Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

MV5BMzM5NjUxOTEyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjEyMDM0MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_There are two types of people in the world: Those who love Wes Anderson movies and those who hate them. Those who love them prefer some more than others, but those who hate them will hate all of them, and there will never be any convincing them otherwise.

Essentially, all of Anderson’s movies are the same: Quirky humor, the theme of growing older, well-established actors playing against type alongside his cast of regulars, a sense of over-the-top gravitas (though whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or not is up to the viewer to decide), odd visual symmetries, and all of it bathed in delectable pastels.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is nothing new, in that regard. Anderson fans will eat it up like one of Mendl’s confections. The good thing about Anderson movies is that although they all follow similar patterns, the director has managed to improve upon his previous effort every time out. So, his latest film is always his best.

This version concerns a famous hotel located in the mountains of a small, fictional European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, in the 1930s, where none of the residents is sure which accent they’re supposed to speaking with. The story follows the hotel’s concierge, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who has a passion for pungent cologne and a penchant for wealthy, elderly women. His new lobby boy, Zero, played in his younger days by the debuting Tony Revolori, works his way into becoming Gustave’s protege and close friend.

One of Gustave’s senior sweethearts, Madame Duchess, portrayed by a completely unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, is assassinated and, being much closer to Gustave than to the rest of her family, makes Gustave heir of one of the world’s most reknowned paintings, “Boy with Apple.” Of course, her family is none too pleased, especially her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who then makes it his mission, or more accurately, his hired thug, Jopling’s (Willem Dafoe) mission, to hunt down Gustave and the painting.

Move over, Ralph, Dafoe and Brody get to be the despicable ones this time around.

Move over, Ralph, Dafoe and Brody get to be despicable this time around.

The movie hits all the Anderson trademarks, but with the subject matter of the story, and the backdrop of war-torn Europe, the typically faux gravitas gives way to actual gravitas. Edward Norton plays a rather un-European European softy military commander who is a buddy of Gustave’s and helps him out of some treacherous situations. This is Anderson’s most serious movie, which could be a misleading statement considering how silly it is. It also features some of the darkest humor he has employed in any of his films, especially the scenes involving hit man Jopling.

It’s always fun to see the visiting cast of actors get the Anderson treatment, and this crew is no exception. Fiennes displays a surprisingly natural sense of comedic timing, which may come as a surprise to some, as he’s most known for the countless despicable villains he’s played over the years, and he proves a good hand to anchor a film to, even as an honorable, kind gentleman, though his love interests may be questionable, given the treasures he stands to gain from those relationships. Revolori is a bit of a revelation in his first big role, a natural fit for the dry humor Anderson employs. He makes a good sidekick for Gustave, though much of the story is also about his character. Saoirse Ronan is lovely as Zero’s love interest with a facial birthmark in the shape of Mexico, Agatha. Unfortunately, she isn’t given much to do. Most of Anderson’s usual suspects are placed in mere cameos, but it’s fun to see them when they pop up.

Anderson knows how to find the right angles.

Anderson knows how to find the right angles.

Although Agatha has opportunities to show strength, she mostly plays second fiddle to the men. Her role in Gustave’s and Zero’s activities mostly involves doing work for them. Women’s deaths are commonly used in the story as plot devices or for the male characters’ development. There are some Anderson films where he implements more fully fledged female characters, but invariably, they all mostly concern men and men’s affairs. He’s better than many directors at creating women in his films, usually giving them more dimensions than many female characters, but are often only more complex love interests for the men, rather than simple ones. In this regard, “Budapest” is one of his weaker movies.

As the film opens with a young woman in the modern day visiting the hotel long after it has ceased operation, lured there by a book written by a one-time patron, the movie is reflective on history long forgotten, only passed on through a tour book. It’s a stark reminder of the world as it ages, and one’s experiences eventually become memories, only the best of which will be passed on, and that’s if you’re lucky. An old empty building may house the ghosts of a world gone by, yet it’s also mere cold brick and stone.

Ultimately, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” though a very good one, is just another Wes Anderson film. Fans of his know they’ll enjoy it before they sit down to watch it. It won’t change the minds of those who don’t care for his whimsical worlds of whimsy. It continues his tradition of topping his last film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” though his last three or so have been significant improvements over his earlier movies, as they exhibit stronger storytelling that has come with years of experience. It doesn’t seem like a better film than say, the wondrously creative and innovative “Birdman,” as Anderson hasn’t really broken any new ground with his latest film, or even made any significant shifts from his previous work. It seems like the Golden Globe the movie won may have been more of a legacy award for Anderson than for the movie’s own merits. It probably won’t and shouldn’t win Best Picture from the Oscars this year, but Anderson has created another lovely movie that fans of his will eat up with a spoon.

“The Theory of Everything” Could Have Been Awesome

MV5BMTAwMTU4MDA3NDNeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDk4NTMxNTIx._V1_SX214_AL_Biopics have been particularly popular with the Academy for about the last decade. Asa a result, there have been gads of them in recent years. Some have been great (“Walk the Line,” “The King’s Speech”, “The Queen”), some mediocre (“Ray,” “Fearless”), some downright boring (“Public Enemies,” “Invictus), and a few that took a unique approach (“The Last King of Scotland,” “The Social Network”), generally all of which generated pushes for Lead Actor/Actress nominations, as performers attempted to disappear into the role and recreate famous moments in history. There are several in this year’s Best Picture nominees alone, “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” and “Selma.”

“The Theory of Everything,” a dramatic representation of cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s life, as well as that of his first wife, Jane Hawking, who is equally integral to the film, is a biopic. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to be said about it. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, per se, but it doesn’t make any attempt to add anything new. That’s not to say Stephen Hawking isn’t an interesting figure, but if you’ve seen a fair share of similar movies, you’ve basically already seen this one.

The man

The man

The bulk of the film deals with the Hawkings’ relationship, which began before Stephen’s disabling condition began to manifest itself. Thus, the most compelling thing it does is show both the courage and frustration of a spouse to someone who possesses high ambition, who because of his condition is also increasingly need of a caretaker. Felicity Jones plays Jane as a bold woman who takes a great risk in many ways in marrying Stephen, who faces the specter of a difficult and possibly short life. Eddie Redmayne portrays Stephen as a man with a complex personality who has an awkward outer shell but is quite the cheeky rascal to people who know him well, which comes as a contrast to the image of the wheelchair-bound man with a computer voice most people identify him with.

Once Stephen is diagnosed with his disease, while studying at Cambridge, it is quite an emotional risk he takes in continuing his work, being unsure how much he would accomplish, as doctors give him no more than a few years to live. Jane makes the decision to stay with him and marry him and have children, even with the knowledge that life with Stephen would be not be easy. On the one hand, if the doctors’ predictions about Stephen’s mortality were to come true, she would lose the person she loved and have to raise the kids on her own. On the other, Stephen would eventually be completely paralyzed and require Jane to take care of him for the rest of their lives.

The film does a good job of capturing Jane’s struggles, as well as Stephen’s, as Jane gradually feels her life being drained away, as she is required to give most of her life to taking care of Stephen and her children. Her struggles are embodied in a single man, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), whom she meets at church choir practice, as he is handsome, kind, and able-bodied, and she begins to develop romantic feelings toward him. It is admirable that she is willing to give of herself as much as she does, and it’s a sign of the strength of the Hawkings’ relationship. But her frustration and longing for an easier, more fulfilling life are totally understandable, as the life she has chosen was never going to be easy.

