Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (11/25/12)

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In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during his third year at Hogwarts, Harry learns that a dangerous killer is on the loose and is coming for him.

After leaving Privet Drive for making his aunt inflate like a balloon and fly away, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is picked up by the Knight Bus and taken to the Leaky Cauldron. After reuniting with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer and supposed Voldemort supporter, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is looking for him. While on the train to Hogwarts, the train stops and fearsome creatures known as dementors attack the train looking for Black, but greatly affect Harry as well. Harry is protected by the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Harry’s safety is a top priority as everyone is fearful that Sirius Black is on the loose but Harry eventually learns the truth.

Now free from the shackles of previous director, Chris Columbus, the Harry Potter franchise really comes to life with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón gives Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a completely new sense of style when compared to the first two films and also sets a fairly dark tone that would carry throughout the rest of the films. Another change is the actor playing Dumbledore becomes Michael Gambon, who gives the role a bit of mystery and I think is a much better fit. Visually pleasing and easily one of the most interesting plots of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the series.

While I wouldn’t say there are any short Harry Potter movies, Cuarón was able to keep the runtime under 2 1/2 hours but still cram all the plot points in the film. I don’t think there is much, if anything, that is superfluous in the film. One thing that bugged me at the time of the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was that the students don’t really wear robes in this film, they wear trendy clothes most of the time. A small detail but for some reason it still sticks out to me. Some may not like the departure from PG films to PG-13 with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I think the decision makes sense and doesn’t feel out of place in the franchise.

Giving several different directors control over a film in a franchise is risky, both for the director and the financiers. If the director changes too much, the franchise could suffer but the director could be hobbled creatively. If too little is changed, the director will certainly be hobbled and the movie may suffer as a result. I applaud the decision to bring different directors on, and Cuarón seemed like such a crazy choice for an English film, but he really works his magic (I can’t believe that’s the first magic pun I’ve made in these Harry Potter reviews).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the watermark for the Harry Potter series for me. While other films come close, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the perfect blend of story and style. I could even see myself recommending this film for newcomers to the Harry Potter franchise.

I give it 5 Buckbeaks out of 5.

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The Dark Knight (7/19/12)

The Dark KnightMovie One Hundred Seventy One

The Dark Knight continues Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as Batman faces his nemesis, the Joker.

The Dark Knight begins with an elaborate bank heist orchestrated by the Joker (Heath Ledger). Gotham has a new DA in Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who vows to clean up organized crime along with his assistant DA, Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) decide to trust Dent. The Joker disrupts an organized crime meeting between several factions and essentially controls the city’s underworld. After Dawes and Dent are placed at separate locations with lots of explosives and a timer, Batman saves Dent but he is disfigured. Joker turns Dent against himself he vows revenge for losing Rachel. Batman must now figure out a way to stop Joker and also deal with the newly formed Two-Face while still remaining the hero that Gotham deserves.

It turns out that writing an abbreviated plot outline for The Dark Knight is much harder than I anticipated. A lot of things happen in the film that the 150+ minute run time can attest to. The second part of  Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, many consider The Dark Knight to be the pinnacle of the series. I attribute this largely to his brother, Jonathan, who helped write the script for the film. Everything in this film is there for a reason and a pretty damn smart reason, too. Further diving into the “realistic” world of Batman, The Dark Knight created one of the greatest villains ever on screen in the Joker. The fact that Joker is only a portion of the plot here is remarkable.

When The Dark Knight was released, it contained several scenes that were shot for IMAX screens and this was the first IMAX film I saw that truly blew me away. While it’s always a thrill to see a bigger, louder version of a film in theaters, when something is built specifically for IMAX it shows. Even a lesser film would have been breathtaking if shot like this, but from the very opening shot for the entire film it grabs you and doesn’t let up. As I said about Batman Begins, The Dark Knight is not only an amazing superhero movie, it is simply a great movie.

If Batman Begins put Christopher Nolan on the map for many people, then The Dark Knight solidified his position as a great filmmaker. The Dark Knight is difficult to fault and is something that I could easily recommend to everyone.

I give it 5 “you complete me”s out of 5.

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Batman Begins (7/15/12)

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Batman Begins tells the origin story for Bruce Wayne becoming Gotham City’s caped crusader known as Batman.

As a young boy, while playing with friend Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne falls into a well and is attacked by a swarm of bats. Later, while at the opera with his wealthy, philanthropic parents, Bruce begins to panic when the actors are portraying bats and asks to leave. In the alley behind the opera house, they are mugged and as a result, Bruce’s parents are both murdered. Much later on, in an even further corrupt Gotham, Bruce (now played by Christian Bale) attends the trial of the mugger and plans to shoot him but the mob beats him to it. Rachel (Katie Holmes), the assistant DA, is ashamed of Bruce. In an effort to infiltrate Gotham’s underworld, Bruce travels the world for training and winds up as a disciple of the Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Ken Watanabe) League of Shadows as Ducard’s (Liam Neeson) disciple, beginning his transformation into Batman.

