Last 90 minutes excellent, first 40 awful. Batman Begins is a case of director Christopher Nolan trying to do too much in one film. It begins with Bruce Wayne in some prison camp – cue token action scenes – and proceeds to tell his story through the use of flashbacks that are completely out of pace with each other. In fact, the overall pacing of those 40 mins is erratic as Nolan attempts to get all the exposition out of the way. So the “more than a man” speech comes far too early and the dialogue in general is wooden, clunky, bombastic (“What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things”) or outright cringe-worthy (“you’re not the devil, you’re practice”). The action is nothing we haven’t seen before and if anything it’s old hat. The ninja scene is straight out of the opening scene of Rambo III which was already lampooned by Hot Shots Part Deux so why Nolan tried to have a serious stab at it is a mystery. There are some good ideas in the opening act though. Wayne becoming a criminal and witnessing the ambiguity of crime, Tom Wilkonson’s speech that prompted Wayne to disappear are all original and thought-provoking.
Happily, once Wayne returns to Gotham, this film really takes off and it becomes quite excellent. Everything becomes more focused. The pacing settles, the score comes into its own and we are treated to one outstanding set-piece after another (with the rooftop sequence particularly standing out). Even the dialogue tightens up and becomes much more effective because of it. The cinematography throughout is splendid but peaks as the night-time cityscapes provide the backdrop to the originally executed action sequences. The seriousness of the film is also counter-weighted in the second act with Michael Caine’s light-hearted portrayal of “Alfred” providing some genuinely funny moments. With the calmer pace, the actors are given room to breathe and Christian Bale starts to show us a much more interesting and charming Wayne (though here too the ‘millionaire playboy’ scenario was rushed). Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman become relevant to the story and add great support because of it. The contrast between the first and final two acts is so stark that one wonders why Nolan just didn’t begin at the 40 minute mark The backstory could’ve been subtly sewn into its fabric with a series of unspoken shots like in Marathon Man (the type of which Nolan did briefly employ in the final act) and the film would’ve been much more fluid because of it. That said the final 90 minutes definitely make it worth wading through the first 40.
Rating: The Good – 90.5 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 117 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Few films can be truly described as seminal and Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic would intuitively seem like a prime candidate given the fact that it has become a landmark in science fiction. However, truth be told, it is such a singular achievement that nobody seems to have known how to pick up where Scott and company left off. Though many would argue that Alien is Scott’s crowning achievement, many directors proved capable of at least emulating the industrial sci-fi vibe which he forged in that film, resulting in a traceable sea change right across the genre. Blade Runner had no such obvious effects and when one takes in the breadth of both its technical and conceptual complexity one begins to suspect that it is because nobody knew how Scott did exactly what he did.
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Blade Runner is set in a future when evolution in robotic technology has produced genetically engineered robots or ‘replicants’ which are almost completely indistinguishable from humans. When four of the most advanced and dangerous replicants escape their enslavement and make it to Earth, one of the few crack investigators (called ‘Blade Runners’) who can identify them is forced out of retirement to track them down and eliminate them.
Blade Runner is a spectacular film graced with sublime production design, unrivaled visual effects, and that mesmerising Vangelis score. However, it’s the qualitative experience of Scott’s futuristic vision that is so utterly captivating and such an experience can only be achieved when every aspect of the film-making process is pitch perfect. The actors from Harrison Ford as the Blade Runner to the improvisational Rutger Hauer as the nastiest of the replicants are totally in tune with the proceedings and provide that final touch of mastery to what surely must be one of the most impressive science fictions films ever made. It’s not always an easy watch because this is a darkly heavy and profoundly existential film. But stick with it and you’ll never forget it.
Rating: The Good – 69.7 Genre: Comedy, Horror Duration: 109 mins Director: Fran Rubel Kuzui Stars: Kristy Swanson, Paul Reubens , Donald Sutherland
Original and hugely enjoyable tongue in cheek teen vampire flick which began a television phenomenon. Kristy Swanson stars as the ditsy high school cheerleader who discovers she’s destined to be a slayer of vampires while Donald Sutherland stars as the crusty old mentor sent to whip her into shape. Luke Perry is the layabout who falls in with the slayer while Rutger Hauer and Paul Reubens form an unlikely but irresistibly funny double act as the slayer’s ancient vampire enemies.