It was a bold move for Jane to stay with Stephen, even after he was diagnosed.

It was a bold move for Jane to stay with Stephen, even after he was diagnosed with his degenerative disease. The film captures her struggles, as much as it does Stephen’s work.

The development of Stephen’s theory on the origin of the universe is presented as almost cursory to his relationship with his wife. His scientific work is what he’s known for after all, not as much for being a husband. The complexity of the theory is presented as long equations on a chalkboard, indecipherable to non-astrophysicists, and presented as a simple explanation, so the audience can understand that he has come a conclusion that is scientifically sound, though not the impenetrable means of achieving that conclusion.

In other biopics, it’s easy to relate the subject’s work to their life, as a running theme throughout the film. For instance, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were musicians who let their genuine emotions bleed into their songs. Idi Amin was the deranged tyrant of a nation. There are many biopics made about athletes or coaches. Their accomplishments make for a nice juxtaposition with their personal lives, as one influences the other. Of course, music and sports make for good hooks to keep viewers entertained, or in Amin’s case, his violent displays of power and an ugly disposition are terrifying.

The problem when comparing those to “Everything” then, is that it’s difficult to film scienceing. Images of Stephen writing labyrinthine equations on a chalkboard don’t come close to relating what those equations mean into something the audience can care about. As a result, Stephen doesn’t really have anything to be defined by, as far as the film goes. His wife becomes defined by her work to take care of her family. Stephen in some ways becomes defined by his disability, which doesn’t send a positive message.

Certainly, the performances of Redmayne and Jones are the heart of the film, and they’ve both been recognized with Oscar nominations, as co-leads. Redmayne is especially impressive, as he is able to make Stephen a lively figure, even as his paralysis becomes gradually more pronounced. He is still able to communicate the rapture of looking at a Penthouse magazine, even though he can only move his eyes. That’s good acting. He’s able to do it in a way that comes off as sincere, but not offensive or exploitative. Jones is more understated, but she is able to convey the very complex emotions Jane experiences throughout the movie.

The performances are enough to make the movie worth seeing, but otherwise, “The Theory of Everything” is a rather flat, even cold experience. It’s not bad by any means, and the Hawkings’ relationship is compelling. But even as the movie makes an attempt beyond the straightforward telling of the scientist’s life, it comes too late to make any lasting impact. If you’re looking for an entertaining insight into Stephen Hawking’s theories, you won’t find that here. It will likely garner an award for Redmayne, which is deserved, but it doesn’t seem memorable enough to be considered one of 2014’s best films.

Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “Boyhood”

In honor of “The LEGO Movie’s” snubbing by the Academy, Asian & Entertained presents the 2015 Best Picture nominees. Today, “Boyhood.”

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MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Roger Ebert once said, “it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” In one sense, that might make “Boyhood” the master of all movies. Being filmed over 12 years, chronicling two children’s growth over that span, and featuring continuity in casting as the adult actors themselves changed over that period, it was an unprecedentedly risky project, with so many variables that could have caused it to be a flop. To its credit, it is well-filmed and a remarkable, peerless precedent set by visionary director Richard Linklater.

But the premise isn’t particularly original: a movie about a white boy growing up is hardly anything new, so that’s one hurdle Linklater needed to overcome to make something viewers would find compelling to sit through for nearly three hours. Sure, it is kind of a curiosity to watch a document of people changing over time, but anyone who invested in home movie camcorders over the years could have done that themselves, with a real family and their real stories, rather than a fictional one, complete with period soundtrack, fashions, and references to world events. They would probably have a hard time getting a studio to buy it and release it in theaters no matter how fascinating that family was, because no one really wants to watch that. But you could watch your own home movies for three hours, and probably have an entertaining time, and why would you want to watch someone else’s.

Then, Linklater also had to be a bit concerned about the actors he hired. Ellar Coltrane, who plays the boy, Mason, was eight years old (though he was playing a five-year-old), as was Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter), who play’s Mason’s sister, Samantha. It’s rare enough to find good child actors, and even rarer that good child actors grow up to be good or successful adult actors (i.e. Hayley Joel Osment). Indeed, there were some rough years in the middle of the movie for those kids, as they appeared either disinterested or unsure of themselves, though by the end, they have both turned out to be pretty decent at playing that character they’d been for over a decade. And once he’d wrapped shooting for the each point of the movie, there would be no going back if he wanted to change something, so sticking with what he had and making it into a cohesive story, took some incredible foresight and ability to adjust for the future, rather than the past. In most filmmaking, hindsight can probably be a rather valuable tool, as the movie isn’t done until it’s done, but it’s easy to see how it would be more of a frustration in this case, as it wouldn’t really do any good.

Is watching some strange kid grow up better than your own home movies?

Is watching some strange kid grow up better than your own home movies?

Thankfully, the movie isn’t just about the boy, or even just him and his sister, but also about the people around him, though it is always from his perspective. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play their separated parents, living in Texas, who obviously hadn’t been planning on having kids at the age they did. Mom tries to navigate a difficult world as a single mother, as Dad has run off and is doing his own thing but comes back to visit every now and again. They both love the kids, and it seems like Dad is a good guy who wasn’t ready for the responsibility. Unfortunately, just being a good guy doesn’t do much to help when he’s not around, as there are always bills to pay and lonely days.

As Mason grows up, Mom starts to take some control over her life, going back to college to further her career, both for herself and to support her family. Along the way, she goes through a couple husbands a few years apart, who both turn out to be abusive drunks. Mason gains and loses a couple families and that’s just part of life. Dad becomes more involved with his kids, but shows no sign that he’s ready to settle down yet, as he’s still on some esoteric quest to find himself. He kind of becomes the cool Dad, who shows that he actually does love and understand the kids, but actually taking care of them, at least from a financial standpoint, is not high on his list of priorities.

The film smartly takes a nuanced view on abusive people. The abusive husbands Mom marries aren’t the stereotypical deadbeat dads who live in a trailer and spend their days at the bar and their nights slapping around their wives, calling them “bitch,” and telling them to get back in the kitchen like most movies or TV shows. The first one, Bill (Marco Perella), is one of Mom’s professors. He’s well off, has two kids of his own, spends his off days golfing, and at first, he seems like a stable person for Mom to be with as she gains her feet in the world. His abuse of his kids is only verbal, and subtle at first, undercutting them as they do normal things kids do. He’s harder on the ones who aren’t his, of course. But then comes the drinking, which he hides or disguises, so the family isn’t aware. As time passes, the drinking becomes more pronounced, and he’s found to be physically assaulting his wife. It’s interesting how the abuse is gradual and increases over time, though the signs are always there to a discerning person. Of course, to many, his taking digs at the kids might just appear to be “tough love.” Years later, when husband No. 2, Jim, (Brad Hawkins, who starred in “VR Troopers” way back in the day), starts to show similar patterns, Mom gets the family out before the problems escalate to the same level.

