Friday, August 31, 2012

The Bourne pretender

The Bourne Legacy
My rating:

A Bourne movie with no Bourne in it - that is, no Matt Damon, and no Paul Greengrass either. Everything about that screams "cash-grab sequel", and a particularly blatant one considering the absent main character still has his name in the title. Yet I was willing to cut it some slack and be somewhat optimistic about The Bourne Legacy. Primarily because Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter who's been on board the franchise since the beginning - and whose vision for it was not fully realised - is taking over both writing and directing duties. Gilroy is a thriller writer with a list of solid credentials behind him, and his first directorial effort was one of 2007's best-received films, Michael Clayton (a film that I liked a lot too). So, unnecessary sequel or not, its pedigree looked pretty good - but honestly, I was hopeful about this one because I liked the previous trilogy so much, and I wouldn't have minded more of the same at all.

I didn't get it.

As Jason Bourne is about to expose Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar, hasty decisions need to be made regarding yet another of the CIA's black ops programs: Operation Outcome. Admiral Mark Turso (Stacy Keach) and Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) decide to bury the entire thing, which means killing everyone involved. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is an Outcome operative on a training exercise in Alaska who survives the attempt on his life, as did Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who monitored the operatives. Cross seeks out Shearing in order to obtain his medication - the drugs that enhance his physical and mental abilities - as well as the means to wean himself off them. But as they go on the run together, they will have to avoid Byers' and Turso's relentless hunt as the CIA brings all its intelligence resources to bear against them.

I just said it. Didn't I just say it? Action movies that try to imitate the Bourne series always tend to miss the fundamental, intangible things that make it so good - and sadly, this now includes its own official fourth instalment. The pacing is off. The plot is tissue-thin. The characters are uninteresting. There is little tension or suspense. There isn't even a signature fight scene between faux-Jason Bourne Cross and the equally badass assassin who's the only character in the movie that can match him in badassery. Worst of all, it's dull.

I don't know how this could've come from Gilroy. He was the one who championed the plot of The Bourne Supremacy being about Bourne seeking atonement, which gave it the unexpected emotional depth that made it the best of the series. What is Aaron Cross after here? What is his entire motivation for this story? Pills. The little blue and green pills that apparently give him the chemically-enhanced mental and physical abilities to be a badass government assassin. (Which takes the series into vaguely science-fictional territory, another dubious decision of Gilroy's.) There's some stuff about how he was borderline mentally-handicapped before he joined Operation Outcome, and this is supposed to make us sympathise for him. But there's too little substance there to make it work. There's nothing emotionally compelling in this story of a guy who just wants his meds.

And Jeremy Renner is no replacement for Matt Damon. I like the guy, I liked him in The Avengers, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Hurt Locker. But instead of a brainwashed, emotionless, humanity-less killing machine slowly regaining his humanity like Bourne, Cross seems perfectly normal. Renner even plays him with the subtle swagger that comes naturally to him, which works for some of his roles - but next to Damon's haunted, wounded protagonist, it's a jarring step down. Rachel Weisz's Dr. Shearing is little more than a damsel in distress; what little characterisation she has is about how ignorant she was as to what her research was really used for, which endears us to her not at all. Ed Norton and Stacy Keach do nothing but bark orders in their high-tech control room, lacking the personality of the series' previous villains - the pathetic desperation of Brian Cox's Ward Abbott or the oily pompusness of David Strathairn's Noah Vosen.

The latter of which actually makes an appearance here - as does other franchise mainstays Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), Guardian reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) and CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn). Which are Gilroy's attempts at continuity tie-backs to the previous trilogy, as is the fact that it's set almost concurrently with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. It doesn't work; their appearances are perfunctory and superfluous, and viewers new to the franchise would just be wondering who they are and what they're there for. It just doesn't feel like a Bourne movie. The plot business in between action scenes is dull and tiresome; Cross and Shearing trudge from plot point A to plot point B, while Byer and Turso laboriously follow their footsteps. Where are the action scenes? There's a good long first act in which Cross and another Outcome operative (played by Oscar Isaac) warily circle each other in an isolated Alaskan cabin, and it couldn't even give us a good fight scene between the two?

