by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven unveiled RoboCop, a satirical science fiction blockbuster that has been long celebrated by critics and audiences as a classic of the genre. Despite offering gruesome thrills and unrelenting action, this beloved classic has even earned recognition from the prestigious Criterion Collection and was released by the arthouse company on laserdisc and DVD a few years back. It should come as no surprise that a remake of RoboCop was rumored for many years—unsurprisingly, really, considering that Hollywood is running on fumes in the creativity department. After almost ten years of development, America finally has Brazilian director José Padilha’s RoboCop, a buffed and bloodless affair that features a staggering A-list cast. With names like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackie Earle Haley filling up the cast list, you’d think that there must be something solid to this blatantly unnecessary remake of a classic. Truthfully, RoboCop 2014 isn’t nearly as bad as you may have expected it to be. It’s far from empty headed and the veteran performances carry plenty of weight, but the film is so concerned with making an intelligent statement that the film nearly forgets to have any fun or offer any adrenaline-pumping set pieces. It also makes the grave mistake of handing over the title role to Joel Kinnaman, a newcomer that works hard but never fully earns our sympathy or respect.
RoboCop picks up in Detroit, 2029, with police officer Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner, Jack Lewis (played by Michael K. Williams), doing some dangerous undercover work in an attempt to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (played by Patrick Garrow). In their investigation, they begin to discover that Vallon may have ties to several officers in the Detroit police department. After a nasty confrontation between the undercover officers and Vallon’s men, Jack is left severely wounded and clinging to life. Alex manages to make it through the confrontation unscathed, but Vallon’s men soon track him down and implant an explosive device inside his car. While enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife, Clara (played by Abbie Cornish), and his young son, David, the device is triggered, leaving Alex with fourth degree burns covering his body. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the United States is waging war with the help of robotic soldiers and hulking droids created by OmniCorp. On American soil, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellers (played by Michael Keaton) is pushing to have these robots and droids patrol American streets, but he is met with resistance from Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (played by Zach Grenier), who claims that the robots and droids lack human emotion. Desperate to make his vision a reality, Sellers enlists the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman) to meld man with machine. After a lengthy search for a proper candidate, Sellers and Norton settle on Alex for the human/robot program, and in the process create a revolutionary new figure of justice—RoboCop.
Where most blockbusters today attempt to mask their lack of intelligence with countless CGI battles, gunfights, fistfights, and miles of devastation, RoboCop begins with heady debates about the use of robots and droids in the thick of war. The battle rages on a nightly news program called The Novak Element, hosted by Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson). In this sequence, we are treated to some tense urban action sprinkled in between Novak’s bug-eyed stare and his questioning of America’s “robophobia.” Points are made on both sides of the issue, bullets fly, bombs explode, and things seem to be getting off to a strong start even before the credits have rolled. Padilha and his crew are letting us know that they are well aware that the original RoboCop was interested in smarts just as much as it was interested in spilling blood, and you have to commend them for acknowledging this. However, as the seconds tick by in RoboCop 2014, it becomes increasingly clear that the filmmakers seem reluctant to have a little fun. There is a brief rush of giddy excitement when Alex steps into a training session in an abandoned warehouse, but the action feels square and the approach is uninspired as Jackie Earle Hayle’s Rick Maddox taunts the stomping RoboAlex by calling him “Tin Man.” I’m sad to report that the action rarely picks up from here, only really cutting loose during the final showdown in the OmniCorp lobby.
While the action may not exactly take your breath away, a good majority of the performances will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Perhaps the most mediocre of the bunch is Kinnaman, who fails do anything interesting with his screen time. He’s the typical macho cop/mushy family man in the early scenes, and when he’s sentenced to his new RoboArmor, he’s only sporadically pathetic as he realizes that he will never have a normal life again. Still, he can droop his mouth into a proper frown as he aims his machine gun and fires at the bad guys, which is always an action-movie plus. The ever-welcome Oldman is the top dog here as Dennett, the doctor tasked with placing the injured cop inside a machine. Oldman earns more sympathy when he is forced to switch off Alex’s emotions than the actual RoboHero does. Keaton nails his role as Sellers, the ruthless OmniCorp CEO who may not be as upstanding as he seems. Jackie Earle Hayley does a fine job as Maddox considering that the screenwriters have handed him the film’s worst dialogue. Strapped inside his exoskeleton, he looks like something out of Elysium, but he still finds a groove as a certified badass. Jackson is his usual shouting self as Pat Novak, the nightly news host who speaks directly to the audience and acts as a pale moderator to all the heated debates. Abbie Cornish rounds out the main cast as Alex’s suffering wife, Clara, who slowly regrets allowing the suits of OmniCorp to slap her husband inside that black armor.