It’s interesting how the movie contrasts Mom’s other husbands and Dad. Dad seems like he’s never quite got it together himself, but he’s great with his children, and shows he cares about them and takes the time to listen to them and try to understand them, whereas Mom’s other husbands are authoritative and judgmental. When they get into high school, he awkwardly tries to talk to them about safe sex, which shows that he may be no perfect parent, but he really is trying and he does care about his kids, which is probably more than can be said for a lot of parents. But his inability to get his own life together would have made for a poor environment for the kids, and often throughout their lives, Dad’s presence seems to be only cursory. So, although he’s not abusive, he’s still not able to be a healthy member of that family. Eventually, he does turn it around, getting a steady job and finding another woman to settle down with. Perhaps had he and Mom met later in life, it could have worked out for them. But that’s the way life goes.

All of this probably sounds like it belongs on ABC Family rather than on the Best Picture list, and though it has better acting and production, as well as a broader scope, that’s basically what it is. The second half of the movie is where it starts to set itself apart and become a great movie. If this were a typical family film, Mom and Dad would come to realize that they really do love each other after all, and they just had to figure out how to balance their crazy lives with one another, and at the end, there would at least be some sign that it might work out after all, and the abusive guy’s kids could come live with them.

Thankfully, Linklater took a more realistic approach. Instead, Mason, having lived in several cities with different people and different family experiences, starts to become disaffected, as all teenagers do, and starts to realize that he doesn’t want to become either of his parents. But then, where does that leave him? As he works through high school, summer jobs and the teenage party life, it begins to show that he has his mother’s talent and intelligence, and his father’s adventurous spirit, but also has picked up Dad’s lack of work ethic and ability to find his way in the system. So, these reflections help provide some insight into how people can be the product of what they grew up with, which lifts the film above just another coming of age story.

Dad’s and Mom’s progress throughout life also highlights the differences single dads and moms face trying to make it through life. Whereas Dad has the luxury of taking an excursion in Alaska or bumming around with his friends and trying to get a band started that has no chance of becoming anything, he still has plenty of time to be the cool dad who takes an interest in the kids’ lives and trying to help them turn out better than he did. Mom’s life, even when she makes choices for herself, she still has to make them with her kids always in mind. At the end, Dad is on a positive path, starting a new family with a new wife and a new child. Mom is fresh off a second divorce wondering where her life went. That’s important for people to take note of, as men and women definitely have vastly different experiences when it’s just one of them and the kids.

Cool Dad gets to have all the fun with his kids, while Mom is left working to support them.

Cool Dad gets to have all the fun with his kids, while Mom is left working to support them.

The obligatory pop culture references are fun, as they reflect the year and just how silly many of those trends were back then. Period pieces can be cool, but they can only be so accurate when research comes from someone who had studied that period and lived it if lucky. This is a real period piece, as the work was actually being done in the period that part of the movie was about. It is a bit odd to see a movie in 2014 open with a 14-year-old Coldplay song, and it’s easy to forget how popular that song was back then (also weird to think how much Coldplay has changed). Ditto for Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” which many who remember when that song was popular, probably assumed they’d never hear it again. It’s cool to see kids waiting in line for a midnight release of a Harry Potter book (remember when people got excited about hardcopy books?) too. But as the years pass, the references become more muddled, especially if they’re supposed to help create atmosphere for a specific year. Who remembers which year that one Vampire Weekend song came out? It was one of those in the past decade or so, but which one? It’s funny how Linklater incorporated world events into the the story too, as Dad is a hardcore Democrat who makes his kids steal John McCain signs out of people’s yards. And when Dad takes his kids to a Houston Astros game, he marvels at how Roger Clemens could still be at the top of his game, even as he was still pitching at a high level in his early 40s. It hasn’t been proven that Clemens was on PEDs then, but plenty of evidence points to a likely answer to Dad’s marveling.

Clemens has always been about silencing critics for one reason or another.

Clemens has long been about silencing critics for one reason or another.

Does the end result justify the time and care Linklater has put into it? It’s difficult to say “no.” The movie’s story might not being anything too original, but it’s like part fiction, part documentary, as the characters literally grow up before the viewer’s eyes. That’s something that has never been done before, and never attempted. It was an incredibly ambitious project, one that likely no one will ever duplicate, and it would be hard to see any reason to do it again. Although Linklater made a large portion of his body of work over that time, some of them excellent movies, he has dedicated at least a bit of the last dozen years to one film, and that deserves recognition. In a year of great movies, this one does stand apart from the rest if for no other reason than its unique approach. It’s a heavy favorite to win at the Oscars, having already picked up Best Drama at the Golden Globes, but it would be hard to say this was the best movie of the year, as it had some stiff competition. But it certainly is toward the top of the list. The Academy could do much worse than to pick this one to win.

Countdown to Liftoff: “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

MV5BMTk4ODQzNDY3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODA0NTM4Nw@@._V1_SX214_AL_Following the critical success he received for “Inception,” Christopher Nolan returned to his beloved Batman series one last time with “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012. He would wrap up the trilogy in grand fashion, finishing up loose ends left after “The Dark Knight” and putting a definitive ending to Bruce Wayne’s career as the Caped Crusader. In many ways it served as a love letter to that universe, but also to frustrate many viewers with its odd plotting. This film seems to be the point where many fans started to turn against Nolan, though critics still received it well.

The new villain on the block is Bane, played by one of Nolan’s new favorites, after his excellent work in “Inception,” Tom Hardy. Batman fans might have been disappointed that Nolan went with Bane as the villain in the final act of the series, as there were other iconic baddies that would have been interesting to see get the Nolan treatment: Penguin, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Clayface, Croc (who gets a sly brief nod), Egghead, Bookworm. It would be intriguing to see what Nolan could have done with any of those (OK, maybe not those last two oddities from the Adam West TV show). But Bane does play an important role in the comics, which are referred to here.

The movie opens with a bang, like “The Dark Knight” did, but this time in even more daring fashion, as Bane, along with a group of minions, hijacks a CIA jet in midair, extracts a VIP he was after, and sends the rest of the plane plummeting to the ground below. Nolan manages to get another great cameo by a lesser-known actor, popular to HBO geeks, Aidan Gillen, who was Mayor Carcetti in “The Wire” and can currently be seen as Lord Littlefinger Baelish in “Game of Thrones.” Bane’s stunt immediately sets the tone for the rest of the movie. He’s taking over, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him.

Littlefinger would have made a great Batman villain. Too bad he couldn't fly.

Littlefinger would have made a great Batman villain. Too bad he couldn’t fly.

Well, this is a Batman movie, so there’s bound to be someone who can stop him. But that someone who can stop him (Christian Bale) has taken to being a recluse. No longer the socialite he once was, after Rachel’s death, Bruce Wayne has taken to shuttering himself away from the public eye, deep inside his cavernous mansion a la Howard Hughes (though not to the extent that he’s pissing in Mason jars, like one of his visitors suggests). If there’s one animal that can disturb a small furry creature from its slumber, it would be a cat (Anne Hathaway), who manages to nab his fingerprints with little effort.

Hathaway’s version of Selina Kyle is incredibly self-confident, as she is so slinky and slippery that she’s able to get out of hairy situations without any trouble at all. But she’s got bigger things in mind. This Selina is one of those types who can’t wait to see the unjust system of wealth, corruption, and poverty in the city of Gotham come crashing down. As she expresses this desire to Bruce as they run into each other at a swanky party, she unwittingly foreshadows the plot that Bane is preparing to unleash upon the city. The revolution will come, but it won’t be one that anybody in Gotham wants.

The movie does start a bit slow, but in contrast to “The Dark Knight,” it works more as a slow burn building to something bigger, more consequential, with each element being integral to the grander ideas.