I'll say it again: it doesn't feel like a Bourne movie. Gilroy's vision to continue the franchise is fundamentally misconceived. (There was Treadstone, and Blackbriar, and hey look, here's another unethical government assassin program that needs to be covered up by eliminating everyone involved! It's like the CIA just goes through a dozen of these a year, don't they?) If it weren't for Bourne's name in the title, it'd be a reasonably slick - yet still somewhat anodyne - Hollywood spy action thriller. But as a bona fide official new entry in the series, it's a huge disappointment. Because once again, how the hell can you think of making a Bourne movie without a signature hand-to-hand fight scene? Aiyoo, Tony Gilroy, what laa??

Expectations: amboi, psychological thriller, beraninyaaaa

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bourne to be classics

The first three Bourne films is one of my favourite film series, but I've never actually seen all three back-to-back - in fact, I may have not even rewatched any of them from start to finish. Mostly I just watch clips of its action sequences; each one has at least one signature hand-to-hand fight scene and one car chase scene. And most of them are terrific action sequences, among the best of the entire action film genre - which is why, as an action film aficionado, I like this series so much. But partly also why I like it is that it is, in my book, one of the most consistently good movie series ever. Unlike most trilogies, there's not a single disappointing entry, and certainly not any one that feels like a major letdown from its predecessors. Which is a pretty rare accomplishment - but since Hollywood just can't leave well enough alone, there's now a fourth instalment to potentially spoil that record. So before we review that, let's take a look back at what was previously known as the Bourne Trilogy (and will probably still be known as the Bourne Trilogy with Matt Damon In It.)

The Bourne Identity (2002)
My rating:

Perhaps the most notable thing about the first of the series is that it turned out as good as it is. It underwent a troubled production, with reshoots and script rewrites that took it over budget and delayed its initial release. This is undoubtedly why director Doug Liman was removed from (or quit) the series - which, given his replacement in Paul Greengrass, was likely for the better. Still, Liman helmed the film that started it all, and his vision of a smart, realistic spy action film survives despite the studio interference. In 2002, the Pierce Brosnan era of James Bond films was winding down with Die Another Day, one of the cheesiest and most over-the-top in the long-running series - and that same year, the Vin Diesel-starring xXx tried to be the "extreme attitude" version of Bond. Compared to those two, The Bourne Identity felt like a breath of fresh air.

In particular, the fight scene between Bourne and Castel, the first of the CIA assassins sent to kill our amnesiac hero. It's short and brutal and I unreservedly love it; it's perhaps the first time I've ever seen a fight between two combatants who are trained not to fight, but to kill. A great many action movies made in the succeeding years owe a debt to this one scene. Aside from it, there's a fun little car chase (that would be eclipsed by Greengrass' work in the sequels) and a tense cat-and-mouse hunt through a rural countryside (with Clive Owen!). Still, nothing beats that early fight scene; certainly nothing in the climax, which feels curiously anti-climactic, perhaps a casualty of the bickering between Liman and Universal Pictures. It also doesn't feel as consistent tonally as the later Greengrass-helmed entries; at times, there are glimpses of a light-heartedness that seems incongruous with its two sequels.

But that may be due to the romance between Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz, played by Franka Potente. It's the only film in the series in which Bourne isn't alone and hunted for the majority of the running time, and thus it's the only one in which he gets to make an emotional connection with another person. Their romance works, largely due to both actors; Potente is appealing, and Damon ever only allows a hint of a genuine smile when he's talking to her. But what Damon's performance is most notable for is turning him into a terrifically effective action hero. Back then, no one thought he had that in him at all - and while he proved up to the physical requirements by doing most of his own stunts, his tightly-controlled acting also helped create an indelible character in the tormented, deceptively deadly Bourne. As a thinking person's action movie, it succeeds handily, and did it it many ways that we had never seen before.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
My rating

A new director, a new visual and narrative style, and a bona fide classic film franchise is Bourne (hee). The Bourne Identity was a respectable success, if a little more critically than financially, but The Bourne Supremacy ramps up all its predecessor's strengths and improves on the flaws. The signature hand-to-hand fight scene is every bit as brutal and bloody. The car chase features a lot more vehicular carnage and makes the one from the first film look lame (which it isn't; it's just that this one is so much more thrilling). Where the pace of the previous one felt conventional, with expositionary and character-building scenes interspersed between action setpieces, this one is gripping and propulsive from start to finish. If there's one weakness, it's that the plot is almost too hard to follow. There's no easy audience surrogate character like Marie; Bourne is practically as much an enigma as anyone else, in a story full of practiced deception and hidden agendas.

