Monday, July 30, 2012

The Watch


THE WATCH: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade (100 min.)

Did it have to be aliens?  That's allI could thinking about while watching The Watch, a new "comedy" from Ben Stiller and a few of his buds.  The film is about a straight-laced, uptight suburbanite (Stiller) who starts up a neighborhood watch with a hothead (Vince Vaughn), a military kid (Jonah Hill), and a British nerdling (Richard Ayoade) after one of his employees is found murdered in the Costco he manages.  Turns out, aliens are responsible for the murder and they have a plan of world domination and they are under the Costco and yadda yadda...

Did it have to be aliens?

Every other summer movie is about aliens taking over or alien battles or scaly, slimy green guys scaring everyone.  Why is it shoehorned into a movie that could have been funny if it just let these comedic talents roll with a story about the mob infiltrating a small town, or a killer among the suburbanites?  No, it had to be aliens.  Uninteresting, uninspired aliens.  Then again very little about The Watch is inspired or original or, when all is said and done, interesting.  Those moments of ad-libbing are amusing sometimes, but then the story gets in the way.

Stiller's Evan is a married man who occupies his time starting groups and clubs in the neighborhood of his beloved Ohio suburb.  His neighborhood watch manages to catch the attention of Bob, played by Vince Vaughn who just mails in another version of the same character you remember from better movies.  He swigs beer and talks fast, mostly yelling, and makes you long for the days when Vince Vaughn starred in smaller comedies and worked.  Jonah Hill is lifeless as Franklin, a suburban Travis Bickle wannabe who seems confused as to why he is in this movie when he could do so much more.  Richard Ayoade, the unknown of the group, has some funny moments as Jamarcus, the nerdy British partner.  Just not enough of them.

Much of the humor in The Watch involves the male reproductive organ, over and over until I became convinced the screenplay just said "Dick Jokes" for pages and pages insteadof dialogue.  Sometimes they are funny, but more often than not they are repetitive and flat.  The entire film is flat, lifeless, but not bad to a point where it generates true hatred.  It is too inoccuous to generate anything resembling a raised pulse.  And like I mentioned earlier, make the villains something besides extraterrestrials for a change.  What a tired group who ring false in a film like this.  The whole picture feels cobbled together out of ill-fitting parts, including a strange subplot about Evan's infertility and Bob's promiscuous teenage daughter.  They had to have existed in another movie at some point along the way.  Maybe the studio execs were carrying three screenplays across a room and they fell to the floor and got all mixed up. 

That would explain the aliens.

F

Saturday, July 28, 2012

SATURDAY SCATTER SHOOTING: Looking at August, Fall, and Beyond

* I was apprehensive about continuing the Bourne series beyond Matt Damon's character.  But it seems to me they may have it figured out with The Bourne Legacy, that they may have a way to intertwine this thing and get maybe two more films out of Renner.

* I think Total Recall can only be very good or very bad.  Not sure which one it will be.

* The Master release has been moved up from October to September 14.  September seems crowded right now, more so than it has been in the past.

* So Battle Royale is becoming a TV series.  HBO you ask? AMC maybe?  Try the CW.  This is failed.

* I am sure there are a number of reasons why The Gangster Squad was bumped from September and moved to the Badlands of January.  First and foremost, the shootout scene in the movie theater is probably a little too uncomfortable for now.

* Also, to be honest, the film looks like garbage to me.  I saw Mobsters twenty years ago and I'd rather not see an updated version.  Regardless of the cast.

* The Cloud Atlas six-minute trailer is intriguing to say the least.  Seeing Tom Hanks as an Asian man, among many other roles apparently, is jarring.  And somehow director Tom Twyker has managed to keep the mystery of the film in tact for those of us with no background in the story.

* This recent wave of Paul Verhoven remakes (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) makes me wonder if studio execs see the satire in his work.  The new Robocop could be the coolest looking film around, but I doubt it will have the sense of humor.  I don't see how it can.

* T-shirt of the day... Courtesy of allposters.com

Robocop - Detroit T-Shirt

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: A Second Look (SPOILERS)

WARNING: This is Not a Post for anyone who has NOT seen The Dark Knight Rises yet.  There are spoilers big and small here.

No matter how much I fell in love with the first viewing of The Dark Knight back in 2008, I did not have this burning desire to see it again soon.  I would eventually own it, and watch it then.  I felt I had a firm grasp on the subjects, themes, and the execution of the film, and understood how great it was.  The Dark Knight had the advantage of being the second film in a trilogy, where there is no burden of opening or closing a story.  So it was simple in its approach and benefited from a straight narrative.  The Dark Knight Rises had the tallest order, trying to wrap up this epic trilogy in fitting style.  Not to mention it had to follow up the best film in the Batman franchise past and present.  And so it is possible to not absorb this epic, broad final chapter the first time around.  I would argue it is impossible to get a good grip on Christopher Nolan's final trip through Gotham City.

It must be seen twice.  I had to see it again.

While I am not here to give it a different grade from my initial B+, I am certain there is brilliance at work here.  There are still issues along the way that hold back the film, but in this second look those issues felt smaller, less significant.  Seeing it a second time allows for larger aspects to wash over you, however, so you can pay attention to the intricacies and energy spent on the plot and the development of so many characters.  I was also less taken aback by the void of Batman himself in a great deal of the action.  He has maybe forty minutes of screen time in a film which spans nearly three hours.  But this is a film about Bruce Wayne more than it is Batman when all is said and done.  This is about his redemption as a person, his ability to conjure up Gotham's hero in the face of so much sadness and despair, and his opportunity to face another fear to try and save his city.  Seeing this as a film about Bruce Wayne first enriched the final product to me.

