Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan maut)


The Raid: Redemption

Never tell a martial arts expert to clean up his room or else.

(2011) Action (Sony Classics) Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Doni Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Ray Sahetapy, Tegar Satrya, Iang Darmawan, Eka “Piranha” Rahmadia, Verdi Solaiman, R. Iman Aji, Ananda George, Yusuf Opilius. Directed by Gareth Evans

 

Hollywood was once the action movie capital of the world, as heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Seagal and Willis unleashed mayhem of every shape and size against villains both human and extraterrestrial. But as our action heroes got older, their movies soon came out of vogue and the paradigm shifted.

Hong Kong was for a time the action center of the universe as Jacky Chan, Jet Li, Donny Yuen and Chow Yun Fat kicked butt in both police procedurals and fantasy martial arts extravaganzas. Again most of those actors have begun to age their way out of favor and now the paradigm is shifting once again.

Southeast Asia seems to be the new center of action movies as Thai star Tony Jaa has transfixed audiences with his astonishing martial arts films and now here comes this Indonesian entry into the sweepstakes that is meant to up the ante.

Rookie cop Rama (Uwais) leaves his pregnant wife to go on a dangerous assignment; to enter an apartment building and arrest the crime lord Tama (Sahetapy) who lives in a bunker-like enclosure on the top floor of the 15 story building. Most of the people living in it are beholden to Tama so it isn’t lie they can stroll in, arrest him and stroll out. They need to move in stealthily, as team leader Jaka (Taslim) explains. They are accompanied by a higher-up Lieutenant Wayhu (Gruno) who seems shady from the beginning.

Unfortunately for the cops, there is no stealth in a building that is wired with closed circuit cameras and microphones. Tama knows they are there long before there’s any chance for escape; he wipes out the men left behind to guard their van and traps the men on the sixth floor, sending his two right hands Andi the brains (Alamsyah) and Mad Dog the brawn (Ruhian) to finish them off. The cops will have to fight their way out of a death trap and it becomes not so much about getting their man and more about survival.

This is a movie all about choreography and pacing, and it’s done as intricately as any dance number. It’s kind of like a nearly two hour video game session without the controllers as cannon fodder on both side run out with machetes, guns or their fists to take on the heroic cops. Yes, it gets frustrating as you see gangs of fighters go in one at a time to take on the obviously better trained cops with predictable results but then again, that’s just fair play is it not?

Uwais is an action star in the making. He is handsome, charismatic and skilled, all attributes necessary for action star-ness. He doesn’t get a lot of dialogue here – nobody does – but he seems to be able to handle it pretty well. He is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Evans is a Welsh director who lives in Indonesia now and this is his baby. He knows what to do with it as well, giving it a lightning-paced edit that perfectly displays the kinetic fight sequences to their fullest, and gets a pulsing electronic score that further plays up the videogame angle.

This isn’t for everybody. Roger Ebert rightly opines that there isn’t much in the way of plot or character development and that the characters are essentially faceless, mindless and motiveless; we don’t care much for them so it doesn’t matter when they get slaughtered and after two hours of watching skulls getting bashed into walls, machetes slicing and dicing through bloody torsos and skulls exploding when a handgun is fired directly into them, well one can get desensitized. I do find that a little troubling.

However, I have to also admire the way this is put together and say that if you love action, this is really going to float your boat. It’s non-stop, pull no punches balls to the wall thrills and unapologetically so. There is in fact an audience for this kind of thing (which Hollywood has noted – a remake is in the pipeline) and they deserve to be served as much as the pre-teen girls who are served by the Twilight movies or the film buffs served by indie movies. I found myself pulled in and enjoying this on a visceral level and although I wouldn’t have minded a little more exposition and yes, a little less action, there was still enough of the former to justify the excess of the latter.

REASONS TO GO: Non-stop action. Paced so quickly you are literally left breathless.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacking in plot or character development; if you aren’t into one long fight scene this may not be your cup of tea.

FAMILY VALUES: Tons and tons of violence, some blood and gore and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before becoming an actor Uwais drove a truck.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are universally praiseworthy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13

TACTICS LOVERS: The weapons and tactics used by the actors playing the special forces team are authentic to the ones used by Indonesia’s KOPASKA, down to the hand signals used  and the actors underwent training with KOPASA to use them properly.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Chimpanzee

Animal Kingdom


 

Animal Kingdom

Grandma's forgotten to take her meds again.

(2010) Crime Drama (Sony Classics) Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Jacqueline Brennan, Anna Lise Phillips. Directed by David Michod

 

You can choose your friends but not your family. Usually that’s not a bad thing but for certain families, it is a nightmare indeed. Growing up in a family of sociopaths is bound to affect you, even if you’ve been shielded from the worst of them.

