“FAST FIVE” (2011) Review

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“FAST FIVE” (2011) Review

I have never seen a movie from the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise before 2011. Never. I never had the inclination to see any of these movies, despite the series being a consistent cash cow for producer Neal H. Moritz and Universal Studios.  One might begin to wonder what led me to break that tradition and see the franchise’s 2011 entry, “FAST FIVE”

I might have to retract a little. I did see the first movie, 2001’s “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” seven months before the 2011 film was released.  Well, I only saw two or three minutes of one of the movie’s early scenes on a large screen television at my local electronics store. But those two or three minutes did not convince me to go see “FAST FIVE”. The movie trailer did. When I first saw it, I had rolled my eyes in disgust at the idea of a fifth FAST AND FURIOUS movie. When I saw the trailer for a second time . . . it intrigued me. Because of this, I decided to end my ban on the franchise and see the movie.

In order to understand the beginning of “FAST FIVE”, one would have to watch the past four movies – especially 2009’s“FAST AND FURIOUS”. That movie, featured law enforcement officer Brian O’Conner’s reunion with the Toretto family – street car racer/thief Dominic “Dom” and his younger sister, Mia – after he had allowed Dom to escape arrest at the end of the first movie. Dom and Brian investigated the murder of the former’s girlfriend, Leticia “Letty” Ortiz and her connection to a major drug lord. Brian made arrangements with the FBI for Dom’s release in exchange for the latter’s assistance in the drug lord’s capture. However, a Federal judge reneged on the deal and sentenced Dom 25 years to life in prison. The movie ended with Brian, Mia and two of Dom’s colleagues (Tego Leo and Rico Santos) attempting to free Dom from a bus en route to the Lompoc Penitentiary.

“FAST FIVE” picked up with Dom’s rescue from the prison bus. Dom, Brian and Mia are forced to leave the United States as fugitives from justice. Upon their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; they encounter Dom’s former colleague, Vince. He recruits them to participate in steal cars from a moving train, on behalf of a Rio businessman and crime lord named Hernan Reyes. When Dom realizes that one of their fellow thieves, Zizi, is only interested in stealing one car – the Ford GT40 – he has Mia steal the car, while Dom and Brian fight Zizi and his henchmen. The fight results in Zizi’s murder of three DEA agents on board the train. The murders are pinned on Dom and Brian. The trio discover a computer chip from the Ford GT40 that consists of details of Reyes’ criminal operation and locations of $100 million dollars in cash. They decide to rip off the crime lord’s money in order to start a new life, with the help of old friends. Dom, Brian and Mia also discover that a diehard U.S. DSS agent named Luke Hobbs is in Brazil to capture them for the murders of the DEA agents.

When “FAST FIVE” first hit the theaters, many fans and critics declared it to be the best in the franchise. Following my first viewing of the movie, I watched the other four that came before it. Two of them proved to be well-written entertainment; one of them seemed decent, but a little mediocre; and one barely maintained my interest. But “FAST FIVE” definitely turned out to be better than the first four movies. Although the movie featured an extreme car chase through the streets of Rio, it barely touched upon street car racing, a theme that dominated the other four films. In fact, the movie only featured two street car races – a good natured contest between four of the characters and another between Dom and Brian right before the movie’s end credits. In other words, “FAST FIVE” was more of a heist film. And although certain fans had complained about the limited emphasis on street car racing, the critics and other fans had expressed that the heist plot made “FAST FIVE” the best in the franchise. So far.

