‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Director J.A. Bayona Talks About Making ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona, or J.A. Bayona for short, made a name for himself in 2007 with the horror movie “The Orphanage.” It earned him the respect of his fellow Spaniard Guillermo Del Toro who helped produce the film, and it became a big box office hit worldwide. These days he is known for directing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” which is expected to be one of the biggest hits of the 2018 summer movie season.

Following “The Orphanage,” Bayona was offered a number of movies to direct including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but he was really interested in doing something far more challenging to take on. Bayona found the challenge he was looking for with “The Impossible,” a movie based on the true story of a family that survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. What Bayona accomplished showed him to have great skill in getting strong performances out of an incredibly gifted cast, and he staged a tsunami scene so horrific, it puts the one in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” to utter shame. The movie proves to be a cinematic experience as brilliant as it is gut wrenching to watch, and you won’t be able to ignore Bayona’s talent after you have seen it.

Bayona was at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Impossible” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California back in 2012, and I was fortunate enough to attend his roundtable interview. We all thanked him for making this film which we agreed was one of the very best of the year.

The Impossible movie poster

Question: This is a great movie. Did you realize the scope of it when you got involved? Did you realize how inspiring it would be to moviegoers in general?

J.A. Bayona: Well it was getting bigger and bigger as much as we were getting into it. The first impact we had when we heard Maria (Belon’s) story was very emotional, and we wanted to figure out where that emotion was coming from. Even though it is a tough story and we’re talking about a tragedy, the emotion was coming not from a dark place. It was something that was coming from the way these people gave to the other ones in the worst moment. So, I thought that was very powerful and it was a very beautiful idea of approaching that. But then you talk to Maria and you realize how much suffering there is still nowadays. They call it “survivor’s guilt” even though she doesn’t like to call it that. She will talk about survival suffering because she doesn’t feel guilty for anything she did, but it’s really that there is a lot of suffering. I thought that would be interesting to tell the story of this family going there and then going back home and not talking about a disaster in a compassionate way and where you only talk about whether you live or you die. There’s a lot of gray space in the middle. From the very first meeting that we had we agreed that this was not just the family story. It was the story of many people, but the whole ending talks about that; how do you go home to the real world when your real world disappears? I like to see the film tell the story about the end of innocence. They don’t feel the same anymore, they lose the sense of security and their life is not the same anymore.

Q: How big of a challenge was this movie for you?

JAB: Well of course there was a huge challenge in the technical aspects of the film, but for me that was exciting and I was not worried about that. The real challenge was how to portray the story of the people who were there and how to give the big picture of what went on there and being respectful of the time.

Q: How much the movie was real and how much what was done with CGI? The movie looks very real even though some of those effects were probably done digitally.

JAB: Well it had to be like that because the story was very simple in reality so it could look like a visual effects movie. It had to feel real all the time. We did a lot of things for real like practical shooting and practical effects, and we also used a lot of CGI for greeneries and digital composition. But the great thing is to always mix several techniques so there’s a moment where everything gets lost so the audience doesn’t know what they are watching.

Q: Was anything done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie or in trying to conserve resources?

JAB: Everything these days is now very regulated, so you have to be very respectful. For example, in shooting the water sequences in Spain the waters had to be darkened with a coloring used for food because that water had to be sent back again to the sea. Everything had to be natural. The water had to be decidedly desalinated before it got sent back to the sea.

Q: Did you think about shooting the movie in another country other than Spain, or was it always your intention to shoot there?

JAB: We did it in Spain because we found this huge water tank which is the second biggest in the world I think. So it was the perfect place to shoot all of the water sequences and once we finished with that we went to Thailand and we shot in the same places the tsunami took place in.

Q: The sound design in this movie is incredible, especially in the opening sequence. The screen is black but you already feel like you’re underwater. Can you tell us more about the sound design for this movie?

