Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

These days we take the abundance of DC/Batman films and TV series for granted, but back in the first half of the 2000’s there was a massive drought left on the land thanks to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which we won’t go into here. Then Christopher Nolan came along and changed that forever, not with necessarily a bang, but the thoughtful, moody, introspective Batman Begins, a film that served as catalyst to one of the most celebrated motion picture trilogies of today. That’s not to say it didn’t blast into the scene with a bang, this is one seriously fired up action film that left iMax screens reeling and sound systems pumped. It’s just that Nolan gave the Batman legacy the brains and psychological depth that it deserves to go along with the fireworks, while Schumacher & Co. were simply making live action Saturday morning cartoons, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either but after two films seemed a bit beneath the potential of what Batman could be.

Nolan bores into the roots of Bruce Wayne’s anguished past to expose themes of fear, not only facing his childhood fears but eventually becoming them to release the anger he’s harboured since that night in the alley. Christian Bale finds both the cavalier flippancy of Bruce and the obstinate, short tempered dexterity of Batman and yes, he makes an impression with a voice that has perhaps since become more well known than the films. Trained in the heartlands of the Far East by mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce returns to Gotham years later to find it rotting from the inside out with crime, corruption and poverty. Nolan shows the rocky road he sets out on and the failures he endures in his first few ventures onto the streets in costume, crossing paths with Cillian Murphy’s dangerous Dr. Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane, uneasily aligning forces with Gary Oldman’s stalwart Jim Gordon and assisted at every turn by Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Nolan assembles a cast full of roles both big and small including Richard Brake, Mark Boone Jr, Ken Watanabe, Linus Roache, Rade Serbedzija, Joffrey Lannister, Rutger Hauer and more. I have to mention Katie Holmes because she gives one of the most underrated performances in the whole trilogy. I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes when recasting her with Maggie Gyllenhaal for the next film but it did no service to the character, Katie made it her own, is full of personality and will always be the real Rachel to me. Special mention must also be made of Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, who is only in a handful of scenes but scares the pants off of everyone with his off the cuff blunt dialogue, violent tendencies and shark-like personality.

I can’t say this is my favourite film in the franchise or even the one I’d call the best (Dark Knight holds both those honours), but it is definitely the one that stands out to me the most when I think of the trilogy as a whole. Why? Visual aesthetic and production design. With the next two films Nolan cemented a very naturally lit, real world vibe that became his signature touch on the legacy, but Begins is different. There’s a burnt umber, earthy, elemental, very gothic tone he used here that just isn’t there in the next two, and whether intentional or not, it sets this one in a Gotham slightly removed from Knight and Rises. The mood and story are also rooted far more in mysticism and the fantastical as opposed to the earthbound, economically minded, concrete edged sensibility of what’s to come. Just a few observations.

In any case Nolan pioneered an arresting new Gotham for Batman, his friends and foes to do battle in, he injected the smarts, philosophy and character development that the franchise had been thirsting for a long time before. Wally Pfister’s swooping cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s cannonball original score, Nathan Crowley’s spooky, cobwebbed production design and every performance in the film work to make this not just one hell of a Batman film, but an overall excellent fantasy adventure that truly transports you to its world, the mythology, development and destruction of which leaves a lasting imprint on the subconscious. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs might be the guy’s best film so far, it’s miraculous on all levels. Now, I’m someone who previously wasn’t really an Anderson fan and had to warm up to his aesthetic as the movies came down the pipeline. With Life Aquatic and Tennenbaums I was left a little cold, a little meh. It took Moonrise Kingdom for me to be like “Ok.. this is pretty good,” by the time Grand Budapest rolled in I went “fuck yeah this is great,” and Dogs pretty much had me flipping over the moon. Much of the appreciation I have is for the breathtakingly detailed, tactile and textured stop motion animation technique employed here, a dazzling bag of tricks that brings a parallel dimension version of Japan to painstaking life, and fuels the story of one young boy (Koyu Rankin) looking for his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). The boy’s power mad Uncle (Kunichi Nomura) is the Mayor of Nagasaki Town, where dogs have been prohibited and banished to gargantuan Trash Island, where they live a savage, poverty ridden existence. The doggos here are voiced by an incredible cast of eclectic actors, which is par for the Anderson course. Bryan Cranston steals the show as Chief, a moody mongrel with violent tendencies who consciously contemplates why he is the way he is and has a beautiful arc. Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Anjelica Huston, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton and more round out the rest of the puppers, each with their own distinct furry idiosyncrasies to offer. The message here is obvious and plays a bit too much into the state of current affairs when it should have been content to be a fictitious romp, but all is well. Anderson & Co. have also whipped up a supremely elaborate script that is as full of stimulating details of language and interactions as is the visual palette. This is a rollicking adventure, a tail of friendship, a deadpan screwball comedy, a satirical sideshow and a gorgeous work of visual art rolled into one unclassifiable piece of ingenuity.

