Django Unchained (John’s #1 of 2012)

The number one pick of my top 20 list of 2012 is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained. David wrote an amazing review just after the film’s release and I implore you to scroll down and check it out if you haven’t already. When creating my top list (which was already a bigger endeavor than I had initially planned) I found myself at a crossroads when posting a short review of Django. On the one hand, David had already written an incredible post on the film and one that mirrored many thoughts of friends and movie goers that I have encountered. On the other hand, my thoughts on the film were just too much to narrow down to a single paragraph and having 3 months to digest the film only increased my desire to discuss the film. So to properly finish off my top 20 list (which everyday followers will know has taken about 3 weeks) I offer a 2nd look at Quentin Tarantino’s controversial western.

Quentin Tarantino is my idol. In many ways I consider him to be my mentor in film; my inspiration for writing and the gateway to my favorite films in cinema. I first discovered the news of Tarantino doing an all out western in February of 2011 when co-editor David sent me a text. At the time the rumor was a Tarantino western starring the original Django: Franco Nero, Christoph Waltz and Keith Carradine. Within a week it was announced the film would be the story of a slave named Django who is freed by a German bounty hunter that mentors him and helps him free his wife from an evil plantation owner. About a week after that I had my very own copy of the script. I read bits and pieces over the next year and carried it with me in my backpack everyday. Everytime a cast member was announced I would flip through the script and read the characters introduction. I refused to read anything past the 1st half in fear of spoiling any characters inevitable demise (a lesson I learned from reading the 3rd act of Inglourious Basterds a year before it was filmed). The beauty of a Quentin Tarantino film is that, despite nearly 2 years of holding the movie in my hands, I was still unprepared for the world Tarantino projected onscreen.

To me a “perfect” movie is one that contains great scene after great scene from start to finish. Think Goodfellas – the opening with Frank Vincent in the trunk (“What the fuck?, Tommy what is that, we hit something?). The early days of Henry Hill (“Oh my god, you look like a gangster”). De Niro hijacking the truck (“You may know who I am, but we KNOW who you are”), the Lufthansa heist, taking Karen to the Copacabana, slicing up onions in prison so thin they used to melt in the pan, getting coked out and making sure little Michael is stirring the sauce. It’s just great moment after great moment.

Every Tarantino film achieves this as well. And with each project Tarantino is breaking new ground, pushing his meta-narrative further and further and challenging audiences with every new step. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino’s films get richer with character and more meticulous with cinematography, editing and style. He treats his screenplays as if creating the next chapter of the Bible. Every page is perfected before he moves on to the next and it certainly shows. If every writer were as passionate about creating a literary piece like Quentin is, then cinema in general would be worlds better than it is.

The first thing that strikes me about Tarantino’s work is how accessible it is to mass audiences. The first time I read Aldo Raine’s speech in Inglourious Basterds about “killing Nazis” I thought “Oh my god, this is too hardcore. There is no way this is getting in.” How surprised I was when this speech became the centerpiece for the film’s marketing campaign. Also when reading the Basterds screenplay, I began to quickly notice that 2/3rds of the film would be in subtitles. I immediately thought “there’s no way this will play with today’s audiences, no one wants to read subtitles anymore”. So I was overjoyed when discussing the movie with my aunt and uncle (two people I suspect have never seen a foreign film and never had to read a majority of a film’s dialogue before) to discover that they loved the film and even made note of how delightfully comical it was when Waltz’s Hans Landa requests to shift from French to English in the film’s opening scene.

The same goes with reading Django Unchained, within in the first few pages and the rampant use of the N-word I thought “Oh man this is gonna cause a huge uproar”. Luckily audiences are smart enough to know that what Tarantino has in mind is an adventure story first and an energetic movie experience one will never forget. While working at the movie theatre I was very intuitive of what audiences felt as they left the showing. The majority of black audiences I encountered were absolutely thrilled with the final product. It’s a comic book-y tale of a black superhero. The first film about slavery that allowed black audiences to stand up and cheer for its hero instead of wince at the pain their ancestors have suffered, much in the way the Jewish community could rally around Shoshanna and the Basterds as they lay waste to the Third Reich. Even those who could take offense to the racial slurs projected from Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Bennett and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie were only that much happier to see these crude men meet their brutal demise.

I also noticed a rising hesitation to the film from white audiences, a common feeling of discomfort and a sense of “white guilt” at the brutality and harshness of slavery in the Antebellum South displayed on-screen. Now this is more accurate to what I think Tarantino hopes to achieve with this film. Rarely are white audiences challenged to view their past here in America, unlike the people of Germany who sit through endless films depicting brutal Nazis and forced to revisit their unfortunate past and heritage. Even when a film takes on the historical aspect of slavery, a lot of the cruelty and contempt felt by these white slave-owning ancestors are placed on the back burner. For example Amistad, while a sentimental portrait of the uprising on the infamous slave ship, seldom depicts its white characters as brutally as, say a film about WWII, would depict its Nazi oppressors. Personally, I do feel that white audiences should be subjected to more films that evaluate our nation’s past and all the fucked up shit that we have done. To not be sheltered and to acknowledge that yes, we did this sick shit, and it wasn’t the first time either (think about the Indians when we first arrived).

Naturally, this is quite a hot topic of discussion and one that will surely spark a bit of a debate amongst our readers. However I’d also like to point out that Django Unchained tackles many different sides and oppositions to slavery that cinema has rarely explored. For example the character of Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) is a foreigner to this country and represents an outsider’s view of America and slavery. Several times Schultz explains his disdain for slavery and his confusion as to why people are so fascinated with dictating what one man can and cannot do. Schultz also describes his feelings of responsibility for Django and his reasoning to help Django remain free long after their relationship has ended. Schultz has a true admiration for Django’s strength and ability to endure the pain that surrounds him. He also admires Django and his wife Broomhilda’s belief in the sanctity of marriage, a belief that shows that these are in fact real people and not the uneducated savages that people like Big Daddy and Calvin Candie attribute them to be.

Then there is the depiction of slave owners themselves. On one side you have Big Daddy Bennett who is the epitome of a racist slave owner, a man who seems appalled at the idea of a free black man when Django arrives on his plantation with Schultz. Then you have Calvin Candie, a character who has inherited his plantation through generations of white slave owners. Now where Big Daddy clearly gets off on slavery, Candie appears to be somewhat done with the whole slavery idea; choosing to focus his attention more on mandingo fighting than buying and selling slave workers and show ponies. Big Daddy is a proprietor of slavery, one of the original creators; Candie is the disinterested descendant whose come in at the end.

