Monday, August 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy

(Spoiler warning: they may pop up anywhere… especially at the end!)

Batman Begins--

The trilogy begins with a ground-breaking idea that superheroes can be taken seriously, and gives us a totally believable origin story for one of the world’s most believable superheroes. There are three points to cover (in my opinion) in order to make a good, complete story, and the first is covered exactly right in this movie; the hero.

Young Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered in front of him and grows into a hate-filled man with his eyes on revenge, whatever the cost. Life-changing words from the girl he loves and a crime boss change his mind and send Bruce around the world in an attempt to understand criminals, and what it’s like to have nothing. A mysterious man finds him and offers him a chance to change and make a change with just a little ninja training and spiritual guidance. The latter doesn’t exactly stick for Bruce, as he decides he will never needlessly kill anyone, when it’s required of him to finish his training. He becomes a League of Shadows drop-out, and returns to Gotham determined to honor his father, and serve the city, mostly by locking up every criminal he can find. Using a piece of advice from his mentor - and to protect his loved ones - a costume is in order, and before you can start to sing “na na na na na…” the Batman is born.

The majority of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s character development happens in this movie; at the end he’s a hero, and this movie is about his journey, from beginning to heroism. And finally it's done right - finally we get to understand Bruce. He’s no longer stylized, campy, melodramatic, or plain silly; he’s real, and his superhero status is believable.

The amazing, and visionary director, Christopher Nolan, is of course the person to thank for this. He knows how to make a movie true to life without tossing out the pleasure of watching a movie for entertainment. The key appears to be to make it dark; the real world is a dark place after all. But there is more to it that just that, and what really impressed me were all the details. Why bats, for an example? “Bats frighten me,” says Bruce, “it’s time my enemies shared my dread.”

Christian Bale is Batman. He wonderfully embodies the complex character with powerful subtlety. Previous renditions of the character practically crumble into nothing, and anyone who may try to take on the role anytime in the near future would probably be crazy, and therefore would do a bad job of it. And who else could ever play Alfred but Michael Caine? I mean, come on. Gary Oldman is perfect as Gordon, a more traditional brand of hero everyone loves to cheer for. Don’t forget Morgan Freeman as Mr. Fox, and Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes is lovely, but unfortunately doesn’t last. And the antagonists, Cillian Murphy, and Liam Neeson, put out their due amount of evil and creepiness according to their character to satisfaction.

Batman Begins is a classic movie really, starting with a flawed character in need of change, and ending with that character saving the day and becoming a new person; a hero. This is done to perfection, but “ending” is the key word here… there is a good and satisfying end. Batman’s identity as a hero is established, and the character’s arc is complete, but this is only the first movie, and we want more, so, what now?

The Dark Knight--

Well, there's two of my three points left to cover, and the second one is a test. We have to know that the Batman can hold to his morals, and will never give up on his city no matter how bleak things get. Usually, this is where a sequel comes out, trying to re-sell the same format of the first film by putting a different plot on it, and that’s why sequels don’t work… usually. There’s no worries when Nolan is at the helm. He knows how to make a sequel that doesn’t feel like a re-hash. The key now is to go even darker, and more intimate, and bring on a storm of trials to push our hero to his limits. Enter the Joker.

Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker is very good… very, very good. Perhaps too good... in a word, convincing… in the highest sense of the word. We’re not supposed to understand him, and honesty, I don’t want to. And with his great performance, it’s easy to forget everyone else in the movie, but Bale continues to be good, despite this movie not being quite as much about his characters development as the previous one. Maggie Gyllenhaal does a fine job replacing Holmes, and adds spunk to Rachel. But Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face Harvey Dent is my personal favorite. He holds up very well against the Ledger's overpowering Joker and leaves a heavy impression with a sad and thought-provoking role.

The movie as a whole, in fact, is very thought-provoking, but also very entertaining, with great action, and real drama; it’s a truly well-done movie that succeeds on every level it goes to. If you can survive the darkness, the contrasting light is well worth it. Or just sit back and enjoy the artistic beauty, or the smart involving script, and stylish action. I always consider the middle movie of a trilogy to typically be the worst, due to the difficulty of providing a satisfying beginning and end to the story, but I don’t have any evidence at all to prove that here. This is the most well-done film in the franchise, and in my opinion, also has the best ending of the three movies.