While the scene in the prison, inter cut with Bane's siege of Gotham could have still been trimmed, I found myself swept up in the thrilling adrenaline of Bruce's climb from the tunnel just as much as Gotham falling under Marshal Law.  The structure of the film felt very odd to me, almost swaying to and fro between highs and lows; though it never felt crowded.  The second time, the pacing evened out and certain gears and machinations of the plot fell in place. Namely, the introduction of Marion Cotillard's Miranda - later revealed to be Talia Al Ghul - played out as one of the more rushed relationships in the film the first time around.  This time everything about her character feels slowed down and much more developed than it did.  I get her relationship with Bruce now, one even hinted towards in the early scenes between Wayne and Fox (Morgan Freeman).  They become business partners, they even seem to understand each other in a short amount of time, so it feels less forced when she eventually sleeps with Bruce.

Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy both represent their characters to perfection, which was never really up for debate by most people.  Same goes for Gary Oldman - who will always be Commissioner Gordon in my book - and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Detective Blake.  The supporting players are all given more screen time here, and the one who stands out above all is Michael Caine, who brings blindsiding emotion and dramatic power to his role as Alfred.  Caine's performance is stunning in limited screen time.  his sobbing in the end, standing in front of the Wayne tombstones, is the most wrenching moment in the trilogy, more so even than Rachel's death.

I was also more engrossed with the texture of The Dark Knight Rises, always a thinking man's epic adventure, darker and more threatening than anything of its kind.  Bane is a clear terrorist in the film, and some of the actions are downright disturbing.  Hanging the special agents dead from the bridge sticks out as a truly disturbing moment.  Bane raises the stakes here.  Some say they were disappointed that he was a pawn in the end, only I don't see him that way.  He loves Talia and wishes to protect her; he is not being used he is a partner in the scheme.  The battles between Bane and Batman are thrilling int heir simplicity, the way they square up against each other twice.  All throughout, the score by Hans Zimmer is loaded with indicators of the action, sweeping bits of sadness and despair, and pulse-pounding moments of thrilling energy.  Without Zimmer's score, the scope of Batman in these films is lost. 

The end may be a step too quick, with the reveal of Robin, the sighting of Wayne with Selina, and the tidy tie up.  But Batman couldn't really die.  This is not about the courage of one's convictions when it comes to Nolan's decision to save Bruce in the end.  This is about a film completing in the best way possible, with that last moment of exhilaration.  It also manages to close the chapter of Bruce and Alfred; there is no really way they could have split on bad terms and never reconciled.  As I said early on, I wouldn't change my grading of The Dark Knight Rises, but I do appreciate it on a much higher level than I did a week ago.  If you get anything from this, see it again if you have the chance.  This is a picture begging to have another look by virtually everyone.  I am certain it will only get better for most the second time around.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Fall Season, The Master, and The Trailer as A Work of Art

It isn't the next Bond film, or Spielberg's examination of Abraham Lincoln.  Leo DiCaprio isn't in it.  But it is the Fall film on my radar, head and shoulders above the rest.  Now that I have had time to digest The Dark Knight Rises for a few days (before I get back into it later this week), my eyes move forward past the rest of the summer season and into the Fall, where a different type of film event begins.  These are the smaller films with the heavier themes, the "important" pictures with actors delivering their finest work.  "Awards" pictures (a gag-worthy nickname) are as entrenched in the Autumn months as robots and franchise settle into the summer heat.  This Fall looks to be a significant improvement from this summer, where very few films have met their potential. 


There is the bombastic celebratory Baz Luhrmann adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leo DiCaprio as another reclusive millionaire, and on the flip side of the cinema, releasing on the same day (Christmas), DiCaprio stars in Quentin Tarantino's intriguing Western ride, Django Unchained.  This must be elite company for Leo, having two films open on Christmas Day.  Of the two, I cannot say I'm sold on either one from this distance, but I'm certain both will have their merits.  Luhrmann will bring a fresh eye to the celebrated novel, and Tarantino should just, well, be himself.  Before the Leo double feature, however, we have some heavy hitters behind and in front of the camera working their magic. 


Steven Spielberg will attempt to wipe the Vampire Hunter taste out of our mouths with an historical and epic look at the sixteenth President.  Lincoln is a film which has been in the works for some time, first having Liam Neeson in the title role.  It would have been perfect, but when he passed it was a few months before Daniel Day-Lewis jumped on board.  And I am certain DDL can manage the character.  Also in November is a crucial entry into the James Bond franchise.  Crucial because of the previous Daniel Craig entry, Quantum of Solace, which was nothing short of a disaster.  Especially when following the superior Casino Royale.  Now it is Skyfall, Craig's third shot at the character, and Sam Mendes' first attempt at an action film.  The pendulum could swing in favor of Bond for future films, but it could also fall apart if Skyfall is as incongruent, uneven, and dull as Marc Forster's Quantum.
There are any number of Fall films, both big and small, including Peter Jackson's first part of The Hobbit and the latest adaptation of Les Miserables starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, and Russel Crowe.  There are mid-level films which nevertheless look and sound exciting, like Rian Johnson's sci-fi mind bender Looper.  But then there is The Master.  Everything else, in my opinion, will take a back seat.


I make no qualms about my blind praise of Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably the smartest, most thoughtful filmmaker in the business.  Not only has Anderson yet to make a poor film, I often struggle to find a flaw in his work.  Again, this is my opinion.  His ability to put so much emotion, so much importance behind any and every shot and make it all look effortless and breezy is a testament to his endless talent.  From the announcement of The Master, his sideways take on Scientology, I was ready for the film's release.  Now, after months and years of development The Master has a release date (October 12), a brilliant cast, and a new full trailer that argues in favor of the trailer as a work of art. 