Not only do I believe that “FAST FIVE” is the best in the franchise, I feel that it is one of the better heist movies I have seen in recent years (aside from 2001’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” and 2007’s “OCEAN’S THIRTEEN”). Aside from a small quibble regarding the Vince character, screenwriter Chris Morgan’s plot turned out to be a strong continuation of the first, second and fourth films. Morgan’s utilization of characters from the previous films provided “FAST FIVE” with a strong ensemble cast. In fact, I happily noticed that none of supporting characters had been shoved into the background or overshadowed by the Dom, Brian and Mia characters. Most of the supporting characters have previous connections with Dominic, except for two – Roman Pearce and Tej Parker – who appeared in 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS” as Brian’s friends. This fifth film provided a warm and humorous private reunion between the three. And thanks to Morgan’s script, the franchise’s theme of family (especially fatherhood) resonated strongly. This theme also led me to view the Dominic/Brian friendship with a jaundiced eye.

The movie’s production also struck me as top notch. Aside from the train robbery sequence, many of the exterior scenes were shot in Puerto Rico and Rio. Director Justin Lin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon did a first rate job in conveying the elegance, color, chaos and squalor of Rio de Janeiro. I also have to commend Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner for their editing of the film – especially the foot chase through Rio’s Rocinha Favela (shantytown) and the chase sequence throughout the city.

Before I end up gushing over the movie, I do have a few quibbles. The train heist had been shot in Arizona . . . and looked it. I am aware of the scrub lands that exist in Brazil, but the train featured in this sequenced looked as if it was traveling through a very stark and dry looking terrain. And Morgan’s script never revealed how Vince ended up in Brazil. He had last been seen in “THE FAST AND FURIOUS”, being evacuated to hospital by a medivac, after being badly injured in truck heist gone wrong. Had he been convicted following his release from the hospital? How did he end up in Brazil in the first place?

Considering the number of performers featured in the cast of “FAST FIVE”, I figured it would take a separate article to write about them. If I must be honest, there was not a performance that hit the wrong note. I noticed that the movie seemed to have a strong sense of ensemble acting. Not only did the gang of thieves summoned by Dominic and Brian clicked with perfect magic, but Dwayne Johnson and the other actors who portrayed the DSS agents clicked very well as a team. And I could say the same about Joaquim de Almeida as crime lord Reyes and Michael Irby as his henchman, Zizi.

There were some performances that caught my eye. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker made an even stronger screen team, now that the latter’s character (Brian O’Conner) officially became a criminal. And Walker’s chemistry with Jordana Brewster seemed a lot stronger and more stable than it was in the first and fourth movies. Speaking of Walker (again), he was also able to re-create his strong chemistry with Tyrese Gibson, who portrayed his childhood friend Roman, from the second film. As for Gibson, not only did he have the worst line in the movie, he also had most of the best ones. He was dynamic as ever. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges gave a deliciously cool and sardonic performance as Tej Parker. Spanish-born actress Elsa Pataky really connected with Diesel and Johnson in separate films. And it was great to see Almeida in a strong role again. I found his character’s view on the differences between Spanish and Portuguese colonization rather interesting and chilling. Sung Kang (Han Seoul-Oh) and Gal Gadot (Gisele Harabo)’s characters created a surprisingly sexy romance. Tego Calderon and Don Omar made a hilarious screen team as Dom’s old colleagues from the Dominican Republic. And even Dwayne Johnson gave a slightly scary take on the “holy roller” Federal agent, Luke Hobbs.

Considering how long this article is, one would assume that I really enjoyed “FAST FIVE”. And that person would be right. And I find this surprising, considering my initial contempt, when I first saw the movie’s trailer. Not only did I really enjoy “FAST FIVE”, it became one my favorite movies of 2011, as well.  I am impressed.