Of course, Greengrass' direction doesn't make it any easier either. But I'll defend his much-maligned shaky-cam style anytime; there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and Greengrass knows how to do it right. His most well-known previous credit, the faux-documentary Bloody Sunday, made him an unusual choice for a big-budget Hollywood actioner, but it proved to be an inspired one. Unlike the imitators, his style of filming action scenes isn't haphazard and mindlessly chaotic; he chooses his shots, angles and cuts very, very deliberately. He plays scrupulously fair in showing you exactly what you need to figure out what's going on, and you can figure it out if you're attentive enough. And you can then immerse yourself in the immensely thrilling sense of immediacy and urgency that it creates, and that just so happens to be terrifically well-suited to a spy action thriller.

But what makes this film perhaps the best in the series - and yes, I do think it's the best in the series - is the emotional journey that Bourne undertakes. Credit for this goes to screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who took the previous entry's happy ending and completely shits over it - but in so, gives Jason Bourne a motive that we've never seen in an action hero before. People still make the mistake that the movie is all about his revenge; it's not, not at all. It's about his need to know the truth of who he was and what he did, and why the girl he loved had to pay the price for his sins. It isn't till almost the very end that this is revealed, but upon subsequent viewings, it's there in Damon's remarkably subtle performance. Bourne is never truly angry or vicious throughout - just frustrated by his memory loss and haunted by his guilt. And it culminates in a quietly poignant scene that's the last thing you'd expect in a spy action thriller. For doing what it does tremendously well, and daring to be even more... yes, I think this is the one that'll stand out as the best in the franchise.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
My rating:

I remember being pretty pumped for this movie, to the point where I forked out good dough for Gold Class seats. It was worth it. The early scene set at London's Waterloo Station is a bravura sequence of crackerjack tension, in which Bourne tries to herd a hapless journalist out of a gauntlet of CIA assassins, demonstrating our hero's quick thinking and street smarts in addition to his already-known badassery. This third entry greatly extends the role of Nicky Parsons, a character who had been on the fringes of the previous two; Julia Stiles is an always welcome presence and makes a good match with Damon. (Although it's never very clear why she would help Bourne - seems like Stockholm Syndrome more than anything else.) Once again we get one terrific fight scene and one terrific car chase scene; the latter especially is the most bone-jarring (and expensive) one yet. And as a conclusion to the trilogy, it does a nice job of calling back to scenes from the previous films, and even reinterprets the final scene from The Bourne Supremacy in a clever way.

So why the lower rating? Because what's lost is the emotional depth of its immediate predecessor. This time, Bourne is on a quest to discover the truth of his past as a man-made killing machine, which is a little less compelling than a man driven to atone for his past sins out of mourning for his lost love. There are small references to the grief he still feels for Marie, but they don't stand out amidst the railroad plot. Which is what this movie is almost entirely - a bullet train of an action-thriller that dashes breathlessly from one plot point to another. The Bourne Supremacy was that too, until the scene with Neski's daughter changed everything. This one doesn't. What it has is when Bourne returns to the research centre where Operation Treadstone began, where he first started becoming what he is now - and frankly, it feels a bit of a letdown. It feels like the whole movie should've been leading up to something more revelatory, more surprising.