Undoubtedly the most controversial change in RoboCop 2014 is the PG-13 violence that the studio opted for rather than the gruesome R-rated approach Verhoeven took to the original. Throughout it’s nearly two-hour run time, there is barely a speck of blood, which makes it clear that Columbia intends to turn this new RoboCop into a sanitized series that will sell just as many toys as it does tickets. Despite the lack of bloodshed and carnage, Padilha’s RoboCop is still a well-paced story that builds quite nicely. The only time that the film really drops the ball is with Vallon and his villainous shenanigans. He is quickly bumped off and forgotten so that Padilha can make room for bigger and badder tricks. It also wouldn’t have hurt to include villains that are a bit more colorful than what we are left with. Overall, you can’t fault RoboCop 2014 for attempting to be much more than a mind numbing, popcorn-muncher of a film, but this constant strain to be saying something prevents the audience from receiving the action jolt they are craving. Maybe a different lead would have helped, too. Oh well, as far as remakes go, it could have been much, much worse.
True Romance (1993)
by Steve Habrat
Even though Quentin Tarantino did not direct the 1993 romantic thriller True Romance, one would swear that it was made by the vigorous film buff. Directed by the late Tony Scott and written by Mr. Tarantino, True Romance is a fast, funny, gory, and sexy tale about gangsters, drugs, pimps, comic books, Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and some of the strangest characters you are ever likely to see in a motion picture. Hot of the success of 1992’s indie Reservoir Dogs and made just before 1994’s star-studded Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s script is a fiery blast of nerdy dialogue and fizzy romance matched up with an all-star cast (Christian Slater! Patricia Arquette! Samuel L. Jackson! Dennis Hopper! Brad Pitt! Christopher Walken! Val Kilmer! Gary Oldman!), who all give insanely memorable performances. You can feel Tarantino’s energy humming through the entire project but it’s Scott’s edgy and flashy directorial style that makes this nearly two hour film seem like it is only about a half-hour long. Seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly this film moves and how short it actually felt. While True Romance is always fun and exciting, the film sadly looses a little steam near the climax. Maybe I was just fatigued from the Scott’s hyperactive style and Tarantino’s fast paced film-referencing conversations that led up to the final confrontation. I mean, did you ever think there would be a film that references both The Streefighter and Terrence Malick’s Badlands?
True Romance introduces us to comic book store clerk Clarence (Played by Christian Slater), a nerdy loner who attends a kung fu triple feature on his birth. While at the movies, he crosses paths with a beautiful blonde named Alabama (Played by Patricia Arquette). The two hit it off instantly over pie and conversations about Elvis, comic books, and kung fu. After a night of steamy passion, Alabama reveals that she was a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present but that she has fallen madly in love with him. The two marry and Clarence decides that he is going to seek out Alabama’s pimp, Drexel (Played by Gary Oldman), and let him know that his blonde bombshell is quitting. This meeting between Clarence and Drexel doesn’t go according to plan and Clarance ends up killing Drexel and accidentally leaving with a bag of stolen cocaine. Unsure what to do, Clarance seeks out the help of his estranged father, Clifford (Played by Dennis Hopper), and plans to flee to California. Hot on Clarence and Alabama’s trail is a gangster Vincenzo Coccoti (Played by Christopher Walken) and his sadistic enforcer Virgil (Played by James Gandolfini). Once they arrive in California and hook up with Clarence’s buddies Dick Ritchie (Played by Michael Rapaport) and Floyd (Played by Brad Pitt), things really get dangerous.
