‘The Batman’ – Even Darker and Grittier Than What Came Before

Bruce Wayne and his alter ego of Batman is one of those characters which, much like The Terminator and Leatherface from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I wish Hollywood would leave alone for a few years. After reaching an exhilarating high with Christopher Nolan’s amazing “Dark Knight” trilogy, the Caped Crusader hit a few speed bumps with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” (the theatrical versions did anyway). Even with Ben Affleck donning the Bat suit, neither film could measure up to its predecessors even if they were far better than the ones directed by Joel Schumacher (nothing personal Joel, and rest in peace).

Nevertheless, Warner Brothers and DC Comics still want to keep this iconic character going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny, and now we have Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” which looks to reboot Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation yet again. Watching it reminded me of when my dad and I first watched Tim Burton’s “Batman” back in 1989, and I was stunned at how dark it was. Like many, I grew up on reruns of the campy “Batman” TV show which starred Adam West, and I expected Burton to do the same. Wow, was I wrong! It would take until “Batman and Robin” to see the movie franchise return to this campiness, but the less said about that installment, the better.

I bring this up because “The Batman” is much, much darker than what Burton or Nolan previously gave us. In fact, it is almost pitch black, and this shows in Michael Giacchino’s brooding music score which is designed to be nowhere as adventurous as what Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer gave us. Seriously, the opening scenes had me thinking this film would be as dark as “Alien 3” or “Seven” as Reeves looks to be venturing into David Fincher territory as he gives us a Gotham City forever beset by endless rainstorms and heavy clouds. If there is a scene featuring sunny skies in this film, I may have missed it.

Thankfully, “The Batman” does not waste our time in reminding us of what happened to Bruce Wayne’s parents. Instead, it drops us into his crime-fighting career two years after it started and soon after the Bat Signal has been created to gain his attention and instill fear in Gotham’s nefarious criminals who never know when to stop. Murders have been committed by a man known as the Riddler (played by Paul Dano) who is continually leaving messages for the Batman at every crime scene. Along with Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), he works to decipher the many puzzles and riddles this serial killer leaves in his tracks, and the answers may remind you of the words you never bothered to think of the last time you played Wordle.

Playing Bruce Wayne/Batman this time around is Robert Pattinson who has given us solid performances in “Good Time,” “The Lighthouse” and “Tenet,” but I have a feeling many still have a bone to pick with him over those darn “Twilight” films. It’s important to understand the context of Pattinson’s Batman as we see him early on when his vigilante career was at its infancy. Whereas the actors who played the Caped Crusader previously reveled in the moment where they told criminals right to their face “I’m Batman,” Pattinson’s intent is to instead say the following, “I’m vengeance!”

While many look at Pattinson as giving a one-note performance here to where his face looks to be frozen in one mood, I found him to be very compelling here as he plays the Caped Crusader as an individual long since consumed by revenge. His Batman is not the one who inspires hope, but one who is determined to make the villains pay in the most painful way possible. As a result, this makes the inclusion of a certain Nirvana song completely understandable as any song by Prince would be so out of place here.

As this movie reaches its furious climax, however, Pattinson shows us how his Batman can and will evolve into the figure of hope he is seen as in movies and comic books. Knowing and seeing this makes his work here all the more fulfilling to take in.

When it comes to certain superhero/comic book movies, some have far too many characters to deal with to where the whole project gets unnecessarily submerged due to excess weight of needless storylines. “The Batman” could have easily fallen into this trap as it features multiple iconic characters and villains throughout. But just as Nolan did, Reeves manages to balance everything out just right even as “The Batman’s” running length is nearly three hours long and contains as many endings and climaxes as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Colin Farrell is completely unrecognizable here as Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot / Penguin to where even his own kids could not recognize him, and this is one of the highest compliments you can ever give an actor. In his time onscreen, he makes this character his own and disappears ever so deeply into this role in a way any actor would ever want to. I remember watching this movie’s trailer and waiting to see him appear, and now I understand why I didn’t.

As Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Zoe Kravitz gives us the most grounded interpretation of this character yet as she is far more interested in finding her loved ones and seeking revenge than she is in purring at her devious adversaries. I am not going to bother ranking her alongside Michelle Pfeiffer or Anne Hathaway at this time, but she definitely held my attention from start to finish as she is determined to blaze a path of vengeance all her own even as Pattinson’s Batman urges her not to.

Jeffrey Wright, like Gary Oldman before him, succeeds in making James Gordon’s incorruptibility all the more appealing than it might seem at first. Even as Gordon’s fellow Gotham police officers are quick to dismiss Batman as a freak of nature, Wright makes his subtle defense of the Caped Crusader all the more profound. Either that, or he simply making this incorruptible police officer the kind who simply wants to close cases so he can quickly move on to the next.

