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Rating History

Hanna (2011)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

An exhilarating ride in the vein of the Bourne trilogy, Hanna delivers the goods of an international action thriller, even if they are a little crowded.

The opening scenes take place in the frozen forests of Finland, where Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) live out a simple existence, thriving on whatever they can hunt and scavenge. Hanna is far from a simple girl, however. Eric has had her practically memorize the two books in their home, an encyclopedia and Grimm's Fairytales. Being an ex-CIA agent, he also rigorously trains her in martial arts daily, until she is nearly better than him. There is one big gap in her life though, and that is the outside world. She doesn't know what music sounds like, and has literally had no outside contact, until now.

So why does she need this kind of training anyway? One day Erik reveals a transmitter that will give away their position away to the CIA, specifically one Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who is assigned to eliminate them. It is Hanna's choice if she wishes to flip the switch, or stay unknown in the wilderness. As if to prove to herself that she is now an adult, the beacon is turned on, and her life won't ever be the same.

A rising star from Atonement and The Lovely Bones, Saoirse Ronan gets to try something a little different from her innocent girl-type roles. There's not much at the start for her to chew on; indeed, Hanna is by nature a very hard and remorseless assassin. As the plot moves on though, we see the rough edges reveal a certain vulnerability to her character. No matter how much and how intense the training Erik put her through, there is nothing that could fully ready her for the myriad of experiences in a populated world.

This is where the movie branches off for a moment, focusing perhaps too long on her travels through Morocco with a tourist family. It's as if the director and screenwriters wanted to really push the culture shock element, cramming in as many diverse lifestyles as possible. It was a little too much culture for me to handle in one sitting, but a hired killer is constantly tailing Hanna and her new friends, so the whole point of the story at least kept in sight.

Other than this diversion, the journey is very visually thrilling. An escape scene from a CIA stronghold early in the film is crisply shot and edited. Every fight scene is electrifying, impressing me with the discipline Saoirse Ronan must have had to train for this role. Eric Bana's fights are equally slick, if less surprising. The only one that doesn't seem to fit is Cate Blanchett; she does her best, but her character didn't come across as fit for fighting action as the others. The whole film is scored by the electronic duo Chemical Brothers, and the pulsing beats match the fast sequences perfectly, but couldn't quite provide enough gentleness for more personal scenes.

I got what I paid for, namely a story about a girl different from most others who wants nothing more than to find the truth about herself, and is prepared to take out anyone in her way. Produced in a stylish manner and sporting some fine acting from its lead, Hanna succeeds in appealing to that tough-as-nails person in all of us.

The King's Speech
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

What a great film. More than that; it is a testament to the fact that a quiet, unasserting movie can both entertain us, and teach us valuable lessons, but only if we let it.

The Duke of York has a problem. Albert, who becomes George VI, is supposed to deliver a speech on his sick father's behalf (George V). In front of thousands physically, and millions via radio, he only manages to deliver what we would call a "fail". At first ejecting short groups of words, his confidence spirals down to uttering random vowels and consonants. Later we are shown how his current speech therapist is awkwardly attempting to cure Albert of his stammer. Unfortunately he is only one in a long line of unsuccessful therapists, when his wife, Elizabeth (future Queen Mother), secretly seeks out the assistance of a "controversial" specialist: Lionel Logue.

Lionel demands total equality with his patients, even royal ones. For instance, he and George must be on a first-name basis.
"It's 'Your Royal Highness', and then 'Sir'."
"How about 'Bertie'?"
"Only my family uses that!"
At first this disregard for social expectations comes as a shock to George, but he can only improve his speech when he lets go of his pride. A nice dose of reality for all of us; we often seek out the assistance of others, but fail to completely open up to them. Another thing to think about also comes from this sharp script. In their first session, George pulls out a cigarette to smoke.
"Stop that!"
"My physicians recommend smoking. It relaxes the throat."
"They're idiots. It only irritates your lungs."
"They've all been Knighted."
"That makes it official."
Just because a practice is endorsed by popular figures, that doesn't make it good for you!

But enough with the lessons, how is the rest of the movie? In a word, flawless. Acting is done by an ensemble of British masters; Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are unsurprisingly brilliant. Helena Bonham Carter, well-known for her gothic presence in Tim Burton movies, does a nice U-turn here as the ever gentle and supporting Duchess of York. The cinematography is simple and functional for most of the film with conventional shots of famous England fog, but many segments are notable for their fluidity and use of wide-angle lenses.

Comedy is deftly integrated into the story. In one session, Lionel encourages George to swear like a sailor, as he doesn't stutter when doing so. This scene is a little unsettling, but also hilarious considering his upbringing. Again, culture shock is played very smartly.

One last lesson, but it's the most important one. Over the course of the therapy, Lionel tries to stamp out the fear and lack of self-confidence that has George by the throat, so to speak. George confers his painful child memories, including how his father George V even encouraged his siblings to taunt about his stammer. He has been given mental hints since a young age that his is not capable of being a king, and now he believes it. What England needed at that point was more than what he thought he could be. Lionel teaches George that pompous royalty will not get him very far. What matters is that you have a voice, and are able to use to influence millions.