True Romance is loaded with juicy Tarantino moments, the ones where characters sit down to have a completely quotable conversation. You will be fighting off a grin during a diner conversation between Slater’s Clarence and Arquette’s Alabama. Comic geeks will swoon when Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop where he works and they share a kiss over the first issue of Spider-Man. Fear not, folks, the great chatty moments don’t stop there. There is a hilarious scene where Hopper and Walken fire up cigarettes and have a war of words before one of them is staring down the barrel of a gun. And we can’t forget any dazed zinger that comes from Pitt’s Floyd. For as talky as True Romance gets, Tarantino and Scott deliver some seriously nasty moments of violence. The showdown between Drexel and Clarence will get the blood pumping something fierce with all its claustrophobic brutality while Alabama receives a vicious beating from Virgil, as he demands to know where the big bag of cocaine is hidden. And then there is the strangely beautiful gunfight at the end that has three groups going toe to toe as feathers and cocaine fly through the air.
True Romance may be a whirlwind of geeky chats and stomach churning violence, but it would be nothing without the oddball performances from its all-star cast. Slater is a knockout as Clarence, a comic and B-movie geek who finally gets the girl. His opening moments with Arquette are out of this world as they get to know each other over popcorn, pie, and Sonny Chiba. Arquette as a ray of sunshine with a violent streak, moved to tears when Clarence kills someone for her. Oldman gives a jaw-dropping performance as Drexel, the dread-locked pimp who chows down of Chinese while taking in The Mack. He taunts Clarence by calling him a “regular Charlie Bronson!” Walken gets a fine cameo as a soft-spoken gangster who cackles when Hooper insults him for his Sicilian background. It’s a small role, borderline cameo, but Walken nails it like he is the star of the show. Hooper leaves crazy on the shelf as Clarence’s father, a washed up ex cop who seems to be living a lonely existence with his dog in a rundown trailer. Pitt is absolutely hilarious as Floyd, a stoner rooted to the living room couch. He’s hysterical when he asks a handful of gangsters if they want to get high. Rapaport is his usual restless self as Dick Ritchie, an aspiring actor who is consistently exasperated with Floyd. And then there is Val Kilmer as Elvis, an apparition that appears and whispers words of encouragement to Clarence.
If you’re a cinema buff or a comic book fan, True Romance should be essential viewing for you. It’s consistently clever, retro, funny, pulpy, and heart pounding all while bopping along to Hans Zimmer’s score that pays tribute to Malick’s Badlands. When the film swaps the snowy streets of Detroit for the sun-kissed streets of California, the film looses some of the momentum it had gathered early on. The end showdown is visually thrilling and certainly a bloody, gory show, but the viewer is suffering burn out from the white-knuckle pace of the rest of the film to really appreciate it. Still, its worth catching True Romance simply to see this cast really let their crazy sides fly and it’s the true definition of entertaining. It’s also worth it to catch Pitt in a hilarious haze of marijuana smoke and lukewarm beers. Overall, its hard not to wonder what Tarantino would have done with the film had he directed it but Scott shapes all the action into a banshee of a thrill ride. Just make sure you keep a B-movie history book close by and you brush up on your comic knowledge. It will lead to a deeper appreciation of the film.
True Romance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If I have learned one thing at the movies this summer, I have learned that Tom Hardy is one scary man. I think if I were to pass him on the sidewalk, I’d quickly cross the street to avoid him. As if his villainous turn as hulking terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t enough to make this guy one intimidating bastard, wait until you get a load of him in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a Prohibition era thriller about bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Hillcoat’s thriller, which is based on a true story, does find a few common gangster movie qualities blotching the screenplay by Nick Cave. However, Lawless is saved by the explosive performances from this must-see ensemble cast, who all seem to be relishing this material. Still, I really wish I could say that Lawless avoided things we have seen from movies like this in the past but sadly, it gets caught in the same web that many of these films do. The story line does gasp one breath of fresh air by its use of Prohibition as the backdrop for these outlaws. I also admired the setting, far away from the big city bustle and nestled in the hills where Mother Nature isolates the Bondurant boys behind her natural wooded wall. Yet Lawless is sent into the stars by the terrifying turn from Hardy, a role that I can only hope is not forgotten come Awards season.
