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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High Fidelity (7/15/12)

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In High Fidelity, a record store owner details his “top 5 breakups of all time” after the end of his most recent relationship.

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) gets dumped by his girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), and recounts his previous relationships and, more importantly, breakups leading up to this one. The owner of a small record store in Chicago, Rob’s life revolves around music and top five *whatever* lists. As Rob commiserates with his employees Dick (Todd Louis0) and Barry (Jack Black), he discovers that his lack of commitment to Laura was really the problem and decides to rectify that in the form of the perfect mixtape.

In many ways, High Fidelity is a fairly typical John Cusack movie where he plays a broken-hearted, kind of dopey but lovable guy.  That may sound like a knock against both High Fidelity and John Cusack, but I assure you, it’s meant sincerely. One key difference here is that the film is from 2000, not the 1980s. This means Cusack is a bit older but playing the same roles as before and it works flawlessly. Rob is a guy stuck in his early 20s that laments days gone by. It could almost play as a sequel to an 80s Cusack movie where the lead character gets stuck in a rut after high school and has to get his act together.

Other than Cusack, the rest of the cast really delivers High Fidelity above average. Jack Black, who was still relatively unknown for a supporting role, brings his specific comedy sense to the film and has some of the best scenes in the movie. The biggest draw to High Fidelity may very well be the soundtrack which is diverse and colorful. The music follows the film and a song never feels out of place or forced in for marketing purposes.

High Fidelity is a film that is just a good watch if you enjoy John Cusack’s early work. While I don’t think anything will top Say Anything, High Fidelity ranks high on my list.

I give it 4 Jack Black “dancing”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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The 400 Blows (7/14/12)

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The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographic look at François Truffaut’s difficult childhood.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 12 year living in Paris with his mother and step-father. He does not do well in school and suffers at home. Both his parents and teacher think he is uncaring and Antoine constantly runs away. After unsuccessfully stealing a typewriter from his father’s workplace, Antoine is forced into jail, imprisoned with prostitutes and other hardened criminals. Antoine is then shipped off to a school for troubled youth, where he gives some insight to his life before deciding to flee once more.

I normally don’t give the full plot details of a film but in the case of The 400 Blows, I do not consider any of the above to be a spoiler. The plot points are not what defines the film so much as how the characters behave. Antoine’s question and answer session near the end of the film is heartbreaking and beautiful and easily one of the best scenes in film history.

A landmark film of the French New Wave, Truffaut’s film was widely successful from the start but over 50 years later, the film is still just as touching now. The cinematography is also such a wonder to behold, as the shots pan and track so precisely yet appear almost casual. The 400 Blows is an absolutely breathtaking film. The actors, particularly young Léaud, whom was used in several other Truffaut films reprising his role, are all remarkable.

To truly do The 400 Blows justice, I would need to devote a heavily detailed breakdown of individual shots and scenes. An easier method would be watching the film yourself, I truly believe it’s a must-see. If French New Wave films have turned you off before, or if you are new the genre, The 400 Blows is the perfect place to start.

I give it 5 reading Balzacs out of 5.

PS – In case you were wondering, apparently the French title, Les quatre cents coups, refers to the expression “faire les quatre cents coups” roughly translated to mean “to raise hell”.

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Thief (7/13/12)

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Thief is about an ex-con and expert jewel thief that decides to pull a few more heists in order to start a new life.

Frank (James Caan) is a professional safe-cracker that robs cash and/or diamonds and sells them. After his fence is killed, Frank and his partner in crime, Barry (Jim Belushi), are led to a Chicago outfit boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). Leo wants Frank to do a few jobs for him and Frank reluctantly agrees so he can start a new life with a waitress, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) he has been dating. After the big score, Frank wants out but Leo has other plans.

Many people know Michael Mann for his awesome work in Heat, but Thief does some elements of the heist movie just as well, if not better. Frank and Barry are characters easy to understand and relate to, even if we know that it will be hard for things to go right for them. Even if it’s a story we think we’ve seen before, as a whole it is an entertaining one.

I’m not sure if it’s my undying love for the film Drive, but I found many similarities between the films. The opening sequence of Drive has to be an homage to the beginning of Thief, there is no way it’s coincidental. Both Frank and Driver both are cool, calculating, and vengeful, though Frank is much more outspoken. Even the title font and soundtracks are similar. If anyone was disappointed by what Drive wasn’t, then Thief may be the film they are looking for.

There are portions of Thief were the plot seems to lose a bit of its footing and the pacing suffers but then things pick right back up. When Frank is trying to make a life with Jessie I found myself tuning out a bit and waiting for the next scene. I understand we need to know Frank’s motives for going against his instincts and teaming with the mafia, but their relationship still didn’t seem real to me even after all the time spent doting on them. Drive builds a better relationship in less time and with hardly any dialogue.