JAB: One of the things that I soon realized is that the characters didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening. Everything was so fast that we had to deal more with emotions and sensory details. I was intellectualizing the sequence a lot with the actors, but in the end in front of the camera everything had to be sensorial and about the emotions. Sound has a great role in the film, and I talked a lot with Maria about the sounds and she was telling me for example that the sounds of the wave reminded her of the engine of the plane. This is the moment where I had the idea of starting with the sound of the engine because the movie was already starting and finishing on a plane. The way the plane sounds at the beginning and at the end is completely different, and that sets the behavior of the characters of how they go to Thailand and how they came back from Thailand. The sound of the way was very interesting. It sounds wilder underwater than on the surface because that’s where the danger was with all the debris and all the things which were dangerous for the people who were in the water were underwater. Maria was telling the also about the bloody birds, and I said, “What do you mean by the bloody birds?” She told me, “Once the water receded and we were completely alone in the debris and the devastation I started listening to the birds singing like nothing had happened, and I hated them at that moment because nothing happened to them.” This gave me the idea of how nature goes back to normal and that puts the characters very close to reality at the time, so of course we played a lot with this sound and with the music. It’s very interesting to see how music plays a lot with things that the characters can find the words to explain. I remember the moment when Maria was being dragged by this old man, and she sent me a message that was four pages of all these things that she felt in that moment. And in that sequence you only have a man dragging a woman so I focused only on Naomi’s eyes and I put some small music in their going up slowly, and only with that Naomi’s performance and only with their eyes and seeing the connection between this woman and this man. Using some notes of music, I was able to try to create a thought provoking experience in the audience, and that deals a lot with the four pages that Maria sent me.

Q: When this project began it was intended to be a Spanish production with Spanish actors, but then it became this huge thing. When did you decide to make this change?

JAB: Well we wrote the script in Spanish and we soon realized that 80% of the dialogue was already in English because people had to talk in English to be understandable to each other. Also I didn’t want to put the accent on nationalities because I wanted to portray all the people on the same level. I wanted to portray all the people like people, no nationalities. So it felt natural to go to English-speaking actors because first of all to finance a movie like this you need important names, but most of all I never wanted to put an accent on nationalities. If you see the film, they never say where they are from. All the time they talk about going back home. I wanted them to be very universal like a wide canvas so you can project yourself in there.

“The Impossible” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, and “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters on June 22, 2018.

 

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‘Men in Black 3’ Has as Much Heart as it Does Laughs

Men in Black III poster

Ten years between sequels is almost too long for many franchises to remain relevant, but “Men in Black 3” proves to have been worth the wait. While it doesn’t quite reach the inventive heights of the original, it is easily better than the last movie which didn’t stay in the audiences’ collective consciousness for very long. This sequel has a good dose of humor, excellent casting, and is more emotional an experience than I could have expected it to be.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as MIB Agents J and K, and their relationship is as cantankerous as ever. This time they are pursuing an intergalactic criminal named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) who has just escaped from a prison on the moon and prefers to be called “just Boris.” But while in pursuit, Agent K suddenly disappears and no one seems to remember J having him as a partner. The new boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson), informs J that K has been dead for forty years, and she deduces from J’s refusal to believe, as well as his sudden thirst for chocolate milk, that there has been a fracture in the space time continuum. This leads J to discover how Boris traveled back in time and K in the year 1969. Upon being made aware of how time travel does exist, and has long since been rendered illegal, J ends up going back in time to save his partner and help him do what he should have done years ago, kill Boris.

Time travel has always been a tricky plot device in science fiction movies, and it hasn’t always been used well. However, it gives “Men in Black 3” an edge as we have come to know these characters over the course of a few films, the first which came out in 1997. Seeing Smith get transported back to 1969 gives the movie endless possibilities and story lines to follow, and director Barry Sonnenfeld explores as many of them as he can.

At 106 minutes long, “Men in Black 3” is the longest movie in this franchise and certainly feels like it too. The previous entries had a more economical running time and went by quickly, but this one takes its sweet time getting started as there is a good deal of exposition for Smith to go through before he travels back to the past. But once he does, this sequel really hits its stride as he gets to be a fish out of water in a time which was not always kind to African Americans.

Smith is still great fun to watch as Agent J, constantly improvising terrific one-liners as he explains to people why an enormous fish broke out of a Chinese restaurant (his explanation for this is classic). His boundless energy people know him best for is still very much intact as he deals with situations which, in any other case, would be completely unbelievable. But Smith is smart as he doesn’t play everything for laughs, and certain revelations about his character come to light which forever change his perception of the things he has been led to believe.

Agent K as a character has always presented Jones with a welcome opportunity to have fun with the straight-laced persona he is best known for in movies like “The Fugitive.” What’s great about his performance in this sequel is how he shows the deep sadness which lingers in those eyes of K’s even while his line delivery never betrays any sort of emotion. While his appearance in “Men in Black 3” proves to be a more of a cameo than anything else, his presence is always felt even when he is not onscreen.

But the best thing about “Men in Black 3” is Josh Brolin who gives an inspired performance as the younger version of Agent K. He nails all of Jones’ mannerisms perfectly and succeeds in making the character his own. Like Jones, Brolin gives off some of the most wonderfully dry expressions and reactions which have made this character so much fun to watch from one movie to the next.

