The Narrow Margin (1952, Directed by Richard Fleischer) English 8

Starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Queenie Leonard, Paul Maxey

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Hard-boiled Detective Seargeant Walter Brown (McGraw) has to escort a mobster’s widow (Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train where she’s set to speak before a grand jury. Powerful underworld figures are willing to do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen. Brown, whose partner was already murdered protecting the big-mouthed dame, has his work cut out for him, standing alone against a team of crooks and murderers. They even try bribing him. Meanwhile he meets a married woman, Ann (White), on the train, and quickly grows attached to her. Fast, tightly plotted tale with strong performances and a surprising finale. Very suspenseful. Prime B-movie.

Married to the Mob (1988, Directed by Jonathan Demme) English 6

Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, Alec Baldwin, Mercedes Ruehl, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt, Nancy Travis

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Modern screwball comedy starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Angela de Marco, frustrated wife of mobster Frank “The Cucumber” de Marco (Baldwin). Frank works for Tony the Tiger Russo (Stockwell), who has the FBI hot on his heels. When he finds Frank sleeping with his mistress, Tony kills him, and the FBI see a chance to finally get something to stick him with. They send agent Mike Downey (Modine) to monitor Angela, hoping she’ll give them the evidence they need, but Mike begins to fall for her. Breezy comedy with a terrific lead performance, but the film undercooks the romantic interest, the character of Mike Downey. He’s never given the time to develop as a serious love interest. He does nothing to show why Angela loves him. Dean Stockwell steals much of the show.

The Departed (2006, Directed by Martin Scorsese) English 6

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone

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Oscar winning remake of the Chinese Infernal Affairs trilogy, The Departed stars DiCaprio as Billy, a cop gone undercover in local big-shot, mob boss, Frank Costello’s (Nicholson), organization, but Frank has a mole of his own planted in the police department in the form of Colin (Damon). Neither side can seem to get the drop on the other, as a game of cat and mouse begins. Infinitely entertaining premise provides the thrills and suspense, but also an over the top style and hyper-active camera work. Nicholson’s large performance with his profane and crude character is fun to watch, but kept me at a distance in terms of taking the film seriously. I also didn’t like many of the aesthetic choices, including the jarring editing, dutch angles, and screwball delivery. It highlights the film’s lack of depth.

Heathers (1988, Directed by Michael Lehmann) English 6

Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker

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“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” So says Heather 1/ Head Heather/ Heather Chandler. There are three of them, plus a Veronica (played by Ryder) making up the most popular clique at Westerburg High School, but lately Veronica’s been disillusioned by her friends. In fact, she doesn’t even like them. Then she meets the weird new boy in school, J.D (Slater), and falls for him. He gets her to help him teach the abusers at school a lesson. Together, they kill Heather Chandler. This is a pitch-black satire. I appreciate the edge, the wicked dialogue, and free-wheeling script. However, I didn’t buy Slater in his menacing role, and I feel the third act loses steam because of it. Ultimately more quotable than enjoyable.

Ocean’s 8 (2018, Directed by Gary Ross) English 6

Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Richard Armitage, James Corden, Elliot Gould

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Debbie Ocean (Bullock), sister of the previous run of Ocean movies’ Danny Ocean, is fresh off of a five year stint in prison. Not reformed in the slightest, she puts into motion a plan she’s worked on for the whole of her sentence: a heist of a $150 million necklace by Cartier. To pull it off, she enlists her best friend, Lou (Blanchett), a master fence and suburban housewife, Tammy (Paulson), a jewelry maker, Amita (Kaling), a tech-wiz self-named Nine Ball (Rihanna), a pickpocket, Constance (Awkwafina), and an out-of-fashion designer, Rose (Carter). If you’re thinking that only makes seven, the eighth member of the group comes as a surprise late in the film. Debbie’s plan revolves around the Met Gala, where the necklace will be worn by celebrity Daphne Kruger (Hathaway), and her team spends three weeks leading up to the event preparing for the haul of their lives. There’s probably no point in harping on how original stories involving all female casts would better serve these stars and their audience, though it’s true. Ghostbusters struggled at the box office and this one isn’t exactly reaping in the money so far. That aside, I really liked this movie. I’m hearing the same thing from most people who’ve seen it: a breezy good time. Nothing substantial but perfectly watchable. I liked the cast which is likely a given. They all have their scenes, and Bullock always makes a compelling lead. Higher stakes (I know it sounds funny saying it about a $150 million heist) would have made the actual job more exciting, or even a more imposing villain fouling up the works. The operation went to smoothly.

Ransom (1996, Directed by Ron Howard) English 7

Starring Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Donnie Wahlberg, Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, Dan Hedaya

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Ruthless, controversial businessman, Tom Mullen (Gibson) gets thrown into action once his son is kidnapped. The kidnapper, Jimmy Shaker (Sinise) is a cop, and knows all the angles, asking for 2 million in return for the boy. Mullen, against the wishes of his wife, and the advice of the FBI, turns the table on Shaker by refusing to pay, and instead putting a bounty on the kidnapper’s head. Riveting drama that might have benefited from sharper, more inspired direction or a less generic ending. The thrill of this film come mainly from the high stakes chess match between Gibson and Sinise who both do great work here. Both men wrestle with their pride and practicality, and their collision was inevitable. I just feel this material deserved a darker, nastier conclusion. This wasn’t a happy ending type film.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Directed by Christopher Nolan) English 10

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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When relatively unknown, at least in mainstream circles, film maker Christopher Nolan took on the Batman reboot all those years ago, who could have predicted what came next? I don’t recall any significant anticipation for the first film, Batman Begins, leading up to its release, but, for those who saw it, we knew it signaled something different. The first part of Nolan’s epic trilogy went beyond just a, “darker take on the material,” as it is so often billed and as it was promoted then. It was an intelligent action picture, an ensemble character drama, a crime epic. I didn’t realize how incredibly ridiculous the previous four Batman films were until Christopher Nolan’s Batman; especially Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Can you even explain the plot of Batman Forever? What is The Riddler’s (played hilariously, the film’s saving grace, by Jim Carrey) master plan? To put televisions on people’s heads? I love Michael Keaton’s take on the Batman, an almost unexplained, enigmatic man. Batman gets more screen time than Bruce Wayne it feels like in the first, 1989’s Batman, but even that picture with its Jack Nicholson dancing around to a not new Prince soundtrack, submerged into goofiness at times. Christopher Nolan grounded his take on the Batman in reality, or as close to as possible with the material. Gone are the half-human, half-penguin antagonists of yore, and in come the very human, philosophic villains of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Every villain in the series has a philosophy, a compelling one to boot, and one of the main struggles is for Batman, while being seduced by this philosophy, to stand up and prove it false. Each villain’s philosophy essentially came down to, “humans are inherently bad,” and Gotham is not worth saving. Watching these films, seeing the level of corruption and depravity the city is immersed in, I’d be inclined to agree, but Nolan’s Batman never does, and this is the foundation of the new Batman’s (now, the benchmark Batman) heroism. As played by Christian Bale, considered a strong actor with a cult following before the series made him an A-list movie star, Batman is the brooding, thoughtful hero we deserved.

So, anyways, Batman Begins hits theaters in 2005, and changed everything. The late-great Roger Ebert declared, “This is, at last, the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for. The character resonates more deeply with me than the other comic superheroes, perhaps because when I discovered him as a child, he seemed darker and more grown-up than the cheerful Superman. He has secrets.” Ebert gave the film four stars, an anomaly at the time for super hero movies, a genre of film that had not yet reached its prime. Batman Begins ushered in the new, now seemingly never-ending, wave of super hero flicks. It showed that super hero movies could be serious.

Next came, The Dark Knight, and it was as if the world shifted on its axis. I can recall some of my feelings leading up to that film. Heath Ledger as the Joker? Really? Yes, I remember questioning the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, as incredible as that seems now. He died before the film’s release, but as soon as we saw the first trailer, excitement was at a boiling point. It released to rave reviews, another four star review from Ebert, and became the second highest grossing film domestically of all time. When it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, complaints were made, and many feel its snub is the reason the Academy switched from five nominations for Best Picture to ten.

Finally, four years later, Christopher Nolan is now the biggest director in the world, and The Dark Knight Rises releases. After the colossal heights of The Dark Knight, still considered the best of all super hero films, how could The Dark Knight Rises not be anti-climactic? For some, that is, because I consider The Dark Knight Rises the best of the trilogy, despite its conspicuous flaws (Marion Cotillard’s unconvincing death, the mystery of how Bruce gets from the weird prison back to Gotham). The Dark Knight Rises is the best film about Batman. It’s his movie. The Dark Knight, while an excellent film, saw its title character dwarfed by Heath Ledger’s greatness. The Joker is one of film’s greatest villains and he owned that movie. The Dark Knight Rises introduces a new villain, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, but his character is more like a foil meant to enrich Bruce Wayne’s mythology. He’s stronger than Batman. He’s faster than Batman. He wants to destroy everything Bruce Wayne loves.

When the film starts out, we get a spectacular sequence showing off impressive stunt work in the air as Bane and his cronies demolish a plane and set their mysterious plot in motion. Cut to Gotham, and we learn while on the surface this once chaotic city is now at peace, that peace is rather tenuous and comes at the expense of truth. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) have propagated the idea that Harvey Dent was a hero who died for the city at the hands of Batman, which somehow is responsible for the current state of the city. It’s been eight years since the events of the Dark Knight. No one has seen or heard from Batman or Bruce Wayne in that time (or put two and two together apparently). It’s no longer young Batman as it was in Batman Begins. He’s older now, physically old. We see the toll Batman’s taken on Bruce Wayne. We’re introduced to Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) as she steals from Bruce, and flirts a little. She later warns him that something huge is coming, something bad. She knows about Bane. Bane has taken over leadership of the League of Shadows, picking up where Ra’s al Ghul left off in his determination to destroy Gotham, or really to purge the city. In essence, playing Old Testament God, wiping out civilization, to start over again anew.

To stop him, Batman is physically tested beyond anything he’s ever experienced before. In the best scene of the film, around the middle point of this 3 hour epic, Batman runs into Bane for the first time. It’s a trap, setup by a desperate Catwoman. Batman and Bane begin a brutal fist fight in the leaky sewers which ends in the latter breaking the back (and the mask) of our hero. Batman destroyed, a broken Bruce Wayne begs to be killed. Bane responds diabolically, “You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to.”

This sets up another great sequence. Broken Bruce Wayne is held in a bizarre underground prison where escape is nearly impossible. Again, where The Joker tested the people of Gotham, Bane tests Bruce Wayne. The best scenes in the film are between Bane and Batman. Their two boxing matches framing the arc of Bruce’s story. This is a long film with much else to fill its running time, but I mainly cared about Bruce. Like previous entries, this is an ensemble drama with plenty of characters getting their moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a new character named John Blake (later becoming Robin), Bruce has two love interests in Miranda Tate (Cotillard) and Selina Kyle or Catwoman, and old stalwarts Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in their roles helping Bruce.

The film ends echoing another great epic, the classic A Tale of Two Cities, with Bruce making the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton in Dickens’ tale, who was, himself, a sort of Christ figure. I found it to be a fitting end, and though you could make a case for the penultimate scene being ambiguous or part of a character’s imagination, I’m fine with the happy ending. A great end for a great film in a great trilogy.