But when it comes down to it, my favorite performance in “The Batman” comes from Paul Dano as he makes the Riddler a most fearsome villain throughout this film’s elongated running time. We don’t see the actor’s face most of the time as it is bandaged up, and the mask he wears helps to free his consciousness to a gleefully insane level. Even during his penultimate confrontation with Batman, Dano remains a frightening villain as he keeps the Caped Crusader guessing as to what he really knows and doesn’t. It’s a truly inspired performance, and if he is to appear in this film’s sequel, I would certainly welcome it.

Upon entering the theater to watch “The Batman,” my only real expectation from Reeves was for him to make his cinematic interpretation of this iconic character all his own, and he has succeeded in doing so here. He has long since shown what a gifted filmmaker he is with “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In” and two of the recent “Planet of the Apes” movies (“Dawn” and “War”), and he has nowhere to go but up from here.

By the way, while “The Batman” runs almost three hours long, it may run even longer than that depending upon where you watch it. I saw it at my local AMC theater, and it literally had a half hour of commercials and trailers before the feature attraction began.

And one more thing; the Batmobile Pattinson’s Batman drives here is awesome and I would just love to own it. Now this is a car that can go from zero to 60 in less than five seconds unlike my Nissan Sentra!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Speed Racer” Runs Out of Gas Long Before It Ends

I’m not sure if I ever watched the original “Speed Racer” cartoon, but I feel like I have. Maybe it’s because that darn theme song can be so hard to get out of your head. Speed is one of those characters who has permanently engrained himself into pop culture for all time. Back in 2008, the Wachowskis brought this popular cartoon which is credited for bringing the world of anime into full focus onto the big screen in a live action version that is bursting at the seams with the most vibrant colors imaginable.

In short, “Speed Racer” is a visual splendor to behold, and also kind of an endurance test to sit through. At over two hours, this movie is simply way too long. I usually don’t complain about a movie’s length, but I can’t resist bitching about it here because I kept yawning in the second half and was checking my watch. When I check my watch during a movie, it is NOT a good sign.

“Speed Racer” starts off innocently enough as we see Young Speed (Nicholas Elia) daydreaming about someday being a great racecar driver like his brother Rex (Scott Porter). Speed comes from a family weaned on race cars and building them. His father Pops (the always dependable John Goodman) runs Rex’s race team along with Speed’s brother Sparky (Kick Gurry) until Rex ends up walking out on the family and their cars. No real reason is giving by Rex to his dad, but he warns Young Speed not to believe all the bad things people are going to be saying about him. Soon enough, Rex is slammed with a bad reputation which is not of his own doing, and he later perishes in a tragic car crash which haunts the family to the point where Pops won’t go into his garage to do any mechanic work.

Fast forward to several years later, and we see Speed all grown up (and played by Emile Hirsch), and he is as a good a racer as Rex. He amazes everyone with his skills on the track to the delight of his fans and ever-loving family. Pops has even come back into working on cars again along with Sparky, and Speed also has a great mother in Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) who I can’t help but say is quite sexy. He also has a loyal girlfriend in Trixie (Christina Ricci) who flies her pink helicopter in the most alluring miniskirts ever to make their way into a PG-rated movie. And there is also his annoying younger brother (is there any other kind?) Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimp friend Chim Chim. Still, he could not have asked for a better family.

Then into the picture comes Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), a spiffy CEO of one the world’s largest auto industries who offers Speed a chance to sign up with him to represent his corporation. Royalton is basically a man with the mind of a used car salesman (and I have dealt with many of them over the years) with an extravagant attire. This man wants to seduce Speed into a world where he can have everything he could ever possibly want, but Speed would rather stick with his family as he finds these corporations a little too frightening to deal with. This ends up bringing out the devil in Royalton as he gives Speed lessons in how the world really works, and he is determined to see Speed will never win a race from here on out. The movie then becomes a journey to showing how one racecar driver can change the world for the better, and can also succeed in blowing apart the corrupt corporations which threaten to destroy the world of racing.

The movie is deliberately campy, and that’s fine. I imagine the show was too. The beginning was fun as it introduced us to the world of Speed Racer and the people who inhabit it. There is an innocence which proved to be quite infectious as we see Speed daydreaming about the life he wants to lead. Who hasn’t had moments like that? Had the movie contained more of this innocent feel, then I imagine I would have liked it a lot more. There’s nothing wrong with a good throwback to the past, and it always brings back good memories which are always welcome.

But towards the last half, I found myself really getting restless. Just when you think “Speed Racer” has reached its climax, there is more and everything feels dragged out as a result. Maybe it’s because we all know how the story will end, and the depressing part is there is no excitement in it. The movie has heart, but not enough to fully envelop us into its gloriously colorful world. Because the Wachowskis are working with CGI and have practically shot just about every frame in front of a blue screen, we know everything is precise in movement and direction. This is nothing you can really improvise around, and it makes the race scenes all the more disappointing because there is no real thrill in them. In fact, there is no friction which you really need in any cinematic car chase to make it effective. By the end, I was ready for it to be over. It didn’t matter how brilliant the visuals were. They don’t mean anything without soul.