Some of the newest members to the “Men in Black” franchise include Emma Thompson as Agent O who steps in as the leader of MIB after the death of Zed (Rip Torn who played the character in the two previous MIB movies). Thompson has a brilliant moment where she has to speak in a ridiculous sounding voice, and seeing her do it with a straight face is a wonderful reminder of how brilliant an actress she is.

Bill Hader from “Saturday Night Live” also shows up here as Andy Warhol who turns out to be another MIB agent and is tired of being all artistic and stuff. It’s a small role but Hader makes the most of it and is a delight to watch as always. Alice Eve is as delectable as can be as the younger version of Agent O, and she makes the audience want her to get it on with K just so he can loosen up.

As “Men in Black 3’s” main antagonist, Jermaine Clement (best known for “Flight of The Conchords”) is terrific as an inherently dangerous alien whose main flaw is taking his nickname of Boris the Animal a little too seriously. While he doesn’t quite compare to Vincent D’Onofrio’s bug alien from the first movie, he is easily an improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle’s character from “Men in Black II” which never left much of an aftertaste. Clement infuses Boris with a dark sense of humor which keeps him from becoming like any other alien the MIB Agents have fought previously.

Sonnenfeld fills the screen with a lot of visual gags which will make you want to see “Men in Black 3” more than once. The passing of time between sequels has given planet Earth a whole new set of aliens including Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. When it comes to going back to the 60’s, he never goes for the obvious gag. He also makes better use of man’s mission to the moon than Michael Bay ever did with “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”

But what makes this sequel work so well is how deep it gets into the relationship between Agents J and K to where the audience comes to realize how much of a part they play in each other’s lives. For fans who have watched Smith and Jones from the beginning, seeing their relationship get defined in a whole other way makes for an especially fulfilling cinematic experience. This is especially commendable for this movie as it was reported to have begun production without a completed screenplay.

“Men in Black 3” shouldn’t work as well as it does since it’s the third movie in a franchise as filmmakers at this point are usually out of fresh ideas of where to take the action. But while it might seem best relegated to the 1990’s where it started, there is still enough energy and creative work in this movie series to keep things going for another sequel. After watching this, a “Men in Black 4” does feel like a welcome possibility.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.

Exclusive Interview with Leslie Zemeckis about ‘Bound by Flesh’

Leslie Zemeckis headshot

With her documentary “Bound by Flesh,” Leslie Zemeckis has reopened a part of history many have either forgotten about or never knew about. It focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became stars in sideshows and were generally viewed as freaks of nature. Throughout their lives they were subjected to abuse by their handlers and kept out of public view in fear of losing their monetary value. But when they finally got their freedom, life became even worse for them as they didn’t know how to deal with the ways of show business, and they eventually lost everything and entered a life of poverty.

What’s great about Zemeckis’ documentary is how it forces you to look at the Hilton sisters as human beings as opposed to oddities to be gawked at. I got to talk with Zemeckis over the phone about “Bound by Flesh,” how she first became aware of Daisy and Violet, and of the research she did.

Bound By Flesh documentary poster

Ben Kenber: This is a fascinating documentary. I didn’t know about the Hilton sisters at all, and they suffered through quite a miserable existence. “Bound by Flesh” deals with them as “freaks,” but it also deals with them as human beings which I really liked. What they go through is not unusual for people who don’t know the ways of show business.

Leslie Zemeckis: Good, I like that.

BK: How did you first find out about the Hilton sisters?

LZ: When I was doing my first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q” about burlesque I had read someplace that they were in burlesque briefly, so that kind of intrigued me and I put a little bit about them in the first film. Then I read Dean Jensen’s biography about them (“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”), and just over time, while I was editing my other film, I kind of became obsessed by their story. But also taking into context of the time they lived and what the carnival was and what circus life and sideshows were, we don’t have that today. There’s really almost no animals even left in the circus, so we’re kind of bringing to light and exploring what that world was that they lived in.

BK: In regards to the historical footage that you were able to include in this documentary, how did you go about researching this subject?

LZ: Every which way I could. I did the research myself so that I’m familiar with the names and dates, and I knew that they were, in their day, photographed a lot. They were interviewed and they had done a lot of newsreels, so I actually went to a news real company in New York and I sorted through their files, and because I knew the names that they were involved with, I found some footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. It probably never would’ve (been discovered) because it doesn’t have their names on that little 3 x 5 index card. I found that within 10 minutes of searching.

BK: On the surface and outside the fact that they were conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet really looked like normal people and very innocent in a sense.