It feels much more like a Greengrass film, less of a Gilroy one. Gilroy's emphasis on Bourne's emotional journey is replaced by Greengrass' political leanings, seen in how he villainises the CIA as running a black ops unit that seems to spend as much time killing civilians who threaten to expose them as they do stopping actual terrorist threats. (Gilroy's screenplay draft was reportedly completely unused, and Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi were doing emergency rewrites in the midst of shooting.) And it's also telling that of all the heartless CIA suits in the series, the only two with a conscience are women. Still, the white-knuckle tension and intelligent, realistic take on modern spy action are present and accounted for, making this a worthy entry and conclusion to the series. There's sure as hell no drop in quality in the action scenes, which, let's face it, is what we come to these movies for.


I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating and elaborating on: the Bourne series is notable as much for how influential it is as how good it is. The fight scenes in particular; if The Bourne Identity's fight was fresh and unique at the time, since then there've been an embarrassment of riches in terms of quick, brutal and realistic (well, more realistic) fight scenes. But often, that's the only thing the other movies managed to imitate successfully. The unrelenting pace, the grittily real tone, the scrupulous respect for the audience's intelligence - these more intangible things are still unparalleled. So yeah, as this post title indicates, the Bourne Trilogy (with Matt Damon In It) are bona fide modern film classics in my book. They sit at the pinnacles of their genre. Anyone who doesn't like 'em, you can pretty much write them off as someone who just doesn't get action movies. (Yes, such people exist.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Namewee needs to work on his impulse control

Hantu Gangster
My rating:

My respect for Namewee took a plunge after his anti-Lynas music video. I have no wish for a potentially hazardous industrial plant with dodgy safety standards on our shores, but I thought that video was hateful. It was full of nothing but virulently racist invective against Australians, for no other reason than that Lynas is an Australian corporation. It clearly did not occur to Namewee that many Malaysians may have Australian friends, and his video would have utterly embarrassed both of them. Which is why I was eager to watch his latest movie. I liked his last, and I wanted to see what he does next. I've gone to bat for him before and defended him against those who think he's a vulgar and shameless opportunist. I would like to think he's more than that.

I think he is. But he is also, in many ways, his own worst enemy.

Te Sai (Namewee) is a petty criminal, ne'er-do-well and single father to his perpetually disappointed 12-year-old son Chee Meng (Tee Jing Chen). But he's the one whom the ghosts of three recently-murdered gangland bosses, Pak Nasir (Dato' Jalaluddin Hassan), Uncle Arulmugam (Dato' David Arumugam) and Uncle Ah Hua (Charlie Loke), seek out to avenge their murders. Their sons and new leaders of the gangs - weak-willed Parut (Taiyuddin Bakar), thuggish loan shark Seelan (Abu Bakar Siddiq) and debauched drug dealer Ah Bao (Fa Chai Bao) - have forgotten the bonds of brotherhood that their fathers forged decades ago, and are on the verge of a race war. Unbeknownst to all three is the fact that the devious Ewan (Farid Kamil), who ordered the hit on their fathers, is deliberately stoking racial tensions in his bid to take control of all three gangs. To stop Ewan and restore harmony, there could not be an unlikelier hero than Te Sai - although if he succeeds, he might win the heart of the lovely Jameela (Diana Danielle), his son's schoolteacher and also the daughter of Pak Nasir.

Dear Namewee. Here is a list of things in your movie that are not funny:

- Te Sai's expletive of choice, "Kuihkochi".
- Attempting Japanese dialogue when the extent of your knowledge of Japanese comes from JAV.
- The fact that Arulmugam is never without a bottle in his hand. Dude. Beh hao ar.
- The musical number that the three gangs suddenly launch into to hoodwink the police.
- "Guaaaaang Zhou." (Unless this is a reference to something I'm unfamiliar with.)
- Te Sai getting hamsap with Jameela.
- "Christopher".
- Anything to do with Ah Bao's four perpetually-shirtless henchmen.
- Especially the one with the killer penis. Yes.
- And the one who seems to really really enjoy anal stimulation.
- Seriously, any time you think of doing a dirty joke... don't. Just don't.

