Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)

ForgettingSarahMarshall

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: LA and Hawaii in the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all – this isn’t an adaptation or even a horror film. Instead, it’s a romcom whose inclusion in this blogging project is solely down to a throwaway gag that sees the lead character writing a Dracula musical. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released during a noughties vogue for movies produced by Judd Apatow which centred on immature characters struggling with the trials of everyday life. Toying with gross-out humour and using the improvisational skills of their casts, the phase had kicked into gear with the out-and-out comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), then included the watchable The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the decent Knocked Up (2007), the sublime Superbad (2007), the funny Bridesmaids (2010) and several others before its popularity petered out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall tells the story of Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the script). He writes the incidental music for an ersatz-CSI TV drama, but is thrown into despair when he’s dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). We follow him as he plummets into depression then decides to go on holiday to Hawaii, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he ends up in the same luxury hotel as Sarah and her new beau, the English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Best performance: It’s a cast with a lot of US TV comedy connections: Segal from How I Met Your Mother, Bell from The Good Place, Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as Peter’s brother, Jack McBrayer from 50 Rock as a newly-wed at the hotel… Even Paul Rudd – once best known as Mike from Friends – has a small role as a surfing instructor. When Peter arrives at the Turtle Bay resort, he meets receptionist Rachel Jansen. She’s a stunningly gorgeous young woman who takes a shine to him, despite his self-pitying neuroses. Rachel is played by Mila Kunis (the voice of Meg in Family Guy, to keep the TV comedy theme going), who’s able to fulfil the function of the male lead’s object of desire and yet also feel like a self-assured character in her own right.

Best bit: When Peter attempts to hit on Rachel, he boasts that he’s writing a rock opera but is then immediately sheepish when she asks what it’s about. ‘Dracula,’ he says without conviction. ‘And eternal love. That’s the theme, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand.’ He also says that his dream is to stage it with puppets. (Jason Segel is an admitted Muppets fan. Roping in puppet experts from The Jim Henson Company to help with this film led to him co-writing and starring in a reboot of the Muppets movie series in 2011.) Later in the evening, Rachel forces Peter to sing a number from his musical on stage in a crowded bar. He’s nervous, saying that out of context the song might not work, then launches into a plaintive piano ballad which he sings in an affected Broadway manner. Sample lyric: ‘And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him/Take it from me, but I swear I won’t let it be so/Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated/His head on my mantle is how I will let this world know.’ As their relationship develops, eventually becoming sexual, Rachel urges him to finish writing the opera. Back home in LA, he does just that – and the film’s climax is built around a well-received performance of Taste for Love: A Dracula Puppet Musical at a small theatre. Peter and the other puppeteers are visible on stage, a la Avenue Q; the characters are clearly modelled on the Jim Henson idiom. It’s silly but sweet.

Review: There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments here, and the story never takes you by surprise, but this is an amiable-enough romantic comedy with a good cast. The Dracula musical – based on a real incident in Segel’s past – adds an oddball tone to all the conventional storytelling. It works well, especially when we see the triumphant performance. (Incidentally, Jonah Hill as a hotel worker who idolises Aldous was such a success in his scenes with Russell Brand that the actors later teamed up for spin-off: the more overtly funny film Get Him to the Greek, in which Brand reprised Aldous Snow and Hill played a new character.)

Seven little holidays with Hitler out of 10

Rambo (2008, Sylvester Stallone)

Rambo08

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living off the grid in southeast Asia (still), John Rambo is hired to sneak some American relief workers into dangerous territory…

What does Stallone do? Having revisited his other major role in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Sly next turned to John Rambo, who had been off cinema screens for 20 years. He worked on the script and later stepped in to direct the movie after another director walked away from the project late in the day. (It’s therefore the only Rambo film helmed by its star.) As we rejoin his story, John is living in Thailand and keeping his head down. When the cocky leader of some American missionaries asks for his help in crossing the border into Burma, Rambo says no – it’s far too dangerous, given the civil war going on there. But then the guy’s blonde colleague tries and Rambo says yes. He takes them upriver, and just like the similar journey in Apocalypse Now, the group soon encounter the kind of stock movie locals who are aggressive for no reason and take offense at the slightest thing. John is forced to kill them, much to the Americans’ disgust. Later, a few days after John has dropped them off and returned home, he learns that the missionaries have been captured by the Burmese army – so he agrees to show a bunch of hired mercenaries where he left them. Feeling guilt for their plight, he also insists on joining the rescue mission…

