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Monday, July 23, 2012

Brief, Brief Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Hey there Chaos fans- the title says it all, so I'll make this quick. I want to do an in depth review of The Dark Knight Rises, but the truth is, I have to see this again in order to "get it all". Everyone knows that Nolan's movies are dense, and this may be his biggest yet.

So, is The Dark Knight Rises any good? Absolutely. Is it better than TDK or BB? Well, I need another viewing. It may be the weakest of the 3, but that's like saying Two Towers is the weakest LoTR- it's still fantastic, just not as good as the other two. At the moment, that's how I feel about DKR- it's a great movie, but I can't be sure how it compares to the previous two- I need more viewings to make a decision.

It has action, drama, great acting, great special effects, moving/haunting music, and naturally, both social commentary and a further examination of "morality" in this world. The movie also has a huge, epic feel to it.

There are some problems... there are a few pacing problems, and there are a few story elements that are awfully convenient, etc.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as a perfect movie. Ever. It's subjective, after all. Long story short- if you enjoyed either of the other 2, you WILL enjoy this one. If you are a Batman fan at all, you MUST see this. Even IF this movie is the "weakest" of the trilogy overall (again, I can't be sure that it is yet), it has some of the best MOMENTS of the trilogy, and the conclusion is so emotional, so perfect for this Batman trilogy...

You need to see this movie. Even if you will always think The Joker is better, you will take many things from this movie. I suspect the more I view it, the film will be even better (both BB and TDK have improved with age).

That's all I have to say about that. I will be back with an in-depth review after I have seen the film again and digested it properly. Until then...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lead-Up to The Dark Knight Rises: Reviewing The Dark Knight

Hey there my fellow Chaos worshipers. I'm back in the bloggosphere after taking a "mini-vacation" with Mrs. Chaos. This morning a ton of reviews have surfaced for The Dark Knight Rises. I have resisted reading most of them (I succumbed by reading only 2 decidedly non-spoliery reviews), but I have read that the overall response is positive. I can't wait till I see it this Saturday. Of course, I'll post a review as soon as the movie coalesces in my mind. But hey, why not pass the time between now and then reviewing The Dark Knight? Away we go...

Personal Background: I must confess... I was a bit apprehensive in the initial lead-up to The Dark Knight. This is before the concept of "In Nolan We Trust". I loved the title, but I was not at all convinced about Heath Ledger. The guy from The Patriot and A Knight's Tale... as The Joker? The most iconic comic book villain of all time? Oh No. I was afraid that the studio was trying to appeal to young audiences only, and that Nolan was losing a battle against the studio... I smelled trouble. Then, they showed that one shot of The Joker...

Yep- that one. I was not thrilled with it. It just seemed weird to me; I didn't get it at the time. I wanted TDK to be as good or better than BB, but at this point I wasn't sold. Then the trailers started to make their way round. I got more excited (the Alfred "Some men just want to watch the world burn" teaser made me feel excited for it). Maybe, just maybe, they will pull this off. Finally, it was July I saw the movie while I was at a business conference in Seattle. The first time I saw it, I loved it, but something was amiss. I saw it again THE VERY NEXT NIGHT (at the Cinearama) and... Bam! I got it. The first time I saw it I missed a ton of stuff- the connections, the symbolism, the characterization, the crime drama elements, and of course the powerful dialogue that generated a ton of shading and nuance. That second viewing did it for me- I realized then that The Dark Knight rises wasn't just the best Batman or Comic Book movie, but indeed an instant cinematic classic that has changed/influenced whole genres of film-making .

Basic Plot: Batman has been working for a year in his efforts to fight crime on the mean streets of Gotham City. Public opinion seems to be divided- some favor the Batman as a hero, whilst others see him a lunatic no better than the criminals he fights. However, there can be no denying Batman's effect- the criminal underworld is weakening, and others are being inspired by Batman's example.

One such person is the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Known as Gotham's "White Knight", Dent is an honest, forthright, and crusading politician who is serious about making Gotham a safe place for decent people. Batman begins to work with Dent, as well as Lieutenant Gordon- in an alliance that seeks to root out the mob for good.

However, as they put the squeeze on organized crime, a new criminal emerges, far different from the well dressed crime bosses and hired muscle thugs. This criminal is The Joker- a lunatic who dresses in clown make-up but is both vicious and insane. The mob turns to The Joker for help against Batman, Gordon, and Dent- but unfortunately for all the citizens of Gotham (criminal and crime-fighter alike)- The Joker has his own agenda that will bring chaos, anarchy, and death to the entire city.

What ensues is a deadly cat and mouse game between the Dark Knight and his allies against the unbridled mayhem that The Joker unleashes. As casualties begin to mount, Batman learns that he is not only fighting for Gotham, but for his very own soul (and those of his allies) against a maniac who seeks nothing more than the total corruption and degradation of all symbols of good and morality.

Spoilers from this point on!!

Themes/Concepts: This is where the real meat of The Dark Knight comes into being- this is not a simple comic book movie. The Dark Knight goes beyond the simple trappings of masked good guy fights masked bad guy. This movie makes references to crime dramas, 9/11 and terrorism, ancient and current history, the concept of free will and individual choice, and much much more.

I won't touch and all of them here, as I don't want to bore. I do wish to go into what I think is the most important one for the entire movie series:

The themes of Batman Begins are continued and challenged in The Dark Knight. At its core, Batman Begins is about the creation of a "moral code". Bruce learns his concept of right and wrong from many individuals and events. His father teaches him simple ideas about how one can learn from failure as well as humility. Bruce learns the brutality of violence on the streets, which threatens to overwhelm him (to this very day). He learns about the importance of family and compassion from Alfred (and Gordon). He learns about what justice is from Rachel (and Gordon). He also learns the power he has, and what his aggression can be channeled towards by Ra's al Ghul. From all of those sources, Bruce creates a moral code for Batman, why he does what he does and just how he does it.

