Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Last Starfighter

  The 80's was definitely a magical time for movies. Movies didn't have to be perfect to be good, and suspension of disbelief was alot easier. The Last Starfighter is the perfect movie to fit into both of those arenas of film. It's a coming of age story which is basically The Sword in the Stone but with aliens and spaceships. How does that not sound awesome? I think from a present day standpoint, people might be very underwhelmed with this movie, since the effects have ages fairly badly... However, there is a certain charm to the movie at the same time that's simply irrepressible.

  Our young protagonist, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) lives with his mom and his little brother in an all-American trailer park. I mean... this is a trailer park as only Norman Rockwell, or E.T. era Steven Spielberg could have possibly seen them. It's charming in it's own way. When's the last time you described a trailer park as charming? Thought so. Anyhow, Alex still realizes it's a dead end life for him. Fixing the neighbor's electricity, plunging toilets, and basically being the handyman for the entire trailer park. He never has the time to go hang out with his friends or anything. Yet you can tell if anyone is going to make it out of there, it's gonna be Alex. Not to mention he has a beautiful girlfriend on his arm, played by the gorgeous Mary Catherine Stewart.

  Anyway, it seems the sole source of entertainment in this entire place is this little arcade game called "Starfighter". Alex plays so much that he eventually beats... "the record". An event so amazing, that apparently everyone in the trailer park shows up to watch him beat said record... in the middle of the night. The sight of all these middle aged people who probably don't give a flying fuck about video games cheering on this teenage guy to beat a high score is pretty ridiculous- and that might be the biggest understatement ever.  Having said that, "Starfighter" is the sword and the stone in this case. Beating the hi-score ended up whisking Alex away to an intergalactic war where he realizes the game was merely a test... and this is the real deal.

  The movie has it's moments, and a lot of them. Lance Guest is really fun as Alex, and the production design in the movie is fantastic. It looks great. The alien creatures, the spaceships, the suits, all of it. It feels like a slice of a much larger cinematic universe which was just begging to be explored even further. It's a shame that it wasn't. If I have any complaint about the movie is that it doesn't spend more time on it's high-flying space battles or exploring more of this universe. There's a lot of exposition that is merely handed to us through several conversations and speeches and I couldn't help but feel this was a case where "show don't tell" was needed.

  However, The Last Starfighter is charming and exciting and full of characters that you wouldn't think twice about spending 90 minutes with. Everyone does a great job in their role, and even when the script gets a little thin and the story maybe isn't what it should be, there's still this energy present that keeps it fun and keeps it moving forward. The movie makes a detour to explain how nobody on Earth would necessarily miss Alex. Well, he now has a robot double on Earth. It has some great moments, and Lance Guest does a great job of playing him too- but whenever you're back on Earth... you find yourself wishing we were still in space. It's not bad, and still fun, but one wonders why they grounded us after teasing us with a legitimate space war.

  Despite it's dated special effects, the space scenes are incredibly well done and very fun. Alex really steps up to be a legitimate Starfighter and the movie rewards us by treating us to a series of awesome space battles. Really, the movie plays on the charm of being an arcade game come to life. It's why this movie probably couldn't be remade. Not without losing it's charm. Whenever I hear that old computerized voice from the arcade game bellow out "Greetings Starfighter" it brings a smile to my face. It's a movie that works because almost everyone can relate to Alex Rogan and his dream to be... somewhere else. And for me, as a kid, that 'somewhere else' was always outer space.

  On it's own merit, it's good. Maybe not great, maybe not an absolute classic, but it manages to be more fun than most modern movies. It captures the feeling of adventure so necessary to a story like this, no matter what era it was made in. Yet... it just seems like they don't make movies like this anymore. Fun is a timeless concept, and there are always going to be fun movies... but... the specific brand of fun generated by The Last Starfighter seems to be a fading concept. It's simple and effective, and honestly? Endearing. It's charm is forever tied to the idea of things like arcades, and booth games, and having to have a pocket full of quarters to play these things. It's a bygone era, but the movie is a perfect reminder of how fantastical it could be.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins

  I don't often review games on my blog, mainly because I never finish them in a decent enough time frame... but I do from time to time. Seeing as how I was (am?) on a Batman tangent, and I just finished Arkham Origins, I figured, why the hell not do a review? I like a game that can garner strong reactions from me and leave me feeling very opinionated. I can pick apart Arkham Origins like a holiday ham. Let me start by saying... THANK GOD, THEY FIXED BATMAN'S SHOULDERS. I don't know about everyone else, but all throughout Arkham Asylum and Arkham City (two games which I thoroughly loved) it always looked to me like Batman's shoulders were so big, they looked freakish... and now I feel like they're fixed. In fact, I just like his look in this game a lot better. People might say something like that is superfluous, but if I'm going to spend countless hours playing as a character, I want him to look... well... cool. Not freakish.

