“INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” (2016) Review

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“INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” (2016) Review

Back in the 1990s, Twentieth Century Fox Studios, producer Dean Devlin and producer-director Roland Emmerich delivered a science-fiction epic about an alien invasion during the Fourth of July holiday. Hence, the title – “INDEPENDENCE DAY”.

Years later, the studio and the two producers delivered a sequel to the 1996 blockbuster. This movie, “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE”, featured some of the same characters and the same aliens. And . . . this movie was set during the twentieth anniversary of humanity’s previous victory against the aliens – on the Fourth of July.

In anticipation of the invading aliens’ return, the United Nations have collaborated to form the Earth Space Defense (ESD), an international military defense and research organization that has developed hybrid technology, reverse-engineered from the invaders’ fallen ships in anticipation that they would return. When the returning aliens again attack Earth with an advanced and unprecedented force, a new generation of defenders from the ESD joins forces with the surviving protagonists from the 1996 film to participate in a battle to save the world from annihilation. Humanity also discovers that their adversary might also have other enemies of their own. Among the survivors from the first film are:

* David Levinson – the MIT-educated computer expert, environmental activist and one of the heroes from the 1996 film, who has become the ESD Director in charge of the civilian sector

*Thomas J. Whitmore – the former U.S. president during the first invasion and former Gulf War pilot, who has been suffering from occasional bouts of PTS from the previous invasion

*Julius Levinson – David’s widowed father, who has written a book about his previous experiences from the previous invasion

* Dr. Brakish Okun – the comatose Area 51 scientist, who has awaken after 20 years

*Jasmine Dubrow-Hiller – widow of the late war hero Steven Hiller and a former exotic dancer, who had returned to school to study nursing and become a hospital administrator

*Dylan Dubrow-Hiller – Jasmine’s son and Steven Hiller’s stepson, who became a pilot and captain in ESD; and a fleet leader of the Legacy Squadron

*Patricia Whitmore – Whitmore’s daughter, who is not only an ESD pilot, but also aide to the current president, Elizabeth Lanford

*William Grey – retired U.S.M.C. general, Whitmore’s former head of the United States Space Command, who had succeeded the latter as U.S. President

The movie also featured new characters, but I will get to them later.

The movie begins with the world preparing to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its victory over the aliens. David Levinson and ESD colleague Dr. Catherine Marceaux travel to the Republique Nationale d’Umbutu to meet with warlord Dikembe Umbutu, who leads him to an intact alien destroyer. Aboard the ship, they discover that the alien occupants had sent a distress call to their home planet before being defeated. Furthermore, Levinson and Marceaux discover that Umbutu has been telepathically linked with the aliens ever since his personal encounter with one, years ago. They also discover that both former President Whitmore and Dr. Okun, who awakens at Area 51 after a twenty-year coma, are also among those who are telepathically linked with the aliens, due to their previous encounters.

The following day, an unknown alien ship or sphere emerges from a wormhole near Earth. Although Dr. Levinson believes it might belong to a race that might be benevolent, Earth’s Security Council orders it to be shot down. When ESD pilots Jake Morrison (Patricia Whitmore’s fiance) and Charlie Miller take Levinson, Marceaux, Umbutu, and Levinson’s accountant Floyd Rosenberg to the alien wreckage on a space tug; an alien mothership appears and destroys Earth’s planetary defenses before approaching the planet. The mothership then lands over the Atlantic Ocean and begins destroying cities on the Eastern Seaboard. The alien invaders also begin drilling a hole through the bottom of Earth to harvest the heat of the planet’s core for fuel, which will destroy its magnetic field in the process.

I once came across an article in which producer-director Roland Emmerich admitted that he did not like making sequels. While watching “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE”, I found it easy to believe his words. The movie, pardon for saying this, seemed to lacked heart. It also seemed to lacked the magic of its 1996 predecessor and a handful of other movies directed by Emmerich. I am aware that “INDEPENDENCE DAY” had its problems. But it still had a magic and energy that was particularly lacking in this new sequel. It seemed as if Emmerich was going through the motions, while directing this film. But you know what? He was not solely to blame. I also had a problem with the film’s screenplay, written by Emmerich, Devlin and three other screenwriters.

First of all, this movie seemed to lack any kind of originality whatsoever. It was bad enough that it tried to copy some of the aspects of the 1996 – especially with the movie’s finale set at Area 51. I also noticed that the movie tried to copy the old “refugees caught up in the alien invasion” with a sequence that featured David Levinson’s father, Julius, traveling from Florida to Nevada with a car full of recently orphaned kids. The problem with this particular sequence is that it did not last very long, due to Mr. Levinson and his companions reaching Nevada rather quickly. Too quickly, if I must be honest.“INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” also utilized the old “drilling to the Earth’s core” spiel from movies like 1976’S “AT EARTH’S CORE” and 2003’s “THE CORE”, a storyline that failed to generate any interest within me.

