Dark Knight, The (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when Gotham City seemed able to completely delouse itself of its gangster and crooks, a makeup-wearing man with green hair and scars around his lips, known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), emerged and threatened to send the city back into its original state: crime-ridden, a general lack of hope for the future, and citizens living in fear. “The Dark Knight,” based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, was a menudo of complex ideas, from what it meant to be a symbol of justice to what could happen if that symbol was driven to an extreme and then derailed, coupled with thrilling action sequences with enough tricks up its sleeve, to describe the experience of watching it in one word would be “transportive.” What I loved about the screenplay was its treatment of Batman (Christian Bale) in terms of his relationship with Gotham City. While the earlier scenes showed him capturing crooks of all levels, there was a certain level of detachment between he and us. Scant information was given about his personal life; he was defined by his actions as a man with a mask and as Bruce Wayne when he expressed his intentions to Alfred (Michael Caine) and what he felt he could do better for the city. Despite sporting a cape and a mask, it was made clear to us that he was a civil servant first and that felt refreshing. Other civic servants in the film included Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a police lieutenant, and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a district attorney who felt equal passion as Batman and his comrades to overturn the Gotham underworld and to rid the streets of crime. I enjoyed that much of the attention was on Dent and how he responded to the stresses incited by The Joker. While there was a clear character arc in Dent, it was an unpredictable course because, like a real person, although he valued many things, not all of them were of equal importance. As more of his buttons were pushed, the pressure increased until the inevitable breaking point. Eckhart had to be lauded because we had to be with his character every step of the way. As Gotham’s white knight, Dent didn’t prowl the streets at night to capture bad guys but the actor found a way to communicate to us why he was a heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. Another performance worth nothing included Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s friend since childhood and Dent’s romantic interest. Gyllenhaal found a balance between intelligence and spunk so I cared about Rachel when she eventually had to confront The Joker and was threatened to have her face carved with a permanent smile. Lastly, Ledger gave a performance so magnetic, I relished every sound that came out of his mouth and obsessed over the subtle body movements he embedded within his deranged character. While the script was very sharp to the point where just about anyone could read it and sound evil, Ledger made it his own, techniques ranging from strange ticks to awkward pauses, allowing The Joker to be evil and fun without being silly or cartoonish. The film was a rousing entertainment partly because it had an excellent villain. I likened The Joker to a super-bacterium, a microorganism resistant to antibiotics. Batman, government officials like Dent, and the police were the drugs meant to cure its host, Gotham City, of an affliction. While they were able to get rid of regular bacteria like Falcone and his successors (Eric Roberts), The Joker was immune because his mind functioned differently as a super-bacterium’s wall composed of various unexpected defenses which made it impervious to the effects of drugs. This made The Joker a real threat, mirrored by his realistic-looking terrorist attacks in the city. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight,” though slightly longwinded toward the end, gave us credit by not just being about right or wrong or which side would win ultimately. It was about the process of reaching a goal which meant taking a magnifying glass on victories, big and small, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, failures. There’s a chance for growth in failure and unfortunately, in our society plagued with cynicism, that isn’t emphasized enough.
Batman Begins (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was sent to solitary confinement for fighting six fellow prisoners, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), representing Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), invited the richest man in Gotham City, currently on the other side of the world and anonymous, to train and join the League of Shadows. Still angry from the murder of his parents (Linus Roache, Sara Stewart) in the hands of a desperate man (Richard Brake), Bruce accepted. “Batman Begins,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, had a gravitational pull so potent, its more sensitive moments actually managed to rival its most thrilling action pieces: it offered us a believable story that we could sink our teeth into instead of simply expecting us to lick a plate full of sugar and fluff that would inevitably leave us unsatisfied. The level of screenplay was impressive because it focused on the story of Bruce the man through first exploring his formative years prior to delving into Bruce the Batman, a symbol meant to inspire and nudge citizens of Gotham out of their apathy involving the city being ruled by criminals and the corrupt. While Bale was convincing as a man full of rage and thirst of vengeance, his character arc was even more involving despite the fact that the material jumped forward in time several times, especially toward the beginning when one detail after another regarding Bruce’s past were thrown on our laps. By keeping its dramatic momentum intact, it caught and maintained our attention; since we could follow its strands almost every step of the way without too much strain, the rewards were fulfilling. The film had a dark atmosphere, especially with its talk of the undetected depression serving as a catalyst for the common people’s desperation, it managed to have fun without being cartoonish and breaking the mood. For instance, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne’s longtime butler, caretaker, and Bruce’s remaining father figure, was given amusing comments regarding his master’s nightly extracurricular activities. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), formerly a member of the board in Wayne Enterprises but exiled to the basement after new power took control of the company, also had his share of the spotlight when Bruce paid him a visit for nifty and very expensive gadgets. This gave way to questions I’ve always wondered about such as how the Batcave was discovered, how the Batsuit was assembled, and how the Batmobile looked in its early stages. It even featured one of the most beloved treasures in my toy box when I was a kid: the batarang. The picture was also notable for its intelligent use of its antagonists. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), one of the biggest crime bosses in the city, was not an ostentatious figure that craved attention. He actually preferred to operate in the shadows but he wasn’t afraid to make threats in public if necessary. Still, he was notorious for his reputation. Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, zealously creepy behind those glasses), the eventual Scarecrow, was actually more interesting divorced from his mask. No DNA mutation here, just a regular human so willing to push his experiments to the extreme, he was no better than the criminals he surrounded himself with. The topic of fear ran in the veins of “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, and it was handled with profound insight. The screenplay explored the various meanings of the word and how it changed contingent upon the stakes on the table. The film showed respect by treating the audience as thinkers.