Eventually, Bruce does find himself face-to-face with Bane, and is woefully unprepared to deal with this new threat. As he was in the comics, Bane is again the man who broke the Bat, especially referred to into the scene where Bane cripples Bruce, an image ripped directly from the iconic panel. Bruce finds himself exiled to a prison somewhere on the other side of the world, and Gotham is rife for Bane’s takeover.3012618-bane+breaks+batmans+back+2

If the Joker only craved sheer chaos, Bane is the complete opposite, as every move he makes is carefully calculated. It makes him a formidable villain, and he has some grand ideas, which he uses to placate the city as he takes it over. That makes for a different kind of villain, one who in some ways appears more admirable than the other Batman villains in the series, though his seemingly well-intentioned ideas eventually give way to his ulterior motives. He does have the most pleasant demeanor of any bad guy, as everything he says through his breathing mask is delivered in such a kind, gentle tone that it doesn’t sound so bad when he’s telling one of his henchmen that it’s his turn to die in a plane crash or when he lets Bruce know his plan to torture him while he destroys Gotham. His voice is also mixed horribly with the rest of the movie’s sounds, so it has a much higher register than everything else and threatens to destroy your TV’s speakers if they’re not up to the task.

His plot comes to a head, at where else, but America’s greatest passion, a football game. The event is a nice detail that serves both to breathe life into Gotham as a major city, and as the venue of Bane’s takeover. The venue in real life is Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, and the actors portraying the football players were members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s fun to see Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward in a movie, though Nolan does unforgivably get a detail wrong here: Ward would never be on kick return duty.

HInes Ward was not a kick returner.

HInes Ward was NOT a kick returner.

But thankfully he makes it to the end zone, as the rest of the field, along with all of the players on it are demolished (anyone who’s eager to see quarterback and probable rapist Ben Roethlisberger get killed in a movie might enjoy this). Bane announces to the city that he’s in charge now. He also has a really complicated bomb and the only person who can defuse it he kills in front of everyone.

"SOLD -- to the man in a cold sweat."

“SOLD — to the man in a cold sweat.”

But Bane demonstrates that he isn’t such a bad guy, he essentially upends the system in place. All (well, nearly all) of the city’s police were working at the game, and the ones who are still alive are buried under the stadium. He lets the captives trapped in Gotham’s prisons free and sends the wealthy fleeing to seclusion, because the ones he does find, he’s putting on trial. They’ll be judged by none other than the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) in a short but fun cameo.

Bane promises an inviting form of social anarchy, where the tables are flipped between the social classes, sort of. The citizens basically end up in hiding while the crooks patrol the streets. Of course, the ultimate plan is to blow up the city. But the character does a good job of mimicking those (all?) politicians who talk a good game and promise their constituents the world, while simultaneously plotting their demise.

It’s odd in this case that Bruce represents order, rather than justice. But that’s the place Batman has held in other mediums, such as the animated series. The most interesting antagonists in any story usually have good ideas on what’s wrong with society. But something about their plan, whether their methods or their ultimate goal, are twisted in a way that will cause either a massive downfall for society or themselves to be the only benefactor. Bane (and by association, Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows) is one of those. So, Bane, in essence appeals to the will of the people. It’s poetic that when he takes over Gotham’s version of Wall Street, the thugs he has planted inside the building are posing as a shoe shiner and a janitor. He’s symbolically implementing the will of people, as he overthrows the wealthy and powerful by taking control of their money. But Batman opposes this.

Bruce believes he is actually fighting for the people; that was his stated purpose for creating the Batman. But in reality, he is fighting for the police and the wealthy, both symbols of power and oppression, as he attempts to restore order to the city. Even Bruce is a multi-millionaire mega-corporation owner, even if he is a philanthropist. In all of this, the losers are the people of Gotham. Under Bane, they only find promises of freedom, but with only those loyal to him reaping the benefits, and only until the bomb goes off. Under Batman, things return to the way they were, where the rich and powerful regain control of the city. That seems to be the way things work in the real world as well.

Nevertheless, it is compelling that Bruce is forced to redeem himself for the sake of the city. Bane has stranded him in the prison with a TV and little hope of escaping, planning to force Bruce to watch as Bane dismantles Gotham. But Bruce finds the will within himself to get back on his feet. As his prison mate tells him that his problem is that he isn’t afraid to die, as it basically makes him dead already. Bruce needs to find a reason to live, which he sees in his city becoming as crippled as he is as he watches.

Bane makes a formidable opponent to Batman. But he should have had a breathing mask that didn't break so easily.

Bane makes a formidable opponent to Batman. But he should have had a breathing mask that didn’t break so easily.

The movie does go a bit sour when you try to make sense of Bane’s plot. It’s revealed near the end of the film that his plan is to blow up Gotham using a device that was converted from a nuclear energy source to a nuclear bomb. But blowing up the city could have been accomplished as soon as they got access to the energy source. OK, so Miranda (Marion Cotillard), who turned out to be a traitor to Bruce, wanted to see Batman suffer for killing her father, Ra’s al Ghul. But then sending him to the prison in the desert seems like a waste since she and Bane had Batman all wrapped up in the sewers of Gotham. Maybe they just wanted to see him and the people suffer. That’s understandable, but for how calculating this duo seems to be, they certainly needed some work on their endgame.

And why the hell is there a timer on the bomb? The device was built to be a nuclear reactor, which would have no need for a timer. It was converted into a bomb by Bane’s crew. But their intention was to either detonate it on their own or let it detonate by itself because from decay. Either way, they don’t really care, so they would have no need to install a timer. It’s things like this and the villains entire plot that are built to create suspense, but since Nolan seems to intend his approach to Batman to be realistic, then these issues make the events of the movie seem to be necessitated by the story. That’s bad plotting.

There's no reason this makeshift bomb should have a timer.

There’s no reason this makeshift bomb should have a timer.

That’s disappointing, because the story Nolan has created is quite satisfying. Bruce sacrifices Batman, regardless of whether he himself lives or dies, for the sake of the city, which will always see him as a hero and the symbol of hope that he originally intended it to be. And in case of emergency, he has entrusted all of his Batstuff as a failsafe to Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), real name Robin, who over the course of the movie has proven himself worthy of being a successor.

Whether Bruce has somehow ridden off into the sunset with Selina or is blown up with the bomb which he dragged out over the ocean with the use of his arial vehicle, the Bat, is left up to the viewer to decide, in traditional Nolan fashion. It makes for a great story either way, and it really doesn’t make a difference for the future, since the sure thing is that Batman is out for good (and so was Nolan). The biggest negative on that front will probably be that it turned out that Ben Affleck will be the next Batman, rather then Gordon-Levitt (or anybody else).

Although “The Dark Knight Rises” never reached the heights of “The Dark Knight,” (who could ever top The Joker), and despite the clunkiness of the baddies’ plot to destroy Gotham, this movie ended up being a much more even experience than the 2008 movie. Bruce had a better plotline here. Hardy will always be welcome no matter what role he plays, and despite being a character whose only visible facial features are his eyes, he manages to be expressive enough to pull it off, and it’s a very intelligent and well-written part. After the Halle Berry debacle, the Catwoman character was in need of major overhaul, much like Batman was prior to Nolan’s movies. So, anything would be redeeming in comparison, and Hathaway proved to be adequate even though she probably wasn’t the best fit for the role. Gordon-Levitt is solid as a common cop who is just trying to do his part to help the people of Gotham.

