‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Proves to Be a Powerful and Worthy Sequel

Sicario Day of the Soldado movie poster

Sicario” was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I have had in the past few years, and it was one of the best movies of 2015. When I heard a sequel was being made, I was excited but also a bit reserved as I soon learned Emily Blunt, Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and the late Johann Johannsson would not be returning for it. Sure, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan were back for another round, but would this be enough? Sequels at times have an immense power to sully their predecessors in an unforgivable way, and I was praying this one would not be a mere cash in.

Well, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (soldado is Spanish for soldier) doesn’t quite equal the brute force and honesty of its predecessor, but it does prove to be a very strong sequel. It also turns out there was a good reason to continue the stories of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Whereas “Sicario” was about the militarization of the police, this sequel removes the policing aspect from it to reveal an even darker and more cynical take on the war on drugs and illegal immigration.

“Soldado” gets off to a brutal start as we watch three men enter a grocery store in Kansas City and blow themselves up. The way this scene is set up quickly reminded me of the take no prisoners attitude Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” and this is made even clearer when one suicide bomber looks to spare a mother and child from certain death, and then does not. Like the original, “Soldado” is not about to offer its audience an easy way out of the harsh reality it presents here.

To combat this terrorism, which Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) defines as “violence used to achieve a political goal,” the United States government gives Graver permission to use extreme measures in combating the Mexican cartels as they are believed to have smuggled Islamic terrorists across the U.S./Mexican border. Graver makes it clear he will need to get “dirty” in order to achieve the goals laid out to him, and considering what we have seen Graver pull off previously, we know things will get dirtier than ever. Seeing Riley tell Graver “dirty is exactly why you are here” makes this scene more chilling as it shows how complicit the U.S. government is prepared to be in bending the rules, and we also know they will be quick to deny any culpability just like the IMF does in “Mission: Impossible.”

Graver decides the best course of action is to start a war between the two drug cartels, and this involves the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the cartel’s kingpins. To pull this off, Graver enlists the sicario (Spanish for hitman) Alejandro Gillick, who still hungers for revenge against those who murdered his family. The way these two handle this kidnapping is insidiously clever as they make Isabela believe they did not abduct her in an effort to mess with her head and keep the cartels fighting amongst themselves. Of course, the best laid plans are usually thwarted at the most unexpected moment.

I first off have to say how glad I am to see Del Toro and Brolin back for this sequel. Both actors have cracked and weathered faces which help to do a good portion of the acting for them as their characters have endured endless moral crises which more than shows on the surface of their skin. While many actors are desperate to look younger than their actual age, it’s a nice to see a pair who are not afraid to show the lines in their face. Besides, does it make sense to cast baby-faced models as characters who have seen more than they should in a lifetime? I think not.

In “Sicario,” we were reminded of how brilliant an actor Del Toro can be as he made Alejandro Gillick into a complex character whose soul is deeply wounded, but who still seeks vengeance on those who wronged him. Never does Del Toro have to raise his voice to show the power Alejandro has over others, and seeing him fire a dozen bullets into a cartel lawyer is a fascinating sight as he may seem calm on the surface, but there is still a seething rage which cannot be contained. Besides, when it comes to revenge, one bullet is never enough.

With Brolin, we know he can portray Matt Graver in a way few other actors can as his character interrogates suspects almost effortlessly and carries out secret missions with surgical precision. The Oscar-nominated actor continues to play Graver as a man who has long accepted the fact he has become a lot like the enemies he hunts down, and it marks another great performance from him in a year which has seen him dominate the screen in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.”

What I found especially fascinating about “Soldado” is how it examines a particular moral conundrum both Matt and Alejandro find themselves in. When their mission suddenly goes awry, the U.S. government cancels it and orders them ro erase all proof of their involvement in Mexican internal affairs. Of course, this also means assasinating Isabela Reyes, but while Matt is intent on cleaning up the mess he and his team have been caught up in, Alejandro is not about to murder her. Having seen many, many movies throughout my life, I have long since become familiar with the characters in them who are determined to do the right thing and yet end up paying a high price for this as their sins have yet to be paid off. Knowing this makes “Soldado” even more intense as I began to wonder how these characters would suffer before they would be freed from the damage they have wrought.