The trailer can function in artistic ways, not simply to put forth information but ideas.  Feelings.  Emotional attachments to the film in question.  This is what the better trailers manage to do while still managing not to spoil the larger elements of the picture.  The trailer for The Master is a work of art, and only enhances my anticipation for the film.  There are the big Fall releases, Awards contenders, and there is The Master:    

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard (164 min.)

Go in expecting an epic, and an epic you shall receive.  Did we anticipate anything more from Christopher Nolan here, as he ends his most wonderful Batman trilogy?  The Dark Knight Rises finishes the story of Nolan's Batman in such a sprawling, ambitious, and often beautiful way, it sometimes seems as though the picture is having a hard time fitting Batman into all the goings on.  Make no mistake, this is still an awe-inspiring experience, and a fitting end to a story that has spanned three films.  But don't go in expecting the visceral intensity of The Dark Knight, or the discovery of Batman Begins.  This is its own movie, with its own responsibility to the franchise, and seen as such it has some great moments.  That being said, there are flaws, mostly flaws that could have been fixed with a little nip and tuck.

Staying spoiler free, we pick up on Batman's arch eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, where Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent's killings and went into hiding.  In those eight years Gotham City has cleaned up the streets, eliminated organized crime, and is generally in a very good place.  Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has disappeared form social circles, distraught over the death and destruction left in The Joker's wake.  He occupies a far wing of the newly rebuilt Wayne Manor as a recluse, with only his loyal butler and friend, Alfred (Michael Caine) to try and pull him out of this funk.  But it won't be long before Gotham needs Batman once again, because there is a terrorist headed to town.

This terrorist is Bane, played here with as much panache as he can by Tom Hardy.  Bane, a muscle-bound vigilante with an intricate life-support mask wrapped around his face, is intent on destroying Gotham for reasons which become clear eventually.  The plot structure involves a great deal of moving parts, including investment bankers, outside interests like Miranda (Marion Cotillard) whose motives are a bit unclear, and the work of Catwoman/Selina Kyle played by Anne Hathaway.  This is an accurate portrayal of the character as she hops from one side to the other, always careful to cover her own ass.  Bane's ultimate plan is to turn Gotham into a militarized city under his control and rule.  The process of this city under siege is a brilliant bit of tension-filled directing from Nolan.  Once Bane enacts his plan, the film really takes off.  The only thing is, Bane's capturing of the city is a good hour and a half in.

There is a great deal of time spent with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the plucky policeman Blake.  Blake and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, always reliable and fully involved with the character) try their best to stop Bane only he proves too powerful.  This is why Batman is needed.  Notice this is the first time I have mentioned Batman, because he is practically an afterthought at times.  Bruce Wayne has a great deal of time, only Batman himself feels lacking overall.  It's a shame, because Bale really has the character down at this point.  And it isn't that the rest of the cast does a poor job; it is quite the opposite.  We spend a great deal of time with Blake and Gordon, and Levitt and Oldman are terrific actors.  So it softens the blow that we are missing some Bat-action along the way.

The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect film; the problem is there was no other option for it than to be perfect.  So falling short of impossible expectations is its cross to bear.  I enjoyed it still, and I appreciate the scope Nolan and Co. are reaching for.  They don't quite get there, and this could have been achieved by scaling back some scenes along the way.  Occasionally there is bloat, length that feels unneeded.  It could have withstood about ten to twelve minutes cut from the final print.  But I will not fault Nolan for trying this film on a grand scale, because this is a trilogy which deserves grandness.  There are aspects and twists and moments aplenty here, so much so that I could write pages and pages on this film.  That has to mean something in the end.

B+

Thursday, July 19, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COuNTDOWN: #1 - The Dark Knight

"Nolan has provided movie-goers with the best superhero movie to-date, outclassing previous titles both mediocre and excellent, and giving this franchise its Empire Strikes Back." - James Berarndinelli, ReelViews

The Dark Knight is the mountain top of superhero films, the very best comic film that can and will ever exist.  It has held up over the last four years, and in my opinion it has embedded itself deeper into my subconscious as something that overcomes any restrictions of the genre.  You know a film is good when the only hang ups most people can find are tiny plot holes amid an epic masterpiece.  There are some small oversights, but no film is perfect.  Considering the source material, arguably the most complex and compelling superhero in human history, Christopher Nolan created an intriguing character study in the midst of an action spectacle that still captures the imagination.  And make no mistake, this film is nothing without the work of Heath Ledger.  The film is called The Dark Knight, and obviously focuses on the increasing complexities of Bruce Wayne, but without Ledger's inspiring turn as The Joker, this film does not work.

The top two films on my list have both starred The Joker, a larger than life villain whose flamboyance has and always will overshadow the inward psychology of Batman.  But this is the first time the duality of these characters has been explored in appropriate depth on screen.  It is hinted at in Burton's first film, but here the entire picture hinges on the shared DNA of hero and villain.  The lines are blurred, and The Joker fights the entire film to try and erase the line completely.  His goal is to unleash anarchy and test the moral shield Batman carries. 

The story of The Dark Knight benefits from being simple.  It allows for the supporting characters to develop with ease, including Gary Oldman's stern and steadfast Captain Gordon, the plucky fortitude of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the heroic presence of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney who can do the things Batman cannot do while Batman crosses lines Dent cannot cross.  One of the things I enjoy the most about Nolan's Batman films is the way he, his brother Jonathan, and David S. Goyer focus on the detective aspects of the character, the way it is emphasized in the graphic novels.  Batman is but one part of a triangle including Dent and Gordon, working together to try and save Gotham.  But the impact of these three characters pales in comparison to The Joker, which is exactly the way it should be.

