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The Dark Knight (2008)

by Steve Habrat

After seeing 2005’s Batman Begins, I was convinced that director Christopher Nolan would be unable to top what he did in the arresting stage setter. The impossible was proved very possible when Nolan unleashed his darkest vision yet in 2008. The Dark Knight was a white-hot comic book thriller that blazed across the movie screen with such power, it was almost sublime. With The Dark Knight, Nolan not only raised the bar for any comic book film to come in its wake, but he also unleashed the late Heath Ledger’s Joker, a brilliant and demented demon of a villain that was the truest portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime yet. The film was labeled a must-see for Ledger’s performance alone, many forgetting to even concentrate on the blistering story that left audience members traumatized by the end of the film. Nolan weaves a spellbinding crime epic that steamrolls the viewer with its constant twists and turns throughout its epic runtime of two and a half hours. And the real beauty of all of this? The film is a massively bleak superhero movie that doesn’t find our hero triumphing over the evil thrown his way. It was such a bold move on Nolan’s part and handled with such subtlety that many may have missed the fact that Batman didn’t walk away the victor.

For the three people out there who haven’t seen The Dark Knight, here is brief rundown of the overall plot. Set shortly after the events of Batman Begins, Batman (Played by Christian Bale) and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman) have the scum of Gotham City shaking in their boots. There also happens to be a new D.A. in town by the name of Harvey Dent (Played by Aaron Eckhart), who is anxious to join Batman and Gordon’s war on crime. Running out of options, the mob finds themselves approached by The Joker (Played by Heath Ledger), a sadistic killer in clown make-up who guarantees the jumpy thugs that he can flush Batman out of the shadows and kill him. The mob reluctantly agrees to accept his offer but they soon learn the error of their ways when the Joker is let loose on the streets of Gotham. As the body count rises, the Joker demands that Batman take off his mask and show the world who he really is. Refusing to give in to the demands of the unhinged terrorist, Bruce Wayne approaches Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman) to provide him a slew of new gadgets that will help him battle the Joker. With the Joker refusing to give in and growing more powerful with each passing second, Batman realizes that the only way to stop this scarred madman is to break his one rule and kill the Joker.

When it was announced that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker, the news was met with mixed opinions. Many were intrigued, but they didn’t feel the actor would be able to topple the work that Jack Nicholson did in 1989. Others were downright horrified that this pretty boy actor would be tackling one of the most iconic villains of all time. I definitely fell into the first group until I saw a few leaked photos of the late actor with his face smeared with some of the most ghoulish make-up imaginable. It looked absolutely perfect to the point that I didn’t even care if his skin wasn’t permawhite. That was the LAST thing on my mind. Then I saw the first trailer and I was instantly sold. Ledger gives such a detailed performance that it almost takes a few viewings to really catch all the small details. His performance takes hold in his eyes, which appear to be black with evil. He smoothes back his greasy locks of grown out green hair while he consistently sucks at the bubbly scars that contort his mouth into a horrific smile. When he speaks, every word he snarls sounds like he is mocking the person he is speaking to and he always has a come back. He is an unpredictable force that really grabs you by the shorthairs.

While Ledger steals the show, Bale once again really delivers something special. He slips back into Bruce Wayne with ease while Nolan encourages him to really expand his character. Here we really see Bruce’s mixed emotions about the Batsuit and the toll it is taking both physically and mentally. His physical body looks shredded, bruised, battered, and bloody. He sleeps through meetings at Wayne Enterprises and groans while putting a dress shirt on as he explains to Alfred that Batman has no limits. When the Joker emerges on the scene, things really get brutal for Bruce, especially when the Joker begins claiming lives of those who are close with Bruce. The control that Ra’s Al Ghul taught him in the previous film begins to slide wildly off the rails. Just wait until the Batman interrogates the Joker in one of The Dark Knight’s most intense sequences. The only thing keeping Bruce on the right track is Alfred (Played by Michael Caine), who once again acts as the fatherly voice of reason. He continues to push Bruce, even when things go from bad to absolutely awful. It is the small moments between Alfred and Bruce that cut the deepest.