Thief has been a bit lost in time but it’s a great noir/heist film and outside the Godfather, some of James Caan’s better work. In spite of a few stumbling areas, Thief delivers on every expectation of the genre and perhaps even more.

I give it 4 Thief’s opening sequences out of 5.

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A Clockwork Orange (7/11/12)

A Clockwork OrangeMovie One Hundred Sixty Four

A Clockwork Orange centers around a youth who partakes in drugs, sex, Beethoven, and ultra-violence before being imprisoned and reformed.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and his gang of droogs start A Clockwork Orange in the milk bar they frequent and we see their fights with rival gangs, rape, brutal beatings, speeding in cars and in general what they refer to as “a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence”. Alex is particularly callous and sociopathic in his ways, but has a fondness for Beethoven. After murdering a woman with a giant phallic statue, Alex is betrayed by his gang and is hauled off to prison where he is involved in an extreme experimental procedure to “cure” him.

Stanley Kubrick stands as one of my favorite writer/directors, if not the favorite and I used to watch A Clockwork Orange several times a month in high school. It has been several years since I had seen the film and was lucky enough to get a chance to see it shown theatrically. Unfortunately, the theatrical release was marred by an old restoration or a careless one which is perplexing since the film was recently relreleased on blu-ray and this was definitely not the blu-ray. The sound was a bit muddy and the picture had several hairs and specks on it that weren’t quite distracting, just disappointing.

As for the film itself, A Clockwork Orange has certainly stood the test of time. In 1971 when it was released it obviously caused quite a stir, even today it is a very hard R-rating. Kubrick shows an unflinching view of the rape and violence as well as Alex’s treatment. This is not an easy recommendation for everyone but for those willing to look deeper into the meaning of the pointed remarks being made about government, psychiatry, and the prison system may appreciate A Clockwork Orange for what it stands for.

Malcolm McDowell is absolutely chilling in the lead of this film and the role of Alex has gone to define his career. In A Clockwork Orange he is terrifying while also charming and likable, long before Dexter graced our televisions. The other performances in the film are executed well, but none come close to McDowell’s. I also have to point out the fantastic soundtrack, comprised of classical music and synthesized tracks. It would be impossible to imagine the film working with any other soundtrack and it adds tremendously to the tone of the scenes.

A Clockwork Orange is a great film that is sure to disgust people that aren’t aware of what the film is actually about. Stanley Kubrick made a career of directing masterpieces and A Clockwork Orange is still one of the greatest films released.

I give it 5 Ludovico techniques out of 5.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (7/10/12)

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In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple decides to have a procedure to have the other erased from their memory after their relationship goes on the rocks but things don’t go quite as they planned.

After taking an unplanned trip to Montauk, shy, tightly-wound Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a free spirited woman with bright dyed hair. The two form an instant connection. Later on, after the relationship has soured, Joel finds out that Clementine has had him erased from her memory and decides to have the same procedure to erase her. After things do not go as planned during Joel’s procedure, more is revealed about Joel and Clementine’s relationship through Joel’s memories as another man, Patrick (ElijahWood) tries to take Joel’s place.

After watching Being John Malkovich, I decided to watch another of Charlie Kaufman’s films, this one directed by Michel Gondry. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman’s unique sense of humor and penchant for odd stories that are also touching. Joel and Clementine’s relationship is something I certainly identified with, I see a little of myself inside Joel and I’ve known girls similar to Clementine. The procedure to erase certain memories from one’s mind is a very interesting concept that will likely leave you wondering if you would have anyone erased and why.

One thing I’ve found turns people off of Eternal Sunshine… is Jim Carrey. While comedians in serious dramatic roles is not always a good thing, in this case it works quite well. Joel is a somber, serious individual but we do see him joking around too. Carrey is almost totally subdued here and does quite well, perhaps even outshining the always fantastic Winslet. When the film begins to come to its climax near the end, and things begin to get a bit weird, Gondry’s direction really shines. He’s a director I’ve never been overly impressed by but Eternal Sunshine… works well with him at the helm.

I absolutely adore Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but it’s not a film I could watch very often. That’s not to say it’s depressing or sad on its own but it stays with you long after the credits roll. As a Kaufman film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind infinitely smart and charming and weird but it ranks among one of his best and maybe his most accessible.

I give it 5 Clementine’s hair colors out of 5.

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Being John Malkovich (7/10/12)

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A puppeteer takes a part time job in an unusual office and finds a portal that allows the person see what it’s like Being John Malkovich.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out-of-work puppeteer living with his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz). He decides to get a job and lands one on the 7 1/2 floor of a building in a strange office. There, he meets Maxine (Catherine Keener) and immediately falls for her. One day while filing, Craig discovers a boarded up hole in the wall and decides to venture inside. The hole, he learns, puts him inside John Malkovich’s head for about 15 minutes before dumping him onto the New Jersey turnpike. After inviting Maxine and Lotte to also try being Malkovich, things get even more bizarre and John Malkovich himself gets involved.