Speaking of Isabela, I was really impressed with the performance of Isabela Moner who makes this drug kingpin daughter a tough cookie right from the start. When we first meet her, she is fighting a fellow classmate and leaves her bloody and bruised. During a meeting with the principal, she knows he is in no position to expel her because of who she is, and that vicious look in her eyes is all you need to see who has the most power in that situation. When kidnapped, however, Moner makes her character’s predicament all the more palpable as she gets thrust into a violent situation beyond her control, and her reaction to it all feels unmistakably real. And like all my favorite young adult characters in movies, she comes to see through the bullshit adults are dishing out to her.

Directing “Soldado” is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, best known for directing gritty crime movies like “ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards” and “Suburra” as well as episodes of the critically acclaimed television show “Gomorrah.” While Sollima is unable to match the existential dread Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” he succeeds in grounding the story in the same brutal reality we were introduced to previously. Even when Sheridan’s screenplay looks to strand us in formulaic territory, Sollima makes seemingly predictable scenes especially intense as even he knows how brutal the war on drugs can be.

Taking over cinematography duties is Dariusz Wolski who is known for his work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and who gave a very special look to Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” and “Dark City.” It’s near impossible to match the unique look Deakins gave “Sicario,” but Wolski manages to equal the brutal visuals and stark landscapes to where we cannot deny this movie takes place in a reality we like to keep a safe distance from.

Then there is the film score which is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a classically trained Icelandic cellist who collaborated with Johannsson on “Sicario.” Suffice to say, the music ended up in good hands as Guðnadóttir’s has created themes which match the ominous power Johannsson gave us back in 2015, and he brings back “The Beast” theme with tremendous gusto as the harsh realism shown here feels more brutal and chaotic than ever before.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” had no real chance of equaling the original, and I accepted this fact as I walked into the theater. But in the end it doesn’t matter because what we got here is a really strong sequel which captures a great deal of the original’s intensity and blunt truths, and it makes for a compelling motion picture. There is already talk of a third “Sicario” movie, so here’s hoping this one does well at the box office to ensure this will happen. And if they can get Emily Blunt to appear in it, that would be great as well.

Granted, this sequel is coming out at an interesting time as politicians are calling for increased security at the border, and immigrants are either being denied entry to the United States because of the country they are coming from, or their children are being separated from them for political leverage. While many may point to one group of people or another as being the biggest problem America has to deal with, the “Sicario” movies show how widespread corruption is and how far it has spread. One key scene to remember in “Soldado” comes when Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager and aspiring hitman, gets a ride back across the border, and his driver turns out to be a Caucasian woman with a baby in the backseat. As Miguel pays her, she is quick to tell him, “Give me a job that pays better and I’ll do it.”

In this day and age, it is not so much the truth which matters, but of who controls the narrative.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The filmmakers dedicated this movie to memory of Johann Johannsson who died on February 9, 2018 at the age of 48. It is a real shame we lost him so soon as his work on “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “The Theory of Everything” was remarkable, and it would have been great to see what themes he would have continued composing had he lived. Rest in peace Johann.

Matthew Modine Shares Stories About the Making of ‘Full Metal Jacket’

Full Metal Jacket Matthew Modine

While moderating a Q&A session with Leon Vitali and Tony Zierra about “Filmworker” at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, actor Matthew Modine shared some stories about the making of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” In the 1987 war film, Modine plays Private Joker, one of a dozen soldiers who endure Marine Corp basic training under the brutal and abrasive instruction of their drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (the late R. Lee Ermey). Following graduation, he heads to South Vietnam to work as a war correspondent for the Stars & Stripes newspaper, and it is there he witnesses the atrocities of war up close. The question is, how much of his humanity can hold onto in the face of death and destruction?

The stories of Kubrick’s behavior and work ethic have long since become legendary in regards to the methods he used to get an actor into a specific emotional state and the number of takes he puts his cast through. The first story Modine shared with us about Kubrick, however, proved to be a bit unexpected.

