit of a mess. Fat Bastard returns as a Sumo wrestler. Scott Evil finally gives in and becomes evil – taking Mini Me’s place at Dr. Evil’s side (who has now escaped prison). Mini Me then defects to British Intelligence and becomes Mini Austin. Eventually, during the climax, Nigel reveals that Dr. Evil is actually Austin’s brother and everyone is happy except the now totally evil and quite mad Scott Evil.

One of the funniest vignettes of the film is Michael Caine (again, as Austin’s father, Nigel) and Austin disguising what they are saying by speaking in English English or Cockney Rhyming slang — with subtitles. It’s hilarious! Now, Cockney Rhyming slang is real – it’s an actual version of English, developed in London’s East End by criminals and the lower class so police (Bobbys) and upper class Brits wouldn’t understand what they were saying (much like any slang or argot). The idea is that the phrase not only rhymes with itself but it rhymes with the word the slang phrase replaces (eg “trouble and strife” means wife or “apples and pears” means stairs). As the slang’s been around since Victorian times, often the second half of the phrase is left off (e.g. just “trouble” to mean “wife”).  Needless to say, it’s a bit confusing — and yes, it’s spoken as fast as Caine and Myers do in the film, if not faster.  (I once heard a very frustrated Neil Gaiman break into Cockney Rhyming slang at an SF convention when trying to out-talk Harlan Ellison.  Neil won.)  However, that one scene I always end up rewinding and watching two or three times – every time I watch the film, because it’s brilliant.

Another cute bit occurs in Tokyo when Austin, Nigel, and Foxxy are escaping and their car hits a Japanese monster-movie paper-mache monster and starts pushing it down the street. The crowds start running away and one yells, “Godzilla!” – then Masi Oka appears and says, “It looks like Godzilla, but due to international copyright law – it isn’t!” Then both run away. That bit was brilliant.

And Michael Caine is perfect to play Nigel Powers, especially as the character of Austin, with his wavy reddish hair and glasses come from Caine’s look in films like The Ipcress File. And Caine and Myers have great chemistry. But there isn’t enough of Caine, and overall the film misses the boat a bit. I would have much, much preferred a film about Austin and his father’s relationship – even Austin’s daddy issues (something briefly mentioned by Dr. Evil in the first film) as compared to the relationship between Dr. Evil and Scott and Mini Me. The last scene is quite nice but a bit rushed. I could have done without all the pull-backs revealing our characters watching a movie of Austin in “Austinpussy” – complete with A-list Hollywood cast, and more actual story. The first two films had story – this film had sketches.

There is a lot of music in the film, as always with the Austin Powers films, but no psychedelic scene breaks. Both Austin and Dr. Evil get to perform musical numbers though. As does Foxxy, though hers is part of her cover at Goldmember’s club. However, whereas the music in the first two films was the original songs (“Secret Agent Man”, “Incense and Peppermints”, etc) in this film music is actually parodied (“What’s it all about, Algie” becomes “What’s it all about, Austin?” for example). Using original music worked better.

And, whereas the first two films had us sympathetic with Austin – but at times with Dr. Evil, Scott, Number Two, and even Fat Bastard — this film often seems out-and-out cruel. Goldmember has no redeeming values at all, and the peeling skin is way over the top. Fat Bastard does actually get another sympathetic scene (he is perfect as a Sumo wrestler) and at the very end is shown to have lost over 100 pounds from the Jerald Subway diet, but still… More plot and more character, and less brief sketches going nowhere would have helped the film immensely.

So why did I buy it? Well, I got the first two films in a two-pack, two films for $10.00, which is five dollars each, so I couldn’t pass it up. And I kept seeing Goldmember at bargain shelves for $5.00 and finally bought a copy, figuring, if nothing else, the little that Michael Caine is in this film makes it worth five bucks. I also really liked the “Singin’ in the Rain” parody that’s one of the five opening credit sequences – and, as I’ve said, the bit on English English.

Recommendation:  See it or not, depends on how much you like Austin Powers.
Rating:  3 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Back to the Future