New Releases for the Week of July 21, 2017


DUNKIRK

(Warner Brothers) Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan. Directed by Christopher Nolan

The war was going badly. British forces in Europe had been driven by the Nazi war machine back to the English Channel. The Germans prepared to deal a death blow to the British military and consolidate their power in Europe. With their backs to the sea and enemy forces closing in, hundreds of thousands of British troops prayed for a miracle within sight of home in a place called Dunkirk.

See the trailer, a featurette and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: War
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense war experience and some language)

The Bad Batch

(Neon) Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey. A young woman is unceremoniously dumped into a Texas wasteland infested with cannibals. It won’t be a matter of good or evil – it will be a matter of survival. The latest from director Ana Lily Amirpour is very different than her breakout hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity)

Girls Trip

(Universal) Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish. Four lifelong friends who are starting to feel their youth slipping away decide to take a girls-only road trip to New Orleans for the Essence Festival. The ladies are determined to cut loose in an epic weekend of partying, dancing, drinking, brawling and debauchery. Either they’ll find their groove or go to jail; maybe both.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity,  and drug material)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

(EuropaCorp/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke. Visionary director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) adapts the acclaimed French graphic novel into a live-action visual masterpiece. Valerian and Laureline are a team of agents charged with maintaining order in a sprawling Galactic federation. They are summoned to Alpha, a vast city where the various species of the universe co-exist, sharing knowledge and culture. Someone is threatening Alpha with annihilation which could plunge the Galaxy into a crippling civil war and it is up to Valerian and Laureline to save it.

See the trailer, interviews, featurettes, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language)

OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Bloody Crayons
Fidaa
The Journey
Munna Michael

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

Endless Poetry
Family Life
Fidaa
First Kill
Good Fortune: The Story of John Paul DeJoria
Letters from Baghdad
Marie Curie
Meow
The Midwife
Munna Michael

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

Fidaa
The Gracefield Incident
Maudie
Ninnu Kori
Scales: Mermaids are Real

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

Fidaa
Past Life

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Interstellar


To infinity and beyond.

To infinity and beyond.

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin (voice), Ellen Burstyn, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Collette Wolf, William Devane, David Gyasi, Topher Grace, Josh Stewart (voice), Matt Damon, Leah Cairns. Directed by Christopher Nolan

Physics is a fascinating and maddening field of study. The wonder of the universe is written in the language of physics but so too are its rules and regulations. There are those that see the handwriting of God in physics but there are also those who see it as a frustratingly difficult to coalesce glimpse of the infinite simply because we are still learning to understand the language. In that sense, we are as children trying to speak in a language we only know a few words of.

Reality is a bit less hard to fathom. The Earth is dying. Something called the blight has killed most of the crops and, it seems, the animal life on Earth other than the human species. Only corn remains and when that goes, humanity starves. America has become a gigantic dust bowl straight out of the Depression, covering everything in dust and despair.

Cooper (McConaughey) is a farmer who once had higher aspirations. A test pilot and engineer who’d worked for NASA until a crash had taken him out of the ballgame, he grouses to father-in-law Donald (Lithgow) that whereas once mankind looked up at the stars and wondered at our place in the universe, these days mankind looks down at the ground and wonders at our place in the dirt. As with most intelligent people, he can read the writing on the wall but still he labors to try and get his crop in as best he can while raising his 15-year-old son Tom (Chalamet) and his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Foy) in a world of frequent dust storms and a malaise where technology is no longer worshiped or seen as the answer to our problems (where in fact technology is largely seen as the source of our problems) and nations no longer bother to field armies because, well, why bother?

Murph and Cooper have a special relationship. Whereas Tom seeks only to follow in his father’s boots as a farmer, Murph is smart, inquisitive and a bit of a firecracker. When she says she’s haunted by a ghost, Cooper gently tells her that ghosts aren’t real from a scientific standpoint, and yet books get knocked off of her bookcase without explanation, and dust that blows into her room settles into a strange patter which turns out to be a binary code of co-ordinates.