LZ: Well they were. It was a double-edged sword by them being so protected and kept away from other people that they were innocent. But then when they were out on their own they didn’t have the skills to deal with people or their career or money really, and that’s why they were taken so badly advantage of.

BK: You find yourself rooting for the twins to get freedom from their handlers, but once they do get their freedom they are thrust into a world they don’t have any control over. They are not prepared for it at all.

LZ: Yeah, it was a little bit of a curse maybe to get their freedom.

BK: I got a big kick out of the logos because they look like they came out of a schlocky B-movie from the 50’s. Who designed the logos?

LZ: Well it was my idea because they were in B-movies like “Chained for Life” and their story, when you talk about it, is so headline; kept in chains and held captive and all that. So I wanted to add an element of that for fun, but there really is a deep story behind it and my editor Evan Finn designed all that because he’s brilliant.

BK: Regarding the sound clips, were they created for this documentary or was it a combination of archival footage and actors redoing them?

LZ: It was actors redoing them, but that was their (the twins’) words. In both “Behind the Burly Q” and then this, I wanted the sisters to tell the story. I want people to tell their story instead of me imposing on it for the audience, so I used their words. I didn’t write those words. Those were what the sisters said.

BK: It definitely felt like their words. Who were the most fun or most informative to talk to when it comes to your interview subjects?

LZ: Well I just thought it was a little amusing that I had James Taylor and Phillip Morris (laughs). We would just laugh about it. I mean where else are you going to find “characters” like this? But they were all very charismatic, knew their history and I loved and loved talking to them and they loved it too. They loved that era, they loved the sideshow and they love the circus.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to for one reason or another?

LZ: No. I would’ve liked to of had more footage of them, but I am super happy with what I found. I wanted people to see their movement. I don’t believe there’s any footage of them performing live in vaudeville, but I was really pleased with what I did find.

BK: The Hilton sisters did appear in “Freaks” which is now considered a classic, but when it first came out it was treated as very controversial and off-putting. It’s interesting to see how people initially reacted to the movie when it was first released.

LZ: It’s a disturbing movie, but what’s funny is that the twins actually aren’t in it as much as you would think. But the film has value; it’s in the National Archives. It’s just a world that is no longer.

BK: Are there still any sideshows still performing today?

LZ: Not really. There’s so little “born freaks,” but to me I equate it, and it’s not PC of course to go stare at people, with watching reality TV. Everybody sits in their home and it’s okay to watch the Kardashians comment on their physicality, and I think we still have a form of the sideshow. It’s just changed to reality TV. All forms of entertainment just change. They stay but they change. We just now do it from our home.

BK: There’s something to be said for the twins living as long as they did because the lifespan of conjoined twins is not good.

LZ: Right and they were generally very healthy throughout their lives.

BK: The choice of music was interesting because some of it goes outside of the times the Hilton sisters went through. How did you go about choosing the music, or did you just leave that to your composer (Oliver Schnee)?

LZ: No, I don’t leave anything to anybody (laughs). It’s too much of my baby. I certainly didn’t compose it. He (Oliver Schnee) was brilliant, but I didn’t want it to feel like you’re just watching this period piece that has nothing to do with today. It’s still hip, they were hip, and I wanted the music to reflect that.

BK: Going back to the voice cues, those were done by Lea Thompson and Nancy Allen. How did you manage to get them involved in this documentary?

LZ: Well I knew them so I was familiar with their voices, and they both have a similar quality with each other which I felt would work with the sisters. They also have a very light, optimistic voice. I was so lucky to get them. They were similar enough that I thought they sounded like sisters.

 

A big thank you to Leslie for taking the time to talk with me about “Bound by Flesh” which opens us up to a part of history that has been forgotten for far too long. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

‘Flight’ is Not What I Expected it to Be

Flight movie poster

The advertisements for Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” are actually quite deceptive. It almost looks to be a mystery movie as we wonder if Denzel Washington’s character of Whip Whitaker was drunk or not when he crash-landed the commercial airplane he was flying. Whip ended up saving a lot of lives, but is the company which owns the airline he flies for trying to make him take the blame so they can reduce their loses? Looking at the commercials and trailers for “Flight,” it looked as if the film was being sold as a relatively easygoing cinematic affair. However, it turns to be something far more complex and ambiguous than what Hollywood is used to putting out.

