Thursday, July 26, 2012

Top 10: Batman Films

Having now seen The Dark Knight Rises twice, I figured now would be a good time to take inventory of Batman on film and see which Batman movies were my favorites.  Batman has had more movies made about him than any other superhero.  There are nearly twenty choices to nominate for a Top 10 list, but I believe that the Top 10 compiled here is the right list that is worthy of the Bat.  Without further ado, the 10 best Batman films:

10.  Batman Returns
While I feel Tim Burton took a few too many liberties with the origins and representations of Catwoman and the Penguin, his macabre vision of Gotham City is fully realized in his second outing with the Caped Crusader, creating a Batman movie that feels like a motion comic.  Not to mention, Michael Keaton proves once more he's a more than capable Batman, even if his screen time pales in comparison to Danny Devito's.

9.  The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan's Batman finale features the best onscreen incarnation of Catwoman I have ever seen.  Anne Hathaway nailed the character and her comic book persona without ever dipping into the absurd.  Featuring top notch action sequences, and a story feeling as if it was ripped from the pages of '90s DC Comics, The Dark Knight Rises is a great film, but doesn't quite reach the emotional highs of its two predecessors.

8.  Batman:  The Movie
Is this movie campy?  Yes.  Are there more faithful representations of the character on film that didn't make this list?  Yep, but this movie's so much fun, it's hard not to love it.  In two hours, you get the best of the old TV Show, combining the four best villains into one narrative.  Not to mention, Bat-Shark Repellent, the scene where Batman tries to get rid of the bomb, and Adam West and Burt Ward taking lessons from William Shatner in overacting.

7.  Batman:  Under the Red Hood
 Warner Bros. animation essentially took the comic book story arc of how the second Robin, Jason Todd returned to Gotham as the morally dubious Red Hood.  What makes this film shine is that the story delves deeper into the relationship between Bruce and Jason than the comic arc did, and it sheds some light on the lesser known Robin to create a uniquely emotional story with some marvelous animation and action.

6.  Batman Beyond:  Return of the Joker
 The Batman Beyond animated series was one of the things that Warner Bros. animation did that had no precedence in the comic books.  The idea of a young teenager in the future becoming the new Batman, whilst being trained by an old Bruce Wayne, was a large risk on their behalf, but it won over nearly every fan due to solid characterizations of both old and new characters.  This was the feature length movie of this show that brought an older Joker into the Beyond universe, but where the real meat of the film lies is in how the story perfectly conveys the tragic and creepy story that ties together the Joker and Bruce Wayne.  Not to mention, the film is just really, really cool.  I mean, it's Batman in the future!

5.  Batman Forever
 Some filmgoers felt that this was when the Batman film franchise started to slip a bit, but I disagree.  Batman Forever is faithful to the character of Bruce Wayne, and Val Kilmer does a fine job portraying him.  Even if Two-Face is poorly portrayed, and the Riddler is like the Joker's cousin, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey are so charismatic in their parts I'm laughing when I'm supposed to be laughing at their jokes.  That's why this movie still works for me.  It's fun, it knows how to make humor of itself, and yet it also tells a serious story about Bruce's past and why he must be Batman, and also it tells the tragedy of Dick Grayson with great clarity and emotion.  I'm still a fan of Chris O'Donnell as Robin, and all of the action sequences are exquisitely realized in over-the-top fashion.  As well, the art direction and the design of Gotham City in this film was staggering.

4.  Batman
 Tim Burton's first outing with the Dark Knight was also his best.  Even if Jack Nicholson's Joker ultimately has more screentime than Batman, it's Michael Keaton that seals the deal for me everytime.  He plays Bruce Wayne, not as pompously as Christian Bale, but as more put together and business-like, but it's how he plays Batman, showing the intellect underneath the cowl, that makes his performance stand out.  Take the hauntingly beautiful design of Gotham in the film, and the likability of Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, and this is one of the Batman films that manages to work on all levels, as action, drama, romance, and even occasionally, comedy.  Now, turn up the brilliant Danny Elfman score and try not to have anything but good memories of this film.

3.  The Dark Knight
 Still, probably the most popular Batman movie of all-time, I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's not much more that can be said about Christopher Nolan's second Batman film that hasn't already been said.  Heath Ledger is the Joker.  He nailed the spirit of the character better than any other live action incarnation, and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon -- he is the true heart of the film, as all of the chaos unfolds around Gotham, it's through his eyes that we see majority of it.  Featuring the most brilliant action sequence from all three of Nolan's films with the eighteen wheeler chase, The Dark Knight is still a masterpiece four years later.

2.  Batman:  Mask of the Phantasm
 This was the first film made in the universe of the Batman animated series from the early '90s, and is still one of the greatest Batman films ever made.  Sure, the animation was only a few shades greater than majority of the episodes of the show, but the story of this film was so powerful, that the story goes, when WB saw the film, they changed their plans of making it straight to video and released it theatrically. This is the only Batman film that is genuinely a mystery, as Batman tries to unravel the identity of the Phantasm, a cloaked figure surrounded by fog, and an original character to this film.  The Phantasm is creepy as all get out, but it's the romance that makes this film a moving piece of cinema.  The film tells flashbacks of Bruce's life before he became Batman, and how he nearly gave up his promise to his parents when he met Andrea Beaumont and nearly married her, till she tragically left him, and Bruce became Batman.  Now, Andrea returns in modern day, and all of those old memories start haunting Bruce once more.  It's a clever, emotional story, that is thrilling, and action packed, featuring one of my favorite Batman scenes of all-time, when he is chased by the police and is pinned down, bleeding out in a construction site.  Featuring my Batman, Kevin Conroy as the voice, my Joker, Mark Hammil, and Dana Delaney as Andrea, this is a Batman film that needs to be seen, even if you aren't a fan of animation.  It will rock your heart and soul as it barrels toward a conclusion, featuring one of the most high stakes battles ever seen between Batman and the Joker.