Though this may be the last superhero film Nolan directs, he has left a legacy in his series that will push future comic book films to a higher standard. Since Marvel Studios has become a major box office force, that can only be a good thing. Unfortunately for fans of other heroes sorely in need of big screen representation (Wonder Woman, anyone?), this certainly won’t be audiences’ last taste of Batman, for better or worse (“Batman v Superman” might be pretty bitter). As for Nolan, he has produced some excellent, but nonetheless flawed work, and as his career has progressed, both the bad and the good have become more pronounced. He’s very ambitious, and with the backing of big studios that he lacked early in his career, that ambition has led to some enjoyable, but increasingly frustrating experiences. At age 44, he still has a lot of movies left in him. Every Nolan movie is a major event, and it will be always be intriguing to see what he comes up with next.

We almost started World War 3 over this?

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***SPOILERS AHEAD***

“The Interview” was not at all worth all that trouble. Perhaps the biggest joke is that the Sony almost caused World War 3 over this lazy film. It’s essentially a nothing movie, and considering this is from the group of dudes who came up with the surprisingly self-aware “This is the End,” it even comes as a bit of a let down.

Seth Rogan, playing producer Aaron Rapaport is a bit of a polarizing guy. People either find his throwaway one-liners funny or completely irritating. James Franco, on the other hand plays the talk show host who has an audience with the Supreme Leader himself, Dave Skylark, so over-the-top, it’s as if the guys are trying really hard to convince the audience that this is completely silly and not to be taken seriously at all.

Everybody knows the plot by now. Producer/host duo gets an invitation to interview North Korea’s Kim Jong-un because it’s his favorite show. The CIA contacts the bros to get them to assassinate the supreme leader. And since its Rogan and Franco, you know there’s gonna be lots of stupid jokes about bodily functions and asses. Considering it’s a movie about traveling to an Asian country, you can probably expect come racially insensitive gags.

Surprisingly, the film is bereft of the typical accusing Asian men of having tiny dicks or general impotence, so in a way, that comes as a relief. Instead, there are lots of things making fun of the stereotypical Asian accent and their facial features (Skylark’s same-same but different routine is embarrassing), which are passed off as the dudes being typical buffoonish white Americans. So, instead of the expected frat guy bullshit, it’s more like the stuff you’d have heard in second grade. On the other hand, however, the people in this movie pronounce Kim Jong-un’s name closer to correct than most American’s do. It’s -oon, like baboon, not un, like Uncola.

It’s also incredibly degrading to women in just about every way you can imagine. It casts Lizzy Caplan as a CIA agent whom Aaron accuses of being a honey pot (the practice of using an attractive woman to seduce a man into doing what some sort of higher agency wants). It doesn’t at all go light on fetishizing Asian women, with Diana Bang playing Sook, a North Korean hostess to the Americans, whom Aaron ogles repeatedly and, because Asian women are supposedly enamored with white guys, immediately falls all over him.

But honestly, the majority of the film is mostly pretty harmless. The longest running jokes are Aaron and Skylark riffing with each other, usually about asses, sticking things in asses, saying words that sound like they’re referring to asses even though they aren’t (the “they hate us cause they ain’t us” gag goes on long enough that it’s kinda funny in a stupid way).

The bits with Skylark interviewing his guests in the U.S. are probably the best part of the movie. It’s a shame that they wasted that stuff on this movie because a film spoofing talk show hosts’ attempts to be edgy despite their completely sterile environment because it’s TV and trying to get dirt out of their guests would be quite welcome in the right hands. Everyone probably already knows about Eminem’s “coming out” on the show, which loses its shock value because it’s already been plastered all over news sites. It’s certainly not the smartest gag to pull considering how many gay slurs he’s spouted in his music, but whatever. Rob Lowe’s revelation is by far superior given its pointlessness.

It’s nonsensical that many reviewers have complained about the movie’s lack of political satire, when it obviously had no intention of being anywhere near as smart or as timeless as “Dr. Strangelove.” Director Evan Goldberg surely was aware that to even attempt that without the kind of talent and intentions Stanley Kubrick or Peter Sellers possessed would be completely foolish, wouldn’t work, and would appeal to nobody. They went the cheap route here. It’s simple jokes that everyone will get and maybe half the people who see it will get laughs out of half of it. Don’ t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed.

As for the supreme leader, it seems like a pretty fair depiction of North Korea’s dictator. He’s not presented as a silly fat Asian man who has trouble with the ladies or whatever. Instead, he’s a pretty cool guy who loves fast cars and playing basketball, has major insecurities because of who his dad was, is worried about being perceived as gay because he likes margaritas, and the unfortunate circumstance of having immense power and having created enemies out of the rest of the world. Basically, he’s the Ultimate Bro. He’s almost sympathetic, in a way, which actually seems too generous. He is a horrible authoritarian dictator who keeps his people in line with an iron fist and the threat of death to anyone who opposes him. Let’s not forget about that here. In films made in Allied countries during World War II, Hitler never got such a grand treatment.

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The biggest problem is the eventual plot Sook concocts to incite upheaval in North Korea, once she’s explained that killing him won’t solve the problems (actually, an intelligent observation). Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool that a North Korean woman is afforded the ability to solve North Korea’s problems. But the plan is to have Skylark use his interview with Kim to expose the leader’s shortcomings to the North Korean people in order to spur them toward an uprising. Probably most North Koreans are pretty well kept in the dark, but people in any country that has as many problems as North Korea does are usually smart enough to figure out on their own that something isn’t right. The problem isn’t that they are brainwashed into believing the propaganda their leader puts out. It’s more that they don’t have forces to overthrow the powerful government. But the movie treats the people as if they are completely in the dark about the atrocities Kim has committed against them, and it’s the white dudes’ job to expose that. It’s a misdiagnosis of the real problem, and it makes the West’s or, specifically, the U.S.’s brand of “freedom” out to be the solution. It makes the people of North Korea (Asians) out to be intellectually and ideologically inferior rather than simply being powerless.

And, of course, showing an American graphically killing Kim certainly could be considered as an act of war. If some Asian or Middle Eastern country made a movie about killing Barack Obama, how would Americans react? Well, conservatives would revel in it, but you know what I mean. There would still be a general outcry and calls for extra helpings of patriotism to be served with every bucket of popcorn and whatnot.

The most annoying aspect in all of this is Franco’s and Rogan’s and, generally, Hollywood’s whining about free speech and bowing to terrorism and all that shit (even though there still is little evidence North Korea had anything to do with the hacking and threats directed at Sony). It’s not really a free speech issue anyway. Obama has been all for showing the movie. It’s Sony that had to accept movie theaters canceling their showings of the film. Weirdly, this was a film the might have been least likely to play in arthouse theaters, but ironically ended up being shown exclusively in those establishments.

The Franco/Rogan tweets would have seemed somewhat tongue-in-cheek if Rogan hadn’t been caught acting like such a baby about all of it.

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Worst of all, citing this as a free speech issue is a slap in the face to so many other movies that get the cold shoulder from movie studios because they think it isn’t what white general audiences will pay to see.