-Nate Hill

The Blind Wolf speaks: An Interview with Kurando Mitsutake by Kent Hill

Independent film making is a minefield.

I recall Tarantino being asked for his advice on how to break into the film business. In his response he compared films to waves breaking against the shore. One after another, after another. I’m paraphrasing here, but at the end of his answer he said if you really want people to stand up and take notice, then you have to put a killer shark on one of those waves.

Kurando Mitsutake has been climbing the mountain towards success in the industry for a while now. Burdened by low budgets and tight schedules, he has refused to surrender to defeat by virtue of his tenacity and creativity. Thus he has gone on to produce a collection of eclectic, action-packed explosions that not only homage but summon the spirit of the heady days of that glorious age that saw the rise of exploitation cinema.

Beginning with his audacious debut Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, Mitsutake brought to my mind memories of Jodorowsky’s El Topo as he would himself write, direct, produce and even star in the ultra-violent extravaganza that carried all the delightful hallmarks of a revenge western, along with shades of Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub series.

Success lies at the ends of roads that present everything from gentle rises to precipitous falls. Kurando has known both and has managed to endure. His ability to deliver furious and engaging movies on a shoestring has preempted his rise, and rise again. He is a filmmaker on the verge of greatness, and what he may he yet achieve with a healthier budget or, dare I say it, studio backing will be (I have no doubt) a film the likes of which the world has not yet experienced.

He was an absolute delight to talk to and I say to you now, mark well and remember – Kurando Mitsutake has only just begun. His journey will captivate, his cinema will excite.

I give now, The Blind Wolf himself . . . . Kurando Mitsutake.

THE SEA OF TREES – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

Gus van Sant’s THE SEA OF TREES is a pulverisingly beautiful film. It takes place within despair, as we’re guided by Matthew McConaughey, who after the death of his wife flies to Japan to kill himself in the Aokigahara Forest, know as the “suicide forest”.

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When McConaughey gets to the forest, he meets a man played by Ken Watanabe who is wandering with his wrists cut open and is slowly bleeding out. As the two men pair up, traveling deeper into the forest their hope for survival inadvertently grows.

The film premiered at Cannes and was blasted by critics. Yet again, I find myself falling in love with a “poor” film that has been deemed van Sant’s “worst movie”. Is this film for everyone? No. Is it for the average person Redbox’ing the latest McConaughey disc? Probably not. But you should still watch it.

This is a film that asks a lot of hard questions. A painstaking majority of the film is introspective reflection by McConaughey. What happens to love when it is concretely gone? What is left when life has no more person value?

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It is a heavy film told through quiet moments and unromantisized flashbacks between McConaughey and his wife played brilliantly by Naomi Watts. At times, this is a very hard film to watch. McConaughey and Watanabe give equally emotionally charged performances that are draining. Yet, through all the despair and grief we see on screen, the film’s message of survival and hope is effortlessly inspiring.