Are you sick of Batman-related posts yet? No? Good.

Batman Begins brought Batman back from movie obscurity after Joel Schumacher’s embarassing outings. Director Christopher Nolan decided to take Batman back to his darker roots and also put him into a world that feels much more realistic than comic book. The end result is a fantastic movie and a terrific reboot of a great franchise. There is little to fault Batman Begins for as the cast, characters, production values, story, script, special effects, and score are all as close to perfection as a film can hope to achieve. Not only is this one of the best comic book adaptations ever, but it’s a terrific film in its own right.

Even the played out aspects of origin stories for super heroes doesn’t apply here. Batman Begins is almost entirely origin story and yet it’s a fresh perspective and interesting from start to finish. The fact that the villains of the film (Falcone, Ducard, Ra’s Al Ghul, and the Scarecrow) are somewhat lesser-known in the Batman universe, Batman Begins doesn’t miss a beat with them either. What could have easily been a mildly entertaining origin story with an obligatory villain attached for the finale is instead  a complete circle for Bruce Wayne as he becomes Batman.

Since I watched Batman Begins (and The Dark Knight) in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises, I had already known what to expect for the film but it had been a year or two since I had last seen it and I can safely say that it has held up even better than I anticipated. Great care is taken with the source material and Christian Bale emerged as a fantastic Bruce Wayne/Batman. There’s a reason for all the commotion surrounding Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Batman Begins started it all.

I give it 5 “Does it come in black?”s out of 5.

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The Dark Knight Rises (7/20/12) [Spoiler-free]

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The Dark Knight Rises concludes Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Batman trilogy with Bruce Wayne donning the suit of Gotham’s hero for perhaps the final time.

Picking up eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises has Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living in seclusion, except for Alfred (Michael Caine) of course, after he uses Batman as a martyr and sets Harvey Dent up as Gotham’s real hero. During a party at Wayne Manor, Bruce finds a young woman stealing his mother’s necklace and taking his fingerprints. Bruce soon finds out this woman is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and she is selling Wayne’s fingerprints for a plot by Bane (Tom Hardy) to bring down Bruce Wayne and also Gotham city itself. With the assistance of old friend Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), “hotheaded” rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and board member Miranda (Marion Cotillard), Bruce Wayne must come out of the shadows to become Batman and save Gotham before Bane destroys everything.

There are no doubt going to be people that walk away from The Dark Knight Rises disappointed, it’s inevitable. And yes, there are some disappointing things about the film, but nitpicking aside, it shows some of the strongest filmmaking of the trilogy and I would say it actually exceeded my expectations by a fair margin. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have pulled out all the stops for The Dark Knight Rises and I will say that the action grabs you by the throat early on and doesn’t even let up, though the film throws a lot at you to begin with so that helps keep you on your toes.

While I did not view this film on an IMAX screen (I will in a few weeks, though) there is obvious care taken to filming and I could safely guess which portions of the film were shot for IMAX. The sets are somehow even grander than The Dark Knight and Gotham feels larger too. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were filmed here in Chicago and The Dark Knight Rises was filmed elsewhere (Philadelphia, I believe Pittsburgh) so that may play a part in this. Most surprising for me was the high quality acting, Michael Caine especially. It would be forgivable for a comic book film to have the actors mostly phone it in, but the actors all truly deliver here. The only exception would possibly be Tom Hardy as Bane…

Which leads me to my few nitpicking gripes about the The Dark Knight Rises. Bane is my biggest peeve since he sounds like a cross between Hardy’s earlier role in Bronson and Sean Connery doing a Peter Sellers impersonation. Obviously test audiences had a hell of a time understanding Bane when he talked, so they made his voice this way on purpose and it sits high in the mix too. At least he is clearly audible. My other main gripe is that the CGI is a bit uneven. Nolan is fantastic at using real sets for his stunts so maybe the CGI portions just stood out because of this, but I thought some of the bits looked a bit flat.

I was not expecting to be surprised by The Dark Knight Rises and yet I was. Several times, in fact. While Christopher Nolan may not be returning to Batman films anytime, I hope he and and his brother are at the very least creative consultants on the next set of Batman films. In case you are wondering if I prefer this film over The Dark Knight, it’s a close call. In fact, I would rate all three of Nolan’s Batman films 5/5 so technically I can be noncommittal and say they all tie! I will be seeing The Dark Knight Rises again very soon and I honestly cannot wait. This is a real contender for best film of 2012.

I give it 5 Pee-Wee Herman narrates the trailers out of 5.

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