Then we have Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, who is always unfairly overlooked when anyone talks about The Dark Knight. The emotional decay that consumed Harvey over the course of The Dark Knight is absolutely hypnotic. He starts out as such a stand-up guy and it is easy to like him. He keeps his square jaw held high in the air, even as one mobster after another takes shots at him. His slip into evil is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this entire film. Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in for Katie Holmes as the love of Bruce and Harvey’s life, Rachel Dawes. Gyllenhaal is a much stronger actress and Nolan continues to ease her around the clichéd damsel in distress. She gets a terrifying stare down with the Joker that finds him strutting up to her, sticking a knife against her cheek, and whispering, “Wanna know how I got these scars?” Oldman does more outstanding work as Gordon, the last good cop in Gotham City who is forced to turn on his ally over the course of The Dark Knight. This time around, he is filled with even more desperation and grit to try to turn the city around. Rounding out the all-star cast is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, who is forced to join Batman’s unending battle with the Joker. He is another character who begins to question his relationship with Bruce/Batman, but he is also faced with the same task as Alfred—keeping Bruce in the fight.

The Dark Knight is loaded with enough earth shaking action that will blow your mind. There is a somersaulting semi here and stomach churning mass evacuation of Gotham there. The set pieces are bigger, all due to the stunning use of IMAX cameras that filmed multiple action scenes. The stage is set with an edge-of-your-seat bank robbery that still manages to floor the viewer, even if they have seen it multiple times. The Dark Knight also manages to be smarter than its predecessor, really going heavy with the cracked reflection of our post 9/11 world. It asks moral questions about fighting terrorism, touching on surveillance and torture. What lengths should we go to dealing with terrorism? The Joker also becomes a purple-suited reflection of Osama bin Laden, a horrifying force that suddenly pops up to wreck havoc, leaving twisted wreckage in his wake as he giggles over other’s pain. This reflection really becomes obvious when the Joker begins making threats to keep Gotham City gripped in chaos. Nolan is also interested in ideas of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. “You and I are destined to do this forever,” says the Joker to Batman. He means it too. The Dark Knight manages to be the defining film of the Bush era and a shaky snapshot of our paranoid times. Smarter, darker, and downright unforgettable, this is Nolan’s masterpiece, a film with an art house approach and a blockbuster scale. The Dark Knight proves that superhero films can be high art and can have profound things to say about society. This is, was, and ever shall be a game changer of a movie.

Grade: A+

The Dark Knight is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I think it is safe to assume that the true day that cinema died is March 11th, 2011. Sure, every year sees it’s fair share of rubbish movies discarded into your local megaplex to fill space, but none have been more absurd, shrill, dumb, meaningless, and excruciating than Battle: Los Angeles. The film is the textbook example of how not to make a movie, especially pure escapist entertainment at that. The film, which has no trace of a plot, looked promising. Did you happen to see the theatrical trailer? It was spellbinding and intriguing. The final product isn’t anywhere near what the trailer promised. Seriously, Hollywood, did anyone actually read the script to this thing? And who actually gave the filmmakers the go ahead? And who convinced a talented actor like Aaron Eckhart to actually star in the damn thing? Nothing about this film is remotely close to engaging and every time it hints at a clever set up, it pulverizes it with a barrage of gunfire, screaming, and camera work so shaky, it practically makes you want to vomit. I’ve been told I am lax when it comes to blockbusters of this breed, but Battle: Los Angeles has tried my patience and left me shell-shocked that Hollywood actually tried to pass it off as entertainment. They must take us for fools!!

Okay, so I’m sure by now you’re curious what the film is about? Well, the answer to that question is basically nothing. Aliens attack earth for our resources (Apparently, they want our water) and a bunch of meathead clichés fight back. They are lead by the retired Ssgt. Michael Nantz (Played by the determined-not-to-let the-film-crumble-into-smoldering-ruin Aaron Eckhart). Unfortunately, he can’t salvage the film’s set up by his acting alone. The rest of the characters don’t matter, as they are there to just be “Hoorah!” shouting targets for the aliens. Their mission is to hold LA at any cost. Why? Good question. They never tell us and we are supposed to just accept it. The film refuses to offer anything in the way of substance and opts for countless gunfights instead. It never attempts to offer up a developed hero we can stand behind and the rest of the marines that populate the squad are there to be shot up by the aliens. The film is the simple equation of explosion, run, scream, shoot, plot how to destroy the alien killing machines, repeat.

