‘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 * * * *

Tom Cruise Flys High Again in First Trailer for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

The thought of a “Top Gun” sequel was laughable years ago as Tom Cruise had little reason to do a sequel to any of his films. Seriously, it seemed as likely as him doing a sequel to “Cocktail” which, while a big hit at the box office, was not exactly a critical darling. But in recent years, any movie he stars in which doesn’t have “Mission: Impossible” in its title has failed to make much of a dent at the box office, and perhaps this is why he has chosen to finally revisit his superstar-making role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell 34 years after the original was released. Whatever the case, its first trailer honestly has me very excited for it.

From this trailer, we learn Maverick is still a Captain instead of a military general, meaning he is still unsafe and quite dangerous in the cockpit of an airplane. Whereas James Tolkan chewed him out in the original, another bald military general played by Ed Harris (give this man an Oscar already!) berates him for not allowing himself to get promoted. When we finally get our first look at Cruise here, it looks as though he hasn’t aged much since 1986, and he still has that shit-eating grin which drives everyone crazy in ways both good and bad.

What struck me most about this “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer was its flight scenes as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in “Oblivion,” makes us feel like we are in the cockpit with Maverick as he takes off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of an ocean. This reminded me of how exhilarating the flight sequences from the first “Top Gun” were, and this sequel looks to have even more of them.

From there, we get glimpses of characters such as Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of the late Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), and he looks to be as buff and as musical as Cruise, Edwards, Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich were in the original. Yes, there looks to be another volleyball game in store for us in which we discover how the men look without their t-shirts on.

We also see glimpses of Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest who is said to be a single mother and the owner of a bar. My guess is Kelly McGillis does not appear in this sequel as she seems determined to remain retired from acting.

Val Kilmer is also set to return as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, but we do not see him in this trailer. I read somewhere that his Iceman is now a Vice Admiral, and I’m guessing he will still be teasing Maverick about who is going to be whose wingman.

I am also gratified to know Harold Faltermeyer is back to score this sequel, and he will be doing so along with the great Hans Zimmer. You can hear Faltermeyer’s score throughout this trailer, and it is an immediate reminder of how much it drove the action and emotion of “Top Gun” back in 1986. I can already see myself buying the soundtrack to this sequel when it arrives in theaters in the summer of 2020. Heck, I might buy the soundtrack before this sequel is released.

That’s the other thing; “Top Gun: Maverick” is being released in 2020, exactly one year from now. I know Hollywood is always serious about securing release dates for movies way ahead of time, but showing us trailers for movies which will not be released for another 12 months seems unnecessarily torturous. Remember when we got the first trailer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions?” It got audiences excited as hell and yelling out with joy as soon as those green digits started descending from the top of the silver screen. This was back in 2002 when the trailer was shown before “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” and it ended with “2003” on the screen. As thrilled as we were with the continuation of “The Matrix” franchise, seeing the date of when the first sequel was to be released had us groaning in frustration all too loudly.

At least here, Paramount Pictures tells us “Top Gun: Maverick” will be coming out in 2020 in the middle of the trailer instead of at the end of it. After all these years, Hollywood has remembered they can tease audiences only so much before foolishly risking our wrath.

“Top Gun” may have received mixed reviews upon its release as the aerial footage proved to be more exciting than when the characters were on the ground, but damn it was an entertaining flick. A nice wave of nostalgia passed over me as I watched this first trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick,” and I patiently await its release next summer. And who knows, maybe Quentin Tarantino will come up with another memorable examination of how this sequel depicts a man’s continuing struggle with his homosexuality just as he did previously in “Sleep with Me.”

Please check out the trailer above.

Top Gun Maverick teaser poster

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is Astonishing, Glorious and Mesmerizing

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster

Many words come to mind when describing “Blade Runner 2049.” Among them are mesmerizing, amazing, glorious, beautiful, and astonishing. I put special emphasis on the word astonishing because it is almost unbelievable to see what director Denis Villeneuve and company got away with here. Not only have they conceived a sequel which does its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner,” proud, but they also got away with making an art house film with a budget of over $150 million and a running time of almost three hours. What were the studio executives thinking? Well, it doesn’t matter as this eagerly awaited sequel proves to be well worth the wait.

