American Hustle (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.
American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.
With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”
Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.
As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, it seems that it has become routine for Hollywood to release one or two rundown drama-thrillers a year that feature blue collar characters having it out with one another in a gasping American neighborhood on the verge of total collapse. We’ve seen it in films like Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, The Beasts of Southern Wild, and Killing Them Softly, all of which relished immersing audiences in family squabbling, filth, decay, and boarded up structures. This year we have director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, another downbeat family-drama/revenge-thriller set against a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania. While Out of the Furnace may not necessarily win any points for originality (this is definitely a seen-it-all-before exercise), Cooper’s Rust Belt tale of revenge is comprised of heart pounding backwoods atmosphere, bare-knuckle brutality, and gripping melodrama guaranteed to make that hour and fifty minute runtime fly by in a flash. It also features enough A-list talent to fuel a dozen Oscar bait movies, with stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard all bringing the true grit required to allow a film like this to really take shape.
Out of the Furnace introduces us to Russell Baze (played by Christian Bale), a steel mill worker who slaves away taking double shifts to help out his brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a war veteran struggling to adapt to normal life after several tours of duty in Iraq. Despite some differences, Russell and Rodney still band together to look after their terminally ill father, who seems to be getting worse by the day. One evening, Russell is driving home from a local bar when he strikes a car and kills the occupants inside. Russell is sent away to prison for some time, but when he emerges, he realizes that his life hasn’t gotten any easier. As he tries to come to terms with the passing of his father and his break-up with his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (played by Zoe Saldana), Russell learns that Rodney has become involved with bare-knuckle boxing. Concerned for his safety, Russell attempts to persuade Rodney to leave bare-knuckle boxing behind and come work with him at the steel mill. Refusing to listen to his brother, Rodney demands that local gangster John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe) get him fights that are run by Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), an extremely dangerous backwoods thug who has a grudge against Petty. After Rodney mysteriously disappears at the hands of DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his brother before it’s too late.
While there are several elements borrowed from other films and there is a slight predictability to it, Out of the Furnace takes great care in really making both its story and its characters seem as genuine as possible. Russell struggles to find the motivation to pull himself from the comfort of Lena’s arms to work a double at the sweaty steel mill. With circles under his eyes and his dreams smothered under protective gear, he keeps a dignified poise as he tries desperately to keep his brother on the right track. This proves challenging when Rodney retaliates with the horrors he saw in Iraq (some of the stories he shares are deeply disturbing), which really allow us a clear understanding as to why it is so difficult for him to find his place in normal society. Russell’s composure remains in tact when he is involved in that gruesome car accident, which places him behind bars and at the mercy of vicious inmates for some time. When he finally gets out, things have gone from bad to worse, as he grapples with the loss of his father, his break up, and the horrors of that terrible accident. Despite his weary exasperation, when he finally has to confront the demons that claim his brother, there are no exaggerations in the actions taken. The frustration with local authorities and his determination to not loose his brother open a door for careful plotting that leads up to a low-key final showdown with the devil himself that is shockingly convincing.
While Bale makes Russell’s soft-spoken composure, self-assurance, and deteriorating compliance in the face of tragedy and failure electrifying cinema, it is Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat that is ultimately in charge of Out of the Furnace. With a crack-rock smile and zero patience, DeGroat relishes his rotten existence, proudly declaring that he “has a problem with everybody.” He pyshically and psychologically bullies anyone and everyone for the smallest things, proudly beating up his girlfriend at a drive-in and then viciously attacking a man who tries to intervene. It’s an unforgettably evil performance from Harrelson, who completely fills out DeGroat’s filthy-dirty skin. Affleck is perfectly suited for Rodney, a haunted soldier who just can’t seem to get his life together. He comes home with his face pounded into oblivion and sips liquor to make the pain go away. He’s on a crash course, and his fate is tragically foreseeable. Dafoe is fantastic as John Petty, a small time thug in over his head with the wrong people. He’s far from a hard-ass gangster, and when the people he has wronged come calling, the quiver in his voice will have your stomach in a knot. Saldana is given a small but pivotal role as Lena, Russell’s one and only escape from his daily grind. Forest Whitaker is present as Chief Wesley Barnes, a gravel-voiced cop who stole Lena away from Russell. His strained relationship with Russell is put to the test when he attempts to get to the bottom of Rodney’s disappearance. Sam Shepard also stops by as Gerald Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle who joins Russell in his quest to track down his brother.