Recently, the AV Club posted an interview with David Oyelowo about soon to be released “Selma” about Martin Luther King Jr., and the challenges surrounding that movie’s production. The most disappointing thing to read was when he talked about the movie taking seven years to complete because of the huge resistance in Hollywood to making a film about King that didn’t include some sort of white savior character. King is arguably the most influential figure in the U.S. of the 20th Century, and there really hasn’t been any major production made about his life. There’s been complaints about the suppression of free speech to get this film or similar ones completed, even though it seems like it will have been so deserving of its place in cinematic history. So, it’s ridiculous to hear people complain that “The Interview” needs to be released for “freedom” or whatever. I wouldn’t argue that this movie would be censored, but the truth is that it hasn’t been censored at all. The movie was briefly cancelled by the studio before being released in select theaters and in digital on-demand. That’s all the resistance it has faced.

And when should we expect to see studio-backed films about Asian-Americans made by a Asian-Americans or better domestic distribution of films made in Asia?

“The Interview” is what it is: a pointless movie with an unnecessary amount of trouble stirred up about it. It shouldn’t be anybody’s patriotic duty to see it anymore than eating at McDonald’s or watching football. Nobody is better off for its existence except the people involved in its production. It will represent little more than an embarrassing episode that drudged up a lot of temporary, forced patriotism for no reason. Keep your fingers crossed though, there’s still time for Kim to start World War 3 over this crap.

 

Countdown to Liftoff: “Inception” (2010)

MV5BMjAxMzY3NjcxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTI5OTM0Mw@@._V1_SX214_AL_Christopher Nolan followed up his most anticipated and arguably most popular film “The Dark Knight” with something totally off the wall in “Inception.” It doesn’t have the weird stigma of say, magicians, but making a movie about reaching into a person’s dreams to plant an idea in their head was something so off-the-wall, perhaps only a director like Nolan could pull it off.

Whereas the Batman movies are a bit more straightforward from his other fare, “Inception” both hearkened back to his older films, but combining it with the big-budget epic sprawl of “The Dark Knight.” The backing of a studio allowed Nolan to create some incredible visual effects that wouldn’t have been possible for him back when he was making “Memento” and “Insomnia.” As such, it’s great to just marvel as he unfurls the dream world he creates. It’s easily his most visually impressive film prior to “Interstellar,” of course, but still a completely different sort of accomplishment from his newest movie.

The film is about, well, a lot of people, but it mostly follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dream bandit, for lack of a better term, and he’s being hired by businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to convince the son of his near-death rival CEO to sell the business. Of course, Cobb’s not gonna do anything conventional like throw him in a car and threaten to kill him and his family or anything (at least not in the waking world), he’s going to tap into the guy’s subconscious and convince him that selling is the best course of action.

Considering Nolan typically works with a hyper-realistic style of storytelling, you might figure that a film about dreams might go deep into the science of dreams, like why people dream about the things they do or what those dreams mean. But no, instead, he concocts a heist movie that just happens to take place mostly inside a man’s head while he’s sleeping. It’s “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “The Matrix.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t go into the nature of dreams at all. Part of any good heist is putting a team together, and a key member of any good heist group is the unproven rookie who is a bit green, but although that’s a curse, it can also be an asset, as people like that are generally more hungry and bring fresher ideas to the table, like youthful enthusiasm and all that. Who else says youthful enthusiasm like Ellen Page? Her Ariadne is taken through the paces of dream structuring, so that she can be the team’s dream architect (it’s hard to come up with titles for these people since nothing like them exists). But even as the audience is treated to some really cool shots of worlds turning over on themselves and paper explosions, all of the language the characters use, whether it has any basis in reality or not, is mere gobbledygook here. Its purpose is to explain the world these dreamsnatchers operate in. It does make some references to common events that happen in dreams, like the falling sensation or death in dreams. It’s enough to make someone think “yeah, I get what they’re talking about”, but it wouldn’t be anything to bring up in conversation among your neurologist friends, lest you look foolish.

If nothing else, "Inception" made for endless meme fodder.

If nothing else, “Inception” made for endless meme fodder.

Unfortunately, it does seem like there’s quite a bit of wasted opportunity in many ways in this film. The science behind it all may be true to some degree, but it doesn’t really matter much considering the unlikelihood of anyone entering the viewer’s dreams while they’re sleeping. It’s all really cool to look at and think about — as long as the movie’s runtime. But once its over, there’s not really much left to think about. The movie doesn’t really go into the nature of dreams or their mechanics beyond any basic level. So there’s very little to relate to a person’s real life, which generally is the goal of good science fiction.

Another main problem is Cobb. The audience isn’t really given much reason to care about him, but is still expected to, considering his storyline is that he’s dealing with anguish over his dead wife (Nolan’s dead woman!) and exile from the U.S., which prevents him from being with his children. A parent’s love for his or her children can generally work as a character’s motivation, but considering the audience never sees him interact with his kids, it makes for a detached connection. The bulk of his character arc has him dealing with the loss of his wife, with whom he went dreamdiving way back, which caused her to still believe she was dreaming even in waking life, and thus killed herself to try and wake up. It’s weird and complicated, and the scenes that involve Cobb and his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), are wrapped in that gobbledygook dreamy talk language that makes it difficult to feel any human connection to the relationship that is or isn’t. DiCaprio makes up for it by just by being a great actor, but Cobb is no Han Solo or Indiana Jones.

Even Leo looks confused.

Even Leo looks confused.

It’s a double shame that because Cobb’s story takes up so much room, the audience never really learns much about the other characters in the movie. For instance, in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels, each member of the team has a specialty, so he gets his moment to shine during his part in the heist. The brothers and the actors playing them aren’t major stars or anything, but they do have their roles to play, and it’s fun to see them try to one up each other over the course of the movie. The side characters in “Inception” have areas of expertise to some degree, but come on, they work on dreams. It’s not hard to understand all the cogs and bits that go into making up a heist, but here, it’s just guys walking around like it’s normal inside a dream, as if it were reality. There isn’t much specialization among the characters, so none of them really get a chance to shine.

That’s disappointing because the glimpse the audience is given of each crew member’s life is intriguing enough that you want to know more about them. This was basically Tom Hardy’s introduction to wide audiences (which is awesome because he’s a great charismatic actor), and he’s a joy to watch in this movie, but not really knowing anything about who his character is makes it difficult to differentiate him from the others. The same is true of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Dileep Rao’s Doctor Yusuf. Even Ariadne doesn’t get much background beyond she’s a student at Oxford. They seem like fascinating people, but you’ll never know what’s really behind them because the movie doesn’t show you.

He's a dream thing duder. He works on the dreams. He's fun to watch, but what the hell does this guy actually do?

He’s a dream thing duder. Uhh, he works on the dreams. He’s fun to watch, but what the hell does this guy actually do?

But it’s OK that not everything clicks in the movie, because it makes for a great thriller and an immersive, dreamlike atmosphere, where everything is just weird enough that you know you’re dreaming. It’s an action-adventure inside someone’s head! Who wouldn’t think that’s fun? It’s OK that there’s no science-philosophy dichotomy to ponder, because it’s just enjoyable to watch. Fluffy sci-fi can be great, like “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It does pique a viewers imagination just by exploring mostly uncharted territory. Even if Cobb doesn’t connect with the audience, the twist ending will leave viewers guessing for weeks. For all that doesn’t work in the movie, it also feels like a greater fulfillment on the promise Nolan’s early work showed with the finances to dream (hah) as big as he could, and he obviously dreams pretty big.