Stanley liked to carry a walkie talkie because he wanted to be a part of every aspect of the filmmaking,” Modine said. “Why shouldn’t he have a walkie talkie and know what the assistant directors were saying and what kind of movements were happening? We broke for lunch and the assistant director, Terry Needham, got a call from Stanley, and Stanley asked Terry to come over here. Terry said, ‘Okay, but where is here?’ He said, ‘I’m over here,’ and Terry said come out of the tent where we were having lunch. Terry didn’t want to say on the radio that he was stuck in the portapotty. He couldn’t get the door open. So that’s just a little window into a different part of Stanley that doesn’t appear in the documentary.”

During the Q&A, we learned how the crew on a Kubrick film was actually very small, and the one on “Full Metal Jacket” totaled about 15 people. Vitali even said there was only one electrician, and his job was simly operate the lights on a dimmer. Modine ended up adding a nice bit of trivia to this story.

The one electrician that we had working on the film, because of the union, he would come in and turn the lights on, and then Stanley would tell him to fuck off to his house because there was some wiring problem in his house,” Modine said. “He had to pay him for the day so he said go wire my house.”

Perhaps the most bizarre and hilarious story Modine shared with us was when he talked about Dorian Harewood who played Eightball, the soldier who experiences an especially brutal and bloody death which is captured in slow motion. The way this scene was shot, however, makes sense when Modine discussed what Harewood demanded from Kubrick.

Dorian Harewood is a wonderful actor,” Modine said. “We were originally contracted for about six months I think, and the contracts were coming to an end. So they wanted to renegotiate the contracts, and it wasn’t a renegotiation. It was just a reupping to continue the contracts for a longer period of time, and Dorian came to Stanley and said, ‘I want to renegotiate. I want more money,” and Stanley couldn’t believe the audacity of this young guy. He’s like, ‘You’re working for Stanley Kubrick and you are asking me to pay you more money?’ And he (Harewood) said, ‘Well yeah, I have to go back to Los Angeles. I have a singing career, I have an acting career, there’s other jobs, and if you want me to stay here, you’re gonna have to pay for it.’ Stanley couldn’t believe it, and I remember him stumbling around for hours furious with that crazy look on his face, and then he turned and he said, ‘I’m gonna kill him!’ I really thought, oh fuck, Stanley’s gonna commit murder. He’s going to kill Dorian Harewood. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, ‘I’m going to kill him.’ Remember when Dorian gets shot all over the body? It was because however number of days were left upon Dorian Harewood’s contract, Stanley was going to put in all the bullet hits he could. It was really cold. You could see Stanley wearing that hat and two coats, and we were wearing Vietnam khakis. It was freezing cold and snowing in London, and we were dressed up for North Vietnam. He killed him for as many days left that he had on the contract, and he had five days left lying on the cold earth with bullet hits. He (Stanley) would say, ‘Nah, we have to do it again. Put more bullet hits on him.’ And they were full loads full of exploding blood and everything.”

It was great to hear Matthew Modine share his stories about “Full Metal Jacket” as it remains one of Kubrick’s most memorable films. Many critics have called it the best war film ever made, and it features images which are impossible to forget. The actor also left us with something he wanted to share with all the directors in the audience.

My favorite direction from a director ever was from Stanley Kubrick,” Modine said. “He would clear his throat and pull on his beard and say, ‘Matthew, you’re not going to do it that way, are you?’ It’s my favorite direction because it’s so specific.”

In 2005, Modine published “Full Metal Jacket Diary,” a collection of photographs he took and of diary entries of his experiences which he kept during filming. Please click here to get more information about it.

Full Metal Jacket movie poster

Leon Vitali Talks About Stanley Kubrick and ‘Filmworker’ at Nuart Theatre

Leon Vitali on set with Kubrick

Leon Vitali was the guest of honor at the Nuart Theatre on Friday, May 18, 2018 where the documentary “Filmworker” was being shown. Directed by Tony Zierra, it chronicles how Vitali went from being a successful British actor to becoming Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant after starring in “Barry Lyndon,” and of the intense dedication he gave to the filmmaker’s work from “The Shining” to “Eyes Wide Shut.” Vitali was greeted with a much-deserved standing ovation as he made his way to the stage for a Q&A. Joining him were Zierra and actor Matthew Modine who played Joker in “Full Metal Jacket.”