Considering that Out of the Furnace draws from other intense works of cinema, the film dishes out plenty of scenes drenched in blood and violence. The bare-knuckle boxing scenes are difficult to watch, as each punch thrown isn’t accompanied with an over-the-top sound effect to embellish the force of the blow. The beatings are savage and the violence is shown in up-close-and-personal detail, especially one character taking a bullet to the head. We also can’t forget Rodney’s war stories, which will certainly repulse and remind us all of the horrors of war. Equally disturbing is a trip to a rundown crack house hidden in the dense hills. We glimpse junkies sprawled across ripped sofas, sucking on crack pipes and shooting heroine in between their toes. Overall, while the lack of originality will hold the film back this awards season, Out of the Furnace is still a riveting, emotional, and uncompromising backwoods drama/thriller. It makes great use of its backdrop, it’s appropriately moody, and it’s comprised of actors who take familiar characters and really give them distinctive life. It’s capped off with an abrupt finale that is welcomingly blunt and haunting.
Video Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Video review of the new Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. This was a tough film to discuss due to content that many may label as spoilers. I really tried to avoid revealing anything that will ruin the experience so please do not judge the video too harshly. Also, my heart goes out to the victims of the shooting in Colorado. It is a shame that someone had to ruin something that was meant to be fun and exciting. My deepest sympathies are with the families of the victims.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
by Steve Habrat
It is finally here, folks! One of the most anticipated films of all time is finally crashing into theaters and everyone is dying to know if it lives up to the sky high expectations that have been set by critics, fanboys, and average moviegoers alike. Well folks, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in his wildly prevalent Batman franchise, does live up to the gigantic expectations. In fact, it lives up to those expectations and then blows them to smithereens. If you can believe it, Nolan manages to craft a film that is bleaker and darker than anything he came up with in his shadowy origin tale or his chilling bridge film. This goes way beyond dark territory and dives headlong into black no man’s land. Nolan pits our flesh and blood hero against a foe that he is no match for and throws in an evil plot to end all other evil plots. Raising the bar even higher than he did with 2008’s showstopper The Dark Knight, Nolan once again begins tinkering with the formula of the superhero movie and what he conjures up is a mammoth ogre of a film that finds itself intrigued with our unshakeable fear of terrorism in our post 9/11 world. It could be called a rehash but Nolan is witty enough to put the lives of hundreds of thousands on the line and with a number like that, there is no way everyone can survive.
I won’t provide too much about the plot in this review so I will stick to the barebones basics. Eight years after the Joker brought Gotham City to its knees, crime has been almost completely scrubbed away from the streets of Gotham. The city still mourns the death of their “white knight” Harvey Dent, who was driven insane by the Clown Prince of Crime and went on a killing spree that left several individuals dead. In an attempt to keep hope alive in Gotham, Batman (Played by Christian Bale) has taken the fall for Dent’s crimes and disappeared from the city. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman) has been grappling with the fact that he has been feeding the public lies and finds himself on the verge of revealing the true Harvey Dent to the citizens of Gotham. Bruce Wayne, who is still licking the wounds he suffered at the hands of Dent and the Joker, stays locked away inside Wayne Manor, which has now been rebuilt. Wayne is shaken out of retirement after he stumbles upon a vampy burglar by the name of Selina Kyle (Played by Anne Hathaway) making off with his mother’s necklace. As Bruce begins to investigate Kyle’s background, he discovers a much larger plot to destroy Gotham City. This plot is being led by the terrifying mercenary Bane (Played by Tom Hardy), who is diligently building an army below the streets of Gotham, waiting for the proper moment to emerge and turn the city to ash.