1.  Batman Begins
After I first saw this film, it jumped into my top 10 favorite films of all-time list, and it still sits comfortably there seven years later.  This is just the quintessential Batman movie.  The characterizations are perfect representations of the comic books, the action is superb, and the story is emotional and finally delves into deep detail as to not only how Bruce became Batman, but why.  The film deals with Bruce's psychological and emotional state from the first to the last frame, making it the most emotionally rewarding Batman movie.  Not to mention, it's probably the most fun, with tons of sly humor from Michael Caine as Alfred, even some from Christian Bale as Batman, as well, this Batman film has more stand up and cheer moments than perhaps any other I can think of.  I love it, and Batman Begins truly is the greatest Batman film ever made.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Ruby Sparks"

The new film from Little Miss Sunshine directors, Jonathan Layton and Valerie Faris, titled Ruby Sparks, is a film that features an imaginative premise that never quite fulfills its promise.  In the film, Paul Dano plays a wunderkind writer, a one hit wonder who wrote one novel ten years ago, but hasn't written another novel since, that is until he starts writing again at the behest of his psychiatrist and creates his dream girl, named Ruby Sparks, who just happens to literally come from his imagination into reality.  The idea is fresh and invigorating, but it falls into the traps of too many other Indie romance films from the past decade that were all more lively and more realized, such as (500) Days of Summer.  This isn't to say that the film isn't funny at times, because it is, Ruby Sparks is a well made film that has its moments and tells a good story, but I can't help but feel more could have been done with this concept rather than falling into the traditional pratfalls of Indie romance films.  It's these pratfalls that you can see coming from a mile away that keep Ruby Sparks from being truly spectacular.

I give Ruby Sparks a D+

Friday, July 20, 2012

Movie Review: "The Dark Knight Rises"

Batman has been gone for eight years, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, but when Gotham comes under attack, he returns to fulfill his promise to his city.  That is the best, non-spoiler way I have to sum up Christopher Nolan's Batman finale, The Dark Knight Rises.

The series of films that started back with Batman Begins comes to a close with this tense and entertaining piece of pop entertainment.  While it never quite reaches the emotional highs of its predecessors, your eyes remain glued to the screen till the credits roll, and a large part of that is due to the newest additions to the cast:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway.  Levitt portrays rookie cop, John Blake, with righteous indignation at the way that the police force has become complacent in the eight years of peace time in Gotham City.  As for Hathaway, she steals the show as Selina Kyle (also known as Catwoman).  Hathaway takes the famous cat burglar, and adds emotional drive -- such as fear, anger, and love -- behind her actions, humanizing a character that could easily be seen as a stock criminal looking for what's her's.

As a fan of the comics, it's enjoyable to see how the story draws heavily upon some of the more awesome Batman story arcs, such as "No Man's Land" and "Knightfall," to create a plot full of forward momentum.  The Dark Knight Rises is constantly moving forward, trying to cram in as much as possible in two hours and forty-five minutes, often not leaving as much room, like the first two did, to soak in the emotion of the proceedings before carrying on to the next scene.  Even still, the plot is rock solid, and works to convey a full-bodied story about rising to meet challenges when they come.

Seriously, if you love Batman you're gonna see this movie no matter what anyone says, and you should.  It's an awesome movie that is extremely well done.  It's well directed, exceptionally acted -- in particular a series' best turn from Michael Caine as Alfred the butler -- and it concludes the story Christopher Nolan started seven years ago in a satisfying, and believable manner.  To ask a movie such as this to live up to its predecessors -- both of which happen to be in my top 20 favorite films of all-time -- is almost impossible.  While it is the weakest of the trilogy, I've already seen it twice and look forward to seeing it many more times.  Why?  Because the weakest of this trilogy is still better than ninety percent of the other blockbusters out there.

I give The Dark Knight Rises an A!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The Dark Knight" - A Retrospective

What more can be said about The Dark Knight that probably hasn't been said?  Not that much.  It was the second most successful movie of the last decade, majority of people have seen it, loved it, and gone on and on about it by now.  I'm not here to rave some more about The Dark Knight, but rather reminisce about the first time I saw it.

There are certain moviegoing experiences that will stick with you your entire life, and the first time I saw The Dark Knight is one of them.  This particular story, however, does not start in July of 2008, but in December of 2007, to get in the proper frame of mind.

I was a Senior in high school, and one Friday morning in December I woke up, got ready for school, like I always did.  After I was dressed I always got on the computer for a little bit before I went to school.  I had heard that the trailer for The Dark Knight was going to be attached to I Am Legend, and so I figured there would be a bootleg copy of the trailer up online by that morning, seeing as how I Am Legend had midnight screenings.  Of course, my hopes weren't high.  Studios tended to take down bootlegs almost as soon as they showed up.  Personally, I am against bootlegging, but I wanted to see this trailer so badly, I succumbed to the dark side.  Like a geek I went onto a forum and found a link taking me to a bootleg of the trailer.  It had been cleverly disguised under a different name on youtube, and I was able to see the first theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight in all of its shaky, yet awesome glory.  Check it out, the official version and try not to be amazed by it:

Upon seeing the trailer I rushed into my parent's bedroom -- true story -- just jumbling together my words, but I remember saying, "If the whole movie is like those two minutes, this will be my favorite movie of all-time."  That's how excited I was for The Dark Knight.