These concepts in Batman Begins seem rather innocent and tame compared to what The Dark Knight has to say about morality. See, according to The Dark Knight, it's one thing to develop a "moral code", but its another thing to actually fully live by it. Can Batman, a masked vigilante who uses terror and "beats criminals with his bare hands" actually live up to his code and inspire good at the same time? At first, it seems that Batman can do just that (though he's not happy with the copycat Batmen, but hey)- Gordon, Rachel, Alfred, and Fox have all aided him, and it now appears that, with the growing strength of DA Dent, that he may finally be inspiring the good people of Gotham to stand up. He even expresses the hope that he won't even need to be Batman anymore, if this success continues.

And therin lies the rub. While Batman and his moral code are inspiring good, it is, in Newton's terms, inspiring an equal and opposite reaction. That is what The Joker is all about. He is being deliberately disingenuous when he says he's an "agent of Chaos" without a plan. The Joker does indeed have a goal- even if he takes many (unpredictable and shifting) paths to get there. The Joker wants to show that morality is "a joke". People talk about doing right, but when push comes to shove, they would do anything to live, including breaking their moral code. The Joker seeks to show that morality doesn't actually exist- the world is meaningless and random, and that any hope of us imposing order on it will fail, one way or the other, in fact, it is at least pathetic hypocrisy, and at worst INSANE to try to, according to The Joker. This is reflected in everything The Joker does- getting criminals to kill one another for money, trying to get innocent people to murder one another to survive, etc.

It is an amazing way to continue the themes about Batman's morality. As Batman, Dent, and Gordon become more successful at making Gotham a more "moral" place, The Joker takes it upon himself to do the opposite- to show that those morals aren't worth the effort- that the average citizen will drop them "at the first sign of trouble". The Joker doesn't care about the mob, the money, or anything else except "sending a message"- that there are no rules. Of course, The Joker wants to show that to Batman, Gordon, and Dent in particular, as they are the strongest advocates of order, opposed to Joker's chaos. The Joker goes about trying to "tempt" the three to break their moral code- and he does so by offering two choices- each worse than the other- thereby making them choose the lesser of two evils each time, but they are forced to chose evil nevertheless. Which victim should Batman save? Should Gordon continue to work with corrupt cops in order to serve the common good? Should Dent continue his crusade even if that puts Rachel in danger?

And it is Harvey Dent that suffers here. Dent is symbolic for Gotham itself (not Batman). Dent is literally torn in half by this titanic battle, as is the city. Dent is a good man, but due to The Joker's machinations, Dent crumbles. The Joker weakens Dent's faith in Batman, kills Rachel, and plants the seeds that Gordon is responsible. Dent believes in fairness and justice, and The Joker twists that against Dent, breaking his spirit, and bringing him to that place where he will allow "random chance" to take the place of his ethics. Hence, he becomes Two-Face- seeking revenge against all those responsible for the tragedies that befell him- both criminals and his previous allies Batman and Gordon. The Joker has thus proved his point- that a good man can be broken, as can a city, as can any sense of morality.

But, what of Batman himself? The Joker discovers at the end that Batman himself IS incorruptible. Whatever mistakes he made in Batman Begins ("letting" Ra's die), Batman has his code and he's sticking to it, even if that means sparing The Joker's life. If the movie had stopped there, it would have been fantastic, but it goes further still- The Joker leaves one last "lesser of two evils" choice for Batman- one that may not corrupt him, but may well ruin him anyway- the fate of Dent/Two-Face. The conclusion of the movie is the final accounting between the three "heroes"- Batman, Gordon, and Dent. What has been at stake the entire movie is laid bare there- and the consequences are tragic. Batman saves Gordon's son from Two-Face's wrath, but Dent falls to his death in the process. The final choice to be made: if the public learns that Dent went mad, all the gains that the trio made will be undone. But Batman makes another choice- he decides to take the fall, allowing himself to be blamed for Dent's crimes. As Batman says, he is NOT a hero, as Dent HAD been. Therefore, it is Batman that is expendable, while Dent's reputation and "symbol" will endure. It would appear that Batman snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, even if it makes him the outlaw instead. Perhaps The Joker won after all then?

The other major concepts and themes tie into this, one way or the other. Alfred deciding to keep Rachel's confession a secret from Bruce. Batman keeping his word to Lucius Fox about NOT abusing power. Gordon's relationship with his family and with other cops (corrupt or not). Heck, even the criminals are nuanced here: Sal Maroni is clearly not pleased that the Chechen mob boss hired The Joker to begin with; on the ferry, it is the biggest thug who refuses to go along with The Joker's game, showing great moral courage for a criminal. Yes, from top to bottom, that is the message here... Is morality a real choice? Is it a fiction? Or is the universe truly random, cruel, and meaningless.

How a "mere comic book movie" managed to ask these types of questions while supplying answers that are quite uncomfortable, sad, and even painful, is simply amazing.


Christian Bale does a tremendous job in The Dark Knight. Many have said that he is overshadowed by Ledger, but it is the nature of this particular beast- Batman is the Yin to Joker's Yang. Truth is, Bale sees exactly what is required from him. In Batman Begins, Bale is great at showing how Bruce develops into Batman, and he brings a ton to that process. However, in The Dark Knight, the movie isn't solely about Batman himself- we already know him and what he does and why. This movie is about Batman as a symbol- how he impacts/inspires Gotham. He inspires people like Dent, but also people like The Joker. What Bale does with this is amazing- he wants to be a great symbol, but he can feel it is spinning out of control- his symbolism may not be having the desired effect, and it is taring him apart inside. Thus, he becomes more desperate to stop The Joker, and he comes dangerously close to crossing the line, but he stops just short, which Bale measures perfectly. Also, his grief at Rachel's death is great, but not overwhelming. Now, that is the difference between him and Dent. Rachel's death consumes Dent, but not Bruce- a vital difference between the two characters.

