The Dark Knight Trilogy: An Appreciation

There’s been a lot of talk about Batman this week with the announcement that Ben Affleck will portray him in Batman vs. Superman. While we await that movie’s release in 2015 and some us hope against hope Affleck doesn’t screw up with the part, I thought it would be a good time to look back at Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and appreciate how it finally did cinematic justice to Batman. I must confess that Batman is my favorite comic book superhero so I am especially appreciative when the character is done correctly. And now, a look back at the Dark Knight trilogy.

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In 2005, Batman Begins was released. After years of disappointing Batman movies this one finally did justice to the Dark Knight. One of the most remarkable things about Batman Begins is that it’s a good 1/3 into the movie before we see Bruce Wayne put the bat suit on. And you know what? It means a lot more. The opening act of the movie is a thorough look at the origin of Batman. We learn about his childhood relationship with Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) who grows up to work in the Gotham City District Attorney’s office. Then there’s the origin of his fear of bats (he fell down a well and was swarmed by them) and of course the murder of his parents in a dark alley as the family is leaving the opera. The murder of his parents is the childhood trauma that inspires him to fight crime. But before he becomes Batman he travels the world trying to understand criminals. While in the far East he is trained in martial arts by the League of Shadows. But just as he is about to complete his training he finds the organization’s true intentions are evil. He then returns to Gotham City and sets out to save it as it has been overrun by criminals. Then there’s the central evil scheme back in Gotham being hatched by the Scarecrow and corrupt city officials to put an insanity drug in the city’s water, vaporize it, and drive all the citizen’s mad. That’s the story in a nutshell.

Batman Begins benefits a great deal from the stellar casting. Christian Bale is fantastic in the leading role and does a great job of playing both Bruce Wayne and Batman. If Batman had been cast wrong the whole movie would have been sunk. But the movie isn’t just about Bale. There’s Liam Neeson as Ducard, Batman’s mentor when he studies with the League of Shadows. He’s a good mentor and menacing villain. Cillian Murphy is effective as the Scarecrow. There’s also Michael Caine playing Alfred the butler. Unlike in previous efforts Alfred is much more of a father figure to Bruce and adds a lot of weight to the story. He keeps Bruce Wayne/Batman in check. Morgan Freeman portrays Lucius Fox, the brains behind the gadgets at Wayne Enterprises. And last, but certainly not least, there’s Gary Oldman playing officer Jim Gordon. Gordon proves once again how much of a chameleon he is by disappearing into the part.

Batman Begins succeeds because it gives us a thorough look at Batman’s tortured past, shows Batman learning from his mistakes early on in his career, and because it has some pretty great action sequences. If you think you’re sick of car chases, just wait until you see the Batmobile racing through Gotham City evading police cars (at the beginning the police see Batman as a vigilante and don’t trust him yet of course). I love that the Batmobile looks more like something that’s part car and part tank. Batman Begins set a great tone for what was to become an amazing trilogy!

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After the success of Batman Begins in 2005, 2008 brought the next chapter in the saga: The Dark Knight. Almost all of the cast and crew is back. The difference is this time Rachel Dawes is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. To me that was an upgrade. Katie Holmes was good, but she could have used a little more personality. Joining the cast is Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent and Heath Ledger as the Joker. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent, the Gotham police, and Batman declare war on the mob. As their plan starts to succeed, enter the Joker. The Joker says he will keep killing people i Gotham City until Batman turns himself in. Dent pretends to be Batman, which leads to him being kidnapped and eventually in an accident that leaves him scarred turning him into the villain Two-Face. Batman is tested even more than he was in the first installment. In the end Batman has lost hope and is forced into exile when he takes the blame for the murder of Harvey Dent. Batman sees Dent as Gotham’s real hero and doesn’t want the city to lose faith in the law. The story in The Dark Knight is a little convoluted, but it adds up to a movie that in the end really resonated with me.

Much of the attention surrounding The Dark Knight came about because of the premature death of Heath Ledger. He went on to win a posthumous Oscar for his chilling portrayal of arguably Batman’s nastiest foe. Ledger plays the role with the perfect amount of menace and it was a performances that stayed with me long after I left the theater. As in the first movie there are some great action sequences, especially the Batpod chase early on in the film. The Dark Knight does a good job building on the set-up of Batman Begins and the ending leaves us eagerly awaiting the next installment. All the acting is first-rate from the original cast and the newcomers. It’s no surprise that The Dark Knight became such a mega hit.