Now fast forward to July of 2008.  I had graduated high school and was working a Summer job for a local theatre company, working as a stage hand for their production of Beauty & The Beast.  July 18th was the magic day, the day the film was to be released.  When July 17th rolled around, I had already made plans with three of my friends to see the film at midnight.  Even though we had a performance that I didn't get out of till 10:30, I was not going to let even the tiredness keep me from seeing this movie.  To make a long story short, I was there with plenty of time, we got fairly good seats near the top, although slightly to the right of center screen, which is my coveted spot.  Even still, it doesn't matter, because once the film began I was lost in Gotham City, terrorized by the Joker along with the rest of the characters.

To say exactly what my expectations for the film were at that time, I'm not entirely sure.  I knew I wanted action, and I knew that I wanted to see the same depth of character from Batman Begins in the sequel, but I really was just hoping that it would be just like Batman Begins and follow the traditional three-act structure for a blockbuster and I'd be happy.  That's not what happened.  It was fairly evident from the first twenty minutes or so that this was not going to be Batman Begins, but be something different.  The approach was noticeably more serious, and I know Batman Begins is a serious film, but The Dark Knight took it to a level of few to no jokes being had.  In Batman Begins, there was the occasional zinger, but instead of entertaining the audience through the traditional blockbuster formula of some action mixed with a touch of humor and emotion, The Dark Knight was intent on unsettling the audience.

From the first moment the audience saw Heath Ledger's Joker on the screen, they were transfixed.  I can remember the collective breath of the audience being held when Joker was interrogating the fake Batman on the news.  It's one of those strange moments where you could just feel the room, as if everyone took a deep breath and was not coming up for air.  That same feeling happened so many more times during the screening.  When the Joker crashes Dent's party (a spine-tingling moment for myself), when the funeral for Commissioner Loeb is held, when that image of the burning fire truck flickered across the screen to be followed swiftly by the Joker's eighteen wheeler stalking the SWAT vans.   This was suspense at its most gripping, and never had I before or since been a part of an audience that was so in tune with what was happening onscreen.

When the Batpod emerged from the ruins of the Tumbler there were insane amounts of cheers.  In fact, one of my friends jumped out of his seat at that moment, shouting, he was so excited.  And when the film reached its finale, with Batman taking the wrap for Dent's murders, you could feel that this was not the ending anyone was expecting.  Batman Begins ended with Batman a hero, The Dark Knight ended with him failing, and yet the ending was perfect.  I remember when Gary Oldman gave his eloquent monologue and Batman rode up the ramp on his Batpod, disappearing into the blazing light, I felt chills sweep over me.  For myself, whenever a movie manages to sends shivers down my spine, then I know it has done something right, because I have become so overwrought with emotion, it's no longer within my control.

When the film finally ended, I was literally speechless for at least the first minute.  I couldn't articulate what I actually felt about this movie, because never in my life had I had a moviegoing experience as interactive or as impactful as the one I had just experienced.  Still, to this day I haven't.  It truly was a rarity and I was so fortunate to have been a part of it.  Suffice to say, I loved the movie, seeing it four more times in theaters, twice more on opening weekend.  For a spot of fun, check out my initial review of the film from four years ago.

And now, that brings us to four years later, the finale of Christopher Nolan's Batman series coming out tomorrow, The Dark Knight Rises.  I will be there at midnight, just as I was for Batman Begins, and just as I was for The Dark Knight.  I know now after my experiences with the first two films, that a film can never be replicated, and I am not looking for that to be the case.  I want The Dark Knight Rises to be its own entity and create its own set of memories associated with it, the same way that my experiences with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were so vastly different.

With each movie I was at a different point in my life, one still in high school, the other just graduating, and now here I am, with this one at an even bigger crossroads having just finished up college and looking to pursue my dreams of making movies.  I'm at a different place now, and it's a place that will affect my viewing of The Dark Knight Rises, and I cannot help it.  I do not want The Dark Knight Rises to be The Dark Knight or Batman Begins, and the point I am trying to make, is that I am not expecting it to be.

Too often with sequels, critics and fans tend to put the previous movie on a pedestal and feel it can't do any wrongs.  They want the same experience they had the previous time, and if they don't get it, they're dissatisfied, and that's just not the right way to approach these things.  I for one still prefer Batman Begins over The Dark Knight.  Does it mean I don't like The Dark Knight?  No, it just means I can watch Batman Begins more often and not tire of it as easily, but to be honest, the two are so vastly different in tone, they create a different kind of feeling when I watch each of them, because one is more tense and the other is a little more fun.

The fact of the matter is, I am not worried about critical or fan reception for this film.  The Dark Knight Rises will be what it is, and I can't wait to see it come midnight.  For now, here's the final trailer to tide us all over:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Batman Begins" - A Retrospective

It's hard to believe it has been seven years since Batman Begins first hit theaters.  The first of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is what not only started this current series of Batman films, but it also introduced me to one of my favorite actors currently working (Christian Bale), and more importantly made me aware of Christopher Nolan, who I believe to be the most dynamic filmmaker currently in the Hollywood studio system.  Let me take you back seven years to fully grasp where Hollywood was, as for myself.

