The Dark Knight Rises


Note: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is not the sequel to ‘Black Knight’ starring Martin Lawrence.

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is perhaps the most anticipated film of the year so far (arguably surpassing ‘The Avengers’, and ‘The Hunger Games’). I took a break from microblogging on my social media accounts because I didn’t want to read anything about the film. My expectations needed to be reasonable. As with every movie, the less I know prior to seeing it, the better. For a moment, let’s ignore the hype, and focus on reviewing the film as a film.

I promise to keep this review spoiler-free, but if you don’t want to know plot details, skip over to the next paragraph. It’s been eight years since Batman (Christian Bale), billionaire Bruce Wayne in costume, defeated a villain who was intent on destroying Gotham. But, the superhero was blamed for the death of a district attorney, Harvey Dent, whose work posthumously cleaned up streets and filled prisons under the powers granted by the Dent Act. Since then, the caped crusader hasn’t been seen, which is also true for Bruce, who remains in self-imposed seclusion. He can’t even stop a burglar, disguised as a waitress, from stealing his mother’s pearls. But, there is a villainous threat to Gotham City in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a thug with a metal cage on his face. As Bane’s plan unfolds, Wayne must decide whether to bring Batman out of retirement. And if The Dark Knight does indeed return, can he save Gotham city before it’s too late?

Yes, this is a comic book movie, but as I watching ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, I forgot I was watching a comic book film. ‘TDKR’ is more grounded in reality than any other comic book picture I have ever seen. With plot points involving financial meltdowns, occupy riots, nuclear weapons, and terrorism, there are clear parallels between this fictitious comic book world and present-day America. Batman does not have special powers and is only present for no more than 15% of the picture.

Christian Bale’s Batman growl might not be appreciated by everyone – I think it brings a high level of intensity to the character, and I admire it. Tom Hardy delivers very strong work as Bane, even if his most of his face is obscured by the masked cage on his face. Minor quibble – it was a challenge to understand some of what Bane was saying because of this. Sounding like an odd cross between Sean Connery’s love child and Darth Vader, he utters lines of anarchy in chilling fashion. Director Christopher Nolan knows something other filmmakers need to learn – you do not overexploit a great villain. Hardy is onscreen for the right amount of time, and while it may be a flashy performance, it doesn’t dominate the movie. Returning from the previous two films are Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman. Newcomers include Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon Levitt. It is cinematic heaven watching this amazing cast at work. No one is winking at the camera – they all take their roles very seriously. And no one gets lost in the shuffle – every cast member has his/her time to shine.

I’d like to credit cinematographer Wally Pfister for his wonderful work here, which is surely deserving of Oscar consideration come awards season. Same goes for the sharp script by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Minor criticisms – as mentioned above, it’s difficult to understand some of Bane’s dialogue (I recommend the use of subtitles if you’re watching this on DVD/Blu Ray); also, some of the plot lines do meander a little bit. However, ‘TDKR’ mostly justifies its length of 165 minutes.

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is a completely satisfying final entry to one of the greatest trilogies in motion picture history. An ambitious, brutal, gorgeous epic – what a spectacular ending!

– Jerry Nadarajah

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, directed by Benh Zeitlin, was the surprise winner of the Camera d’Or Award at Cannes, and the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at Sundance. A surprise to me because I don’t think the movie is very good. The plot: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in “The Bathtub”, a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink is an abrasive, physically abusive alcoholic dying of some vague illness. Tough love – he’s got to prepare her for a time when he no longer can protect her. After this, I’m not sure I know what the movie is really about, but I’ll attempt a basic flow-chart: Temperatures rise —> Ice caps melt —>The Bathtub gets flooded —> Prehistoric creatures arise and roam the tub —> Hushpuppy searches for mom. The film is also narrated by Hushpuppy in a “Kids Say The Darndest Things” fashion.

Given the two major film festival awards this film has received, I can only assume I’m in the minority on this one. But, it does have its charms. Quvenzhané Wallis is a very compelling force of nature, and the rest of this cast of non-professional actors is very good (even though Dwight Henry is doing a Samuel L Jackson impersonation, at least it’s a good impersonation). Much of the film looks very pretty, especially considering the constraints of its more than likely shoestring budget – the credit here goes to cinematographer Ben Richardson. Some of the film’s imagery has resonated in my psyche, the most memorable one being young Hushpuppy running through a field with sparklers during a festival (yes, I know this is the poster of the film, but the image still sticks). There is also Zeitlin’s fetish for the thighs of middle-aged women – or so the camera zooms in on her leg to show us a tattoo that we wouldn’t have seen as clearly from a distance.

I’ve praised the performances of the cast members above, but they’re all underdeveloped as characters. Hushpuppy encounters a number of people through the course of her journey including a captain of a fishing boat who collects fried chicken wrappers, a woman who dances with her at a brothel, FEMA operatives on a mission, etc. etc. With the exception of her father, these characters are without flaw (and even his character has such a quick turnaround that it isn’t believable). Surely, the aftermath of a natural disaster would leave at least some of its victims with feelings of disconcertment, and outrage. There is a sense of artificiality to this community – these characters exist to aid Hushpuppy in her journey without any hesitation.