First thing’s first. This film is not meant to be taken seriously in the slightest way as it is an experiment in movie fun from start to finish. A young Joss Whedon wrote the script and his quick jibing wit is all over the dialogue. However, it has been said, he was far from happy with general tone of the film and it’s not difficult to see why because outside of the dialogue, the writing (i.e., character and plot development) is missing his preferred blend of sombre tones and irreverent comedy. In its place is a wacky and uniquely skewed sense of improvisation. Controversial as it may be to claim in these days of Whedon-mania, that may not be the worst thing in the world. With the exception of his sublime foray into science fiction in the shape of the peerless Firefly, Whedon’s take on the horror genre can be decidedly precious and it can become bogged down by a very idiosyncratic, uninspired, and just plain stiff notion of evil. The television series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer which Whedon did maintain control over is a testament to this as many of the evil-doers whom Buffy ended up confronting season after season were all rather bland and really just became vehicles for the actor playing them to stick their personalities into 5th gear for 14 straight episodes. Worse still was the earnestness which he seemed to treat the conveyor belt of Buffy’s emotional dilemmas. An earnestness which just flat out did not gel with the comedic ambitions of the show. That director Fran Rubel Kuzui went a different way with the feature film is therefore quite refreshing and offers us a much more fun and imaginative take on what remains a fairly daft but engaging concept.
The key to the Kuzui’s success is the licence he gave the actors. There’s an overtly wide degree of freedom to improvise afforded the likes of Hauer and Reubens in particular and it results in a tantalising energy whenever they are on screen. Hauer’s delivery is particularly halting given its sheer eccentricity and the quality of the dialogue they were playing with. Paul Reubens as his hysterical henchman (whose death scene alone makes this worth the watching) runs his own little side-show that offers less improvisation but more outright comedic skill.
However, for all the uniqueness of the bad guys, it’s still the three good guys that give Buffy its charm. Perry is surprisingly enjoyable as the rebel without a clue and he seems to relish the opportunity to turn his then slightly noxious Beverly Hills 90210 character on its head. Moreover, he and Swanson share an easy chemistry which gives their romantic angle more substance than most. Swanson and Sutherland are even better together and given the age gap between the two, they play off each other extremely well. It’s great fun listening to your typical 1990′s LA teenager trying to make sense of the world which this strange man is introducing her to through her crass but charming rich girl mentality and it sets the scene for many a witty repartee as Sutherland’s beleaguered and world weary trainer gives as good as he gets.
With such loose directorial control, the film can come off a little clunky at times. The cuts can come too slow and the sound mixer seemed as confused by the film’s overall eccentricity as the audience was. However, the payoff is certainly worth it, because it resulted in a movie every bit as playful as the television series that followed it but with none of the overcooked earnestness. “You ruined my jacket! Kill him a lot.”
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Thriller, Action Duration: 97mins Director: Robert Harmon Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
The Hitcher is a dreamlike thriller in which a young man (C. Thomas Howell) narrowly escapes a homicidal hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) only to become the target of his relentless pursuit. However, rather than mindlessly attempting to kill Howell’s naive motorist in the mode of your typical slasher movie, Hauer’s nightmarish incarnation engages him in a series of mind games which slowly take their toll on the younger man’s sanity. Writer Eric Red and director Robert Harmon make things even more unpredictable by imbuing Hauer’s hitcher with a supernatural-like quality which like all the best cinematic chillers is left unexplained rather than probed, stretched, and exposed.
Such a premise has “cult classic” written all over it and therefore, it’s no surprise that this one has a strong niche value which mainstream fans have traditionally balked at. There’s an unorthodox yet focused commitment to character, not quite at the expense of the story but to the point where the story is appropriated by personality arcs that are much more long-term than those to which the story’s short time-frame would ostensibly cater. This lends itself to a more profound undercurrent of thought that runs through the scenes involving Howell and Hauer together and comes to define the film as a whole.
Of course, all of the above is primarily achieved through Red’s superb screenplay which, though relatively lean in dialogue, manages to lift the unfolding drama above the narrative so that everything feels just barely reachable. It’s really quite impressive and no fluke as he did the same thing the following year in the magnificent Near Dark. Also, as was the case in that film, the actors revel in their less conventional roles, embracing Red’s skewed approach to character building. Howell who was never a great actor, puts in one of his more substantial turns as the terrorised young man and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s presence smooths out any rough edges his few inevitable missteps create. Naturally, in a film like this, Hauer is in his element and he uses every bit of the freedom the script provides to improvise one of the more memorable screen psychopaths. With very little dialogue, his presence hovers in the background when he’s not on screen and dominates the background, foreground, and everywhere else when he is. It’s not a frantic performance like most movie madmen, far from it, and this is what makes it so interesting and compelling.
Importantly, director Robert Harmon is completely in sync with the script and does every word of it justice. In addition, he treats us to some breath-taking action, most of which takes place on the open roads and John Seale’s cinematography captures it perfectly. All in all, The Hitcher is a unique movie experience and one you may find yourself revisiting time and time again.