Intrigued, Coop drives to the location of the co-ordinates and finds a secret base where NASA still functions. Led by his old mentor Professor Brand (Caine), the facility is constructing one final rocket. It turns out that a wormhole has opened up near the rings of Saturn and have made accessible a dozen planets that are potentially capable of supporting human life. Probes have been sent as well as brave human astronauts. One last mission is planned; to choose between three of the most promising locations and either set up a human colony there or if Professor Brand is able to solve an equation that will allow him to do it, to relocate the remainder of the human race from dying Earth to a new home. However, human astronauts would be needed to make decisions a computer or robot cannot and the journey would be a long one – two years just to make it to Saturn. Coop, being a test pilot and an engineer would be the perfect choice to lead the mission, particularly since he was apparently led to NASA by divine providence – or an alien fifth-dimensional beings who might have a benevolent interest in the human race.

This doesn’t sit too well with Murph who is furious that her father is abandoning her but Coop knows that if he doesn’t go his children will be the last generation of humanity left. Along with Professor Brand’s super-smart daughter (Hathaway), astronauts Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi) as well as a couple of military robots named TARS (Irwin) and CASE (Stewart). In a ring-shaped ship the astronauts enter the wormhole for a system dominated by a giant black hole to find a new home for humanity but the mission becomes even more critical as the relative aging of the crew is drastically affected by the proximity of the black hole. Hours spent exploring a planet will pass in decades on Earth. This means that even if the spaceship is able to return home, Coop will be the same age as Tom (Affleck) and Murph (Chastain) when he returns. While Murph has grown up to assist Professor Brand at NASA, Tom – who thinks all of this is foolishness – continues to farm despite the mounting odds against human survival.

This is as epic a movie as you could hope to make about human survival. It is not an action-packed apocalypse with roaming outlaws and thunderdomes, but one of resignation and despair. It depicts a human race going out essentially with a whimper largely, although there are those fighting to try and make it a bang. Seems reasonably accurate to me.

In fact, the accuracy of the science is one of the film’s selling points. Physicist Kip Thorne, one of the most honored in the field, is a producer and has vetted the science. While some of what is onscreen is conjecture, it is based on real scientific theorem about the nature of wormholes, black holes and relativity. This is science fact, not science fantasy.

McConaughey continues his career renaissance with not only a high profile role but a fine performance in it. His Cooper is extremely conflicted, motivated not so much to save the world but his two children which really is what heroism boils down to – saving those closest to us. It isn’t the kind of stunning Oscar-worthy work that was Dallas Buyers Club but it is memorable nonetheless. Also worthy of mention is Chastain’s performance as the adult Murph. She’s angry but also open-minded and eventually comes to believe in the mission and her dad. Lithgow also is impressive in a brief role as the curmudgeonly father-in-law who is absolutely devoted to his grandkids.

The visuals here are breathtaking, from the majestic black hole to the rings of Saturn to the psychedelic wormhole. As with Gravity before it, you get a real impression of space flight and while no human being has witnessed a lot of the wonders depicted here, again the science is carefully sound so that even physicists have written papers based on the science and images of the film. I don’t think you can get a better testimonial when it comes to authenticity than that.

The one sour note in the symphony are the last 20 minutes. I won’t discuss specifics other than to say that of all the potential doors that the writers could have chosen to go through to end the movie, it felt like they chose the closest one. I won’t say easiest because it requires a bit of explanation but it felt like they painted themselves into a corner and then bent space and time to extricate themselves. Most people who dislike the movie do so because of this sequence.

However, I won’t discount the two and a half hours of magnificent filmmaking that preceded it because of essentially a poor choice of finishes. Perhaps that makes the movie all the more worthwhile to remind us that even Christopher Nolan is human, and even smart humans can make questionable calls.

This is the kind of movie that can be discussed endlessly. Like Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opus which in many ways influences Nolan here, there is plenty of room to figure out What It All Means. This is a movie which rather than staring at the ground and wondering about our place in the dirt looks up at the sky and wonders at our place in the universe. While the filmmaking here does have a major flaw which keeps it from a higher score, it nonetheless is worthwhile filmmaking that deserves your attention and can be recommended wholeheartedly not only to film lovers but to science geeks as well.