“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

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“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

Several years ago, I had noticed that Hollywood has released a minor political thriller during the first or second month of a new year. And to my surprise, I discovered that I found all of them quite entertaining. The latest political thriller to hit the movie screens during the winter season is film starring Liam Neeson called “UNKNOWN”

Based upon Didier van Cauwelaert’s 2003 French novel published in English as “Out of My Head”“UNKNOWN” is about an American scientist named Dr. Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth, to attend a science conference held at an upscale hotel. Upon their arrival at the hotel, Dr. Harris discovers that one of his suitcases had been left behind at the airport. While Elizabeth checks into the hotel, Martin hires a taxi to take him back to the airport. Unfortunately, the taxi becomes involved in a serious accident en route, and Martin’s life is saved by the driver. Several days later, Martin wakes up from a coma and returns to the hotel. He discovers that his wife has checked into the hotel with another man assuming his identity. Not only is Martin taken aback by this turn of events, he becomes aware of a mysterious stranger that has made one or two attempts upon his life. Martin recruits the help of the taxi driver, an Eastern European immigrant named Gina; and a former Stasi agent named Ernst Jürgen to help him learn the truth behind the deception being perpetrated with his wife and the man assuming his identity.

I really did not know how I would react to ”UNKNOWN”, when I first saw the trailer. It struck me as one of those movies in which the best parts were featured in the previews. I had also suspected it would be another ”TAKEN” or ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, a lightweight thriller with a great deal of action and a simplified plot. As much as I had liked those two movies, I never really found them that impressive. On the other hand, ”UNKNOWN” seemed to possess more substance as a complex political thriller. The movie had mysteries and plot twists that took me by surprise, before its denouement.

Director Jaume Collet-Serr certainly did justice to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay. Whether they did justice to the novel is another matter, considering that I have never read it. But ”UNKNOWN” featured exciting and well-dramatized scenes that provided both depth and atmosphere to the movie. One of my favorite scenes featured the recently hospitalized Martin’s attempt to connect with one of the conference’s other scientists, a Professor Bressler. Unfortunately for Martin, the man impersonating him happened to be at Professor Bressler’s laboratory. And both Martin Harrises’ attempts to prove themselves as the real McCoy were both strangely humorous and frustrating . . . at least for Martin and the audience. The meeting between Martin’s longtime colleague, Professor Rodney Cole and Ernst Jürgen, the former Stasi agent, proved to be fascinating and tense, thanks to the first-rate performances by Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. And Martin’s first attempt to reunite with his wife, Liz, came off as rather creepy, due to both January Jones and Aidan Quinn’s skillful acting. 

However, I found myself greatly impressed by Collet-Serr’s direction of two major action scenes. One of those scenes featured the finale in which Martin attempts to prevent an assassination attempt that proved to be one of the plot’s surprising twists. I also enjoyed the action sequence at a Berlin hospital that began with the murder of a nurse and the first attempt on Martin’s life. But I must admit that I believe Collet-Serr did justice to what I consider to be the movie’s best sequence – another murder attempt on Martin’s life at Gina’s apartment that segued into an exciting car chase through Berlin’s streets.

”UNKNOWN” provided some first-rate performances by a cast that included Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch, and Frank Langella. Diane Kruger proved to be a surprisingly effective action heroine that racked up a higher body count than the rest of the cast. January Jones gave one of the most enigmatic performances I have ever seen in quite a while. She effectively kept me speculating upon the reasons behind her character’s failure to acknowledge Martin as her husband. However, the movie really belonged to Liam Neeson, whose portrayal of the beleaguered scientist proved to be the movie’s backbone. Neeson perfectly captured all the emotions that his character experienced throughout the story, without missing a beat. My only complaint is that I found his American accent a bit stiff and formal.

I really had no idea on how I would accept ”UNKNOWN”, once I saw it. The only reason I went to see it in the first place was because I had nothing else to do. I am glad that I saw the movie. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it for a second time. And I enjoyed it even more.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director Kathryn Bigelow hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001.

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” had acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades after its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of planning to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign.  GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date for December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It was eventually proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and Golden Globe award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt and Mark Strong? All four had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle, Pratt and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry.  I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I found that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I had noticed how the media consistently labeled Quentin Tarantino’s movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, along with a Golden Globe win for Jessica Chastain. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It struck me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

Jane Eyre (1996)

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. And there have been ten television adaptations. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 movie adaptation.