Another interesting depiction is the level of social class amongst slaves. When Django is riding along with Candie’s entourage he is a free man, a man who rides atop his horse while the slaves walk alongside. There is a huge disdain for Django from the slaves, and in order to stay in character Django is forced to look down on them as well. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen. Stephen is an elderly slave and the overseer of all of Candyland’s belongings, including both the land and the many souls who tend to it. The relationship between Calvin and Stephen is incredibly essential to the dynamic of the story. Stephen has been apart of Candyland since the beginning when Calvin’s father owned the property and has raised Calvin since birth. Stephen and Calvin have a father-son type relationship much like the bond that forms between Schultz and Django, but with one big difference…Stephen and Calvin love each other more than Schultz and Django do. This helps make the character of Stephen the darkest and most despicable villain in the film. Here is a man that stands above approach from the rest of the slaves on his plantation, a slave with power over every other slave and, in some ways, Calvin Candie as well. As Django points out in the film, there isn’t anything lower than a man in his position.

And yet, despite all this subtle analysis of the Antebellum South, what Tarantino delivers is an all-out action packed and hysterically funny American western. Its extremely difficult for me to rank Tarantino’s films because they are each perfect in their own way. When viewing Kill Bill’s two parts together I felt that Tarantino couldn’t get any better. Then when Aldo Raine delivers the final line in Inglourious Basterds “this just might be my masterpiece” I couldn’t have agreed more. Now Tarantino achieves even more with Django Unchained and another masterpiece expands his perfect canon. I simply continue to name Pulp Fiction as my number 1 favorite simply because its the one that introduced me to the man himself and to the world of movies that I would soon become obsessed with. 

Like Goodfellas, this is for me a “perfect” film. Its just great scene after great scene. “State your business or prepare to get winged”, “Can’t we just leave?”, “Treat him like you would Jerry”, “So it would be nice to see!”, “Its a German legend, there’s bound to be a mountain in there somewhere”, “We got us a fight goin’ on that’s a good bit of fun”, “I’m gonna walk in the moonlight with you”, “All the passions you inspire are completely justified”, “There have been a lotta lies told around this table tonight, but that you best believe”, “Tell Miss Laura goodbye”. Perfect is a movie I can relive moment-to-moment in my head at anytime. 

 

 

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The Top Films of 2012 (Take 4)

I will defend these movies till my dying day.

20.) Safety Not Guaranteed

A surprising, uproariously off-beat indie comedy debut from the rising writing/directing team of Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. Aubrey Plaza (of Parks and Rec fame) proves her self a true movie star in the role of an intern at a Seattle magazine who accompanies a reporter (Jake Johnson) as he responds to a bizarre classified ad in hopes of a story. The ad seeks someone to accompany its author to travel back in time. Must bring own weapons, safety not guaranteed. What brews is a hilarious love story between Plaza’s intern and the oddball store clerk (Mark Duplass) who may or may not have invented a time machine, as well as Johnson’s reporter tracking down an old flame who has become an all-out milf. Star making performances from Plaza and Duplass, their relationship the epitome of on-screen chemistry, charms this movie into instant cult status.

19.) God Bless America

God Bless Bobcat Goldthwait. This follow-up to his sublime 2009 feature World’s Greatest Dad is one of the most uncomfortable black comedies in years. Wrongfully accused of sexual harassment and fired from his job, insurance salesman Frank Murdoch hates his life. With a spoiled teenage daughter, a disconnected ex-wife, screaming neighbors and a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor among his many woes, Frank decides to end it all. Upon seeing one of many absolute genius parodies of reality tv and stardom he begins to realize it is not he who needs to die; but spoiled 21st century America. With a quirky teen named Roxy in tow, Frank goes on a mass killing spree of all that he sees wicked in America. The American Idols, Bill O’Reillys, Kim Kardashians and movie theater cell phone users of the world must pay their dues. What saves this movie from being the bleakest thing you’ve ever seen is the performance of criminally underrated character actor Joel Murray. As the bodies pile up and even babies come under the barrel of his shotgun, Murray’s performance is so disarming and innocent that you can’t help but root along and let the laughs stick in your throat.

18.) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman returns to film making for the first time in 14 years, putting Generation Y under his microscope. And boy does he hit the mark. The story of three young women at an East Coast university who take a young transfer student under their wing is the setting for another deft, literate comedy of manners from one of the greatest filmmakers of the 90s. Indie “it girl” Greta Gerwig reveals a very tender and comedic underside to the anxieties of college and adolescence. Stillman is the closest thing we’ll have to Woody Allen when he goes, this kind of comedy is unfortunately that rare.

17.) Lawless

Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat mashes up my two favorite genres, the gangster movie and the western and fills it with my favorite actors. What’s not to love? Based on the true story of the Bondurant boys, a family of bootleggers in the deep south circa the depression, Lawless is a stunningly violent and beautifully crafted instant gangster classic. Featuring wonderful performances from Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman. But the real standouts here are Guy Pearce in a career-best portrayal of a slimy, snake-like crooked Deputy and newcomers Jason Clarke and Dane Dehaan as the middle Bondurant boy and their crippled friend Cricket. This movie threw me in ways I never imagined and yet is penetrable by mass audiences, this is no easy feat.

16.) Cloud Atlas

Unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. Directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer from the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is essentially six movies told simultaneously and at least 3 or 4 of which are absolutely perfect. Its impossible to go into all of them now but my favorite would have to be the Terry Gilliam-esque story of a man wrongfully imprisoned in a nursing home and he and his cohorts attempt to escape. Then Id have to go with the brilliant 70s set political thriller that follows a reporter investigating a conspiracy involving a new nuclear reactor and of course the Matrix-esque sci-fi tale of a rebellion in Korea in 2144. Highlights include Tom Hanks and Halle Berry back to great acting form after nearly 10 years of unwatchable dreck, Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched type caretaker and the sight of Hugh Grant as an Asian.

15.) The Avengers

Cramming four leading superhero franchises into one big summer blockbuster that plays as both a sequel and a franchise starter should not work. The result should be a pissing contest of one-liners and over packed action scenes, something akin to The Expendables. Leave it to the talent of someone like Joss Whedon to make it work. The secret? A surprisingly polished and energetic script and a top notch cast of actors with charisma and commitment to their characters and story arcs. This is one of the best movies Marvel has produced so far and its backlash from moviegoers boggles me. Highlights include Tom Hiddletson bringing out the best nuances of Loki, a stunning long take that features each hero kicking all kinds of ass, a bouncy Scarlett Johansson, a hilarious cameo by the great Harry Dean Stanton and pretty much any scene featuring The Hulk.