The majority of these are unfunny because they are, quite frankly, distasteful. Those that aren't are silly and lazy - which isn't to say that the distasteful jokes aren't also lazy attempts at getting laughs just by putting something stupid up on screen. Broad humour - which seems to be the only kind of humour that local films know how to employ - doesn't have to insult the audience's intelligence. One only has to look at the films of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker heyday (Airplane!, Top Secret!, The Naked Gun) for examples of jokes that are silly on the surface, but in fact rely a great deal on the audience being smart enough to get them. I mention this because I am greatly hoping that Namewee does a little homework and learns from his betters before making his next movie.

Because the fact is, he's got a lot going for him. Despite Certain Quarters trying to paint him as a Chinese chauvinist, he managed to rope several popular Malay actors into his film, aside from many of the same non-Malay celebrities who previously appeared in Nasi Lemak 2.0. He discovered a bona fide child prodigy in Tee Jing Chen; he even managed to score a cameo from Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir no less. He's done a canny job of getting investors for his films, which he repaid with quite shameless product placement shots. He's daring enough to poke fun at the Polis DiRaja Malaysia, in a joke that I couldn't believe he got past the censors. And of course, he has his fanbase in the Chinese-speaking segment of the population, who supported him through his last movie and will certainly make up the bulk of the box-office for this one. But there is also his deep, abiding - and thoroughly sincere - love of the multi-cultural mix that is unique to Malaysia and only Malaysia.

Oh, it's in this movie alright, and in spades. There are few tributes to 1Malaysia as effective as the flashback sequence chronicling how the three gang bosses (played in their youths by Noh Hujan, Reshmonu and Dennis Lau) met, became fast friends, and went on to become the most honourable, most fashionably-dressed, and overall awesomest gang leaders in Klang. (Well, except for how the Indian is always drinking.) We even see how they weather the events of May 1969, in a scene that has a lot to teach a certain other local production about how to depict that particular historical event. Beyond the annoyingly tasteless comedy, Namewee is a true patriot; the one message he wants to convey, above all else, is that Malaysia is only Malaysia if it's made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians. Love him or hate him, you can't deny him this - and you'd be ignorant and judgemental if you did.

So it's a shame that his most noble instincts are always brought low by his basest. I once called him less than circumspect, but I think I was far too kind; he's bloody reckless. Dude just doesn't think before he executes his ideas, whether it's in a viral video or a feature film. Hantu Gangster's screenplay bears the mark of having been hashed out in about a day, then never once being rewritten or revised or looked over to see if maybe this scene or that joke could be better played another way. (He's banking a lot on the audience's suspension of disbelief with his ridiculously romanticised portrayal of gangsters. And by movie's end, when everyone is one big happy family again, he seems to have forgotten that Seelan is still a violent criminal and Ah Bao is still a drug dealer.) Everything in here feels like a first thought, just as everything Namewee does seems like pure unguarded impulse without the benefit of a voice of discretion.

Which, again, is a shame, because his talents are also undeniable. As dumb as the jokes can be, there is at least one bit where I laughed out loud: a perfectly-timed rendition of "Negaraku." Contrast the hilarity of that moment to a later one, when our same national anthem is used as ironic counterpoint to a tense, ominous scene. Hantu Gangster is not a bad movie; there's some pretty good filmmaking in here, and it loses out to Nasi Lemak 2.0 only for being less of a purely feel-good experience. But if Namewee is gonna keep making films, he really really needs to work harder at it. Study other comedy filmmakers. (Hence, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker.) Learn how to build something more than a paper-thin plot. Spend more time on effective storytelling rather than comic setpieces. And most of all, start asking yourself, "Does this work? Is this good? Or is there a better way?" In fact, as I mentioned earlier - when it comes to anything that could be gross or risqué, ignore your instincts. When it comes to your sense of social satire, or your vision of what Malaysia is and should be... those instincts, you can trust.