To call Being John Malkovich a weird film is certainly an understatement, but the film is also incredibly sharp and funny. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is one of the most talented minds writing for film and his style meshes with director Spike Jonze’s perfectly here. Kaufman has such an odd sense of story and humor and Jonze captures this perfectly in Being John Malkovich as well as Adaptation. It has been too long since I had seen the film and I had forgotten how absolutely hilarious it is. It’s so deliciously absurd but it works so brilliantly.

John Cusack and Cameron Diaz are both almost unrecognizable in their roles here, Diaz more so. While I have a special fondness for Cusack, in Being John Malkovich his role just seems made for him. John Malkovich really shines here as well and it’s hard to picture any other actor in his role after watching the film. Some of the camera techniques used are also brilliant, particularly when someone is inside Malkovich. Even if the humor doesn’t strike you, the film may still be interesting and enjoyable, but the dark sense of humor is critical here.

As a recently released Criterion Collection film, the Blu-Ray for Being John Malkovich shines. I had always hated something about the previous DVD transfer of the film, it always seemed too dark or something. The Blu-Ray has remarkable clarity and picture quality, not to even mention the sound or extras. As with all Criterion releases, the entire package is the definitive version of the film to view or own. Being John Malkovich is one of the stranger films ever released, but I enjoyed it immensely.

I give it 5 John Cusack and Catherine Keener marionettes out of 5.

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Cold Sweat [1970] (7/8/12)

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In Cold Sweat, a man’s new life falls apart when he is visited by a man from his past and has to protect his wife and daughter.

Joe Martin (Charles Bronson) lives in France with his wife, Fabienne (Liv Ullman) and young daughter. One day, he comes home and receives a strange call. Shortly after, a group of men break into the house and we find out the Joe Martin’s real name is Moran and he is was in the army and an ex-con. The group of men used to work with him, but ended up going to jail and have been holding a grudge. When the men kidnap Fabienne and their daughter, it’s up to Joe to get them back and exact his revenge.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I love Charles Bronson. He’s not the greatest actor ever, but there’s something about him that simply mesmerizes me while he’s on screen and he’s just such a badass all the time. It must get exhausting being that awesome. In Cold Sweat, Bronson is just playing a vengeful father that he would perfect in his 1974 outing, Death Wish.

Cold Sweat itself starts off pretty strong and then gets lost in its own plot and tries to focus on things that aren’t important instead of just giving us some action, car chases and great Bronson badassery. The car chases alone are almost worth watching the whole movie, actually. While they aren’t some of the greatest chases in cinematic history, they may be the best thing about this film. Sometimes it’s fun to just turn off your brain and watch a kinda-sorta cheesy action movie and Cold Sweat fits the bill. As far as Charles Bronson movies go, if you’re a fan like me, it’s not too shabby, but without Bronson, this movie would be no fun.

I give it 3 Charles Bronson (the hardcore band) set to the best parts of Cold Sweats out of 5.

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The Battle of Algiers (7/7/12)

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The Battle of Algiers is a film that details a few  key years of the Algerian War to liberate the North African country from the French government.

The plot of The Battle of Algiers centers around the formation of a guerrilla revolutionary group (the FLN) in the Casbah and eventually the civil war for Algerian independence. The story is told as a flashback from the perspective of Ali, a leading FLN member who is about to be captured at the beginning of the film. After the war began and progressed, the French Government used increasingly extreme measures to stop the liberation front and although they win the battle of Algiers, they do not win the war (history spoiler alert).

The Battle of Algiers is one of the most interesting and powerful films I have ever seen. While it is a film, the style of shooting is so closely documentarian that it’s almost scary. Some actual footage is spliced with the film to add an eerie depth of realism. The end result is something that is unlike almost any film I’ve watched before. I was unaware of most of the general history of the independence of Algeria so the film acts as a history lesson as well.

A positive of not knowing much of the history behind the film is that the contents of the Criterion set includes an enormous amount of extra content. In fact, the Blu-Ray set for The Battle of Algiers is two discs and the entire second disc is a history lesson. In addition to an entire disc of learning, the booklet included is much larger than normal and also includes historic accounts of the film’s events. It’s a remarkable set and should be seen by everyone, regardless of knowledge of the Algerian War. Watching the film first then boning up on the real events is ideal since it will bolster your appreciation of what you just viewed.

The Battle of Algiers is a film that has to be seen to be appreciated. The unique style of the film is interesting and the events, while historical, still have strong meaning today. Go buy the Criterion and spend an afternoon getting educated through film.

I give it 5 “Long Live Algeria!”s out of 5.

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