Dropping the thriller routine that he was fond of in The Dark Knight, Nolan crafts a large-scale disaster epic that leaves our hero scrambling to gather all the help he can find. He discovers that he may be able to trust Kyle, who is desperate to erase her rocky past any way she can. Batman also finds that he can trust Gotham City beat cop Detective John Blake (Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an admirer of Batman’s efforts to clean up the city. He also finds help in the usual suspects Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman), his gadgets man, Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred Pennyworth (Played by Michael Caine), his trusty butler. While The Dark Knight Rises slowly evolves from disaster film into war epic, Nolan bombards the viewer with countless images of destruction and devastation that settles in the pit of your stomach like a rock. We’ve all seen the scenes of the football field collapsing and the overhead shots of bridges getting blown to hell, but that doesn’t soften their impact, especially when Hans Zimmer’s rumbling score joins in. It is through heavy scenes like this that you have to wonder if these new alliances will even make a ripple against Bane’s tidal wave of terror.
While The Dark Knight Rises has plenty of jaw-dropping action sequences, the film is carried off into greatness by the performances of everyone involved. The standouts are definitely the new kids on the block, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The one who steals the movie (fitting for her character) is Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, who is never once referred to as Catwoman. A Robin Hood figure dressed in a black body suit and goggles, Kyle is firecracker as she slinks through this boys show. She gets a kick out of seducing rich men and then taking them for all that they have. While Hathaway is great, she gets some competition from Hardy’s Bane, a hulking terrorist with a fang-like gas mask bolted to his face. While Hardy is given the nearly impossible task of following up Heath Ledger’s Joker, he holds his own as an equally sadistic “liberator” who manhandles anyone who tries to go up against him. Rounding out the new kids is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s beat cop Blake, a good guy who catches the attention of Commissioner Gordon, and Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, a Wayne Enterprises investor who is desperately trying to shake Bruce Wayne out of his funk.
Then we have the veterans who all exit Gotham City in plenty of style. Bale shines even brighter here as Wayne, now a gaunt recluse who has shut himself out of the world in the wake of what the Joker took from him. You will want to stand up and cheer when Bruce finally leaves the halls of Wayne Manor and hits the streets once again as the Batman. As Batman, Bale brings a ferocity that we haven’t yet seen from him as Batman. We briefly glimpsed it in the interrogation scene in The Dark Knight but here; Batman is a predator that is foaming at the mouth. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox jumps at the opportunity to get Bruce back in the crime fighting game. He gets to unveil Batman’s latest “wonderful toy” The Bat, a prototype flying machine that is beyond nifty. Caine’s Alfred gets the most emotional moments of the film as he pleads with Bruce to not confront this new evil that is ripping Gotham to shreds. He gets one specific scene with Bruce Wayne that will hit you in the gut like a wrecking ball. Then there is Oldman’s Gordon, who is suffering from the fib he has told about Harvey Dent. You will fight back geeky applause when Batman and Gordon finally reunite after eight years.
Sadly, The Dark Knight Rises does have a few flaws, which are mildly distracting. One in particularly really bothered me but I won’t reveal it here because many may label it a spoiler. There is also one character that is left slightly undeveloped, which was a shame because it would have improved the twist at the end of the film. Despite the flaws, Nolan once again holds up a gritty reflection of our current political backdrop. While I don’t think it was intentional, Nolan touches upon the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99% rising up against the 1%. The film was written just slightly before the protests but you have to hand it to Nolan for picking up on the tensions. He also can’t resist touching upon terrorism, the theme even heavier here than it was in The Dark Knight. While I am reluctant to say too much about the film because the less you know going in, the better it will be, I can promise you that the last hour of this film is why we go to the movies. You will fight the urge to leap out of your seat and throw air punches as Batman and Bane battle for the fate of Gotham City. I’ll admit that I was fighting back tears in the final moments of the film, Nolan wrapping everything up in the finest way possible, which meant the world to this Batfan. While its few flaws may make it fall short of being a masterpiece, The Dark Knight Rises is easily the best Batman film ever made, the best blockbuster of the summer, and the best film of 2012 so far. If you want my opinion, epic doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Nolan has delivered here. It is a commanding tour de force that will almost make you forget to breathe. A must-see.