NEXT REVIEW: The Bourne Legacy
Expectations: no Paul Greengrass or Matt Damon - but hey, Tony Gilroy?...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

We remember it just fine on our own

Total Recall (2012)
My rating:

TMBF has of course seen the original 1990 Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It stands out from Schwarzenegger's '80s-and-early-'90s run of action movies for two things: Verhoeven's unique - and at times, uniquely grotesque - visions of a science-fictional future, and its mind- and reality-bending plot based on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." It was a popular enough, and recent enough, film that one could not but wonder just why anyone would want to remake it - but then again, remember what TMBF said about criticising a movie for being unnecessary. And indeed, there were early reports of how Len Wiseman's remake would not repeat the Mars storyline, and that it would take more inspiration from Dick's story than the 1990 film. The trailer also looked good, showcasing a fresh an eye-catching look that's certainly different from Verhoeven's.

But the surface is all that's different. In the fundamental ways, this is as much a rehash as it is a remake.

In a future where most of the world has been rendered inhabitable due to global chemical wars, the Earth's population is confined to the United Federation of Britain and the Colony (what was once Australia) - and the haves clearly live in the former while the have-nots are confined to the latter. Travel between the two areas is only possible via the Fall, a massive elevator shaft that runs through the Earth's core. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is an ordinary factory worker who has been having disturbing recurring dreams, and - despite the admonishments of his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and his friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) - visits Rekall, a shady establishment that implants artificial memories, to satisfy what seems like his fantasy of being a secret agent. Suddenly he is hunted by the police, his own wife tries to kill him, and the mystery woman from his dreams (Jessica Biel) shows up to help him. Quaid realises that he may indeed be a double agent, working for the Colony's resistance and its leader Matthias (Bill Nighy) against the UFB's dictator Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), and that his very identity may be false.

There's no doubt that Wiseman, along with his screenwriters Mark Bomback, James Vanderbilt and Kurt Wimmer, are fans of the original film. And it's quite clear that they enjoyed putting in as many little references and callbacks to that film as they could. There's a triple-breasted prostitute; there's a bug that Quaid painfully extracts out of his body; there's a security checkpoint that Quaid tries to get past with the aid of futuristic disguising technology; there's an attempt by the bad guys to convince Quaid none of it is real, that's given away by a timely secretion of a bodily fluid. (It's, um, not as dirty as it sounds.) All this plus the basic plot that is essentially identical, substituting only the deprivation of air to the colourfully mutated citizens of Mars with the Fall as symbol of oppression of the Colony's downtrodden slum-dwellers. There's even a bit where an arm gets ripped off by an elevator, only - this being PG-13 - it's a robot's and not Michael Ironside's.

But in effect, none of these are as fun as Wiseman seem to think they are. All they do is remind us that it's all been done before. Again and again, the movie keeps telling us "hey, remember this thing from the original movie? Betcha do! And hey, remember this thing? And this?" Yes, we remember, but if we wanted to watch 'em again we could just pick up the first film on DVD. We would much rather see something new, which is what I believe - correct me if I'm wrong - most people want when they purchase a current cinema ticket.

To be fair, the best parts are those that are new and different from its 1990 predecessor. For one, the Blade Runner-inspired visual design of the Colony, looking very much like a Hong Kong or Tokyo tenement city of the future with its hodge-podge of apartments stacked chaotically atop each other. It looks cool enough that it doesn't even seem like such a bad place to live. We see less of how the other half lives in the UFB, but they use magnetically-levitated cars on a kilometres-high multi-level highway system there, and it looks pretty cool too - especially when we get a good ol' car chase sequence in them. The entire first half of the movie is one long chase sequence, and if Wiseman's good at one thing it's crafting action scenes. Especially when they employ the best of circa 2012 special effects; design-wise and technical-wise, it all looks great.

And then the second half slows way the hell down, getting interminably mired in its not-particularly-interesting plot details. I've previously decried the cliché of the dystopian sci-fi action film in which the hero fights the tyrannical villain but first meets the rag-tag resistance and ends up getting them all killed. Well, it turns out the original Total Recall was one of the first to employ that trope. And it turns out the new Total Recall simply regurgitates it. Bryan Cranston as aforementioned tyrannical villain gets just one scene to do some villainous scenery-chewing, and it isn't nearly enough. Bill Nighy as the aforementioned resistance's leader gets just one scene period and doesn't even hide the fact that he's just phoning it in. (And Kuato was so much more cool.) Wasting the talents of two such charismatic character actors is just one more example of how lacking in real imagination and creativity this movie is.