14.) Lincoln

Steven Spielberg chose the best way to make this kind of riveting political drama, to just step the fuck back and let the actors do their thing. Spielberg leaves behind the sweeping dolly shots, the wide landscapes, the lighting trickery and flourishes he’s known for and delivers what feels like a stripped down, performance driven stage play. Spielberg knows this movie belongs to its actors, a cavalcade of the finest cinema has to offer. Water is wet, the sun is hot, and Daniel Day-Lewis IS acting. Its scientific fact.

13.) Prometheus

You can nitpick and laugh at it all you want fanboys but Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is fucking epic. I went in not seeking answers but hoping for a chance to revisit the world of my favorite horror movie of all time and holy shit was I fulfilled. Scott here has taken his style (from camera movement, to lighting to editing) back to his roots and created one of his freshest and most challenging films in years. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace are knockouts in their roles as they voyage to the distant moon LV-223 and uncover the origins of mankind, our creators and ultimately our destroyers. Highlights include the man himself Idris Elba, an alien c-section and Fassbender channeling Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

12.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky adapts his own novel to cinematic form as both writer and director. Facing the challenges of adapting his own work into a workable film, Chbosky’s cinematic version of his acclaimed epistolary novel is the modern day equivalent of a John Hughes film. A beautifully crafted and often humorous look at high school life featuring stunning performances from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. The rare great book to screen transition.

11.) Killer Joe

2011 has boasted a good number of what I call “trailer trash” films. Movies like Hick or Hit and Run are stories set in a very realistic world of Southern white trash hicks and rednecks. In a way I harken them back to the 70s good ol’ boy movies like Walking Tall or White Lightning. Of course neither of these movies holds a candle to William Friedkin’s ultimate trailer trash neo-noir thriller featuring a frightening turn by Matthew McConaughey. Few movies aside (Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill) I used to hate Matthew McConaughey. But 2011 has fully turned me around on him and filmmakers such as Billy Friedkin and Steven Soderbergh have tapped into a layer of acting that was previously hidden from cinema. I can’t praise his performance in this masterfully taut and suspenseful thriller enough.

10.) The Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell has really found his place in cinema over the last few years. Now I’m a huge Russell fan, from Spanking the Monkey to I Heart Huckabees. But any of those films, style wise, could be mistaken for many other directors. With The Fighter and now Silver Linings, Russell has really found his own voice amongst the filmmakers of his generation. He has become a modern day cross of Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. He’s formed a real knack for telling stories of real people in real situations. As an audience we observe what feels more and more like reality. The dialogue in his films have an almost improvisational feel to them, recalling the work of John Cassavetes. Jennifer Lawrence is incredible as always and Bradley Cooper proves a surprisingly great dramatic actor. And thank god Robert De Niro has finally managed to find a movie worthy of his talent since the 90s.

9.) The Cabin in the Woods

The film that renewed my faith in horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods is a one in a million hybrid of horror movie homage and send-up. It has everything you could possibly desire, most importantly a brilliant script by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard and a totally game cast of inspired actors including Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Creepy Japanese girls, It, Pinhead, people getting impaled by unicorns? Its got em. It really is the ultimate horror movie.

8.) Looper

Rian Johnson continues to be one of the best new filmmakers in cinema. Working from a modest budget, Johnson unveils a brilliant time travel, sci-fi action film that also plays as celebration of the talent of actor Bruce Willis. Willis delivers his best performance since Unbreakable and Joseph Gordon-Levitt subtly displays a perfect amalgam of Bruce Willis’ acting range and expression. Emily Blunt is astounding in her portrayal of a shotgun toting Southern farm girl with a dark past. The film goes places that science fiction cinema rarely dares, especially in sequences involving a precocious young child played by the incredible Pierce Gagnon.

7.) The Raid: Redemption

Gareth Evan’s Indonesian action thriller is one of the greatest action movies of all time. Following a SWAT team as they infiltrate an apartment building that houses the cities most vile drug lords, they go from 1st floor to the top annihilating pushers in all directions. The twist: As they make their way to the top, officers and ammunition become of short supply and the 3rd act consists mostly of incredible hand-to-hand combat and beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Hands down the most adrenaline fueled, ass-kicking time I’ve had watching a movie all year.

6.) Frankenweenie

Finally the first Tim Burton movie in ten years that I haven’t had to totally defend. This stop-motion animated feature, based on a live-action short that Burton did for Disney in the mid-80s, feels like a lost Tim Burton film from between Batman and Edward Scissorhands. The film is a triumphant return to what we love about Tim Burton’s films. The dark humor, the surrealism and most of all the craftsmanship. A loving homage to the classic Universal monster movies and Hammer Horror films that inspired him and an emotionally charged story of youth encountering loss and tragedy. This is sincerely the best Tim Burton film since perhaps Ed Wood. Its a masterpiece.

5.) Skyfall

The best of the Daniel Craig Bonds so far. Sam Mendes has crafted the perfect reboot of the Bond franchise, allowing the imagination of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale to finally come full circle. We now have our new Q, our new M, our new Moneypenny and a new direction for our beloved icon of 50 years to take. Its cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is the best shot action I’ve ever seen. Look no further than a fight scene in Shanghai backlit with beautiful neon lights for how to create suspense and energy with a camera. Javier Bardem creates another iconic movie villain for a new decade and one that easily ranks up there with his Anton Chugur of No Country For Old Men fame. Judi Dench gives an incredible farewell performance to her iconic role as M and the 3rd act of the film (a sort of Straw Dogs style western)  proves there is still plenty of genres for the long running franchise to play.