With deep scars in the shape of a smile, greasy makeup and sickly green hair, and a shabby purple suit, Heath Ledger manages to create an indelible character that we have known for decades.  Ledger plays the clown prince of crime as a true maniac, intent on bringing Gotham to its knees with a series of increasingly psychotic moral conundrums.  It is a tragedy that Ledger passed away so soon; I could only imagine what would have become of the trilogy is he were alive to make an appearance in the finale.  However, as it is, Ledger's role is the finest bit of true acting in a superhero film one will ever see.

COMING UP TOMORROW: 8 DAYS OF BATMAN CONCLUDES WITH MY REVIEW OF THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COUNTDOWN: #2 - Batman (1989)

"Burton brings back film noir elements to the new Batman, elevating it to a dark, demented opera." - Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

Hindsight has done a strange thing to Tim Burton's original Batman.  Many more people tend to dismiss it now than they did in 1989.  I am old enough to remember its release, however, and the great anticipation.  It is the first look at Batman as a Dark Knight, a stoic and tortured soul intent on ridding Gotham City of ruthlessness.  The characterizations are no where near the psychological level of Nolan's superior visions, but this is not Nolan's brain we are working with here.  This is Tim Burton, who had a plan with his representation of the hero.  With its Gothic beauty, nihilistic approach, and steep atmospheric presence, I will stick by my choice at number two.  This first Burton Batman still holds up.

The world of Batman is fully realized and never boring to look at, with its endless skyscrapers and panoramic view of a city in decay and crumbling under the weight of corruption.  Awash of any of the color or camp of the 60s television series, this is the first glimpse of Batman in black, silent for the most part and single minded.  Michael Keaton, always maligned in the role, fits Batman better than anyone this side of Christian Bale.  He is given little to do, this is true, but I never disagree with the presence of Keaton in a film, regardless of the subject.

These last two entries in the list also share a common villain, the best and most interesting of Batman's gallery.  Jack Nicholson plays The Joker as an over-the-top loon who, after an accident in a vat of acid leaves him disfigured, plans on poisoning Gotham City with his own brand of chemicals.  Kim Basinger is serviceable as love interest Vicky Vale - much more so than Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever.  Then again, the only truly interesting female character in the Batman pantheon has always been Catwoman.  The romantic leads never develop into anything beyond the surface.

Batman is essentially a collection of action set pieces, all of which are wonderfully choreographed and exciting.  The chase scene beginning at the art museum stands out in the second act, and Batman's showdown with The Joker in the church is a thrilling climax.  Perhaps the psychology of Bruce Wayne is not examined at enough length to satisfy some viewers.  The murder of his parents and the tie in to the story is brief, but I feel it is effective in this universe.  This Batman is not about back story so much as it is about showing us an action spectacle.  We are here to see Batman work.  After all, like The Joker says in frustration, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COUNTDOWN: #3 - Batman Begins

"Here's how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere." - Desson Thomson, Washington Post

Perhaps the true start of some controversy on this list, as we find Christopher Nolan's thrilling debut in Gotham at number three rather than two.  But, at this point, we are no longer dealing with Joel Schumacher or poor sequels or pop art; these top three versions of the Dark Knight are all good in their own right.  Some are, in my opinion, just a little better than others.  Nolan leaps off the ledge into his own legend of Batman, creating a universe and a cast of characters the way Ridley Scott used to do.  Only Nolan does it better.  This would be the first time we saw the Bat on the screen since Joel Schumacher butchered the character in Batman & Robin, so the bar was decidedly low.  That didn't curb expectations, however, as buzz built and the film was met with solid reviews and became a fan favorite before all was said and done.

Christian Bale serves as the palette cleanser in Batman Begins, a new and infinitely more interesting version of Bruce Wayne.  That might be the biggest difference in the Nolan versions, the fact that he takes the necessary time to develop the alter ego of our hero rather than obsessing over the suit the entire time.  Bale starts as Bruce Wayne from the ground floor, before he travels to Asia to learn Martial Arts and the impact fear can have on enemies.  He learns from Ducaerd, played by Liam Neeson, and embraces a childhood fear to become Batman.  There is much more psychology at work, which helps to lay a solid foundation for this new version of the character.  By the time he appears in screen - a good hour into the film - we feel more connected with the hero and the man than we ever have before.

Another unspoken character in this Nolan vision is Gotham itself.  With Chicago doubling as Gotham, there was more room to operate and show the decay of greed in Urbania.  It was also a fresh take on the sprawl of the city, as most consider Manhattan to be the stand-in city for Gotham.  Chicago works to greater effect here, however, as spatial elements tend to alienate our players rather than hold them atop each other during the action. 

Of course a few small details may not work to the fullest.  Katie Holmes, the lack of focus on the side of the villain (Cillian Murphy is serviceable as Scarecrow, intent on polluting Gotham's air with poisonous gas.  But still, nothing sticks on the villain side.), and the infamous "bat voice."  But in defense of the latter, I understood from the beginning what Bale and Nolan were doing with the Bat-voice.  I think most people understand the point now, but in 2005 it was a little jarring.  Nevertheless, Batman Begins is a great start to what will undoubtedly be a great trilogy.