Modine remarked about a scene which was cut out of “Filmworker” where he said “Stanley stood on Leon’s shoulders” and how much of a marriage Leon and Stanley’s working relationship was, and he described it as being “at times dysfunctional” and “lovely in a British way.” Zierra was actually working on another documentary about Kubrick called “SK13” when he met Vitali, and he said talking with Vitali was a must as it was well-known how he was one of Kubrick’s closest associates. Zierra managed to track him down in Culver City and met with him, and what resulted was this documentary which was filmed over three and a half years.

Tony Zierra photo

“This is the worst nightmare for a filmmaker that when you are really super independent you pick up another documentary and you can’t even finish one,” Zierra said. “I went back and told my producer and partner, Elizabeth Yoffe, this is the most amazing story and I have to do a documentary about this guy, but I’m not sure if I really want to take on another project. But then I remember she said to me you are going to regret it if you don’t do it, so I went back and I asked him, and he said no. And I realized that Leon is just not used to talking about himself. He can talk about Kubrick forever, so it was quite difficult.”

Zierra then remarked how he and Vitali eventually “broke the ice” when he volunteered to organize the heaps of notebooks and materials Vitali had kept over the years while working for Kubrick. As we see in “Filmworker,” Vitali has a huge collection which really does deserve an exhibit of its own.

Modine talked about the overall crew numbers on a Kubrick film and illustrated just how important Vitali was to the famed filmmaker. In the process, he revealed something very surprising as Kubrick’s movies have such an epic look about them to where it looked like hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people worked for him. But as life often teaches us, looks can be deceiving.

Full Metal Jacket Matthew Modine

“(People) imagine the enormity of Stanley Kubrick’s legend is that he was a filmmaker who must’ve had hundreds of people working for him, and it was quite the contrary,” Modine said. “Leon really did wear 100 different hats because when you went to work there was sometimes, when we were filming on the stage, maybe it felt like 15 people working on the film. What I feel is that Stanley Kubrick created an environment for himself to be able to keep production costs down to the minimum so that he could have the ability to work for an extended period of time to do as many takes as were necessary. But in fact, he was probably the most independent filmmaker I’ve ever worked with.”

“That’s absolutely true,” Vitali responded. “The crew on ‘Full Metal Jacket’ ended up looking like a well-crewed student film, you know? We had one electrician, that was it, because he shot so much of it in natural light. And any light he did have, it was a bank of lights like in the barracks for instance that just went up and down on a dimmer. So, he was always conscious about getting every single dollar on the screen. It was the most important thing to him.”

Leon Vitali in Filmworker

Vitali did share stories about Kubrick which involved him calling Vitali a certain word which has a broader meaning in England and Scotland but a simpler one in America as many find it extremely offensive (hint: it begins wit a c and ends with a t), and he also talked about the pie fight scene which was taken out of “Dr. Strangeglove” because they just felt it would have been a terrible way to end the movie. In terms of filmmakers today who Vitali considers in Kubrick’s league, he said he really admires Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro because he gets back to the fairy tale part of the storytelling, and Sean Baker who directed “The Florida Project.” In terms of his favorite Kubrick movie, he said if you put a gun to his head he would have to say it is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

One of the most interesting moments of the evening, however, came when Modine asked Vitali what an artist is and what value art and movies have.

“Artist has become a word like love or hate, and it’s used so loosely I think” Vitali said. “To me, anyone can be an artist. In my vacation time from drama school, I used to work with a brick layer, and I eventually saw the way he worked with the bricks. He was an artist at what he did. I’ve seen car mechanics who find their way around because it’s all a process of elimination. I think an artist’s work is a process of elimination because the hardest thing to do is to get back to simplicity of whatever it is you are trying to tell or the story you are trying to tell, and how often things come in which seem like good ideas but they are big distractions. So, you are all the time working to get rid of the junk, however appealing it might seem at the time. Composers and musicians and actors or any of those, they are all artists because that’s what they do. It’s getting everything down to the simplest that you can make it to make the story resonate and have a point. That’s what I think anyway.”

Filmworker” is an absolute must see for Stanley Kubrick fans, and it is now playing at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles through May 24th.