4.) Moonrise Kingdom

The final four of my list contains hands down the greatest filmmakers of my generation. Each director presents their first film of the new decade and with it the excitement and joy that they have quite a few more surprises up their sleeve. The wonderfully off-beat world of Wes Anderson adds Moonrise Kingdom and the residents of New Penzance to its  beloved canon. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made on young love, Kingdom follows the romantic exploits of 12 year old Khaki scout Sam Shakusky and troubled teenager Suzy Bishop as they attempt to run away from their troubled pasts and begin a new life together. In hot pursuit is an all-star assortment of goofy, oddball would-be adults including Suzy’s disconnected lawyer parents (Anderson newcomer Frances McDormand and Anderson regular Bill Murray), love lorn Police Captain Sharp (a stellar-haired Bruce Willis) and a never-more-adorable Edward Norton as the math teacher/scoutmaster (make that scoutmaster/math teacher). Easily one of Anderson’s greatest achievements to date; the film serves as both a stylish companion piece to 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as well as a loving homage to Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (right down to Suzy’s Anna Karina-esque wardrobe and stockings). All of Anderson’s trademark cinematic flourishes are brilliantly executed, the script (co-written by Roman Coppola) is his tightest, most complete work since The Royal Tenenbaums, and the casting is simply astounding. Where Wes Anderson found newcomers Jared Gilman and Mensa member Kara Hayward we may never know, what is known is that cinema will become all-the-better for it.

3.) The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan had the most daunting challenge of any filmmaker when attempting to followup The Dark Knight and Inception, two of the most acclaimed, highest grossing and hotly debated films of the last 5 years. The bar was set so high that even the most masterful storytellers would be hard-pressed to top it. But the backlash of the final installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy borders on spoiled, undeserved, nit-picking. Anything we could possibly want in this sequel was presented to us and many are still finding reason to complain. Not that complaining is bad, or that viewers can’t favor The Dark Knight over Rises, but the upheaval of lamenting moviegoers is bordering on Spider-Man 3 proportions. As if Nolan had pulled a Godfather III or Crystal Skull and birthed a malformed, wannabe impostor of the original. Me? I couldn’t be happier with it. Everything we wanted in this sequel is provided in a way that only Nolan could reveal. Wouldn’t it be great to see Bane break Batman’s back? How cool would it be if Joseph Gordon-Levitt became Robin? What if Batman dies at the end? These are questions asked of myself and many of the fans I encountered prior to the films release. And everyone of these dreams and hopes were fulfilled in the final product. The entire cast is absolutely brilliant: from Anne Hathaway channeling Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (the ultimate companion for playing a jewel thief), to Gordon-Levitt elevating a secondary role to one of the most stand-out performances all year, and finally to Tom Hardy delivering a terrifying and nuanced performance using just his eyes and ogre like size. Despite all the films tremendous moments, intense drama, impeccably stylized action and crowd-rewarding, stand-up and cheer moments I still here the largely critical voice of the movie going public saying “what’s up with Bane’s voice, he sounds like Sean Connery”.  That kind of attitude doesn’t deserve a film like The Dark Knight Rises or a director like Christopher Nolan.

2.) The Master

If you’ve only seen The Master once then you haven’t truly seen The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson is a cinematic force to be reckoned with and each initial viewing is a shocking sucker punch to the gut. If your looking for the equivalent of There Will Be Blood you won’t find it. And what’s more, your forgetting your first experience of watching There Will Be Blood, because P.T. Anderson adheres to no one. Each project in his filmography is its own beast, serves its own destiny, fulfills its own desires. A film like There Will Be Blood is too much to fully comprehend upon first approach. It is only after repeated viewings that we were truly able to appreciate the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, the narrative of the story, the incomparable cinematography and the ability to take the film as the favored cinematic achievement that it is. So its little surprise to me to find that most audiences have no idea what to think of Anderson’s follow up project The Master and compare it unfavorably to Blood. View The Master three, four, six times and you begin to unlock its secrets. You will find that the film is not putting Scientology under the microscope in the way that Anderson put the oil industry under in Blood, but rather a passionately told expose     of two polar opposites and soul mates. The grit of the story is the relationship between sex-obsessed, alcoholic and totally insane WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the philosophical, everyman, leader of “The Cause” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A twist of fate brings the two together and an episodic series of events causes these two personalities to push and pull at one another. Despite all the troubles that Freddie seems to bring upon Lancaster’s flawed,  religious organization; there remains a growing admiration for one’s ability “to serve” or “not to serve” a master. This is an astonishing and accomplished work of character-driven material, something more akin to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Hard Eight than to the story arched proceedings of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood What can unanimously be agreed upon is the career best performance of Joaquin Phoenix, a sublime amalgamation of love, loss, rebellion, disillusion, passion, pain, delirium and a little anarchy. As well as topnotch performances from Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern and the breathtaking cinematography shot in 65mm. P.T. Anderson has developed into both the Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick of our generation; misunderstood, under-appreciated, ahead of their time, and if you don’t like their films then maybe they didn’t make it for you. 

1.) Django Unchained

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

As much as I can vividly remember watching movies at the theater when I was a young kid, I often can recall watching the movie’s trailer even more. I’ve always loved movie trailers. When shot, edited and scored correctly these mere pieces of advertising can become a work of art. Some trailers can evoke such a feeling of exhilaration that the experience stays with you long after the feature presentation is over. Many of today’s best writer/directors choose to edit their own trailers and it shows. I can remember watching the trailer for Punch-Drunk Love and found myself days later still singing Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me” that plays over the commercial. Or the night I screened 3:10 to Yuma which was preceded by the trailer debut of There Will Be Blood and I spent the rest of the feature damning life because I was watching Yuma and NOT Blood.

I bring up trailers for two reasons. One being that fellow editors, David and Adam and myself spent Saturday night watching a two hour plus trailer pack at our theater. Sort of our farewell to 35mm since in two weeks our place of business is going all digital and consequently making our collection of 80s and 90s trailers obsolete. And two because trailers were often my first exposure to movies I was underage to see at the time. It is the trailer for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory that led me to run home and pretend I was Steven Seagal taking down terrorists on a train. The trailer for Tombstone that led me to pretend I was Wyatt Earp (or most times Sam Elliott) strolling the Old West. Of the recent trailer pack I had chills rewatching the Independence Day trailer and being taken back to the excitement I felt of seeing it for the first time in 96.

Which brings me to tonight’s post: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

At the age of 8 I had already seen a handful of the latter Elm Street films and always found them intense, a little creepy but rarely ever scary. I imagine it was the benefit of watching them with older audiences, like my older sister or older cousins and their friends who would make second rate Mystery Science Theater puns throughout each viewing. Even at a young age I knew that no matter how horrific the event, it was still just a movie. That is until I saw the trailer for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in which the director’s original creation has somehow manifested itself into a real life terror. This meant that at the age of 8 I would scream “Holy shit you mean Freddy’s real!!!”