“Flight” isn’t a mystery in the slightest, but instead a character study about a man who is overwhelmed by his addictions and has yet to be honest not only with others, but most of all with himself. From the start, we can see Captain Whip Whitaker is one messed up dude. Waking up in his hotel room after an evening tryst with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), we see him drink some beer, smoke a cigarette, and arguing with his ex-wife over their son’s school tuition while snorting some cocaine. All of this happens before he puts on his uniform and heads over to his plane to get ready for takeoff.

Whip clearly has no business flying an airplane under these conditions, but fly it he does. When a malfunction suddenly forces it into a vertical dive, he manages to roll the plane over to where he’s flying upside down, and he does so just long enough to stabilize the descent and land it in an open field. Next thing Whip knows, he is waking up in a hospital room only to discover the real nightmare for him is about to begin.

It says a lot about the star power of Washington and Zemeckis that they could get a movie like “Flight” made today. Made for only $30 million, far less than what it cost for Zemeckis to make “The Polar Express” or “A Christmas Carol,” this is more of a character driven drama from the 1970’s as it gives us a main character who is not particularly likable, and yet we are compelled to follow him all the way to the movie’s end.

What I loved about the screenplay by John Gatins is how it revels in the ambiguity of its characters and the situations they are stuck in. We know Whip was far from sober when flying the plane, and yet we cannot help but wonder if his heroic act can somehow excuse his personal sins. His lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, terrific as always), tells him how ten other pilots were placed in flight simulators which recreated the event, and of how they ended up killing everybody on board. But there is one big difference between Whip and all those pilots: they were all sober.

We can always count on Washington to give us some of the best performances in movies today, and his work in “Flight” is unsurprisingly superb. It’s also the riskiest role he has played in a long time as his character is far from likable and apparently determined to drive everyone who tries to reach him away. Heck, Detective Alonzo Harris from “Training Day” almost seems like a nicer person than Whip as Alonzo tried to have his partner killed, but we always find ourselves rooting for Washington no matter which character he plays, and he does an exceedingly brave job in uncovering this character’s wounded humanity for all of us to see.

I do have to say, however, how amazed I am at the enormous amount of alcohol Whip consumes throughout the movie. Any normal person would have likely experienced liver failure long before this story reaches its final act.

Much has been said about how this is Zemeckis’ first live action movie since the year 2000 when he made “Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath,” but people should really take note of how this is the first R-rated movie he has directed since “Used Cars” and that one came out in 1980. Having made so many films largely geared towards the whole family, it’s tempting to think he was no longer in a position to helm one with such complex characters and issues. But with “Flight,” Zemeckis does some of his most memorable work behind the camera in some time. There are moments where he paints some dramatic strokes broader than they need to be, but he never once shies away from the ambiguous nature and fascinating questions which Gatins’ screenplay elicits. He also does a brilliant job in one crucial scene involving a minibar in a hotel room, and the suspense of it had the audience I saw the movie with absolutely enthralled. And, of course, he stages a very frightening plane crash that tops the one he put together in “Cast Away.” Even from the safety of a movie theater, this sequence is truly harrowing to sit through, and its images hang over the rest of “Flight” like an ominous shadow.

Another superb performance comes from Kelly Reilly who plays Nicole Maggen, a former photographer trying to free herself from the throes of a nasty heroin habit. Reilly may be best remembered for her role in the deeply unsettling horror film “Eden Lake,” and her portrayal here feels very honest in how she presents an addict’s day to day struggle to stay clean.

There’s also a number of other terrific supporting performances to be found here from actors like John Goodman who looks to be channeling Jeff Bridges’ Dude character from “The Big Lebowski” for his role of Harling Mays. Goodman provides the movie with its much-needed scenes of comic support, and he proves to be as entertaining here as he was in “Argo.”

Bruce Greenwood, who increasingly lends the movies he appears in a strong integrity, is also really good as Whip’s longtime friend, Charlie Anderson. Also showing up in a small but pivotal role is the great Melissa Leo whose sweet voice can’t hide her relentless pursuit of the truth as FAA investigator Ellen Block.

I didn’t think I’d see another movie in 2012 other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” which offered an equal amount of complex characters in ambiguous situations. As a result, “Flight” turned out to be a big surprise for me as it challenges viewers in ways a strong dramatic film should. It offers us yet another great Denzel Washington performance, and it reminds us of what a terrific director Robert Zemeckis can be regardless of whether or not the characters in his films are computer generated.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is One of 2012’s Best Movies

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster

I always wonder about people who have been diagnosed with a psychological problem like bipolar disorder. Some of them have a tremendous zest and passion for life which makes me begin to wonder if it’s even fair to say they are sick. Everyone else gets so beaten up and run down by life to where it robs the smiles off their faces, and yet people like Pat Solitano, Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” seem so inspired by everything around them. Despite Pat’s problem, I came out of this movie desperately wanting to feel the way he feels as it seems like such a waste to become so infinitely numb to everything and anything in life.