Other main characters:
* Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) is the nominal leader of the Christian relief workers, who are an intensely underwritten bunch of characters. (Most of them don’t even speak.)
* Sarah Miller (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Julie Benz) is the only female member of the group. She manages to pep-talk Rambo into helping them, but probably regrets her choice when she’s later captured, tortured and who knows what else by a bunch of shits I Burma.
* Officer Major Pa Tee Tint (Maung Maung Khin) is a cigarette-smoking prick in charge of a large group of soldiers in Burma. (And the film only ever calls it Burma, despite the country being known as Myanmar since 1989.) An evil, thoroughly punchable despot, he has no redeeming features.
* The most notable member of the mercenaries – because he shouts the loudest and has a Cockney accent – is Lewis (Graham McTavish). He says fuck a lot and takes against Rambo for no reason whatsoever. He and his colleagues are fairly risible and not worth cataloguing in full. They swap ‘written’ banter and shoot things.

Key scene: Having mounted a sneaky assault on the Burmese camp, John and the mercs rescue some American survivors and they all flee across country on foot – chased by soldiers and dogs. Well cut and benefiting from having no incidental music, the sequence is quite exciting.

Review: First Blood, the film that introduced the character of John Rambo, was about a Vietnam veteran attempting to reacclimatise to life back in America. So why has every Rambo sequel been set overseas? Could it be so nameless foreign locals and soldiers can be butchered for our entertainment, like they’re avatars in a shoot-’em-up video game? The opening of this film sets up the real-life situation in Burma, where the world’s longest-running civil war is being used as an excuse for some barbaric behaviour. The movie, unwisely and crassly, uses actual footage of massacres and dead bodies overlaid with hammy actors pretending to be news anchors. This harshness is then continued into the fiction, which dramatises terrified villagers being sadistically murdered. The cartoon violence of Rambo II and Rambo III, which wasn’t meant to be taken *too* seriously, has been replaced by harrowing depictions of graphic injuries, murder, child murder, rape, dismemberment (so many dismemberments), burnings, torture and corpses. These things go on in genocidal wars, no doubt, but this is meant to be a Hollywood action film. The fact that drama is non-existent means all this violence just comes off as empty and for its own sake. The money spent on the production is the only thing that lifts this film above a straight-to-video Steven Seagal flick.

Three pigs out of 10

Next: Creed

Dig Out Your Soul (2008)

71ydv5M8WML._SL1063_

Cover: It makes my eyes hurt.

Best track: I’m Outta Time was written by Liam Gallagher and is another vehicle for his John Lennon obsession. The piano phrases are similar to Lennon’s 1971 song Jealous Guy, while John himself can be heard towards the end via a snatch of a 1980 interview. But whatever the provenance, the resulting song is enjoyable. It has a resonant, anchoring bassline, a plaintive vocal melody, and a nice mid-tempo rhythm. It was the LP’s second single.

Honourable mentions:
* The Turning (written by Noel Gallagher) is initially based on a hip drum pattern and soft organ chords, and it’s a nice laid-back vibe. The track then turns more rocky for the chorus and guitar solo.
* The Shock of the Lightning – which was the album’s opening single – was both written and recorded very quickly. Noel has said that the finished track is essentially a demo that was good enough to release. It’s an urgent and head-nod-inducing rocker.
* The pleasingly odd (Get Off Your) High Horse Lady has a seesaw rhythm, relentless acoustic strums, handclaps and a distorted lead vocal from Noel, who wrote the song. (It also has a boring 30-second coda of footsteps that we could live without.)
* Falling Down (written and sung by Noel) was this album’s third single and therefore the band’s last ever before splitting suddenly in August 2009. Like a lot of this album, it has a grungy feel with a prominent drum pattern.
* Soldier On is another down-and-dirty production, with a swampy-sounding bass guitar. This is the last track on the last Oasis album and was written by Liam.

Worst track: Ain’t Got Nothing is a rambling, uncontrolled and irritating track written by Liam.