Joshua “J” Cody’s (Frecheville) mom is a heroin addict. Make that was – she checks out of this world while watching TV. J calls the authorities and while paramedics work on her, watches “Deal or No Deal” impassively. The boy has issues.

He is sent to live with his grandmother which might seem to be a good idea but really is throwing J from the frying pan into the fire. Janine (but everyone calls her Smurf) Cody (Weaver) might seem motherly and affectionate on the outside (she is always asking her sons for a kiss, kisses which go on just long enough to be uncomfortable) but her boys – Darren (Ford), Craig (Stapleton) and Andrew (Mendelsohn) – the latter known to one and all as Pope – are, respectively, a dim-witted thug, a coke-addicted unpredictably violent thug and a remorseless psychopath. How’d you like to attend that family reunion?

J gets sucked into the family business of armed robberies, drug dealing and other petty crimes and he gets to know Pope’s right hand man Baz Brown (Edgerton) who yearns to leave the life. However when a transgression against the family leads to tragedy, Pope is forced into hiding and Craig and Smurf assume control of the family business. Meanwhile, Police Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Pearce) is hot on the trail of the family and is concerned for J’s well-being. He also sees J as a potential informant, the key to ending the Cody family’s reign of terror once and for all.

It’s hard to believe that this is Michod’s first feature as a director. It’s so self-assured and well-executed that you’d think someone like Coppola or Scorsese had something to do with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a bangin’ script to work with, as well as a group of actors who are quite talented although other than Pearce and Edgerton not terribly well-known in the States.

Weaver was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards and while she didn’t win, she gives a performance here that she will undoubtedly be remembered for the remainder of her career. She is at turns sweet and cuddly, cold and manipulative and creepy and psychotic. She’s the type of person who in one moment can be kissing her grandson and the next ordering his execution. It’s a bravura performance and worth renting/streaming the movie for all by itself.

Mendelsohn is nearly as impressive. He is absolutely without remorse or any real human feeling other than rage. He takes because he can; he wounds because he can and he kills because he can. He understands that he is the de facto godfather of Melbourne’s most notorious crime family and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. He is not motivated so much by love of family as he is love of being feared.

Frecheville has perhaps the most difficult and most thankful role of all. If this were Goodfellas he’d be Henry Hill; he’s the audience surrogate but at the same time, he is a wounded puppy. He’s got definite issues but at the same time he’s a typical teenager, prone to acting rashly and not always logically. It is tough for a character like this to remain sympathetic but Frecheville manages to make J remain so throughout the film, even when he’s doing boneheaded things.

There are times when it gets a bit too realistic for my tastes; I was genuinely creeped out by some of the actions of the Cody family from grandma on down, and there were times I was taken out of the experience because of it. Still, for the most part this is one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you sit down to watch and it will stay with you for a long while after you get up to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Stark, brutal and authentic. Career-defining performances from Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville. Taut and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes overboard on the creepy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, as well as some drug use (as well as drug culture depictions) and a buttload of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie owns the record for most Australian Film Institute nominations for a single film with 18.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A with director Michod and actress Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; it seems likely that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Midnight Meat Train

Takers


Takers

You can tell these cats are cool because of the blue lighting. Really.

(2010) Action (Screen Gems) Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Zoe Saldana, Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown, Michael Ealy, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jay Hernandez, Steve Harris, Jonathan Schaech, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Glynn Turman, Nicholas Turturro, Gideon Emery.  Directed by John Luessenhop

There are those who go through life wishing they could have things, and there are others who simply take what they want. There are those who admire such people and wish they had the brains and the cojones to do the same.

Detectives Jack Welles (Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Hernandez) are on the trail of a group of bank robbers who pull of daring heists that operate like clockwork. Welles knows that he’s after some smart, competent men who know how to plan down to the smallest detail.

The crew is led by Gordon Cozier (Elba), a smart, dapper sort who has a sister (Jean-Baptiste) who’s addicted to crack. He is anxious to get out of the business while he still can so he can take care of his sister. Also in the crew is Jesse Attica (Brown) and his brother Jake (Ealy), A.J. (Christensen) and John Rahway (Walker). Missing in action is Ghost (T.I.) who was one of the leaders in the crew before he got caught during a botched robbery and imprisoned. Now he’s out and even though his ex-girlfriend Lily (Saldana) is engaged to Jesse, he is letting bygones be bygones.

In fact, he has a plan for a heist that should bring enough money in so that they can all retire. It’s an armored car heist, a very daring and seemingly impossible one. However, with Ghost’s help, the crew manages to pull off the heist although not exactly as planned. However, taking the money is not the whole crime. Getting away with it is what counts and with the cops hot on their tails and double crosses awaiting within the crew, who is going to be left standing when all the money is taken?

This is meant to be a slick, modern heist thriller with an urban cast. It can’t be denied that the movie looks stylish. However, the script is incredibly derivative with elements of many other heist films coming into play, The Italian Job coming chiefly to mind.

There are also way too many characters who come and go throughout the movie. Even the crew seems terribly interchangeable and some members redundant. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who without a scorecard, and at the end of the day the movie would have been better if some of the parts had been consolidated.

What’s worse is that none of the characters that are here really stand out. Elba comes close as Gordon; he has a natural charisma that shines through a part that is essentially a stock character. His relationship with his sister is one of the elements in the movie that actually works; the interrelationship with the gang is largely forced and seems to come straight out of a music video.

The palate here is in soft hues and neon bright; there is also an overreliance on the hand-held cam which sabotages the filmmakers’ attempt to look slick and cool. There are moments however when the film succeeds and that is mostly in the action sequences.

The armored car heist is spectacular and is the best part of the movie by far. The fact that it doesn’t go off like clockwork only adds to the thrill factor. There are several chase scenes and fight scenes that are also effectively staged, although a hotel shoot-out with slow motion tumbles and bullets flying looks way too 90s for my tastes.

This is one of those movies that is all concept. It could have been a decent movie if the filmmakers (and likely, the studio) had taken more chances and tried to be a little more of its own film but sadly, there seemed to be more attention made to attracting box office numbers than making a good movie. In that sense, you get what you pay for.

WHY RENT THIS: Some really impressive action sequences.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters who are too interchangeable; a smaller crew would have benefitted the film. Nobody really becomes the film’s center although Elba comes close. Too much style over substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence action-style, some nudity and sexuality and  a fair share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Stephen King called the armored car heist sequence the best action sequence of 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: With a cast this heavy with rappers, you know there’s going to be a rap video on the extra menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $69.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Bless the Child

And Soon the Darkness


And Soon the Darkness

Both these girls need to take Horror Movie Heroine 101 over again

(2010) Thriller (Anchor Bay) Amber Heard, Odette Yustman, Karl Urban, Adriana Barraza, Cesar Vianco, Michel Noher, Luis Sabatini, Daniel Figuereido, Jorge Booth, Gia Mantegna, Javier Luna, Andrea Verdun.  Directed by Marcos Efron

Travel is one of life’s sublime pleasures. Seeing a new place, investigating a new culture can be a good way of broadening your horizon and gaining new perspective. Travel in a foreign  country however can be exceedingly dangerous as well.

Stephanie (Heard) and Ellie (Yustman) are a couple of cute American girls who decide to break off from their tour group in Argentina and go biking around some of the more rural parts. Two young girls alone, who don’t speak the language biking in a rural part of a country not known for being the safest place on earth. Sounds reasonable to me.

They stop by the Hotel Ass End of Nowhere and are warned to stay away from a certain lake by the desk clerk (Barraza). They need to get up early to catch a bus that will take them back to their group, so of course they go out and party the night before. While Stephanie is the responsible one, Ellie never met a guy she didn’t flirt with or a drink that didn’t make her shout WOOOOOOOOH! (the international mating call for college-age girls). Of course that leads to a tussle in which  strong silent guy named Michal (Urban) kicks the shit out of a local who is getting too familiar.

Of course in the struggle the alarm clock gets unplugged, they miss their bus and decide to go to the forbidden lake to sunbathe in skimpy bikinis. Of course they have an argument and Stephanie storms away. Of course Ellie disappears. Of course the police, in the form of Calvo (Vianco) dispute that Ellie is gone. And Michael, who claims to be looking for his own girlfriend, complicates matters. Is he really looking for his girlfriend or is he in fact the one who took Ellie?

Director Efron based this on a 1970 British film of the same name. I actually saw that one a long time go; there are some images I remember from it but little else save that Pamela Franklin played the good girl and Michele Dotrice the party girl – OK I remembered Franklin but I had to look Dotrice up on IMDB.

Heard is an appealing actress who is one of those performers who always puts on a performance that no matter how bad or how good the movie is, is always a strong effort. She has kind of a stock horror movie role of the plucky heroine and there really isn’t a lot she can do with it, but she makes the best of it. Yustman is a beautiful girl who sometimes gets roles that basically has only that element to them –  the pretty party girl. She does it well enough but I get the sense that she has much more in her than that. I hope she gets to show off her range one of these days.

One of the problems with this movie is that it is based on a movie that really has a lot of clichés built into it. The original could have used a little more originality and the remake doesn’t give the original any twists, nothing that would set it apart from the rest. Karl Urban, who was so good in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays the suspect with a likable performance but you never get the sense that Michael is seriously the culprit.

You should figure out what’s going on pretty early on. This is one of those movies where the heroines put themselves into jeopardy by acting in a way no intelligence young woman (whom Stephanie is purported to be) would ever act. Sorry guys; if you’re going to get two young women taking a bike tour on their own in Argentina, you’re going to need a better way than this to get them isolated and vulnerable. You’re also going to need a better movie than this to get my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely thrilling moments. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An extremely derivative movie that could have used some stronger performances from its stars.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence, a bit of brief torture, an even more brief bit of sexuality and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this movie is set in Argentina, the original British thriller it’s based on was set in France.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a director’s video diary here if you like that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: One Day

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

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans


The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Eva Mendes and Nicolas Cage were having a contest to see who could look the coolest - Eva won.

(2009) Crime Drama (First Look) Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Vondie Curtis Hall, Shawn Hatosy, Xzibit, Denzel Whitaker, Brad Dourif, Shea Wigham, Katie Chonacas, Michael Shannon, Tom Bower. Directed by Werner Herzog

An out-of-control drug-addled policeman taking on crime in his own corrupt way, desensitized to violence and seemingly without any moral compass whatsoever. Sound familiar?

First of all, this movie has nothing to do with the classic Abel Ferrara film The Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel back in 1992. This movie shares only a producer with the original. There are some thematic similarities but that’s about it. The first film is amazing and powerful; this one is going to suffer by comparison – so I’m not going to compare the two, only to say that those coming in looking for a sequel, a remake or a reboot are going to be confused at best, angry at worst and disappointed for certain.

Lt. Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a decorated member of the New Orleans Police Department. He injured his back rescuing a prisoner from the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Hooked on vicodin for the pain, he graduates to bigger and better drugs.

He is in love with Frankie (Mendes), a prostitute who is a fellow junkie. He is not above rousting a pair of clubgoers leaving a nightclub, stealing their drugs and raping the girl – while her boyfriend watches. His only worry is avoiding detection from his partner Steve Pruit (Kilmer) and the evidence locker supervisor Mundt (Shannon). The only law he seems intent on enforcing is the law of looking out for number one.

Then he is assigned the case of the execution of an entire family of immigrants and discovers the father was involved in drug dealing. We also discover that a vicious drug kingpin named Big Fate (Xzibit) is responsible. McDonagh, growing more and more paranoid, hooks up with Big Fate not only to bring himself a whole new supply of drugs but to get to the bottom of the killings. The further in he gets, the more dangerous the game he plays becomes to himself and those around him.

Director Werner Herzog knows a thing or two about obsession. The director of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man is fascinated by characters that live on the edge of madness, and often die on that edge. He and Nicolas Cage are a match made in…maybe not heaven, but in purgatory at least.

Cage is an Oscar winning actor who has always specialized in characters out there on that edge. Of late he has done a lot of movies that are best forgotten; still, he is capable of busting out with some great performances. He is right there on the ragged edge here and at times he overacts shamelessly, which can be a turn-off.

Then again, this kind of role really does call for it. McDonagh hallucinates about iguanas and snarls after Big Fate and his crew shoot someone dead “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” Only Cage could pull off a line like that.

Kilmer is another actor who often takes on quirky roles and has of late been relegated to a lot of direct-to-home video disasters. It’s nice to see him in a movie that actually got a theatrical release; hopefully more casting directors will take notice of him, although I’m not sure his performance here will get that for him – the role is pretty bland.

This is the kind of movie that makes you feel like you’ve just gone for a swim in the sewer, only in a good way. It shows the corruption and seediness that is rampant around the drug trade. It’s a shame they had to unnecessarily throw the Bad Lieutenant association in – the movie I think would have benefitted from a better title (this one is really bad and may have actually kept moviegoers away). It at least has the distinction of being one of Cage’s better movies of the last decade, although I’m becoming more enamored of Herzog as a documentarian than as a filmmaker.

WHY RENT THIS: You get a great sense of a life spiraling out of control.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage overacts shamelessly. The corruption is so pervasive that you feel like you need a shower after watching the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? Lots of bad language, even more drug use, a goodly amount of violence and just for good measure, let’s throw in a little sex on top.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage is actually snorting baby powder during the cocaine scenes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.6M on a $25M production budget; this was a box office flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: A History of Violence