But the kids'll probably enjoy it. If you've never seen the original movie and don't know a thing about it, if your age falls below the 22-year interval between the two films, you'll most likely like this just fine. It's a competent and largely unobjectionable big-budget Hollywood timewaster, and I can't imagine anyone being sorely disappointed by it. Except that aside from time, it also wastes a fascinating science fiction premise that had already been turned into a big loud action movie once before. Is it too much to expect that a remake - especially one that claims to have went back to the original Dick source material - take it somewhere different? Is it too much to expect, say, a deeply mind-f**king psychological thriller instead, which is what instantly came to mind when I thought "hmm, how should a Total Recall remake justify its existence?" I guess it is.

NEXT REVIEW: Hantu Gangster
Expectations: gee, Namewee sure ain't an easy guy to defend

Monday, August 13, 2012

A hero rises, and a story ends

The Dark Knight Rises
My rating:

I'm sure my readers are quite tired of hearing excuses for my tardiness by now. I had watched The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday the 21st (of July), just two days before it officially opened in cinemas, hoping I'd get my review up early for once. After that viewing, I decided I needed to see it again; I found the picture at GSC 1Utama to be somewhat distractingly dim, and thought it the fault of a run-down projector. It was over a week before I got the chance to watch it again, this time at GSC Tropicana Mall, and it was the same. Seems it's due to the overly-bright Malay subtitles on the Digital 2D print that washes out the rest of the picture. Feh and fiddlesticks, but I couldn't watch the new Batman movie on anything other than Digital 2D. I think I may have become spoiled by the extra crispness and sharpness of the format now; I shudder to think what a normal analog-projected movie would look like to me now.

Oh, and the movie? The movie... is not as good as its 5-star immediate predecessor. But it is still very good.

Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, crime in Gotham City has almost been eradicated. But the Batman has not been seen since, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a virtual shut-in. A burglary on Wayne Manor by a professional thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) gets Bruce intrigued enough to start investigating, causing concern for Alfred (Michael Caine) who fears his latent death wish may lead him to suit up as Batman again. But Bruce may not have a choice. A shadowy figure known as Bane (Tom Hardy) is gathering an army of fanatics in the sewers of Gotham, and Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) barely survives an encounter with them. A young police officer named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) - who has already sussed out Bruce's secret alter ego on his own - seeks his help. Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) tries his best to hold the family fortune together in the wake of a disastrous clean energy reactor that Bruce invested billions into - a passion project of board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) who is trying to get close to Bruce. And all the while, Bane's apocalyptic plans for Gotham City continue unabated - and the aged and weakened Batman may not be his match.

There are two main things I want to say in this review. The first goes something like this: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as The Dark Knight. It is noticeably flawed in more ways, and the flaws more noticeable, than that film, which is itself not entirely flawless. But that does not make it a bad film. What with the online chatter consisting of comments like "It really annoyed me when etc. etc.", "I couldn't believe Nolan decided to etc. etc.", or "That mind-bogglingly stupid part where etc. etc. etc.", you'd think this movie is a total bust. And if you honestly disliked it, I can't really argue. But there's so much Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer did right that the detractors are completely overlooking in their fervour to nitpick the little things they did wrong. This is not Prometheus in which the plot holes are reflective of lazy filmmaking that undermines the entire film. This is a highly ambitious endeavour (in many ways, more so than even Prometheus), and its flaws are those of overreaching its grasp rather than ineptness.

It is not as unrelentingly gripping as The Dark Knight; there are distinct dips and troughs in its pacing, and it feels slow at times. It is not as tightly-written; it attempts to juggle too many characters and subplots and does not do justice to all of them, e.g. the part Blake plays in the climax. As good as Anne Hathaway is as Catwoman - and she is good enough to put paid to her many detractors, even before the movie came out - the character is also largely peripheral. Certain parts strain disbelief, e.g. the infamously hellish prison in an unnamed country that operates under no apparent governing authority, and does not seem all that unpleasant to boot. In fact, I felt that that entire prison sequence is the weakest part of the film, and not just because the resolution of it is even more disbelief-straining. It's largely because, in telling a story of how Batman suffers a terrible defeat and then painfully recovers from it (adapted from the Knightfall comicbook storyline), the plot tries to accomplish too much within a traditional three-act screenplay structure that isn't quite suited to that kind of story.