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s Wes Craven witnessed the genre he created, “the slasher film”, plummet to the depths of straight to video knockoffs and endless sequels barely resembling the presence of its original roots. In the age of Critters 3: You Are What They Eat and Scanners III: The Takeover and Puppet Masters 5: The Final Chapter it was clear that something needed to be done to save the empire that Craven had built on disembodied teenagers. Horror filmmakers needed a new way to strip and murder the innocent. In 1994 Wes Craven began the notion that would reinvigorate both his career and the genre for another decade. The plan was simple: Let the victims know they are in a horror movie. Lay out all the classic horror movie cliches in plain sight and watch as the knowing teens still meet their demise. Horror movies were now in on the joke and audiences were laughing with the movies and not at them.

A year before Craven perfected this idea with the genre busting Scream franchise, he wrote and directed the final official sequel to the Elm Street series. The plot follows Heather Langenkamp as herself who begins to suffer from nightmares similar to that of the Elm Street franchise just as production on the latest sequel gears up. Heather’s husband Chase is a prop designer on the film and in the opening sequence of the film she dreams he is being maimed by a robotic Freddy glove. Its spider-like crawl across the table being one of the images that terrified me as a kid.

Heather is invited to the set of the film by real life New Line producer Bob Shaye where she is offered the chance to reprise her role as Nancy from the original film. She declines but still arranges a meeting with director Wes Craven for information on her dreams. Craven explains to Heather that the new film he is writing has been coming to him through a series of dreams. In his script pure evil can be defeated if its essence is captured in a work of art that is able to allow evil to express itself and that the evil has taken the familiar form of Freddy. Apparently Freddy has decided to stalk Heather since she was the actress who portrayed Nancy and thus gave Nancy her power. What!!

Following the death of her husband, Heather must protect her son from Freddy and takes sleeping pills to put the two of them into a final showdown. The ending culminates into a Hansel and Gretel-like display of inserting Freddy into a lit furnace. At the age of 8 the idea of placing Freddy into the real world was quite terrifying. Watch the film now and it is a hilarious parody of the Hollywood system. Robert Englund is a tour de force in his dual role playing himself and the wretched Freddy Krueger. The great John Saxon appears playing the dual part as well and Craven seems to be having a ball letting his inner Hitchcock roam free in a portrayal of Hollywood directors. The movie doesn’t quite have the self-mockery smarts as Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream but its a nice direction toward madcap parody. Freddy’s look was also updated to resemble more of Craven’s original conception of the clawed one, attempting to make him more menacing than comical.

Though not a box-office or critical juggernaut, New Nightmare still holds as one of my personal favorites of the series and will remain the launching pad for the late 90s resurgence of slasher films and more importantly the “horror-satire”.

-John

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Allow me to introduce you to one of the most underrated directors of all time. The Jamaican-born and Australia and England raised filmmaker Stephen Hopkins was one of the greatest rising talents of the early 90’s. He had a certain style, a color scheme and camerawork that were entirely his own. His films had such a signature look that you could instantly recognize his work as his own, much in the way you view a Walter Hill or Tony Scott film and automatically feel at home in the filmmakers hands. His first two major features were follow ups to million dollar blockbusters that each performed less than stellar when compared to their predecessors and ultimately took a critical backlash. His masterpiece is a totally forgotten 90’s film and his biggest success was a disaster of a film that flushed his feature film career down the toilet. Yet he deserved so much more.

After breaking through with his Australian feature Dangerous Game in 1987, Hopkins took to the high octane world of Hollywood blockbusters. His third effort was the Schwarzenegger-less sequel Predator 2, a completely badass movie that transports the Predator from the treacherous jungles of Central America into an equally terrifying jungle: a futuristic crime-ridden Los Angeles with an elite police task force that includes Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Bill Paxton and Ruben Blades. His 1993 film Judgement Night is his masterpiece. A criminally forgotten horror/action/suspense thriller with the perfect ensemble cast (including then “new comers” Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven and Stephen Dorff). A film that certainly deserves a post from either David or myself, both avid fans.

In 1994 and 1995 he executed two extremely entertaining action films Blown Away starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones and The Ghost and The Darkness with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. His career culminated with the 1998 adaptation of Lost in Space, a misguided sci-fi actioner that despite its box-office performance ended up one of the worst regarded films of that or any other year. His 2000 effort Under Suspicion is a seldom-seen thriller that officially lacks the style and pizzazz of his earlier efforts. Since then Hopkins has found success in television by executive producing and directing half the episodes of the first few seasons of 24. He’s also worked on Shameless and Californiacation and received worldwide acclaim with his 2004 HBO film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Oh yeah…in 2007 he did do that Hilary Swank horror movie called The Reaping but I’m gonna choose to ignore that.

What makes Stephen Hopkins a true talent is obvious in his first Hollywood feature, 1989’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. This is probably one of the best executed and stylized movies in the entire Elm Street series. Dream Child is a more Gothic and darker toned effort than the previous entries. In fact the films moderate box-office performance can be attributed to the darkness of the subject matter which perhaps alienated the avid slasher film fans. Certain subjects that the film approaches including abortion, teen motherhood, drinking and driving, bulimia and anorexia, can hit closer to home than a killer who stalks you in your dreams. With every extremity Hopkins hits the mark.

Picking up a year after the events of The Dream Master, we quickly find survivors Alice and Dan happily dating and free of the terrors of Freddy Kruger. All goes to hell when Alice begins having nightmares placing her in an insane asylum occupying the clothes and name tag of Amanda Krueger, Freddy’s mother. In one dream she finds herself strapped to a gurney and wheeled into a delivery room where she seems to give birth to an infant Freddy. In the real world, Alice discovers she is in fact pregnant with Dan’s child and Freddy returns to take down her lover and remaining high school friends including Greta the supermodel, Mark the comic book geek and Yvonne the nurse.

When hospitalized after a vicious attack by Freddy, Alice learns that Freddy is using her child to infiltrate her friends dreams and brutally murdering each of them. After a series of ultra cool death dream sequences including the Se7en-esque torture of Greta who is forced to eat herself to death and comic geek Mark who is turned into a paper character and cut apart, Alice begins her final quest to eliminate Freddy and save her unborn child. The climax features an M.C. Escher-like labyrinth and a powerful battle between Alice, her unborn son Jacob and two forms of Freddy, one internal and one infant.