I won’t go over plot details here, mostly because I can’t exactly remember them straight, but basically, the Joker raises @#!*% , and destroys lives, and then we watch the aftermath, and how characters deal with their crumbled worlds. Harvey Dent begins a good man, but he breaks under pressure and becomes the very thing that destroyed him. Bruce gets the same treatment, but he somehow hangs on. Broken, but not defeated Batman maintains his heroism, (to the audience at least) and holds to his morals. He is committed to doing whatever it takes to save the world. Now we know that for sure. There’s only one thing left now. We saw the journey to his being a hero, and he scraped through the test at great personal cost, now all we need is an end.

The Dark Knight Rises--

But we don’t know that. I think I’d be happy to see more movies about Bruce Wayne beating the odds and defeating evil for as long as they continue to be good and entertaining, but Nolan knows… yes, he knows a lot of things… and he knows we need an end. The third point; every story needs an end, and Nolan has it covered in Rises. It’s got to be hard to end a franchise, but if you don’t, it will eventually fizzle out anyway, so it’s best to end it sooner, and end it well. Though, “well” is a rather dull way to describe the way this movie wrapped up the franchise. “Satisfying,” “amazing” and “epic” are better words for the job.

Of course, there can’t be just an ending, so this movie provides a new test for the Dark Knight as well. Eight years later, the Batman is in hiding, and Bruce turned to a recluse is never seen either, but the fix he offered up in the last movie stuck, and the city has been a better and cleaner place. Until Bane shows up, terrorizing the city as he puts his devastating plan in motion. Bruce is eager become Batman just one more time, and thinks he’s ready to give his life to save the city, but this time he’s not the only one willing to give everything to stand against evil.

Commissioner Gordon has always been helpful, but in the Batman’s absence he steps up, and does all he can to keep the evil at bay, along with newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who jumps right in as John Blake, a young, idealistic cop with spirit, who is this movie's most straight-forward and honest hero. Then there’s Anne Hathaway, also new, playing Selina Kyle, who has her share of problems, but does the right and selfless thing when it really counts. I like that these characters are really focused on and fleshed out as leads along with Bale, and the ensemble feel they bring to the movie is great.

Played very well by Tom Hardy, Bane is sufficiently evil, and his composed, boiling rage disturbing. He’s powerful in every way, but thankfully doesn’t overpower any other characters. Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate is disappointing in the best way possible, with both the good and bad side played convincingly. Maybe it’s only because I tried to stay spoiler-free going into this movie, but I thought the plot twists were handled very well, and weren't too confusing, or unbelievable.

How could anyone doubt that Christopher Nolan knows what he’s doing? He very successfully wraps up the trilogy with this film, not getting lazy in any aspect, giving us smart and unique plotting, involving acting from an all-around stellar cast, and powerful tone. Probably the hardest of the three movies to do right, but right it definitely is. My only complaint is very small; that it gets a little slow in the middle, but hey, at two hours and forty-five minutes, “a little slow” for a few minutes is pretty impressive, especially when you're not making a Lord of the Rings movie.

These three movies are built very differently, yet they fit together like it had been planned the whole time, and each brings something unique to the table. This dark, thrilling and powerful trilogy has really set a high standard for movie heroes of a super persuasion, by succeeding as more than just a superhero movie. It ponders the meaning of heroism, the effects of evil on society and the individual character, and delves in deep. It gives us an awesome, breath-taking visual experience, and a dark, chilling, but ultimately rewarding story, just brimming with thoughtful details. And finally, it gives us the right conclusion, where good prevails against the dark and the hero is rewarded for his sacrifice. A hero, a test, and an end… our Dark Knight delivered and gave us a solid, satisfying conclusion that resonates. My appreciative thanks go to Nolan, for a deep, exciting, and unique franchise.

- 4&1/2 of 5 stars, for each movie.

Hello, John Blake franchise?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

The time has come for Jeremy Renner to establish his identity, and his supremacy, and, well, you know. Before, he would usually play second fiddle to the likes of Tom Cruise or Ben Affleck, but could this be the film that proclaims him a full-fledged Hollywood action hero with acting chops? Can he fill Matt Damon’s shoes? Is that a ridiculous question considering he doesn’t play Bourne in this Bourne film? (Yes.) Here’s a better question: can the filmmakers respect this franchise with all its newcomers and changes, and let them live up to their potential, or will they just suck money and heart out of it until it dies? If they were to go the respect way, they would have made the right choice, and unless Damon comes back for a Bourne/Cross team-up, they should do some serious title re-thinking.