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie’s plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie’s production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall’s production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin’s photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë’s tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester’s death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane’s departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane’s inheritance of her uncle’s fortune and St. John’s loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie’s weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that “JANE EYRE” received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli’s casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt’s English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester’s meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg’s portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie’s weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg’s performance to be completely BORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane’s deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995’s “PERSUASION” – Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane’s cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane’s favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane’s religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie’s script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane’s religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson’s effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester’s emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester’s friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin’s portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë’s tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg’s flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, “JANE EYRE” did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.

“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

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”THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

In 2005, director/writer Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise with the highly successful movie, ”BATMAN BEGINS” that starred Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. Both men have reunited three years later for a new story centered around Batman’s conflict with his greatest nemesis, the Joker, in this sequel called ”THE DARK KNIGHT”.

There has been a great deal of attention surrounding this movie. Many have not only praised it, claiming that it is better than the 2005 movie. But most of the word-of-mouth have centered around Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, especially after his tragic death some six months ago. When ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was finally released, many critics and fans expressed the belief that the positive word-of-mouth had been justified. Not only have many judged Ledger’s performance as the best in his career, others have claimed that the movie is probably the best Comic Book Hero movie ever made. I do not know if the Joker featured Heath Ledger’s best performance ever. As for the claim about ”THE DARK KNIGHT” being the best comic book hero movie . . . I do not agree.

I am not saying that ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was a terrible or mediocre film. Frankly, I believe that it was one of the best movies I have seen this summer. Most of the movie featured an excellent story scripted by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, in which Gotham’s organized criminal element has found itself threatened by the law ever since the end of the Falsone family in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, thanks to Batman (Bale). A former inmate of Arkham Asylum named the Joker (Ledger) approaches the crime bosses, which include Salvatore “Sal” Maroni (Eric Roberts), with an offer to kill Batman for pay. At the same time, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) contemplate including the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate the mob, as he could be the public hero Batman cannot be. Harvey Dent is found to be dating Wayne’s childhood friend and object of romantic desire, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). This conflict between Batman, the Joker and their allies escalates to a tragic and well-directed dénouement that leads to Rachel’s death. And it is here where I believe that the movie faltered.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” could have ended with Rachel’s death, followed by the Joker’s manipulation of a grieving Harvey Dent into madness and his eventual capture or death. Instead, the Nolan brothers and Goyer allowed the Joker to escape and continued the story with Dent’s vengeful hunt for those he considered responsible for Rachel’s death and the Joker resorting to a Green Goblin situation involving two ferryboats packed with explosives. The situation involved him telling the passengers on each that the only way to save themselves is to trigger the explosives on the other ferry; otherwise, at midnight he will destroy them both remotely. All of this occurred during the movie’s last half hour and quite frankly, it was a half hour I could have done without. I found the entire ferryboats sequence so unbelievable and contrived. It seemed as if Nolan teased us with the possibility of seeing the darker side of the average citizen . . . and wimped out, because he would rather stroke the ego of his moviegoers with some “nobility of man” bullshit by allowing the passengers refuse to blow or try to blow each other to kingdom come, instead of telling the truth about human nature. Very disappointing. It would have been more interesting or darker if Batman had prevented the passengers from blowing up the boats at the last minute. Batman would have saved the people, but the Joker would have proven a point.

A fan had pointed out that the ending of the sequence was Nolan’s message about leaving a sliver of hope for the audience that human beings do have the capacity to do good things. I realize that this was Nolan’s aim, but this is a message that has been done to death by moviegoers for eons. The problem is that screenwriters and moviemakers are always giving moviegoers this “sliver of hope”. They call themselves pointing out the dark side of humanity and then they pervert these messages by allowing them to come out of the mouths from villains like the Joker, before the latter is eventually proven wrong. It just seems like a cop out to me. Which was why I found the whole ferryboat sequence something of a joke. Sure, human beings are capable of doing some good. But in that particular situation? I rather doubt it. If there is one trait that humanity possess, it is a talent for self-preservation. It would have been more realistic to me if the boats had detonated or Batman had prevented this before anyone on one or both of those boats and activated the bombs. Granted, Batman/Bruce Wayne would have been disappointed in Gotham’s citizens, but he would have learned a valuable lesson about the very people he calls himself protecting. Even better, I would have preferred if Nolan had never added that sequence in the first place.