But once again, that's just how daring and ambitious this film is. And more often than not, it succeeds at what it dares for. Where The Dark Knight evoked the post-911 fear of terrorism, The Dark Knight Rises uncannily mirrors the class resentments and wealth inequalities that gave rise to the Occupy movement. (Uncanny, because the Nolans and Goyer had been writing their story since before the movement even began.) And yet, the uprising of the common people against the wealthy and powerful is led by the villains, their revolutionary rhetoric clearly stated as Bane's ruse to destroy the very Gothamites he pretends to lead. Once again, Nolan straddles that fine line of appropriating social and political issues without taking sides, creating a story that is thrillingly relevant. But it's by no means short of traditional thrills either. The two Batman/Bane face-offs, Tom Hardy's fearsome performance, the all-action finale, the new Bat flying vehicle, getting to see more of the Batpod's oh so cool double-axis wheels... there's plenty here that's just straight up comicbook superhero action, and it's terrifically well done.

A lot of people also dislike the film for being not entirely faithful with the comicbook Batman. Which brings me to the second point I want to make: no, it isn't entirely faithful. Anyone familiar with the character will likely find something slightly bothersome about his portrayal here (for me, it's the fact that Batman has been retired all this while, which means his career lasted all of two years). But Nolan isn't out to slavishly adapt the comicbooks. He's as good as reinventing the character wholesale, in the same way as DC might reboot Batman and retell his origin in a limited series. That hadn't really become clear till this third instalment of his trilogy - in which Bruce Wayne's story ends, definitively. Comicbook superheroes can never end. Certainly not one as timelessly popular - and timelessly profit-making - as Batman. There will always be another issue next month, even if it's a new storyline and new direction with a new writer-artist team. But what Nolan has done here is bring a final, unequivocal conclusion to the story he started in Batman Begins. The Bruce Wayne in the comics may go on forever. This one, in these movies, won't.

And why can't he? Why, in fact, can't Nolan reinvent and reinterpret Batman the way he sees fit? Dozens of comic creators, from Frank Miller with Batman: Year One to Geoff Johns and Gary Frank with the recent Batman: Earth One, have put their own spin on the origins of the character; why can't Nolan? So Batman never teams up with Robin. So Bruce Wayne was Batman for only two years before an eight-year hiatus that ends with one last adventure. So there's no Dick Grayson or Jason Todd or Tim Drake. (Or Riddler, or Penguin.) I've decried Hollywood's lack of faith in the comic properties they try to adapt before, but who could possibly accuse these three films of not respecting Batman? I think what Nolan has accomplished here - created a mature, intelligent, tremendously well-realized cinematic portrayal of Batman that's as good as the absolute best comic stories - qualifies him to take the liberties he took.

And it behooves us to give him his dues for it. Yes, it's not as good as The Dark Knight, and by a fair margin. But it is a fine film on its own, and even better as a conclusion to what will now be known as Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. The execs at Warner Brothers have a truly unenviable task ahead in deciding where to take the franchise next, but the trilogy ends in as wonderfully open-ended a manner as anyone could expect. A Batman fan could walk out of the cinema dreaming of how to continue this story, in this Gotham City and with these surviving characters who are bound to have adventures yet ahead of them. (And I can still dream of my casting of Natalie Portman as Harley Quinn.) Which is what the finest stories always do: leave us wanting more, and stimulate our imagination to satisfy that desire - awakening in us the delicious possibilities of story. The Dark Knight Trilogy has ended, we shall never see its like again, and the future is uncertain for Batman and any other DC superhero movie. But for now, I'll be content to simply appreciate what Nolan has left us - the highs, the lows, and the dreams.

NEXT REVIEW: Total Recall (2012)
Expectations: the trailers looked good, but the reviews...