Source Code
Source Code (2011)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

One reason I enjoyed this movie so much is that the plot reminds me of an extended Twilight Zone episode, where things are not always as they seem. Colter becomes very anxious when it is impossible to have his father contacted, and is not informed of what has happened to his Unit. Tension builds throughout the film, as he slowly learns (in the 8-minute window), of his personal life before this mission. Another way to describe the movie is to mix Avatar and Inception, except more original than Avatar, and somewhat simpler to understand than Inception.

Interactions between Colter and the train's riders are both entertaining and extremely awkward to watch, if you can imagine roughly confronting a stranger on terrorism grounds, in front of 50 other passengers. Jake Gyllenhaal shows fantastic range here, effortlessly portraying not just a man on a mission, but one with a soft side as well. What's interesting here is that he begins to fall in love with Christina, even though he only gets to know her for 8 minutes at a time while on the train, and she has known Sean Fentress for a long time, but now he has a new personality, via Colter Stevens.

This is only director Duncan Jones's second feature, after the much-acclaimed and smaller-budgeted 2009 film Moon. However, with these two movies alone, he has proved that he knows how to make a rich and emotionally satisfying science fiction story. I will be watching his career with much anticipation for similar efforts.

The Dark Knight
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Sequels seem to be a love-hate issue between studios and movie-goers; studios can get easy cash from a successful franchise by simply building off of it. Critics on the other hand, seldom give high marks to a film that recycles the previous entry. Fortunately we can all breathe a sigh of relief, as Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins is better-made than the last; not just from a technical standpoint, but from the perspective of a viewer who cares for relevant cinema.

I was reminded recently that the most important aspect of a film; before story, aesthetics, acting, etc. is the opening scene. Audiences - whether they know or not - are absorbing these images, making a first impression. One might say that whatever starts the movie off will define the rest of it, so the pressure is on the filmmaker to get the message across effectively, and to set the tone. This is actually where most people may become divided on The Dark Knight, because the tone set is serious and somber to the last frame.

So what happens in this opening scene anyway? A first-time viewer could be confused by the action, but it amounts to a bank robbery orchestrated by the Joker himself, and we learn very quickly that his method is using human's primal instincts for his advantage by turning his goons on themselves. At the bottom of the wrung is the technician who hacks the security system; he is taken out by his partner, who in turn is eliminated by those apparently "in the know", thinking the Joker only told them to kill their subordinates. Eventually all of the henchmen are gone, leaving the villain to drive away with a mountain of cash to himself.

Complicated at first glance, this fiasco is second-nature to the man in question. The Joker is obviously an intellect to be reckoned with, as it will become clear that he likes to play around with people's minds, tugging at their basest fears, bringing out their buried ugliness, and probing into their innermost desires. However, he doesn't know quite everything about human nature, as will be revealed in a pivotal moment. Characters as deeply written as these do not come along in every movie, let alone a summer release movie.

Actors, too, seem to be a dime a dozen, at least, if you're a big name director. However, it takes a unique approach to directing to really flesh out a character like the Joker, so Christopher Nolan let Heath Ledger free rein. Ledger took advantage of this opportunity and spent a month completely alone to dig deep into the Joker's thoughts and motivations. He must have done some heavy thinking, for what's onscreen is nothing less than an actor channeling the Joker, if he were a real person.

The Joker is not the only personality worth noting, though. Who should be the center of attention - Batman - almost takes second billing, but only because his character is more reserved than the Joker's. But here lies the individual who is a bit more human than his enemy, in that his struggles are transparent by comparison.

Bruce Wayne's two-fold identity is nearly compromised when the Joker starts assassinating one person each day, and uses this as blackmail to get Batman to reveal himself. Irony to the nth degree ensues; soon the majority of Gotham City is against the person who has been on their side the whole time. What can one do when one is caught between a rock and a place like this? Mr. Wayne's wise butler, played by Michael Caine (who else?), encourages him with a keyword: "Endure". What follows is essentially Batman's job description.

"They'll hate you for it, but that's the point with Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that nobody else can make - the right choice".

But why limit this breakdown of characters to the two duking it out? Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are both very important pieces in this 1000-piece puzzle. Aaron Eckhart was inspired casting for the ambitious District Attorney, who, contrasting with Batman by being adored by the general populace for his very successful crime-fighting in the courts. Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from Batman Begins, plays as Rachel in the middle of a deciding love triangle between Dent and Wayne, and has promised to marry Wayne if Gotham doesn't need his alter ego anymore. The pressure to quit is surely intense, and this strain serves well to make us keep rooting for Batman no matter what.

It is truly refreshing when the story is written so that characters are forced to choose to either throw in the towel, or strive to prove themselves worthy of their position. Whichever way he opts, that is what will define his public image, and that is how it is in real life. Since we have free will, how people see us (and how we see ourselves) depends on our choices.