I certainly had a problem with the movie’s portrayal of the central (and fictional) African nation, the Republique Nationale d’Umbutu. I found it so stupid. According to a Wiki page, the country came into existence by a local warlord in the wake of the invasion from the previous movie. But the warlord wanted nothing to do with the outside world, despite spending several years fighting some alien survivors. This was just ridiculous. One, I cannot see the international community standing by and allowing any of the alien survivors posing as a threat, even in a newly formed and isolationist country. Two, the d’Umbutu must have been some kind of idiot to prevent other countries from helping out the alien threat against his. By the time of the second film, the warlord’s son, Dikembe Umbutu, had become the new head of state. Not long after he met with David Leivnson and Catherine Marceaux, all three left the country and the Republique National d’Umbutu was never heard from again. The whole point of featuring this setting in the first place was to serve as a background for the Dikembe Umbutu character and to indicate that the alien survivors in that country had sent a distress signal before they were killed. What was the point of this distress signal in the first place? Surely, the aliens’ defeat at the hands of the humans was enough to encourage them for a second attempt at planetary invasion? Good grief!

Another major problem I had with “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” was the characterizations featured in this film. The latter seemed to be reeking with clichés. One good example was the Jake Morrison character portrayed Liam Hemsworth. After portraying the complex Gale Hawthorne character in “THE HUNGER GAMES” movie franchise, poor Hemsworth found himself saddled with a very unoriginal character that seemed unworthy of his skills as an actor. Jake Morrison fit the typical “hotshot” pilot trope, straight out of movies like “TOP GUN” – a brash and talented pilot, whose aggressive and cocky manner seemed to irritate his commander. Boring. And the Dylan Dubrow-Hiller character portrayed by Jessie T. Usher, who came off as a humorless straight-arrow type who always seemed to reek with disapproval of Hemsworth’s Jake. Usher was Val Kilmer to Hemsworth’s Tom Cruise. I am not that familiar with Angelababy as an actress, but it seemed clear to me that her character, ESD pilot Lieutenant Rain Lao, is a female version of Dylan Dubrow-Hiller, whose uncle is the ESD Moon Base’s commander, portrayed by Emmerich veteran Chin Han (“2012”). And what would a “hotshot” type like Jake Morrison be without his goofy sidekick “aka Anthony Edwards”? Travis Tope filled this spot in his portrayal of Jake’s “devoted” friend, Lieutenant Charlie Miller. And just to make sure that poor Charlie was more than a sidekick, the screenwriters allowed him to become infatuated with Lieutenant Lao, who seemed to have no interest in him, whatsoever . . . until he proved his . . . manliness in the final battle against the aliens and their queen. Maika Monroe as Patricia Whitmore did not really do much in this film other than express concern for her ailing father, Thomas Whitmore and be Hemsworth’s romantic interest. Well . . . at least her character played a minor role

But the younger characters were not the only ones I found troublesome. It was nice to see Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch portray David and Julian Levinson, again. Unfortunately, the writers dumped Hirsch’s character with a bunch of kids led by an adolescent Joey King in some convoluted attempt to involve them in an “epic” journey. As the for the David Levinson character, he seemed to be romancing his ESD colleague, Dr. Catherine Marceaux, portrayed by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Which led me to wonder what happened to Connie Spano, the ex-wife with whom David had reunited at the end of the 1996 film. Did her character die sometime between the two movies? Or did she and David break up again? Worse, I noticed that David did not have a major role in the aliens’ defeat. Neither did Dr. Marceaux for that manner. Why was she in this movie in the first place, other than provide Jeff Goldblum with a romantic lead? That honor seemed to go to the military characters. At least Brent Spinner’s Dr. Brakish Okun had a lot more to do in this film. He was the one who made first contact with the alien sphere. But how in the hell did he survive from being attacked in the last movie? I thought he had been declared dead. Confusing. Bill Pullman, who portrayed former President Thomas Whitmore spent most of the film reacting to the Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) from his past close encounter with an alien, twenty years ago. He did have a part in the final action scene against the aliens. Actor Deobia Oparei’s Dikembe Umbutu struck me as a one-note characterization of masculinity. He could have been more interesting and worthy of Oparei’s talent, but the screenwriters sold him short. His only real purpose, it seemed, was to be around to give final approval of the Floyd Rosenberg character, after the latter managed to “prove his masculinity” by saving Umbutu’s life. Sigh. Robert Loggia made a brief cameo as Whitmore’s former Chief of Staff General Grey some time before his death in December 2015. Thank goodness this movie was not the last one for a first-rate actor like Loggia.

The worst characterizations proved to be those for Vivica A. Fox’s Jasmine Dubrow-Hiller and Sela Ward’s President Elizabeth Lanford. The screenwriters’ handling of their characters struck me as sheer travesty. In a nutshell, the screenwriters killed off both of them. I was so disgusted that I left the theater feeling that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich had something against middle-aged women. Fox Jasmine barely had five minutes of screen time before the writers bumped her off, while son Dylan raced to the hospital to save her. Apparently, Emmerich and Devlin had decided she was not worth keeping around, due to Will Smith’s refusal to do the movie. Worse, Fox’s character was fridged for the sake of the Dylan Dubrow-Hiller character. The President Elizabeth Lanford character proved to be a major problem as well. When I first saw Sela Ward (who also appeared in Emmerich’s “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW”) on the screen, I was interested to see how the screenwriters would explore how she would handle an alien invasion. Well, audiences did not get to see much, because the writers . . . KILLED HER OFF before the movie had reached the midway point!! Worse, she was replaced by General Joshua T. Adams of the ESD, as portrayed by William Fitchner. Apparently, Devlin and Emmerich do not believe that a woman civilian is capable of leading a nation through an alien invasion.

I will give “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” points for its attempts at originality. One, the humans’ defeat of the alien invaders played out differently than it did in the 1996 movie. It involved the invaders’ Queen (or leader) arriving at the Area 51 base (for reasons that had eluded me), David and Julius Levinson on a bus with the latter’s young traveling companions, both Thomas and Patricia Whitmore, and a group of ESD pilots that involved Dylan Dubrow-Hiller and Jake Morrison. I wish I could go into details on what happened, but I do not think I have the energy to do so. But it was original, if not someone cheesy. The introduction of another alien race that might be enemies of the invaders was another interesting attempt at originality. I suspect this new race was introduced to hint at the possibility of a franchise developing from this movie. Hmmmm. We will see. Although I have my doubts.

I will also give points to “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE” for its special effects. Yes, I admit that there times when I found Markus Förderer’s photography rather unusually dark . . . more than I care to admit. But when the visuals were clear, I must admit that I found Förderer’s photography rather breathtaking. This was especially the case for the movie’s final action sequence at the Area 51 base. More importantly, his photography greatly enhanced Barry Chusid’s production designs, which did a top-notch job in reflecting how the aliens’ technology had enhanced Earth’s 21st century society; along with the work of the visual effects team led by Shaun Friedberg.

After reading this review, one would come away with the belief that I disliked “INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE”. Yes, I am pissed at how Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich handled the two major middle-aged women characters in this film. And I was far from impressed by the movie’s plot and other characterization. The movie also lacked the magic of the 1996 film. But I liked it. I did not love it. I barely tolerated it. But I liked it. Do not ask me why, because I cannot explain my reaction. Enough said.

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“ELYSIUM” (2013) Review

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“ELYSIUM” (2013) Review

Four years ago, writer-director Neil Blomkamp made a name for himself with the release of his science-fiction thriller, “DISTRICT 9”. The movie made a celebrity out of the movie’s leading man, Sharlto Copely, as well. A few years passed before the two men paired up with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster to make a second science-fiction movie called “ELYSIUM”.

Set in the year 2154, “ELYSIUM” told the story of Max Da Costa, a parolee and former car thief who lives in ravaged Los Angeles. In the 22nd century, two classes of Humans exist – the very wealthy, who live on a luxurious space station called Elysium; and the poor, who live on an overpopulated, devastated Earth. Ruthless androids police the impoverished residents on Earth, while the Elysian citizens are serviced by robotic servants in a comfortable and luxurious setting. And while Earth’s citizens receive questionable and ineffective health care from health care workers at rundown hospitals, Elysian citizens regularly use man-sized medical devices called Med-Pods in their homes that keep them free from disease and wounds. Max, who had grown up as an orphan and spent a good deal of his life in prison, now works on an assembly-line at a robotic factory that provides the technology for Elysium called Armadyne Corporation.

An accident at the plant exposes Max to radiation and he discovers that he has five days left to live. Armadyne CEO John Carlyle has Max fired. His friend Julio introduces him to a notorious smuggler and hacker named Spider, who organizes illegal caravans to Elysium. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium, if Max can help him steal valuable financial information from Carlyle. Spider arranges for Max to receive a fake Elysium ID needed to use the Med-Pods, a primitive powered exoskeleton that increases his strength to rival the android sentinels, and a cerebral data uplink, which will allow Max to transfer information from Carlyle’s mind to his own. With help from a team that includes Julio, Max intercepts Carlyle’s space shuttle and steals the latter’s data (including the program), uploading it to his own brain. The team, however, finds the data scrambled by Carlyle’s security measures and cannot transmit it to Spider. Even worse, Max and the others are forced to deal with a brutal mercenary named Kruger, who works for Elysian Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt. And Delacourt wants the information that Max had downloaded from Carlyle’s mind in the hopes of using it to stage a coup d’etat against Elysium’s President Patel. The information from Carlyle’s mind could also help Max’s childhood friend, Frey, who is not only a nurse, but also the mother of a young girl dying from leukemia.

Although I had been impressed by “DISTRICT 9” four years ago, I have to be honest and say that I found a few aspects of the movie a little off-putting. I cannot say the same about “ELYSIUM”. There is nothing about it that I found off-putting . . . only questionable. However, “ELYSIUM” failed to impressed me. I am sorry, but it simply did not. The movie did benefit from some virtues. I have to give credit to Blomkamp’s screenplay for exploring issues that affect our lives today . . . and may even have a bigger impact upon our future – immigration, transhumanism, class issues and especially health care issues. And I must say that I found Blomkamp’s vision of 22nd century Los Angeles, reinforced by Philip Ivey’s production designs and Trent Opaloch’s photography, to be very interesting and original. And I cannot help but wonder if his vision will prove to be prophetic. The movie’s action sequences struck me as impressive. And I found Blomkamp’s handling of the sequence featuring Max’s theft of Carlyle’s data from the latter’s mind to be first-rate. Personally, I feel that it is the best sequence in the movie.

Too bad “ELYSIUM” featured even more aspects that I found either questionable or simply . . . off-putting. Yes, I know that I had earlier claimed that the movie did not have any off-putting aspects about it. I now realize I had been wrong. My biggest complaint about “ELYSIUM” happens to be its second half. Whatever intelligence Blomkamp injected into the script’s first half, he seemed to have ripped it away in its second. And this happened when Max made a bargain with Kruger for a trip to Elysium in exchange for Carlyle’s program (threatening suicide by a live grenade next to his head). It did not help that Frey and her daughter were along for the ride with Max as hostages of Kruger. So many stupid incidents occurred during the movie’s second half; including the reconstruction of Kruger’s damaged face from an exploded grenade held by Max with the Med-Pods. Kruger should have been dead after what happened to his face. But following his recovery . . . oh God! It was just one big mess! I would tell what happened, but I fear I have given away too much of the plot, already.

There were other aspects of “ELYSIUM” I found disturbing. According to its premise, 22nd century humanity will be divided into two classes – working class and the elite. So, what happened to the middle-class? Did economic upheavals caused its elimination? And if the middle-class had ceased to exist, to which class did Max’s immediate supervisor at the plant belonged? Or the doctor that Frey worked with? And why did Max seemed to be the only white person among the working-class in Los Angeles? Surely, there were other whites among the working-class. And if Blomkamp intended for Los Angeles’ working-class to consist mainly of a large majority of Latinos and less blacks and Asian-Americans, why cast the obviously white Matt Damon as Max Da Costa?

Speaking of Damon, he gave a decent performance as the movie’s protagonist, Max Da Costa. But he did not exactly rock my boat. He tried. But Max never struck me as a particularly interesting character. I would have been more impressed by Jodie Foster’s portrayal of the cold-blooded Jessica Delacourt, if I were not so confused by her accent. If anyone has an idea of what her accent was supposed to be, please let me know. One could always count on Sharlto Copely to give a top-notch performance in any movie. His portrayal of Delacourt’s thug, Kruger, was certainly an all-out effort on his part. Unfortunately, Kruger struck me as one of the most-one-dimensional villains I have ever seen on the movie screen in the past few years. One would think that an old friend like Blomkamp could have written Kruger with a little more dimension for Copely. I have never seen any of Alice Braga’s previous performances. And she struck me as a very competent actress. But like Copely, she was saddled with a one-dimensional character that no skillful acting could overcome. At least for me.

There were some performances that impressed me. William Fitchner gave a first-rate performance as the businesslike and brainy CEO John Carlyle, whose bigotry toward the working-class led to a dislike of being touched. Wagner Moura infused a great deal of energy into his performance of the smuggler and hacker, Spider. And this energy carried into every scene he was in. Diego Luna, whom I last saw in 2012’s “CONTRABAND” gave a very compassionate performance as Max’s loyal and caring friend, Julio. It was nice to see Faran Tahir, who portrayed Elysium’s President Patel, after a few years. And like Moura, he infused a good deal of energy into his performance and the movie, thanks to some skillful acting.

“ELYSIUM” could boast some virtues, including an interesting premise, excellent production designs and photography, and skillful acting from some of the cast. But a few one-dimensional characterizations and a plot that lost a great deal of intelligence in its second half resulted in “ELYSIUM” becoming something of a disappointment for me.

“DATE NIGHT” (2010) Review

“DATE NIGHT” (2010) Review

After watching the new comedy, ”DATE NIGHT”, I found myself amazed that its two stars – Steve Carell and Tina Fey – had never worked together. At least not before this movie. Both managed to become stars within the last five years. Both possessed a wry, yet off-the-world sense of humor that made their respective television series successful. So, why did it take them so long to work together? 

You know what? Who cares? I should thank my lucky stars that Carell and Fey had finally decided to co-star in this hilarious comedy. Directed by Shawn Levy, ”DATE NIGHT” told the story of a suburban couple named Phil and Claire Foster, suffering from a mid-life crisis in their marriage. They decided to renew their romantic juices by attending a new, upscale restaurant in Manhattan. When they failed to get a table on their own, the Fosters decide to pretend to be another couple named Tripplehorn that failed to appear for their reservation. The two are eventually mistaken as the Tripplehorns by a pair of corrupt police detectives, working for a local mobster. The detectives believed that the Fosters have a small computer flash drive that contains information on a politician with connections to the mobster. Hilarity ensued as the Fosters struggled to stay alive and get their hands on the flash drive in order to clear their names.

The main reason I seemed to be in shock over Steve Carell and Tina Fey is because I believe they had managed to work very well, together. Who am I kidding? While watching ”DATE NIGHT”, I felt as if I had stumbled across a dynamic new screen team. How these two managed not to work together for so many years in the past seemed like a great mystery. The miraculous thing about Carell and Fey’s screen chemistry is not only did their styles merged into comedy magic, both actors-comics did an excellent job in the movie’s one dramatic scene in which their characters – Phil and Claire – expressed pent-up frustrations over the pressures of family life and the diminishing romance in their marriage.

Carell and Fey were ably supported by solid performances from the rest of the cast. Mark Wahlberg was both sexy and humorous as Holbrooke Gran, former intelligence agent-turned-security expert that happened to be a former client of Claire’s. Taraji P. Henson gave a richly sardonic performance as N.Y.P.D. Detective Arroyo, whose help the Fosters tried to recruit. Common and Jimmi Simpson gave subtle, yet sinister performances as Detectives Collins and Armstrong, the corrupt detectives working for a local gangster named Joe Miletto. Ray Liotta gave his usual, hypertensive performance as local mob boss, Miletto. Aside from Carell and Fey, the real laughs also came from a hilarious William Fitchner as the corrupt and perverse District Attorney Frank Crenshaw, whose perversity turned out to be the movie’s catalyst. J.B. Smoove was hysterical as a Manhattan cab driver who inadvertently got drawn into a high speed chase involving the Fosters, the two corrupt detectives and the police. But James Franco and Mila Kunis were just as hilarious as the Tripplehorns, a pair of married low-life criminals whose restaurant reservations had been taken by the Fosters.

Another aspect of ”DATE NIGHT” that I enjoyed so much was the film’s screenplay written by Josh Klausner. Not only did I find it funny, but also well-written with plenty of strong characterizations. Klausner took a common malaise for many married couples and created a hilarious, yet exciting action-adventure. The plot touched upon a good number of topics – crime, sex, police corruption, political corruption, computer technology, love and marriage. And not only did Levy utilized his talented cast and Klausner’s script with great skill, he also provided the movie with sight gags that left me in stitches. One such scene involved the Fosters’ initial escape from the corrupt detectives at a Central Park boathouse. Another featured the Fosters’ attempt to implicate District Attorney Crenshaw at one of Miletto’s local whorehouses.

I am trying to recall a flaw or two that I may have spotted in the movie. If I must be frank, I cannot think of one at the moment. If anyone can recall one, please let me know. Regardless of whether there are any flaws I may have overlooked,”DATE NIGHT” turned out to be one of the funniest movies I have seen in recent years. More importantly, it just might serve as the beginning of a hilarious screen team in the form of Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

“HEAT” (1995) Review

Below is my review of ”HEAT”, Michael Mann’s 1995 crime melodrama that starred Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer: 

”HEAT” (1995) Review

For many filmgoers and critics, the 1995 crime drama ”HEAT” is regarded as director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. It is the movie that most fans think of when the director’s name is mentioned. ”TIME” magazine had even placed it on its list of top 100 crime dramas of all time. And the brutal downtown Los Angeles shootout is considered to be one of the best action sequences in movie history.

So . . . how do I feel about ”HEAT”? Like many others, I consider it to be one of the best crime dramas I have ever seen. Honestly. The movie centered around a cat-and-mouse game between a Los Angeles Police detective named Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and a ruthless professional thief named Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). McCauley’s carefully planned heist of an armored car that contained US$1.6 million dollars in bearer bonds owned by a money launderer named Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner) goes slightly wrong when one of his crew – a trigger-happy cowboy named Waingro (Kevin Gage) – kills one of the armored car guards being held at gunpoint by the crew. Realizing they cannot leave behind any witnesses, McCauley’s crew is forced to kill the remaining guards. This multiple homicide, along with the armored car robbery, attracts the attention of Detective Hanna and his squad – members of the L.A.P.D. Robbery/Homicide Unit.

Back in the late 1980s, Michael Mann had written a transcript for a 1989 made-for-television film called ”L.A. TAKEDOWN”about a cat-and-mouse game between a Los Angeles Police detective and a hardened and methodical criminal that affected a bank robbery in downtown Los Angeles. Following his success of ”THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS”, Mann took that transcript and broadened it for a theatrical movie that would become ”HEAT”. Mann’s screenplay featured a multi-layered and complex look into the lives of professional criminals and the police officers that pursued them. Through characters like the introverted thief McCauley and one of his co-horts, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), audiences received a glimpse into the lives of professional criminals that were neither mobsters or amateurish lone wolves. Men like McCauley and Shiherlis were just as organized as the Mob, but they did not come from any particular ethnic group like the La Cosa Nostra. The movie also offered a glimpse into their personal lives and reveal how their pursuit of crime affected their families and other loved ones. ”HEAT”also presented a parallel glimpse into the lives of police officers like Vincent Hanna, who led a special unit of detectives that investigate robberies and homicides. Mann took filmgoers into Hanna’s marriage. There, the director revealed how the detective’s intense dedication to his profession and temper affected said marriage.

As I had earlier stated, ”HEAT” is a complex tale filled with intriguing characters and multiple subplots that served the movie’s main plot. Well . . . some of the subplots accomplished this task. The one plot that dominated the movie (and served as the only plot for Mann’s ”L.A. TAKEDOWN”) was the clash between Hanna and McCauley that culminated in a downtown Los Angeles bank robbery and its aftereffects. Through his script and direction, Mann provided some memorable moments in the film. I found myself impressed by the scene that featured McCauley and his crew being double-crossed at a local drive-in theater by men working for money launderer Van Zant. Another scene that impressed me was the more dramatic quarrel between Chris Shiherlis and his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd) over his gambling habits. The scene served as a reminder on how the activities of criminals end up affecting their lives on a personal scale. One favorite scene featured an amusing, yet crowd-pleasing moment when Hanna realized that McCauley had become aware of the squad’s presence with his own investigation. But the movie’s tour-de-force remains, of course, the famous shootout in downtown Los Angeles, following a bank robbery committed by McCauley and his crew. I could rave over the excellence and excitement of the scene. But why should I bother? The sequence’s positive reputation amongst critics and filmgoers is a perfect reflection of the scene’s excellence. I can only think of a handful of similar action sequences – two of them from other Mann movies – that are this well shot.