Okay so the story for this one can be quite outlandish at times and not every plot twist or mythology expanding scenario gels together completely. However there is a master at work here that cannot be denied. Using a blue filter lighting technique, wide angle lenses and swift camera movements, Hopkins creates an incredibly surreal atmosphere. This is easily one of the most colorful and energetic of the Elm Street series. The use of blues and purples and the top-notch special effects recall Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad or even Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. This is also one of the few Elm Street films where the look and style of the real world is nearly as engaging as the dream world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality that much more. The nefarious Robert Englund has a joyous time chewing the scenery and delivering such playfully tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen one-liners like “Faster than a bastard maniac, more powerful than a loco-madman, its…Super Freddy!” a classic play on the legendary Superman tagline.

When us editors decided on which Elm Street films to post on, I chose my personal favorite next to the original and Dream Warriors: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare from 1994. However I am extremely happy that I also had the opportunity to take on the lesser known of the series, simply because it has the best director attached to it. Stephen Hopkins is the man and his visual style and personal stamp on franchises is classic 80’s/90’s cinema. His work in horror in particular is quite edgy and way ahead of its time. For proof look no further than this truly underrated installment in the Elm Street franchise, as well as his incredible episodes of Tales from the Crypt.

-John

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Sadly, we all know the King is dead. But what if the King were still alive? What if Elvis Presley switched places midway through his career with the world’s greatest Elvis impersonator and continued on living off the grid? What if he set out to make a new life? What if that life sadly ended in a nursing home? Oh…and what if Elvis’s dick was rotting off and he and a black John F. Kennedy took on an ancient evil that devours souls and then ultimately defecates them out. The answers to these age old questions can only be found in Don Coscarelli’s low-budget 2003 cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep.

The nurses and orderlies just shrug it off as alzheimers or craziness but our bedpan saddling hero is truly Elvis Presley (played with charismatic greatness by Bruce Campbell). In the mid 1970s Elvis switched places with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell, again) and set off to begin a new life, only to find himself in the same old trailer park shenanigans and lifestyle of hard partying. When Sebastian Haff spent years succumbing to all things fried and peanut butter, and eventually kicked the bucket as the famous Elvis Presley, the real King took to the stage as an impersonator. Several decades and one hip thrust too many later Elvis has left the building…and entered The Shady Rest Retirement home.

The number of guests in the retirement home starts depleting and Elvis meets an elderly black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy (played by the late, great Ossie Davis), apparently dyed black after the assassination and abandoned by Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy shows Elvis ancient hieroglyphics carved into a bathroom stall and together they discover an Egyptian curse unleashed upon the retirement home when a mummy was stolen from a museum in West Texas and the thieves crashed their getaway bus into a nearby river.

What ensues is a madhouse of horror and hilarity as two old, slow-moving icons go head to head with an equally old and slow-moving corpse. Played with an energetic, jazzy tone and true sense of self parody, Bubba Ho-Tep becomes a laugh riot. Campbell is the master of not “bad acting” but “acting bad”. Under gobs of aged makeup and a classic Elvis pompadour, Campbell gyrates and scenery chews his way into the hearts of fans. Campbell is given the greatest of one liners and a hilarious voice-over narration which includes such epic quips as “its been two presidential elections since I’ve had a boner like that” and “man, you are one big, bitch cockroach”.

The epic battle in the film’s climax involves all the wheelchair gags, slow moving chase scenes and using-a-walker-as-a-weapon fight scenes the plot would suggest. And the teaming of Campbell with the great Ossie Davis is a wonderful choice. One could even argue that Ossie Davis is serving in a master/apprentice capacity with Campbell in the world of great character actors. They are certainly two people who, just their inclusion in a film alone, automatically earns a movie bonus points and credibility. Also, this film to a degree had killed the movie The Bucket List for me. Despite them being completely different movies, every time I saw Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman together in that old folks home I immediately wished that somehow killing vampires would be on that list.

-John

R.I.P. Tony Scott (1944-2012)

I woke up this morning to the tragic news of the passing of one of cinema’s biggest filmmakers of the last 30 years and one of my top ten idols in movie making period, the great Tony Scott. Apparently at around 12:30 pm yesterday Mr. Scott jumped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the San Pedro port district of Los Angeles, California, rumors speculate he may have been recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer but as of this post no official statement has been made.

The question of why such an iconic filmmaker would take his own life, especially at the age of 68 and still so many films set to come, is hardly an importance. What matters the most is that Tony Scott delivered decades worth of high profile, summer blockbuster, action packed entertainment. His style in the 1980s and his revised look in the early 2000s has inspired a new generation of filmmakers and will be copied for years to come, although never equaled. Reception to his movies has divided critics and moviegoers alike yet Tony Scott has always held an extremely loyal fan base and the success of his last film, 2010’s Unstoppable (including 167 milllion dollars worldwide and a Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) shows that Scott was still full of surprises.

Tony Scott first hit celluloid at the same time as his older brother, Ridley Scott. At the age of 23, Ridley Scott made his debut with a short film entitled Boy and Bicycle and cast his then 16 year old younger brother Tony in an acting role. When Tony graduated the Royal College of Art he went to work for his brother at the Ridley Scott Associates television commercial production outfit and began a successful career crafting many celebrated British commercials and television specials.

In the late 1970s an invasion of British filmmakers including Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott himself swarmed American cinemas with a new look and voice in independent film making. It is at this time that Tony Scott too would begin receiving offers from Hollywood, it is also at this time the Scott family would suffer a major tragedy in the death of their elder brother Frank from cancer. Tony came to Hollywood attracted to the in development adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and subsequently was assigned the studio’s other vampire themed project The Hunger (1983).  The debut film featured an early look at Scott’s signature style and featured performances by David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and the launching of actor Willem Dafoe. The film was a critical and financial flop but has since gained a big cult following and held the attention of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who would approach Tony to direct the seminal 80s blockbuster Top Gun.

Top Gun was released in 1986 to record breaking box-office numbers and launched the summer action movie and its marketing campaign as we see it today. Essentially a 90 minute promo for the U.S. Navy the film made a box-office star out of Tom Cruise and propelled actors like Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan into the forefront. Though notoriously cheesy, Top Gun will always remain one of the best, most talked about films of the 80s and its choreography of aerial action has never been topped. Tony Scott’s camera style, editing and color palette would become the quintessential look and tone for 80s and 90s action movies and surely paved the way for such action directors as Kathryn Bigelow, Renny Harlin and Michael Bay. This is most obvious in Tony’s followup to Top Gun, the 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. Scott’s version of Axel Foley is a tougher, grittier and much harder take than Martin Brest’s predecessor and still holds strong as one of the greatest sequels ever made.