REASONS TO GO: Epic sci-fi filmmaking on a grand scale. A rare scientifically accurate sci-fi movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Last 20 minutes are disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rough language and some fairly intense sci-fi peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original screenplay for the movie, Murph is a male.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

New Releases for the Week of November 7, 2014


InterstellarINTERSTELLAR

(Paramount) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck. Directed by Christopher Nolan

The Earth is dying. It will soon be unable to support life as all our ecological chickens are coming home to roost. Desperate to preserve our species, an expedition is sent through a newly-discovered wormhole to find habitable planets that one day may be our new homes, but the trip will be full of perilous unknowns and those who are sent to the stars will be separated from everyone and everything they love.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opened Tuesday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language)

Big Hero 6

(Disney/Marvel) Starring the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung. In a future megalopolis, a young boy stung by a family tragedy gets involved with his brother’s inflatable robot Baymax who was programmed to heal the sick. However, the boy, his robot and his friends get caught up in the machinations of an evil villain who was at the core of the boy’s pain. The boy will transform himself, his robot and friends into high tech heroes to fight the madman who threatens to destroy everything – and everyone – he loves. Sound familiar?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements)

 

Birdman

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone. An actor best known for playing a costumed superhero decades before is making one last comeback on Broadway in the hopes of reviving a moribund career as well as to reconnect with a family that has given up on him. Getting in the way is his own ego and an encroachment of his fantasy life into his reality.

See the trailer, a clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Dark Comedy/Fantasy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)

The Blue Room

(IFC/Sundance Selects) Matthieu Amalric, Lea Drucker, Stephanie Cleau, Laurent Poitrenaux. A torrid extramarital affair between a successful family man and a beautiful woman ends with the man being question by the police. What happened to their relationship? And what is the man accused of doing? This stylish and sexy thriller was directed by Amalric, one of France’s most accomplished actors.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for sexual content including graphic nudity) 

Elsa and Fred

(Millennium) Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Scott Bakula. A curmudgeonly man who wants only to live out his remaining years with as little human contact as possible moves into a seniors apartment complex in New Orleans. However, a gregarious neighbor absolutely refuses to let him give up on life and the two strike up a friendship that deepens unexpectedly. Now treading in an emotional minefield, the two struggle to make it through without everything blowing up in their faces.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Laggies

(A24) Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Jeff Garlin. 26 and not ready for adulthood quite yet, a young woman panics when her boyfriend proposes and goes to live with her new 16-year-old friend and her friend’s damaged dad. Dragging herself kicking and screaming into adulthood is one thing but arriving there wiser than when you left childhood is a whole other thing.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Select Theaters
Rating: R (for language, some sexual material and teen partying)

 

Mr. Pip

(Freestyle Releasing) Hugh Laurie, Kerry Fox, Eka Darville, Xzannjah Matsi. During the brutal civil war in Bougainville in the 1990s, an English teacher – the last Englishman in the village – makes a connection with his students through the reading of Dickens’ Great Expectations. A wildly imaginative young girl begins to believe that Pip, whom the young girl calls “Mr. Pip” is her friend and he takes her into the fantastic world of Dickens’ London. However her belief in her friend Mr. Pip inadvertently puts the entire village in mortal peril.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing situations involving violence and threat, and for some mature thematic material and brief language)

On Any Sunday, The Next Chapter

(Rd Bull Media House) Travis Pastrana, Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa, Doug Henry. The 1971 documentary film On Any Sunday helped popularize motorcycle racing in the United States. More than four decades later, the oldest son of the original film’s director revisits the sport, showing its acceptance as an Extreme Sport and becoming more popular than ever.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Select Theaters
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing situations involving violence and threat, and for some mature thematic material and brief language)

Whiplash

(Sony Classics) Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist. An ambitious jazz drummer, wanting to become elite at his chosen profession, is tutored by an autocratic teacher who continues to push him to the breaking point. Either the student will crack like a walnut and lose everything or he’ll reach his potential and become one of the best drummers in the world.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for strong language including some sexual references)

Memento


Memento

Do be wary when Guy Pearce wants to show you his vacation snapshots.

(2000) Mystery (Newmarket) Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Ransom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell, Marianne Muellerleile. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

There is a yardstick I use with thrillers. The simpler they are, the better they work, but when it comes to plot twists, the bigger, the better.