As much as I admire ”HEAT”, it has its flaws. One, the movie has a running time of 165 minutes. Now, this might not be much of a problem on its own. However, it does become something of a problem with a movie filled with what I consider to be unnecessary subplots that dragged the film in certain areas. I could have done without the movie’s romantic subplots. McCauley’s romance with a bookstore clerk/graphics artist named Eady (Amy Bremmerman) bored the hell out of me. Hanna’s marriage to a divorcee named Justine (Diane Verona) annoyed me. Well . . . her character annoyed me. I became weary of her constant complaints about his “dedication” to the job. This particular subplot had its own in the form of Hanna’s suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), who seemed incapable of dealing with her real father’s absence from her life. In the end, Hanna and McCauley’s personal lives seemed to have NO real impact upon the movie’s main plot and minor impact upon their respective characters. Worse, both subplots nearly dragged the film. Ironically, the two relationships that had a stronger impact upon the movie’s main plot turned out to be Chris and Charlene Shiherlis’s troubled marriage and the marriage between another member of McCauley’s crew named Trejo (Danny Trejo) and his wife, Anna (Begonya Plaza). Chris and Charlene’s marriage and feelings for one another played a role in Chris’ fate following the disastrous bank robbery. And Trejo’s love for his wife led him to reveal McCauley’s robbery plans, while being tortured by Van Zant’s men and Waingro . . . before they could tip off the police. And yet, these two relationships did not receive as much screen time as Hanna and McCauley’s relationships.

Three other subplots failed to grab me. With Trejo and his wife in Van Zant’s clutches, McCauley was forced to recruit a driver for the bank robbery – a paroled convict named Donald Breeden (Dennis Haysbert). Unfortunately, Mann included a subplot that led Breeden to break his parole and accept McCauley’s job offer – a subplot that described the parolee’s difficulties in staying straight. I found the story a bore and a waste of Haysbert’s talent. And I never understood Mann’s decision to include Waingro’s murder of a teenage prostitute. Hanna and his team had never linked the murder to Waingro. Nor did the crime have an impact upon the movie’s plot, except force Hanna to abandon a dinner party with his squad and their wives . . . and give Justine another excuse to complain about his job. One last subplot seemed useless to me. It featured Hanna and McCauley’s only meeting at a local diner near, where each man examined the other and revealed that they would not hesitate to kill the other if the situation demands it. And while I must admit that Pacino and De Niro gave top notch performances, the entire scene struck me as a . . . waste . . . of . . . time. The only thing this entire scene had served was a chance to allow Pacino and De Niro to share one scene together.

I realized that I had written so much about the movie’s plot that I nearly forgotten about the performances. Fortunately, Mann had cast the movie with talented actors and actresses and I cannot fault any one of them. I realize much has been said about Al Pacino’s tendency to engage in theatrical acting. In other words, he can be a ham. He certainly was a ham in”HEAT”. But the thing about Pacino is that he can be subtle or he can be a ham . . . with style. Which is why I am willing to give him a pass on some of his hammier moments. But I cannot deny that Vincent Hanna may be one of his best roles. Whereas Pacino’s Hanna is all fire and theatrics, De Niro’s Neil McCauley is quiet intensity. His McCauley must be one of the most subtle performances he has ever given. I cannot even remember a scene where he had raised his voice, let alone mugged for the camera. There were other performances that also impressed me – Mykelti Williamson as the no-nonsense Sergeant Drucker, one of Hanna’s teammates; Tom Siezemore as McCauley’s most loyal henchman, Michael Cheritto; Jon Voight as Nate, McCauley’s pragmatic fence; and Diane Verona as Hanna’s embittered wife, Justine. Yes I had complained about her character, but I must admit that Verona gave a memorable performance. However, I have to give special kudos to Natalie Portman’s emotional performance as Hanna’s suicidal stepdaughter who is desperate for her real father’s attention; and to Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd, who managed to give complex performances as Chris and Charlene Shiherlis – one of McCauley’s colleagues and his wife. Despite their constant clashes over his gambling habit and her brief foray into adultery with a Las Vegas resident named Alan Marciano (Hank Azaria), Kilmer and Judd made it clear that these two loved each other . . . especially in a quiet and tense scene that featured Charlene giving fugitive Chris a silent warning to stay away, due to the presence of nearby police.

As much as I admire Michael Mann as a director, there is one aspect of his filmmaking that turns me off – namely his cinematic view of Los Angeles. I tend to find this view cold and antiseptic. I have noticed this in both ”HEAT” and his 2004 thriller,”COLLATERAL”. Hell, Mann’s view of Chicago in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” struck me as ten times more colorful. Considering that Mann is from Chicago, I am not surprised. Mind you, cinematographer Dante Spinotti captured some memorable shots of Los Angeles – including one breathtaking one of the city at night from McCauley’s Hollywood Hills home. But it still came off as slightly chilly. Mann’s view of Los Angeles is probably a reflection of his view of the city . . . which is completely opposite of my own. I did find Pasquale Buba,
William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig and Tom Rolf’s editing very impressive; especially in the downtown shootout. But there is one technical aspect of ”HEAT” that really knocked my socks off. I am speaking of Elliot Goldenthal’s score. Granted, most of Goldenthal’s score failed to make an impression upon me. However . . . his score for the bank robbery sequence was more than memorable. I enjoyed the way Goldenthal used percussion to underscore the scene’s growing tension that finally exploded into violence when Chris Shirherlis spotted cops and Hanna’s team waiting outside of the bank. For me, the entire sequence featured a perfect blend of music and action.

To repeat myself, ”HEAT” is not a perfect movie, despite its reputation. I consider Mann’s septic view of Los Angeles to be one of the movie’s minor flaws. But its major flaw seemed to be the numerous subplots that had nothing to do with the movie’s main narrative. A flaw that ended up dragging the movie’s pacing in many scenes. But despite these flaws, Mann still managed to create an exciting and complex story about two men – a methodical thief and an intuitive police detective – whose cat-and-mouse game engulfed those in their lives and an entire city. It is this cat-and-mouse game that made ”HEAT” a recent Hollywood classic.

“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

 

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“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

In 2005, director/writer Christopher Nolan had rebooted the Batman franchise with the highly successful movie, ”BATMAN BEGINS” that starred Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. Both men reunited three years later for a new story centered around Batman’s conflict with his greatest nemesis, Joker in this sequel called ”THE DARK KNIGHT”

There had been a great deal of attention surrounding this movie. Many have not only praised it, claiming that it is better than the 2005 movie. But most of the word-of-mouth centered around Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, especially after his tragic death two years ago. When ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was finally released, many critics and fans expressed the belief that the positive word-of-mouth had been justified. Not only have many judged Ledger’s performance as the best in his career, others have claimed that the movie is probably the best Comic Book Hero movie ever made. I do not know if the Joker featured Heath Ledger’s best performance ever. As for the claim about ”THE DARK KNIGHT” being the best comic book hero movie . . . I do not agree.

I am not saying that ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was a terrible or mediocre film. Frankly, I believe that it was one of the best movies I have seen this summer. Most of the movie featured an excellent story scripted by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, in which Gotham’s organized criminal element has found itself threatened by the law ever since the end of the Falsone family in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, thanks to Batman (Bale). A former inmate of Arkham Asylum named the Joker (Ledger) approaches the crime bosses, which include Salvatore “Sal” Maroni (Eric Roberts), with an offer to kill Batman for pay. At the same time, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) contemplate including the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate the mob, as he could be the public hero Batman cannot be. Harvey Dent is found to be dating Wayne’s childhood friend and object of romantic desire, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). This conflict between Batman, the Joker and their allies escalates to a tragic and well-directed dénouement that leads to Rachel’s death. And it is here where I believe that the movie faltered.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” could have ended with Rachel’s death, followed by the Joker’s manipulation of a grieving Harvey Dent into madness and his eventual capture or death. Instead, the Nolan brothers and Goyer allowed the Joker to escape and continued the story with Dent’s vengeful hunt for those he considered responsible for Rachel’s death and the Joker resorting to a Green Goblin situation involving two ferryboats packed with explosives. The situation involved him telling the passengers on each that the only way to save themselves is to trigger the explosives on the other ferry; otherwise, at midnight he will destroy them both remotely. All of this occurred during the movie’s last half hour and quite frankly, it was a half hour I could have done without. I found the entire ferryboats sequence so unbelievable and contrived. It seemed as if Nolan teased us with the possibility of seeing the darker side of the average citizen . . . and wimped out, because he would rather stroke the ego of his moviegoers with some “nobility of man” bullshit by allowing the passengers refuse to blow or try to blow each other to kingdom come, instead of telling the truth about human nature. Very disappointing. It would have been more interesting or darker if Batman had prevented the passengers from blowing up the boats at the last minute. Batman would have saved the people, but the Joker would have proven a point.

A fan had pointed out that the ending of the sequence was Nolan’s message about leaving a sliver of hope for the audience that human beings do have the capacity to do good things. I realize that this was Nolan’s aim, but this is a message that has been done to death by moviegoers for eons. The problem is that screenwriters and moviemakers are always giving moviegoers this “sliver of hope”. They call themselves pointing out the dark side of humanity and then they pervert these messages by allowing them to come out of the mouths from villains like the Joker, before the latter is eventually proven wrong. It just seems like a cop out to me. Which was why I found the whole ferryboat sequence something of a joke. Sure, human beings are capable of doing some good. But in that particular situation? I rather doubt it. If there is one trait that humanity possess, it is a talent for self-preservation. It would have been more realistic to me if the boats had detonated or Batman had prevented this before anyone on one or both of those boats and activated the bombs. Granted, Batman/Bruce Wayne would have been disappointed in Gotham’s citizens, but he would have learned a valuable lesson about the very people he calls himself protecting. Even better, I would have preferred if Nolan had never added that sequence in the first place.