Of course, Pat’s boundless zest for life has come at a huge price for him. “Silver Linings Playbook,” which comes to us from writer and director David O. Russell, starts off with Pat being released from a mental institution after being locked there for eight months. It turns out Pat was a former school teacher who went off the deep end one day upon coming home and finding his wife Nikki in the shower with another man. Pat did not take this well to put it mildly, and he went ballistic on the guy in a way no one will ever quickly forget.

Now that Pat’s been released, he is forced to move back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) as he has lost his home and job, and his wife has since moved away and filed a restraining order against him. Pat is determined to move his life forward in a positive direction and win Nikki back, but he is still troubled by the discovery he made all those months ago. It also doesn’t help that a certain Stevie Wonder song, the same one played at Pat’s and Nikki’s wedding, was playing on the stereo when Pat found his wife at home but not alone. The song acts as a terrible trigger for him, and you feel his excruciating pain whenever it starts playing near him.

Cooper is best known for his work in “The Hangover” movies, but this role really shows the kind of actor he is truly capable of being. Cooper makes you sympathize with Pat’s sincere intentions to be a better person even when he flies off the handle for unexpected reasons. Just watch him go ballistic after he finishes reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” From start to finish, Cooper is a dynamo as Pat, and you relish in the joy he gets from playing this character.

Cooper is also well matched with Jennifer Lawrence who provides a passionate and fiery turn as Tiffany. Now a widow after her husband passed away, Tiffany speaks her mind bluntly and without apology, and it is clear she is still coping with a devastating loss. Lawrence blew us away with her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” and her talent as an actress has never been in doubt since. She more than rises to the challenge presented to her in “Silver Linings Playbook” in creating a character who on the surface is not exactly pleasant, and yet she still lets us see the wounded humanity which Tiffany’s tough exterior cannot hide.

The film also features a number of terrific supporting performances as well. Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in a long time as Pat’s father who is as hopeful for his son’s recovery as he is for the Philadelphia Eagles to win every single football game they play. Jacki Weaver, best known for her Oscar nominated performance in “Animal Kingdom,” also lends strong support as Pat’s mom. There are also some inspired turns from John Ortiz as Ronnie and Anupam Kher as Dr. Patel, and even Julia Stiles shows up as Tiffany’s sister Veronica.

But one supporting performance which really stands out in “Silver Linings Playbook” is Chris Tucker’s as Danny, Pat’s friend who leaves the mental institution only to find he’s not really allowed to just yet. Not only is this the first movie Tucker’s done in a long time without “Rush Hour” in the title, but he also dials down his manic comic energy to give a surprisingly naturalistic performance. Tucker is a lot of fun to watch here, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast without ever upstaging anybody.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick, and it is the perfect fit for David O. Russell. His films, whether it’s “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter” or even “Three Kings,” deal with complicated characters who are trying to salvage what is left of their souls so they can move on to better things. This one is no different as Pat and Tiffany need each other to get past the traumas which have come to define their lives in the present. Russell presents their story in a way which never feels the least bit formulaic, and he never ever takes the easy way out with these characters.

What I’ve come to love about Russell’s movies is how they feel alive in a way most don’t. With “Silver Linings Playbook,” you are watching lives unfold in front of you, and it is directed to where you experience what’s happening instead of just watching it. Regardless of the problems these characters face here, there is something strangely positive and fulfilling in seeing them overcome all which is holding them back. It is also exhilarating to watch characters so filled with passion and a love for life, and this film is full of them. This is really one of the most entertaining and enjoyable movies I saw back in 2012.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity 4’ Sees the Franchise Running Out of Clever Ideas

Paranormal Activity 4 movie poster

With “Paranormal Activity 4,” the law of diminishing returns has finally caught up with this found footage franchise. Granted, all the films have revolved around the same old story of people taping themselves and their homes while they sleep so they can see what goes bump in the night, but this same old story has now become all too familiar for me. This sequel does have its moments, appealing characters and some clever twists, but the scares are a hell of a lot easier to spot this time around.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity 2 & 3” revolved around the events of the original film or came before them, “Paranormal Activity 4” marks the franchise’s first real sequel. Moving us forward to the year 2011, 5 years after the events in Parts 1 and 2, the story takes place in a small neighborhood in Nevada where the very pretty Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives with her parents, who are having marital difficulties, and her younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Alex appears to be pretty happy for a teenager, and she has a cool boyfriend in Ben (Matt Shively) with whom she confides in every night via webcam.