The cloying score, composed by Dan Rohmer and Benh Zeitlin, smothers every inch of this picture. They try just a little too hard in trying to manipulate your emotions with it. The greater they tried, the more I was able to resist. Based on the reactions of the audience members at my test screening, I suppose I should recommend bringing a Kleenex. I don’t think that this movie deserves your tears though.

The biggest problem I had with ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ had to do with the decisions made by the characters. The residents of The Bathtub seem to believe that they are self-sufficient. If their community bands together, they will get by. They don’t need outside help. False! What makes this a fully functioning community? The fact that they like to get drunk, play with fireworks, and dance to folk music? Government aid workers evacuate The Bathtub and whilst they quarantine its populace (prior to relocation), Hushpuppy and crew escape the hospital, and return to The Bathtub. They see this as a victory. I do not. They have chosen to return without outside assistance. They have chosen poverty. Are they celebrating their freedom of choice? I think the film is celebrating desolation, and insubordination.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is an overly optimistic fantasy about a natural disaster that revealed the good-heartedness of man as opposed to the formation of a chaotic, violent society. I admired Zeitlin’s attempt to create a unique viewing experience, but the film’s grating score, underdeveloped characters, and plot devices kept me at a distance. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it.

Note: For those of you prone to bouncy camerawork, several audience members left this screening due to motion sickness. I didn’t find the rough visual style to be a distraction, but clearly others did. QED.

– Jerry Nadarajah

The Amazing Spider-Man


The summer opener of 2002 was Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ and I remember walking out of the film feeling disappointment. According to Rotten Tomatotes, the critical aggregator states that I was in the 10% minority of critics who did not recommend the movie. But, given that 90% of the critical population endorsed it, was there a need for a reboot? As a critic, should I dock this latest version points for being a quick turnaround piece? Or should I view it on its singular merits? ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a significant improvement upon Sam Raimi’s original, and the second best of the four existing Spider-Man films (with Spider-Man 2 still being the best of the bunch).

The story – Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenage outcast, raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). He is bullied by Flash Thomspon (Chris Zylka) and has caught the eye of Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). She is the head intern for Dr. Kurt Connors (Rhys Ifans) at a biotech firm called OsCorp. Peter is interested in Kurt’s findings since he worked with Peter’s late father and may have the answers to some of Peter’s questions. Cross has a missing arm, and his scientific interests relate to cross-species genetic splicing. Peter sneaks into Oscorp, finds himself in a lab and ends up being bitten by a genetically mutated spider. You can guess what he becomes as a result of this. Gwen’s father, Captain George Stacy (Dennis Leary) is on the hunt for this masked vigilante, known as Spider-Man. Hm, this could complicate matters between Peter and Gwen. But, there are even bigger things to worry about when Connors juices on an experimental serum which transforms him into a destructive lizard-man. Realizing his cross-species state, he decides to release a chemical cloud from the tower of his corporation which would turns all humans into human-lizards. It’s up to Spidey to save the day.

There is an emotional hook to ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ which made this picture a more resonating experience than I was anticipating. The origin story takes up the first half of the film and is presented much more clearly than the first time around – we understand exactly why Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. The picture isn’t just wall-to-wall noise – there is a story and the film takes its time to develop its characters. Andrew Garfield has much more dramatic range than Tobey Maguire, and I enjoyed his rebellious spin on the character. Emma Stone, as always, is likeable here and the two have a very nice chemistry. My only minor complaint is that Garfield (at 29 years of age), and Stone (24) look too old to be playing high school students. “This” Peter Parker is a photographer, but I don’t think he’s employed by The Daily Bugle. Actually, I don’t think The Daily Bugle was even referenced here. This picture is directed by Marc Weber, whose previous directorial effort includes the romantic comedy ‘500 Days Of Summer’ (which made my Top 10 List of 2009). In that film, he proved he was a very good director of actors.

But, does he know how to construct action sequences? The exaggerated set pieces in the original Spider-Man prevented me from giving it a positive review. If you can reference a few scenes from the DVD/Blu-Ray, take a look back at the way Spidey swings between buildings in the streets of Manhattan, and you’ll notice they lack conviction – he looks like a cartoon character, he just moves too fast; there isn’t the weight of flesh and blood. Technology has come a long way in ten years, but Weber gets it right here. He understands that CGI action needs to be slowed down in order for the viewer to derive detail. This makes the fight scenes involving Spider-Man easy to follow. The film’s single best sequence involves Spider-Man rescuing a boy from a burning car – unlike most 21st century CGI-heavy films, you can explain in a step-by-step manner what the actions between the two characters are. The actions involving the lizard, however, are a little more chaotic and incomprehensible, but the clear framing and editing of Spidey’s actions compensate for this.

Despite my misgivings of its existence in the first place, I’m happy to report that ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a very enjoyable summer blockbuster. I look forward to what the cast and crew do with the sequel to this new installment. Truth be told, they have big shoes to fill, given what Raimi did with ‘Spider-Man 2’. But, for now, let’s celebrate this victory. Thanks to all involved. I had a blast!  

– Jerry Nadarajah