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.
The Dark Knight is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Batman Begins (2005)
by Steve Habrat
After Joel Schumacher and the money hungry Warner Bros. put the final bullet in the Batman franchise in 1997, the character lay dormant for many years at the studio, sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Every so often, rumors would emerge that the studio was trying to get a Batman project off the ground but you knew nothing would come of any of these rumors. There were also whispers of a Batman/Superman mash-up but that was also unlikely due to how long Superman had been sitting on the bench. Plus, if you even mentioned Batman in a normal conversation, it was followed up by laughs and eye rolling. Then the news came that upcoming filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the director of solid but small thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, was planning to reboot the Batman franchise and take it back to its darker roots. This was glorious news to anyone who was a Batman fan. In 2005, the world was graced with Batman Begins, a darker, meaner, and deadly serious adaptation of the Dark Knight that stayed furiously true to the DC comic book origins of the character. Audiences were a bit hesitant to flock to the film at first but as positive word of mouth leaked out, Batman Begins slowly became a big hit. It was a hit that made up for the Batman & Robin atrocity while also proving to both mainstream audiences and Batfans that there is still plenty of life (and brains) in this masked vigilante. It was untapped potential that the world would be starving for, they just didn’t know it yet.
In the wake of the death of his parents, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Christian Bale) travels the world to study the behavior of criminals. He is soon detained in Asia where he meets the mysterious Henri Ducard (Played by Liam Neeson), who works for a shadowy organization called the League of Shadows. Ducard promises to train Bruce in ways of battling crime and if he can make it through the grueling training, he can join the League of Shadows, which is led by the equally peculiar Ra’s Al Ghul (Played by Ken Watanabe). Bruce makes it through his training but as he discovers the sinister true intentions of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, he escapes and heads back to Gotham City, where he is reunited with his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Played by Michael Caine). Once he lands in Gotham, Bruce reveals to Alfred his master plan for saving Gotham City, which is gripped by organized crime and corruption. Bruce also tries to work his way back into the family company, Wayne Enterprises, which is slowly deteriorating at the hands of slippery CEO William Earle (Played by Rutger Hauer). Once back at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce meets longtime family friend Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman), who shows Bruce a number of prototype weapons that were shelved by Wayne Enterprises. With access to a slew of nifty gadgets and Alfred and Lucius on his side, Bruce puts together his alter ego that he plans to use to strike fear in the criminals of Gotham City. He also begins trying to form an alliance with Sergeant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman), the last good cop in Gotham City who hasn’t given in to corruption. With all the pieces in place, Bruce hits the streets as the masked vigilante Batman and his war on injustice begins.
Throughout the two hour and twenty minute runtime of Batman Begins, director Nolan breathlessly explains all angles of Bruce’s transformation into Batman. Both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed to ever really explain where Bruce was getting all these snazzy vehicles and these high-tech weapons to battle the evildoers of Gotham City, which was always a bit frustrating to me. Furthermore, how did he ever get so good at being stealthy and how did he get so powerful in a fistfight? Nolan covers all of that and more, which was incredibly exciting as a fan of Batman. We also get a psychological look at Bruce Wayne, who is consumed and driven by fear and anger, emotions that he is taught to control. He blames himself for the death of his parents, angry that he got scared in the theater that fateful evening. Fear is ultimately the theme of Batman Begins, with Bruce’s father Thomas (Played by Linus Roache) explaining, “all creatures feel fear”, wise words that would lead Bruce to create Batman. Nolan uses this theme of fear to reflect our post 9/11 world, where American citizens are gripped by the fear of terrorism and attacks by rebel organizations that lurk in the shadows. He goes on to reinforce the idea that fear can be one of the most powerful weapons on the face of the earth, more powerful than bullets, bombs, fists, or roundhouse kicks. Entire cities can collapse through mass panic, a heady idea for a summer blockbuster.