Weirdest lyric: The first song on the album, Bag It Up, starts with this piece of nonsense: “Gold and silver and sunshine is rising up/Pour yourself another cup of Lady Grey/Take my hand in the meantime, when you’ve had enough/You’ll find me on the end of a runway, babe.”

Best video: I’m Outta Time’s promo is in black and white, and sees Liam hanging out with foxes and owls.

Review: Before starting work on Dig Out Your Soul, Noel told a reporter that he wanted to make ‘an absolutely fucking colossal album’ – and this does fit the bill. It’s dominated by a huge, heavy, distorted sound. But because of this it lacks variety – even after several listens, many songs blur into one.

Seven days turning to night out of 10

The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

the-incredible-hulk-2008-trailer-1-the-incredible-hulk-1750153-1260-535

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run after an experiment gone wrong: if he gets too angry or excited he’ll turn into a giant, green, rampaging monster. Meanwhile, the military are on his trail…

In retrospect, this has become the forgotten film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The lead character has never been given a solo sequel and was recast for later appearances in the series; it took eight years for one of the secondary characters to crop up again, while love interest Betty (Liv Tyler) hasn’t even been mentioned. And it wasn’t the first Incredible Hulk movie to be ignored. There had been one just five years earlier, simply called Hulk, which hadn’t been very successful. (People didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was directed by Ang Lee.)

If you squint and ignore the fact all the actors are different, you could pretend that the backstory being told in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credit sequence – Bruce undergoes experiments, gets zapped, turns into monster – is a recap of that earlier film. But this is technically a reboot and it’s quite refreshing that it isn’t yet another origin story. The story begins with Bruce in hiding, his Hulk tendencies plaguing him (he’s on a run of 159 days without ‘incident’). Sadly, the big problem with the concept then rears its head. You only really have one plot with this character: Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce gets angry.

Edward Norton – who also worked on the script – is not awful in the role, but does seem to be an actor on autopilot. Coming just a month after Robert Downey Jr’s attention-grabbing performance in Iron Man, it’s just not good enough. Elsewhere, the small cast also fail to excite. Liv Tyler sleepwalks through an underwritten role, William Hurt goes for comic-book-villain thinness as gruff General Ross, and Tim Roth is miscast as Emil Blonsky, a Royal Marine from Russia who talks like an American with a Cockney accent and shoots a dog so we know he’s evil.

The film works best when adding lightness to all the shade – Bruce has a good gag when trying out Portuguese: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry!” – but the film is routinely sombre and lifeless. Everything seems like it’s going through the motions. There are flashes of invention, such as a joke about why Bruce shouldn’t use the subway or Tim Blake Nelson as a scientist who feels like he’s visiting from a better movie, but the story is always told in the most straightforward and unsurprising way possible. There are also some ridiculously dull action sequences that are repetitive variations on monster-versus-military. (The climactic battle is CGI monster versus CGI monster and seems to never end.)

At least the film sometimes looks pretty. The early scenes of Bruce hiding in Brazil are quirky and colourful and contrast well with the Michael Bay sheen used for the military characters. The movie then feels like a Jason Bourne spy chase when the two worlds collide. But the movie suffers from a fatal lack of distinction and is often quite boring. The most interesting thing about it is its place in a growing shared universe. There are blink-and-miss sightings of the Stark Industries logo and Nick Fury’s name, then Tony Stark shows up for a fun cameo. It seems like the film itself is already more excited about the rest of the series.

Five bottles of Guarana soda out of 10

stan-lee_the-incredible-hulk-cameo

Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

maxresdefault

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire businessman Tony Stark builds an armoured mechanical suit and fights back…

This feels like a mission statement right from the word go. At face value it’s a one-off action-adventure movie, but we now know it’s actually the ‘pilot episode’ for an enormously successful film franchise. Therefore, as well as telling its own story, Iron Man is setting the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the feel of Iron Man is noticeably different from many previous comic-book films. It’s not as matinee as Superman: The Movie, not as Gothic as Tim Burton’s Batman, not as metaphor-driven as X-Men, not as serious as Batman Begins, not as immature as Fantastic Four… Instead, this film is its lead character writ large.

Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the movie itself are clever, witty and hugely confident. There’s a pre-crash, noughties swagger on show, while the music is a mix of AC/DC and a rock-heavy score. However, the in-your-face attitude is matched by oodles of comedy: having fun is the order of the day. Throughout the film, dryly funny dialogue and well-timed visual gags keep things entertainingly breezy, even if the story is actually about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is a film where the lead character asks journalists to sit on the floor with him during a press conference; where his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, decent), has to play a real-life game of Operation and reach into his part-mechanised chest; and where his AI computer (Paul Bettany) has the voice of a droll, English butler.

Note that all those examples centre on Tony. He dominates the film and Downey Jr – a former loose cannon who’s had issues with drugs, rehab and prison – is supremely smart casting. The actor gives Tony lots of off-putting attributes. He’s an arrogant, selfish womaniser who belittles his closest allies and, you know, gets disgustingly rich from producing and selling things specifically designed to kill and maim people. But he’s also charismatic, self-deprecating, and very likeable. In fact, if anything, Iron Man is too much the Tony Stark show. It’s having so much fun with him that other characters don’t get much of a look-in. Terrence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s both Tony’s best friend and a conduit to the military, has some nice moments and Pepper Potts gets stuff to play. But other than some bland, generic Afghans, the story has no real antagonist until its second half.

At least they’ve cast the bad-guy role well: Tony’s business associate Obadiah Stane is played by the reliable Jeff Bridges, and the dude does a lot with a predictable, underling-wants-to-muscle-in-on-the-boss character. It’s actually not a huge problem that it takes 70 minutes to set up Obadiah as the villain. The film has been speeding along very entertainingly, thanks to a script that tells its origin story with no fuss and some crisp, not-getting-in-the-way direction from Jon Favreau (who also plays the minor role of Tony’s bodyguard).

There was a lot resting on this movie when it was first released. It’s nearly a decade old already – Tony makes a joke about Myspace – and has been followed by 13 movies set in the same fictional universe with many more on the way. You can see the seeds of that series being sown in Iron Man with the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deliciously deadpan Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), two characters who’ll crop up again in future films. But those dozen-plus films wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had got it wrong. It got it right and an empire of superhero movies has been built on its success.

Eight Hugh Hefners out of 10

th08brd12n

Young Dracula: series two (2007/2008)

91cgx4-aKgL._SL1500_

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Same as series one. Episode nine is largely set at the local town museum and is filmed at the Temple of Peace and Heath, a distinctive Cardiff building used numerous times in recent Doctor Who.

Faithful to the novel? This 13-episode run begins the day after series one ended. Due to the gap in filming, though, lead character Vlad Dracula (Gerran Howell) is visibly older, a bit thinner and has a deeper voice. The family’s vampire secret was outed last time, so Eric Van Helsing (Terence Maynard) is now even more committed in his quest.

Best performance: Clare Thomas is good fun as Ingrid, especially as the character becomes more evil.

Best episode: Baby Dracula, episode six, sees Vlad and Ingrid’s mum, Magda, return. She’s pregnant with the Count’s son.

Review: Episode one is a decent scene-setter, combining plot, character, action and comedy. The rest of the series rarely lives up to its promise, sadly. A number of mini-arcs get trotted out – the Draculas’ American relatives show up for three episodes, Mina Van Helsing (Jo-Anne Knowles) joins the show in episode seven, Ingrid gets a boyfriend in episode eight, while the season climaxes with a story about the Grand Vampire and the introduction of a new slayer – but it’s all a bit tired.

Six chosen ones out of 10

Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest (2008, Michael Feifer)

bram-stokers-draculas-guest

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? The Victorian era. In London, the English countryside, Transylvania, France and ‘Eastern Europe’.