Memento, directed by then-newcomer Christopher Nolan (who got  a lot of messages on his answering machines from major studios after this nifty little piece came out) has a plot device stunning in its simplicity. Leonard Shelby (Pearce) is unable to make new memories. He forgets where he is, what he’s doing, even what he just said a few minutes ago. It just fades away, like an Etch-a-Sketch on a pressure cooker.

However, his long-term memories are intact. He knows that in his previous life, he was a successful insurance investigator. He also knows that his wife was raped and murdered by someone he knows only as “John G.” However, in the attack on his wife, Leonard was smacked hard enough on the head to give him brain damage.

Leonard was able to shoot and kill the assailant of his wife. However, his injury happened after the shot was fired; therefore, there was a second person involved in the attack. However, the police don’t believe a brain-damaged man, and don’t think John G., whoever he was, was clever enough to erase all traces of his presence. Leonard uses his organizational skills honed from his years as an insurance fraud investigator which he has somehow retained, making notes to himself, taking Polaroids of those he is associating with, and tattooing particularly vital bits of information on his body so that unlike written notes, they can’t get lost or misplaced.

So Leonard is searching, but in a particularly smart bit of moviemaking, the story is told backwards, following Leonard’s torturous trek. He is assisted by Teddy (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), two people who may or may not be trustworthy. As the story unfolds, we become as Leonard, lacking in critical information that explains the motivations of the characters involved but as the movie progresses, we see what happened in the past which explains what happened previously. Think of the film as 113 minute-long flashback. This movie would never work as well with a traditional linear storyline. It’s a gutsy move by Nolan, and it pays off.

I’m deliberately keeping plot details to a minimum. Because of the nature of the story, it’s best not to reveal too much. This is one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen; it requires the viewer to pay attention, and it requires the viewer to think. In other words, if you’re looking for brainless summer fare, it’s best to keep moving down the list of rentals and/or streaming movies.

Pearce gives a low-key performance as Leonard. Up to that point he hadn’t really followed up his jaw-grinding performance in L.A. Confidential with anything noteworthy (don’t get me started on Ravenous or his phoned-in work on Rules of Engagement), finally makes a movie worthy of his talents. Moss, so memorable in The Matrix trilogy, is terrific again here in a role very different from Trinity.

Nolan is someone to keep an eye on. In many ways, this movie has the same kind of risk-taking that M. Night Shyalaman showed in The Sixth Sense. It’s that good, certainly one that will be appearing on a lot of year-end best lists. The final twist at the end is not the kind that will blow you right out of your seat, but it elegantly fits in with the various twists and turns the story has been taking throughout. If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, this is the kind of movie he would be making. Higher praise for a movie I cannot sing.

WHY RENT THIS: Innovative story structure flawlessly executed. Fine performances from Pierce and Moss. A thinking person’s cinematic mystery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot is a bit pedestrian and final twist isn’t particularly mind-blowing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are plenty of bad words, a heaping helping of violence, a rape (although not graphically portrayed) and a brief scene of drug use.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included an IFC interview with Nolan, the short story that the movie was based upon (written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan)  and a feature illustrating how the clues in the film lined up. The Collector’s Edition DVD included these as well as a copy of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse order.  The original 2006 Blu-Ray edition contained none of these, oddly enough. Last year’s 10 year anniversary Blu-Ray release restored most of these features with the exception of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse; however it did add a new interview with Nolan about the film, a diagram of the tats on Leonard’s body as well as Leonard’s journal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.9M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Alex Cross

The Dark Knight Rises


 

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane and Batman work on their ballroom dancing skills.

(2012) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Burn Gorman, Ben Mendelsohn, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Ellis, Reggie Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

The world needs heroes. We latch onto them whether or not they deserve our admiration or not – and some of them do. However, heroes are often shaped by the perception given us by the media and by the powers that be. One man’s hero, in other words, is another man’s villain – and vice versa.

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Bale) a.k.a. Batman sits in isolation in Wayne Manor. Injured in his final fight with the Joker and with Harvey Dent, the Batman has been branded an outlaw for his role in the events of that film. Wayne is in a deep depression and despite the efforts of his faithful butler Alfred (Caine) remains so. There is no need for Batman, as legislation enacted in the aftermath of those events has helped the new police commissioner Jim Gordon (Oldman) clean  the city up. Gordon is assisted by Detective John Blake (Gordon-Levitt), a cop who believes in Batman and thinks that something stinks about his current outlaw status. Gotham is at peace and looking to the future at last.