With the psychology and reflection of a world gripped by fear firmly in place, Batman Begins can focus on the performances, particularly Bale’s Bruce Wayne. For the first time, a Batman film actually puts the most emphasis on our conflicted hero, who grapples with his identity once he pulls the cowl over his face and begins his never-ending battle. Bale is a whirlwind of emotions from the first time he is on the screen. He suffers from nightmares of a traumatic childhood event that sparked his fear of bats. We see him consumed by vengeance and anger as he contemplates assassinating Joe Chill (Played by Richard Brake), the man responsible for the murder of his parents. He coldly shuts out the affection of Alfred, who desperately tries to reach him before he disappears on his quest to study criminals. His metamorphosis under Ducard is equally gripping as Bruce learns to control his emotions, a discipline that paves the way for the awakening of Batman. This exploration of the character goes on for slightly over an hour before Bruce finally unleashes his alter ego on Gotham City but you will never once find yourself clamoring for the Dark Knight to finally emerge from the shadows. Nolan said that he wanted us to really care for the man behind the mask and he absolutely meant it. Once Bruce becomes Batman, he also has to become the reckless playboy for the paparazzi, a third side to a character that already has two interesting faces. With the reckless playboy, Bale really gets to let loose and have some fun, but the pain and longing creeps in.
Then we have the supporting players who compliment Bale quite nicely. The second best here is Michael Caine’s Alfred, who has looked after Bruce ever since they buried Thomas and Martha Wayne. He is an authority figure, coming down on Bruce after he witnesses a destructive chase between Batman and Gotham police department. We also have Lucius Fox, a gentle “Q” who looks the other way when Bruce asks him to show him the Tumbler, a heavily armored tank prototype that becomes the Batmobile. The best exchanges in the film are between Bruce, Alfred, and Lucius. Gary Oldman’s Sergeant Gordon also gets the proper attention that his character deserves, which was a huge relief for Batfans disappointed with the way Pat Hingle’s Gordon was handled in the previous films. Oldman really gives a reserved performance that ranks as one of my favorite in Batman Begins. The love interest here is Rachel Dawes (Played by Katie Holmes), who has caught quite a bit of criticism for her performance here but I fail to see where she is so bad. She only becomes the damsel in distress one time throughout the film, a strong gal who holds her own when one of the film’s main villains bears down on her. The bad guys here are Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Played by Cillian Murphy), mob boss Carmine Falcone (Played by Tom Wilkinson), and a figure from Bruce’s past that I won’t reveal here if you have never seen the film. Murphy’s Scarecrow is a real weasel of a villain, one who really uses fear to manipulate and intimidate. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a nod to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, a snarling mob boss who controls the law in Gotham. There is also the superb Liam Neeson as Ducard, a father-figure mentor who hides a devastating secret that will rock Bruce’s world.
Batman Begins is heavy on the human drama and the raw emotions but it also delivers plenty of thrilling action to satisfy the summer movie crowd hungry for explosions. An extended car chase will get the adrenaline flowing and a massive prison break that unleashes hundreds of psychos into the streets of Gotham will have you holding your breath. There are plenty of twists and turns in Batman Begins that will keep you guessing about certain characters, with a slow build plot of destruction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The film is relentlessly dark, disturbing, and violent, with plenty that will terrify the children who will want to see it. Batman Begins does come with a few flaws, mostly in the way that Nolan cuts his fight scenes. They are marred by a strobe light approach that makes some of the battles incomprehensible, which was slightly disappointing. Flaws aside, Batman Begins is still an absorbing, chilly look at Batman’s rise, our post 9/11 jitters, and the psychology of a hero. It restores honor to the Batman name and makes fans everywhere proud to stand behind the Dark Knight.
Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD.