Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

July 24, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Notwithstanding its less than ingenious title, The Dark Knight Rises is everything fans of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy could have hoped for. It is every bit as satisfying as the finales for other film series in recent times, such as Return of the King and Harry Potter 7. For me, it is right up there with The Dark Knight, The Avengers and the first Ironman as the best superhero movie of all-time. It is without a doubt the most EPIC.

The Dark Knight Rises takes place 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight (which is fair enough when you consider that Batman Begins was released in 2005). Batman has not appeared inGotham city since he took the fall for the death of Harvey Dent/Two-Face in order to preserve the former district attorney’s pristine legacy, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled recluse. But as Selina Kyle (Catwoman) says, “a storm is coming”, and we all know it won’t be long beforeWayne is forced to don his famous black suit once more. But will it be enough? (And trust me, this film will make you question it).

Christopher Nolan clearly went all out for The Dark Knight Rises. After the success of The Dark Knight, expectations sky-rocketed and the pressure was on to deliver in the concluding chapter. So Nolan and his brother Jonathan upped the ante on everything:

  • An intricate and ambitious plot that links all three films together and is loaded with back stories, emotional confrontations and twists and turns.
  • An enormous cast of characters, some old and some new, and many of whom have substantial roles and screen time.
  • One of the most physically imposing villains ever in Bane.
  • Fight scenes and battle sequences so mammoth in scale and intensity that it dwarfs anything and everything that has been done in the series.
  • Even the running time of 165 minutes sets a new record (Batman Begins was 140 minutes; The Dark Knight was 152 minutes).

So does bigger and longer necessarily mean better? Not always, but in this case the sheer epic-ness of the film certainly goes a long way in making up for its miscues. On the whole, The Dark Knight is probably still the most “complete” film of the series, but when placed in context, The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the most satisfying.

In my humble opinion, and I know it’s probably an unpopular one, Tom Hardy’s Bane is every bit as worthy of a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker. For starters, Hardy’s physical transformation was astounding. It’s crazy to think that this was the same guy that I recently saw in This Means War. Even his physique in Warrior did not come close. The Joker was a mad dog, a psychopath, a switchblade that can cut you up in a lot of ways; Bane, by contrast, is calm, calculated, and a brutal physical specimen capable of tossing Batman around like a ragged doll. He’s a nuclear warhead.

The spectacular first scenes of the film introducing us to Bane set the tone so perfectly. It’s one of the most exciting sequences of the entire trilogy and reminded me a lot of the best Nolan’s Inception had to offer.

There are two other Inception cast members to make the jump to Gotham city. Marion Cotillard plays the lovely Miranda Tate, an executive of the Wayne Enterprises board who becomes the key to saving the company. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of my favourite actors and one of Hollywood’s most versatile (I mean, come on, Brick, 500 Days of Summer, Hesher and now this?), plays passionate young cop John Blake. He is the standout of the film, along with….

Anne Hathaway, who really surprised me as Selina Kyle, the master thief better known as Catwoman. I’ve always been a bit on the fence with Hathaway and felt she was a little overrated as an actress, but man, she nailed this one. Not just physically – the performance itself was brilliant, providing a much-needed exuberance and vitality to an otherwise intensely “dark” film.

The rest of the returning cast was also stellar. I can’t believe I haven’t even mentioned Christian Bale yet. There’s isn’t much to say except that he’ll likely go down in history as the best Batman ever. Not bad for a guy who has also been Patrick Bateman, John Connor, Dicky Eklund and The Machinist.

Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman; plus a few cameos from the big names from the two earlier films (sadly, of course, except Heath Ledger) – that is a ridiculous cast, and it amazes me that it never felt like they would overshadow or be a distraction to the film.

The only obvious weak links in the cast are two dudes I ordinarily love: Matthew Modine’s deputy police chief, who was responsible for much of the film’s clunky dialogue and lack of subtlety (I still love him; I mean, come on: Full Metal Jacket, Birdy, Married to the Mob, Memphis Belle, Pacific Heights), and Aussie Ben Mendelsohn, who was somewhat awkward and over-the-top as Wayne’s corrupt business rival.