However for figures like the Batman, the world has a way of preventing them from remaining on the sidelines for too long. A sexy catburglar named Selena Kyle (Hathaway) – who goes by the name of Catwoman – has robbed Wayne Manor of the string of pearls Bruce’s mother was wearing the night she was murdered, along with something more subtle – and dangerous to Bruce and those around him. Arriving in Gotham as well is Bane (Hardy), a masked terrorist of terrifying strength and an agenda that makes it sound like the French Revolution is coming to Gotham.

Bruce is struggling to keep his company out of the hands of the rapacious venture capitalist Daggett (Mendelsohn) who is after some technology developed by Lucius Fox (Freeman) that might prove devastating in the wrong hands. On his side is Miranda Tate (Cotillard), a European CEO who is on the same page as Bruce and Lucius. However, the attacks on Gotham and Wayne Enterprises are linked with each other and both have their roots sunk deeply into Bruce Wayne’s past. Bane is much more malevolent than even this and what he has in store for Gotham is nothing less than a full measure of reckoning.  Could this be the end of Batman?

Well, it certainly is the end of this phase of Batman. Nolan has made it clear that this will be the last Batman movie under his stewardship and there’s no doubt that Warner Brothers and DC aren’t thrilled about his departure. Nolan revived the character as a viable franchise

Of course, that isn’t all Nolan’s doing. Bale will go down in history as the definitive Batman much as Sean Connery is the definitive Bond. Bale captures the brooding nature of the character (which none of the other screen versions had fully been able to portray) while reminding us of his brilliance at figuring things out. Batman is the ultimate superhero strategist and we see that side of him here.

Some have criticized Bane as being too one-dimensional but I disagree. Bane is a very complicated character not unlike a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces you don’t have until the very end. It takes a bit of patience but once you kind of get him you realize Hardy is doing a tremendous job with him, considering he is mostly acting with his eyes as his face is masked and his voice distorted. Those who can’t see anything deeper aren’t looking hard enough.

There are those who will look at this as a social commentary of some sort and to be honest, Nolan’s movies often are. Bane might be thought of as the sort of epitome of the Occupy movement, blaring one solipsism  after another proclaiming the rights of the people over the evil powers that be. However, that would be a simplistic interpretation. Quite frankly, the movie is our worst nightmares about the economy come to pass; a morality play about how easily economic chaos can lead to physical chaos. It’s certainly a cautionary tale.

For me, the heart and soul of this particular movie isn’t so much Batman as it is Alfred. I was a little surprised Caine took the part initially and this movie might well be one of the crowning achievements of his distinguished career; it’s not a large part but it’s the soul of the film and Caine delivers one of the most emotional performances I can ever remember. I just hope the Academy remembers him when the nominations start to come out next year.

If the question is whether or not this measures up to The Dark Knight, then the answer is a resounding yes. If the question is whether the movie is as good or an improvement on The Dark Knight, then I’d say that it is close but not quite as good. Hardy is terrific as Bane and Hathaway makes a sexy but savvy Catwoman but neither of them delivers the good quite as well as the late Heath Ledger did as The Joker. Batman needs an opponent at least as clever as he is and Bane isn’t quite to that level.

This is as good a summer movie as you’re likely to find out there, one which takes the gauntlet thrown down by The Avengers and answers the call. We are quite fortunate to have a summer in which the superhero movies have been as uniformly excellent as this year has been; hopefully that will set the bar for summers to come.

REASONS TO GO: A fitting end to a great movie trilogy that sets the bar high for future superhero movies. Well-orchestrated plot. Hardy and Hathaway make terrific villains; Bale is the definitive Batman and Caine gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Very dark in nature, maybe the darkest superhero film ever which might be too much for younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of comic book violence, some of it a little bit more realistic. There is a bit of simulated and implied sex, and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale becomes the first actor to play Batman in three live action films (Kevin Conroy has played the role seven times but all in animated features).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FOOTBALL LOVERS: The football sequence was filmed at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The kick returner was played by real life NFL star Hines Ward, who in the movie plays for the Gotham Rogues.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: An Unreasonable Man

The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight

Batman heads towards Sturgis, not realizing he's about to have the crap kicked out of him by 100,000 bikers.