Monday, July 16, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COUNTDOWN: #4 - Batman: The Movie

To celebrate this 1966 version of the hero as a piece of pop art might seem a disservice to Batman Returns, a film I ranked lower than this film despite considering it a work of art in and of itself.  But there is a difference in art, so there is a difference in these Batman films and the energy they bring.  Where Tim Burton's second film slogged through visual mastery avoiding a necessary substance over style, this original film is an effervescent, sparkling testament to the decade in which it was created.  It is as tongue in cheek as any film can be, as corny as hell, but it commits fully to the cause of being zany and off the beaten path.  It also happens to be a childhood favorite of mine which is, more than anything, the reason it beat out Batman Returns on the list.  If I were staring at copies of the two films, there is no question which one I would choose to watch.

Consider the following passage, before the credits as an introduction to the film:

ACKNOWLEDGMENT We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre--- To funlovers everywhere--- This picture is respectfully dedicated. If we have overlooked any sizable groups of lovers, we apologize. ---THE PRODUCERS

What a bombastic quote to drop in front a film, and a great way to welcome us into the zany world created by the producers at 20th Century Fox.  Released between the first and second seasons of the popular TV series, Batman: The Movie is partly responsible for making The Joker, The Riddler, Penguin, and Catwoman the first off fanboys lips when they list villains of the caped crusader.  Sure, The Joker has always been tops on the list, but this film corralled these four villains together for one awesome spectacle.  There is a plot involving the dehydration of the United Nations brass into vials of multi-colored dust, and world domination of course.  But the plot doesn't matter the way it later will in the Nolan films; this is pure eye candy.

And what a shame I have made it this far through my article without even mentioning the mastermind of the universe, Mr. Adam West.  The embodiment of Batman, West was basically all we had to work with before 1989, and his Shatner-esque energy and faux-seriousness towards the subject matter fit so incredibly well.  Alongside West's Batman is Burt Ward as The Boy Wonder, Robin.  "Holy (insert pun here) Batman!"  The two work off each other with an effortless zeal throughout the film and the series.

A few of my favorite moments:  the shark-repellent Bat Spray, placed carefully inside the Bat-copter.  The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) masquerading as Commodore Schmidlap.  The odd and Russian-themed romance between Bruce Wayne and Miss Kitka (Catwoman, Lee Merriwether).  Get it?  Miss Kitka?  Batman and Robin's uncanny ability to piece together absurd riddles into clues into a way to solve the crime.  The onomatopoeia explosion atop the surfaced submarine.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  Batman: The Movie may not take itself seriously in any way, but it never tries.  For that, I think it belongs here more than Burton's sequel.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COUNTDOWN: #5 - Batman Returns

"Odd and sad, but not exhilarating." - Roger Ebert

#5 - Batman Returns

This was the toughest spot on the list.  It is a crossroads in the Batman movie universe, where things go from bad to just a little bit better.  There were two clear candidates for number five on the list, and my childhood won the battle in the end.  More on that later.  Batman Returns is decent, but that is about all it turns out to be in the end.  Tim Burton and Michael Keaton's second adventure behind the mask of the caped crusader definitely has its moments of style and visual mastery.  But the abandonment of comic history and the inclination to prefer style over substance makes everything seem just a little too hollow.  Roger Ebert's description may sum it up best;  it is odd and sad - it is also visually stunning - but it is not an exhilarating film.  In fact, the more I watch it, the less interesting everything gets.

Burton leaves behind the comic background of the characters to create his own vision in Batman Returns.  For this I do not fault Burton; he has a direction, which is more than I could say for the previous two entries in this list.  Tim Burton makes Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman all outsiders shunned by their society.  He draws a clear line between the three.  He creates fascinatingly grotesque and sexualized characters in Penguin and Catwoman.  Only Mr. Burton has very little for them to do that is interesting.  Danny DeVito disappears under the makeup and the fins to embody a sewer dwelling penguin intent on ruining Gotham.  Catwoman, on the other hand, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, exists as a fetishized version of the character.  In the comics, Catwoman is a master thief and Martial Arts expert.  Here, she is a woman scorned. 

Aside from Penguin and Catwoman wreaking havoc and taking on Batman, Christopher Walken plays another villain, Max Schreck.  Schreck is a real estate mogul in Gotham and a power-hungry cardboard cutout, despite the fact that Walken tries his hardest to make Schreck stand out.  Schreck is more a villain to Bruce Wayne than he is Batman, and that is never quite as interesting.   

I have piled on the film enough without saying that Batman Returns has redeeming aspects about it, including a world from Burton's imagination which grows bigger and broader without spiraling out of control.  Mostly, because Burton doesn't choose to overuse neon lighting the way Schumacher does.  The visuals are stunning, only the film works like a painting.  There is a great deal of visual poetry to look at, but very little movement to accompany the look.  However, there is some effective chemistry between Batman and Catwoman.  The energy between Pfeiffer and Keaton is often overlooked; then again, the effectiveness of Keaton as Batman has always been criminally overlooked, so adding a layer to his characterization is forgotten before it begins.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COUNTDOWN: #6 - Batman Forever

"Joel Schumacher submits to the Wagnerian bombast with an overly busy surface, and the script by Lee and Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman basically runs through the formula as if it's a checklist."  - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

#6 - Batman Forever

Batman Forever is a deceptive little film.  Not because it is good, but because it is inherently bad, only the audience never realizes how bad it actually is.  It is a Monet painting, beautiful form a distance but a muddled mess up close.  We see certain elements, and we enjoy several moments in the film, but as a whole the step down from Tim Burton's vision is as wide as the Grand Canyon.  This was Joel Schumacher's first exploration of the character, and it is clear he was less interested in the psychology of Batman than he was the flashy camp aspect of the comics.  The Dark Knight is less dark, and more amused by his world, and this is a real problem.  Of course, I complain about this with another campy version of Batman waiting in the wings on this list, but there is a great difference.  If camp is the direction, there cannot be any other.  Batman Forever wants the best of both worlds, and finds itself stuck in the middle.