I have a few other relatively minor complaints. After watching The Dark Knight Rises I went back and rewatched the first two films in the trilogy, and realized that they employed a lot more humour – something that was sorely missing in The Dark Knight Rises. The other thing I noticed was that Batman had more cool gadgets and made better use of his utility belt in the earlier films – in this one all the attention was on the Batplane.

If you really want to get picky, I suppose there were parts in the second act that felt plodding, but the same probably could be said for all three films in the series. All is forgotten by the time the epic third act rolls around in any case.

By the way, many of the plot points don’t make a whole lot of sense if you really think about it. But hey, this is a superhero movie about a guy dressed up as a bat, so suspension of disbelief should have been a prerequisite. And I’m sick of people trying to read into and getting caught up in the film’s supposed political and societal messages – why can’t people just enjoy a Batman movie for what it is? Please, no more September 11 analogies.

The Dark Knight Rises is far from perfect, but it’s one of those films where I just went, “stuff this, I just want to enjoy it.” Strictly speaking, it’s probably not a 5-star film, but what the heck.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: I wouldn’t recommend it if you haven’t seen the movie yet, but if you have, check out this awesome featurette.

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by EL James

July 22, 2012 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Just to be clear, I have pedestrian — if not lowbrow — tastes when it comes to reading. I enjoy Dan Brown, I’ve read Stephenie Meyer, and heck, even Matthew Reilly. So I just want you to know that I approached EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey not with the intent of trashing it but with immense interest in discovering what the fuss is all about.

The erotic-fiction book, the first in the Fifty Shades trilogy, is arguably the hottest literary phenomenon in the world right now. A recent report I read said James was making something like US$1.3 million a week, and no shortage of actors and actresses are already lining up for the inevitable film version. Brett Easton Ellis has apparently put his hand up to write the screenplay. Not bad for a story that began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction.

What you’re about to read is a brutally honest opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey. While I can see why some people might be obsessed with this “mummy porn” (as it has been distastefully called), like Twilight, I genuinely cannot understand why it has become so obscenely successful. Notwithstanding the shortcomings in James’s prose, the first 150 pages or so of this 500-page book (paperback version), I admit, were fresh, exciting and compulsive — but once the novelty wore off and the narrative stagnated, the remaining 350 pages became utterly brutal.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of an innocent young woman living in Seattle, Anastasia Steele, who meets and begins a relationship with the enigmatic, incredibly wealthy and “impossibly beautiful” (direct quote) Christian Grey, who may or may not be into some wild, kinky stuff in the bedroom. What a dilemma.

Anastasia was originally Bella Swan, and Christian was originally Edward Cullen, and the idea sprung from the fantasy that the Twilight kids were not as chaste as they appeared to be.

So you can see the attraction there. I’m sure millions of Twilight fans had probably been imagining the same thing, and James, who is actually a Brit, merely put her fantasy into words. The book intended to be a drug for ordinary girls dreaming of sexual heaven with a rich, handsome and perfect dude who, despite being capable of getting any girl in the universe, chooses them for some reason.

Accordingly, I didn’t have a huge problem with the unbelievable premise or the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey, because after all, it is an erotic fantasy. And besides, how is it any worse than Twilight?

That said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle to accept that Anastasia Steele is a 22-year-old American college student who:

  1. is completely oblivious to the fact that she is incredibly beautiful despite having a multitude of hot guys chasing after her all the time (and having eyes);
  2. has a killer body despite a horrible diet and almost never exercising;
  3. is not only a virgin but has never ever dated anyone in her entire life; and
  4. has never in 22 years loved or even “liked” a boy or man in that way – before Christian Grey.

But I digress. Fantasies are supposed to be crazy.

As mentioned above, I had fun with Fifty Shades of Grey’s first 10 chapters or so. Part of the reason is the ridiculous premise, and part of it is because of the building sexual tension between Ana and Christian. You know they’re eventually going to get it on at some point, and it’s the thrill of the chase and the anticipation that makes the book such an explosive page turner in its early stages.

I cannot profess to be experienced in erotic fiction so I don’t know if the first couple of sex scenes were any good, but I assume, from the public reaction, that they were more than adequate. I at least thought it was a decent payoff after all that anticipation. So far so good for Fifty Shades of Grey.