Naturally, Ledger gets all the buzz for his performance as The Joker. Now, some attribute this to his untimely passing, but quite frankly, the role was performed, regardless of his death. Ledger's work is nothing short of extraordinary. He takes the character and combines him with Hannibal Lector- making him a realistic, scary, and unsettling performance. He's not a comic villain, he's a maniac that could exist in the real world- a nightmare that actually exists. Ledger's voice, facial tics, physicality, and his eyes all combine to make his Joker a true, vile, almost unhinged threat. The performance is so odd, so well planned and thought out, that it is simply awe-inspiring. Even better, Ledger's Joker is truly the "Agent of Chaos", seeking to pervert any concept of ethics or morality. In many ways, The Joker is like the devil, putting our heroes in horrible situations just because he can, hoping to see them damn themselves in the midst of carnage and terror, or as he likes to call it, "social experiment". The truth is, Ledger is electrifying every second he's on screen, and he takes huge risks, particularly how he re-tells his (false) origin twice, his conviction in the interrogation room, and his dressing as a nurse to infiltrate the hospital. His scene with Dent is noteworthy, as he tells Dent exactly what he's really all about. His final scene with Batman is also great, as he recognizes that Batman may well be "incorruptible". Yes, Ledger is that damn good. However...

The real, true standout isn't Ledger, despite the posthumous reputation he gained for his role. While is Joker is nothing short of awe-inspiring, it is actually Aaron Eckhart who gives the best performance in the film- his Dent is smart, charming, brave and scared in equal measure, a good man with hopes for the future, but also filled with doubt. Harvey Dent is the true heart and soul of the film. Indeed, Harvey mirrors both Bruce himself and Gotham as a whole- in obvious and subtle ways. The story of The Dark Knight is Dent's story. He is, at his core, a good man who wants to make Gotham safer. He wants to stand up to criminals, and restore justice to Gotham- the "White Knight" indeed. Unlike Batman, whose morality is shades of grey, Dent's is simpler- black and white, good or evil. However, when confronted by the madness of The Joker, Dent becomes scared, and his simple moral beliefs are put to the ultimate test. Terrified that this lunatic might destroy all that he, Batman, and Gordon have done, Dent becomes ever more desperate. His anger at Batman is incredible when Batman says he will surrender to authorities to appease The Joker- with Gordon "dead", Dent is scared that he will be left alone to fight these thugs and lunatics. Eckhart plays it so well: Dent is trying to do right, but can't do it alone, and the actor captures it perfectly.

Like the other characters, Dent misses The Joker's point until its too late- The Joker is trying to tear down this "false morality" that Batman and company are trying to impose on Gotham. The Joker wants to ruin all symbols, show that morality is a  "joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble". The Joker wrecks Dent mentally and physically, and Eckhart shows real depth in showing how damaged Dent has become- compromising his morality in the process. The fear and desperation to stop crime has literally ripped Dent into two, and the actor shows that to the audience without going over the top. His performance is tragic and nuanced- his was the toughest performance and Eckhart pulls it off in spades. In particular, when he tells Gordon and Batman "You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time... The world is cruel, and the only morality is chance...Unbiased. Fair."- the line is so potent, and Eckhart delivers it with total conviction, angry, bitter, and broken. It's a huge performance in a movie with huge performances. 

Last, but certainly not least, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gary Oldman's take on James Gordon. Oldman was good in BB, but here he really comes into his own. Gordon is the everyman, he represents the audience here. He's a family man, a good, honest guy. However, unlike Dent who's views are in black and white, and unlike Batman who operates in a very grey area, Gordon is practical. He wants to believe people are good, though he knows he works with a few bad cops. He has no choice, as he has to "do the best" with what he has. He's much more practical, and Oldman plays him as a smart but humble cop, willing to make sacrifices to save his city. But The Joker snags him too, by making him feel guilt over Dent's maiming and slide into despair. Oldman plays that so well, Gordon driven to save Dent at the expense of just about everything else. In the last scenes, Oldman's narration is stirring, and you can see in those final scenes that Gordon and Batman are truly comrades in arms, a feeling that has been missing in previous film adaptations.

Special Effects / Action Scenes: This movie clearly ups the ante in terms of action, though this is not purely an action movie as some seem to think it is. It is a drama more than an action movie, but the action scenes are fantastic. The Joker's initial bank heist is action packed. The car chase through Gotham which sees the Bat-Tumbler destroyed is considered legendary now. Tons of places explode, and all kinds of carnage are seen or implied. The final battle at the docs against The Joker is dizzying but effective. The action serves the story and the characters, not the other way round, which is important. Look at the interrogation scene as the best example. Great stuff here.

Lasting Legacy:Well, where to begin here? Of course, most cite the death of Heath Ledger in January 2008, stating that his performance here has taken on a supernatural quality as a result. Others cite the box office- The Dark Knight was a box office behemoth, becoming one of the biggest grossing movies of all time. I like to think that this movie set a whole new standard for what a comic book movie can be. Serious themes, symbolism, contemporary critiques, "realism", etc. The Dark Knight combines psychological thriller, with crime drama, and comic book characters for an amazing, genre busting blend of a movie. Now, I don't think that every comic book movie needs to be like this- there's room for The Avengers and The Dark Knight. However, there can be no doubt that The Dark Knight changed the rules. Talk about legacy....