But, of course, things are destined to get weird as they always do in a “Paranormal Activity” movie, and the weirdness begins with the appearance of a young boy named Robbie (Brady Allen) who appears one night in Alex’s tree house. Robbie is the son of their neighbor who lives across the street, and his mother has just been hospitalized for some unknown reason. As a result, he is sent to stay over with Alex’s family until she recuperates. After that, it doesn’t take long for those ominous sounds and loud thumping noises to start haunting this suburban household.

With each “Paranormal Activity” movie, the filmmakers have managed to use different forms of technology to tell the story like video cameras and surveillance equipment. In this fourth movie, they use several: laptop computer cameras, Kinect, a MacBook, smart phones and a Canon XA10. The Kinect proves to be especially interesting as it uses some kind of scanning system which puts out these green lights to map the game player’s physical environment. Those same green lights end up capturing sights not easily visible to the human eye. There’s also the automated voice which keeps saying “FRONT DOOR OPEN.” When you hear that, you know things are going to get bad.

I really liked the way the younger characters were drawn out here. Kathryn Newton is especially appealing as her character of Alex shows a maturity her mother and father seriously lack. I also enjoyed Matt Shively’s performance as Ben, and not just because he shares the same first name as me. The boyfriends in these “Paranormal Activity” movies threaten to be seriously annoying at times, but Ben has just the right amount of cool to keep him interesting. Furthermore, Alex and Ben are wearing Beastie Boys and Metallica t-shirts, so you have to applaud their taste in music!

As for Alex’s parents, I spent most of this movie wanting to smack them in their faces. They are made out to be like some generic bickering couple, and they keep making foolish assumptions and decisions to where you just want to yell at them. When that chandelier comes crashing down in front of Alex (and I know I’m not spoiling anything because we’ve all seen this in the trailers), you’d think they would be a little more suspicious about this strange kid they let stay in their house. It’s like some demonic force has to come out of the ground and throw fireballs at this couple before they finally get the picture. This is nothing against Alexondra Lee and the late Stephen Dunham (who passed away from a heart attack in September 2012) as they do their best with the material they’re given, but the “Paranormal Activity” movies have succeeded in giving us characters who feel real, and these two feel like cardboard cutouts from other horror flicks.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who directed “Paranormal Activity 3,” return to helm this fourth entry. You can feel them struggling to keep the material fresh here, but the series is now becoming more formulaic than ever before, and things become frustratingly predictable as a result. They also rely on cheap scares too much this time around. This was a problem in the previous film as well, but here they just go overboard to a very annoying extent.

“Paranormal Activity 4” does get better as it goes along as things become more eerie, leading to a climax which feels predestined but still makes you jump out of your seat. There is a lot of mystery still left in this series as the whereabouts of Katie and Hunter remain hard to pin down, and this entry is not about to answer all the questions we have. As for the next “Paranormal Activity” movie, stay through the end credits and you will get a glimpse of what it may be.

But as of now, this franchise is running on fumes. The fact these “Paranormal Activity” movies have lasted this long is a testament to our collective fears of those weird sounds we hear late at night when all our electronic distractions have been turned off. However, “Paranormal Activity 4” proves to be a lot less viscerally frightening than its predecessors as we’ve become all too familiar with how these movies work. For the next one, Blumhouse Productions and Paramount Pictures really need to shake things up, and I don’t mean in the way they handle the “demand to see it first” crap. I can’t believe people are still buying that malarkey.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Caps Off a Perfect Batman Trilogy

The Dark Knight Rises poster

With “The Dark Knight Rises,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan has completed one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history. It is a thrilling spectacle with tremendous emotional power, and I came out of it not just fulfilled, but quite shaken. Regardless of whatever plot holes this movie may have, or if it has one too many characters to deal with, it is still as brilliant as its predecessors.

Now I’ll give you more or less a brief outline of “The Dark Knight Rises” without giving away major plot points. I know you all have been seriously pissed about reviewers ruining this movie for you like Homer Simpson ruined “The Empire Strikes Back” for a crowd waiting to see it outside a Springfield movie theater on “The Simpsons,” and I wouldn’t dare to do the same thing here.