Faithful to the novel? Dracula’s Guest is a short story by Bram Stoker, published by his widow in 1914. It seems to have been the original opening chapter of his novel Dracula, but was cut by the publisher because the book was too long. Its unnamed protagonist (assumed to be Jonathan Harker) travels across Europe and has a worrying encounter with some kind of werewolf… This film is a very, very, very loose adaptation, which makes the incalculably illogical decision to name the lead character… Bram Stoker. Like Harker, he’s a London lawyer; but like the real-life Stoker, he’s Irish. A mysterious foreigner called Count Dracula (who has no problem sitting in sunlight) employs the fictional Bram to help purchase a house on Regent Street. Meanwhile, Bram is courting a young woman called Elizabeth Murray, whose father is unhappy with their relationship. Sick of her dad’s interference, Elizabeth runs away and bumps into Dracula at the train station – he kidnaps her, takes her back to Transylvania with him, and rapes her (bye-bye, subtext!). When Bram hears what’s happened, he travels to Castle Dracula to rescue her – on the way, he has several spooky encounters, including a nighttime meeting with a quartet of Brides. Bram finally confronts Dracula, but can’t defeat him. Luckily, Elizabeth’s dad then shows up and – because he’s apparently a vampire hunter! – easily kills the count.

Best performance: She can’t act, but at least Kelsey McCann (Elizabeth) is pretty.

Best moment: As part of its start-up sequence, the DVD played a trailer for a low-budget zombie/Western movie called Undead or Alive. It had bags more wit, energy and fun than the film I then watched.

Review: Fuck a duck. This is genuinely one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. A pathetic, boring, bland, badly thought-out, badly paced script of clichés has been given to a uniformly dreadful cast who trot out some atrocious English and Irish accents. (Helpfully, a bad sound mix means you sometimes struggle to hear them. It seems the film’s budget didn’t stretch to ADR.) Even more annoyingly, it’s all so awfully directed. The washed-out cinematography is irritating enough, but the laughably inept framing and sloppy editing mean every scene trundles along with no momentum or style or drama.

One fencing duel out of 10

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Gotham City is terrorised by a maniac calling himself the Joker…

Good guys: Wayne Manor has been destroyed, so Bruce Wayne is now living in a penthouse and using a secret base underneath the docks for all his secret Batman stuff. Early on, he goes to Hong Kong to find a fleeing money launderer and delivers him to Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce sees Dent as the new crime-fighting hope for the city, so also helps him by throwing a big fundraiser. But when the Joker begins his reign of terror, Batman faces a dilemma – reveal his real identity or risk more people being killed… So he destroys all evidence of his activities and prepares to ‘come out’, yet Harvey beats him to it and announces that *he’s* the Batman. It’s a trap to lure the Joker out, but he soon escapes and kills Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes. After capturing the Joker and saving Jim Gordon’s family from Dent (who’s gone loopy, murdered some people and is then killed himself), Batman falls a long way and is injured. In order to maintain Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s rallying-call hero, Batman chooses to take the blame for Dent’s actions and goes on the run… As in Batman Begins, Bruce has a trio of older men who help him out – Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Alfred offers sound advice, Lucius gets to go on the Hong Kong mission, while Gordon plays a big role in the plot: he’s stages his death to trick the Joker, then gets promoted to police commissioner.

Bad guys: The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a psycho-punk terrorist – he’s tellingly referred to by that word – with blurred clown make-up, facial scars and a charity-shop suit. He is “an agent of chaos” who revels in destruction. In a brilliant move that makes him more mythic, we never find out who he is or where he’s from, and he tells contradictory but always chilling stories about how he got his scars. As the story begins, the Joker is knocking off mob banks. He then goes to the gangsters and offers to kill Batman for half of their fortune. When he’s arrested, he arranges for Dent and Rachel to be kidnapped – Rachel is killed and Dent is severely injured. The Joker escapes by taunting a policeman into fighting him, then blowing up the station with a bomb smuggled in inside a prisoner’s stomach. He gets all the mob’s money back and burns his half because it’s mayhem and disorder he wants, not cash. He then puts explosives on two ferries – one carrying civilians, one carrying convicts – and gives each the detonator for the other boat’s bomb. It’s a morbid social experiment designed to test Gotham’s morality. The last we see of him, he’s hanging upside down from a rope – high above Gotham and laughing uncontrollably. Ledger *commands* the film whenever he’s on screen. It’s a thrilling performance – as mercurial as it is manic. He’s full of threat and danger and menace.