Taking place thirty years after the events of the original, the sequel introduces us to a new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, and he comes to be known by a pair of names for reasons best left unsaid here. After enduring a brutal battle as he attempts to retire rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he becomes aware of a long-buried secret which is overdue for a thorough investigation. In the process, he tracks down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been off the grid for many years as he seeks answers only Deckard can give. What results is a form of evolution no one could have seen coming.

Telling you more about “Blade Runner 2049” will prove to be detrimental to your viewing experience as you should only know so much about its plot before going into the theater. What I can tell you is the future world portrayed is even more beautifully bleak than the one Scott gave us 35 years ago, something I didn’t even think was remotely possible. The colors are vibrant, but everything is still subject to a never-ending rainstorm, the kind we needed in California for the longest time. And in this fictional universe, Pan Am is still a corporate giant even though it ceased operations in the real world back in 1991.

While I was bummed to learn Scott would not be directing this sequel (he serves as executive producer instead), they couldn’t have found a better filmmaker here to fill his shoes as Villeneuve takes on what must have been a truly daunting challenge here. “Blade Runner,” despite being a critical and commercial disappointment, has long since been considered one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and it certainly is. Making a sequel to it interested many including myself, and yet it could easily take away from the original as nothing easily compares to what came before. But Villeneuve is the same guy who gave us “Arrival,” another sci-fi masterpiece which invited and deserved comparison with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this gave me confidence he could bring something special to “Blade Runner 2049.” Indeed, he has made a sequel which will prove to be every bit as memorable as its predecessor as the years go by as he expands on the themes and delivers a cinematic experience which is equally profound.

Furthermore, Villeneuve allows things to go at the same methodical pace Scott went at back in 1982. If you go into “Blade Runner 2049” expecting something along the lines of “Star Wars,” you will be seriously disappointed as the original defied sci-fi conventions with a vengeance. What was unique about “Blade Runner” is how it enthralled audiences with big ideas more than with wall-to-wall action sequences. The same is true with “Blade Runner 2049” as it probes the idea of what it means to be human, and it deals with characters searching for something which doesn’t feel the least bit artificial in a world dominated by technology. For me, the key line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) tells Gosling’s blade runner, “We’re all just looking out for something real.” This is certainly the case here, but as we catch up with these characters, their chances of finding anything real seem very small.

By the way, if Roger Deakins does not get this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, I will be seriously miffed. For far too long, this man has been the Randy Newman of the cinematography category, and this feels criminal as has given us beautiful and extraordinary images in “Sicario,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” to where it is not easy to compare his work to others. Deakins, however, really outdoes himself here as he gives each scene in “Blade Runner 2049” a stunning look which shows both the beauty and the emptiness of the world these characters are forced to inhabit. What he has accomplished here is simply extraordinary as it all feels incredibly unique.

Gosling has long since proven to be as good an actor as he is a tremendously sexy one, and he is superb in a role which is very tricky to pull off. Again, I can only say so much about his character as it is too easy to spoil certain aspects of this movie, but once you understand who this blade runner is, it becomes clear as to the kind of balancing act Gosling has to play here. While life in the rainy and futuristic city seems to have burned this blade runner out completely, there are still glimpses of humanity to him which come out in a way which feels spontaneous and never forced. As a result, the “Drive” actor proves to be a genius at playing someone who is no longer certain as to how he should feel about the discoveries he has made.

Harrison Ford doesn’t show up as Deckard until the movie’s third act, but he makes it worth your time to wait for his first appearance. After watching him have tremendous fun playing Han Solo again in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s great to see him bring another of his iconic characters back to life. Ford makes Deckard into a burned out shell of a man who is forced to hide not just from those threatening his existence, but also from the things he yearns to connect with most of all, and he illustrates the character’s never ending internal conflict without ever having to spell everything out for the audience.

The rest of the cast is superb as they bring a unique quality to roles which have them acting in both human and inhuman ways. Robin Wright kicked ass earlier this year in “Wonder Woman,” and she does it again here as Gosling’s superior officer who is a no-nonsense Lieutenant and eager to keep a war from being ignited. Ana de Armas, whom you might remember from Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock,” is perfection as Joi, Gosling’s hologram girlfriend who is definitely even better than the real thing as she comes equipped with a humanity which strikes at your emotions. Sylvia Hoeks is riveting as Luv, a replicant who can appear charming at one moment and incredibly lethal in the next, and she makes this character vicious and frightening as she is determined to make discoveries before others do. Jared Leto and Dave Bautista have essentially cameos here, but they make the most of their time onscreen and show the depth they are willing to give to even the smallest of roles.