And now comes The Dark Knight Rises... I cannot wait...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lead up to Dark Knight Rises: Reviewing Batman Begins

What's up everybody? It's been really busy around here lately, let me tell you- dog days of summer indeed! At any rate, I'm continuing my lead-up to The Dark Knight Rises (which is just over a week away now!) by reviewing the one that started it all. I'm going to frame this review in a similar format as my Star Trek reviews, just for the sake of consistency (should that be my template for all reviews? I'm not sure yet). Now, I'm already on record saying that its a great, fantastic movie, so you may know where this review is headed overall. But, if you enjoy Batman in general or the Nolan movies in particular, this review might just entertain you, or make you shake your head and say "Oh boy- another Internet critic". Either way- I'm cool with that. So, away we go...

Personal Background: I need not go into my love of all things Batman (I did that in my last posting, if you are curious). When it was announced that they were "re-booting" the Batman series of movies- nobody actually knew what this meant, as this deliberate reboot had not actually been done before. There were all kinds of questions and speculations: who would the villain(s) be? Is it part of the old series or not? Who would be Batman? Well, those questions were only slowly answered- of course, Bale was every body's favorite pick, and his casting boded well. But when they announced 2 villains, that was upsetting- and then it was uncertain- Liam Nesson as Ra's? No- that's Ken Wantanabe...

At any rate, there was confusion and uncertainty. Now, I was excited to see this movie, but the summer of 2005 had lots of genre fare that I was equally looking forward to: Star Wars Episode III, War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead, etc. Batman was just one on the list, not the main one. After the debacle of Schumacher ruining Batman, I hoped that it would restore Batman, but it was a guarded optimism. So, finally seeing Batman Begins- I was floored. The acting was great, the action was fun and realistic, and the story was great (if slightly overstuffed at the end). More important, it was the sophistication of the production. The thought behind it. The WHY Bruce Wayne became Batman- no, it is more than his parents' murder. The HOW he does it- building the suit, re-establishing himself in Gotham. Finally, the hint of the IMPLICATIONS of him becoming Batman was also established (which would play out in the sequels to enormous effect). I was thrilled coming out of the theater- I knew Batman was back.

Basic Plot: The movie, is without a doubt, an origin story, though it is impeccably handled and in fact, integral to the plot. Vital as a matter of fact. Told partially through flashbacks, a young, wealth, sheltered, and impressionable Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a low-life thug, Joe Chill. The boy is hopelessly cast adrift spiritually- the murder has scarred him for life. As he grows older, he begins to seek something- perhaps vengeance, perhaps closure, maybe justice, or even just a reason, an understanding.

After several dead-ends, Bruce ends up in Asia, in the lair of the League of Shadows, headed up by the mythical Ra's al Ghul and his subordinate, Henri Ducard. They tell Bruce that they can give him the tools he needs to fight crime, as that seems to be his goal. Ducard says that tougher measures must be used to fight evil. Bruce believes this too, and he comes to trust Ducard, and trains with them. Finally, after much trial, Bruce is to be intimated into the League when they reveal their 'true' nature- they will cross any line to fight crime, including murder. Bruce rejects this, fights back, and escapes from the League.

Despite the disagreement, they have indeed shown Bruce a path- he will fight crime using all the skills at his disposal- his mind, his physical strength, his money, and above all, his symbolic example. Once back in Gotham, Bruce begins to build up "The Batman"- he gains allies, including Alfred, his butler and surrogate father, Rachel Dawes, his childhood friend who has become an assistant DA, Sgt. Gordon, one of the few honest cops in Gotham, and finally, Lucius Fox, head of the "Applied Sciences" division of Wayne Enterprises. We see Bruce work on creating the costume, the batcave, his tumbler/'batmobile', all of the methods he will employ, and finally, just how he intends to bring down organized crime boss Carmine Falcone. The first sighting of Batman is like a bolt of lightning for Gotham: a shocking change that is both vital and a bit scary.

However, it is not clear sailing for the Batman. The head of Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane, Dr. Jonathan Crane, has plans for Gotham that don't involve Batman. Crane, now thinking of himself as "The Scarecrow" has developed a 'fear toxin', with which he can induce mass panic. Working with an unseen partner, Crane begins to act against the city. Can a newly established Batman stop Scarecrow in time? Can Batman root out Crane's mysterious benefactor? And will Batman inspire change in Gotham City itself?


Themes/Concepts: Now, here is where Batman Begins differ from so many other comic book movies. Batman Begins has two feet- one planted in the realm of "comic book movies", complete with an origin story, some humor, and of course a "big scheme" at the end that must be foiled. But, if that is typical "comic book movie" stuff, the other foot of Batman Begins is in another place entirely. Many have said (for good and bad) that director Christopher Nolan took Batman and made him realistic. Well, that's a yes and no, actually. Nolan has kept many of the trappings of "comic book movie", but his other foot is in the realm of reality- a crime fighter dressed as a bat is absurd, but, Nolan asks, "What if this person existed"? What would motivate a man to do this? How would he operate? How would his friends/family react? How would the community at large react? And what toll would such activities take on the hero and those around him?

Nolan asks all of these questions in Batman Begins, in both obvious and subtle ways. It is these questions that ground the movie in realism. While fear toxins, shadowy ninjas, high tech microwave emitters and the like are comic book trappings, the questions that Nolan asks are not at all regular "comic book movie" fare. Now, of course, the GOOD comic books themselves have dealt with these issues for decades, but Hollywood has looked at "comic book movies" as guys in tights tussling and making the studio money. Popcorn entertainment at best. Nolan's approach takes on more serious aspects, as I said, things that comic authors have done for some time, but Hollywood hadn't. The questions I mentioned throughout this article are part and parcel of Batman Begins- addressed explicitly or implicitly. Themes about the role of fear are prevalent- how it limits us and can possibly elevate us. How symbols are important to individuals and society as a whole. How people can make a difference to those around them.