Filmworker poster

Photos, poster and trailer courtesy of Kino Lorber.

‘Filmworker’ Serves as a Love Letter to Stanley Kubrick’s Right-Hand Man

Filmworker poster

It has been almost 20 years since Stanley Kubrick passed away, but his presence is still deeply felt among cinephiles. Some may say this is because “2001: A Space Odyssey” is being re-released in honor of its 50th anniversary, but it goes much further than that. Kubrick had a singular vision, and stories of his directorial methods, such as getting an actor to do dozens upon dozens of takes of a single scene, remain legendary as only a handful of filmmakers could have gotten away with this. And as the documentary “Room 237” showed, people continue to share their interpretations of “The Shining” and of the meanings they believe certain images in it have. Indeed, Kubrick’s films had a large degree of ambiguity in them, and watching them just once is never enough.

But just when you thought you had heard every story about Kubrick, along comes Tony Zierra’s documentary “Filmworker” which looks at the life and times of Kubrick’s right-hand man, Leon Vitali. As an actor, he worked a lot in British television, but after appearing in Kubrick’s film “Barry Lyndon,” he dedicated his life to helping the famed director any which way he could. What results is a movie about working with such a meticulous human being, and of the overall effects it had on Vitali to where it is shocking to see he is still above ground.

“Filmworker” starts with a look at Vitali’s early life as an actor, and it shows how o often he worked in British television and movies to where he was never ever lacking for a job, a position I and my actor friends get to enjoy at some point in this lifetime. Then he got the role of Lord Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon,” and this introduced the actor to the Kubrick life he was quick to embrace. In a scene where Ryan O’Neal ends up punching Vitali in the back, O’Neal says Kubrick told him, “You’re not hitting him hard enough.” From there, they did the scene 30 more times, and it served as Vitali’s introduction to Kubrick’s obsessive nature in getting things just right down to the smallest of details.

It is very easy to see why Vitali became such a die-hard Kubrick fan after he watched “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Both films reflected a singular vision no other director could have conjured, and Vitali remarked how “2001” dared to have no dialogue in its first 20 minutes, something which seems unthinkable in this day and age. Following their collaboration on “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick sent him a copy of Stephen King’s “The Shining” to see if it would be worth turning into a movie. Once Vitali told Kubrick it was, the director brought him on so he could search for the perfect child actor to play Danny Torrance. From there, he abandoned his acting career and dedicated his life to Kubrick all the way through his last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Vitali ended up doing just about every kind of job for Kubrick including casting director, acting coach, location scout, sound engineer and color corrector to name a few. Upon Kubrick’s passing, he became the only person to restore his films. To say he dedicated his life to Kubrick’s work would be the understatement of the millennium. We watch as he works tirelessly to get all the details right, and we see the toll it takes on him and his body. He speaks of how he worked two 36-hour shifts on one project and of how he slept on the floor to catch a two-hour nap while fully dressed so that, when he woke up, he could get right back to work.

Watching “Filmworker,” I wasn’t always sure if I should thank Vitali for all the work he has done or pity him. Some describe him as Igor to Kubrick’s Dr. Frankenstein. I prefer to see him as Waylon Smithers to Kubrick’s Mr. Burns. This man gave up a thriving acting career to work for the director of “Dr. Strangeglove,” and their relationship certainly had a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to it. Vitali shows us the note Kubrick wrote to him in thanks for his work on “Barry Lyndon,” and he remarks at how his first handshake with the filmmaker proved to be “very warm.” But once they began working on “Full Metal Jacket,” Vitali admitted he came to see another side of Kubrick, one which few others got to see up close.

Many like to talk about the Stanley Kubrick they met and of how he was so different compared to all the rumors which were circulating throughout Hollywood about him, but Vitali makes it abundantly clear how he knew Kubrick in a way no one else could. At one point, he even describes Kubrick as the film industry’s equivalent to Gordon Ramsey, the chef from “Hell’s Kitchen” and a man who is always in serious need of anger management classes. People keep asking Vitali how he handled Kubrick, but he responds to this by saying he never handled him but instead handled himself so that he could exist in Kubrick’s world.