Once Tim Burton decided not to direct a third Batman film, it was only a matter of time before Michael Keaton left the franchise.  Enter Joel Schumacher, who chose Val Kilmer as his Bruce Wayne.  Kilmer in the mid nineties was a fine choice for the caped crusader.  I have no issues with the way he plays the character, straight and with very little irony or sarcasm.  It is the world around him which grows increasingly out of control.  Gotham no longer resembles any sort of real city; now, there is a sprawling epic landscape of endless skyscrapers that seem to stretch beyond the clouds.  The entire world of this Batman franchise has been turned up to eleven, overloaded with neon pinks and greens and endless amounts of nonsense.

Naturally, the villain this time around shoud be The Riddler.  With The Joker, Catowman and The Penguin already used, the fourth of the "Big Four" was a foregone conclusion.  And using Jim Carrey as The Riddler was a master stroke that saved the film from being a total disaster.  Carrey was at the height of his powers in 1995, and choosing him as the zany villain was a master stroke that saved the rest of the film.  With Kilmer being bland, and the forgettable love story with Nicole Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian, Carrey keeps us interested as he tries to rule Gotham through mind control.  But Carrey is not enough to keep the cracks from showing in the rest of the picture.

We get the introduction of Two Face, played thanklessly by Tommy Lee Jones in a forgettable role.  Two Face has his two women, one in white and one in black, and the entire subplot makes very little sense except for the desire of the producers to add just one more villain.  The Riddler would have been plenty in the film.  Frankly, Jones seems confused by his role most of the time.  There is also the introduction of Robin, played by Chris O'Donnell.  Introducing the character is fine, it is necessary eventually, and O'Donnell does a fine job as Dick Grayson.  But you can start to see the overloading of characters in Schumacher's pictures.  This was only the tip of the iceberg.

Upon its release, Batman Forever was not seen for what it clearly is today: the beginning of the end.  Go watch it again and you will see the warts as bright as day.  Sure, it was a success at the box office and had one of the more popular soundtracks in recent memory.  Heck, even I liked it when it was released, but I was fourteen and I liked anything involving my favorite superhero.  Regardless of the odor.   

Friday, July 13, 2012

8 DAYS OF BATMAN COUNTDOWN: #7 - Batman & Robin

8 days, 7 films leading up to the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's Batman world next Friday.  From worst to first, let's get through the previous Batman films, their universe, and get ready to roll for The Dark Knight Rises...

#7 - Batman & Robin

All franchises have their lows.  There is always going to be a Superman IV, a Spider-Man 3, a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  But of all the low points in all of the film franchises in history, I would argue that Batman & Robin has to be the lowest of the low.  What a fresh dose of hell this is, a disastrous calamity in every way.  The writing was on the wall once Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise, as there were hints of camp and excess in Batman Forever.  But, for the love of God, nobody could have expected this fourth installment in the film series.  Once again, Batman is played by a different person, and the irony here is that arguably the best actor of the three who would play Batman in this franchise was undoubtedly the worst Batman ever.  And, if you go back and check out his interviews prior to the release of Batman & Robin, I think he knew it.

Yes, that is George Clooney, multiple Oscar nominee and Oscar winner destroying the ides of Batman in the late nineties.  But he had plenty of help, starting with the addition of Bat-nipples on the costume.  Batman and his cocky sidekick, Robin (Chris O'Donnell), take on Mr. Freeze this time around.  Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Freeze is a campy, corny villain who had to have spent most of his days writing down weather-related quips in between trying to figure out how to destroy Gotham.  Oh, and there is the unnecessary addition of Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Bane, two more villains with very little to do.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the last time we saw Bane on the big screen was here, in this carnival.  Surely Tom Hardy will erase this nightmare from our memory.

Joel Schumacher saw this list of cast members and decided we needed one more central character.  So he forces Batgirl into the proceedings.  But it didn't really matter, because by the time Alicia Silverstone becomes Batgirl the film has unraveled so greatly that throwing one more bit of garbage at the screen is inconsequential.  Batman & Robin is one excessive set piece after another, a screenplay loaded up with one liners and no real dialogue.  You can see it in Clooney's face, as he reads lines like "you get the ice, I'll get the Ice-Man."  He knew all along what was happening to the franchise, but he didn't really have a choice.  It isn't so bad it's good, it is simply bad.  Try watching it again, I applaud you (or perhaps I pity you) if you make it through the entire picture.

For all of its horrific dialogue (by Bob Kane!) and excess and ridiculous nature of Batman & Robin, it may have created Christopher Nolan's Batman universe.  Had it been a success, we may have never seen a new, updated Batman franchise.  But, thankfully Schumacher's disaster failed miserably with critics and audiences, and the franchise was scrapped for eight years until Nolan took his shot and reinventing the caped crusader.

Monday, July 9, 2012

DVD REVIEW: Rampart

I have always admired Woody Harrelson, whose body of work is often overlooked for one reason or another.  He works less than some bigger stars, he isn't afraid to try anything, so maybe he floats into obscurity faster than some.  And on top of his risk taking and his diversity he always delivers a solid performance and given whatever needs to be given to the role.  It is his performance in Rampart that keeps the film from completely falling apart.  Because, no matter how thin the movie becomes, no matter how poor the surroundings, Harrelson keeps thing afloat.  But no performance can hold up under the weight of absurdity, and eventually Rampart crushes Harrelson's efforts.  I admire the attempt to take a familiar story and try and spin it into something unique, but reality must exist in a film which poses as a realistic portrayal of police corruption.