Batman & Robin (1997)
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), a horticulturalist stationed in South America whose project involved cross-breeding animal and plants, caught Dr. Woodrue (John Glover) creating a super soldier named Bane (Jeep Swenson) for bidding. When she expressed her disapproval of her colleague’s indiscretions, Dr. Woodrue tried to kill her by pushing her into a batch of chemicals. This altered Dr. Isley’s DNA and gave her, now Poison Ivy, the ability to manipulate plants. Pairing up with Bane, the duo headed to Gotham City to demand answers from Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) for cutting funds out of their project. Written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” suffocated from too many plots which was unfortunate because there was a hint of good material lost in a jungle of bad. The strand which involved the decline of Alfred Pennyworth’s (Michael Gough) health was interesting because prior to this point, he had nothing much to do except being a butler to Bruce and offering a wise commentary when Bruce struggled for answers in terms of the dichotomy between his personal and professional life. Even though Alfred was only the help of the Wayne manor, it was tough to see him looking frail and lackadaisical because he was our protagonist’s only father figure. Unfortunately, the film put more weight in having fun in the form racing motorbikes which was aimed to symbolize teenage rebellion, Poison Ivy winking at the camera and mentioning how her action figures always came with Bane, and Bruce appearing in social functions with a woman (Elle Macpherson) we knew absolutely nothing about but marriage was apparently on the horizon. This confusing, cheesy pot of doldrum was heated to a boil so slowly and so painfully, it threatened the integrity of the project and the franchise. Furthermore, while I believed Clooney as Bruce the multibillionaire with that winning smile, I had an incredibly difficult time believing him as Batman. The ultimate challenge that Clooney had to face did not occur during the action scenes when he had to throw a punch and utter laughably trite lines of dialogue. It was in the silent moments when Clooney, dressed as Batman, stood next to Robin (Chris O’Donnell). I knew there was a big problem when I found that my eyes gravitated toward O’Donnell more often even if he wasn’t saying anything. Unlike Clooney, O’Donnell was a good choice to play Robin because he could just scoff and I knew exactly what his character was thinking. This error in casting proved very distracting. Notice that Clooney continued to sport a little smile when discussing Alfred’s affliction. That smile made me very angry because it communicated apathy. The scene should have had an air of seriousness because, after all, Alfred raised Bruce like a son. I wondered if the director even reshot the scene. From the looks of it, more attention was put into the special and visual effects of the chases and explosions which were, admittedly, admirable for their colors and detail. Meanwhile, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), eventually teaming up with Poison Ivy and Bane, was reduced to delivering puns, referring to himself as a “villain” and Batman and Robin as “heroes.” Well-established antagonists with real goals don’t consider themselves as villains; they don’t feel guilt toward what they do because they believe what they’re doing is right. Knowing a bit about the deeper and touching details of why Mr. Freeze turned to a life of crime, which involved his wife in cryogenic sleep, it made me angry that the picture mostly portrayed him as a cold-blooded automaton. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, despite his intimidating appearance, he was actually portrayed as having a heart, someone who didn’t enjoy hurting people, but he felt he needed to in order to get one step closer in saving his love? The action sequences in “Batman & Robin,” one occurred in the Gotham City Museum of Modern Art looking like an ice rink on acid, were quite a sight at times but it had no heart. It wasn’t cool to give the audience such a cold shoulder.