Welcome to the hills of Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia, a serene and seemingly peaceful place where bootlegging runs rampant. The stars of this bootlegging party are the Bondurant boys, who seem to be on top of the world just out of the clutches of the law. The Bondurant boys are made up of the quiet but threatening Forrest (Played by Tom Hardy), who is also the leader of the group, hothead Howard (Played by Jason Clarke), and runt Jack (Played by Shia LaBeouf). The boys run their illegal business out of their dusty roadside bar but they soon find themselves harassed by flamboyant Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Played by Guy Pearce), a hot shot from Chicago who wants a cut of the profits that the Bondurant boys bring in. After Forrest refuses, Rakes comes down hard on the bootleggers nestled in the hills and slowly begins shutting down their operations in the most brutal ways he can. After a nasty run in with Jack and a murder attempt is made on Forrest, a war is sparked in the Franklin County hills but the Bondurants have no intention of shutting down their business.
Cold and bristly, with tons of blood to get tossed around the furiously exhaustive sets, Lawless sure is one hell of a vicious ride into an untamed world. Prohibition is something that you never hear too much about, so it comes as a major shock to see it done with so much fury. People are harshly stabbed, shot, tarred, feathered, rapped, tortured, and beaten, cutthroat punishments for a cutthroat business I suppose. Despite the horrific violence (trust me, it is horrific), the film itself boasts rich amounts of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme, who makes every scene of the film appropriate to cut out and frame on your wall. While the film has plenty of violence to go around, there are some thick dramatics draped over this lawless world, so thick that you could almost cut it with a dull and rusty blade. There are two delicately delivered romances, one between Forrest and bar waitress Maggie Beauford (Played by Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking that desperately wanted a quiet life but has stumbled into something worse and one between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Played by Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly innocent preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak. Both are delivered with heart-on-the-sleeve compassion, making us root for both love stories to triumph in this world of blood.
Lawless achieves a must-see status due to the performances, especially the one from the hulking Hardy, who portrays Forrest Bondurant as a grunting bear of a man who speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like grinding gravel mixed with thick globs of molasses. While he is technically the good guy, Hardy owns any room he walks into and he leaves you wiping the sweat off of your palms when he leaves. The characters all whisper that Forrest is invincible and you will be left half believing it throughout the runtime. At times, he can be surprisingly funny, especially when Chastain’s Maggie tries to offer some affection his way. When he has his back against the wall, God forbid he reaches in his cardigan pocket and pulls out his dread brass knuckles, which he uses with precise savagery. While Hardy deserves a spot in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, he finds some competition from Pearce, a corrupt lawman with oily hair and dressed in fancy suits. Pearce, who I swear is incapable of delivering a lousy performance, is just as unpredictable as Hardy when it comes to his temper. Vaguely perverted and as slippery as they come, he is a corrupt soul who finds delight in bringing down a wave of misery on all who cross him.
In a way, it is almost a shame that Hardy and Pearce are so good because they actually overshadow the other great performances. LaBeouf, who has recently said that he is done with big studio films, punches in a subtle performance that slowly flares up into an uncontrollable rage. He’s a runt that becomes reckless and you will hate him for it, especially when he has a good thing right in the palm of his hand. That good thing is sweet Bertha, the gentle daughter of a preacher who hides her interest in the business that Jack and his brothers are into. Clarke gets to play the bloodthirsty psycho of the three Bondurant boys. You will cringe when Forrest decides to let him off his leash and you pray that Forrest puts him back on it the second he is unleashed. Chastain is as gorgeous as ever as the delicate Maggie, who has the hots for the closed off Forrest. Along with Wasikowska’s Bertha, they form a calming force that balances out all the violence. Dane DeHaan joins this gangster party as the handicapped Cricket, who helps the Bondurant boys brew the their liquor. Rounding out the supporting players is the superb Gary Oldman, who stops by to blow us all away as Floyd Banner, a mobster who enjoys carrying a Tommy gun around and blasting away right in front of an innocent audience.
As the sense of doom wafts through the trees of Franklin County, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately nippy score that is all twanging guitars, bluegrass chants, and static hums that slowly build as the tension mounts. Lawless certainly suffers from some predictability but I will say that there are a few surprise scenes that really catch you off guard. Still, I am willing to forgive because Hillcoat’s work draws you in close and then refuses to let you walk away cleanly. He shakes you up and he does it in such a tasteful manner. While I can’t say that I liked Lawless as much as Hillcoat’s scorching Australian western The Proposition, I will say that I enjoyed the film a bit more than his previous big screen offering The Road. Overall, Lawless may be brewed from a recipe we have all tried before but this batch has enough burn going down and a unique lingering buzz to have you reaching for a second shot and maybe even a third.
