The Dark Knight Rises * * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on characters written by Bob Kane

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Running Length: 165 minutes

Synopsis: It’s been eight years since the events that unfolded in The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a shadow of his former self, broken both physically and emotionally, casting himself into self-seclusion. An encounter with the sexy cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) jolts him out of his stupor, and with a new villain Bane (Tom Hardy) in Gotham City threatening the city’s survival, Bruce has to decide whether to become the caped crusader again. He is aided by his trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his right-hand man at Wayne Enterprises, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Several other characters also enter the fray, including police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as Wayne Enterprises board member and potential love interest of Bruce Wayne, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

Review: All good things have to come to an end, and after 7 long years, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing Batman trilogy has finally arrived. The Dark Knight is a very tough act to follow, and whilst The Dark Knight Rises does not manage to reach the same heights that its predecessor attained, the film is about as good a sendoff to the series as one would hope to get.  

Let’s get the downsides out of the way first: there’s a slight sense of overreach when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises, as though there really isn’t enough time (even in a movie that runs close to 3 hours long) to cover every aspect of the complex narrative web that Christopher and his brother Jonathan have weaved. There are just a touch too many characters involved in the proceedings, to the point where it does seem that some of these characters have been given short shrift – even Batman himself doesn’t take centerstage all that often, despite this being a movie that ostensibly revolves around him.

Yet, these are merely minor quibbles in the grander scheme of things, and The Dark Knight Rises satisfies in ways that few superhero movies can hope to do. Things are never simple in Nolan’s cinematic universes, and in the realm of his Dark Knight, the characters carry far greater emotional weight than one would expect for a superhero movie, and the universally excellent performances (except perhaps for a blander than usual Marion Cotillard) help to give multi-dimensionality. Combined, this means much greater audience investment into the outcomes of these characters, which is never a bad thing.

The Dark Knight Rises also focuses on something that is usually left by the wayside for a superhero movie – it reminds us that beneath the mask, Batman is a normal human being. From the walking stick that Bruce Wayne now depends on, to Alfred’s questioning his intentions for returning as Batman, the caped crusader’s physical vulnerability is underscored repeatedly.

Christian Bale continues to give a superlative performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman, and despite the significant female presence in the movie (Anne Hathaway is particularly memorable as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, although it’s very different from Michelle Pfeiffer’s campy Catwoman), the best emotional sequences arise from interactions between Wayne and his butler Alfred. Christian Bale and Michael Caine will quite possibly be the best iterations of these two characters ever, much like how the late Heath Ledger has completely overshadowed any other actor that have been (or will become) the Joker. Tom Hardy’s Bane is menacing and yet charismatic, though his performance is somewhat hampered by the large mask that he wears. An additional caveat: the distortion of Bane’s voice does makes some of his dialogue almost unintelligible.

The Dark Knight Rises is equally accomplished on the technical front. This is an incredibly good looking film, benefiting from Wally Pfister’s excellent cinematography and Nolan’s masterful framing of shots. Over an hour of footage has been shot on IMAX film, and the movie is best appreciated on an IMAX screen. Nolan is known for avoiding CGI whenever possible, and there’s an organic feel to the movie (which is entirely shot on film as well) which is hard to find in any action movie these days. Hans Zimmer’s score also forms an integral part of the movie, punctuating the action sequences with percussion heavy cues, but also judiciously using silence and dialing back on the pomposity whenever needed.

Without giving anything away, let’s just say that Nolan has given as much closure to his trilogy as possible, but has still left the door slightly open for the studio’s benefit. The denouement of The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as ambiguous as Inception, but this is without a doubt a “thinking man’s superhero movie”, requiring a consistent engagement of the mind. It’s a change of pace from most summer action films, but the film remains thrilling and engrossing throughout, despite its extended running time.

Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have largely missed out on Oscar action, barring Heath Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor win. Hopefully the Academy will belatedly recognize the greatness of this genre-bending trilogy, and we’ll see a more representative list of nominations for what is undoubtedly the best superhero movie to be released this year.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Ice Age 4: Continental Drift * * 1/2

Genre: Animation

Directors: Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier

Writers: Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs

Voice Cast: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifa, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Wanda Sykes

Running Length: 85 minutes

Synopsis: The trio from the previous Ice Age movies returns – Manny the wooly mammoth, Diego the sabretooth tiger, and Sid the sloth – embark upon their greatest adventure after cataclysm sets an entire continent adrift. Separated from the rest of the herd, they use an iceberg as a makeshift ship, which launches them on an epic seafaring quest. Manny and the gang are challenged like never before to become heroes and do the impossible, as they encounter exotic sea creatures, explore a brave new world, and battle ruthless pirates. And Scrat’s reunion with his cursed nut catapults him to places no prehistoric squirrel has gone before.

Review: There really isn’t much reason for this movie to exist, and it shows – although Ice Age 4: Continental Drift is superficially entertaining with a plethora of funny and cute animals, the plot is virtually nonexistent and the social message feels tacked on. It has been a decade since the first Ice Age, and yet the franchise does not seem to have improved with time, with a large part of the film feeling like nothing more than a rehash.

The entire concept that Ice Age 4 revolves around also feels like an uneasy marriage – having the main characters duke it out on a newly formed ocean on “ships” made from icebergs feels almost too human for a bunch of creatures in the Ice Age. The additional subplot involving Manny the wooly mammoth’s rebellious teenaged daughter is even more uninteresting, and the way it plays out and resolves itself is very perfunctory.  

Credit to be given where it’s due though, Ice Age 4 looks great (like almost every computer animated film these days), and the usage of 3D is rather impressive, especially for younger audiences. Scrat, the iconic squirrel chasing after his acorn, is still as entertaining as ever, providing much needed diversion from the clunky main plots. Many of the new characters are actually more interesting than the original Ice Age gang, with the most memorable being Sid the sloth’s grandmother, wonderfully realized by Wanda Sykes.

Special mention must be given, however, to the best part of the show, which actually occurs before the start of Ice Age 4. Do not miss out on the excellent short film The Longest Daycare, starring Maggie of The Simpsons – the four and a half minute short is brilliant, packing more creativity, wit and heart than the entire movie that follows. For Simpsons fans like me, this short film alone is worth the price of admission.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter * * 1/2

Genre: Action

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel of the same name

Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter explores the secret life of one of the U.S.’s greatest presidents, and the untold story that shaped that country. Producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov reimagine Lincoln as one of history’s greatest hunters of the undead.

Review: Given the names of the visionaries that are backing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it’s truly a surprise that the end result is such a middling movie. It’s almost as though producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov (Daywatch, Wanted) couldn’t make up their mind whether the subject matter functions better as a satire or a straight up horror/action film, and the eventual execution, whilst perfectly serviceable, lacks the qualities to be memorable in any way.

One would assume that with a concept of turning the president of the USA into a vampire hunter, the film would be quite “out there”, but the tone is far more serious than it should be. The first half of the movie is the better half, with the “origins story” of how Abraham Lincoln becomes an axe-wielding vampire slayer, but once the narrative moves toward marrying fact (Abraham Lincoln: President) and fiction (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), it starts to falter.

It doesn’t help that the vampire hunter premise already feels tired after the first two reels, and becomes multiple variations on the same (old) theme. The acting is pretty much mediocre throughout, with Benjamin Walker being the biggest offender – he has absolutely no charisma as Abe, and when the film ages him with somewhat dodgy makeup, it becomes even harder to look past his subpar acting chops.

With Bekmambetov helming the camera, it’s almost a given that the visuals will be impressive, and for the most part they are (although the 3D implementation feels half-baked). In fact, if not for the great action set-piece near the end, involving a train heist, hand to hand combat and a burning bridge, the second half of the movie would have been pretty much a downer.  This becomes one of the few redeeming points of the movie – but whether it’s enough to justify the price of entry would depend on one’s threshold for the chaff that makes up the remainder of the film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)