(2008) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonel, Cillian Murphy, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, Ng Chin Han.  Directed by Christopher Nolan

Most of us have light and darkness within our souls in equal or near-equal measures. There are few of us who are truly evil or completely good. In many ways, those sorts of personalities are aberrations, mutants that deviate from the norm. For most of us, that darkness and light are constantly at war as we strive to do the right thing…or the easy thing. For some of us that war ends in victory; for others, crashing defeat.

A bank robbery of a bank that launders money for the mob sets a chain of events in motion. The gangs, once completely in control of Gotham City are on the defensive after Batman (Bale) has largely cleaned up crime. They are approached by The Joker (Ledger), who offers to kill their nemesis for half of their funds, which their Chinese accountant Lau (Han) has transported to Hong Kong for safekeeping. The crime lords turn down the Joker’s generous offer, with one of them, Gambol (White) putting a bounty on the Joker’s head. That doesn’t end so well for Gambol and his gang is taken over by the Joker.

Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Oldman) and Batman decide to bring in the new crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) on board their attempts to bring down the mob once and for all. Dent is dating assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal), who was the childhood sweetheart of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian alter ego. While that raises Batman’s hackles somewhat, he realizes that Dent is the city’s great white hope and the best chance for him to retire the Batman cowl and live a normal life.

Batman captures Lau in a spectacular and daring raid in Hong Kong, allowing Gordon and Dent to arrest the mob en masse. The Joker announces that until Batman reveals his true identity, he is going to kill somebody in Gotham and he makes good on it, murdering the police commissioner and the judge presiding over the mobster’s trial. An attempt to murder the mayor is foiled by Gordon who is apparently killed in the process. Wayne decides to reveal his secret identity and is about to do so when Dent announces that he is the Batman, prompting Dent to be put into protective custody. The Joker goes after him and Batman rushes to the rescue. The Joker is captured with the help of Gordon, who had faked his death.

It turns out however that Dent was captured after all as was Rachel. The two of them have been taken to buildings on opposite ends of town, and are set to blow up at the same time. While the police and Batman race to rescue both Dent and Rachel, events are set in motion that will change the lives of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent forever, transmute friend into foe and change Batman’s image in Gotham City from Dark Knight to something far more sinister.

This was the movie that owned 2008 and to a large extent the ripples of its success still rumble through Hollywood and influence the way movies are made. For many, this is not only the best comic book movie ever made; it’s the best movie period. I can certainly see their point.

Nolan made a movie that is all about choices and that war between good and evil in all of us. The best of us can be pushed towards darkness under the right circumstances. Nolan seems interested in seeing how far the breaking point is for a good man and his interest in this is seen through the eyes of the Joker. It’s hard to even comprehend, but our avatar in the movie is the villain and most of us don’t even recognize. That is an act of filmmaking genius in my book.

What helps pull it off is a performance for the ages by the late Heath Ledger. By now most everybody knows that Ledger died shortly after filming completed of an accidental overdose of prescription medicines and would win nearly every acting award posthumously for his work here. There are those who felt that it might well have been a sympathy vote but even had Ledger not passed away he would have deserved every accolade. His Joker is complex, insane yes but not a caricature – this is a real flesh and blood madman who is equal parts brilliant to equal parts insane. He is the center of the movie even if he’s not onscreen for much of it. His presence is felt in every moment of the film and when he is onscreen, there is no doubt that Ledger is the center of audience attention.

It also helps that nearly every other performance in this movie is outstanding. Eckhart’s craggy good looks make him the all-American hero, from dimpled chin to brilliant smile making his fall all the more wrenching. Gyllenhaal, who replaced Kate Holmes in the role (she inexplicably gave up the part to work in Mad Money with Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah…huh?) is much sweeter and more down-to-earth, making her a better fit than the fidgety Holmes. Freeman and Caine are also terrific, playing both ends of Batman’s moral compass. Oldman gets to play the hero, something he rarely gets to do (although his Sirius Black performance in the Harry Potter film might bring more of those roles his way).