Seven years ago, Hollywod was just coming into the thick of the superhero movie craze.  In 2000 X-Men came out and did respectable box office, however it was not until two years later, when Spider-Man  hit theaters, that superheroes became the next big thing in Hollywood.  After Spidey proved so profitable, every studio was wanting to make a superhero movie and get in on the game.  Now, look at WB, owners of DC Comics, therefore having all of the movie rights to their characters.

By 2005, it had been eight years with no Batman movies, but not without a lack of trying.  Warners was frantic in trying to get a Batman movie off the ground after the poor reception to Batman & Robin.  They tried to get another Joel Schumacher-directed Bat-film made, that fell apart shortly after Batman & Robin, they even tried to mine some higher concept ideas, such as Batman vs. Superman and Batman Beyond (Batman of the future).  Batman was in, what is known in Hollywood, as development hell.  Thankfully, screenwriter David Goyer came along, wrote what is now known as Batman Begins, and Warners had enough faith in Christopher Nolan after he knocked the small scale neo-noir, Insomnia, out of the park for them to give him the gig as director, and the rest was history.  However, audiences were still either skeptical or confused.

Here's a new Batman movie from a relatively unknown director, with a lesser known actor in the lead, and a very secretive campaign strategy that revealed little of what the film was about.  As well, the film was promising a dark and brooding take on the character, when audiences had just a year earlier made the comic book sweetness of Spider-Man 2 a mega-hit.  Not to mention the fact that so many audience members thought it was a prequel to Tim Burton's Batman and not the reboot of the Batman on film series that it was.  Of course, the biggest branch of skepticism came from how burned so many filmgoers and fans felt after Batman & Robin.  Could they really trust WB to ever deliver a good Batman movie again?

For me, I was only fifteen at the time the film came out.  I was excited for it, like any fifteen-year-old is for the next big Summer blockbuster, but my expectations and what was actually seen when it finally was released, were two different things.  I mean, all of the trailers leading up the film were cut so well, they really hid a lot of the story details.  Sure the cinematography was darker, the world was less colorful, and it boasted tons of action, but that is all I really expected from it, an action flick and not much else.  It was shrouded in so much secrecy, and that is one of the reasons I feel the film slowly crawled to success.

Batman Begins was by no means an out of the gate winner at the box office.  I remember going to the midnight showing of the film, having seen a sold out midnight showing of Star Wars:  Episode III only a month before, and the theater was only a quarter of the way full for Batman Begins.  As I mentioned, the somewhat lower scale marketing campaign could have been to blame, but I also think it was audience weariness from the whole Batman & Robin fiasco.  The last time anyone saw Batman onscreen, it was no longer cool and was laughable, so few showed up those first few weeks of its release, and they don't even realize what they missed.

What I had initially thought would be a simple action movie that could not meet the depth of character from the previous year's Spider-Man 2, not only managed to go deeper in terms of character than even that film did, but it also presented a fun and emotional thrill ride that rocked my world the same way as when I saw the original Star Wars for the first time.  For a bit of laughs, read my review for the film from seven years ago over on imdb.  It's poorly written, but it tells you how I felt about that film, and how I still do.  Batman Begins quickly became one of my favorite movies of all-time.  It had captured the Batman character better than any other incarnation.  It was more faithful, more true to the comic book mythology, and as a lifelong comic book fan, I was smitten, so smitten in fact I saw it the following afternoon and went on to see it one more time in theaters before getting it on DVD and watching it repeatedly at home.  I even started to seek out Chris Nolan's films, and saw his follow-up film, The Prestige, on opening night, loving it almost as much.  As well, I became obsessed with following the news on the sequel for the next three years, till that film finally came out.

In total, the film went on to gross a tad over $200 million in its domestic box office run.  A respectable tally for a film that was reviving a dead franchise.  It was definitely a word of mouth success.  A few people saw it, told their friends, then they saw it, and the cycle continued to repeat till it was profitable enough to warrant a sequel.  WB must have taken a big sigh of relief at that point.  From that point on, its darker, more realistic approach to the comic book material started to seep into almost every superhero film after (even if it wasn't always called for).

As for me, Batman Begins is still one of the most seminal films of my lifetime.  Not only does it still remain in my top 20 favorites of all-time, but it was one of the films that heavily inspired me to become a filmmaker.  It was around that time in my life that I discovered filmmaking was what I wanted to do, and Christopher Nolan's film, the way it was shot and the way the story was told visually, just had me rethinking how blockbusters could be made.  It inspired me, and still does to this day.  I am greatly appreciative to Nolan, Goyer, and the rest of the cast and crew for the impact their work had on me and my dreams.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bane - A Retrospective

One of the more obscure characters added to The Dark Knight Rises was Bane.  The character is a relatively young Batman villain, not appearing in the comics till the early '90s, compared to folks like the Joker who traces back to 1940.  To have Bane even as a secondary villain would have been a gutsy choice on Nolan's behalf, but to have him as the primary villain is even gutsier.  Majority of comic book writers tend to tackle Bane simply for his muscle, to have someone that can challenge Batman physically, but Bane has on occasion had a writer who knew that Bane was not only a beast of brute force, but was a calculating mercenary who has brains to match.  This seems to be how Nolan is tackling the character.

