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The Dark Knight (2008)

by Steve Habrat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

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

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The Last Circus (2011)

by Steve Habrat

If you are one of the individuals out there who suffers from coulrophobia, a crippling fear of clowns, you should stay far away from Álex de la Iglesia’s hectic foreign art house flick The Last Circus, a bloody allegory that is a visual fiesta and resembles something from the minds of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. For all its visual gifts, The Last Circus falls apart slowly and by the end, is a giant lumbering mess of a film. The load grows heavy with too many characters serving no purpose but to fill up a frame and populate the circus that is the main setting. The Last Circus does succeed as a bizarre genre mash-up, at one moment it’s a horror film, the next second it’s a dark comedy, the next moment it’s a romance film, and the next it’s a perverse action film. Experiments like this don’t always work (Take a look at the western/science fiction action dud Cowboys & Aliens for obvious proof) but The Last Circus balances it quite nicely. Good thing since this film is already walking a swaying tightrope.

The Last Circus packs as much content as it can into its hour and fifty minute runtime. It saddened me to find that there are quite a few slow spots in what promised early on to be a nonstop rush. Beginning in 1937 and using the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop, a guttural militia group drops in to a local theater where a sad clown and happy clown are performing for a cheering group of children. Just outside, bombs fall and shake dust from the ceiling onto the clowns. The militia leader is looking for any help they can find and they need every able bodied man to join their ranks. The happy clown is forced into service, handed a machete, let loose on the National soldiers, and in a frenzied attack, the happy clown lays waste to an entire platoon. He is soon captured and placed in a military jail, forced into labor and waiting out a death sentence. His young son vows to free his father and almost succeeds. The film then fast-forwards to 1973, where the son, Javier (Played by Carlos Areces) has now grown up and gotten a job working as a sad clown for a local circus. He is paired up with the happy clown Sergio (Played by Antonio de la Torre), who is married to the striking and beguiling acrobat Natalia (Played by Carolina Bang, who wears multiple wigs throughout the runtime). Javier falls in love with Natalia, who appears to share the same feelings. Sergio is abusive and unwilling to let Natalia out of his site, as he suspects she is cheating on him with another man. Javier and Sergio soon clash with each other for her affection, a clash that escalates into a violent stand-off between the two men. Murder, savage beatings, self-mutilation, graphic sex, and sinister figures from the past all emerge as the two fight to the death for Natalia.

While the only way to describe The Last Circus is a truly bizarre work of art, the film seems unsure what to do with everything crammed into it. Characters get lost in the shuffle or are unrecognizable due to ever changing physical appearances, the ending is too CGI heavy, and the constant grotesqueries mar what could be a thought-provoking event. I’m sure the film is more rewarding for the Spanish audiences, who are the ones who will be able to piece this allegory together. The film also has some cool use of stock footage that was incorporated smoothly throughout the journey. Yet I found glaring problems with the storyline, mostly in the sudden mental collapse that Javier undergoes. Why has he suddenly just snapped? Was he that close to the breaking point? The film never gives a clear-cut answer to this question. The only hint we get is the constant harassment from Sergio. Even this explanation I do not buy, mostly because Sergio isn’t that terrible to Javier in the first place.

The performances in The Last Circus are all quite good; the best is easily de la Torre’s Sergio, who looks like Heath Ledger’s alcoholic stunt double from The Dark Knight. He endures a beating so brutal, it’s amazing he isn’t dead. He looms in the shadows watching Natalia, all of these scenes resembling images out of a comic book. Areces does a fine job when he’s completely lost his marbles but he is astonishingly uninteresting as the sane Javier. When he is randomly firing his machine guns in a small diner, you’ll find yourself developing  coulrophobia with each bullet fired. Bang’s Natalia is all deceitful smiles and suggestive lip licking, cleaning blood from her oozing nose. She’s masochistic and does more flip-flops than I ever thought possible. At one second she is shrieking at Sergio’s mutilated mug and the next second she can’t get enough of him. I am still trying to figure out if she was sincere in her interactions with Javier.

I would recommend The Last Circus for it’s Baroque settings and macabre make-up effects. Someone get this crew to the set of J. Edgar and fast! The action is disorienting in the first ten minutes of the movie and then it maneuvers into tedium by the final fistfight. A figure from the past is wasted and would have been a far more lasting villain than Sergio. But for all the smarts this film has, and trust me, it is very clever, it consistently looses site of what it is trying to achieve. At times it felt rather preoccupied and more concerned with its visual stimulants. Sure, I like a film to look pretty and have some nifty sets, boast a crisp picture, and have an aura of impulsiveness, but The Last Circus left me unaffected, the furthest thing from traumatized, dismayed, or charged up politically. I turned it off thinking about how pretty it looked in HD and how disturbing clowns really are.

Grade: C+

The Last Circus is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

by Steve Habrat

It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.

Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.

Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.

In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.

X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.

This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.

The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A

X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.