Other guys: Aaron Eckhart (very good) plays Harvey Dent, the charismatic new DA who’s dating Rachel Dawes. He shows his mettle early on by disarming a witness who pulls a gun on him in court, then complains when the guy is taken away: “But, your honour, I’m not done…” He impresses everyone with his dedication to bringing down the mob – but when Jim Gordon is ‘killed’ and Rachel identified as the Joker’s next target, Dent’s anger boils over and he kidnaps a henchman. He tosses a coin to see whether the guy should live or not… He then pretends to be Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding, but the Joker retaliates by tying him up next to some barrels of flammable liquid. When a bomb goes off while Batman’s saving him, half of Dent’s face is burnt away; elsewhere, Rachel is killed. Now fully off the deep end, Dent goes on a revenge spree – killing gangsters based on a coin-toss decisions and even kidnapping Jim Gordon’s family… The role of Rachel, meanwhile, has been recast since Batman Begins. Katie Holmes declined to return (no great loss), so we now have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s *much* better. She’s a stronger presence in the story, feels like a grown-up and is a lot more interesting. Also on show are: Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter; Nestor Carbonell (Richard from Lost) as the mayor; Eric Roberts as mob boss Sal Maroni; Chin Han as the money launderer Lau; and Cillian Murphy, who reprises the Scarecrow from Batman Begins in a fun cameo.

Best bits:

* The incidental music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s one of cinema’s great scores – often scratchy, unsettling, nightmarish, unbearably taut and foreboding, sometimes sweeping and bombastic.

* The opening image – a slow helicopter shot tracking in towards a skyscraper’s window, which then smashes open.

* The prologue. Clown-masked bad guys burst into a bank, each killing a colleague as his usefulness passes. The casting of William Fichtner as the bank manager is a deliberate nod to the 1995 film Heat, in which he featured and which was a massive influence on this movie. The sequence is capped by the Joker pulling off his mask to reveal his terrifying face: “Whatever doesn’t kill you,” he snarls, “makes you *stranger*.”

* Gotham City Police Department’s noticeboard of Batman suspects: Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and Bigfoot.

* The fake Batmans (Batmen?) in hockey pads.

* Bruce crashes Rachel’s date with Harvey Dent so he can see the new DA up close. When Harvey says the restaurant might not let them push two tables together, Bruce says, “Oh, they should. I own the place.”

* The Joker walks in on the gangster’s powwow.

* The Joker’s magic trick: making a pencil disappear.

* Oh, look: it’s Chucky Venn from EastEnders as a mob henchman.

* “Why so serious?!”

* While reeling off the multitudinous charges facing the mob – “Seven hundred and 12 counts of extortion, 849 counts of racketeering, 246 counts of fraud, 87 counts of conspiracy murder, 527 counts of obstruction of justice…” – the judge finds a joker player card amongst her papers. She ain’t long for this world, then.

* Harvey asks Alfred about Rachel: “Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?” “Oh, you have no idea…”

* The Joker terrorises the fundraiser.

* The Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. “Let her go!” order Batman. The Joker says, “Very poor choice of words…”

* The executive who figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman and goes to Lucius Fox to extort him. Lucius says: “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands – and your plan is to blackmail this person?! Good luck.”

* Gordon is shot while protecting the mayor.

* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Jayne Dunn from Hollyoaks as Maroni’s bored girlfriend.

* The action scene with the armoured vans. It begins on urban city streets, then goes down to the claustrophobic lower levels. Batman starts in the familiar Tumbler Batmobile, but then detaches the front axle and it becomes his new Batpod motorbike. The Joker and his crew have an 18-wheel articulated lorry with a graffiti S added before its ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ logo. The chase is tense and visceral, and there’s a seamless blend of genuine stunt work, scale models and judicious CGI. The best moment is the lorry flipping over lengthways: an audacious stunt clearly done for real.

* The lights suddenly go on in the interrogation room and we see Batman stood behind the Joker.

* The mobile phone inside a guy’s stomach.

* The Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog.

* Harvey’s burnt face – a superb special effect.

* The Joker’s massive pile of money, which he then burns.

* The Joker dressed as a nurse – wig and all – but still with the same macabre make-up.

* The Joker blowing up a hospital. There’s a glorious shot of him walking towards camera as explosions go off in the background; they come to a stop, so he shakes his remote-control gizmo and pushes a button; this kicks off the collapse of the entire building – all done in one single take.

* The camera turning upside down so the Joker, hanging high above Gotham by his feet, appears the right way up.