INCEPTION – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

INCEPTION

Ten years in the making, Inception (2010) was the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career up to that point in time. This film mixed the ingenious plot twists of his independent film darling Memento (2000) with the epic scale of his Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008). It took the heist genre to the next level by fusing it with the science fiction genre as a group of corporate raiders steal ideas by entering the dreams of their targets – think Dreamscape (1984) meets The Matrix (1999) as if made by Michael Mann. While Nolan and his films certainly wear their respective influences on their sleeve – and this one is no different (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Heat) – there is still enough of his own thematic preoccupations to make Inception distinctly his own. This film continues his fascination with the blurring of artifice with reality. With Inception, we are constantly questioning what is real right down to the last enigmatic image.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team extract thoughts of value from people as they dream. However, during his jobs, he is visited by his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful femme fatale character that serves as an increasingly dangerous distraction from the task at hand. The film’s opening sequence does an excellent job establishing how Cobb and his team extract information from the dream of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, in a visually arresting sequence. He catches up with Cobb in the real world and offers him a new deal: plant an idea in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind that will help break-up his father’s vast empire before it becomes too powerful, and do it in a way so that it seems like Fischer thought of it for it to work. This is something that has only been done once before and Cobb was the person that pulled it off but can he do it again? In exchange for completing the job, Saito will make the necessary arrangements so that Cobb can return home to the United States where his children live but where he is also wanted by the authorities in connection with his wife’s death. So, Cobb recruits a literal dream team of experts to help him pull off the most challenging job of his career.

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delves into all kinds of aspects of dreams as evident in a scene early on where Cobb explains how they work, how to design and then navigate them. While there is a lot of exposition dialogue to absorb during these scenes, Nolan also keeps things visually interesting at the same time. This is arguably the most cerebral part of the film as he explores all sorts of intriguing concepts and sets up the rules for what we’ll experience later on – pretty heady stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when he isn’t examining fascinating ideas, he’s orchestrating exciting and intense action sequences. There’s an incredible sequence where Nolan juggles three different action sequences operating on three different levels of dreams that are all impressively staged while also a marvel of cross-cutting editing. He anchors Inception with the character of Cobb and his desire to return home to his children while also dealing with the death of his wife. It gives the film an emotional weight so that we care about what happens to him. It also raises the stakes on the Fischer job.

Cobb continues Nolan’s interest in tortured protagonists. With Memento, Leonard Shelby tried to figure out who murdered his wife while operating with no short-term memory. Insomnia (2002) featured a cop with a checkered past trying to solve a murder on very little sleep. The Batman films focused on a costumed vigilante that waged war on criminals as a way of dealing with the guilt of witnessing his parents being murdered when he was a child. With The Prestige (2006), magician Robert Angier is tormented by the death of his wife and an all-consuming passion to outdo a rival illusionist. Inception’s Cobb also has a checkered past and is haunted by the death of loved one. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what may be his finest performance to date, playing a complex, and layered character with a rich emotional life. Cobb must come to terms with what happened to his wife and his culpability in what happened to her. DiCaprio conveys an emotional range that he has not tapped into to this degree before. There’s a captivating tragic dimension to Cobb that the actor does an excellent job of expressing so that we become invested in the dramatic arc of his character.

Nolan populates Inception with a stellar cast to support DiCaprio. The indie film world is represented by the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy while also drawing from international cinema with Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Gordon-Levitt and Hardy, in particular, are stand-outs and their banter provides several moments of enjoyable levity during the course of this intense, engrossing film. And it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without his good luck charm, Michael Caine, making an appearance. As he has done in the past, Nolan plucks a once dominant actor from the 1980s, now languishing in relative obscurity – think Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins (2005) or Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight – and gives them a high-profile role. Inception gives Tom Berenger some well-deserved mainstream exposure after languishing in direct-to-video hell, reminding everyone what a good actor he can be with the right material.

Regardless if whether you like Inception or not, you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences. Capitalizing on the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan wisely used his clout to push through his most personal and ambitious film up to that point. With Inception, he created a world on a scale that he never attempted before and was able to realize some truly astonishing visuals, like gravity-defying fight scenes and having characters encounter a location straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher. It has been said that the power of cinema is the ability to transport you to another world and to dream with our eyes open. Inception does this. Nolan created a cinematic anomaly: a summer blockbuster film with a brain.