However, there is one theme that is huge in this film, beyond all that, and it is one that is relevant to everyone, Batman fan or not. The title "Batman Begins" is both about the "origin" of Batman but also about something else. When we first see Bruce, he is just a kid- slightly mischievous, and very rich, but otherwise a regular kid. His parents love him, and they try to teach him (his father's "Why do we fall" ethic). However, when they die, Bruce is traumatized AND cast adrift morally. His father would have been his moral teacher, but now he's gone. As we see Bruce grow older, we see him trying to build his own morality, his own set of beliefs. We see this person gain a moral code from those around him- Alfred tries to show him the importance of friends and family ("There are those of us who care about your future"), Rachel tells Bruce the difference between justice and vengeance (Her anger at Bruce's thoughts on killing Joe Chill), a young officer Gordon teaches Bruce something of simple kindness and dignity (right after his parents are killed). However, Bruce has been permanently darkened by the tragedy, and he seeks out more answers. He joins criminals to "learn" their ways (he says he lost the easy assumptions about crime). Finally, he learns from the Ducard that he has the strength to fight back, and Ducard teaches him how (fear, deception, the physical side of combat). Ducard also teaches Bruce that society's weakness only breeds crime and that laws are just too insufficient to stop/punish crime.

The movie, really then, is interested in how Bruce develops a moral code. How does he differentiate from right and wrong? How will he walk that fine line that is a vigilante while being a symbol of hope? Batman Begins seeks to examine those questions. Now, the climax for Bruce's character development actually comes early in the film- Ducard and Ra's want Bruce to prove his loyalty to the League of Shadows by executing a criminal, and then Bruce will help the League to destroy Gotham outright- it is too morally sick to survive. Here is the vital point- what will Bruce do? He must now look at all the (sometimes contradictory) moral lessons he has learned. He rejects the League, believing there MUST be a limit. He can only be willing to go so far, but no further- there must be something to differentiate him from the Joe Chills of the world.

But, can anyone live up to their moral code fully? Can anyone be a paragon of such moral virtue? Batman's morality may be murky, but he has a code and rules, nevertheless. This is the meaning of the end of the movie. Of course, it turns out that Ducard IS Ra's al Ghul (loved that twist in the movie, BTW), and he is behind the Scarecrow's fear toxin, which Ra's plans on using to purge Gotham. In the final battle, Ra's is trapped in a situation of his own making, and Batman lets him stay there: "I won't kill you. But I don't have to save you". Ra's dies in the crash, but the city is saved. Now, some fans decried this (very understandably), however, in the real world, could Batman have not lived up to his morality just once? Doesn't everyone fall short in their own moral character?
Batman's failure to save Ra's will have implications in both The Dark Knight (which I'll get to in my review) and undoubtedly in The Dark Knight Rises.

Batman Begins isn't just the beginning of Batman, but the beginning of a man's moral journey. Yes, he will stumble and fall short of perfection. But he will also "pick himself up again"...

Characters/Acting: The story may straddle a fine (and tricky) line between comic book heroics and reality, but the actors do a fantastic job selling it. Of course, Christian Bale is fantastic as Bruce and Batman. You have no doubt that this man is so driven by his convictions to do these things. His pain is palpable, his bravery is inspiring. Bale does it all so well, that it is hard to imagine anyone else ever being the character again. Some have criticized his Batman voice, but I disagree- Batman IS scary. He can't sound like Kevin Conroy in real life. I think the "Bat voice" is what he would need to have to be effective. At any rate, Bale nails the role in all the right ways- smart, strong, driven, guilty, everything this complex character should be.

Liam Neeson is fantastic as Ducard / Ra's al Ghul. Truth be told, I've never been a Ra's fan. Yes, I "get" the character, but I've never liked his stories. And that Lazarus Pit crap? Come on. Here, though, Nolan gives us a good take on Ra's. He's what Bruce would be if he falls too far- and Neeson gives it his all to show that. When he tells Bruce why he is "in the mountains", the pain on his face is all to familiar to Bruce. Neeson's anger. frustration, and pain when Bruce begins to waver on the League of Shadows is fantastic and shows just how high the stakes are for Bruce AND Ra's. Finally, when Ra's reappears to attack Bruce, Neeson invests the character with bitterness, cynicism, but also genuine disappointment that Bruce did not "see the light", so to speak. Neeson does a great job being Batman's mentor and his adversary.

The rest of the cast is equally top notch. Michael Caine's Alfred is a working man's version (more on that with TDK), but he shows clearly that he cares about Bruce, and feels his pain. Alfred isn't just Bruce's butler- he is his friend, his advisor, and occasionally, his moral beacon, and Caine handles all of that with his characteristic aplomb. Gary Oldman was not my original first pick for Gordon, but he did well playing the only honest cop around, reacting to the Batman in equal measures of hope and fear, in many ways being "the average person" viewpoint. (However, Oldman proves to be a fantastic pick in TDK. His work there is nothing short of a revelation).

Cillian Murphy is downright creepy in his small role as The Scarecrow- the limited costume works to enhance the deranged nature of Crane. Tom Wilkinson plays crime boss Falcone with the right mix of evil and arrogance. Rutger Hauer and Morgan Freeman are both excellent as Wayne executives, with Hauer's haughty Bill Earle looking to sideline Bruce while Freeman's Lucius Fox becomes an important asset to both Bruce and Batman- and Freeman handles the role with grace and humor quite deftly. Finally, Linus Roache is great in his brief turn as Bruce's father. In just a few scenes, he makes sure that you understand why Bruce looks up to him so much, and why his senseless murder leaves a hole in Bruce's life that will never, ever, be filled. The only weak link is Katie Holmes, and even she isn't bad, she just isn't quite up to the game that everyone else is bringing to the table.

Special Effects/ Action Scenes: Now, most of the effects here are practical, which are always nice. They used computers to widen the city up, and models/cg to do a part of Gotham's slums. Yes, there is some CG work for the Tumbler chase and all the bats, and the effects of the fear toxin, but it is very convincing and never overused. The sets are all fantastic- they are evocative of Gotham but never comicbook-y. The Bat suit looks great, though I miss the yellow around the bat symbol... No, its fine.