My only real disappointment with “Blade Runner 2049” is we will never get to hear the music score by Villeneuve’s regular composer, Johann Johannsson. For some odd reason, he was removed from this project and is contractually forbidden from talking about why he was let go. His score to “Sicario” is one of my favorites, and it would have been great to hear what themes he could have brought to this sequel.

Having said that, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the latter who recently did the music for “It,” is excellent as it captures the vibe of Vangelis’ score from the original without simply updating it for a new audience. It doesn’t even sound like the typical Hans Zimmer score as his music is usually pretty easy to recognize, although the last few cues do have a bit of “Dunkirk” in it. I feared “Blade Runner 2049” would get a more conventional score than the great one Vangelis composed years ago, but Zimmer and Wallfisch bring something wonderful, beautiful and thrilling to everything we see and listen to here.

The original “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, one of the greatest years for movies and one which many have called the year of the nerd. In addition to “Blade Runner,” we also got “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Tron” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” among many others. “Blade Runner” was not a commercial hit and critical reaction to it was sharply divided, but like “The Thing” and “Tron,” its stature has grown over time to where it is now revered as the great motion picture it always was.

“The Thing” and “Tron” managed to generate a prequel and a sequel more than 20 years later, but neither could equal the power of their predecessors. This makes the achievements of “Blade Runner 2049” all the more profound as it equals the original film and digs even deeper into its theme which Scott explored to brilliant effect. What Villeneuve and company have come up with here feels as unique in today’s cinematic landscape as “Blade Runner” did in the 1980’s. I had every reason to lower my expectations on this one as sequels which come out decades later are typically doomed to failure, but this one defies the odds and I am so thankful everything worked out so well. It may not have Rutger Hauer, but very few movies can ever be perfect.

And for God’s sake, give Deakins the Cinematography Oscar! No excuses!

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Inception’ May Be the End All of Mind-Bending Motion Pictures

Inception movie poster

“What the hell are dreams anyway?”

“Mysteries, incredible body hocus pocus; the truth is we still don’t know what they are or where they come from.”

                                        -from “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (the original)

“I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine

Anytime night or day

Only trouble is, gee whiz

I’m dreamin’ my life away”

                                    -from “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers

“It’s too bad that all these things

Can only happen in my dreams”

                                                -from “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison

My reaction upon seeing “Inception” was pretty much the same one I had after I saw Christopher Nolan’s last movie “The Dark Knight:” BRILLIANT!!! In a summer movie season which has been largely bland and seriously lacking in excitement, Nolan once again stimulates the imagination by giving us a very well thought out story with complex characters. This is all in addition to the slam bang entertainment we expect from a summer blockbuster, and Nolan delivers on both fronts. Seriously, this movie feels like a godsend in a time where studio executives are way too risk adverse. Even if “Inception” borrows from movies like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix,” Nolan still makes it all his own. I’ve already seen “Inception” twice in one week, and there is just as much to discover about it the second time around as much as the first.

Nolan has actually been working on this screenplay for over a decade, and it is an intricate puzzle of a flick which might seem difficult to follow, but not really. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dominic Cobb, a highly experienced dream infiltrator who works at extracting precious information from his targets. Basically, he steals ideas from his clients before they even realize it, and they are very valuable ideas which will put him and his crew on easy street for a time. Working with him is his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose job is to research the clients’ history and see if they have any mental defenses built up which could hinder their mission. As we first see them in “Inception,” they have seemingly failed a mission, but they soon find out it was actually an audition.

Their target, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman, offers a job which will have them doing the opposite of their job description. This brings us to the movie’s title which means planting an idea in the mind of their target’s subconscious. Although thought to be impossible, Cobb says it can be done because he has succeeded in doing it before. “Inception” then takes Cobb and his team on an adventure which will go into a dream, and then into another dream within that dream. Just when you think they couldn’t go any deeper, they do. It sounds confusing, but it was easier to follow than I thought. You want a tough movie to follow? Check out the first “Mission Impossible” movie which Brian DePalma directed. After all these years, I still can’t figure out what it was about (the stunts were cool though).