The bulk of the problem comes after that. I don’t want to spoil too much, but about a third of the way in, after finally losing her virginity, Ana is presented with an unusual offer from Christian. From here, the book becomes a lengthy and infuriating procrastination and negotiation process that does not get anywhere. Ana thinks about it, exchanges a dozen emails with Christian, thinks about it some more, sends more pointless emails, and thinks about it some more. There must seriously be a hundred emails set out in full in this book, and 90% of them are probably asinine. From memory they also go through the terms of a contract, line by agonizing line, on more than one occasion.

Don’t worry, there’s still some hanky panky in between (though even that becomes stale after a while), but all it does is prove that erotic fiction is best served as short stories and novellas, not 500-page monsters.

Much has been said about James’s literary prowess, or lack thereof. I don’t think she is as fundamentally awful as people say she is, and even if she is, I think they’re just jealous they’re not raking in the money like her. I actually think she’s not too far off Stephenie Meyer — it’s just easier to trash James because of the genre she is writing in.

James’s biggest problem was not getting an editor (or if she did get one, an editor unafraid to do something about the book’s nagging issues). For starters, James has the tendency to use a lot of repetitive words and phrases, often within a very short space. She’s absolutely in love with littering her prose with irritating words/phrases such as shit, crap, fuck, oh crap, holy shit, holy crap, holy fuck and holy cow (and almost always in italics too). She also goes through phases where she becomes addicted to whoa, wow, oh no and so forth. You cannot possibly read more than three of pages anywhere in the book without seeing these words at least a couple of times. It makes Anastasia Steele feel like a nagging middle-aged housewife as opposed to a young, red-blooded hottie.

The repetition is also rife in descriptions and body language. Every single time Christian Grey appears in the book we are reminded how handsome, good-looking, hot, gorgeous and impossibly beautiful he is. And he appears a lot. We are also told frequently that he likes to “cock his head to one side”, and that it might be the sexiest thing any man has ever done.

Ana, on the other hand, loves to bite her lip and must “flush” or “blush” at least once on just about every page. She also likes to remind people of the obvious, like “that was the first time I had sex in my house” (or something like that), when we know she just lost her virginity away from her house the day before. Or “as far as sex goes, that was pretty good” (or something like that), when we know she had only had sex a couple of times with the same guy!

Remember, this is a 500-page book.

The one phrase that practically killed me was the repeated mention of Ana’s “inner goddess”, who we are informed, is capable of doing all sorts of acrobatic movements. I still have no idea what an “inner goddess” is or is supposed to be, but I do know it annoys the hell out of me every time I see it.

I bitch, I know, but the truth is, Fifty Shades of Grey could have been so much better if the editor simply paid attention to fixing all its very fixable issues. Summarize the key points of the contract negotiations. Reduce the emails by about 70%-80%. Eliminate all the repetitious stuff I mentioned and pare it back into a 300-page book, tops. Then you might have something approaching special.

Instead, what we ended up with was an erotic fantasy born out of an intriguing idea, races off to a quick start and has some very good moments, but ultimately splutters and fails to maintain interest because it is too long, repetitive and uneventful.

But that’s just my unimportant opinion. Don’t let that stop you from discovering Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels on your own. For all its flaws, at least it is getting people to read and, from what I hear, spicing up people’s (sex) lives.

2 out of 5

PS: In case you were wondering, yes, I have started reading the second book in the series, Fifty Shades Darker. Whether I can finish it is another question.

Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

July 19, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I don’t care. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an awesome film. One of the best action movies of the year so far.

I was sceptical at first too. The first time I came across the title was in a Sydney bookstore, right around the time Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was taking off around the world. It wasn’t quite the same as taking an out-of-copyright masterpiece and playing around with it, but I nevertheless tossed this piece of historical fantasy fiction in the same category. After all, it’s written by the same guy (Seth Grahame-Smith).

The idea that former US president Abraham Lincoln, possibly the most beloved of them all, was secretly a vampire hunter, is so ludicrous that I was convinced it had to be a comedy. But no. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is actually dead serious.

A lot of people will probably write off the film right there. How can such a stupid idea make such a serious movie? Well, it can, and it did, proving once again that it’s all in the execution.

The story begins in Indiana, where a young Lincoln is living with his plantation worker parents. An act of kindness leads to tragedy, and Lincoln grows up plotting his revenge, only to be plunged into the world of vampire hunting instead.

I don’t know a whole lot about Lincoln’s biography, but it appears some of the characters were real people and the timeline of Lincoln’s political career and major historical events were roughly accurate – everything else was entirely fabricated (or so I believe).

The thing about this movie is that it’s super exciting. If you can look past how ludicrous the premise is, then the idea of Lincoln being an axe-wielding vampire slayer is actually a very cool one. And if you can accept the crazy idea then all the insane and utterly impossible stuff that Lincoln does in the film become pretty awesome too. It’s a gradual slope of acceptance, but if you can let go of reality and simply go for the ride, you might find it as scintillating as I did.

Russian director Timur Nurbakhitovich Bekmambetov (who directed Wanted and the Nightwatch/Daywatch films) delivers slick visuals that remind me of the best video games, with well-choreographed action sequences that are incredible to look at. Tim Burton is one of the co-producers of the film and a bit of his unique style has definitely rubbed off on the film too.

There’s plenty of violence and blood and guts, but all of it is stylized and not at all cringeworthy. There are, however, a few scares that could make you jump out of your seat. If nothing else, the film is an exciting visual treat filled with thrills, chills and epic battle scenes – and that is certainly much more than I had expected.

The big dude who plays Lincoln, Benjamin Walker, is excellent. He’s tall and imposing, looks like Liam Neeson and exudes the vulnerability of Eric Bana. And he’s pretty handy with an axe too. Once that famous beard is on his face it’s hard to envisage a more suitable actor for the role. He makes Abraham Lincoln a real person and not a caricature. I guess it also helps that Lincoln died almost 150 years ago.

If I had to complain about anything it would have to be some of the sloppier special effects scenes that make things appear a little cartoony. I also expected a little more from the final battle with the head vampire. And I suppose there could have been a joke or two to lighten the mood occasionally, but it’s pretty clear 10 minutes in that this film was taking itself seriously.

Personally, I did not have a problem with the serious tone because Bekmambetov managed to pull it off. I’m not one of those people who think an outlandish premise must inevitably result in a comedy.

Whatever. As far as crazy historical fantasy fiction re-imaginings go, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a winner.

4 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Mockingjay’ by Suzanne Collins

July 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

A post-apocalyptic world where two children from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a televised battle to the death – where there can only be one winner. That was the premise of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Not entirely original (you know, Battle Royale, etc) but with enough originality and differences to be an enticing and exciting hit in its own right.

The second book in the series, Catching Fire, amazed me by taking the story to another level when I thought it had nowhere to go. Catching Fire widened the intensity and scope of the games, provided more context and upped the characters and action. Save for a disappointing ending, it was all fans could have hoped for.

Now I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about Mockingjay, the third and final instalment in the trilogy. Collins had already milked the “reality TV goes too far/totalitarian rule” concept for all it was worth, and now faced the daunting challenge of bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. But how was she going to do it without getting repetitive?

Well, I’m glad to say that Mockingjay is a fitting finale to the Hunger Games trilogy. It might not have the freshness and creativity of the first book or the excitement and innovation of the second, but what Mockingjay does is wrap up the story extremely well and in a way that I certainly did not expect.

For starters, the tone of Mockingjay is very dark. It’s a brutal world Katniss Everdeen lives in and Collins does not sugar coat it. Think of the darkness of the final Harry Potter books and multiply it by…a lot. There’s blood and guts and the horrors of war. There’s military strategy and politics and propaganda. There are a lot of serious themes here, and at times I had to remind myself that I was reading a young adult novel. And if you’re expecting a wonderfully gift-wrapped ending with cream and cherries on top then you’ll likely be shocked. Mockingjay is a stark reminder that the “real” world rarely turns out the way we envisage.

Without giving away too much, the story picks up from the cliffhanger ending of Catching Fire. The Hunger Games are over and this one is all about the final battle with the Capitol that ensues. Katniss finds herself thrust into the spotlight again as the rebels want her to be the symbol of the rebellion against the evil President Snow, but is she really saving the world or is she merely another pawn in their game? And what about the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale? Who will she choose? And what kind of world will she find herself in when it’s all said and done?