Set in 1999, Rampart is the infamous police district in Los Angeles which became known for its corruption more than its police work.  The late nineties was the pinnacle of LAPD wrongdoing, and David Brown (Harrelson) is perhaps the filthiest of all.  He is everything a corrupt cop is made of in cinema, a racist, sexist, stealing, killing, drinking, lonely misanthrope.  All of these things are shown gradually as we stay with Brown throughout.  Brown also has an interesting home life, and by interesting I mean hard to buy as plausible.  He lives next door to his two ex wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), sisters, each of whom have a daughter with Brown.  And despite the fact that Brown is an asshole for the most part they all seem to get along and have dinner on a regular basis. 

At the same time, Dave manages to bed women on a regular basis.  One of these women is a feisty Defense Attorney played by Robin Wright, who falls into some sort of ambiguous relationship with Dave that never really makes much sense.  To be honest, nothing about Dave's social life is realistic, even though it is sold as such.  With such a turbulent home life, it is no wonder he can't keep things in line as a police officer.

If isn't one Internal Affairs investigation, it's another.  He has been saddled with the moniker "Date Rape Dave" for supposedly murdering a rapist several years earlier.  Early in the film, he is brought in for being caught beating a perpetrator to death on camera; not a good move in 1999 with the Rodney King situation still fresh enough on everyone's mind.  He is leaned on by a few IA investigators (Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube) who are itching to send him up.  But that doesn't stop Dave from being a seething criminal in blue.  His drinking and paranoia increase as the film meanders along behind him, until things begin to unravel.  Not things with Dave, so to speak, but with the structure of the film.  There is a late venture to an S&M club that seems especially out of place here.  Because, despite Dave's penchant for one-night stands, this sort of sexual deviance rings completely false.

Much of Rampart rings false, which undermines the work Harrelson is doing here.  He is compelling in the face of misrepresented realism that tries to pass off a muddled home life and a narrative with a structure that is too loose to stay interesting.  If it is supposed to be some stylized sense of reality, or some unrealistic character study, things are not filmed that way.  There is no directorial flair from Oren Moverman (who directed Harrelson in his Oscar-nominated role in The Messenger) to indicate some sort of alternate reality.  It is sold as realism, and when that is abandoned everything goes awry.  I wanted to like Rampart, because I typically enjoy the genre and would expect to particularly enjoy one starring Harrelson.  And again, he is not the problem.  It's the film falling down all around him.

D+ 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Savages


SAVAGES: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta (129 min.)

Every once in a while, Oliver Stone likes to abandon his political soapbox, or his conspiracy post, to direct a "departure" film.  He leaves the preaching and the theorizing behind and takes a shot at a more ambiguously motivated picture.  Since his his recent "Stonian" films like World Trade Center, Wall Street 2, and W. have fallen flat, I suspect Stone was ready to direct something less structured.  Something like Savages, a drug-fueled action thriller where Stone is given freedom to embellish.  That ends up being the problem, Stone's inability to avoid stylistic embellishments and excess where these things are not necessary.  Savages has a few things going for it, but most of the film doesn't work.  And it may not be all Stone's fault, but then again who is ultimately responsible for a cast that doesn't deliver?

Savages is a crime drama with a cool cover but a hollow core.  It is told to us through a narration by O (short for Ophelia), a golden-brown California blond played by Blake Lively.  O lives with two men, Chon and Ben, who have cultivated some of the finest pot in the world and turned it into a small fortune.  Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the botanist, a soft-spoken Buddhist who wants to heal with his pot and in his spare time helps poor kids in Africa.  Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the muscle, an Iraq War vet who smuggled these primo seeds back from Afghanistan.  Chon is scarred mentally and physically by the war, and is prone to acts of violence.  If you find it a stretch that Ben and Chone would become friends, now try and buy into the fact these two guys share O.  She is their girlfriend, and their true love.  I had trouble with this dynamic from the beginning.

The trio lives in peace and harmony in Southern California until the Tijuana cartel gets wind of their operation and wants them to join forces.  This cartel is headed up by Elena, a wiry, wicked woman played by Salma Hayek.  Her enforcer is Lado, a snarling snake of an assassin played by Benicio Del Toro.  Of all the supporting players fighting to chew up scenery with their extravagant characters - including one John Travolta as a crooked DEA agent - it is Del Toro who gets the point.  He is fascinating as Lado, sporting a puffy mullet and an epic mustache.  The rest of the supporting players, while they are hamming it up, are infinitely more interesting than our three heroes.

Elena's idea to force Chon and Ben to play ball is to kidnap O and keep her in captivity for a year while she makes the boys jump through hoops.  They negotiate with one another through skype, showing O in precarious situations and throwing out threats.  The boys know O is dead unless they put a plan into motion.  That is when the plot devices kick into high gear and the film divulges into an endless series of confusing double crosses and labyrinthine twists.  It's difficult to follow at times, or find the proper motivations as the story meanders and Stone gets distracted by shots of moving clouds, the moon, or needless dissolves to black and white photography.  That's what Stone does sometimes, and that is what he needs to stop.  But at this point in his career, I don't see anyone telling him to tone it down.

Savages can be fun and exciting once in a while, but it is also needlessly violent and oversexed at times.  Neither of these are really the biggest issue; the main problem is the central cast of Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively.  None of them could carry a film by themselves, and as a trio it doesn't improve.  Ben and Chon are the least interesting characters in the entire film and, alas, they are the ones we are supposed to care about.  And Lively plays O as a dope for the most part, aloof and dreamy like an uninteresting version of Patricia Arquette's Alabama in True Romance.  Selling two men and a woman all in love and lust with each other would be a tough sell with convincing actors, so I really struggled with these three cutouts as the heart of the story.  I would have rather spent more time with Lado.