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In 2012 the Dark Knight trilogy came full-circle with the final installment: The Dark Knight Rises. The movie takes place eight years after The Dark Knight. Batman is in exile. The criminals have been held at bay by the Dent Act, which made it easier to lock them up. Enter the movie’s main villain: Bane (Tom Hardy). There’s evil and then there’s the embodiment of evil. How evil is Bane? He was too extreme for the League of Shadows. Yeah, he’s pretty terrifying. Bane’s evil plot involves a terrorist attack at a football stadium and giving power back to the people by overthrowing those in power and taking from the wealthy. The movie can be seen largely as a commentary on the Occupy Wall St. movement. While Gotham is overrun by criminals, Batman is being held captive after he’s defeated by Bane. He was no match for Bane after being out of commission for eight years. In the end he does come back to save Gotham, helped in part by two new additions to the cast: Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Selina Kyle is never referred to as Catwoman, but that is her alias in Batman lore. She’s a jewel thief who has a change of heart throughout the film. She ends up becoming an ally and love interest of Batman. Blake is a young cop who convinces Batman to come out of retirement. He even knows Batman’s real identity, which pays off in helping catch Bane and sets him up as the person to carry on Batman’s legacy. In the end, Batman has to fly a nuclear bomb out over the ocean because it can’t be disarmed. It is thought that Batman died in the explosion. But a scene at the end proves otherwise. After all is said and done Gotham City once again sees Batman as a hero and all is well with the world.

While Tom Hardy is largely the star of the show as the evil Bane, it’s Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who steal the show. There were doubts early on about Hathaway playing Selina Kyle. Those fears are erased in the first five minutes of her time on-screen. She does a great job of showing all sides of the character. Levitt meanwhile establishes himself as a star to keep an eye on. He provides a strong moral center to the film and his performance left a big impression on me.

After all three films were released, Batman’s story had finally been told in a complete arc. By the time the last film was released I had a real vested interest in all the characters, not just Batman. Batman’s legacy was no longer one of camp (all due respect to the Adam West TV show, but it wasn’t true to the vision of Bob Kane, Batman’s creator) but one of grit. Batman’s back story begged to be told on the big screen with gritty realism. Christopher Nolan was best known for having directed the indie hit Memento and a remake of Insomnia prior to Batman Begins. The choice of him as director turned out to be a great move! His movies finally got Batman right. As a fan I finally felt satisfied. The Dark Knight trilogy belongs up there on the list of all-time great movie trilogies with Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (original trilogy of course). That’s it! What did you think of the Dark Knight trilogy? Leave feedback below!

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Best Action Sequences Ever Filmed

One genre that keeps coming back to the multiplex for better or worse is the action genre. Most of the time they’re just movies with thin plots, a lot of explosions, and an overdose of CGI. No imagination or intelligence was involved in the creation of the movie. That being said, the action genre has had its moments of brilliance. This week I give you a rundown of what I consider the best action sequences ever filmed.

10. The car chase: Bullitt (1968)

Car chases have become so clichéd an unimaginative of late. I have nothing against CGI, but it has to be used intelligently. Nothing can beat an imaginative car chase with real cars. The grandaddy of all car chases was in Bullitt from 1968 starring Steve McQueen. In the movie, McQueen plays a San Francisco police officer hot on the trail of the person who murdered a witness in his protection. His pursuit leads to a thrilling car chase through the streets of San Francisco. There is no CGI, just pure stunt driving. Fair warning: once you see this chase every other car chase will look tame by comparison.

9. Boulder chase: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one great action sequence after another. There were so many I could have chosen from this movie. It came down to the truck chase and the boulder sequence in the temple. In a close race I went with the boulder chase. It’s become so iconic, and when I was a kid it was the movie sequence that turned me into a film geek. I rewound and played that scene so often I wore out several VHS copies of the movie. Somewhere in there my mother brought home a video that was a documentary on the stunts of Raiders. A love of movies and movie making was born! Plus it has Harrison Ford, my first matinée idol, in one of his best roles and great action music by John Williams. Over 30 years later it still holds up.

8. The whole movie: Speed (1994)

I’m bending the rules a little bit for this selection. But Speed is one long action sequence. There’s the opening sequence where the cops have to free people trapped in an elevator, a bus blowing up, a bus jumping over a construction site, a subway chase… The movie has everything! Speed is one of the most exciting films I have ever seen. To this day I consider it the best performance Keanu Reeves has ever given. Maybe being around Sandra Bullock., Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels brought out the best in him.