Other aspects that help keep this blockbuster grounded in reality are the aesthetics and surprisingly, the visual effects! Strange but true, the explosions, tumbler chases (Batmobile), belt devices, and such were all done on set as much as possible. Only the most dangerous feats are simulated, and even then with miniatures rather than computers. All this unconsciously keeps the viewer engaged in the movie, because these sensational happenings are about as real as they can be.

The shooting techniques also have a part. While most productions are shot on standard 35mm film, every once in a while a confident filmmaker will dare to film in IMAX. This format presents many challenges, i.e. larger, heavier cameras, greater cost, tighter focus range, etc. However, the saying "you get what you put into it" rings true in this case, and if the image is any indication, cinematographer Wally Pfister put all his creative effort into this movie and got everything he and Mr. Nolan deserved.

On the sonic side of things, The Dark Knight continues to rock. There's no surprise that the action sequences strive to thrill with a sound mix that favors deep booms and metallic crashes, scratches, and burns, but it was with the quieter scenes that I was more impressed. Amidst the chaos of the world falling down around them, when I Bruce Wayne reads a letter from Rachel Dawes, only music and words remain - to great effect. The moment acts like a bubble, showing us only these two people interacting through a simple medium.

That's not to say that the majority of the film - action - is not affecting as well; what makes the film effective is its balance of madness with personal moments like the one described above. In fact, the original score is a key in uniting these two very different parts. Flowing from one scene to the next, the music is able to hit the spot for a specific sequence while maintaining a theme consistent with the film's tone. All praise goes to Hans Zimmer, a maestro for the movies who has either worked behind the scenes or received full credit for a large fraction of Hollywood films.

Many parents will be cautious about taking their families to see this movie, and rightfully so. The violence, much of which occurs off screen, is nonetheless felt. The Joker is creepily menacing, and could easily cause nightmares in children who might be watching. That said, the movie is far from being marketed towards children. However, for adolescents who know that people can act ugly in a fallen world, this story is well worth a view. The menace and disturbing images need to be taken in the context of humans who are lost without God; they will default to break down under the influence of the Joker. A few scenes show that people do exist who strive to keep themselves honest amid the burning world around them. At this point the Joker is surprised for the only time in the movie.

While each individual piece of the picture is important, it takes a huge effort to keep these pieces cohesive. Christopher Nolan has done something special with the Batman franchise. He not only breathed new life into it money-wise for Warner Bros., but refused to go with the standard of cliche hero story arcs. He allowed Heath Ledger to make the arguably best performance of his lifetime, and gathered an ensemble of great actors/actresses to accent it. Standing out from the standard fare summer blockbusters, The Dark Knight is a Dark Sheep so to speak.

Inception (2010)
6 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I had been anticipating this film with keen interest ever since viewing the teaser trailer. Being directed by Christopher Nolan, and populated with such well-established cast members, I expected to be wowed. Let's just say I was not wowed, my mind was blown to pieces! I have never been as drawn into the emotion of a movie as I have been here. Like most people, I don't typically sit-on-the-edge-of-my-seat in any part of a movie, but during the last 30 minutes or so, I literally found it impossible to resist the urge.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hired by the powerful energy tycoon Saito to plant an idea in the mind of a business rival, specifically to break up his late father's dominating company. Note that this time he is implanting an idea (called inception), which is much riskier than usual job of stealing an idea from someone (called extraction). To accomplish this task, Dom gathers the finest team to infiltrate the target's dreams. Compounding the risk is the fact that they will be diving three dreams within dreams, instead of the usual two. Add in the personal guilt Mr. Cobb is facing, and you'll be lucky if you leave the theater with your brain in one piece.

Playing Dom's first teammate is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who recently starred in the well-received "500 Days of Summer". Without giving much away, he ends up in one of the most surreal fight scenes ever conceived. Ellen Page, who lit up the indie flick "Juno", does an excellent job as an architecture major recruited by Dom to design the dream levels they will be using. The most captivating performance, however, comes from French actress Marion Cotillard. She is already renowned for her heart-wrenching portrayal of singer Edith Piaf in the film La Vie en rose; who knows what accolades she will win here. Her character is a major source of pain and regret for Dom because of a past experiment that had unintended consequences.

If I said anything else, I would be doing you a disservice, but I will say this: Authentic performances by the star and first class supporting cast (which includes Michael Caine), coupled with an extremely intelligent script and a thrilling score by musical veteran Hans Zimmer equals a summer movie that is a movie for all time.

My only precaution is this: if you are not used to handling mind-blowing plots, I highly recommend viewing Christopher Noland's previous films as a warm-up. It took me several viewings to fully grasp the Dark Knight, but this entry raises the bar more than a couple notches on more than a few "levels". In a world where studios aren't as tired of sequels, remakes, adaptions, and the like as audiences are, Christopher Nolan is always there to pump fresh and exciting material into the local theater. He has topped himself once again, will he be able to do the same in 2-3 more years? It seems impossible to top this, but knowing him, I'm sure he's already been working on another masterpiece for several years.