As for Harvey Dent’s hunt for those he deemed responsible for Rachel’s death . . . I would have been more satisfied if Nolan and his co-writers had ended the movie with Dent’s eventual slide into darkness in that hospital room and saved his transformation into a twisted vigilante and arch villain in a third Batman film. This would have prevented the movie from being unnecessarily a half hour long. And it would have saved the talented Aaron Eckhart for the third film as “Two-Faced” Harvey. It would have also spared moviegoers of that ludicrous ending in which Batman and Gordon decided to allow the former assume blame of Dent’s crimes in order to save the reputation of the D.A. I am still stunned by this little plot development. What were the Nolan brothers thinking? Why was it so necessary to save Dent’s reputation in the first place? Did Batman and Gordon harbored such a low opinion of Gotham’s citizens that they had to treat the latter like children?

The performances in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” were basically superb. Christian Bale beautifully captured the growing dilemma of Bruce Wayne’s desire for a normal life with Rachel Dawes, juxtaposed with his role as Gotham’s costumed vigilante and his growing power over the city’s criminal element, thanks to his alliance with police lieutenant James Gordon and the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. There is one aspect of Bale’s performance I did not like – namely the growling tone he used, while in the Batman persona. I did not care for it in ”BATMAN BEGINS”. I cared for it even less in this film.

I have noticed how many have expressed the view that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Rachel Dawes was better than Katie Holmes in the 2005 film. Personally, I did not see much of a difference in the quality of their performances. Both actresses gave good, solid performances. But . . . the screenwriters’ portrayal of Rachel in this film disappointed me. They had turned her characters into an object. She was Bruce Wayne’s prize for giving up the Batman persona, as soon as he could get Dent to assume the role of Gotham’s “hero”. She was Dent’s love interest, Girl Friday and a reason to go on a rampage for Dent. And for the Joker, she was a means to get at Batman, once he realized how the latter felt about her. There were times when Rachel’s character almost seemed irrelevant and a sad decline from the legal and moral dynamo that Holmes had portrayed in ”BATMAN BEGINS”.

Heath Ledger as the Joker. What can I say? The man was brilliant. He made Jack Nicholson’s Joker look like chump change. Honestly. One of the reasons why I have never care for the Joker character in the past was due to his over-the-top persona. Cesar Romero’s Joker has never impressed me, regardless of the numerous insane clown laughs he had utilized. Nicholson’s Joker was too over-the-top for my tastes. As one can see, I do not have a love for overly theatrical characters, unless they are done right. Granted, Ledger portrayed the Joker as over-the-top. But somehow . . . I really do not know how to describe it. Somehow, he managed to infuse some kind of control in the character’s insanity – not only with his behavior, but also with a talent for emotional manipulation and the views he had spouted to Batman and other characters. Do I believe that the Joker was Ledger’s best performance? No. I believe that the character was one of his two best performances, the other being Ennis DelMar from 2005’s ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. Do I believe that Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, despite his death? Hmmmm . . . yes. He was that good.

The other truly superb performance came from Aaron Eckhart as Gotham’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. One of Eckhart’s virtues was that he formed an excellent screen chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Frankly, I found their romance more believable than her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Eckhart projected a great deal of magnetism, charm and intensity into his portrayal of Dent. But I was more impressed by the way he expressed Dent’s descent into vengeful madness, following Rachel’s death. Granted, this turn of his character occurred in the movie’s last half hour. Although I disliked the movie’s last half hour, Eckhart’s performance in it almost made it bearable.

Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) and Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow) all reprised their roles from the first film. All four gave solid performances, but only Oldman’s role as James Gordon seemed bigger. I found Gordon’s fake death somewhat contrived and manipulative. Aside from the creation of the Rachel Dawes character, everything about the two Batman movies directed by Nolan have adhered to the Batman canon. Which is why I found it difficult to believe that Gordon was dead. Alfred’s role seemed to have diminished from the first film. Freeman’s Lucius Fox is now quite aware that Bruce is Batman and seemed to be acting as the latter’s armourer, as well as Wayne Enterprises’ CEO. The only problem I had with the Fox character was his opposition against Wayne/Batman’s development an advanced surveillance system that can listen in and track the movement of any of the thousands of cell phones in the city. I found the whole scenario contrived. As much as I had enjoyed Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, I found his less than ten minutes appearance in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” a waste of the actor’s time . . . and mine.

Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard returned to score the sequel. I must admit that I had been impressed by their work in ”BATMAN BEGINS” and had expected another exceptional score by them. Unfortunately, I barely remembered the score. I understand that they had rehashed the original score for this movie and added a new theme or two. But it all came off as unmemorable for me.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” had the potential to be this summer’s best film. But there were some aspects – the portrayal of Rachel Dawes’ character, Zimmer and Newton Howard’s score, the portrayal of some of the minor characters and the contrived writing that dominated the movie’s last half hour – that I believe had ruined the movie’s chances of achieving this potential. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws and in the end, ”THE DARK KNIGHT” managed to remain first-rate and become – in my view – one of the better films from the summer of 2008.