7. Ripley vs. the alien: Aliens (1986)

Aliens is a rare sequel that outdoes the original. Alien from 1979 was a great combination of science fiction and horror. The one alien was scary enough. And the chest bursting sequence? I still have nightmares about that! It’s hard to imagine how the sequel could top it. Having Sigourney Weaver as the star helps a lot. She was in the original and was the main character. But in the sequel she had even more to do and boy did she deliver! It even earned Weaver an Oscar nomination, a rare feat in the science fiction/action genre. My favorite scene is when Weaver goes after the alien and delivers possibly the best line ever uttered by a female action star, “get away from her you bitch!”

6. The chariot race: Ben Hur (1959)

Ben Hur created one of the most thrilling action sequences before CGI ever existed. The chariot race. Do I really need to say more than that? It’s still amazing to think they did this iconic sequence so long ago. The chariot race is old school Hollywood film making at its finest!

5. Destruction of the Death Star: Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars is another example of a movie that has so many great action moments it’s hard to narrow it down. But my choice is the climactic scene where the Death Star is destroyed (until the Evil Empire creates a new one in Return of the Jedi, but I digress). Once upon a time the Star Wars movies were about characters, story, and fun, not just doing movies digitally. My love-hate relationship with George Lucas is a topic for another day however. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this epic scene!

4. Village gunfight: Hot Fuzz (2007)

Film satire is generally hit or miss. Hot Fuzz was a bullseye! It was an homage to action movies, particularly buddy cop movies. It was created by the same people as Shaun of the Dead, a brilliant send up of zombie movies. The last 15-20 minutes of Hot Fuzz is some of the most fun I have ever had watching a movie. The more action/buddy cop movies you’ve seen, the more you’ll enjoy it. The scene where Simon Pegg single-handedly takes on a corrupt village is pure adrenaline!

3. The Battle of Helm’s Deep: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

I was so relieved when Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001. Finally my favorite book of all-time had gotten a proper film treatment. There was an animated version of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Calling them dreadful would be too kind. Thankfully Peter Jackson came along and the rest as they say is history. The final installment in the trilogy, Return of the King, went on to win an Oscar for best picture. Lord of the Rings managed to do a great job of bringing Tolkien’s vision to life making intelligent use of modern technology. It was never about CGI over story. The best action sequence in the whole series for me is the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. The lighting, cinematography, fight choreography, and special effects, make it one of the most epic battle scenes ever filmed.

2. Storming Omaha Beach: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Nothing can prepare you for the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. I consider this movie the gold standard of war movies. It manages to recreate in gory detail the Normandy Invasion of World War II. It’s so realistic I felt like I was there and my stomach was in knots the whole time. Saving Private Ryan is a movie that has stayed with me years after seeing it. It is not for the faint of heart! One of the things I really appreciated was that it showed blood and guts in the field of battle not for shock value but because that’s what really happened.

1. The whole movie: Die Hard (1988)

No discussion of action movies is complete without Die Hard. This iconic film from 1988 has been imitated many times (Speed, as great as it is, is Die hard on a bus). It launched the movie career of Bruce Willis, had Alan Rickman in possibly his best performance as villain Hans Gruber, great one-liners, and wall-to-wall action. What more could you ask for? While the sequels have been hit or miss, the original is still amazing and worth your time.

I hope you enjoyed my stroll down memory lane in the action genre. Comments, questions, scathing rebuttal? Comment below!

A Brief History of ILM

If you’ve ever left a movie wondering, “how did they do that?” chances are you’re familiar with the special effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic. Formed in 1975 by George Lucas, ILM has been making movies come alive with visuals ever since it was founded to create the groundbreaking visuals in Star Wars. Here is a brief overview of the achievements of ILM and how the special effects studio changed motion pictures forever.

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1975: Star Wars

When George Lucas began his work on Star Wars, he new existing technology would not get the job done to create his epic vision. Thus Industrial Light and Magic was formed. As noted on the ILM website,

In order to achieve the epic space battles called for in Star Wars: Episode 4, A New Hope  a new approach to filming miniatures had to be developed. Traditional techniques simply would not work for filming the elaborate dogfights Director George Lucas had envisioned so, led by John Dykstra, the team developed a camera system that could be controlled by custom-designed, hard-wired electronics and thus record and replicate exacting camera movements time and time again. In addition to camera pan, tilt, and roll movements, focus and changes in aperture were also preprogrammed. The system, dubbed the Dykstraflex, utilized a camera mounted to a crane arm, which in turn rode on a dolly track. The Dystraflex represented the first in a long line of motion control cameras developed at ILM.

And that’s how ILM got started. The special effects wizards that worked on Star Wars would go on to win an Academy Award. As a geeky side note: ILM alum John Dykstra went on to create some equally impressive visuals for the pilot of the TV series Battlestar Galactica.