1990 holds the one-two punch of the ever busy Tony Scott, seeing the release of Revenge, a steamy and brutal neo-noir in which an aviator falls for a crime boss’s wife in Mexico and Days of Thunder, in which Scott reteams with Cruise for a Spaghetti western on wheels set in the world of auto racing. Revenge is one of my favorite Tony Scott films and the best Kevin Costner-starrer I’ve ever seen. Days of Thunder is a fantastic sports epic, features star making roles by Nicole Kidman and John C. Reilly and plays like a NASCAR version of Sam Peckinah’s classic Junior Bonner.

Scott and Warner Bros. purchased Shane Black’s follow up script to Lethal Weapon with a record sum of money and thus the phenomenal The Last Boy Scout was born. Featuring a never funnier Bruce Willis in the ultimate portrayal of a hardboiled, badass cop and the greatest ensemble of action movie henchman to ever grace the screen, The Last Boy Scout is an underrated 90s gem. The combination of writer Shane Black’s characters and tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen dialogue with Scott’s slick portrayal of L.A. is the first of many great writer-director collaborations to come.

Quentin Tarantino sold his first feature script True Romance to help fund his own debut Reservoir Dogs and with a great admiration for Revenge and Days of Thunder Tarantino felt completley safe with his very personal script in director Tony Scott’s hands. The result is Tony Scott’s (and by many degree Tarantino’s) masterpiece. I’m dying to write a post on this one as it features my favorite scene, my favorite moment in cinema, of all time. This of course would be the “Sicilian and Moors” conversation between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. More on this in an upcoming post. Eggplant!

Scott and Tarantino became such a great pairing that even after winning an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino came on to do a final script polish on Scott’s next film Crimson Tide. Tarantino left much of the naval drama and military lingo intact while punching up sequences with his signature dialogue and references from everything from the Silver Surfer to the classic WWII submarine film Run Silent, Run Deep. The 90s blockbuster featured stellar performances from two actors who would become synonymous with Tony Scott films, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

The 1996 film The Fan was a critical and box-office flop starring Robert De Niro as a crazed fan obsessed with a famous baseball player (played by Wesley Snipes) and came at a time when all three parties (Scott, De Niro and Snipes) seemed confused on where their careers should go. While still not good, the movie does hold its share of fine moments and Tony Scott trademarks. Scott was able to bounce back in 1998 with the box-office hit Enemy of the State, an all-star paranoia thriller featuring Will Smith on the run from CIA surveillance and Gene Hackman reprising his signature role in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation. Between Enemy of the State and his 2001 film Spy Game starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, Scott’s camera movements and editing style would change considerably and create a new way of shooting action set pieces.

Starting with 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott films would feature the signature orange and yellow sunsets and color schemes as before but now with a more frenetic imagery. His films are now filled with quick edits, lens flares, shaky cam, and jump cuts that would detract many cinema lovers, but keeps this viewer visually blown away. The hallucinatory style applied to Man on Fire, 2005’s Domino and 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 makes Tony Scott’s films their own unique beast.

He plays with soundtracks more and more and this creates a roller coaster ride of entertainment in each film. When Denzel Washington extracts bloody revenge on the men who kidnapped Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Nine Inch Nails blares on the soundtrack as Washington strolls across the street wielding a shotgun is fucking movie bliss. Same goes for the bloody shootout in a trailer park that leads into an ass-kicking, Xzibit soundtracked opening credit sequence in Domino. Or even the opening of Taking of Pelham 123 that intercuts the sounds of Travolta and his gang hijacking a train with the famous Rick Ross beats of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

What’s more is that Tony Scott continued to make smart action films in a time when the genre only seemed to be getting dumber. 2010’s Unstoppable is a masterclass in momentum and suspense. Pelham 123 is a smartly scripted remake of a beloved film and Brian Hegleland makes it his own and very original. Man on Fire is one of the coolest revenge movies of the last 20 years and saved Washington’s post-Oscar career from disasters like Out of Time. Domino is sheer, adrenaline fueled mayhem. The only misfire is 2006’s Deja Vu which collapses on its self from flawed, overly complicated time travel logic. Its still a very invigorating visual experience despite its confusing plot.

Now to my dismay there will always be a gaping void in cinema today. A missing piece to the movie going experience. The style and technique that Edgar Wright parodied so lovingly in Hot Fuzz will never be matched. Action movies will rarely be this smart or this much fun ever again. Mr. Scott is up there with Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, John Milius, Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino as my action movie idols. I’ve always dreamed of one day writing a screenplay for Tony Scott. Even though he’s no longer with us, I will continue to write screenplays for Tony Scott. Through myself and the rising filmmakers of today, perhaps the legacy of Tony Scott will continue to live on in Hollywood. My condolences to the Scott family, his wife and twin sons, and thank you for the many memories and epic pictures  you’ve given me. Cheers, sir.

-John

Batman Begins (2005)

When Batman & Robin was released in 1997 I was 11 years old. By the time Batman would return to screen in Batman Begins in 2005 I was 19. The wait was unbearable, especially with little teases in the 8 year gap including those On-Star commercials that advertised a walk on role in the next Batman film (upon which I would immediately search the internet and cruelly discover no Batman films were currently in development) and the ridiculously obnoxious Scooby-Doo teaser trailer in 2002 that was edited to look like a Batman film.

By the the time 2005 rolled around I was what I refer to as a “film elitist”. By this point I would ridicule anything “too mainstream”, would only watch a movie if it was either “art house” or “in black and white” and would much sooner watch Broken Flowers or Me and You and Everyone We Know before giving Fantastic Four or Serenity a moments look. Things have changed, obviously, since then and I rediscovered my roots of loving all things big and small scale from Star Wars or Switchblade Sisters to Breathless or The Artist. However, circa 2005 I was not an easy critic to impress.

Around this time I would become friends with a co-worker at the movie theater, a young lad by the name of Josh Helms, who will forever remain one of the smartest people I’ve met and an extremely talented violinist. Josh and I had many common loves like Daniel Day-Lewis performances or Danny Elfman scores, but the three passions we had most in common were Batman, Christopher Nolan and Samurai cinema. How lucky we would be to have all three come together in a time when I had given up on “mainstream cinema”.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is unlike any other movie series in the history of film. Its not solely a tongue-in-cheek action series like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, nor is it the serious melodrama that is The Godfather trilogy. Its a blend of both worlds. With the Batman films and Inception, Nolan has combined the seriousness of an art house film, the performances of an Oscar-caliber Hollywood picture, and the exploitation of a summer popcorn blockbuster into one, tight, cohesive package. A movement that has changed the Hollywood blockbuster as we see it today. Hollywood is rapidly turning to the Independent filmmakers to bring something fresh and new to the old Hollywood formula, (i.e. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Duncan Jones’ Source Code).