Actors like Matthew Modine, Danny Lloyd and the late R. Lee Ermey are interviewed at length here, and they have great stories to share about both Kubrick and Vitali. Lloyd and Ermey credit Vitali for helping them with their performances in a way no one else could, and Modine remarks at how selfless Vitali is when it comes to his work for Kubrick. Modine is just one of several individuals who freely admit they are too selfish to dedicate their lives to Kubrick the way Vitali did. O’Neal goes out of his way to say he “fled” the set of “Barry Lyndon” once his work there was done as he was terrified of being subjected to reshoots.

Indeed, the level of dedication Vitali gives Kubrick is both commendable and scary. You also have to feel for him as he suffers under the heavy hand of Warner Brothers while working to give Kubrick’s films the attention they deserved. I remember when the first DVD’s of his work came out and how bad they were, and Vitali spent his precious time getting the color just right. Hearing how Kubrick got incensed if the green was off reminded me of Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo” when his character of Sy went off at a repairman for not taking a difference of three points in color all that seriously. If you are passionate enough about something, you will see it through to the very last detail.

As you can imagine, there is a good deal of trivia about Kubrick on display here. Among the most interesting bits come from Ermey who played Gunnery Sargent Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket” as he discusses how he went about getting actors for the movie, and it is eerie to see him describe what the movie did for his career and of how he has led a great life as it was only a few weeks ago he died due to complications from pneumonia. We also get to hear from Tim Colceri who was originally cast as Hartman before being replaced by Ermey. He ended up playing the doorgunner who shoots away at any and every Vietnamese individual regardless of whether or not they are the “enemy.” Watching Colceri’s face as he reflects on the role he could have had is heartbreaking as his disappointment looks to last a lifetime.

In a lot of ways, “Filmworker” serves as a love letter to Vitali as his work on Kubrick’s films is extraordinary, and we should be thankful for what he has done as this documentary shows how no one else could have preserved the iconic director’s work the way he has. But beyond that, it also acts as a love letter to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes on film sets as they often do not get the respect they deserve. To many, they simply appear as names on a movie’s end credits, and some of those credits move at lightning speed when those movies are shown on the Sundance Channel. But after watching this documentary, we have every reason to thank Vitali for his devotion to Kubrick as, without him, no one could have been able to give “Eyes Wide Shut” the release it deserved. But more importantly, it provides Vitali with the happy ending he has long since earned.

While watching “Filmworker,” I was reminded of what Homer Simpson told his family while they watched the end credits for “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

This is, of course, completely unrealistic, but when it comes to “Filmworker,” I want to believe such a thing could be possible.

* * * * 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 * * * * 

’47 Meters Down’ Thrills You Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back into the Water

47 Meters Down movie poster

From its poster, “47 Meters Down” looks like one of those Syfy flicks like “Sharknado” or “Lavalantula” which are enjoyable for being infinitely silly and having pathetic CGI effects. Or perhaps it would be like one of those knockoff movies from The Asylum, a production company shameless in capitalizing on blockbuster films by using titles and screenplays similar to them (“Snakes on a Train” or “Transmorphers” anyone?). Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to make something similar to the 2016 sleeper hit “The Shallows” which stared Blake Lively as a surfer who has to use her wits in order to keep from being eaten by a great white shark. Either way, I came into this movie figuring it would be one you should not take the least bit seriously and enjoy for all the wrong reasons.

But to my surprise, “47 Meters Down” is a very effective thriller which is lean in its execution, and its main intent is to take you on a pulse pounding ride. In many ways, it is like Renny Harlin’s “Deep Blue Sea” which, while by no means an artistic triumph, played around with the clichés we remember most from shark movies like “Jaws,” and it employs them to where we think we know what to expect, but our expectations are thrown for a loop. What results is a motion picture which knows exactly what it needs to do and how to do it.

Mandy Moore and Clair Holt star as Lisa and Kate, sisters who, as the movie starts, are on vacation in Mexico. One night they run into some local guys who invite them to go cage diving for sharks. Just like Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws,” these two women will be lowered into the ocean in a cage where they will get to see those sharp-toothed creatures up close without being eaten. But of course, we all know things will not go as planned as our two leads and the characters around them make one stupid mistake after another. Then again, if they didn’t make those mistakes, there would be no movie.