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark

After creating the award-winning visuals for Star Wars and its sequels, ILM went to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. While Raiders was intentionally shot quick and dirty to look like a Saturday matinee serial, ILM still got to show off its magic. Probably the most famous special effects scene is the opening of the ark and all the mystical spirits inside it. Raiders would prove to me another triumph for ILM, with Richard Edlund, Kit West, Bruce Nicholson and Joe Johnston winning Oscars for the special effects. ILM would go on to do the special effects for the Indiana Jones sequels.

1981: Dragonslayer

ILM was also a pioneer in go-motion animation. On their website it explains,

Keenly aware of stop motion’s major stylistic drawback – the fact that it does not look convincingly real – the ILM team developed a new process to bring the dragon to life for Dragonslayer. They named this new process “Go-Motion” and it worked by fusing both electronic and mechanical components into a device that could record the dragon’s movements based on an animator’s design and play them back so the camera could capture them as they occurred. This process recorded the natural blurring of motion that occurs when action is photographed thus eliminating the drawback of traditional stop motion work. The system used computer-controlled stepper motors connected to rods that were in turn, each attached to a major body part of the dragon. This technique revolutionized how “stop motion” animation was achieved and it’s role in future films continued to expand.

This breakthrough would later be a springboard for the revolutionary special effects in Jurassic Park.

1985: Young Sherlock Holmes

These days computer-generated images or CGI are everywhere. But way back in 1985 Industrial Light & Magic created the first fully computer-generated character for the movie Young Sherlock Holmes.

1988: Willow

Another breakthrough came in the 1988 movie Willow. Like Star Wars, this movie also required special effects not possible with the technology of the day. As noted on the ILM website,

To create the shape-changing metamorphosis sequence for the mythic fantasy Willow, ILM turned to its then new CG department to produce elements for the memorable effect. The story called for a series of transformations to take place on-screen without cutaways, an effect that could not be achieved through any one technique but rather a combination of many. Utilizing puppets, live action footage of an actress, a tiger and other elements, the CG department created “Morf,” a software program that introduced the technique of morphing to the transformation effects. A digital image processing breakthrough, morphing allowed one image to progressively be altered to transform into another image. It would be almost two years before any ILM competitor could duplicate the technique. In 1992, ILM was recognized with a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in recognition of the critical role in advancing technology morphing played.

1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

ILM was the first special effects studio to incorporate 2D animated characters into a live-action movie. This created the believable human-cartoon interaction on the classic film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

1989: The Abyss

The Abyss would be one of many James Cameron films to feature groundbreaking effects from ILM. The Abyss brought to life the first computer-generated three-dimensional fluid-based character (the “pseudopod”). In 1992 ILM would go on to create the first computer-generated main character for Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

1993: Jurassic Park

ILM also gave us the first living, breathing characters created completely with computer technology for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. On the ILM website it notes that,

For the first time, digital technology was used to create a living, breathing character with skin, muscles, texture, and attitude. This breakthrough expanded the filmmaker’s canvas and changed the cinematic art of storytelling. ILM’s contribution to Jurassic Park is widely recognized as a high watermark in computer graphics and a pivotal moment in the history of cinema. The American Film Institute named Jurassic Park one of the most thrilling films of all time on June 13, 2001 and the Academy recognized the work with the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

It’s hard to imagine Jurassic Park having the same impact without those amazing dinosaurs. When the film was re-released this year in 3D the visuals still held up. Jurassic Park was one of the last films to use special effects intelligently.

1995: Casper

Expanding on their work in Jurassic Park, the special effects team at ILM went from creating a few minutes of living, breathing computer characters to over 40 minutes of it in Casper. As stated on their website,

Industrial Light & Magic created the first fully synthetic speaking characters with distinct personalities and emotions for Casper.  Whereas Jurassic Park had six minutes of digitally animated dinosaurs on the screen, the ghosts in Casper are on the screen for more than 40 minutes.

1999: The Mummy

In 1999, Industrial Light & Magic created the first computer-generated character with complete anatomy. That character was Imhotep from the remake of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser.

2001: A.I.-Artificial Intelligence

A few years after their breakthrough effects on The Mummy, ILM created the first real-time interactive on-set visualization process for A.I. As noted in the history section of the ILM website,

ILM [created] the first real-time interactive on-set visualization process allowing filmmakers to place actors in virtual sets providing complete freedom with camera moves. Steven Spielberg uses this process in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, earning the ILM team another Academy Award nomination for best achievement in visual effects.