Batman Forever (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
While checking up on Wayne Enterprises’ electronics division, Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer) was approached by the nervous Dr. Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a brilliant scientist and a longtime fan of the humanitarian, about a project that needed funding. Dr. Nygma wished to put a device in every home in Gotham City which would send beams from the television signal directly to the brain, allowing the viewers to feel like they were inside the program. Bruce detected that the underlying assumption involved mind manipulation so he refused to continue Dr. Nygma’s project. The outraged scientist, eventually turning into The Riddler, promised to get revenge on Bruce for turning down his proposition. Directed by Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” was so cartoonish in just about every respect and yet it might have held up if there was something else behind the glitter, sensuality, and explosions. The events that transpired felt so disconnected from one another. Characters entered and exited scenes which served little point in moving the story forward. For instance, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a psychologist specializing in multiple personality disorders, and Bruce were supposed to discuss the trauma that the latter experienced due to his parents’ death. This was a golden opportunity because up to this point, the audience was offered no in-depth explanation of the tragedy. However, their sessions came off so laughably phony. With every other line uttered, Dr. Meridian outwardly flirted with her patient. Kidman’s decision to sport a sultry bedroom voice made her character appear meretricious when she was supposed to be, first and foremost, smart and knowing. I just hate it when women are supposed to be intellectuals and yet their hair glowed as if they were in a shampoo commercial, their red, puffy lips were always prominent every time the camera focused on their faces, and, if the camera somehow managed to pull back, it was all about the curves and featuring the most desirable angles. I like women exuding raw sexuality but if that is the only factor that the film focuses on about the character when clearly she has something more to offer, it looks completely ridiculous. Worse, it took me out of the experience. On the other hand, I did somewhat enjoy the introduction of Robin (Chris O’Donnell), how he came off as an ungrateful brat after Bruce provided a home for him when he had no one else. O’Donnell and Kilmer shared good chemistry when they argued. However, in terms of offering excellent reasons as to why Batman needed a partner to fight crime, the screenplay by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman proved lackluster. The same problem applied as to why The Riddler needed Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) to hunt Batman. The former may not rely on guns but he had the brain in setting up ingenious traps. Meanwhile, Two-Face, formerly known as Harvey Dent, provoked chaos so randomly, he came off like a pest that desperately needed pesticide more than an antagonist with clear motivations. Unlike The Riddler, very little background information was offered about Two-Face. “Batman Forever” occasionally showed a glimmer of interesting material, such as Dr. Nygma’s creepy obsession with Bruce, but it was unfortunate that its priority was on expanding the elements that didn’t work. At least the riddles made me think.
Batman Returns (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A rich couple had a baby boy but due to the child’s birth anomaly, they decided to throw him in a canal that led to the sewers. Thirty-three years later, Penguin (Danny DeVito), with the help of a businessman named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), decided to ascend from the depths of Gotham City, find his parents, and assimilate. If Shreck refused, Penguin would reveal to Gotham citizens the toxic byproducts produced by his factory which would surely compromise Shreck’s bid to open a power plant. Although “Batman Returns,” based on the screenplay by Daniel Waters, did not quite allow the audience into the mind of Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) beyond the surface level, it gave appropriate gravity to the motivations of its antagonists so the story was engaging. Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), Shreck’s lowly assistant and eventual Catwoman, was the most interesting character because Pfeiffer injected her with the right dosage of fragility and danger. Whenever Selina was on screen, my attention focused on her like a laser: the way she slinked her body from one point to the next while delivering one memorable line after another, so full of attitude and guile. Although Selina’s alter ego was swathed in leather sass and wielded a whip, there was a constant sadness in her eyes. The motif involving “freaks” being misunderstood provided the film’s center. When I was around five or six years old and watched the film several times over a span of a week, although the “freaks” were creepy, they didn’t scare me. I was curious about them. For instance, as monstrous as Penguin was at times, I found it difficult to consider him as a true villain. Any child who had been abandoned and left to die but somehow survived could end up not quite right in the head. The screenplay acknowledged the similarities between Penguin and Batman as well as Catwoman and Batman so I was very curious as to why it didn’t delve into their relationships as outcasts in a more meaningful way. One of the main weaknesses of the picture was it had two or three unnecessary action sequences especially toward the beginning. The pacing would have been much smoother if the screenplay took its time to build its characters’ intentions before finally releasing the pressure. I did, however, love the scene where Penguin’s henchmen, the Red Triangle Circus Gang, hijacked the Batmobile which led to Batman being unable to control his car during an escape from the Gotham police. It was fun and funky but it didn’t lose the darkness it accumulated prior to that entertaining chase. Another element that proved impressive was the relationship between Selina and Bruce. It wasn’t boring not because we knew that she was Catwoman and he was Batman but they weren’t aware of each other’s secret identities, but because Bruce was turned on by Selina’s in-your-face kinkiness. What they had wasn’t some hackneyed romance but a partnership of needs in a purely sexual nature. “Batman Returns,” directed by Tim Burton and wonderfully scored by Danny Elfman, was ominous, darkly funny, and uncompromising with its vision. I argue that the true villain was Shreck and it was smart to relegate him as an ordinary man instead of making him an obvious megalomaniac. After all, the greatest evils and evildoers tend to go undetected.
★★ / ★★★★
Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), right-hand man of Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), a powerful but aging gangster in Gotham City, was ordered to acquire money from a safe hidden inside Axis Chemical. Jack was unaware that the assignment was actually a trap meant for him because Grissom found out about the affair between his girl, Alicia (Jerry Hall), and Jack. While Gotham police handled the henchmen, Batman (Michael Keaton) managed to corner Jack. However, just when Napier was about to be apprehended, he fell into a giant cauldron of green chemical which discolored his body. “Batman,” directed by Tim Burton, had an excellent grip when it came to its art direction but everything else left much to be desired. The majority of the action sequences held no special excitement for me yet I found myself admiring the background. For instance, when the cops and criminals chased each other around the factory, I noticed how the steam rose from their sources, how the green liquid poured out of their containers, and how grimy the floors looked. I imagined how it must’ve been like to be there since the inside of the factory looked as repulsive as a sewer that had been placed above ground. However, the way a film looks rarely saves a picture and this was no exception. Based on the screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, we weren’t given much information about Batman’s motivations and, perhaps more importantly, who Bruce Wayne was as a humanitarian, a friend, and a lover. Keaton was quite good in looking solemn and he showed that he was very capable of instilling depth into his character when the material seldom touched upon the story of the man behind the mask. Unfortunately, the writing seemed more interested in what was constantly in front of the protagonist which happened to be a girl. Bruce’s love interest was Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photojournalist whose most recent work was published on Time Magazine, but she might as well have been any other girl taken off the streets. From the way her character was introduced, I expected her to be smart and plucky, someone who experienced the world outside of Gotham. Instead, she easily turned into a damsel-in-distress, an object terrorized by The Joker, rescued by Batman, and romanced by Bruce Wayne. More painfully, it seemed as though she never learned from her mistakes which made the experience of watching her, as beautiful as Basinger was, tedious and almost unbearable. Moreover, I wished that two potentially interesting characters were given more to do: Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), an agent against the war on crime in the city, and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), a reporter for the Gotham Globe. Since their appearances were aimless, they could have not been in the film at all and it would not have made much of a difference in the dynamics of the story. “Batman” was stolen by Nicholson’s performance as The Joker, more amusing than truly menacing. I almost felt bad for him that he had to overact in order to hide the thinness of the material. Meanwhile, I looked at Batman not out of intrigue in terms of what made him tick but curiosity if it was scorching hot underneath all that leather.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man who is as narcissistic and self-centered as ever. This time around, he had to face-off with a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who was out for revenge for the wrongs done to his father and an American weapons expert (Sam Rockwell) who craved power in politics. Tony also has to deal with his health, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) being the new CEO of the company, a new sexy assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and Rhodey’s (Don Cheadle) need to deliver the Iron Man suit to his superiors. There was no doubt that “Iron Man 2” was bigger and grander than the original. However, I don’t believe it was one of those sequels that disappointed. What I loved about the first one was the fact that it was an origins story. The first hour bathed us in curiosity and the rest tried to explore the lead character’s depth (although we came to realize he didn’t have much depth at all–which I loved). In “Iron Man 2,” it was more about having fun with the main character and his big ego. I thought it was funny, exciting and I liked that it didn’t try to be darker or deeper than the original. In some ways, I had more fun with the sequel than its predecessor. I was also very into what was happening on screen because of the many hints of The Avengers slowly forming (make sure to stay until after the credits). The tone was different than other superhero films because it made me feel like the superhero that we were watching was not the only one in his universe. I also enjoyed Rourke as Whiplash. He wasn’t given much screen time but every time he was, he generated maximum impact. I thought he was menacing but at the same time I felt somewhat sorry for him. When I looked in his eyes, I saw pain and vulnerability trying to wrestle (pun intended) with anger and thirst for blood. One of this film’s drawbacks was it didn’t spend more time putting Rourke’s character on screen to add some sort of enigma and rivalry between him and Tony Stark. I absolutely loved the race track scene and when Stark visited Whiplash in jail. There was a certain crackle and pop between the two characters when they spoke to each other because Downey Jr. and Rourke knew how to play with certain subtleties in terms of intonations and body languages. Those scenes left me at awe and it’s unfortunate because small moments like the jail scene would probably be ignored since most scenes were loud and bright and glamorous. Bigger and louder isn’t necessarily a bad quality but as the “The Dark Knight” has proven, a nice balance between quiet moments and adrenaline rush makes a superior and ultimately unforgettable superhero film–not just a superhero film but a movie that has the power to stand alone in its own right. Directed by the very funny Jon Favreau, it was apparent that “Iron Man 2” had actors that had fun in their roles so I had fun with it as well. I loved that Favreau put himself in his own movie for kicks. I think most professional critics are wrong about this one because they claimed it was inferior to the first. But I’m saying see it and pretend as if it’s not a sequel. I have no doubt that you will recognize a really good movie in it.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This fourth installment of “The Terminator” franchise may not have been as good as the first two films but it was a step above from the somewhat mediocre third outing. Initially, I was underwhelmed during the first few minutes of “Terminator Salvation” due to my high expectations. However, once the ball started rolling about fifteen minutes into the picture, I really got into it and I was curious what was going to happen next. (Not to mention I was at the edge of the seat during the more intense chase scenes.)
This sequel is set in year 2018 and it features a grown-up John Connor (Christian Bale) and his struggle to lead humanity against Skynet and its fatal machines. It also tells the story of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a man that was sentenced to death back in year 2003, woke up fifteen years later and eventually found out that he was a hybrid between a human and a robot. Their paths later collided because Wright was saved by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) during his first encounter with a terminator; Connor, on the other hand, was on a mission to find his father, Kyle Reese, because if he dies on the hand of Skynet, Connor would not exist and therefore alter the future altogether. To prevent further confusion, it must be noted that it was not explicitly mentioned in this installment that Kyle Reese time traveled back to the past and conceived John Connor. (I dislike describing storylines that involve time travel. It’s always been my weakness so I apologize if it is in any way confusing or inaccurate.)
Being a summer blockbuster film or not, the visual and special effects are outstanding. In my head I kept thinking, “How did they even manage to shoot that?” and “Hey, that’s a neat stunt.” Throughout the entire picture, I really felt like I was watching the planet in ruins after Skynet took over. The post-apocalyptic feel reminded me of the best scenes from “Blade Runner” and “Children of Men.” As for the acting, I thought everyone did a really good job because they were convincing in their respective roles. However, Worthington was the one that stood out the most. I found it strange that I cared more about his character than Bale’s–the supposed main character. Even though Worthington was tough on the outside, there was a certain sensitivity in his eyes that reminded me of Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s style of acting in his most dramatic roles. Worthington embodied Marcus Wright so fully to the point where I was convinced that there was more to his story and that he’s not just a hybrid between a human and a robot. He almost made me wish that he was the focus of the story instead of John Connor. (And that’s probably not a good thing.) If he chooses to appear in films that are astute while at the same time able to feature his acting abilities, Worthington is definitely someone to look out for in the future.
For me, the main weakness of “Terminator Salvation” lies in its story. With such a big mythology set up by the first two films, this one felt considerably smaller in scope. The secondary problems that chip off from that primary issue include having too much action sequences, not having enough character development, not having enough comedic moments to let the film breathe, and sidelining John Connor’s importance. It’s nice to have exciting action scenes (and they undoubtedly do have that here) but it’s hard to care if there’s not enough moral conundrums facing characters who matter. It’s also suffocating if the tone of the picture is one-note–this one felt too serious for its own good, as if it was trying to be “The Dark Knight” when it was not even close to that level. What made the first two installment so great are the vibrant pockets of humor that were ultimately ingrained in the media consciousness. (Remember “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby”?) Lastly, John Connor did not feel as important as he should have been. Yes, I got that he was supposed to be leader and therefore supposed to be tough and commanding. And that’s the problem: I only saw him in that light and I wish McG, the director, established more scenes where we could ascertain another dimension of his personality.
There’s no doubt about it: I would recommend “Terminator Salvation.” However, I must urge people who have not yet seen the first three films (especially the first two) to catch up because there were references here and there that enhanced my viewing experience. If one had not seen the prior installments, one will most likely miss those or “not get it.” While I admit that this is far from a perfect post-apocalyptic adventure with subtle moral ambiguities, the positives outweigh the negatives as mentioned above. Perhaps if this series is to survive (and it most likely will), a more capable director and stronger writers could take over to truly blow die-hard fans and nondie-hard fans out of the water. In the meantime, “Terminator Salvation” will have to suffice.