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"The Dark Knight" *** 1/2 (152 minutes)

Wednesday July 16, 2008

Next February, they can toss The Oscar into his casket. And not because Hollywood was in love and is still mourning the loss of one of it’s fiercest rising stars. No, it’s because he richly deserved it, bringing total poignancy and sadness to the proceedings when Heath Ledger becomes the 2nd posthumous recipient to receive an Oscar (the first being Peter Finch when he won the Best Actor award for his role in the 1977 masterpiece “Network”). His performance is so powerful and charismatic, and so utterly unforgettable (I wrote the same thing in an earlier post about Daniel Day Lewis after screening “There Will Be Blood”) that the film actually suffers slightly when he's not on the screen. Christopher Nolan directs the wildly entertaining follow-up to his 2005 “Batman Begins” with Christian Bale (Batman), Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman repeating their roles (the great Maggie Gyllenhaal has taken over the role formerly occupied by Katie Holmes), while adding veteran indy actor Aaron Eckhart, veteran everything actor Michael Caine, and longtime character actor Eric Roberts as a mob boss. What a cast, what a story, and what a movie! From the opening 10 minute bank robbery to the incredible climax where 2 boatloads of people have to decide which one is going to blow the other one up first, you won’t have time to check your clock to see when it all will end-or want to for that matter. And what really sets this one apart from most of the other comic book/superhero flicks is the wonderful script by Christopher and his sibling Jonathan that allows Hedger to sink his nuanced chops into a character that will catapult him in filmdom lore forever. The bare bones plot: The brooding Bruce Wayne/Batman is having second thoughts about being the person to erase crime from Gotham City once and for all. Better to pass the task to someone else. His selection is none other than the handsome DA, Harvey Dent (Eckhart). Totally smitten by Batman’s previous love interest (Gyllenhaal), Dent reluctantly proceeds to try and become Gotham’s #1 hero while simultaneously trying to win over his assistant-who is still in love with Batman. Lurking behind all this is Hedger’s Joker who throughout the film is continuously creating chaos by playing the good guys against the bad guys-and against each other. The result: turning good guy Dent into one hideous looking bad guy-turning the plot on its ear over the final 45 minutes of playing time. I realized after the film ended that, for all of its, excuse the expression, comic book violence, there is barely any blood visible during the entire 152 minutes. The score by 2 of Hollywood's finest, Han Zimmer and James Newton Howard, is nothing short of spectacular and only adds to the mix. The only fault I had was that I was disappointed in Maggie’s part. She does the best with it, but, after finally landing a huge non-indy role, her character is not the memorable one she is capable of delivering (rent “Sherrybaby” to see one of the best performances by an actress in any year). I met Christopher Nolan in 1999 when he was present in a small screening room on Main Street in Park City at the Slamdance Film Festival (the alternative Sundance Film Festival) where his inaugural film "Following" had just won the Black & White Award. (Rent it! The film is wonderful!!) Since then, he has gone onto to become one of the planets most successful and talented filmmakers. This noir masterpiece will only add to an already glowing resume.

"Up The Yangtze" (***) (95 minutes)

Wednesday July 9, 2008

Back to reality to screen Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang’s reflective film on the effect that the massive Three Gorges Project is having on the thousands of people being displaced along the Yangtze River by the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam. This quiet documentary reminded me of Franny Armstrong’s powerful 2004 “Drowned Out” which dealt with the travesty of India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam which stripped generations of Adivasi from their land. More quiet in its pronouncement, ”Up The Yangtze” mainly focuses on 2 young individuals whose lives are being directly affected by the change being forced on them by the government project. They are working on a cruise ship that continuously travels The Yangtze catering to the whims of mostly Western tourists. The trip reveals the changes that are taking place along the river banks as Chinese residents are slowly being displaced before the river rises up to 175 meters above its normal depths. The director adds a sparse narration to the proceedings offering his commentary on how the region has changed since he was a youth, while cutting back and forth from the cruise ship to the family of one of the principals to see how they are coping with the displacement about to take place. The filmmaker allows the camera to quietly observe the proceedings in such a way that you feel almost voyeuristic as you watch the tourists relaxing unaware of the devastating situation facing many of the Chinese citizens along the Yangtze. I would have preferred more information as to the displacement process as it involves the general population but, as presented here, the film is an effective testament to an historic change that makes one wonder if "progress" is worth the effect it is ultimately having on the humans and environment directly in its path.

"Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3D" **1/2 (89 minutes)

Monday July 7, 2008

After screening 21 documentaries in 8 days, it was back to the summer circuit. It was time to ditch reality for fantasy and the latest in a long parade of mostly lame Hollywood "Summer Blockbusters"-the term that was born with the June 1975 release of the great "Jaws". Rookie director Eric Brevig delivers the special effects in spades (maybe not that surprising considering his only other previous screen credit was for special effects in Arnold's enjoyable 1990's "Total Recall" & his work on "Pearl Harbor"). Warner Brothers/New Line is releasing this one in 3D (now labeled as "Real D") which earned it at least a 1/2 star in my final 2 and a half total. At a brisk 89 minutes, this "remake" of the 1959 original starring Pat Boone and James Mason based on the Jules Verne classic, moves nicely along and isn't a total failure mainly due to the pleasant personalities of Brendan Fraser, newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer look-a-like, Anita Briem, and veteran young actor, Josh Hutcherson ("Bridge To Terabithia"). Not a remake in the strictest sense of the word, the film asks the question: "What if Jules Verne was right-that there was, indeed a pathway to the center of the earth instead of being just a fantasy in the mind of the great novelist?" Fraser plays the science professor who theorizes that Jules was right. When his sister drops off her son (Hutcherson) and several of her late husband's belongings (he happened to be lost trying to prove Verne's theory was fact), before you can say "let's get to the center of the earth already" the 2 are off to Iceland to find a scientist who may have discovered Verne's entrance to the earth's depths. Instead, they find his (of course) beautiful live alone daughter (her dad died 3 years earlier), who agrees (for 5 grand an hour) to lead them to the entrance. The implausibility of all this is so freakin' ridiculous that you have to laugh at it all-along with the (intended) light humor of the script. It's almost a guilty pleasure as you watch these 3 maneuver their way through the abyss for most of the running time. I've seen 50's B movies more believable than this, and your eyes will roll so often that you'll end up missing a lot of the 3D effects. But, then again, you were expecting "War and Peace" here?