As for Harvey Dent’s hunt for those he deemed responsible for Rachel’s death . . . I would have been more satisfied if Nolan and his co-writers had ended the movie with Dent’s eventual slide into darkness in that hospital room and saved his transformation into a twisted vigilante and arch villain in a third Batman film. This would have prevented the movie from being unnecessarily a half hour long. And it would have saved the talented Aaron Eckhart for the third film as “Two-Faced” Harvey. It would have also spared moviegoers of that ludicrous ending in which Batman and Gordon decided to allow the former assume blame of Dent’s crimes in order to save the reputation of the D.A. I am still stunned by this little plot development. What were the Nolan brothers thinking? Why was it so necessary to save Dent’s reputation in the first place? Did Batman and Gordon harbored such a low opinion of Gotham’s citizens that they had to treat the latter like children?

The performances in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” were basically superb. Christian Bale beautifully captured the growing dilemma of Bruce Wayne’s desire for a normal life with Rachel Dawes, juxtaposed with his role as Gotham’s costumed vigilante and his growing power over the city’s criminal element, thanks to his alliance with police lieutenant James Gordon and the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. There is one aspect of Bale’s performance I did not like – namely the growling tone he used, while in the Batman persona. I did not care for it in ”BATMAN BEGINS”. I cared for it even less in this film.

I have noticed how many have expressed the view that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Rachel Dawes was better than Katie Holmes in the 2005 film. Personally, I did not see much of a difference in the quality of their performances. Both actresses gave good, solid performances. But . . . the screenwriters’ portrayal of Rachel in this film disappointed me. They had turned her characters into an object. She was Bruce Wayne’s prize for giving up the Batman persona, as soon as he could get Dent to assume the role of Gotham’s “hero”. She was Dent’s love interest, Girl Friday and a reason to go on a rampage for Dent. And for the Joker, she was a means to get at Batman, once he realized how the latter felt about her. There were times when Rachel’s character almost seemed irrelevant and a sad decline from the legal and moral dynamo that Holmes had portrayed in ”BATMAN BEGINS”.

Heath Ledger as the Joker. What can I say? The man was brilliant. He made Jack Nicholson’s Joker look like chump change. Honestly. One of the reasons why I have never care for the Joker character in the past was due to his over-the-top persona. Cesar Romero’s Joker has never impressed me, regardless of the numerous insane clown laughs he had utilized. Nicholson’s Joker was too over-the-top for my tastes. As one can see, I do not have a love for overly theatrical characters, unless they are done right. Granted, Ledger portrayed the Joker as over-the-top. But somehow . . . I really do not know how to describe it. Somehow, he managed to infuse some kind of control in the character’s insanity, not only with his behavior, but also with a talent for emotional manipulation and the views he had spouted to Batman and other characters. Do I believe that the Joker was Ledger’s best performance? No. I believe that the character was one of his two best performances, the other being Ennis DelMar from 2005’s ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. Do I believe that Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, despite his death? Hmmmm . . . yes. He was that good.

The other truly superb performance came from Aaron Eckhart as Gotham’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. One of Eckhart’s virtues was that he formed an excellent screen chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Frankly, I found their romance more believable than her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Eckhart projected a great deal of magnetism, charm and intensity into his portrayal of Dent. But I was more impressed by the way he expressed Dent’s descent into vengeful madness, following Rachel’s death. Granted, this turn of his character occurred in the movie’s last half hour. Although I disliked the movie’s last half hour, Eckhart’s performance in it almost made it bearable.

Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) and Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow) all reprised their roles from the first film. All four gave solid performances, but only Oldman’s role as James Gordon seemed bigger. I found Gordon’s fake death somewhat contrived and manipulative. Aside from the creation of the Rachel Dawes character, everything about the two Batman movies directed by Nolan have adhered to the Batman canon. Which is why I found it difficult to believe that Gordon was dead. Alfred’s role seemed to have diminished from the first film. Freeman’s Lucius Fox is now quite aware that Bruce is Batman and seemed to be acting as the latter’s armourer, as well as Wayne Enterprises’ CEO. The only problem I had with the Fox character was his opposition against Wayne/Batman’s development an advanced surveillance system that can listen in and track the movement of any of the thousands of cell phones in the city. I found the whole scenario contrived. As much as I had enjoyed Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, I found his less than ten minutes appearance in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” a waste of the actor’s time . . . and mine.

Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard returned to score the sequel. I must admit that I had been impressed by their work in ”BATMAN BEGINS” and had expected another exceptional score by them. Unfortunately, I barely remembered the score. I understand that they had rehashed the original score for this movie and added a new theme or two. But it all came off as unmemorable for me.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” had the potential to be this summer’s best film. But there were some aspects – the portrayal of Rachel Dawes’ character, Zimmer and Newton Howard’s score, the portrayal of some of the minor characters and the contrived writing that dominated the movie’s last half hour – that I believe had ruined the movie’s chances of achieving this potential. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws and in the end, ”THE DARK KNIGHT” managed to remain first-rate and become – in my view – one of the best films of 2008.

“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

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“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

With the disappointing summer movie season of 2010 finally over, moviegoers received one of its first releases for the fall season. The movie in question happened to be a tight little thriller about an American assassin working on a job in Italy called ”THE AMERICAN”.

Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, ”THE AMERICAN” is a film adaptation of ”A Very Private Gentleman”, Martin Booth’s 1990 novel about an assassin named Jack, who is hired to construct a rifle for another assassin in a small town in Italy called Castel del Monte. During his stay there, Jack befriends a friendly, yet observant priest named Father Benedetto; and falls for a young prostitute named Clara. He also tries to prevent himself from becoming the target of another assassin.

I had mixed feelings about going to see this movie. After watching it, my feelings about it remained mixed. One, I managed to predict the end of this movie before I even saw it. And I have never read Booth’s novel. The ending seemed even more apparent, considering the movie’s style and story. Two, the pacing struck me as being unnecessarily slow in some scenes. Now, I am not demanding that Corbijn should have paced ”THE AMERICAN” with the same timing as any of the recent Jason Bourne movies. After all, it is basically a character study of an assassin who has come to realize that he has been in the killing game too long. But there were moments when the camera lingered too lovingly upon some of Jack’s more mundane tasks that I would not have minded avoiding. One last complaint I have about ”THE AMERICAN” is that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay never made it clear who was behind the attempts to kill Jack in Sweden and the assassin who stalked him in Castel del Monte. Mind you, I had a pretty good idea on the person’s identity. Unfortunately, the script never really made it clear.

But there were aspects of ”THE AMERICAN” that I enjoyed. I found George Clooney’s portrayal of the world weary assassin well done. In fact, I could honestly say that he did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s mixture of professional wariness, emotional bankruptcy and hopes of a romantic future with the prostitute, Clara. The role of Jack might prove to be one of his better ones. Both Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido, who portrayed Father Benedetto and Clara respectively, gave Clooney excellent support. So did actress Thekla Reuten, who portrayed Mathilde, the assassin that commissioned Jack to construct a rifle for her. However, there were times when she conveyed the femme fatale persona just a bit too thick.