Bale is the lead role here but to be quite honest he isn’t the focus. It takes a generous performer to allow his cast mates to shine, particularly when you are the de facto lead but Bale did that here, stepping out of the spotlight (or the Bat-Signal more appropriately) to become a part of an ensemble more than the heroic lead. It’s a gutsy move by both director and star and it pays off in spades.

The movie has an epic sense to it as well as a sense of tragedy which elevate this above the usual popcorn fare. The excellent script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is almost Shakespearean in its scope. Those who denigrate comic books and the movies based on them as childish and one-dimensional would do well to watch this movie. These are characters you care about that have problems you can relate to in a setting that’s grand and larger than life.

The Dark Knight proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a big popcorn movie can be intelligent and daring as well, and still make box office bucks. It establishes Nolan as one of the great directors working today. A sequel is currently being filmed as of this writing for release in July of 2012 and barring a complete meltdown will likely be the Big Kahuna in terms of box office next year. If it’s half as good as this movie was, it will earn that title proudly.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger’s performance is one of the greatest ever on film. Tremendous action and a great story make this one of the best comic book movies ever made.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters create too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the violence is awfully intense and the Joker can be extremely disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Batman movie that features none of the following elements – Bruce Wayne in a tuxedo, Wayne manor or live/CGI bats. It is also the fourth movie to bring in a billion dollars in worldwide box office, and the first comic book-based movie to win an acting Oscar (Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD set includes some promotional viral videos of various cast members in characters being interviewed on a faux news program about the notorious Batman. There are also some featurettes on the Blu-Ray that cover the gadgets Batman uses as well as examining the psychology of Bruce Wayne.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1B on a $185M production budget; the movie was a ginormous blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Mammoth

Inception


Inception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's world is all askew.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Lukas Haas, Tai-Li Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy of all time, Hamlet muses “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In this speech, he’s referring to death, wondering what the dead dream of. Perhaps death is a dreaming in a way, the ultimate dream. Maybe life itself is the dream – who’s to know?

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is a corporate thief with an unusual technique; he enters the dreams of CEOs and billionaires to extract the secrets that their mind has locked in those dreams. It’s an apparently lucrative profession; he seems to have a fairly extensive bankroll. However, Cobb isn’t a happy man. His wife Mal (Cotillard) died recently, and he was implicated in her death. Their children are being cared for by Mal’s mother, and Cobb hasn’t seen them in awhile, although he longs to.

Getting back to them is problematic, until Japanese billionaire Saito (Watanabe) comes up with an offer. He can take away Dom’s fugitive status if Dom will do one job for him, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants one implanted. This process, called inception, is deemed impossible…by everybody except Dom, who claims to have done it on one occasion.

Dom puts together a team of experts, including his right hand man and researcher Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), con man, impersonator and demolitions expert Eames (Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Rao). The last they need to put the subject into a deep sleep, deep enough so that the dream architecture doesn’t collapse, because in order to make the idea work without his mind removing a foreign idea from itself (similarly in the way antibodies tackle viruses), the idea must be implanted so deeply that the subject thinks that the idea is his own.

The subject is Robert Fischer (Murphy), the son of a billionaire energy mogul whose father (Postlethwaite) is dying and stands to inherit his company. That company, which supplies nearly 80% of all the earth’s energy needs, has become too big to stand against and is in danger of becoming a power rivaling that of nations.

Dom also needs a dream architect and for that, he visits his father-in-law (Caine), who teaches the architecture of dreams and who helped Dom become what he is (although dear old dad-in-law disapproves of how Dom utilizes his gifts). Dom needs one of his students, a particularly gifted one, to create a realistic enough world that will fool Fischer into believing he is awake. That student is Ariadne (Page), who in Greek mythology led Theseus safely through the labyrinth on Crete where he slew the Minotaur.

This Ariadne is required to construct a labyrinth, because once the mind realizes that there are intruders in it, it sends what are called constructs to remove the intruders. The maze serves to keep the constructs off your back, at least for a little while. Not forever, however, and once the constructs arrive they are well armed and willing to shoot first and ask questions not at all. Once you are killed in the dream, you wake up – quite a different take on the usual Hollywood mythology which has dreamers dying in real life when they die in dreams. However, because they are going so deep into the dream, those who die in this dream will be sent to a limbo of the subconscious where they will slowly go mad until they awaken.