Usually, when I go to this type of film, I lower my expectations. I give myself over to it and roll with the punches. Sure, when the lights come up again in the theater, I will admit that what I just saw was pure crap. But, if it’s crap done right and with some obvious care of the material, then I will give the film some critical leeway. I will not tear the film to pieces if it at least made me care about a character, invoked something in the way of an emotion, thrilled me, entertained me, or transported me to a world I never knew I wanted to visit. This is precisely why we go to these types of movies. We go to explore a world we have never seen before with a larger-than-life hero and escape from our daily problems, if only for a little bit. And I will admit that my expectations were lowered when I started to see the irate reviews for this film. It broke my heart because the trailer had been so effective and for a while, the film was actually tolerable. I was curious to see what route the film was going to take. But after about twenty minutes, the project dive-bombed and it never regained itself. The major problem with all of it is the fact that it attempts to blind us to the fact that there is nothing underneath all of the rumble and special effects. There is no humanity to it. It’s all, sadly, for nothing.

Furthermore, the film is not only a chore to endure, but it features dialogue so painful, it’s offensive. It seems like the film was penned by a fifteen year old action junkie who watched District 9 way too many times and plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare too often. The film is like an unholy mutation of two forms of unrelated entertainment that are both actually quite respectable. Any film that contains the line, which is someone offering up their help in dissecting one of the barely seen extraterrestrials: “Maybe I can help! I’m a vet!”, should have gone back to the drawing board. The film is loaded with these so-bad-they-actually-make-you-groan lines and it shamelessly delivers them with a straight face. Instead of thoughtful banter between the marines, it consists of them yelling: “Let’s show them who they fucked with!” and my personal favorite “We already had breakfast!” (This line, if you have seen the movie, has got to be the cheesiest lines in the history of cinema.).

Since this is a special effects spectacle (Well, it’s convinced that it is.), you are probably wondering how the effects are. This is the films strongest department, as the alien ships are actually quite creative. They resemble the silver disc-like flying saucers that we have seen in countless stock photos. The aliens, however, are not nearly as inspired, as they are a strange machine and flesh fusion that we never get a good look at. They march around in the distance making growling and clicking noises that would make the Prawns in District 9 roll their eyes. They have guns attached to their arms, which is another neat concept, but ultimately is obscured underneath more gunfights and explosions. And don’t even get me started about the final battle between the marines and a ship that rises up out of the ground. At one point, the aliens use a strange, spider-like death machine that fires off several rockets at once. You would think that the aliens would use more of these, as it is clearly a devastating weapon that proves to be quite a challenge to bring down. Unfortunately, it is loudly destroyed and that’s the last we see of this.

Battle: Los Angeles has succeeded in putting the final bullet in the head of blockbusters. Every single aspect of the film is so awful; I started to wonder if this was all just a sick joke on the audience. The film relentlessly bashes us over the head and practically causes a seizure from the shaky, strobe like editing. It raises more questions than it answers (How the hell are the televisions and internet still working even though LA has been bombed into oblivion?). I have never, in the twenty-one years I have been attending movies, wanted a film to end so badly as I did this one. It was excruciating. I will admit that even trying to form a proper way of describing how awful this film was to anyone is difficult, as it is dreadful on so many levels. It was appalling. Please, folks, for the love of God, do not see this movie. Do not show support for this kind of shit. That’s exactly what the film is. Shit. A stinking, steaming, ugly, disgusting, mean, lump of shit. The acting is shit, the script is shit, the cinematography is shit and the plot is shit. Battle: Los Angeles is without question, the worst film in recent memory.  Somewhere, Battlefield Earth is breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Grade: F

Battle: Los Angeles is now ruining movies on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Rum Diary (2011)

by Corinne Rizzo

If ever there was a situation where in the torture and tolerance of a specific writer’s mind, as it sits decades ahead of itself, was set on display, The Rum Diary would certainly establish itself on the latter end of his career spanning spectrum. But also on some of the most former ends, as well. A long labor of diligence and defeat and disillusionment is the story of The Rum Diary. The cinematic debut of Hunter S. Thompson’s earliest and most fictitious efforts is a display of the writer at work and the devoted on parade — truly a celebration of the man, his grip on reality, despite his reputation for public intox, and his warnings for the future. Watch out young writers, the disease of writerly guilt is heavy in this film and it is contagious.