While Nolan has stripped away some of the more fantastical elements of the character, such as his use of venom to make him super strong, the character seems to be given more to do here than he ever has in any comic book before (aside from breaking Batman's back).  I am really intrigued to see where Nolan goes with the character, and in all honesty the character has a fairly minimal onscreen footprint.  Sure, Bane popped up in The Batman cartoon a few years back, and he was notoriously done no justice whatsoever as Poison Ivy's muscle man in Batman & Robin.  The only tremendous onscreen incarnation of the character is that from the early '90s cartoon, Batman:  The Animated Series, voiced by Hector Elizondo.

In the BTAS, Bane's origin was completely in tact, with not a single piece missing, and the characterization was well handled.  Take his first appearance in the show.   He was raised in a South American prison, finishing his father's sentence, and was scientifically experimented on there, becoming Bane.  What made this incarnation so well done though, was that Bane was not a mindless brute out to simply beat people up, he was a smart, calculating mercenary who worked to usurp crime boss Rupert Thorne in Gotham City.  Thorne hired Bane to bring down Batman.  Not only did Bane attack Robin and outsmart Batman, throughout most of his initial appearance in the show, but he also was able to double cross one of Gotham's most notorious gangsters without his knowing, that is some sheer brainpower.  Simply put, this has been the most enjoyable incarnation of Bane thus far onscreen.  Of course, even with one good onscreen portrayal, I am really hoping Nolan has nailed the character, because Bane is still far away from being considered one of Batman's most formidable foes, and he truly is if you understand his comic book character.  A superb incarnation in The Dark Knight Rises may very well put him over that hump.  We'll see come Friday.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Catwoman - A Retrospective

This week leading up to The Dark Knight Rises coming out this Friday, I will be posting something Batman related everyday to gear up for the release.  It keeps me from going nuts with anticipation.

Now, with this latest Batman movie, one of the biggest new characters is Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman.  To be honest, I did not feel that Christopher Nolan, as obsessed as he was with keeping his Gotham City grounded in reality, was going to spring for Catwoman as a potential character, but he did.  While I have not always been a diehard Catwoman fan, I do see why many Batman fans dig here. If there was a one true love for Bruce Wayne, it would probably be Selina Kyle, not to mention the story possibilities are endless with such an ambiguous character.  She can go from being a hero to a villain in a split second, from fighting Batman to kissing him to helping him save Gotham in a flash.  It makes her a multi-layered character worth re-interpreting each incarnation of Batman (which is why she was most likely included in the upcoming film).

The thing with Batman on film, or on television for that matter, is that there have been more interpretations of the Dark Knight than perhaps any other comic book hero, and each incarnation had a version of Catwoman.  Which was the best really depends on personal tastes.  While I understand many loved Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, for me that wasn't Catwoman.  They screwed up the origin and made her act like a cat, not simply being a cat burglar whose persona is influenced by cats, like in the comics.  Dare I even mention Halle Berry?  No.  For me, when I picture Catwoman, I tend to see Lee Meriwether.

Meriwether was one of the three actresses that portrayed the character over the course of the three seasons of the 1960's Batman TV series, however she also had the honor of playing the role in 1966's Batman:  The Movie.  Unlike Julie Newmar, or Ertha Kitt, Meriwether portayed the romantic side of the character.  Kitt really amped up the cat-like qualities with her constant purring, and Newmar looked the part, but Meriwether had the too-hot attitude that exudes the character in every comic book incarnation.  Take her work in Batman:  The Movie, while Meriwether often had to deal with over-the-top situations and dialogue, she pulled off the role of Ms. Kitka to fool Bruce Wayne and seduce him, trying to set a trap for Batman.  Meriwether's Catwoman had that seductive quality to her, that chameleon persona, and unlike Pfeiffer she was not an insane cat lady who had supernatural abilities, she was simply a thief who doubled as a romantic interest.  Even if she never had a hero moment and was a straight up villain through and through, Meriwether is my favorite on-screen Catwoman, so far.  We'll see what happens come this Friday with The Dark Knight Rises.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Top 7: Christopher Nolan Films

In honor of Christopher Nolan's latest film, The Dark Knight Rises, hitting theaters next week -- as well as the recent ceremony where he got his handprints cemented in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, becoming one of the few directors in movie history to receive such an honor -- I've decided to count down my favorite flicks by the 41-year-old director.  Raised with dual citizenship in Chicago and London, and producing every film he's made with his wife, Emma Thomas, Nolan is an unusual breed of filmmaker in today's modern era.  He's a family man, constantly working with his brother, Jonathan. He's also a director who shies away from revealing spoilers about his films before they're released, as well he stays away from using digital cameras and CGI whenever he can, favoring film cameras and stunts mixed with miniatures to create larger than life action.  I just greatly admire the dude and would love to just sit down and talk film with him someday.  Even though he's only made seven films, when you consider the fact that the average film director is just making his big break at this point in his life, Nolan truly is a unique fella.  So here it is, all seven of Christopher Nolan's films ranked in order of my favorite.  As a special side bar, all films are perfect 10 out of 10s.  Just throwing that out there, so on to number 7:

7.  Following
Christopher Nolan's very first film, about a writer who essentially stalks people in order to obtain material for characters, and eventually takes to breaking and entering to learn more about them.  Shot over the course of a year in London with his friends as cast and crew, shooting only on weekends because that was the only time of the week that they all didn't have to work at day jobs, you have even more appreciation for this film.  While the film is light on deep character work, it still unfolds in a way that leaves the viewer trying to piece together all of the clues to figure out the eventual outcome.  While Nolan was obviously less experienced when he made this film, it shows that true brilliance shines through any imperfections.  (As a side note:  The film can be seen on Netflix instant streaming.)