The action scenes themselves are a bit messy, particularly as Batman takes the fight to criminals. Some have said that Nolan dropped the ball here- but I'm not so sure. Realistically, a common criminal MIGHT see Batman for like a 10th of a second before Batman takes them down. The criminals are never quite sure what he looks like or anything, so the clipped fight scenes are OK by me- the only add to Batman's overall effect.

Musical Score: The score, by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is amazing in its suitability to Nolan's Batman. It may not have the "memorable factor" of Elfman's Batman '89 theme, however, their themes are grand and operatic, making Batman larger than life and darkly heroic. Their theme for Ra's is haunting and low. The music for the action is quick and matches the action very well. Funny enough, I loved Newton's score for Unbreakable, and I thought then that he'd be great for Batman. Somebody listened to me, it seems :-) The score is great an haunting.

Lasting Legacy:  First and foremost, it brought Batman back and made him a serious movie character again. Make no mistake, he looked to be "dead and buried" thanks to Batman and Robin in 1997. Nolan and company brought him back, restoring respect to the abused character. Additionally, Nolan does it by focusing on some serious moral questions while also making it entertaining. Finally, they also do it without making you feel like it is just another "superhero franchise". It feels fresh, unique, while paying respects to the traditions of the character.

Batman Begins also created the concept of a "reboot". Such an idea did not exist in Hollywood before, surprisingly. Now, due to the success of Batman Begins (and later TDK), all studios are looking at their old properties thinking "can we reboot this"? In 2006, we had the excellent Bond reboot Casino Royale, and 2009's Star Trek. Of course, rebooting has been a double edged sword, with studios trying to reboot things that either shouldn't be rebooted (they are talking about a Twilight reboot already!) or should be given a bit more time before a reboot (Spiderman).

Between X-Men, Spiderman, and Batman Begins, it was apparent that comic book movies could succeed. Nolan's showed that if you do it with thought and care, and with a stellar cast, comic movies could be amazing. No doubt, Marvel's current success can be traced back to Batman Begins- look at Iron Man's casting and use of "flashback origin" for proof of that.

Finally, Batman Begins' legacy includes its sequel, The Dark Knight. This successor will take the questions asked in Batman Begins and explore them more fully, while taking them into new and fascinating directions. It all has to do with a mysterious card Lieutenant Gordon finds at the scene of a robbery and his own personal fears over "escalation"...

Can't wait to review TDK, but I'll have to re-watch it first...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Lead up to Dark Knight Rises: Remembering Batman

Hey there everybody! Hope your summer is going well and that its not too hot out there for you. Since it is July, we've got a bit of excitement coming up: The Dark Knight Rises will be out in theaters on the 20th. It is supposed to be the final part of this trilogy, and apparently quite definitively so as a matter of fact. Now, I have been a fan of Batman since I was a kid. I loved the character since I saw him in the cartoon show Super Friends way back when...

My introduction to Batman
I had no idea about comics when I was really young. I may have had my parents buy me a few, like G.I. Joe or whatever, but my exposure to comic book superheros at that early age was limited to the cartoons and the action figures (I had a ton from the Kenner's Superpowers Team line as well as Marvel's Secret Wars line). My knowledge of comics was zip, though. That all changed in the summer of '89. My dad took me and my brother to see Tim Burton's Batman. I had been seeing the commercials and all that, and was a hyped-up 10 year old excited to see this movie...

One of my initial comic book readings
And that was it. I fell into the world of comic books as a result. The Batman '89 movie changed it all for me. I loved Batman, and I wanted to know everything about his comic adventures. I immediately bought the comic adaptation of the movie, and then began to buy Batman books. I ordered a ton of Batman trade paperbacks and prestige format books via mail order... how I used to wait with such anticipation for those to be delivered. The first "regular" Batman story that I read was "Death in The Family". Whoa... that impacted me for a long time. I loved it all, though my 10 year old brain didn't get The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One or Arkham Asylum (those would be appreciated later). Reading Batman opened up the whole universe of comic heroes for me- Spiderman, X-Men, Superman, X-Force, Wolverine, Avengers, Zero Hour, Justice League, Spawn... all of it.I bought current issues and back issues. I still have Amazing Spiderman 122- the pride of my collection. I stayed with some books, abandoned others, bought the new flavor of the month, and so forth.

Will this happen in TDKR?
Yet, through it all, my fidelity to Batman remained. I followed Batman religiously throughout the 90s. Through Knightfall, Knightsquest, Knightsend... Contagion, No Man's Land.... As I grew older I appreciated Miller's Batman work (but NOT The Dark Knight Strikes Again. No Sir. Doesn't exist). The dark Knight Returns may be one of the best pieces of comic book literature ever. I still thrill to Morrison's version of Batman in the Justice League- the ultimate badass.

Now, I stopped buying comics by 2000- I simply couldn't get into buying and following ALL of those books anymore. My love for Warhammer 40K was beginning, my interest in comics waning. There was a point in say 2004-05 and then a bit later when I tried getting into them again a few more times (Civil War, Morrison's X-Men, Batman & Son)- but it wasn't the same anymore. It was just too much to keep up with.

It opened a new world to me
However, my love for comic book heroes remain. I am more likely than not to see comic-based movies in the theater. Comic book movies have had a rough history, though they are currently the reigning champs of the box office. And again, that goes back to Batman for me. Batman '89 truly kick started the "comic movie revolution" (yes, Superman had been earlier, but it did not create a "must make comic-property movie" stir that Burton's did). Batman '89 was an incredible movie- dark, foreboding, violent. Yes, Burton's sensibilities were sometimes odd, but that only added to the film in this case, and Keaton and Nicholson were fantastic in their roles as Batman and Joker. I loved that movie then as a 10 year old, and even now I'll watch it gladly.