The clichés abound in “47 Meters Down” as the boat the ladies will be traveling on looks far too rusty to sail anywhere safely. You have Matthew Modine on board as the captain of the ship, Taylor, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Quint from “Jaws.” There’s also the fact that these ladies have never scuba-dived before, and you know this is just asking to invite disaster. We have the air gauges which act as the plot’s ticking time bomb as the ladies threaten to run out of air sooner than they think, they cut themselves to where blood flows from their bodies, thus inviting any shark in the vicinity to drop by and feast on human flesh, and there’s always the one guy who is there to save everybody’s ass, but we all know how long he will last (or do we?).

Lisa also exhibits tremendous anxiety about doing this even as Kate assures her this will be the best time the two of them have ever had (it won’t). Hearing this conversation between them immediately reminded me of a number of “Star Wars” characters saying this infamous line from one movie to the next: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Another unforgettable piece of dialogue which crossed my mind was Jon Voight’s line from “Deliverance” when he said to Burt Reynolds, “Let’s go back to town and play golf.” This was good advice which was left unheeded, and it makes perfect sense how Lisa’s common sense could be overturned by Kate’s need for adventure.

As you can imagine, everything goes terribly wrong as the boat winch breaks, and the women plummet down 47 meters to the seafloor. Director Johannes Roberts wisely keeps the majority of the action underwater as Lisa and Kate struggle to stay calm and not use up their dwindling supply of air. He puts us right in their shoes as, like them, we are left to wonder what the crew members in the boat are doing to bring them back to the surface or if they are doing anything at all. Roberts is also aided strongly by a pulse-pounding film score from Tomandandy whose work on “Killing Zoe” and “The Hills Have Eyes” remake rank among my favorites. Their music heightens an already intense motion picture to something which will fry your nerves and leave you on the edge of your seat even as we are forced to endure some unintentionally hilarious moments.

Granted, you can’t always expect David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin to be underwater with you when words fail you. When Moore cries out about how the shark almost got me, the audience I was with couldn’t help but laugh as it seems like such a silly thing to say. But then again, what would really say if we were stuck in the same predicament? I doubt we would be uttering a monologue out of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Of course, it always helps to have John Milius around when you need him.

Moore and Holt do strong work in creating a bond between and work hard to create characters who, while not having too much in the way of depth, quickly realize they need one another to survive this ordeal. Seeing one of them take off their mask and remove their oxygen tank just to get through the bars of the cage is enough to make one shiver, and this is accomplished without the use of special effects. The actresses are also aided by actor Matthew Modine who plays the Captain of the boat, Taylor. For the most part, we hear his voice more than we see him, but he gives strong support as he encourages his guests, people he never should have put in any danger, a reason to stay calm. In addition, he also reminds the ladies and the audience that the bends is not just the title of a Radiohead album.

Roberts previously directed “The Other Side of the Door,” a supernatural horror thriller which started off well, but later got bogged down in clichés it would have been smarter to avoid. “47 Meters Down,” however, is all about clichés, and just as Harlin did with “Deep Blue Sea,” he manages to manipulate those clichés to where we think we know what to expect, and then we are totally caught off guard. Just watch the scene where the actresses are playing around with an underwater camera, and you will understand what I mean.

Yes, the sharks are CGI, but they are still frightening antagonists in this movie. After a while, the terror comes from a combination of what we think is going on above the water as well as what we cannot see. The water is made to look especially murky to where we can’t see much of what is in front of us, and this leads to an especially scary moment when a character swims out to a certain point, and then suddenly can’t remember the direction in which she came.

Look, “47 Meters Down” is not Oscar material, but it never pretends to be either. While it may not reach the heights of “Jaws” or the unbearable intensity of “Open Water,” it is a taut thriller which will allow the audience a nice diversion for a couple of hours. Roberts and his cast understand exactly what this movie aims to be, and they deliver in a way which will get your adrenaline pumping. You can laugh all you want at the foolishness of the characters, but in this instance their foolishness is necessary for this movie to work at all.

* * * out of * * * *