Joffe’s screenplay almost seemed to strike a balance between an in-depth character study and a small, taunt thriller. I say almost, due to the movie’s occasional slow pacing and a vague subplot regarding a threat to Jack’s life. But director Corbijn did effectively utilize some tense scenes included in Joffe’s script. The two best scenes featured Jack’s final encounter with the assassin hired to stalk him around Castel del Monte and the explosive finale that featured a slight, yet surprising twist.

”THE AMERICAN has its share of faults. Nor would I consider to be one of the best movies of 2010.  But I must admit that George Clooney’s performance as the world-weary assassin, Jack, might be one of his better roles. And director Anton Corbijn managed to strike a nice balance between an in-depth character study and a tense-filled action thriller. I could honestly say that ”THE AMERICAN” one of 2010’s more “interesting” films.

“TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY” (1991) Review

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”THE TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY” (1991) Review

Seven years following the release of the 1984 movie, ”THE TERMINATOR”, James Cameron wrote, produced and directed the first of three sequels called ”TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY”. Like its predecessor, the film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. It also became one of the most highly critical and successful action films of the 1990s.

Although released in 1991, the movie is set in 1995 – eleven years after the first one. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is now ten years old and living in Los Angeles with foster parents. His mother Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) had been preparing him throughout his childhood for his future role as the leader of the human Resistance against Skynet. Unfortunately, was arrested after attempting to bomb a computer factory and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane under the supervision of Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen), the psychiatrist who had examined time traveler Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in the first film. Skynet sends a newly advanced Terminator, a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) that assumes the identity of a police officer, back in time to 1995 to kill John. Meanwhile, the future John Connor has sent back a reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), identical to the one that attacked Sarah, to protect his younger self.

Like the first film, ”TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY” is a thrilling and tense action film that made breakthroughs in the area special effects in film. And like in the first film, Cameron and his co-writer, William Wisher Jr. (sans Gale Anne Hurd, who only served as a producer for this film), created a story that centered around a future cyborg sent back in time to prevent a certain John Connor from ever becoming the leader of the Human Resistance against the future self-aware computer system, Skynet. Perhaps I should have said one of the storylines. Thanks to information garnered by young John’s Terminator protector, the Connors learns that the man most directly responsible for Skynet’s creation is Miles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), a Cyberdyne Systems engineer working on a revolutionary new microprocessor that will form the basis for Skynet. This particular storyline lead to one of the film’s more interesting scenes that feature Dyson’s reaction to the consequences his work and a great performance by Joe Morton. Another favorite scene featured the Terminator’s first rescue of John Connor from the T-1000 that had been sent to kill the latter. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s interactions with Edward Furlong not only provided some laughs in these scenes, but also a great deal of poignancy, as the two quickly form an immediate bond.

If I have to name one sequence that struck me as the movie’s pièce de résistance, it had to be the one that featured John and the T-800’s attempt to rescue Sarah from the Pescadero State Hospital, during one of her escape attempts. The entire sequence began with John convincing his T-800 savior to rescue his mother from the mental hospital in case the T-1000 came after her. John’s decision came at a time when Sarah decided to make her own escape after Dr. Silberman had rejected her request to receive a visit from her son. This exciting sequence culminated in a bizarre moment that featured Sarah’s first terrified glimpse of the T-800 coming to her rescue. By this time, the T-1000 had arrived at the hospital, killing anyone who stood in its way. This is probably one of the finest action sequences I have ever seen on screen in the past decade or two. And it is not surprising that it is the one sequence that many recall when speaking of the movie.

The movie had received a great deal of accolades for its special effects. Did it deserve it? In regard to the Industrial Light & Magic’s design of the T-1000, I would say yes. As for Stan Winston’s effects, I thought he did a good job. But I could find nothing to get excited about.