An early and eager attempt to join the ranks of fiction writers in his day, and what seems to be heavily influenced by Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson brought upon his readers, Paul Kemp and his journey into the depths of the American dream. A patriot in his own right, Thompson lived to remind his readers and the followers of his philosophy of freedom, not as a country but as a race of human beings. Homosapiens. Animals.

Sound familiar?

One might be hard pressed to not consider other tales of Thompson when preparing for what to expect for this film. Some would even go out of their way to exclude Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Where The Buffalo Roam, to proudly display their understanding The Rum Diary is of fictional persuasion. Not to be lumped in with other films using Thompson as our main character. Truthfully though, there is a comparison to be drawn and a further understanding of a lesson we learn repeatedly with Thompson.

So Kemp, played by Johnny Depp (a devotee on parade himself), wakes up in San Juan, caccooned in a hotel suite paid for by a tourist based local paper. The curtains drawn and room trashed, shows the possibilities of the evening before; Kemp himself a little worse for wear.

He has arrived to set to work for said tourist paper writing horoscopes when, out shooting photographs of the country one day, the reality of dharma sets in, sending Kemp to dig deeper within his reporting and pushing to expose the atrocity of  the greedy animalistic nature of man.

Unfortunately for Kemp, The San Juan Star is a paper on the outs and most of his in depth work gets shoved aside for being too heavy or too honest.  Lotterman, the Star’s editor, often reminds Kemp of the worthlessness of reporting real news to the resort bound tourists on the island. The financial effect of not letting a sleeping dog lie.

The authenticity of these characters like Lotterman is what lend a real edge to the film. Reading the novel, one sees all sides of San Juan from one man. The novel offers what the reader needs in a poetic and fleeting way and the film follows suit. While most of the characters slide right in with what one would read in text, Moberg, a highly functioning drunk for his intake, takes the most getting used to. Luckily enough for the viewer, Giovanni Ribisi pulled it together toward the end to help create a trifecta of defeat for our characters. The point in which most stories end and others begin. Clear enough is the idea that Moberg is excessive and volatile, though through most of the film the viewer feels distanced from such a potentially amusing character. Thompson’s steps to create this character as friendly and deplorable all at once must have resonated with Director Bruce Robinson and Giovanni Ribisi, which makes for a convincing Moberg.

Depp’s responsibilities to the film seem almost innate by now and redundant to even mention, but respectfully, the man does an excellent job of relating Kemp as Thompson in a time of getting one’s feet wet, learning that the high road isn’t as clean and sober as it sounds and that that’s OK, as long as we all end up in the same place. And reminding his readers, friends and, family, that we will all end up in the same place, was just one of Thompson’s efforts.

Anyone who avoids the comparison of this film against any previous films involving Thompson, just because the novel was published as Fiction, would be missing a huge chunk of the legacy that the man provided to his image. The film moves slowly at times, as the novel does. It is worth the perseverance. Like Kerouac, Thompson is everywhere in his writing and Bruce Robinson safely captures that while displaying a truly stylish and timeless snapshot of American fiction. The American dream. One man’s story and all that jazz.

Grade: A-

(Because nothing man made is ever perfect.)

Top Five Reasons to See The Rum Dairy:

1)   Because if you’ve read it, you can make cool comparisons to the book at dinner after the movie like you used to do in class in college.

2)   If you’re a writer, it will remind you that it has been too long since you’ve written.

3)   They don’t let you leave without memorial to Thompson.

4)   Giovanni Ribisi as Moberg.

5)   Cockfighting.