2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

For the sequel to the hit film Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl, ILM created the first on-set performance capture technology. Performance capture allows 3D images of an actor’s movement to be created from having them wear motion sensors on their body to capture their movement. Those mapped movements are then used later to create animated versions of the actors in any given movie. How did this technology contribute to the Pirates sequel? The ILM website explains it pretty well,

ILM develops Imocap, a revolutionary image-based performance capture system for the production of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a film that would later earn the company its fifteenth Oscar, the BAFTA for Visual Effects and six VES awards. The among the system’s key attributes are its extremely low footprint on set and ability to operate in any and all conditions. In 2010, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded ILM with a Scientific and Technical Academy Award for the development of Imocap.

Motion capture technology had also been used to create many of the breathtaking visuals in the 2004 film The Polar Express. In that film it also allowed Tom Hanks to play multiple animated characters.

What I have just given you is a brief summary of the many ways Industrial Light & Magic has enhanced the movie-going experience. Without their hard work we wouldn’t have the amazing effects in the first Star Wars film, the liquid metal in Terminator 2, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, etc. The next time you go to a movie that has great special effects, stick around for the credits. Chances are in the long list is the name Industrial Light & Magic.

 

 

 

Jaws: the Legacy

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With Shark Week getting ready to kick-off on the Discovery Channel this week, I thought it would be fitting and fun to do a piece on the legacy of Steven Spielberg’s movie Jaws. It’s hard to believe, but this year Jaws turns 38. Nearly 40 years later the movie is still very much a part of our lexicon. There are so many reasons why Jaws is important in cinema history. Here are just a few of them.

Let’s start with the music. John Williams won an Academy Award for best original score for the music he composed for Jaws. It’s one of the most memorable scores in a long and storied career. The music is so simple and yet it’s completely terrifying. Even when we don’t see the shark, the music signals its presence. Spielberg even acknowledges on the DVD “making of” documentary that the music is responsible for half of the movie’s success. The Jaws theme has been used/satirized in popular culture many times over. Probably one of the most famous uses was when Saturday Night Live used its own version of the theme to accompany an ongoing skit that involved a “landshark” who eats people and disguises himself as a door-to-door candy gram deliverer.

Another part of the Jaws legacy is the fact that it was the first summer blockbuster movie. As the Internet Movie Database notes,

This was the first movie to reach the coveted $100 million mark in “theatrical rentals”, which is about 45% of the “box office gross”. It was the highest-grossing of all-time in the U.S. until Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

This part of the Jaws legacy is both good and bad. It’s good because now we get all these great event movies coming out in the summer. It gives film audiences a chance to escape the heat and enjoy a good time at the theater. The downside is that movies have become all about marketing and box office. Now, movies have always been about making money. Obviously that’s the whole point of making movies: to sell tickets. The difference between Jaws and the summer blockbusters of today is that Jaws wasn’t a cheap thriller. It was very well-made. The scares in the movie are genuine and largely accomplished through suspense. Summer blockbusters today rely far too heavily on CGI and explosions. I’m actually glad Spielberg had trouble getting the infamous mechanical shark to work because it made the film more suspenseful and have more of a Hitchcockian feel to it. Jaws made summer a fun time for movie lovers.

There is also the impact on Steven Spielberg’s career. Up until Jaws he had only directed one other theatrical feature: Sugarland Express. This movie was really what launched his career. After that came many other blockbuster films. Some included: E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All the difficulties of the Jaws production gave him the experience and the skills to make great movies in the future. Spielberg is one of the most critically and commercially successful directors working today.

Want more proof of the enduring legacy of Jaws? Following the release of the film, interest in shark fishing soared. Not only that, but following the films release, seaside resort attendance took a nosedive. Jaws did indeed make people afraid to go in the water. As also noted on Internet Movie Database,

As most of the seaside resorts in 1975 experienced a downturn in visitors, some of the establishments would resort to innovative ways to lure in customers. One recorded example was a seafood restaurant in Cape Cod which proudly displayed the sign “Eat Fish – Get Even”

Jaws also lead to many misconceptions about sharks . Thankfully many of them have been debunked thanks to programs such as Mythbusters and the myriad of programming during Shark Week.

Finally, the production of Jaws has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. All the production problems have been well-chronicled in documentaries, including those on the DVD releases of the film and in several books. The most famous of the books is The Jaws Log. It was done with the permission of Spielberg. There were problems with the mechanical shark, getting real shark footage, an impending actor’s strike, budget problems, the Orca boat nearly sinking with Dreyfuss, Scheider, and Shaw on it one day, etc. If you want to break into directing, study what went wrong on this film. It’s basically a manual for film production and what to watch out for.

These are just a few of the reasons you should see Jaws. I would cover all of them, but to do that I would need a bigger blog.