C     

The Amazing Spider-Man


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans (136 min.)

Sony has dipped back into the Spidey well this summer, and delivered a new, re-imagined version of the webslinger despite the fact Sam Raimi's trilogy ended merely five years ago.  Regardless of what they were hoping to do with this franchise reboot, the whole thing may never escape the "unnecessary" tag in my book.  And, even in spite of my trepidation towards starting all over, Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man works more often than not.  That isn't to say there is much fresh or new or groundbreaking here, but there is good humor, entertainment, and arguably a more interesting version of Peter Parker, who never has been the most compelling alter ego. 

We still get an extended origin story with this new version of Spider Man, where we see how Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) gets his powers and becomes the hero.  Parker is still a nerdy kid, picked on in high school by the bully, awkward with the ladies.  Although it may be a bit harder to believe with Andrew Garfield than it was with Tobey Maguire.  This time around, Peter is given more motivation to become a hero; we get a back story involving his father and mother, forced to flee and leave Peter in the care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt Mae (Sally Field).  As a teenager, Parker discovers his father's work history, which leads him to the ominous Oscorp where he meets his father's partner, Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans).  It is here, as he snoops around, that he discovers the radioactive spiders and is bitten by one.  The rest, we know, is history.

Spider Man is basically the same this time around, aside from the fact his webs are manufactured in this version rather than organically grown from his wrists.  The costume is slick and a shade or two darker, and it looks great in the mostly night-time action scenes.  The love interest this time is not Mary Jane, but Peter's first love, Gwen Stacy, a sharp young girl played by Emma Stone.  Garfield and Stone have obvious chemistry as the two leads.  Curt Conners is our villain, the doctor at Oscorp who becomes obsessed with regeneration of limbs as he is missing his own arm.  His feverish study of reptilian regeneration leads him to inject himself with a serum which turns him into The Lizard, one of Spidey's more formidable foes.

The action in The Amazing Spider-Man is more clever and creative than in the original films.  There are a few brief first-person shots which undoubtedly point to the influence of the video game culture, but work nonetheless.  The Lizard looks good for the most part, and Ifans is effective as a villain.  Maybe Willem Dafoe's wicked snarl was more exciting, but his Green Goblin was a poor antagonist in a ridiculous costume.  I also think Garfield is an upgrade, but more of a sideways enhancement.  This Peter Parker must be more of a driven, tortured character, and Garfield's look works with that aspect of the character.  Maguire was good, but could never really handle the angst of Parker the way Garfield does here.

The Amazing Spider-Man isn't quite as amazing, but it is a far cry from the third Raimi film.  The focus is here, but so is a great deal of exposition and a prologue that feels entirely too long.  The pieces have been put into place by previous Spidey films, and another extended origin story feels more tedious now.  I realize a reboot is a reboot, a d Webb and the production team wanted a whole new slate.  But we all know the origin of Spider Man, and if the central ideas are the same then why go to so much trouble?  Maybe that's just me.   

B

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ted


TED: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis (115 min.)

I consider myself a fan of Seth McFarlane's Family Guy.  I get his humor, and I enjoy the animated series.  But I didn't get, nor did I enjoy, Ted.  This confuses me.  I expected to laugh hysterically throughout Ted, but after the opening scenes I found it very tough to force even a chuckle.  What did I miss?  I don't think I've missed anything, I just don't feel like any of the humor works at all.  It isn't particularly daring, it isn't edgy enough, and not once did I think "this is quotable."  I wonder what Mark Wahlberg saw in the screenplay, or what anyone thought about the plot which is as thin as they come.  I honestly went into Ted with high expectations, and found myself let down before the first reel even finished.

The film revolves around the relationship between a boy and his teddy bear.  John (Wahlberg) is the kid in the neighborhood who can never make friends.  He can't even beat up the Jewish kid in the neighborhood on Christmas.  John wants a friend, and this Christmas he gets a stuffed teddy bear who he names Teddy.  They are the closest of friends, and one night after a wish is granted Ted is granted the ability to speak and act like a human.  Ted and John remain firends despite the fame Ted gets from being the world's first talking bear.  He goes on Carson, he fights through drug issues, and he becomes a burnt out former celebrity "like Corey Feldman", as the narrator, Patrick Stewart, tells us.  Next thing you know, John and Ted are in their thirties and spend the day smoking pot and watching Spongebob Squarepants.

John is the definition of a manchild, stunted by a terrible job at a rental car agency and a teddy bear for a friend.  But somehow he has managed to nail down a hot girlfriend, Lori, played in a thankless role by Mila Kunis.  Surely, Kunis knew this role would bring nothing to her career  There is the thinnest semblance of a plot, involving a shady father (Giovanni Ribisi) who plans on stealing Ted for his own idiot son.  But the plot comes on so late and is so forgettable it feels forced.  Ted, voiced by McFarlane himself and sounding exactly like Peter Griffin from Family Guy, drinks and smokes pot and swears and has parties with hookers, but it never really works on the level it should work. 

Ted feels stale from start to finish.  There are various elements like a douchebag boss (Joel McHale) and a romantic conundrum, but it never matters an ounce.  I was hoping for the comedic elements of Family Guy to translate easily to live action, with a mix of CGI for the teddy bear.  Alas, it never happened.  I forced laughter in the first few scenes, and maybe they were funny.  But I soon found myself searching for the comedy like Indiana Jones, never finding the sweet spot that made the picture work.  Maybe I am out of touch, but I didn't find many things which worked in Ted.

D-