The concept of entering a person’s dream is fascinating because it gives the story infinite possibilities to explore, and all sorts of directions to take it in. Dreams themselves still fascinate us as we still have no clear idea what generates them. They can be very unpredictable and go from one place to another before we know it. Dreams could be our subconscious minds trying unburden itself of all the baggage we bury down into its recesses in the hopes of forgetting the most painful things in life. Looking back at the dreams I have had which have stayed with me, be it good or bad, they continually astonish me with their vividness and how our brains and imaginations can conjure up such amazing images as we slumber away in beds which are hopefully kind to your back. You’d think after all these years we would be able to be consciously aware of when we are in a dream and control it to our advantage, but no such luck. When you’re deep into one, the difference between what is real and what is not becomes irrelevant.

That’s the other thing I loved about “Inception;” you are always questioning whether you’re in a dream or wide awake. Even if you already know how the movie ends, it couldn’t possibly spoil the experience for you when you witness it. As in “Total Recall,” reality is always in question and open to interpretation, and it’s unlikely everyone will come to the same conclusion. I was also reminded of David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” which ended on a note of sheer ambiguity as the line between what’s real and what is not becomes permanently blurred. “Inception” all but starts out this way, and the theories behind the action and what’s really going on continue to abound. How cool it is to have a movie of this size and scope which really gets you to think!

For a moment, I thought DiCaprio was going to portray the same character he played in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Teddy Williams. Both characters have inescapable similarities; they are tortured by memories and actions they cannot repair, they are married to beautiful women whose current state of mind is in question, and they are both really moody guys who are not a barrel of laughs to be around. Oh yeah, both are also struggling with the reality of everything happening around them. I guess what Cobb has over Teddy is his grip on reality is much firmer, but even Cobb’s sanity comes into question throughout “Inception.”

DiCaprio continues to prove he is not only one of the very best actors working, but also one of the few stars who genuinely take risks. Not content with being forever imprisoned as a movie star, he nails the complexities of Cobb to where we see the various dimensions of his character. In essence, Cobb is a thief after the big score, and he shuts himself off to other people. But DiCaprio really gets at what is beneath his character’s guilt and shame, and he makes us want to join him in his dream exploits. For him, it is never about just making the character a likable one.

It’s also great to see Levitt here as well. Having been the indie darling for a few years, turning in one great performance after another, and he more than holds his own here. When everyone else is in a state of uncontrollable panic, Arthur always keeps his focus clear which allows him to stay on top of things. His method of preparing his team members for “the kick” in one dream is ingenious. Watching Levitt here almost makes me forget he was on “3rd Rock from The Sun” all those years ago.

Then you have the beautiful Marion Cotillard, plays Cobb’s late wife, Mal. While Mal may be short for Mallorie, in Latin it means “evil,” and she exists only within Cobb’s dreamscape as he has buried her deep in his memories. However, his control over her continues to erode as Mal continues to intrude in different dreams he has as she gets the upper hand and continually threatens to ruin anything and everything. Cotillard plays Mal with a cold detachment as well as a deeply wounded person who feels betrayed by her husband. As the movie goes on, you begin to wonder if she is truly dead or alive.

At first, having Ellen Page in this movie might seem weird as we all still identify her with her character from “Juno.” It’s been easy to forget what a wide range she can have as an actress, but this is not the case here as she acts as the guide for the audience in the world of dreams. Her character of Ariadne is the architect, the one who constructs the world of the dream which the team will enter into. She also acts as the conscience Cobb needs as he continues to be drawn by Mal into a state of limbo which he may never return from. As a result, Ariadne is the strongest, most objective and levelheaded in the group because she sees what consumes Cobb and how it can endanger everyone. She becomes the voice of reason Cobb must listen to if he hopes not to drown in his own guilt. It feels like it has been too long since I have seen Page in anything, and she once again proves to be another fantastic actress of her generation.

Tom Hardy, who plays the forger Eames, is fun to watch here as he approaches the role with a touch of irresistible sarcasm as he gleefully plays around with the other team members and their self-consuming seriousness. Eames gets an especially big kick in getting a rise out of Arthur who takes his work perhaps more seriously than most. Throughout the movie, Hardy’s presence proves to be one of the film’s most entertaining, and his star continues to rise.