* The final montage – Gordon trashing Batman’s reputation and praising Harvey Dent, all for the greater good.

Review: This film has such a pulse. A heartbeat. An unstoppable momentum. Director Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras for key action sequences, which makes the whole thing feel absolutely enormous. It’s an epic story on a massive canvass, and has more wide, open spaces than any other Batman. You feel the city stretching out beyond the borders of every frame. A big influence is the Michael Mann crime thriller Heat (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s wonderful). There are many similarities between the two: a sense of tension always bubbling away under the surface; a personality-driven conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; a tense bank raid that shows off the villain’s ruthless determination; and the use of a city as a character in its own right… Also, as in Heat, The Dark Knight’s two principle players – Batman and the Joker – are not a million miles apart. They’re both ‘freaks’ using force to impose their will. The Dark Knight starts off as a gangster plot. How can Batman and the cops bring down the mob? And it’s based on standard tropes of good guys and bad guys, mobsters and the police, law and order and courts and judges. Everyone knows where there are. But the injection of the Joker – a shot of spiked adrenalin – adds unpredictability and uncertainty to everything. The film soon becomes a post-9/11 story about terrorism, democracy vs fascism, and whether ends can justify means. How do you deal with or defeat someone who doesn’t play by your rules? How important are civil liberties and personal privacy when you’re trying to protect society? There are no easy answers. The Joker is entropy-in-action: a force of nature constantly chipping away at Gotham City’s structured society and revelling in the decay. He can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be intimidated – and that’s terrifying. Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. It’s the best film so far this century. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review.

Ten school buses out of 10.

Next time: Mumble mumble Gotham’s reckoning! mumble mumble…

Burn After Reading (2008)

burn-after-reading

Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

When CIA analyst Osbourne Cox loses his job, he decides to write his memoirs – but the sensitive document falls into the hands of two gym workers, who plan to blackmail him…

Seen before? Yes, on DVD about three years ago.

Best performance: The headline five – sex addict George Clooney, self-doubter Frances McDormand, angry John Malkovich, childlike Brad Pitt and severe Tilda Swinton – are all terrific.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): McDormand (6), Clooney (3), Richard Jenkins (3) and JK Simmons (2).

Best bit: When Linda and Chad attempt to extort money from Cox.

Review: There’s a really odd clash of tones in this one. It begins like a Tony Scott techno-thriller (something like Enemy of the State or Spy Game). There are shades of One Foot in the Grave in Cox’s forced-retirement blues. It’s partly a twisted romcom, at times like a 1970s paranoia thriller, and becomes more Hitchcock-esque the longer it goes on. Despite (or maybe because of) this, whenever the script hits a crossroads it turns down the road with the fewest clichés, which keeps it interesting. Perhaps the film loses its way at the death (the end is sudden and perfunctory), but mostly it’s enormous fun.

Eight sex swings out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

CrystalSkull

Indiana Jones goes up against Soviet agent Dr Irina Spalko in a bid to locate a mysterious and powerful crystal skull…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: Harrison Ford – as soon as he pulls on the fedora, turns towards camera and grumbles, “Russians,” he’s back as Indy. In an instant, 15 years or so of coasting in rom-coms and average action thrillers is forgotten.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The spooky, unnerving sequence at the Peruvian graveyard.

Review: I’ve never understood the negativity – vitriol, in some cases – aimed at this film. Is it as good as the three Indiana Joneses made in the 1980s? No. But it’s still inventive, playful, witty and exciting in the classic Spielberg style. It is tonally different from the last three, though. Gone are the 1930s, the Nazis, a feel of film noir and Allan Quatermain-style Boys’ Own Adventure stuff. We’re now dealing with the 1950s: Reds-under-the-beds, B-movie horror, Rebel Without a Cause teenagers, nuclear paranoia and rock’n’roll. The film has great incidental music, clever action scenes and – especially once Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood – winning humour. On the downside, Shia LaBeouf is a bit tiresome, it’s difficult to get away from how naff crystal skulls are (there’s an especially funny Peep Show episode that ridicules them), a few good jokes get unnecessary punchlines for the hard-of-understanding, and the second half of the movie is overly CGI-happy. Flawed, yes, but still good, honest entertainment.

Eight lead-lined fridges out of 10.