And it is interesting to see Robert Fischer’s (Cilian Murphy) story unfold, as his is the mind the ultimate dreamteam is planting their big idea in. His backstory is told elegantly, through Cobb’s crew’s exploration of the dream and the different methods they use to try to coerce him to alter his decision. They ultimately succeed in manipulating the man into doing what they want him to do. In a way, it’s a bit disturbing, but the different ways they try to persuade him to change his mind are an abstract way of looking at methods of psychological manipulation. The team tries kidnapping him and beating him to make him change his mind, and then make it appear that they’re doing the same to his dad’s assistant (all inside the dream). Later, Cobb approaches Robert in the dream and tries to act like they know each other. It’s a different way of looking at a horrible thing that people do to one another, so whatever that’s worth. Murphy is not exactly known for playing sympathetic characters, but there’s a great talent in taking a stereotypical spoiled brat and making that character relatable to the audience, and he accomplishes that here.

Cillian Murphy does something a bit different from the other Christopher Nolan movies he's in. Well, he's not the Scarecrow, so anything would be different.

Cillian Murphy does something a bit different from the other Christopher Nolan movies he’s in. Well, he’s not the Scarecrow, so anything would be different.

It’s also fun to see Tom Behringer as Robert’s father’s assistant. Nolan always comes up with great lesser-known actors to fill smaller roles in his movies, like Eric Roberts in “The Dark Knight” and Rutger Hauer in “Batman Begins.” That makes for a nice bonus for movie nerds.

Making a fun thriller was somewhat of a first for Nolan. Though his other movies are great, at times, they might leave the viewer asking “why so serious?” The Cobb storyline with his wife is an attempt at gravitas, but the whole thing is too absurd to take too seriously. But some fun performances from Hardy and Page and the tremendously creative visuals make for an enjoyable 2 1/2-hour extravaganza. It’s great that Nolan finally got recognition from the Academy with a Best Picture nomination, although had “The Dark Knight” been released a year later, it might well have gotten in as well since that was the year the Oscars started allowing more than five nominees for that category. Nolan will probably never make an Oscar winner because he doesn’t create movies with the real-world gravitas Oscar demands, but even a nomination is a huge accomplishment.

Is it still spinning?

Is it still spinning?

Nolan would continue to dream big (as in making a really long movie) with his return to Gotham. Next time we’ll look at “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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Countdown to Liftoff: The Dark Knight (2008)

MV5BMTMxNTMwODM0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODAyMTk2Mw@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Christopher Nolan returned to the Batman mythos with the “Dark Knight,” following his cinematic reboot of the series, “Batman Begins,” possibly the most highly anticipated Batman film in a very long time. True to the title, “The Dark Knight” went to a darker place than any Batman movie prior.

Undoubtedly, in every way, this movie belongs to Heath Ledger and his demented version of the Joker. Yes, it’s a Batman film, and he is the protagonist, but everything about it revolves around his most famous foe. It’s impossible to separate the legacy of this film from Ledger and the tragedy of his death during production. He went out with one hell of a performance.

The Joker is easily this film’s greatest strength, but in a way also its greatest weakness. This will certainly go down as one of the great performances in the history of film, as Ledger completely transforms himself into this evil, manic, super villain (basically, he’s Lewis Black) that’s so far removed from any of his other roles. This isn’t your grandfather’s Joker (especially if your grandfather is Jack Nicholsen). He didn’t just put on some clown makeup and prosthetic and ham it up a la Cesar Romero. He crafts a memorable character that permeates the entire film, even many moments where he isn’t even present. The Oscar he won for best supporting actor (which could have just as well have been best actor) was well-deserved.

Ya know?

Ya know?

The Joker looms over the entire movie. His schemes are so pervasive and unpredictable that they continually send the city into panic, as well as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and all the people he loves. He’s the antithesis of the honorable and principled Bruce, as he has no ulterior motive for the chaos he perpetrates, other than that he seems to find it amusing, and he is entertained by the conflict it creates between himself and the Caped Crusader. He’s a master of manipulation, and he gets into the head of everyone who crosses his path. That’s evident whenever he talks about how he got the scars on the sides of his mouth that create a permanent, unsettling smile. Every time he tells the story, it’s something completely different.

The downside to the Joker is that he overshadows everything else in the movie. Part of that is due to the rather bland plot and shallow character arcs. But it seems like Nolan knew what he had (The Joker) and ran with it as far as he could. It would have been nice if he would have put more effort into everything else.

The movie starts with a cracking bank heist, which serves to build the Joker character splendidly. This isn’t like many bank robberies where the criminals assure everyone that everything will be alright if they just cooperate. The Joker’s henchmen force several of the bank’s patrons to hold grenades while they do their work. One by one as each henchman completes his assigned task, another one eliminates his fellow crook until the only one left is the man himself. It makes you think that word would get around that he doesn’t share his bounty with his underlings and that working with him won’t get you anywhere good. But then again, he proves throughout the film how manipulative he can be.

Then there’s a scene of Batman breaking up a meeting of one of the villains from the last movie, the Scarecrow’s (Cilian Murphy), but also running into a couple wannabe Batmans wearing hockey pads. That shows the film is still grounded in relative reality, as there probably would be copybats if a guy starting rolling around in a military vehicle beating up bad guys. It’s a nice touch.

But then, the movie moves into a rather vapid scheme that has something to do with Chinese investors. It serves no real purpose, other than to formally introduce the Joker and give Batman an excuse to execute a cool Mission Impossible-style black ops type of mission to nab the leader.

But then, the Joker’s only plan seems to be to mess with Batman and the people of Gotham, albeit in rather demented ways. The fear the Joker creates makes provides the film with urgency, as he promises to start killing important people around the city until he can meet with the Batman.

Maggie should have been in the first movie too.

Maggie should have been in the first movie too.

In a weird casting snafu, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel from Katie Holmes who played her in the first movie. It’s always strange when a character has a new actor. In this case, however, it is a welcome change as Gyllenhaal is a much more versatile and charismatic actress. In fact, Gyllenhaal is very convincing in showing that she should have had the part from the beginning. Rachel suddenly shows off a stronger, sassier, more vibrant attitude that she didn’t have before.

FILE: Eliot Spitzer, Wife Announce They Are Ending Marriage

Thankfully, this was not one of Harvey’s faces.

Which is a bit of a shame, because the character is basically fodder for Bruce and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the Joker to fight over. Her new boyfriend, the Eliot Spitzer-esque (pre-high class escort scandal) Dent is here to clean up the corruption in the city, even though it seems Batman really does all the heavy lifting. Naturally, the Joker is here to upset the balance of normalcy in Gotham. By doing that, he kidnaps Rachel, leading Dent and Bruce, who still pines for her, to launch a full-scale campaign to get her back. It doesn’t go well, she winds up dead. Dent winds up horribly disfigured. All hell breaks loose. Cats and dogs living together, etc.

Bruce is shaken up, as he still loved Rachel, and he thought Dent could basically take over the mantle of the city’s hero because he really doesn’t want to do the Batman thing anymore based on a rather foolish promise she made back in the first movie when she was still Katie Holmes. It leads him to wonder what all this Batman nonsense was for in the first place. That’s kind of a weird crisis to have, considering the whole costumed crusader thing seemed like a pretty bad idea in the first place.