Nolan also brings some of his “Dark Knight” cast members along for the dream ride including Sir Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy. Both are terrific in any role given to them, and the performances they both give in “Inception” are no exception. Another supporting actor worth noting here is Dileep Rao who plays Yusuf, the chemist who formulates the sedatives which put the group and the target under so they can complete their mission. I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with all the other actors whose names appear on the posters.

But the big surprise in “Inception” is the appearance of Tom Berenger, a well-known actor who has for far too long been relegated to the realm of straight to DVD movies. It’s so nice to see him here in something other than a “Sniper” sequel (how many have there been anyway?), and he hasn’t missed a step as an actor after all these years.

With movies like “Inception,” we have come to expect directors will spend more time on the visual element to where they inadvertently forget the other important ones like dialogue and acting. Having made several movies already, Nolan proves to be one of the best directors working today as he handles each part of a movie with the same amount of attention, something increasingly rare among filmmakers.

Nolan fills the movies with such inventive images as Arthur fights off armed men while the dream he is in is thrown out of balance as it spins him from the floor to the ceiling. Levitt really sells the scene by showing his character struggling to maintain control as he is forced to crawl over the place when gravity no longer works in his favor. Then there is the final scene, which I won’t dare to give away, but taking in the audience’s strong reaction showed just how successful Nolan was in holding us firmly within his grasp. I loved the inescapable ambiguity of the film’s conclusion and how it drove some audience members crazy.

Plus, Nolan once again employs Hans Zimmer to do the score, and what he brings us is not another rehash of the Caped Crusader’s music. Zimmer gives a strong score dominated by electronics, drums, and brass instruments which are primed to blow out the speakers at a theater near you. Capturing the scope of the visuals in “Inception” which are quite immense, Zimmer once again gives great power to Nolan’s amazing concepts which Warner Brothers was smart enough to let the director run wild with instead of just containing his imagination in fear of releasing something which might seem “uncommercial.”

In a sea of endless remakes, questionable reboots, and half-assed concepts which somehow got a green light from studio executives, “Inception” is a rare breed of film which is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. It also makes clear Nolan is a genius filmmaker who has set the bar high for summer tent pole movies just like he did with “The Dark Knight.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Dunkirk’ is Yet Another Brilliant Masterpiece from Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk movie poster

Dunkirk” is the first Christopher Nolan film since “Insomnia” where you see the movie’s title on the screen at the beginning instead of at the end. This surprised me as Nolan always seems determined to suck you right into the movie instead of having you think about its title until the screen fades to black. When it comes to “Dunkirk,” however, I imagine he wanted audiences to have this title firmly implanted in their brains as this particular World War II story is one of character and bravery in the face of such agonizing defeat.

The title refers to the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France where thousands of allied soldiers were trapped like sitting ducks as the German army closed in on them during the Battle of France. Now World War II has been a historical event which filmmakers have visited as often as they have the Vietnam War, but “Dunkirk” has a different angle than other films of its genre. There are no American troops to be found here, we never see Germans but feel them closing in on the allies throughout, and the allies are at a complete loss in terms of being able to fight back. What happened at Dunkirk was not at all about victory, but about survival, and sometimes surviving a war is all a solider needs to do.

Nolan, who also wrote “Dunkirk’s” screenplay, tells the movie from three different perspectives: the land, the sea, and the air. On land, we meet British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely escapes a German ambush and arrives at the beach of Dunkirk where he befriends Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another young soldier with whom he desperately tries to escape Dunkirk with on any boat that will take them. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sails his boat out to Dunkirk in an effort to bring stranded soldiers back home, and he is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) who is curious to see the war up close. And in the air, Royal Air Force Pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and two other Spitfire pilots battle enemy fighters in the sky who are determined to destroy any boat going away from Dunkirk. Everyone is busy as can be as they fight to keep their fellow allies out of harm’s way, and this is even though the situation is growing increasingly dire.

What’s fascinating is how Nolan ends up using very little dialogue throughout a good portion of the film. These characters are too shell-shocked to speak in full sentences after all they have been through, and Tommy and Gibson end up connecting in a way not only wordless but also totally believable. As “Dunkirk” goes on, more dialogue is featured, but Nolan has already managed to set up the atmosphere to where no one needs to say much because their faces and eyes say so much more than words ever could.