6.  Insomnia
Nolan's first studio gig, Insomnia is as gripping a psychological thriller as anything that Hitchcock produced.  A remake of the Swedish film, Insomnia tells the tale of a cop who cannot sleep while trying to solve a murder in an Alaskan town where the sun doesn't set.  The film really shines as Al Pacino's character starts to slip in-and-out of dream state as sleep continues to evade him.  Featuring a creepy performance from Robin Williams, and an awesome chase scene across floating logs, Nolan proves his mastery of the genre.  While not the Christopher Nolan film that I find has the most memorable moments, Insomnia is a solid film worth watching over and over.

5.  Memento
Nolan's sophomore effort is the film that got him noticed by the film industry at large.  Memento tells the story of Leonard, a man with anterograde amnesia -- in other words he has lost the ability to form new memories -- trying to avenge his wife's murder.  This is easily one of the toughest films to watch and keep up with.  The story is told backwards and forwards at the same time, your mind having to stay in constant motion, but if you can resist the headaches, Memento rewards you with being one of the most original, and fascinating films of all-time.

4.  The Dark Knight
This is quite possibly Nolan's most recognized work as a director.  His follow-up to Batman Begins was nothing short of spectacular.  The story was an ensemble look at the cast of Batman characters, shifting the focus from Bruce Wayne to everyone else.  Featuring Heath Ledger's jaw-dropping performance as the Joker, an imminently likable Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, and a perfect Two-Face story arc, The Dark Knight is a masterpiece.  I was literally speechless when I first saw this film, and while when I'm sitting at home looking for a Nolan film to watch, this isn't the first one I grab just cause it's so darned serious, I still love it as much (but hints why it is at number four and not higher).

3.  Inception
This was a movie that I was actually not that pumped about after first seeing it.  I was anticipating it so much -- I had watched every trailer and had created a preconceived idea in my head of what the movie should have been rather than realizing the movie that it was.  Upon subsequent viewings, I have grown to love Inception more and more.  Nolan's mind bending tale of dream thieves being tasked with the job of having to enter a mind and create an idea, features the best of Nolan's action-oriented Batman films with the best of his smaller fare like Memento.  The story features complex moral ideas with emotional complications, while also retaining a sense of fun and escapism because the action and imagery is just so darn cool.  In the fun department it bests Memento and The Dark Knight, proving to be just as thoughtful, but with a little more dash of awesomeness.

2.  The Prestige
There is something about rival magicians in turn of the century London that is magical to me.  None of the characters turn out to be all that likable, but like a great magic trick, you cannot tear your eyes away from it, dispelling the notion that you have to like the characters in order for it to be an entertaining ride.  No matter how many times you have seen it, the twists still surprise, because Nolan does such a masterful job of creating mystery and suspense.  Christopher Nolan is the true magician of The Prestige, mystifying his audience, taking us into the world of real magic, showing us how magicians tick, and that there is a cost to concealing your secrets -- obsession is the name of the game.  Featuring one of my personal favorite Christian Bale performances, I could watch this film over and over again and probably not tire of it.

1.  Batman Begins
The best Christopher Nolan film period.  Perhaps it's because this film was what introduced me to the filmmaker, I don't know, but none of his other films are as emotional or as fun as this one is.  Nolan set out to tell a more realistic version of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, and yet created the definitive Batman movie in the process.  Let's see, the movie had an awesome Batman in Christian Bale, it delved  deeper into the psyche of Bruce Wayne than any other Batman film before or since, and it simply represented the best of the comic book while within a more realistic setting.  The relationship between Bruce and Alfred was both touching and humorous, and the action was as finely crafted as any James Bond or Indiana Jones action set piece, with equal dashes of cool moments and humor.  Of course, I think to really sum up why I feel Batman Begins stands above even its successor, is because, while Nolan takes it seriously, he doesn't forget to have a little fun with some well placed jokes and nail-biting action that maybe isn't 100% possible, but is 100% cool.

Friday, July 6, 2012

"The Hobbit": 48 Frames Per Second or 24?

I was reading last week's Entertainment Weekly, which featured a nice cover story on The Hobbit, the first part of which is coming out this December.  It was a well-done, in-depth set visit, with some interesting morsels thrown in to sate fans' appetites, however the most intriguing morsel for me was seeing how they plan on releasing the film.  The Hobbit has been shot on a Red Epic digital camera, no film in sight.  As well, the entire movie was shot in 3-D at 48 frames per second(fps).  Like all other movies shot in 3-D, the viewer will have the option, come December, to decide if they want to see the movie in 3-D or 2-D, but they will also have the choice of whether or not they want to see the movie in 48 fps or 24 fps.

To explain a bit, frames per second is how many images flicker across the screen each second to create the illusion of moving pictures.  Since the Golden Age of movies, film has been projected at 24 fps, however the more fps there are, the closer the image comes to looking like how we naturally see with our own eyes in the real world.  What this does, is that when the film is shown at a higher frame rate than the standard, it makes the movie look more fake because the movements across the screen are more fluid than we are accustomed to seeing in a film.  Many BBC shows are shot at higher frame rates and that is why they often look so different.

Where this creates such a big hoopla is that The Hobbit director, Peter Jackson, is a big fan of higher fps and chose to shoot The Hobbit at 48 fps because he felt that if the film showed closer to how our eyes actually process images, then the end result would be more immersive and more realistic.  In many ways, he is right, however we are not accustomed to seeing films at such a faster frame rate, so when early footage was screened of the movie in 48 fps at a convention a few months back, many in attendance were outraged at what they saw, complaining it looked cheesy, like a BBC TV show.

