Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

Year: 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonell

It's finally time to see if the sequel to Batman Begins lives up to the hype that has followed it since the death of Heath Ledger earlier this year. Reviews have been positive all around and the buzz is that this is THE film of the year. So, is it?

And now, in the words of The Joker himself: and here....we....go!

The Dark Knight begins with a bank robbery, organised by the clown prince of crime himself. It's just the beginning of what will be an ingenius plan to bring Gotham City to its knees.

Speaking of Gotham, it has changed from the time Bruce Wayne returned to it in the first film. Thanks to Batman and Lt. Jim Gordon, the criminals in Gotham are running scared, and the presence of the Batman has inspired some wannabe vigilantes dressed up like bats. But now, the city receives two new players to the game.

First and foremost is District Attorney Harvey Dent, who along with Bruce's former girlfriend Rachel Dawes work hard to prosecute all the major crime bosses in the city. He is so successful that Gordon recommends to Batman to join forces with him. Together, the three men are triumphant in arresting a Chinese money launderer in cahoots with organised crime in Gotham, which is a big win for the right side of the law.

But then, here's where the second player steps in to change the rules. A man simply known as The Joker. He's strange, psychopathic and wears white makeup to intimidate, yet gain the attention of the criminals of Gotham. He offers them a chance to seize back control of the city, but what The Joker really wants is something more basic yet complex at the same time. Chaos.

The Joker strikes at the heart of the triumvirate of Gotham's protectors, which include personal attacks, citywide destruction and terrorising the public. His goal is to unhinge the moral reasoning amongst the people of Gotham. All this bring Gordon, Dent and Wayne to the edge as they scramble, struggle and fight to maintain order and bring The Joker in. In the end, one of the three men falls from grace and as the crisis gets uglier, sacrifices have to be made to end the madness.

It may seem like I'm not giving away much here, but it's only because you'll have to see this film for yourself to comprehend the goings-on. And the fact that The Dark Knight isn't an easy film to process. But it never stops being the masterpiece that it truly is. Christopher Nolan has truly outdone himself this time, by directing and co-writing (with his brother Jonathan) a film that surpasses Batman Begins on many levels, and presents something that no other Batman filmmaker could ever come close to giving movie audiences. Nolan gives everything character, from the players involved to the city of Gotham itself. Some characters may be more prominent than others, but each of them serves its purpose, so there is a tremendous amount of depth in every corner of this story.

But the million dollar question is of course: Was Heath Ledger any good? As Randy Jackson would say on American Idol, "A 100% yes." In fact, I'd give Ledger 150%. He is great, no doubt about it. This is The Joker as you've only imagined him to be if you read the comicbooks, and Ledger makes him even scarier than I thought. Some of you may recall Jack Nicholson's take on the character in Tim Burton's film, and I'll say this about Nicholson: he made The Joker clever, campy and anarchistic as the script wanted him to be. But just watch Ledger at work, and you'll be terrified, and truly convinced that this is a man that isn't just mad, but someone who sees the dark side of irony and laughs at the world going down in flames. It is unfortunate that The Joker is Ledger's last role. I think he deserves an Oscar nomination, not because he's gone, but simply because he's that damn good.

Not to be outdone is Christian Bale, who gives his character the bravado to be strong in his darkest hour. Ironically he spends more time being Batman than Bruce Wayne here, and he'll be remembered for that. Gary Oldman gets more screen time as Gordon, and he is the heart of the film. Gordon is the balance that Harvey Dent and Batman can't seem to achieve, and becomes the most vulnerable character here. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman lend able support as Bruce Wayne's trusted allies, providing some minor humorous moments here and there. Gyllenhaal fares better than Katie Holmes in playing Rachel Dawes, but doesn't get much to do. Also keep an eye out for cameo appearances from William Fichtner, Edison Chen and Cillian Murphy, reprising his role as The Scarecrow.

Lest I forget is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. Now, I'm not a big fan of Eckhart, and I didn't even enjoy his scenes in the trailers for this film. But you know what, he ain't half bad at all. His Dent is ambitious and bold, and isn't afraid to do what is necessary to defeat The Joker. Some of you may already know that Dent will transform to his fated character of Two-Face in the film, and I must admit that I preferred Eckhart's performance as Dent over Two-Face. But he gets an A for effort from me.

With a film with this much hype, can anything go wrong? Perhaps, if you look close enough. It stretches at 152 minutes, and though I don't mind that, it somehow highlights the notion that Nolan is trying too hard to fit so much story into one film. He's the guy who can make a complicated story like The Prestige turn out to be an amazing work of art, but here in The Dark Knight he could have made it a little easier to digest. I'm thinking Nolan wasn't planning for a third film, which is good because then we'd have another bloated film like The Matrix Revolutions or Pirates Of The Carribean 3. But still, the feeling of overload is slightly present, as the quick editing in several scenes will attest. And in the end, you'll feel that this film is more about Harvey Dent than about the titular character, which in some ways may be right. But hardcore Bat-fans might ask for more of the caped crusader.

Nonetheless, this is a film you just can't miss. This is a superhero film that is furthest from the concept of a superhero film you'll ever see. It's as dark, brooding and filled with awe as you'll ever hope for it to be. You'll remember this one for the ages. (4.5/5)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Year: 2008
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, John Hurt, Jeffrey Tambor, Seth MacFarlane

This is the much anticipated sequel to the first Hellboy film also directed by Guillermo del Toro, and most of the original cast have returned as well. For those of you who aren't familiar with Hellboy, here's a quick lesson: he's a child from hell brought to our world by a Nazi follower back in 1944, and was looked after by Professor Broom (John Hurt), who leads the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). In the first film, an adult Hellboy was successful in killing the same man who brought him to Earth and protecting humanity from evil, but his surrogate father Professor Broom was killed.