Watching all the soldiers on the beach, waiting for a boat, any boat, to take them, I was reminded of Tom Sizemore’s dialogue from “Saving Private Ryan” when he said, “I want plenty of feet between men. Five men is a juicy opportunity. One man is a waste of ammo.” These soldiers are stuck together in bunches, desperate to escape Dunkirk at the earliest opportunity. I felt horrible for them as they all just sitting ducks for German bombers who can pick them off ever so easily. All these soldiers can do, other than shoot back, is to play dead in the sand, but even this may not be enough to save them.

Much of the movie is focused on the endless ordeals of Tommy, Gibson, and another young soldier named Alex (Harry Styles) as they get on different boats to escape from Dunkirk. However, their successes are often thwarted by attacks which sink the ships they are on, and they soon find themselves in even worse situations. Like Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” these characters are caught up in unthinkable circumstances and are just trying to survive by any means. Many will consider them cowards for trying to flee, but considering the dire situation they are trapped in, it’s hard to hold much of a grudge against them.

With Mr. Dawson and his two young companions sailing out to sea, we see the need these men have to help those in harm’s way. While Dawson is supposed to give his ship over to ship over to the Navy as they are commandeering private boats to help in the Dunkirk evacuation, he simply sails off as he feels it is his duty to rescue as many soldiers as he can since it was his generation who decided to send young men out into the battlefield. As for the two boys, both want to do something noteworthy in this war instead of just staying on the sidelines. In wartime, it doesn’t matter if you are a soldier or not because everyone is involved in one way or another.

For me, the moments in the air were among the most fascinating, and not just because of Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography. Once those pilots and their planes came up on the screen, I figured it would all play into the clichés of war movies or be something like “Top Gun” with characters infinitely eager to be seen as heroes and taking giddy pleasure in shooting the enemy down. But this is not the case in “Dunkirk” as these pilots are simply men doing their job without any fanfare, and they are well aware of the risks and of what could happen if the enemy wins. Farrier, in particular, has even a bigger risk to consider as his fuel gauge is cracked to where he can’t tell how much fuel he has left. He should turn back, but with the allies having little to defend themselves with, his concern for their well-being overrules any thoughts he has for his own safety.

With these three divergent plot points, Nolan has the Dunkirk evacuation surrounded brilliantly. This is not a story about victory in the slightest, but instead one of character and of what people will do in a most precarious situation. Some stand around as others suffer helplessly because they can’t save them, others are desperate to escape by any means as the miracle they pray for doesn’t look to be delivered to them any time soon, and there are those who sail out to the most dangerous place not because they want to, but because they have to. Like I said, “Dunkirk” is a movie about the character of a person and how that character is tested in wartime.

Nolan also ratchets up the intensity throughout as the situation these characters are in becomes increasingly dire as the Germans close in on them. This is especially the case when Tommy, Alex and Gibson join a group of Scottish soldiers who have discovered an abandoned boat in the intertidal zone which they plan to use for their escape when the tide rises. The Germans, however, have already begin using it for target practice, and the holes they put in the boat soon have water coming through them. To stay on the sinking ship is suicide as they will certainly drown, but to go out into the open is no different as they will be shot once they are out in the open. But Nolan squeezes even more intensity out of this scene as it is suddenly revealed one of the soldiers on board might be a German spy, and it becomes a question of not who will survive, but who will die first.

There’s not a weak performance to be found here as every single actor in “Dunkirk” brings their A game to the table. Mark Rylance remains an impeccable actor, and he makes Mr. Dawson into a man determined to do his national duty not just out of necessity, but out of guilt as well. I’m not familiar with Fionn Whitehead, but his work here is exemplary as he doesn’t have much dialogue and instead has to spend most of his performance showing the turmoil Tommy endures through his eyes and actions. Cillian Murphy also gives a strong supporting turn as a soldier who has seen the worst war has to offer, and it becomes clear he will never again be the man he once was. Harry Styles, whom many thought would stand out like a sore thumb, fits perfectly into this ensemble of actors without ever overshadowing them. Even the great Kenneth Branagh shows up as Commander Bolton who oversees the evacuation of soldiers, and the moment where his eyes water up at the sight of those private boats sailing towards the soldiers is a moment of beauty as I wanted to cry with him. To quote the movie’s tagline, these soldiers couldn’t get home, so home came for them.