Till now, I had assumed that the studio was going to release the film in 48 fps and trust Jackson's artistic decision,  after all that is how it was shot so why convert it.  How stupid was I?  Very stupid.  In an age where the studios will convert a film from 2-D into 3-D, even if it wasn't shot that way, why wouldn't they cater to the few cry babies out there.  That is exactly what they seem to be a doing, and the poor showing at the convention is probably to blame as to why The Hobbit is going to be released in both 48 fps and 24 fps.

Now, I honestly prefer 24 fps, because that is what I have always been accustomed to, but if Jackson really believed that 48 fps was the best way to show The Hobbit, then I would have seen it at 48 fps and possibly become a fan.   Not only does this show MGM's lack of faith with Jackson's decision, but it also begs the question as to whether or not if film will ever evolve or just remain stagnant.

I love movies, and for me the real issue is not that I want 48 frames to become the standard -- as of right now I am still a firm believer in 24 frames -- it's that it seems the film industry is trying to shun innovation.  Jackson is one of the most high profile filmmakers in the world, and if he's not given carte blanche to experiment and release upon audiences to see how it plays, then can anyone truly innovate in this system?

James Cameron is on record saying that he is going to shoot Avatar 2 at 60 fps, but will 20th Century Fox release every print of the movie at 60 fps?  If this precedence with The Hobbit continues, then, no they wont.  Here's the thing about different frame rates, it's not like 3-D where some people just can't physically handle 3-D, if they have migraines, or one eye, or a certain medical condition, 3-D either a.) doesn't work for that viewer, or b.) is detrimental to their well-being.  With the change in frame rate, it does nothing different than what we have always experienced with film, it's just a different way to represent the events transpiring onscreen.  It's akin to the decision of whether or not to shoot black-and-white or color, or to shoot in widescreen.  Choosing a different frame rate is just another creative decision, such as those, used by the filmmaker to create a different look to tell their story.

The thing is, there weren't color screenings and black-and-white screenings of The Artist shown this past year.  And no one back in the early-60s told David Lean, "We're going to release Lawrence of Arabia in both 16:9 and 4:3 and let the moviegoer choose."  The fact of the matter is, certain decisions are for the studio to decide, and others are for the filmmaker to decide.  David Lean wanted Lawrence of Arabia to be widescreen, so he shot is as such and it was released the way he shot it.  Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 fps, so it should be shown at 48 frames.  While it is going to be shown at 48 frames, it will also be shown in 24, so it defeats the purpose.

Just picture this, you're waiting in line to buy your ticket for The Hobbit, and the person at front says they'd like a 3-D ticket.  That's great, but then they're asked if they want to see it in 48 frames or 24 frames.  Now, I'll just say that I know a lot of people who either do not know what frames per second are, or they do and just don't care as long as that is how it was meant to be seen.  Most moviegoers just want to see the movie, and all this will do is confuse people.  If MGM just believed in Jackson's choice, no matter what sort of negative reaction it got from staunch industry folk who don't want to try anything new or different, then first off it would alleviate any possible confusion, and secondly it might actually catch on with the casual moviegoer.  If color was never tested on audiences, then how would the studios know it was any good?  And if you've seen Singin' in the Rain, you know that this type of fear of change is true in Hollywood.  Just look at how they dramatized Hollywood when they started making movies with sound and the fear that so many in the industry had that it was going to make movies vulgar.

Once again, I'll reiterate, it's not like shooting a movie in 3-D trying to create an immersive, pop-up-book of a film.  Frames per second is simply how the movie is displayed.  It's not really about immersion, it's simply about the look of the film.  If the filmmaker wants the film to look more realistic, then they can shoot it at a higher frame rate.  Just like if they want to make an epic, then they can shoot in widescreen to have a larger image projected across the screen.  This is the fault of what is going on here.  Had the Golden Age studios decided to never project a film in widescreen and only show movies in Academy (4:3), then Lawrence of Arabia would have looked very wimpy, and not all that epic by not having those vast, nearly endless shots of the desert.

To go back to Jackson's argument that this will make The Hobbit seem more realistic, silent films don't seem as real as talking films.  Why?  Because people talk and we hear sounds in real life.  Same goes for color.  Majority see things in color, therefore it makes film more realistic to be in color.  If 48 frames is closer to how we actually see, then perhaps 48 frames will actually make it more realistic.  I guess we'll know if it actually does come December, when The Hobbit is released.  I still don't personally know whether or not I'll be a fan of 48 fps for 3 hours, but I'll give it a try, along with the 24 frames version to see which is better and more "realistic."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Movie Review: "The Amazing Spider-Man"

We all know the story, teenager is bit by a scientifically altered spider, gets spider powers and becomes Spider-Man, what we didn't know was his past before he became the Spider-Man.  To compare The Amazing Spider-Man to the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man, is like comparing apples to oranges.  One is more character centric, where as the other is more light-hearted and melodramatic in the comic book style.  The Amazing Spider-Man is a wonderful movie because it does not feel like a retread of the Sam Raimi original.  Director Marc Webb and the rest of his crew have manufactured a Spider-Man movie that does not try to compete with what has been done before, but rather focuses on lesser known aspects of the character Peter Parker and makes the film a character piece rather than a large scale mosaic.