The movie also featured some pretty solid performances from the cast. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a better performance in this film, considering that he was allowed to project more emotion than he did in the 1984 film. This is not surprising considering that the T-800 he portrayed in this film got to learn a great deal about human emotions from the 10 year-old John. Robert Patrick found himself in the same as Schwarzenegger was in the last film – portraying a remorseless and efficient killer with little emotion. And frankly, I found him just as scary. I had commented earlier on Joe Morton’s performance in a very important scene featuring his character, Myles Dyson. Not only do I stand by my comments, I would also like to add that I was impressed by his acting altogether. It was nice to see Earl Boen reprise his role as Dr. Silberman, the police psychiatrist who had examined Kyle Reese in the first film. My only gripe is that the movie never mentioned his first meeting with Sarah, back in 1984. Linda Hamilton had certainly wowed many fans of her transformation of the Sarah Connor character. In this movie, her Sarah is a tough and ruthless woman determined to ensure her son’s survival at any costs. And from the moment the camera first focuses upon her doing arm lifts inside her hospital cell, the audience gets a strong idea on how much Sarah had changed. But for me, the movie belonged to Edward Furlong, the first actor to portray future Human Resistance leader, John Connor. Furlong was around 13-14 years old at the time. And he did a superb job in combining the different aspects of the 10 year-old John’s personality – the child who had clung to his T-800 protector as a father figure, the bold and wayward delinquent that robbed from ATM machines and the tough street kid taught to survive by his high strung mother. It is not surprising that Furlong ended up winning both a Saturn Award and a MTV Movie Award for his performance.

Is ”TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY” perfect? No. In fact I have more than a few “quibbles” about the movie. Let me start with my first problem with this film . . . Linda Hamilton. Yes, I realize that I had complimented her performance in the previous paragraph. There were some positive aspects to it. But it also annoyed me. I had read that it was Hamilton who suggested that Sarah Connor become psychotic in the intervening years after her encounter with the Terminator in 1984. Frankly, I wish to God that Cameron had NOT taken her advice. I realize that fans loved this new aspect of Sarah’s personality. I did not. I saw no reason to turn her into a borderline psychotic in order to make her seem tough. And the movie never really explained why after so many years, Sarah had mentally gone around the bend. My second problem with the movie centered on the T-1000. I had no problem with Robert Patrick’s performance. I did have a problem that the movie’s main villain managed to disappear from the screen for nearly an hour. After Sarah, John and the T-800 managed to evade him following Sarah’s escape from the mental hospital, he simply disappeared, while they a) headed south toward the U.S.-Mexico border and then b) returned to Malibu and met Myles Dyson; and c) helped Dyson steal the central processing unit(CPU) and arm of the 1984 Terminator.. At least 45-50 minutes had passed before the T-1000 appeared on the screen again. And my biggest problem with this film centered around the finale and the T-1000’s attempt to use Sarah to capture and kill John. Why do I have a problem with this entire sequence? It was TOO . . . DAMN . . . LONG!! It was too long. Why did Cameron forced the audience to watch the T-1000 chase down and attempt to kill John for nearly a half hour? It was not necessary. And why on earth did Sarah believe or even hope that following the destruction of the CPU, the old Terminator’s arm and the 1995 T-800’s sacrifice; Judgment Day may have been averted? She had proof standing next to her that it would happen – namely her son, John. If they had really averted Judgment Day, John would cease to exist. Without Judgment Day, Kyle Reese would never have a reason to travel back to 1984 and meet Sarah Connor.

Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed ”TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY” a lot. It was a first-rate continuation of the original movie’s plot that involved one time traveler trying to prevent John Connor from becoming the Humans’ resistance leader and another time traveler sent to act as a protector. And in this movie, the protagonists also try to prevent Judgment Day. But there were times when I felt that its reputation as one of the finest science-fiction films ever made is overrated. I did not care for the psychotic turn of Sarah Connor’s character. The T-1000 managed to disappear from the story longer than necessary. In fact, the showdown between the Connors, the T-800 and the T-1000 dragged the film’s last half hour. But I would still recommend this movie to anyone who asked about it.