Legendary to this day
Batman Returns was a different animal- literally. Burton was given free reign here, and ultimately turned Gotham into a real freak show. As I watched this one in '92, I was not enamored at all. Later, I would appreciate this nastier interpretation, though I still hold that '89 was infinitely better. The best thing about Batman Returns was that it was immediately followed up by Batman: The Animated Series- one of the best interpretations of Batman of all time. The half-hour animated show was perfect in bringing the comic characters to life. A truly revolutionary show, which paved the way for others.

I like both actors, but...
As Batman did well on the small screen, he suffered on the big screen. 1995's Batman Forever was both a step forward and a step backward. It wasn't as twisted/bizzare as Batman Returns, and had a sufficient amount of action. However, it had many flaws of its own, including a strange neon lighting style, and, of course, the accursed bat-nipples. The final nail in the coffin was 1997's Batman and Robin, which was bad. Really. Ghastly. Bad humor. Silly situations. Awful dialogue. That was it. Batman was defeated... not by Joker or a bullet, but by Hollywood excess.

Contained the action and the soap-opera elements of the comic X-Men
Yet, like Bruce, there was always back up plans and other possibilities. Comic book movies began to gain traction thanks to Batman. There were rough spots like Dick Tracy (love that movie, just not popular), the Rocketeer, etc. Then, there was Blade and X-Men. 2000's X-Men did its fair share to legitimize comic movies. I loved the 3 X-movies (yes, I said all 3). These movies captured the spirit of the books in many ways, even if their costumes were not "yellow spandex"...

The physical "realization" of these characters was the highlight
Then, there was Spiderman, a series that I consider to be wildly uneven and more beloved than they deserve to be (The action scenes are great, and Franco, Molina, Simmons, and Dafoe are great in their respective villainous roles. However, Toby Maguire is waaaaay too wooden to really have empathy for. And as for Dunst, when she says in SP1 "They told me that I need acting lessons" my mother of all people, in the theater, yelled out "They were right!", which was a- highly uncharacteristic of my mother b-clear to the audience, as they laughed and clapped at my mom's exclamation c- showed just what was wrong with the portrayal of MJ).

2005 was a big year for genre movies (Land of the Dead, SW Episode III, War of the Worlds), and for comic book movies in particular. Batman Begins was released, with only a bit of fanfare. Yet, this movie generated two things: 1- Batman can be done really, really well 2- Reboots as a concept was invented (for good or ill) 3- Comic book movies have a long life ahead of them. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight changed the game, but more than anything, they reminded me of my love of Batman and Gotham City.

I will be reviewing Batman Begins in my next post, as well as The Dark Knight, in the lead up to the third (final) Batman movie in Nolan's arc. Needless to say, I love both movies, for many different reasons.

Well, that's enough of my pointless ramblings. Until I write my Batman reviews... farewell!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Hey there Chaos fanatics! I know it's been a while, but I've come back to my reviews of the Star Trek movies. Yep, it's been a long time coming, but I've been busy with Warhammer 40K, other movies, etc. However, I did not forget my promise: that I would review all the original Trek movies. So, here we are- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The question before us is this: is TUC a proper sendoff for the old cast, or is it a let down rushed to coincide with Trek's 25th anniversary (in 1991)? Let's find out, by going where so many have gone before...

Personal Background: Strangely enough, I did not see this Trek in theaters when it was initially released- I don't quite remember why now. I do remember renting it on VHS from the local video store (Ha! Remember those?). Upon first viewing, I liked it, but wasn't thrilled over it- I was only what- 13 years old? However, over time, I grew older and learned to appreciate the racial, political, and military complexities that form the core of this film. Now, it's one one my favorites.

Basic Plot: The movie begins with the USS Excelsior (Captained by Sulu himself- he finally got that promotion) near the Klingon/Federation Neutral Zone, on a routine science mission, when suddenly a tremendous explosion has occurred within the Klingon system. A moon, Praxis, has suffered an environmental disaster and is now gone. This could ruin the Klingon home world and their empire.

For certain, the Klingon empire cannot afford to both clean up the environmental damage AND maintain their large army. The Klingon leader, Gorkon, proposes peace to the Federation. Kirk and crew are dispatched to meet the Klingon Chancellor and escort him to Earth for negotiations. Kirk is reluctant, as he hates the Klingons, particularly because of his son's death at the hands of Kruge (in TSFS). Indeed, there are many who are opposed to this peace (for several reasons), desperate people how will do anything to prevent a Federation/Klingon peace deal, which Kirk finds out to his peril. The Klingon Chancellor is assassinated en route to Earth, and the blame is placed on Kirk, with Kirk being put on trail and given a life sentence on a Klingon prison world. Kirk and crew must try to figure out who is really responsible for the murder, clear Kirk's name, and most important of all: attempt to restore the peace talks before a full-scale war breaks out between the angry Klingons and the Federation.

Themes/Concepts: There are several complicated themes playing out in this movie. First, it is certainly a parable for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War. Although the USSR did not formally end Communism until 1991 (which is when the file was released), the USSR had lost its Eastern European satellite states in 1989, and the Chernobyl disaster certainly helped to weaken the Soviet empire- it is obvious that this movie is using that for inspiration. It is quite fitting, considering that the Klingons seemed to be stand-ins for the Communists in the original series: vaguely Asian, a military dictatorship, and with episodes showing Kirk help native peoples resist Klingon rule (Vietnam?)- oh yeah, the Klingons were the 23rd century version of the Communist nations alright. It was only fitting (and brilliant) to play the story in this way.