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.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’m glad I let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marinate in my mind for a few hours before I sat down to hammer out a review of it. I emerged from the matinee showing with my head spinning and my brain scrambling to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was so hastily trying to wrap my head around what I had just seen. I was initially let down by it and to think I was so excited to see this smoky, earth toned espionage thriller that looked like it was ripped out of the 1970s. I thought it would be full of thrills and white-knuckle moments. Folks, I’m here to tell you it’s not what you think it is. Despite passing itself off as a Cold War spy flick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the men that were causalities of this war that consisted of suspicion and heightened awareness of the individual at your side. Accusations flew in place of bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about bombed out egos rather than bombed out cities. If character studies and talky dramas turn you off, either wait until this film is at your local Red Box or skip it entirely. If you are willing to let it into your brain, you will find it slowly creeping down your spine hours after you see it.
Set in 1973, retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley is lured out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Played by Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a mole who has infiltrated intelligence and has apparently been there for years. Smiley teams up with fleeing agent Ricki Tarr (Played by Tom Hardy) and intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and together they launch an investigation aimed at the new Chief of the Circus Percy Alleline (Played by Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Played by Colin Firth), and his allies Roy Bland (Played by Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhause (Played by David Dencik). Smiley begins meeting with individuals who were forced out of positions due to their suspicions and accusations, now left in ruin and haunted by what the know. Along the journey, Smiley tries to repair his shattered past and come to terms with his demons that silently plague him.
While it is certainly a droll film in it’s first forty-five minutes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally sets things in motion when more layers begin to peel away. The one aspect I really liked in the beginning was the fact that Smiley barely spoke any dialogue and he lets his world-weary face do all the work. His eyes are cartoonishly enlarged behind his thick-rimmed specs and his mouth slightly opens as if he is about to let a thought out but he quickly remembers to cage it back up. He is a curious one. When he does speak, he has a raspy and weary voice to fit his somnolent eyes, though his words have been dipped in thick globs of confidence. Oldman does a terrific job with Smiley and he will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his aloof portrayal of John le Carré’s heartbroken spy. I found myself replaying the scenes of Smiley strolling through the misty, dingy streets of Cold War London or Smiley sitting alone in his apartment as the television chirps in the background. There is a knock at the door and in response, his head slightly turns, and this is when we get a quick glimpse at his broken and lonely heart.
The rest of the supporting players in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hold up quite well next to the slow burn of Oldman’s Smiley. This is, afterall, a character piece. Firth’s Bill Haydon is a standout, providing some small bursts of humor in the relentlessly dreary atmosphere. Hardy’s Ricki Tarr seems like he will be the tough guy but Hardy has the good sense to show us that even tough guys have a breaking point. Jones’ Percy Alleline is a supercilious and loose cannon little twerp who you would never dare cross (even if he only stands at 5’5”). What is fascinating about these men, who all appear to be working on the same side, is that if their eyes were daggers, no one would be left standing. They sit around in a smoky boardroom and stare each other down, loose their cools, stomp off, and sulk. And yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds the moments where we see them fall victim to all the suspicion, accusations, and attempts at ruin. They collapse when the chips are down and it is almost worse than any of the actually carnage that the film shows us.
Behind all the cigarette smoke and glaring actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers us eye-popping art direction, allowing Cold War London to really come alive. At times, I felt that the sets were actually characters in the movie. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also shrouded in a film noir atmosphere and the only thing missing is a femme fatale to lure these men to their fate. Director Tomas Alfredson has made a film that slowly grows in the hours after it has been seen, coaxing you back to uncover more. It is watered by your own puzzlement over it and your drive to want to put it all together. The film never resorts to gunfights or fists fights and it only builds excitement through heated exchange. The downfall of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the film sometimes seems unsure how to actually build that suspense and the narrative gets caught up in itself. Talky and arty with a nifty old school swag, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works better as a portrait of wrecked men rather than as a chilly espionage mystery.