But one performance I want to point out in particular is Tom Hardy’s as Farrier. Watching the actor here reminded me of his work in “Locke” as, like the character in that movie, Farrier spends the majority of the time in a moving vehicle with only his fellow pilots and his own sense of duty to keep him company. Not once does Hardy try to portray Farrier as some hotshot pilot like Maverick in “Top Gun” or Captain Steve Hiller in “Independence Day,” but instead as a soldier like any other. Even with his face covered by an oxygen mask, Hardy deftly shows the stoicism and determination of his character as he continues to battle his foes in the sky even as his gasoline supply continues to dwindle, and he makes Farrier into the hero this movie very much deserves.

Another big character in “Dunkirk” is the music of Nolan’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The German film composer has given us some of the most thrilling music scores of the past couple of decades, and his music here helps to make an intense motion picture experience even more intense than it already is. It essentially acts as a ticking clock, reminding the audience of how time is running out for the allied soldiers as the German forces get closer and closer to their location. Even in its more hopeful moments, Zimmer provides ominous sounds reminding us how the danger is always around the corner, ready to strike without much warning. When Zimmer’s music breaks into a cue scoring the arrival of boats to take the soldiers home, I could help but let out a sigh of relief as he finally had a reason to slow things down a bit and revel in the heroics of those who came to rescue the stranded men.

Does “Dunkirk” stand as one of the greatest war movies, let alone World War II movies, ever made? You bet. Nolan continues to give us one brilliant cinematic masterpiece after another, and whether or not you think this film is his best, it is certainly the most important he has made to date. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is one the British people were raised on, and the world needs to be reminded again of how important a story this is. On one hand it is a story about military defeat, but it is also about a nation’s character and of how citizens stood up in the face of disaster to help those trapped. All the characters featured here endure different fates, but what they endure says more about them than words ever can. And the movie also reminds us sometimes all you need to do in a war is survive. You may come out of a war not feeling like the hero everyone makes you out to be, but surviving really is more than enough. At the very least, it gives you a reason to carry the story on to the next generation so the sacrifices made by so many will never be lost in the backroom of history.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Interstellar’ Takes Us on an Outer Space Journey Like Few Others Can

Interstellar movie poster

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a film which demands to be seen on the biggest screen nearest you. Like “Gravity,” seeing at home on television will not have the same effect as seeing it in a darkened theater, and that’s even if certain people around you forget to turn off their cell phones (doesn’t anyone ever learn?). Whether or not you think “Interstellar” is Nolan’s best film, you can certainly say it is his riskiest and most ambitious to date as he combines elements from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Phillip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” and even Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” to make a most enthralling space adventure for us to experience.

“Interstellar” takes place in a not too distant future when Earth is unable to sustain humanity as crops are constantly ravaged by blight, dust storms keep laying waste to towns everywhere, and teachers have changed school textbooks to make children believe the Apollo moon landings were faked (blasphemy). In the middle of all this is farmer, widower, and retired astronaut Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who spends his days tending to his farm and raising his son and daughter with the help of his father-in-law Donald (the always dependable John Lithgow). Cooper keeps going about his business but still takes the time to indulge his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in her curiosities about outer space and the ghost she believes is haunting her bedroom.

One of those curiosities ends up leading Cooper and Murph to a secret NASA space installation out in the middle of nowhere where they meet Professor Brand (Sir Michael Caine) who informs them humanity will not survive for much longer. However, scientists have discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn, and this presents the possibility of new planets for humans to inhabit. Cooper volunteers to pilot the experimental space shuttle Endurance into the wormhole, and he is joined by a crew of three as well as a couple of multi-purpose robots on a mission which will take several years to complete. But the mission also means Cooper must leave his family behind, and this ultimately devastates Murph who begs him not to go. Cooper promises Murph he will return once the mission is complete, but this may be a promise he might not be able to keep.

I don’t want to reveal much else of what happens in “Interstellar” as it is full of surprises, and it helps to come into this movie free of expectations and knowing only so much about it. We all love his “Dark Knight” films and have been following his work ever since he made his breakthrough with “Memento,” but this is really Nolan at his most emotionally open and, dare I say, sentimental. Almost nothing he has made previously compares to what he has given us here.