It's evident when we are not treated to a shot of the New York City skyline till nearly ten minutes into the movie, that this Spider-Man isn't looking to impress with scope or scale.  Rather the first thing we see is the tale of how Peter Parker's parents left him as a child with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, to never return for him.  This is the greatest and most unique aspect of the film.  The Amazing Spider-Man is up there with some of the great comic book story arcs, because it delves deeper into Peter's past than perhaps even some of the comics have done.  Actor Andrew Garfield portrays Peter as a kid with a chip on his shoulder, having been abandoned by his own father he looks for fatherly connections with everyone from Uncle Ben to Dr. Curtis Connors, all the way to his girlfriend's dad, Captain Stacy.  Garfield is the heart-and-soul of this movie, and he portrays Peter as an outcast rather than as a geek with no friends, and it works.  He understands the character, perhaps even more so than Tobey Maguire did.

While the story does retread some of the origin aspects from the Sam Raimi movie, the movie is constantly replaying them so differently, it never really crosses the mind that they are portraying some of the same events.  The strength to this lies in the great screenplay from James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sergeant, and Harry Potter-alum Steve Kloves.  The screenplay ties up Spidey's origin with Peter trying to uncover the mystery of his dad's old briefcase, which leads him to discover the source of his webbing, and his powers, but it also gives the movie a different through line than any other Spider-Man movie.

We see Peter get bit by the spider, we see him discover his powers, we even see the unfortunate tragedy that leads him to donning tights, but what we see is a more realistic approach to how these things play out.  The Raimi film is more operatic, focusing on the emotion of the moments, rather this film focuses more on how these moments work as transitioning points in the maturation of Peter Parker and coming to accept his parents' disappearance.  Everything flows and transpires with an action-reaction style.  Peter does something, which causes this to happen, or this happens affecting Peter, and this keeps the story always focused on him.

As cheesy as it sound, The Amazing Spider-Man is amazing.  The fight scenes between Spidey and his bad guy the Lizard are top notch, with some exceptional CG-camera work that creates the sense of being a fly on the wall zooming and flipping over the fight as Spidey zips around.  Emma Stone is likable as love interest Gwen Stacy, and Martin Sheen is a terrific Uncle Ben, with that exceptionally lovable twinkle in his eye.  Not to mention the film is well directed, joining the ranks of other Indie-Blockbusters over the past decade (Blockbusters with an Independent film aesthetic because they were made by an Indie director, this case Marc Webb).  There are many directorial signatures in Webb's work that can be seen in both his first film, (500) Days of Summer, and this one.  In particular the music video-like montage when Peter is messing around with his powers and skateboarding, it harks back to Webb's video roots and the multiple montage, music video-like sequences in (500) Days of Summer.  To cap it off, the musical score from James Horner is heroic and beautiful at all of the right moments, being a worthy successor to the brilliant Danny Elfman music from the original movies.

I loved this movie, it was fun, heroic, deep, and emotional.  There are so many great scenes, one of my personal favorites being when Spider-Man saves a child from a burning car hanging off a bridge, or the finale when an injured Spidey gets aid from New Yorkers themselves.  These scenes just symbolize what is so special about the character of Spider-Man.  He has wit, but he's also got a huge heart and will almost always try to do the right thing, even if it nearly kills him in the process.  The old Parker luck is with this one.

I give The Amazing Spider-Man an A+!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why Is Geek Now Chic?

Most have surely heard the phrase, "Geek Chic."  With movies like The Avengers topping the box office and high concept sci-fi or fantasy epics ruling the New York Times bestseller lists like Twilight or Harry Potter, it has become cool to be a geek and to like geeky things such as comic books, science fiction/fantasy, and video games.  My question is simply:  Why is geek now chic?  Or to phrase it differently:   How did being a geek become cool?

What inspired this post were the countless statements that actor Andrew Garfield has made as to why he so desperately wanted to play the part of Spider-Man in the upcoming film, The Amazing Spider-Man.  He reportedly took the part uber-seriously because he grew up with the character and has a respect and affinity for it beyond that of a Saturday morning cartoon.   There seems to still be an impression among older filmgoers that superhero movies or sci-fi epics like Star Wars are kids' fare, and yet there are those of us in our twenties, thirties, or even forties, like Andrew Garfield, who disagree.  Why?  Because to us geek is cool and not childish.

There seems to have been a line, possibly being drawn around the mid-70s with the maturation of comic books, the creation of video games, and the arrival of the Hollywood blockbuster with stuff like Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman:  The Movie, that forever altered pop culture and what generations expect from their entertainment.  People who did not grow up with video games or serious comic books infused with deep philosophical ideas while telling a high concept story, cannot understand why those of us who did feel that these things are not childish, but are ways of expression.  Andrew Garfield grew up in this generation, which is why to him playing Spider-Man is not a paycheck, but is a serious acting gig, because he sees the character as three-dimensional.

While I have not seen The Amazing Spider-Man yet, I can say that I love Garfield's approach.  I, myself often feel torn between the pretentious film snobs who feel that making a Hollywood adventure movie is not respectable.  To me, it is respectable.  The film culture I grew up in was the blockbuster culture, to me I see these movies differently than the older generations.  Similarly for the current state of comic books or video games.  Video games have just become another way to consume stories, like television, books, or film, it is no longer geeky, but is currently the most profitable entertainment industry, more so than film.  It is mainstream, and the only reason older generations do not understand this is because they have never played video games and do not understand their storytelling potential.  This is why I think geek is now chic.