There is a time dilation too – while in a normal dream, five minutes of real time equates to an hour of dreamtime, the deeper level you go to, the more pronounced the dreamtime – to the point where five minutes can equal ten years.

There is also another wrinkle. Dom has never really been able to get over the death of his wife, and she is a powerful figure in his subconscious, so powerful that she has been able to manifest in the dreams of others and wreak havoc. This is why Dom needs another architect instead of doing it himself. Her presence in his subconscious is becoming more and more pronounced and only Ariadne, who went into one of Dom’s own dreams to figure out what was going on, knows the truth. Will Dom be able to overcome his own subconscious in order to win him the freedom he so desperately desires?

Nolan began writing this when he was filming Memento (2000), and it took him eight years to complete it. That’s largely because of how densely layered a tale this is; this is one of the most complexly plotted movies you’ll ever see. Pull one thread out and everything collapses.

Fortunately, Nolan is a good enough writer that he can pull it off. First, he has to create a believable dream mythology. Secondly, he has to create characters that the audience can relate to and care about. Thirdly, he has to inject a real sense of jeopardy. Finally, he has to make the plot simple enough for a general audience to keep up with, yet complex enough to make all the elements work.

He succeeds in all these points. The mythology is believable; the science may suffer from a little bit of what I call “mumbo jumbo science” – an overuse of technobabble – but it isn’t so much that you shake your head and feel stupid. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; they live and breathe and seem real.

The jeopardy part is accomplished by a series of car chases and shootouts which rankles some critics; “My dreams aren’t about car chases,” grouses A.O. Scott of the New York Times, which apparently means nobody else’s are either; of course, nobody has ever accused Scott of a lack of hubris.

All right, that was a bit of a below-the-belt shot at a fellow critic. Still, when one is discussing dreams, it’s a given there are no rules. Perhaps the dreamscapes that Nolan invents for Inception aren’t as outside the box in some ways as What Dreams May Come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t invention here. The sequences wherein Ariadne folds Paris onto itself (having cars driving Escher-like down vertical streets), or when Arthur fights a construct in a corridor that is revolving (the reason for which is explained nicely in the movie) are as breathtaking as anything you’ll see this summer.

I have a soft spot for movies that make you consider the nature of reality and leave you to form your own conclusions about what just happened. Roger Ebert says correctly that this is a movie about the process more than the plot; I can give you spoilers about plot points but the full effect isn’t as bad because those spoilers lose their effect because it’s more about how we reached that point, not about the point itself. Is this a dream? Is it a memory? Is it reality? Is there a reality? There are no easy answers to that, and Nolan wisely allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. If he has his own ideas, he keeps them to himself.

Di Caprio has never been my favorite actor – he’s a bit too angst-suffused for my taste – but this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays Dom as a man who appears to be emotional on the surface, but the deeper we delve into the character the more we realize he represses his emotions to the extent that most psychiatrists would probably see him as borderline disturbed.

This is the kind of movie you can spend hours in discussion about. Is it a masterpiece or a conversation piece? The answer is it’s a little bit of both. Certainly people will be talking about the ending and its meaning for quite awhile. Movies that can satisfy the need for visceral action sequences and stimulate the mind simultaneously are rare indeed, and Inception does both. In a summer plagued by weak box office and mediocre movies, Inception easily shines as the best movie of the summer season.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking science fiction with some amazing visuals. Di Caprio gives one of the better performances of his career and his terrific supporting cast doesn’t disappoint.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is hard to follow along with in places, and there is a high degree of mumbo jumbo science going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of action and some violence (a lot of shooting). The themes are sufficiently adult enough that I might think twice before bringing very young children who might have trouble following the plot; otherwise, this is suitable for mature pre-teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Dom Cobb, was also the name of a main character in Nolan’s first movie, Following (1998) – furthermore, both characters are thieves.

HOME OR THEATER: The amazing visuals in the movie are best experienced in a movie theater and are even better in the IMAX format if you have an IMAX screen nearby.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Five Minutes of Heaven