So as you can see, there’s lots to ponder in Mockingjay. This third book reinvents itself by stepping back from the Hunger Games to provide the bigger picture, including why the games were necessary in the first place. The focus here is no longer on reality TV but on the nature of war and power and the politics that go on behind it. The concepts and structure are arguably more intelligent and thought-provoking than the first two books in the series, and that’s saying a lot.

Collins continues to handle the action scenes with great skill, and there’s even a clever link back to the Hunger Games as the story nears its conclusion. I was also unexpectedly drawn to the ongoing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which never forms the centerpiece of the narrative but is always there and itching to be dealt with. For the record, I think it was resolved brilliantly.

My main problem with Mockingjay is a feeling of inevitability. You know things will end with a bang and you’re forced to wait patiently through the book for it to happen. While there are twists and turns and highs and lows, I got the feeling that Collins was to some extent padding the pages in the lead up to the big finale. In that sense, Mockingjay lacked the compulsive page-turning capabilities of The Hunger Games and in particular Catching Fire. Not to say it wasn’t still a brisk and exciting read, but let’s just say I would have gotten less paper cuts turning the pages (had been reading a real book instead of an e-book).

Ultimately, I guess you could call Mockingjay a satisfying conclusion of sorts. It might not be the perfect Hollywood ending some had hoped for but I for one preferred it this way. Some may gripe that the various loose ends in the book are not tied up very well – I personally thought an extra chapter or two was warranted – though the epilogue has a haunting quality that totally kills JK Rowling’s abomination from Harry Potter 7 (and do I even need to mention the vomit in Twilight: Breaking Dawn?).

So there you have it. Mockingjay is a flawed but strong conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy, one of the rare literary phenomena these days that actually deserve much of its praise and success. I don’t think I have ever devoured a book series as quickly as I did this one.

3.75 out of 5

Movie Review: Lockout (2012)

July 14, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Taken in space? I’m sold.

That, at least, was the advertised premise of Lockout, a sci-fi action movie co-written by French master (I use that term loosely) Luc Besson. Some time in the future, the US government decides to send its worst prisoners off into a maximum security prison in space, where they will be put under “stasis” (ie, sleep), for the duration of their sentences (I suppose to save money?). Somehow, the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) ends up there, prisoners break loose, and there’s only one man that can save the day — Snow (Guy Pearce) — a former CIA operative arrested for murdering an undercover colleague.

Sounds pretty exciting, right?

Lockout hasn’t gotten many decent reviews but it’s not as bad as people have made it out to be. While Guy Pearce is not necessarily the man you would picture as a badass CIA operative (after all, he only recently played possibly the oldest man in the world in Prometheus), the Aussie actor is clearly the standout of the film. He oozes screen presence and actually looks the part, all buffed and toned. But it’s his ability to hit the mark on all of Snow’s awesome one-liners that makes Lockout an occasionally enjoyable ride. Even if the action doesn’t quite get there for you, the humour might.

Speaking of the action, that’s where Lockout struggles to differentiate itself from other films of the genre. The fight scenes are surprisingly meek and there’s not a whole lot of creativity. There is one combat scene that makes use of the space concept, but that’s about it. There’s almost not much of a climax, or at least one that is worthy of a mention. It’s a shame because it essentially wastes the fact that they are in space! Space!

The special effects also don’t provide much to talk about. In fact, while there are a few “outdoor’ shots, almost everything takes place inside the prison, so those expecting an spectacular spacecraft battles are likely to be disappointed.

The biggest problem with Lockout might be the villains. It’s a space prison with the worst mankind has to offer, but there aren’t any memorable baddies. They may be crazy or menacing but no one has any…personality. If you think of a film like Con Air, chances are you’ll remember an assortment of interesting bad guys. In Lockout, it never really feels like the bad guys were given a chance to do anything.

Despite all the complaints, I didn’t think Lockout was painful to watch. It could have been so much more, but instead it ended up just being an average sci-fi/action film boosted by a great comedic performance by Guy Pearce.

3 out of 5