In this sequel, we begin in 1955 when a young Hellboy listens to a story by his father about a war between man and the elves many centuries ago. The war came to a truce in the end, with man agreeing to live in the cities and the elves shall live in the forests. Cut to present day, where the elven Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) returns from exile to reclaim the earth that his father had given up in honor of the truce. He kills his father and attempts to acquire the three pieces of a special golden crown that will give him control over the indestructible Golden Army, which he plans to use to take over the planet.

Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his buddies from the BPRD, pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), aquatic empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and new member Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) who is made up of gas that enables him to control inanimate objects of any kind, are called in to stop Prince Nuada's dastardly plans. To do so, they have to protect his twin sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who holds the final piece of the crown. Along the way, the team deals with all sorts of problems, including being outed by the press which doesn't go well with their handler, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor).

Director del Toro once again delivers a film that gives equal measure in terms of action, drama, humour and visual excitement. This time he has brought a bigger set of monsters and creatures that would rival George Lucas' Star Wars universe. But unlike Lucas, del Toro is a better writer in terms of creativity and realism. He manages to inject more depth into his leads and give them more human credibility. You'll laugh as you watch Hellboy and Liz argue and blow up their room literally, or watching Hellboy and Abe get themselves drunk as they listen to Can't Smile Without You while pondering their ill-fated love stories. Classic indeed.

But not to be forgotten of course, is the action. There are many to behold as the BPRD battle fairies, monsters and gigantic plants to save the earth from destruction. del Toro and his production team have certainly outdone themselves in creating a surreal world that is both dark and intoxicating.

The cast perform up to expectations thankfully. This film faces the risk of the visual wow factors overwhelming the characters but luckily the cast stand out in making themselves memorable. Perlman plays the unlikely hero effortlessly, you'd think that he is like that in real life. Blair, Jones, Walton and Goss lend great support too. Goss in particular gets to do more this time around compared to del Toro's other film Blade II.

My only gripe however (yes there is one in fact) is the idea of what Nuada is fighting for. He tells Hellboy that the latter is more in common with him than humankind, and that he shouldn't be protecting them. Nuada fights to reclaim the earth from the greedy men of the earth who do nothing but suck it dry. True indeed, the people fear Hellboy and the BPRD, and the question of whose side they should be on is only skimmed on slightly. If only del Toro had given this argument more time, it would have made a considerable impact at the end of the film. The absence of this made the ending quite hollow.

But then again, perhaps making a fun summer movie is what del Toro and company were aiming for. And for that, they certainly delivered. (4/5)

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Year: 2008
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp

More comic book films. More fantastic things unfolding onscreen. Hollywood just loves adapting these books. But don't get me wrong, I do love this kind of films. Being a comic book fan myself, I just love watching fantasy turn into reality on the big screen.

I didn't read the comic book of which the film Wanted is based on, but judging from the blood pumping trailer and the cast that's involved, (even if it includes Angelina Jolie who I'm sick of seeing in films like this) who could say no?

Wanted's main protagonist is Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), an accounts manager who basically is a loser in life. He gets verbally abused by his fat boss at work every day, and his girlfriend is so bored with him, she spends time sleeping with his best friend. Wesley even tries to google himself on the net and gets nothing. That's how much of a nobody he is. That is, until he meets a strange woman named Fox (Angelina Jolie) at the pharmacy one night.

Fox saves him from an assassin named Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) and takes him to her hideout, where she introduces him to The Fraternity, a group of assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Sloan tells Wesley that Wesley's father was one of them, a great assassin killed by Cross. He explains that The Fraternity were created by fate thousands of years ago to carry out hits in order to balance the chaos around the world. Sloan offers Wesley a chance to become one of them, to train with them and break free from his mundane, hopeless life, and eventually avenge his father's death.

Wesley of course turns them down, unable to believe that he's destined to be a killer. But eventually, he accepts their offer and learns slowly and albeit painfully, on how to be a hitman. He learns how to fight, shoot, take punishment and even bend bullets. Yup, you heard me, bend a bullet's path so that it curves around an obstacle to hit its target. Soon Wesley becomes a talented assassin and goes after Cross, but then learns that not everything is what it seems.

Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian director who gave us the Russian films Nightwatch and Daywatch, makes his American film debut here. His unique filmmaking style is quite suitable for a film that focuses on bullet paths, flying cars and outrageous stunts. He uses plenty of slow motion to visualise the action closely and present it better for his audience, and it works to some extent.

McAvoy does well as Wesley, the loser who transforms himself into an action hero, but his American accent isn't quite convincing. I can still sense his strong Scottish accent in his speech. Jolie and Freeman acquit themselves well also, being old horses at roles like this, it is to be expected. Look out for Konstantin Khabensky, the lead actor from Nightwatch and Daywatch in a supporting role as a member of The Fraternity.

But is Wanted any good? Well, yes, if you can suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy it. Remember how you felt when you watched The Matrix? How you said Wow when you saw them jump across buildings and dodge bullets? Well, you're gonna see the same kind of Holy Shit moments here too, like watching a car do a 360 degree turn above another car and land on its wheels, or bullets bending in a circular path, or a man being able to run so fast he can crash out of an office window and fly through the sky. Yeah, comic book stuff. It's supposed to be cool, and yet it still feels like it's too unreal. I mean, I'm still having trouble processing the idea of shooting bullets and making them curve as if you're flinging a baseball.

And when you get to the third act, there's a revelation that makes this story kinda like Star Wars, only in reverse. Hopefully that won't be a spoiler for you there. It's a nice surprise for those who didn't read the book, though it might leave some nagging questions. And the ending is somewhat overdone, I wished they had done away with the narration part.

Overall, it's a pretty good action flick, a good way to spend two hours. (3.5/5)


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