Now of course, Nolan isn’t the first filmmaker to do this. Spielberg and James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson have been bringing their own artistic brilliance to big Hollywood pictures for years, yet nobody has taken their source material quite as far as Christopher Nolan has. No one has taken a genre so far past the congratulatory “pat-yourself-on-the-back” special effects stage and so deep into harsh cinematic voyeurism.

Kicking off with a striking image of a swarm of bats that begin to make up the new Batman logo, Nolan’s film is a quick-fire piece of storytelling. We see the childhood Bruce Wayne fall down a well and has his first horrific encounter with bats. An edit later and were in the middle of an Asian prison where a young and bearded Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) fends off attacking inmates. The young Wayne is taken under the wing of Henri Ducard (the best mentor ever, Liam Neeson!) and practices under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul (Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe) and his League of Shadows, an organization of ninjas bent on eliminating criminality and serving “true justice”.

The brilliantly choreographed and Kurosawa evoking training sequences are intercut with the story of Bruce Wayne and the death of his parents. We see young Bruce become frightened during a theater production (the dancing figures that appear like bats are killer imagery) and his parents are soon gunned down while leaving the auditorium by average thug Joe Chill. Flash forward years later and Chill is up for parole after providing the D.A. with leverage against mob boss Carmine Falcone. Bruce is back for the hearing accompanied by childhood sweetheart and new assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and her pleas for justice are disputed by his vision of vengeance. Bruce comes face to face with Carmine Falcone (a wickedly good Tom Wilkinson) and splits town in search of something more.

Using his newly acquired skills in martial arts, deception, practicality, knowledge of the simple nature between right and wrong and a clear will to uphold justice, Bruce Wayne returns home with a mission to rid Gotham City of organized crime. With the help of his confidant Alfred Pennyworth (the great Michael Caine) and the head of the Applied Sciences department at Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox (the infallible Morgan Freeman) Wayne develops a high-tech costume and weapons arsenal and becomes the heroic symbol…Batman. Using the forces of Sergeant James Gordon (the legendary Gary Oldman) and Rachel Dawes, Batman is able to take on Falcone and the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow (the brilliant Cillian Murphy) who plans to disperse chemicals into Gotham’s water supply that will evaporate into a fear toxin. A nemesis of Batman’s past reemerges to share in on the fear.

As you can see the story is quite a bit more complex than any other superhero film up till that point. In fact Bruce Wayne doesn’t show up in full Batman costume until halfway through the film. The first fight sequence where Batman takes down a group of Falcone’s drug-running thugs is brilliantly shot and edited to where Batman is but a mere blur. As the attacks come from all sides, what is actually seen is the terror in the criminals faces, something more akin to a horror movie. This display puts the viewer in the dizzying point of view of a criminal being taken down by an giant unseen bat.

The performances are superb around the board. Christian Bale is the first actor to give Batman three different faces. First there’s the real Bruce Wayne, the tortured soul who wishes to fight injustice and reestablish order in Gotham City. Then there’s the persona Bruce Wayne has adopted in order to maintain anonymity as the Batman, the persona in which he is the typical millionaire playboy, douche bag with a hot foreign model on each arm. And finally there’s the performance of Batman which holds its own unique stances, movements, and a gruffer voice than any Batman since Kevin Conroy. The ability in which Bale can switch from any of these three faces to another is a credit to the power of Christian Bale’s acting. More on that in The Dark Knight review.

As much as the first film is very much Christian Bale’s movie, the supporting players are all top of the line in every endeavor. Michael Caine brings a loyal, lovable and warm father-like presence to Alfred Pennyworth. His character throughout the trilogy will become more and more the man of moral conscience in Bruce’s life and Caine delivers an Oscar worthy performance in each. Gary Oldman is powerhouse as the incorruptible James Gordon. Its a refreshing change to see Oldman portray a character so right as opposed to so wrong and any film that lets Gary Oldman drive the Batmobile is a perfect 10 in my book.

Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson bring a more traditional interpretation to the proceedings. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a larger-than-life interpretation of the Italian gangster and his delivery of a monologue about the power of fear is one of the film’s many highlights. Murphy meanwhile has the delivery of a classic madcap Batman villain, his delivery of “Who? The Bat..man” has the kind of tone and subtle beats that recall Frank Gorshin’s classic portrayal of The Riddler in the 1960s series.

The always classy Morgan Freeman is the show stealing comic relief and each exchange he has with Bruce Wayne is well-written, comedy gold. Katie Holmes is surprisingly good as Rachel Dawes and pulls off the hardboiled D.A. role well. And who can forget Rutger Hauer shows up as Wayne Enterprises new CEO Willaim Earle and Memento’s very own Mark Boone Junior shows up as a sleazy, crooked cop.

Oh my god and the Tumbler. I can’t forget about the Tumbler. That thing is the bomb. A massive tank-like vehicle, The Tumbler is the new form of Batmobile. The big car chase (one of the film’s few action sequences) is the greatest action scene of that year: the images of the all-terrain roadster pancaking cop cars is one thing but the sound of the Tumbler’s engine as it roars is utterly breathtaking. The sound quality in this sequence should forever be shown in film school’s as an example on the importance of sound effect creation and editing.

Batman Begins is a phenomenal start to the new franchise. I wasn’t hundred percent blown away in 2005, I had problems with the quick editing of the sequences, the brazing over the death of Wayne’s parents, the lack of action. But in time I learned that all these were a part of Nolan’s intention. Now I can no longer fault the film for skimping on the early images of Batman (when clearly Nolan wanted audiences to salivate for the full revelation of Batman in costume) or the brazing over of the Wayne’s parents deaths (because we’ve seen it in four films already) or the lack of action (the action filled climax in Begins flows wonderfully into the intro to The Dark Knight).  What I learned was that Nolan was more interested in Bruce Wayne’s struggles than a CGI heavy showdown of Batman and The Scarecrow. That the story was more about the citizens of Gotham City, the line between good and evil and the imagery of Batman. That Bob Kane and Batman were finally getting the movie they deserved.

-John