If he really wanted to help the city, then as the resident stinking rich guy, instead of rolling around the city blowing up shit with a military grade vehicle or gallivanting  around on a yacht with the Russian ballet, maybe he could have invested some of that money in the city’s infrastructure with jobs creation and welfare. Let’s face it, the Batman thing is cool and all if you wanna make a movie about it or something. It was useful in rooting out some of the criminals who were running the city before and in dealing with weirdos like Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker. But when it comes to providing the city what it really needs, a caped crusader is probably pretty low on the list. Trying to pass his legendary figure status off onto Harvey, who didn’t do as much as Batman seems like an odd way to go about things.

Sad Bruce Wayne. Sad. So sad.

Sad Bruce Wayne. Sad. So sad.

Once Harvey’s got half his face scalded off, he starts going about things in a rather odd way himself. Though his transformation into the popular villain Two-Face makes for some fun moments, including killing Eric Roberts (whose presence is always more than welcome in any thriller movie), it feels like his character is wasted. As he’s lying in his hospital bed, explaining to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) that he’s going to be the “Harvey Two-Face” the police always thought he was, it might make the viewer wonder why where that Harvey Two-Face was hiding earlier in the movie. There’s one scene where he threatens to kill a henchman of the Joker’s because Rachel has gone missing, but that’s it. Two-Face was a fascinating character in other Batman stories, who recognized that most things in life happen by chance, and so he made all of his decisions by flipping the two-headed coin he carried around with him. As it is in the film, he goes rogue for no other reason than his Rachel’s death. It just makes him seem whiny rather than a man who had been teetering on the edge and just got pushed over. There’s nothing before his transformation to show that he might have had an anger issue or at his coin-operated decision making skills. He basically just came off as a goody two-shoes who is willing to get a little bit of dirt on his hands, but not too much, to get the jobs done. It’s OK that the movie character didn’t live up to the one in say, the Animated Series, because a movie should be able to stand on its own apart from its source material. But it’s a problem that in a movie going for a realistic vision of a super hero tale, that the way his character progresses isn’t very logical, as well as only being based on what happens to his woman. Eckhart is a capable actor who could have handled the character’s nuances, but his talents are wasted here. In every way, Two-Face falls flat.

Two-Face is not half the man he was in the comics or the Animated Series.

Two-Face is not half the man he was in the comics or the Animated Series.

Then there’s the whole thing with the Joker and his social experiment with the two ferries. First of all, to clarify, Tiny Lister is always fun to see, and he’s fun here too. But the whole episode is pretty bad. It is interesting that the Joker put those two boats in a dilemma where he was giving each one the chance to blow up the other, but if neither did it by a certain time, he would blow both up. That’s a great scheme. So much time is spent on both ships, neither of which holds any characters relevant to the story outside of this incident, and considering the film didn’t take enough time to develop some of its principal characters, it’s unnecessary.

Well hey, at least Tiny Lister is here.

Well hey, at least Tiny Lister is here.

The way the situation is set up, one boat is full of regular civilians, but the other carries prisoners. The way the direction of the movie went, it’s unsure whether the audience is intended to believe the prisoners are simply evil criminals or a more realistic view where many people in prison are in their predicament due to a combination of a bad hand dealt to them in life and some unfortunate choices they made in difficult situations (probably the former). What Nolan seems to be trying to show with this is that it’s easy for people to say these “criminals” don’t deserve to live, but it’s not easy for even the most self-righteous person to be the executioner. Based on everything surrounding the events of the last few months in Ferguson, Missouri, none of that seems to be true of real people. It doesn’t take much wrongdoing in some people’s eyes to see another person as a criminal who deserves to be executed. That’s a biased viewpoint that likely comes from prejudices, often based on race, as well as gender, sometimes on social status. Over the last year, it seems like people, and especially police, have been pretty quick to pull the trigger just because they don’t like the people around them. It doesn’t appear to be a difficult decision for those people. This episode shows that Nolan views the world through rosier glasses. In a way, prisoner Tiny Lister’s grand gesture of throwing his ship’s detonator out the window is an acknowledgement that he and the other prisoners do deserve to die, because they already had their chance in life, and those “normal” people shouldn’t have to suffer for that. This film is seven years old, so of course it couldn’t have accounted for events within the past year, but in today’s climate, it sends a condemning message about people labeled as criminals that has ugly implications. And besides, police violence isn’t really a new thing, it’s just that people who knew the victims are now fed up with it and working to get people’s attention.

The movie also takes advantage of some of the political happenings in the years leading up to its release, mainly regarding things that happened under President George W. Bush’s time in office. When the Joker kidnaps one of the Batman wannabes, he records a video that resembles the ones made by al-Qaeda that surfaced on the Internet, which depicted the terrorists beheading prisoners. Batman creates a surveillance network tapping into people’s cellphones to pick up surrounding audio, which Q Lucius (Morgan Freeman) decries as being too invasive of privacy, resembling the Patriot Act and now recalling the Edward Snowden-NSA scandal. The Joker uses one of the Arkham patients as a suicide bomber, essentially. The Joker’s use of fear tactics and his assassination of several political figures creates a sense of paranoia around the city and Harvey gives a speech that recalls Bush’s push to return to “normalcy,” and Gotham has always represented New York, which obviously was the site of 9/11. Even the mostly useless plot about the Chinese contractors makes some connection to real world events. Perhaps it was an attempt by Nolan to be “edgy” or to make social commentary, but the terrorism related elements come off as kind of exploitative in hindsight for those who have knowledge of the state of the world back then. Maybe in 2008, those images helped to evoke feelings of fear in the audience by association. Then again, maybe to future audiences, those elements will simply come off as effective and disturbing to those who weren’t privy to those times. The inclusion of those images seems unnecessary though to someone who remembers those events clearly.

This movie will always be linked to Ledger’s death. Though it leaves a remarkable legacy for him, it does bring into question the type of method acting where actors try to get inside the head of the characters they are playing. Knowing how he died makes it appear likely that this role was probably a key factor in his death. He had to go to a very dark place psychologically to understand this version of the Joker. Maybe it was too much for him to handle. Assuming that’s true, you can say stupid things like he died doing what he loved and all that. But he loved acting, and you can’t act when you’re dead. There will be so many spots in so many movies that he could have filled. Although he received critical acclaim previously for “Brokeback Mountain,” this was undoubtedly a breakout role for him that would have catapulted his career to new heights. But he didn’t survive it, so the world will never know what could have been. Who knows for sure everything that led to his death, especially as it sounded he was reclusive in those final days? But a role in one movie isn’t worth a person’s life. There probably never will be another character as demented as Nolan’s Joker, though Jared Leto has already been cast for “Suicide Squad,” but that Joker probably won’t be quite as far out there as this one was. The last the world will see of Ledger under the makeup will be the character hanging upside down prophesying to Batman “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” It’s sad that sentiment won’t be true.

The Joker on his own makes “The Dark Knight.” This is the first of Nolan’s movies where it seems like all the separate elements he’s working with don’t really blend into a good cohesive whole. The Joker is the glue that holds everything together, but although the Joker works remarkably well all-round, he’s really the only thing that works. But that’s good enough to recommend to the few people who might not have seen this movie by now to check it out. In reference to my larger, ongoing project, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this movie on the AFI’s next 100 Movies list thanks almost entirely to Ledger. If there is any director that would be a lock for a new entry onto the list, it would have to be Christopher Nolan. If this movie doesn’t make it, perhaps it will be the one that followed this one. Next time let’s take a look at “Inception.”

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