So, the trailer is pretty cool, but it is also misleading in some mildly annoying ways, and shows off most of the best bits of the movie, and I found something better for you to watch instead; the Bourne theme song! I know, I know... enjoy.

Jason Bourne is wreaking havoc, doing his “Ultimatum” thing, and causing lots of trouble. More trouble than he even realizes. More secret programs are in danger than just Treadstone, and everyone is scrambling to try and minimize the damage. New to the films, but apparently not to the programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) takes charge, and decides that a program called Outcome needs to disappear. Meanwhile, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is performing an extreme looking training exercise in Alaska. He finishes in record time, then has a friendly chat with a much less talkative fellow agent. Then he almost gets blown up. He escapes though, and even tricks Byer and co. into believing he’s dead. But he’s got a problem; Outcome agents are experiments for physical and mental enhancement, and in order to keep their skills they need to regularly take medication. Aaron only has two doses left, and getting more is understandably difficult with the program being terminated and all. Luckily, there’s another survivor. Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) runs tests and experiments on the agents but is left mostly in the dark about the program. Still, she survives the termination/cover-up via massacre only barely. More assassins show up at her house later, but lucky for her that’s also where Aaron shows up on his quest for meds, and helps out in his traditional style. She needs him in order to live through another day, and he needs her in order to stay who he is, so they stick together.

Edward Norton playing the bad guy was just fine and dandy as he usually is, but didn’t do very much besides talk, and Renner and Weisz worked well together. I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing more of them in a sequel. Renner, of course, can raise the quality of a movie just by being in it, but I never really thought of Weisz as a good actor before either so she rather impressed me. The normal-nice-guy-turned-super-assassin and ultra-smart and pretty scientist are original, cheer-able characters. And, as a plus, I found it very refreshing that by the end of the movie the characters already had a good relationship that was rooted in something more solid than romance.

So, I liked this movie, I really did, but a few little problems and missed opportunities irked me. Like the cinematography. And I know the previous Bourne movies had shaky and sometimes blurry quick-cut shots, but there's a fine line between that realistic shaky-cam edge, and not being able to tell what's going on. And by "fine line" I mean “incredibly obvious line”. I know it can add to the tension, and I suppose some people do like it, but I prefer to, you know, see. Fortunately it was ignorable most of the time. And missed opportunities left me wishing for deeper character development for Cross. Deep characters are pretty much Renner’s specialty after all, and he just felt underused… though underused for him is perfectly normal for anyone else. They apparently just tried to make another Bourne movie minus Bourne, and that's exactly what they did - way better than they had a right to, by the way - but the result wasn’t as great as it should've been, and had the potential to be, if they'd invested more in their new star.

Yep, if it hadn't been for the name of Jason Bourne being mentioned in nearly every other scene I probably would've totally forgotten him, because Renner does his part as an awesome action hero extremely well; kicking butt, and saving the girl with style and likability. He excels at the action. Aaron runs, climbs, jumps, fights, and outsmarts the bad guys with epic ease. There are some jaw-dropping stunts that Renner performed himself, (he’s a one man army, taking Hollywood by storm) and the action sequences are original and exciting, well choreographed and – mostly – well filmed. I especially liked the tense sequence in Marta's house.

Quite enjoyable overall, exceptionally good at some points, yet crumbly in others, this movie is nothing if not inconsistent. Like a two hour long trailer, or a bridge, without a solid beginning or end, Legacy feels like it’s a well-done setup for what’s to come. So, should we be excited for the next installment? Well, while this film certainly could’ve been better, it also could've been way worse, and the potential for improvement is there, so I’m cautiously optimistic, and, may I say, excited for the next go around with our new “Bourne” hero. Fix a few problems, and put in a little more effort and care, and Aaron Cross can bring this franchise to fresh new heights… he doesn’t even need Bourne, or his legacy.

- 4/5 stars

And ok, here's the trailer, in case you feel you must watch it.