This was the first movie the Wachowskis directed since the “The Matrix Revolutions.” They still have a knack for groundbreaking visual effects, and of following that one character who is “the one.” If it’s not Neo, then it’s Speed himself. They do surround this film with good actors like John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci and Emile Hirsch who was coming off a plethora of praise for his work in “Into the Wild” at the time. But the story and the characters are not enough here like they were in “The Matrix.” Maybe it’s because we have seen this story so many times before; the one man on a mission to stop those who control everything and blind us to the truth of the world we live in.

With “The Matrix,” that story was revolutionary and groundbreaking. But with “Speed Racer,” there is nothing revolutionary except the visual spectrum of what’s on display, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story about a man going against the corporate world is old, old, old. There is also the sheer irony of the corporate world funding a movie where the independent people go against the corporations to win the day.

I didn’t hate “Speed Racer.” There is a lot to admire about it. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but then again, these movies rarely are. I guess I’m sad this movie, despite the amount of money put into it, didn’t excite me the way I hoped it would. And I am sick of being forgiving to movies like these. The Wachowskis may forever be imprisoned by the success of “The Matrix” movies, but they are better filmmakers and storytellers than this.

* * out of * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Cloverfield’ Lives Up to the Hype

Cloverfield

The fact that “Cloverfield” is any good is something of a miracle. This movie was released in January, a month where Hollywood tends to dump all their crappy movies because they have no idea of where else to put them. Plus, this is a movie which could have easily collapsed under the height of anticipation and expectation which preceded it with its brilliant marketing strategy. We all saw the brilliant teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown down into the middle of Manhattan. We didn’t see the title for the film until months later, and we couldn’t stop thinking about it. This trailer was analyzed like it was the equivalent of the Zapruder film which captured the Kennedy assassination, but now the movie is finally here and has gotten 2008 off to a strong start.

“Cloverfield” takes place in the city of New York which has seen its fair share of destruction on and off the big screen. It starts off with some color bars on the screen and there is a message stating the footage we are about to see is from the area “formerly known as Central Park.” Those are ominous words indeed, and it leaves us in a state of suspended tension as we already know something very bad is going to happen. We first meet Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) as he is filming the apartment of the woman he just slept with, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). We see them hanging out in Coney Island throughout, but the movie then jumps ahead to a month or so later when Rob is about to leave New York for a new job in Japan. It turns out Beth and Rob never really hung out with each other again after the great day they had, and the time they had together is always on their minds. But just as they try to sort out their personal issues, the earth shakes beneath them and, of course, all hell breaks loose.

The movie does take its time getting started which is not a bad thing as it takes time to establish the main players and their backgrounds. The script doesn’t flesh them out completely, but they are fleshed out enough to where you do care about them. The big surprise party thrown for Rob is filled with people who look like, at the very least, got a callback for one or more of the shows on the CW network. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers add more ordinary people into this party who did not have the perfect body or such Noxzema clear faces, but anyway.

What makes this monster film particularly effective is how it is told from the ground view. We are there with the people as they experience this disaster firsthand, and the characters are not just simple clichés who look and feel like they belong in a typical watered-down sitcom. This is what drove me nuts about Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla.” Like Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” it is not caught up with the military as they make decisions on how to destroy this enormous beast. It is more concerned with people like you and me and how we might struggle to survive in this situation. The adrenaline keeps running high as Rob and a few others make their way through the decimated city to get to Beth who is trapped in her high-rise apartment.

Another key factor is that “Cloverfield” doesn’t show us the monster right away, and this as a result makes the thought of the monster becomes more terrifying than anything else. We do get to see the monster eventually, but not in its entirety until the latter half. I would love to describe the monster to you, but I’d rather you discover it for yourself as I really don’t want to spoil the surprise. Nothing will compare to the first time you watch this movie.

The movie is also dominated by the shaky cam work which threatens to become an overused method of filmmaking these days. For those of you who have serious motion sickness problems, don’t sit too close to the screen. As for myself, I actually dealt with it just fine. I was starting to think I might have reached my limit with shaky camerawork after watching “The Kingdom,” and it fails in comparison to the brilliant camerawork accomplished in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” But here, it’s fine and it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

“Cloverfield” is not exactly brilliant filmmaking, but it does get the job done and with no real music score might I add. We don’t get to hear a score until the end credits where Michael Giaachiano composed a piece of music which serves a tribute of sorts to the monster movies of the past. Credit, however, should go to director Matt Reeves who directs his first movie here since “The Pallbearer” which was made back in 1996. He keeps the action grounded enough to where we have no problem following the characters even if their situation is not entirely probable. Anyway, we go into a movie like this to have a good time, not to think too hard about everything going on.

* * * ½ out of * * * *