The movie does take a while to achieve liftoff (pun intended), and I know many have complained about the “sluggish” pacing in the first half. The way I see it, I admired how Nolan took his time with the story as many other filmmakers would have been pushing to get into outer space a lot sooner. These days we are in such a hurry to get everywhere and nowhere, and cable channels like IFC are content to speed through the end credits of a movie as if none of the hundreds of crew members who worked on it ever mattered. It’s nice we get to know these characters to where they have enough depth which makes us want to follow them on their journey to where no one has gone before.

I also liked how “Interstellar” deals with real science and doesn’t go out of its way to heedlessly disregard the laws of physics and gravity. Granted, there’s a lot of technobabble dialogue here which is at times hard to decipher and makes certain scenes a little confusing, but considering how much work Nolan and his fellow collaborators (which includes noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) put into researching space travel, this movie does have the feeling of plausibility throughout. We still may be years away from the kind of space travel presented here, but Nolan and company make you believe it will become a reality at some point.

Along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan captures some exceptionally beautiful images as Cooper and company seek out new life and new civilizations. Some of the shots are bound to remind viewers of “2001,” and Kubrick’s classic film is certainly a huge influence on the story. Still, Nolan takes us on a journey which feels surprisingly unique to others captured on celluloid recently and previously.

At this point, it should go without saying that McConaughey is on a roll. When he first made his breakthrough in “A Time to Kill,” many were heralding him as the next Paul Newman when they should have just let him be Matthew McConaughey. This led him to star in a number of dopey romantic comedies which were far beneath him and his fellow co-stars, and many quickly lost faith in him. However, the last few years have seen him turn in one remarkable performance after another in “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His work in “Interstellar” is remarkable and heart wrenching as he watches videos of his children who are growing up without him, and he grieves over the things he has missed out on.

Anne Hathaway, who previously worked with Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises,” turns in a strong performance as Amelia (as in Earhart?) Brand, an astronaut and scientist whose heart threatens to get in the way of her duties as a scientist when hard choices have to be made. David Gyasi is also very good as physicist Romilly, and time proves to be a real burden for him throughout the movie. As for Wes Bentley who plays geographer Doyle, he is underutilized here as he has little to do other than spout off a lot of technobabble, and his character never gets much in the way of development.

But one of the best performances to be found in “Interstellar” comes from Jessica Chastain who plays the older version of Murph. Still resentful of her father for leaving, she channels her anger into her own work with NASA as she works with Professor Brand to bring him back. Even as the film threatens to be a little ridiculous with answers that may have been better left to the imagination, Chastain keeps you hooked into her character’s quiet desperation to find her father and save the world to where you are begging for these two to reunite sooner than later.

Another collaborator of Nolan’s who really challenges himself here is composer Hans Zimmer who has given us some of the most exciting music scores in the last few years. With “Interstellar,” Zimmer abandons the usual thrilling bombast of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for something more spiritual and Phillip Glass-sounding. His music acts as a requiem for the wonders and perils of voyaging through space and of the solitude humans are forced to endure when stuck in another galaxy. You can usually notice the Zimmer sound in each film score he does, but his work here sounds so remarkably different from what he has done in the past.

This movie does have its flaws, and there are moments towards the end which strain credibility to where things threaten to become laughable, but its strengths eventually overcome its weaknesses by a large measure. Just when it looks like the plot will go off the rails in an M. Night Shyamalan way, it doesn’t, and it speaks to how deeply Nolan feels about the story and what it implies.

In the end, “Interstellar” is not another science fiction movie about astronauts looking for little green men (it would have been a disaster if it did). It’s about the power of love and how it can transcend both time and space no matter where you are. Regardless of the laws of physics and gravity, love carries on from one galaxy to the next and can never be easily conquered. I came out of this movie happy to know that, even in the deep, dark and silent void of outer space, love can remain constant.

For the record, I saw “Interstellar” at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in IMAX 70mm. I am more than convinced this is the best way to see it, and it also represents one of the last chances for all of us to see a movie projected on film. I’m sure it looks great in digital, but film still works best for Nolan.

* * * * out of * * * *