However, TUC is not just a simple allegory for the fall of Communism. The movie really centers on a more complex theme: how do you embrace your enemy after years (decades) of hostility and warfare? That is applicable to any war; any enemy that has left deep scars. Besides Spock, no one from the Enterprise crew is thrilled at the prospect of being nice to the Klingons. Again, this is where Roddenberry's ideas of a "enlightened humanity" is just that; many of the episodes belied the fact that humanity is trying, but has a long way to go. TUC shows that in spades- Chekhov, Uhura, Scotty, Bones, and Kirk himself all find derogatory things to say about/to the Klingons, some of which is borderline racist. The fact is, Kligons and humanity have been hostile towards each other for decades. This movie asks the clever question: what if that long war is over? How would both sides look at one another (and themselves) if that conflict that defined them was at an end? It's a great conceit, and it works great in the film.

The other theme regards just how similar humanity and the Klingons truly are. There are good and bad guys on both sides. Kirk is bitter, but not bloodthirsty- he will not allow peace to be sabotaged, even if he doesn't agree with it. The Klingon Chancellor is not overly fond of humans, but he sees that his people NEED peace if they are to survive. Then, there are those who want war- both humans and Klingons, who work together to attempt to, at worst engineer a conflict, or at least stop the peace talks from succeeding. I'm not spoiling anything by stating that the Klingon Chang represents that other side- willing to do anything to avoid peace with his enemy.  At the end, Kirk realizes this truth, and fights to both clear his name AND protect the emergent peace.

Characters/Acting: The acting is solid in TUC. Though no one is as "flashy" as they had been in say TWOK, all performers give strong performances without any of the bad humor that had been on display in the previous two entries. It's great to see Sulu with a command of his own, and Uhura gets more to do than just "hailing frequencies are open", which is a plus. The standouts are:

Once again, Shatner surprises here in an angry but appropriately subdued performance. Kirk is suspicious of the Klingons and is afraid of peace, no doubt, but just under the surface is his pain over the death of his son at the hands of Klingon Commander Kruge in TSFS. It's not a boiling anger- its a dull, unending pain that Kirk feels: "I'll never forgive them for the death of my boy". Shatner doesn't overplay it- his pain is there, palpable, but without being overwhelming. When Kirk realizes that he's been set up and peace is at stake, he sees how wrong he's been, and is filled with a righteous fury as he attempts to uncover the conspiracy and save both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. It is not his best performance (that's TWOK), but its close.

Nimoy does his best work here also since TMP and TWOK. In STII, Nimoy invested Spock with a new understanding, of sorts. Though he's still Vulcan, he is more accepting/understanding of his own humanity. Then, when he "died" and came back, his Spock was off- either re-adjusting to life or what have you. In TVH and TFF, Spock was just a bit off. Now, he's back with that same serene balance that he had in TWOK. That serenity is broken just once, when he discovers just who is a part of the conspiracy: an angry Spock is a frightful thing to behold. Even better for Spock though, is that he is now following in his father's footsteps, slowly becoming a diplomat (he is instrumental in opening negotiations with the Klingons). Perhaps his father was right all along, eh?

DeForest Kelly isn't given as much to do here, sadly, though he provides great comic relief while he and Kirk are trapped on a Klingon prison world- "you've got him right where you want him" always makes me laugh. McCoy's best scene though is when he's on trial, and he emphatically tells the court that he tried to save the murdered Klingon Chancellor. Kelly was always able to sell McCoy's humanity and compassion, and that is very evident here, one of the best bits in the movie- when the judge tells him to be silent, you can see the pain and frustration in his eyes so well, that it is through McCoy that you see exactly what's at stake in this.

The last standout is Christopher Plummer as Chang. On the one hand, he does very well making Chang an enemy to be reckoned with- he's intelligent, dedicated to his cause, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his aim. His acting in the dinner and  courtroom scenes are simply fantastic. Unfortunately, it was decided that he should quote Shakespeare half the time... now, to me, this is too much like Khan quoting Moby Dick... why repeat such a device? Chang was strong enough, that this quoting was just unnecessary, as it added nothing to the character.

Special Effects: Overall, the special effects in this movie were on the light side of effects. Notably, this movie introduced the so-called "Praxis effect", which is a huge concussive blast that precedes the big explosion. The effect was actually later added to Star Wars when the Death Stars were blown up. The other big effect sequence was when the gravity was lost on the Klingon ship and the assassins barged in to kill the Chancellor, with everything suspended in the air- pretty cool, if not mind blowing. The last battle between the Chang's ship is interesting because it involves both the Enterprise and the Excelsior, but it is far too brief and rather simply done to be a major special effect.

Musical Score: The music in TUC is, like the movie itself, not too showy or wild- it is however brooding and atmospheric, which is just what was needed. It makes the film into a very serious affair, but also quite realistic. This isn't an action movie- it is a murder mystery and political thriller, and the score is appropriate for such a movie. It is not as memorable as other Trek movie scores, but it gets the job done.

 Lasting Legacy: First, and foremost, this was the last film to feature the entire original cast. There are absolutely several "passing of the torch" moments in the movie- as TNG was already airing, the audience already knows there will be other starships with the name Enterprise. Interestingly, one of the things that viewers found interesting about TNG is that a Klingon is a member of the crew in the 24th century. This movie actually shows HOW peace was achieved- the Kitomer Conference becomes a part of TNG cannon instantly. Great way to tie them all together. This movie also contains the seeds of Spock's role in the 24th century as an ambassador- which would have huge implications in TNG, as well as the Abrams "Star Trek" movie.

Overall, I'll give Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country 3 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. It's a great way to close out the series, and is an appropriate swan song for the original crew of the Enterprise. I hope you have enjoyed these reviews. I wonder what I'll do next? What's that you say? You want me to review the TNG movies? I don't know about that... I'd like to take a break from Star Trek for a bit. But, perhaps in the future I will...

Until next time...