Eight years have passed since Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) took the fall for Harvey Dent’s death in order to hide the murders he committed and let him remain a hero in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. Since then, Gotham has entered a time of peace and prosperity, all of which is based on a lie. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a brutal and methodical terrorist who plans to reduce Gotham to ashes slowly but surely. This brings Batman out of hiding, but he also has to deal with cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who catches him off guard, a beautiful corporate executive named Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and the idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose “hot head” ways make him much smarter than his fellow officers. So that’s it for the movie’s story.

Actually, to go into full detail over the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises” would take forever as it goes in various directions to where seeing it once is not enough to take everything in. Nolan has said part of his inspiration for this film was Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which is known for this famous quote:

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Now while this quote is never spoken in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it never needs to be. Nolan is fascinated with how the lie over Dent’s death has helped Gotham while at the same time turned it into a prison state where freedoms are eroded. It also parallels current events in the real world by taking into account the continuing gap between the rich and the poor and how people will go out of their way to manipulate the collective anger regarding it. This movie is a huge action spectacle, but it has a lot of things to say about the world we live in today which makes it all the more powerful.

Many have been calling this the “darkest” Batman movie of them all, as if the two which came before it were a sunny paradise in the realm of “Batman & Robin” (they most certainly were not). But while “The Dark Knight Rises” is indeed a dark vision of a city under siege, it also has a strong ray of hope emanating from it. Bruce Wayne has always wanted to hold Batman up as a symbol to inspire people, and you revel in seeing the impact he has on the characters around him.

People have also been saying Nolan has put far too many characters into this movie. Newsflash, Nolan has done this with each of his “Batman” movies, but what truly amazes me is how he has gotten away with doing so each time. Every single character in “The Dark Knight Rises,” from Matthew Modine’s bone-headed Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley to Ben Mendelsohn’s greedy businessman John Daggett, informs the movie’s main characters and overall themes throughout. Not a single one of them feels extraneous to the plot as each illustrates examples of justice and personal responsibility, and of how easily misconstrued they can end up being.

Christian Bale completes his tour of duty as Batman with a deeply felt performance. In many ways, “The Dark Knight Rises” is more about the rise of Bruce Wayne than anything else as he is forced to deal with who he is than what his alter ego can do. While Spider-Man and Superman are endowed with super powers, this movie renders him all the more vulnerably human as he starts off walking with a cane and dealing with injuries not easily healed. It’s those human flaws, however, which make Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne all the more powerful and enthralling.

With Bane, Nolan has fashioned a villain far different from Heath Ledger’s Joker which was a smart move. While the Joker was far more desirous of watching the world burn, Bane simply wants it to suffer right down to its dying breath. With Tom Hardy, Nolan has found the perfect actor to portray Bane as he brings to life the character’s twisted code of ethics and his utter brutality which allows him to batter his helpless opponents with sheer efficiency. Thanks to Hardy, Bane proves to be Batman’s most formidable foe yet.

As for Anne Hathaway, she is excellent as the character known as Catwoman but who is never actually called Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Her portrayal of Selina Kyle never invites easy comparison with the actresses who played her in the past as her version exists in the world of realism created by Nolan. Hathaway succeeds in giving this movie the feeling of exuberance and fun it needs from time to time, and she more than holds her own against Bale and Hardy. But then again, this should be no surprise to those who remember her Oscar nominated performance in “Rachel Getting Married.”

And, of course, you have the usual cast of supporting characters played by Sir Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman. All of them are fantastic as always, and they give this movie the emotional heft it calls for throughout. We also get a great bunch of franchise newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is sensational as the intelligent John Blake, and Marion Cotillard who radiates both beauty and mystery as Miranda Tate.

Technically, “The Dark Knight Rises” looks flawless with cinematographer Wally Pfister capturing the dark corruption consuming the citizens of Gotham which they are forced and inspired to rise out of. And with Hans Zimmer, minus James Newton Howard this time around, we get another rousing and thrilling music score which keeps our adrenaline pumping along with movie’s thrilling action set pieces.

Yes, the movie has some plot holes which I’m sure you will discover for yourself. None of them, however, were enough to derail my enjoyment of this awesome spectacle Nolan and company have put together. I’m not sure where I would rate this in the series, but while it doesn’t best “The Dark Knight,” it still comes very close to doing so and continues Nolan’s reign one of the best movie directors working today. I don’t think I am overreacting in the least when I declare “The Dark Knight Rises” to be a brilliant motion picture.

Oh yes, some will say that the movie’s final scenes seem to spell out a potential new direction for this franchise to take as if it were a set up for a sequel. I’d like to think it speaks to the influence Batman hoped to have on the citizens of Gotham, to inspire them to do good. Thanks to Nolan, Batman is a hero we can appreciate and applaud.

* * * * out of * * * *