‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Track 29’ is Bizarre and Compelling From Start to Finish

Track 29 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written around the time this movie was to be released on DVD by Image Entertainment back in 2012.

Track 29” is one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in a long time, but that’s probably because I am not very familiar with the work of director Nicolas Roeg. This is only the second movie of his I have seen, the last being “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and it helps to understand his filmmaking method before watching his work. Roeg’s movies are known for their kaleidoscope of images which are typically presented out of chronological order, and it’s left up to the viewer to make sense out of all the craziness they have just witnessed. Learning this helped me understand “Track 29” better as it is one of those WTF movies which willfully defy easy categorization.

This movie came out in 1988, and its DVD release coincides with Gary Oldman’s first ever Oscar nomination for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Oldman stars as a British orphan named Martin who has arrived in America to look for his mother. Upon meeting bored housewife Linda Henry (Theresa Russell), Martin is convinced she is his mom and tries to form the bond he has forever longed to have with her. But as the story continues, we wonder if Martin is real or if he’s just a figment of Linda’s imagination as his arrival coincides with her remembering the child she gave up for adoption years before.

The real pleasure of watching “Track 29” today is to witness Oldman at his manic best as he is a firecracker always on the verge of going off. The actor did this movie not long after he received critical raves for “Sid & Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears,” and watching all three movies together makes one wonder where he gets all his crazy energy from. Putting this in comparison to the more subdued work he does today as George Smiley or Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies makes one realize how amazingly far his range as an actor goes, and it makes me appreciate his work more than ever before.

Theresa Russell, who remains one of cinema’s most underrated actresses, is equally good as Linda even as she appears to be going over the top from one scene to the next. Throughout “Track 29,” Russell gives her role a strong conviction as she comes to grips with a traumatic moment in her life and a passionless marriage which has gotten to where she knows exactly what will come out of her husband’s mouth before he says it. Actors can look utterly ridiculous when they fall into the trap of playing the clichéd drunk or just running the gamut of emotions, but Russell holds your focus from beginning to end. She has always been one to take risks with each role she takes on, and this one is no exception.

Among the other actors to be found here is Christopher Lloyd who plays a role I never thought I’d see him in: the boring husband. From his roles in “Back to The Future” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” I’ve come to see Lloyd as anything but boring. But here he is amazingly bland as he takes more interest in his toy train set, which collectors of such things will be slobbering over once they see what he’s put together, than he does in his wife’s problems. Whether his character of Dr. Henry Henry (a rather unfortunate name) is having an affair with Nurse Stein (Sandra Bernhard) or making a passionate speech to the obsessive train car collectors of North Carolina, Lloyd inhabits this character fully and reminds you of what a great actor he can be.

Other excellent performances to be found in “Track 29” come from Colleen Camp as Linda’s friend Arlanda who reacts to her problems with utter bafflement, Sandra Bernhard who gets to indulge gleefully in her character’s brand of S&M, and the great Seymour Cassel as Henry’s boss Dr. Bernard Fairmont who reacts to his colleague’s bizarre behaviors with disdain and utter hilarity.

Roeg gives this movie many unforgettable images which come to illustrate the missing passion and meaning in these characters’ lives as well as the sheer violence hiding just below the surface. Watching it reminded me of “Revolutionary Road” and how Kate Winslet’s character was ever so desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere of suburbia, but this story is given a more surrealistic quality as Oldman’s character descends into the mindset of a child who, when let loose, destroys things without a care in the world. Everything seems to act as an allusion to Linda’s unconscious desire to destroy the world she inhabits as it becomes her only way to escape it.

Image Entertainment released the DVD version of “Track 29” recently, and this is the best it has probably ever looked. As for extras and special features, this disc is frustratingly scant in those departments. It would have been nice to have a commentary track or at least some interviews with the director and cast to see how they went about making this bizarre motion picture and what their reactions were to it. The only real extras to speak of are a couple of trailers which precede the movie, and they are for the cult classic “Withnail & I,” Neil Jordan’s “Mona Lisa,” and “The Long Good Friday” starring Bob Hoskins. Coincidentally, these are three movies I still need to see.

Despite the lack of special features, “Track 29” is definitely worth a rental for fans of Oldman and to see him at his most emotionally unhinged in a motion picture. It may not reach the critical heights of Roeg’s other works like “Walkabout,” but it’s definitely for those who love films which defy conventional film narration. Lord knows we need movies like these every once in a while as things can’t stay the same forever.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * 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 * * * * 

‘Batman Begins’ Revisited

Batman Begins poster

Before “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out and thought it was very good, but I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But now having watched it again, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.

The real difference here is, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time around and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this iconic role his own.

We first see Bruce as an 8-year-old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. From there, the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.

Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully explored how Bruce became this crime fighter, and this proved to be a positive and a negative. While it made Michael Keaton’s portrayal more intriguing, it also made his Bruce Wayne/Batman a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how Bruce developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of him throughout.

Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.

When it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with them as they take too much time to set up a character, and they can simply feel like a commercial for the sequel we know will eventually follow. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. But I never felt this way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Bruce become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character you want to keep on watching.

In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes. There’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known by his alter ego of The Scarecrow. Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat here as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, best known for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him truly is.

Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is how the good guys prove to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought this would be the case in a “Batman” movie?

Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way only Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, the role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky as he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.

Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in cinematic history, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again this may show how our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here he can do just this by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.

As Henri Ducard, Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character not in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way their relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her in this movie. The general feeling at the time was that Holmes was miscast in the role, and many thought she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney. Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise gave me a new respect for her I didn’t have previously. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.

As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors you can never go wrong with. Caine gives Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.

Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where he should have too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story, and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.

Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone were the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and in their place we got a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce, after all, is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.

“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, gave this DC Comics character the respect which eluded him on a cinematic level for far too long. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing the character back to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and this movie marked the start of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.

Bring on the Bat!

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is an Infinitely Worthy Sequel

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie poster

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds? Our souls? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages, put its own kind in cages.”

-Augustus Hill

“Oz”

This quote from one of my favorite, and most unsettling, television shows of the 1990’s kept reverberating through my mind as I watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the surprisingly well-received “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Animals do operate by their own set of rules and are not governed by the same ones we follow on a regular basis. But what if animals evolved to where they could cage us? Would they really be any different from us? Every creature on this planet yearns for independence from others, but what cost are we all willing to pay for it? This is one of the many questions this movie asks its viewers, and it’s particularly noteworthy to see in a summer movie with a very large budget.

“Dawn” takes place ten years after the events of “Rise,” and the world has changed in a highly dramatic fashion. Much of human civilization has been wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus which Gen-Sys created in the hopes of curing Alzheimer’s disease, and the apes are now the dominant species on Earth. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes, and we see them in their natural habitat working to survive in a hostile world and educating their young. It’s been a very long time since any of them have seen a human, but this changes when they run into Carver (Kirk Acevedo), an ape hating human who makes the mistake of shooting one of them.

From there, we come to see there are still many human beings who have not succumbed to the virus, and among them is Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who is determined to reach out to the apes in a peaceful manner. The humans are running low on power and need to gain access to a hydroelectric dam which is in the apes’ territory. Of course, this requires a lot of trust between the different species for this to happen, and neither one is prepared to make it easy for the other.

With Serkis returning as Caesar, all eyes are on him as he was brilliant in “Rise,” and he knocks it out of the park once again in “Dawn.” Time has hardened Caesar and his trust in humans has almost completely disappeared, and his days are spent protecting his fellow apes and keeping them in line. Yes, all the apes you see here are CGI-created, but the great thing about actors like Serkis is, after a while, they make you forget about how you’re looking at a visual effect. Serkis invests Caesar with such a raw emotional power to where you can’t help but feel for him when things go horribly wrong. Even when Caesar speaks, and it was a shock to hear him say “no” in the previous film, Serkis makes the character’s struggles all the more palpable to where you root for him to ease the divisions between humans and apes.

But what makes “Dawn” especially effective is, like the best science fiction stories, it reflects the struggles of the world today. The conflicts between the humans and apes could easily be compared to those between Israel and Palestine, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor and perhaps even between Star Wars and Star Trek fans (let’s not leave anyone out here). Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and “Let Me In”) mines this material for all the emotional depth it has, and none of the characters, human or otherwise, can be boiled down to a one-dimensional cliché. If they can just get past their perceived differences, the world can become a peaceful place for them to live in.

Also, “Dawn” gets at the unavoidable truth of how the greatest threat to a group doesn’t come from its enemy, but instead from within. Caesar’s second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), can’t get himself to make peace with all the cruel animal testing he was forced to endure before the virus laid waste to the planet. And on the human side, you have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the remaining human survivors who is determined to protect them no matter what. There will always be change and there will always be resistance to change, and Koba and Dreyfus represent the greatest threat to any change which can occur. If they could see that their differences are only skin deep, then maybe there would be a chance but, as Peter Gabriel said, fear is the mother of violence.

Now a lot of people have said the human element in “Dawn” is lacking, but I’m not sure about that. Granted, the CGI creation of the apes is amazing to look at and the actors who inhabit them deserve more recognition than they will probably get when awards season comes around, but “Dawn” has a good human cast as well. Jason Clarke, so good in “Zero Dark Thirty,” proves to be a human worth rooting for as Malcolm, a man who has shared about the same number of loses as Caesar has. Keri Russell, who is currently kicking ass on “The Americans,” reminds us of how lovely she can be playing such a tough woman devoted to her loves in her life as well as in science and facts. Oldman, who can be prone to overacting in movies like this, is fun to watch here as he gives us a character who is not quite a bad guy but not necessarily a good one either. It’s also great to see Kirk Acevedo, so great as Alvarez on the HBO series “Oz,” here as Carver, a former water worker who has trouble getting past his fear and misunderstanding of apes.

The rebooting of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was not exactly met with open arms, and this was especially the case after we witnessed Tim Burton’s incredibly disappointing remake. But ever since “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this franchise has proven to be one to look forward to. Our expectations for it remain in check, and things get even better this time around with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Even if this movie ends on a note of despair over what could have been, there is still an inkling of hope as we look into Caesar’s eyes. For once, we get the feeling all of humanity might actually learn from its mistake, and maybe the apes can too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *