Sunday, 30 September 2012

Film Review | Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

As I stated in my review of Paranormal Activity, the "found footage" format used throughout had both positive and negative outcomes. It added an element of reality that traditional Hollywood style horror at times can't manage, as well as giving the film a low-budget indie charm which was, for the vast majority of the film, entirely genuine. Paranormal Activity 2 employed the same style and techniques, but in order for it to come across as a worthwhile sequel, it needed to be more than just a retread of the same ground covered in the original.

Paranormal Activity 2 is in fact a prequel-sequel hybrid, relating events happening both before and after those seen in the first film. The film focuses on married couple Kristi and Dan Rey (Sprague Grayden and Brian Boland) and their family, Dan's teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) from a previous marriage, and the couple's baby son Hunter. Kristi is the sister of Katie (Katie Featherstone) from the first film, and both Katie and her partner Micah (Micah Sloat) make appearances here. The film focuses on strange supernatural occurrences happening in the Reys' home a few months before those seen happening to Katie and Micah in the original film.

Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity 2 magnifies the problems seen in Paranormal Activity, as well as displaying a few of its own. The style is very similar, although the way in which security cameras are installed to capture the goings on in the house feels more contrived than Micah's camcorder of the original film. There is evidence that the film makers realised the less compelling nature of the daytime sequences of Paranormal Activity, as those segments are regularly much briefer, allowing the night time activity - much more interesting in the first film - to come along more regularly.

However, the problem here is that even the night time "footage" is too often really quite dull. In fact, it takes around an hour - two thirds of the film's total running time - for anything genuinely scary to happen. The film just ticks over without anything meaningful to say, or even giving much of a clue as to why the activity might be happening. Daughter Ali seemingly stumbles across a couple of clues as to what they are experiencing and why, but then does nothing with them. Katie provides the most interesting reaction to what is going on, but isn't in the film enough to have much of an effect.

In and of themselves, none of the characters here are particularly interesting. Dan and Kristi are decidedly ordinary; Ali is a one-dimensional teenage girl, complete with paper-thin boyfriend Brad (Seth Ginsburg); Viviz Cortez as housekeeper and nanny Martine looks to offer a more interesting perspective in the film, but is removed from proceedings far too early to make an impact.

Whilst the final twenty minutes or so of the film do manage to produce some creepy moments and palpable scares, ultimately this is far too little too late. The connection to the events of the first film feels rushed, and the final scenes feel tacked on which is especially frustrating as they are clearly intended to not only tie up the events of this film and the last, but also lead the franchise into further installments. Whilst Paranormal Activity 2 isn't awful, it has far too many problems and generates far too little of interest to be able to truly recommend it.


Film Review | Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004)

Kill Bill Volume 2 is in many ways the yin to Volume 1's yang. Traditionally, yang represents brightness as well as masculinity, both qualities that it's easy to attribute to the first half of Tarantino's action epic. By the same token, yin is darker and more feminine, which again fits much of what we see in Volume 2. After the unrelenting action sequences of the first half of his saga, Tarantino redresses the balance opting for a steadier pace and more dialogue-heavy scenes. Whilst Volume 1 revelled in its audacity, Volume 2 is calculated and sinister in its understatement. And whilst The Bride (Uma Thurman) was the ultimate action heroine cutting her way through any who crossed her path to vengeance against Bill (David Carradine) in the first film, here she takes on multiple feminine roles giving the character a brand new set of dimensions.

Picking up where Volume 1 left off, Kill Bill Volume 2 continues The Bride's mission to avenge the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that left her fighting for life on her wedding day. Having dispatched of the first two names of her "Death List Five", The Bride sets her sights on the final three: Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and finally Bill himself.

Volume 2 complements Volume 1 superbly in every way. Whilst the first film focused largely on oriental cinematic traditions and only touching on occidental genres here and there, the opposite is mostly the case here. Tarantino pays homage to Western cinema, most prominently the Spaghetti Western, with maturity and panache, whilst chapters such as The Bride's tenure under sociopathic kung fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) link to the first film's Eastern focus superbly. And whilst Volume 1 favoured action over dialogue, Tarantino redresses the balance with some of his finest writing to date for the actors to weave together as a captivating cinematic tapestry.

Tarantino's skill behind the camera continues seamlessly from the first film with every shot a love letter to cinema. From The Bride's "Texas funeral" at the hands of Budd - still one of the most chillingly uncomfortable sequences I can remember experiencing in a cinema thanks to Tarantino's expert manipulation of visual and audio both together and separately - to the near Tex Avery-esque battle between her and Elle Driver in Budd's trailer, this is the work of one of cinema's geniuses.

Many other excellent features from Volume 1 are present once again here. Thurman continues her career-defining performance as The Bride, developing the character further by adding a greater sense of humanity, present in the first film but rightfully overshadowed by her action persona. That's not to say at all that The Bride has abandoned her Hanzo sword; Thurman still has plenty of fight in her, and it's just as enjoyable as ever.

With The Bride having dispatched two of her former associates in Volume 1, Hannah and Madsen step up from their brief appearances in the first film to fill the gaps admirably. Hannah clearly relishes every moment of her performance as Elle Driver, bringing a tenacity and spite to the character which toes the line between caricature and psychosis perfectly. Madsen's turn here as Bill's estranged brother is his best in any film: brilliantly understated, despicable and pitiful, and yet sympathetic and admirable at the same time. The scenes between Budd and The Bride tell a story that could fill their own four-hour epic; Thurman's character never speaks a word to Madsen's. That's how good the performances are in this film.

To that statement, Carradine's Bill is no exception. Tarantino paid homage to the likes of Charlie's Angels's eponymous dispatcher and James Bond's arch-nemesis Blofeld through Bill in Volume 1 by never showing us his face, making Carradine's performance mysterious and chillingly cool but limiting the layers the character could conceivably have. Lifting this restriction from himself in Volume 2, the director unleashes Bill as one of his most complex, enigmatic characters; Carradine's performance in the role cannot be understated as a pivotal factor in the success of this transformation. Every moment Carradine has on screen is electric, bringing a dangerous unpredictability yet irresistable charisma to the role. His chemistry with Thurman is also a wonderful thing to behold.

After Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume 2 is the Tarantino film that comes under the greatest amount of negative criticism. And just as with Jackie Brown, I simply cannot understand why. Volume 2 is mature and steady, finely balanced and expertly crafted. By its very nature as the first of the two films, Volume 1 had to work as both a standalone film and as the first half of an epic story. Volume 2 had the different task of being a satisfying conclusion to that story, as well as a pleasing sequel to its predecessor, and it succeeds on both counts. Volume 2 is the perfect companion piece to Volume 1, and Kill Bill as a whole deserves to be heralded as a landmark cinematic masterpiece.


Monday, 24 September 2012

Film Review | Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003)

After firmly establishing himself as one of the defining directors of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino made the world wait to see what he could do in the 21st Century. Long mooted as the director's sprawling epic return, Kill Bill finally arrived six years after Jackie Brown rounded off Tarantino's trifecta of perfect cinematic homages to Western cinema. At least, half of it did. Refusing to cut the film down to reduce its overall run time of over four hours, Tarantino instead chose to make a single cut down the middle and release the film in two volumes. The critical question was for many whether the two volumes could work as independent pieces of cinema as well as two halves of a whole.

Kill Bill Volume 1 relates the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), brutally attacked and left for dead on her wedding day by her former employee, the mysterious Bill (David Carradine), and his team of killers, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Miraculously surviving the assault,  The Bride begins her mission for revenge against her assailants.

Kill Bill Volume 1 is a comprehensive triumph of the action genre. The director's hand is as assured as ever, with Tarantino's skill and passion for cinema coming across stronger than ever before. There are so many flawless sequences contained within this masterwork it's hard to single any out. The opening scene draws you into Tarantino's brutal hyperreal universe in unforgiving style, with monochrome close ups of Bill's intimidating cowboy-booted footsteps intercut with The Bride's bloodied and traumatized face. Throwing us from this, post opening credits, into a multicoloured, almost cartoonish brawl within a middle-class suburban home between Thurman's character and Vivica A. Fox's retired assassin Vernita Green will have you permanently hooked.

Volume 1 is, stylistically, Tarantino's most ambitious work, taking in a huge amount of influences and showcasing everything from Japanese domestic comedy to classic kung fu and samurai cinema to anime; everything the director attempts is a comprehensive success and melds perfectly into a brilliant, immersive whole. The cinematic precision on show is also breathtaking: watch a single camera shot follow Sofie Fatale (Julie Dreyfuss), right hand woman to another former Deadly Viper, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), as she walks from O-Ren's private room in The House Of Blue Leaves restaurant to the toilets, panning upwards to give us an aerial perspective of the The Bride concealed in a cubicle, waiting to pounce.

The performances Tarantino captures from the whole cast are once again astounding. David Carradine's turn as Bill, his face never shown in Volume 1, is impressively grandiose yet earthy; Liu's performance as O-Ren is also impressive, the actress showing a severe and intimidating quality not previously seen in her career. Veteran Sonny Chiba as legendary swordsmith Hattori Hanzo brings both class and subtle comedy to his scenes. But, without question, it is Thurman's powerhouse turn as The Bride which is a cornerstone to Volume 1's success. Thurman is captivating in the spectacular action sequences - her showdown against O-Ren's Yakuza army, the Crazy 88, deserves to go down in action movie history as one of the all-time great fight sequences, being as it is a choreographic masterpiece - but also imbues The Bride with tangible emotion exactly when necessary. Watching Thurman wail in anguish when The Bride realises she is no longer with child after waking from a four year coma is genuinely, painfully heartwrenching.

I could go on and on about Kill Bill Volume 1's brilliance, mentioning scene after scene, actor after actor, moment after moment. It remains at this time my favourite of all of Tarantino's works, which considering the cinematic milestones already laid down by the director shows just how highly I regard this film. It has everything. The criticisms occasionally levelled at the film I just don't see. It's often cited as Tarantino's least "talky" film, and yet there are so many lines of dialogue that cut as sharply as a Hanzo sword that I don't even know where to begin. Any fears you might have about this feeling like "half a film" can be firmly assuaged: Tarantino skilfully ensures this stands on its own as well as as the opening chapters of a saga. It's not often I say this of a film, but I actually cannot fault Kill Bill Volume 1, nor can I recommend it highly enough.


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Film Review | Ratatouille (2007)

It's testament to the quality of Pixar's output that any film of theirs which isn't hailed as an instant animated classic is considered a relative failure. It's also unfair, as an average Pixar film is, in many ways, still a superior piece of cinema when compared with the standard work of most other animation studios. Ratatouille is a curious example of this; lauded by many as yet another Pixar masterpiece upon its release five years ago, it's probably the first film of theirs which I remember being genuinely disappointed by. Revisiting Ratatouille on Blu-ray for the first time since I saw at the cinema was nonetheless something I was genuinely looking forward to, with the HD experience likely to allow every pixel to shine all the more brilliantly.

Showcasing the highest of high concepts, Ratatouille asks the question: what if a rat wanted to become a high class chef? The rat in question, Remy (Patton Oswalt), is passionate about food but of course has to contend with his species as a seemingly insurmountable barrier to success. But after teaming up with kitchen hand and decidedly untalented chef Linguini (Lou Romano), Remy seems destined to become living proof of the credo of his culinary hero Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett) that "anyone can cook".

Rewatching Ratatouille served to confirm what I had found impressive as well as what I had been less impressed by on its initial release. The top quality animation, although something that can almost be seen as a given for any Pixar film, is nonetheless still incredible, possibly the most beautiful of any Pixar outing before or since. The realisation of Paris, from the artistic skyline to the rat's-eye-view of the cobbled streets, is superb. So too is the film's presentation of one of its key elements: food. From crusty baguettes to plump grapes, Disney's premier CGI wizards create a visual feast so sumptuous that your salivary glands may go into overload as your brain begins to pleasantly forget that the treats you're seeing are no more real than the anthropomorphic rat standing next to them.

There's also no doubting that Ratatouille is great fun with some fantastically realised humour here and there. However, there are problems. Remy, whilst no Woody or Wall-E, is a loveable hero to root for. But whilst Woody is so much more than just a cowboy doll and Wall-E greater than the waste-processing robot he was built to be, Remy seemingly only has one string to his bow. He's a rat who wants to cook, and that's it. There is unfortunately something missing from Remy to make him a truly memorable Pixar protagonist.

There are problems elsewhere in the cast, which is solid but with no outstanding performances. Linguini's back story feels underdeveloped; his romance too with fellow chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo) is somewhat flimsy, with only a single montage sequence and short Bergerac-esque scene involving Remy to move them from an unwilling professional pair to romantically linked couple. Even veteran Peter O'Toole in full scenery-chewing mode as the antagonistic food critic Anton Ego can't distract from the fact that his character is - aside from one brief flashback - decidedly lacking in depth. Away from the human race, Remy's brother Emile (Peter Sohn) and his father Django (Brian Dennehy) also feel disappointingly one-note, afforded too little screen time to become genuinely memorable.

The plot too has pacing issues, with a rushed start in media res, and a finale I find more unsatisfying the more I think about the unnecessary loose ends and nagging questions it leaves. In fact, with so many issues, I should really be congratulating Pixar on making a film I genuinely did enjoy, and will almost certainly enjoy upon any future viewings. I suppose my major gripe with Ratatouille is that it;s a film that you'll enjoy as long as you don't think too carefully about it. But when I watch a Pixar film, I want to think about it. That's what Pixar do best: intelligent, intricately thought-out animation. If I didn't want to think about it, I'd put on something by Dreamworks. Ratatouille ultimately comes out as too much style over substance. It's undeniably gorgeous, but delve a little deeper and this is missing some key ingredients of the studios more impressive works.


Monday, 17 September 2012

Film Review | Humpday (2009)

At one point during Humpday, when asked  by his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) the reason behind wanting to make a gay porn film with his straight friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard), Ben's (Mark Duplass) reply is pretty futile. He simply says he doesn't know why he wants to do it, but that he knows its something he has to do. With motivations this weak, a film centred around such a potentially inflammatory concept cannot hope but do anything but disappoint.

As I've already alluded to, the premise behind Humpday is pretty straightforward. Duplass and Leonard's characters are old college friends who haven't seen each other in years, until Andrew returns from travelling the world by turning up unannounced on Ben and Anna's doorstep at two o'clock one morning. The following night, during a conversation influenced heavily by alcohol and drugs, the two agree to make a gay porn film and enter it into a local "art" festival. It may be an agreement fuelled by intoxicating substances, but the next morning neither man is willing to back down.

Whilst Humpday was seemingly an acclaimed addition to the "mumblecore" genre, which entails low budget filming, a pervading sense of realism and high levels of improvisation by the actors, I genuinely struggled to find anything within it I actually liked. The main characters are repellent: Duplass' Ben is spineless and aimless, seemingly willing to throw away a happy and comfortable life with Delmore's Anna at the drop of a hat. We find out pretty early on that Ben and Anna are trying for a baby, making Ben's actions towards his wife either all the more unbelievable or all the more despicable depending on your outlook; either way, his flippant attitude towards becoming a father is a selfish act which the film never manages to address.

Whilst Ben is a despicable invertebrate, Andrew is simply an arsehole of the highest order, either oblivious to or uncaring about the human wreckage he leaves behind. From the moment Andrew gambols into Ben and Anna's home and lives in the middle of the night, it's hard not to take an immediate dislike to the character. Andrew's personality is a grating mixture of new-age hippie and obnoxious man-child for whom it is impossible to feel any empathy or affection. With the supporting cast populated by free-spirited artists both annoyingly stereotypical and just annoying, the only sympathetic character within the film is Anna, although her character arc takes her from patient and caring to unrealistically forgiving, meaning even she ends up as ultimately unsatisfying.

The plot doesn't fare much better, the problem being that writer, producer and director Lynn Shelton is under the impression that she's hit on such an ingenious and captivating premise that her film will just fall into place around it. It doesn't. The concept of a gay porn film made by two straight men is novel, but not nearly enough to drive the entire film by itself. Nor does the film offer any deeper meaning or message behind its core idea, reducing the act Ben and Andrew intend to perform to its most base level. At best, it's a misfired attempt at crude humour; at worst, it's offensively dismissive, maybe even homophobic.

The film is littered with scenes which linger far too long and seem to have little point behind them. A basketball shootout between Ben and Andrew which descends into juvenile one-upmanship for example feels embarrassing, self-indulgent and adds very little to the characters from what we already know. The final act provides a major anticlimax, uninspired and overlong, ending the film on a whimper befitting its thinly stretched premise. Humpday is a disappointing shadow of the potential its concept holds; unfocused, irritating and, most of all, really quite dull.


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Film Review | The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

It's difficult to comprehend, after the runaway success of The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger's iconic performance within that film, that Christopher Nolan originally intended for Batman Begins to be a standalone film. The Joker card tease at the end of Begins was put in as a nod to Batman's most infamous foe, not as the perfect lead into the second film it turned out to be. After The Dark Knight, it was difficult to imagine that Nolan and Warner Bros. wouldn't want to follow things up and make Nolan's Batman franchise into a trilogy. A third film would allow Nolan to tie up thematic and emotional threads, and would allow Warner Bros. to again make a ridiculously large amount of money as they had done with the first sequel. But after creating two of the most important comic book adaptations in cinematic history, the hype for The Dark Knight Rises was through the roof, and the question of how Nolan could possibly better - or even match - the acclaim of the first two installments was on the lips of many.

Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, shying away from both his business life at Wayne Enterprises and the vigilante life of his alter-ego, Batman. However, after a powerful terrorist known as Bane (Tom Hardy) makes his presence known in Gotham, Wayne is lured out to help protect the city once more as the caped crusader.

There's an awful lot to like about The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan feels at home bringing Gotham back to the big screen, producing some of the most impressive cinematography seen in any part of the trilogy. Evoking images of Soviet Russia, a barbaric and mystical Asia, and a bleakly paranoid post-9/11 Western society, Nolan sets a captivating backdrop for both his crisp dialogue and charged action sequences in which to take place. There are set pieces contained within, such as Bane's breathtaking hijacking of an American football match, that are contenders for the best action sequence in any Nolan Batman film.

There is also a strong returning cast, led by Christian Bale's protagonist. Bale, now the actor who has donned the Dark Knight's costume more times on the big screen than any other, is once again a strong presence. Bale feels comfortable and reliable in the dual role, whilst at the same time bringing new dimensions and development to both Wayne and his crime-fighting persona. Michael Caine puts in possibly his strongest performance of the entire trilogy as Alfred Pennyworth; it's just a shame that the plot dictates he be absent from a significant proportion of the film. The same can be said for Gary Oldman's Commissioner Jim Gordon: a strong performance, but necessarily sidelined for much of the first half of the film. It's a truth that can again be applied to Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, always a welcome presence but whose role here is reduced from that in the first two films.

Filling the gaps left by the reduced roles of Caine, Oldman and Freeman, as well as non-returners from The Dark Knight Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and, of course, Heath Ledger, is a wealth of new talent. Hardy as Bane is a domineering presence throughout; his performance, although not comparable to Ledger's enigmatic Joker, is strong and provides a satisfying physical threat to oppose Batman not seen previously in Nolan's films. That's not to say Bane is all brawn and no brain; his plans for Gotham are meticulous and Machiavellian, and he is arguably the most successful of all the enemies Nolan's Batman has had to face. Anne Hathaway, at least initially a controversial casting decision, is also strong as the ambiguously aligned Selina Kyle, her performance entertaining throughout and fitting superbly into the universe Nolan has created. The character feels slightly underdeveloped in the script at times, but thanks to Hathaway's confidence in the role this can largely be forgiven.

Perhaps the strongest of the new cast members is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake. Gordon-Levitt continues to carve out a reputation as a strong and reliable presence on screen, here bringing both toughness, emotion and depth to the role, making Blake a welcome addition to the franchise. Less convincing is Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate. Cotillard does well with what she is given, but the character unfortunately receives too little development and screen time to believe or invest in, a problem exacerbated by her elevated role in the film's final act.

The biggest problem for The Dark Knight Rises is, ultimately, the two films that precede it. It's an excellent action film and a confident and assured comic book adaptation. But by following Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the most significant franchise reboot made so far and one of the most acclaimed action films ever made respectively behind it, The Dark Knight Rises possibly appears more flawed than it actually is. There are flaws: a couple of underdeveloped characters, stemming from Nolan possibly trying to pack in too many characters altogether, being the main issue. The reduced roles of three of the franchise's key players in Caine, Freeman and Oldman is ultimately a weakness too. The film is also a little too long, causing the pace to slow on a few too many occasions. But although this is the weakest overall of Nolan's Batman trilogy, it's still a mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema, and provides a strong and incredibly pleasing conclusion to what is sure to be remembered as one of the best cinematic comic book adaptation series ever made.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Film Review | The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight is both a continuation of, and a reaction to, the perfect reboot of the Batman franchise that Christopher Nolan created in 2005's Batman Begins. Whilst furthering the realistic edge of the first film, Nolan goes in an almost entirely different direction in his choice of Batman's enemies. Whilst Batman Begins is notable for featuring some of the Caped Crusader's least theatrical villains who had limited mainstream recognition before their appearance in the film, The Dark Knight features two of Batman's adversaries who are not only amongst his most well-known and extraordinary, but who have also featured prominently on the big screen in the past. Casting the late Heath Ledger as The Joker also appeared to many as a risky decision when first announced considering the acclaimed performance given in the role by Hollywood heavyweight Jack Nicholson in 1989's Batman, not to mention the character being undoubtedly Batman's most notorious and well-loved nemesis.

The film takes place some six months after the events of Batman Begins, as Batman, the crime-fighting alter-ego of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), works with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and other members of the Gotham Police Department against bizarre criminal mastermind The Joker (Ledger). Joining the fight is newly appointed district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), determined to rid Gotham of crime however he can; whilst Bruce sees Harvey as holding the potential to lead Gotham into a brighter future, matters are complicated by Harvey's relationship with assistant district attorney, and Bruce's childhood friend and love interest, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

The Dark Knight is just as successful as its precursor, partly because many of the things that worked so well in Batman Begins are retained. The returning cast again put in superb performances: Bale is given the opportunity to flesh out both Bruce Wayne and Batman further, building on his strong performance in the first film; Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth is predictably excellent, the chemistry between his character and Bale's even more palpable and authentic; Oldman as Gordon is again a genuine highlight, continuing the character's development arc with subtlety and humility; and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox is, unsurprisingly, a joy. All of these performances tied together by Nolan's captivating direction, adrenaline-charged action sequences and polished script (again crafted with brother Jonathan) gives The Dark Knight a strong foundation upon which to build the film's new elements.

The new cast members are comprehensively excellent, their characters fitting perfectly into Nolan's Gotham. Gyllenhaal takes on the role of Rachel Dawes capably, developing the character and making it her own, to the extent that when recalling the character it is Gyllenhaal who comes to mind first, despite Katie Holmes originating the character in Batman Begins. Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent is flawless, delivering the many shades of Dent's character effortlessly, and playing out his tragic story arc with such class and pathos that it can't fail to impress on the highest level.

Of course, the film's biggest and most successful addition is that of Ledger's Joker. It's hard to say anything that hasn't already been said about Ledger in The Dark Knight. The character's introduction in the film's opening sequence lets you know that what you are witnessing in the combination of Ledger's performance and Nolan's script is something very special, and once The Joker lays his intentions bare to Gotham's gangland leaders (opening with a simple "magic trick" you'll never forget) neither Nolan nor Ledger let up until the closing scenes. It's a performance which captivates, redefining one of the most iconic antagonists ever created, striking the perfect balance between The Joker's overtly comic book foundations and Nolan's real world aesthetic.

The Dark Knight may be less epic and more episodic in its structure when compared to Batman Begins, but this never counts against it. In salvaging the Batman franchise, Nolan pulled off what many thought impossible and struck gold. Through The Dark Knight, Nolan manages to produce a film against which all comic book adaptations are likely, nay deserve, to be measured. It soars as an action film, broods with psychological drama, and reaches heights neither this comic book franchise nor any other has achieved before or since.


Sunday, 2 September 2012

Film Review | Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins is arguably the most important reboot of a franchise made so far. Only Casino Royale, 2006's restart of the Bond series, contests it for that title. But in hindsight, with twenty Bond films in the can, 007 was merely hitting a stale patch, something which had happened before and the secret agent had managed to come through. Bat-fans will be well aware that Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego were firmly in the doldrums at the turn of the 21st Century thanks to Joel Schumacher's so-bad-it's-painful 1997 effort Batman And Robin. Batman was seen by many as an untouchable, irreparable commodity. Neither was Christopher Nolan likely to be at the top of anyone's list in 2005 to helm the reinvigoration of the character; after his breakout feature Memento, Nolan's most recent work had been 2002's Insomnia, a skillful remake of a 1997 Norwegian psychological thriller with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. The risk factor seemed through the roof to many; they may have been right, but the risk was well worth it, and the payoff was phenomenal.

Batman Begins takes us right back to the hero's roots. Witnessing the murder of his parents at the hands of a petty criminal, a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) exiles himself from Gotham City and travels the world, cutting himself off from all who know and care for him including butler to his parents Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). After being rescued from a prison in the Himalayas by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Wayne is trained as a member of the League Of Shadows, a mysterious organisation utilising ninjitsu and advanced martial arts techniques. It is this training which Wayne uses to develop his vigilante persona, Batman, upon his return to Gotham, a city now swathed in fear and corruption.

Batman Begins is successful in pretty much everything it attempts. Nolan's script, written with brother Jonathan, brings depth to the story of Batman, something which hasn't really been seen before in the franchise, even in Tim Burton's acclaimed efforts in the late '80s and early '90s. In fact, this isn't really the story of Batman at all; this is Bruce Wayne's story told with notes that are epic and extravagant as well as intimate and personal and in which Batman is one aspect of the character. Wayne's masked alter-ego isn't actually seen until around halfway through the film, and it makes his entrance all the more thrilling.

Nolan's choices for the film's antagonists are spot on, shying away from the caped crusader's most notorious and flamboyant enemies in favour of a rogues' gallery more grounded in reality. Carmine Falcone, portrayed by an excellent Tom Wilkinson, is a superb choice as the first genuine criminal threat to Gotham seen in the film bringing a largely real world, mafioso flavour to proceedings. Cillian Murphy as slimy, corrupt criminal psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane is also fantastic, marrying the more flamboyant comic-book style of the character perfectly with Nolan's more realistic take on the franchise. And, without revealing too much about the plot's twists and turns, Neeson's character provides a fantastic counterpoint to both Bruce Wayne and Batman, underpinned by the actor's strong performance.

With so many bad guys in attendance, it would be easy for a lesser film to fall into the trap of losing focus and denying any of them enough development or screen time; Nolan however interlinks the antagonists brilliantly, fitting them together in such a way that each feels genuine and worthwhile on their own, but also allows the creation of a criminal hierarchy within Gotham that adds depth to the city not seen on screen before.

Things are just as impressive on the side of good. Bale is excellent as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, bringing a complex cocktail of emotions and facade to the former, and palpable power and ingenuity to the latter, finding the right balance of drama and humour in both personas. The supporting good guys are also strong, with Caine and Morgan Freeman reliably excellent and Holmes doing well as Wayne's estranged love interest. The strongest support however, and arguably the performance of the film, comes from Gary Oldman as police officer Jim Gordon, rising through the ranks to lieutenant as the film progresses. Understated, sympathetic, and charged with an incredibly strong sense of right and wrong, Oldman's Gordon is perfect, and will surely go down as one of the actor's most memorable performances.

The ensemble cast tied together with Nolan's script, balancing heroic gravitas with comedic quips, gripping action set pieces with intimate character interaction, makes Batman Begins pretty hard to fault. It is often the sequel, The Dark Knight, which receives greater critical acclaim than this film, unfairly overshadowing one of the most important action blockbusters and comic book adaptations of all time. Without Batman Begins, The Dark Knight would not exist. More importantly, the action landscape now would look quite different, and Batman as a franchise might still be mouldering in a dank corner of Hollywood. In Batman Begins, Nolan not only saved an untouchable commodity, but brought new life into it in a way that many never thought possible.