  Granted, here's the tradeoff though... Asylum and City had amazing gameplay which overcame the oddly proportioned Batman model. Origins has some issues. After I started the game too many hours went by before I felt like I was even playing a new one. The control scheme is largely the same, and the game alternates between some very basic scenarios over and over. Predator room, angry mob, predator room, angry mob, etc etc etc... only about halfway through the game did I start to feel like Origins found it's footing and started infusing some new and interesting level design and puzzles for me to tackle. From that point on, the game was a veritable roller coaster. I couldn't and didn't want to put it down. As opposed to Asylum and City, which felt like that from the start.

  I do like the story in Arkham Origins, but I don't think it fully felt like an origin story. In the game, Batman has been doing his thing for two years already. You'd think that a lot of the conflict he goes through in the game, especially with Jim Gordon, would have already happened in the span of those two years. In fact, I would've preferred a game where Batman doesn't have his methods down. Where he slowly discovers the need for a cape, for a grappling hook, for brass knuckles in the gloves. I would've liked to have seen Bruce designing the Batsuit, assembling the Batcave, creating the batarangs and coming to the all-important revelation that everything Batman touches must have the "Bat" prefix. Otherwise it's not legit. Of course. I wonder if Alfred ever gets tired of that. After All, only he and Bruce know the proper names for all this stuff.
"Master Wayne, shall I fetch your boots?" "They're BAT-boots! Dammit Alfred!"

  Then my biggest problem is that the controls aren't as intuitive as they were in the previous two games. In Asylum and City, you really feel like you're in control of Batman, as opposed to being in control of a little computer generated character in a 3D environment. In Origins, there were countless times I had to fight the controls just to get Batman to do what I wanted him to. I press triangle... he's supposed to counter right then. Not stand there like a punching bag for a couple seconds too long. For comparison's sake, I booted up Arkham City to see if it was just me and I didn't remember exactly how the counter system worked. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. It works fine in Arkham City. It is Origins. The whole system has moments where it doesn't quite... work. Sure I can counter til my thumbs bleed, but after you've been playing these games for years, you start to notice when there's tiny flaws. Like a splinter in the back of your mind.

  There's tiny lags, moments when things are unresponsive, even if just for a split second. Though when you're playing as the goddamn Batman, a split second is too freaking long. Those split seconds start to add up too. If the game doesn't counter right when you tell it to, you get hurt. If this happens over and over and over... you die.  Thankfully an intuitive player won't have an issue with this. You'll adapt to these little inconsistencies after a while, predict them, and overcome the situation with relative ease. At worst, I got setback a checkpoint once or twice. Nothing I'd sell the game over though. The biggest problem with this is that sequels are supposed to get better, not have amateur little screw ups like this. Look at Assassin's Creed II, Borderlands 2, Uncharted 2, and hell, especially Batman: Arkham City. Games improve. This isn't rocket science folks. I'm not talking about story, acting, dialog, plot, or anything. I'm talking about basic controls.
At the third freaking game in the franchise, issues like this are inexcusable.

  Having said that, once you do finally get the hang of things, the game is still lots of fun. Predator rooms are still fun, and so is standard melee fights. Origins really shines when it thrusts you into unpredictable situations and boss battles. The game knows how to excite, especially when you're fighting series alums like Bane, and Joker. It also knows when to serve up new danger like a blockbuster fight with Firefly, or balls-to-bone fight with Deathstroke. Fun stuff. Overall, I can't say I would trip over myself to recommend Origins to people, but it is a fun game, and I'll probably still mess around Gotham City for a while. It's fun, but by no means a great game. It at least manages to edge out as a good one though.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Batman & Robin

  Oh boy. This should surprise nobody I guess... Batman & Robin is awful. God-awful.  I wanted to try and find new merits in the movie rather than just refresh my memory of how bad it was. After all, I found new things to appreciate about it's predecessor- is it really crazy to think I might have done the same with this...? Yeah, no, I know. Insane. I was just about hysterical when I saw Clooney in the Batsuit. He looks like George Clooney dressed up as Batman, not Batman himself.  It's so bad. He looks like a man in a clunky rubber suit with all the fake muscles and bat-nipples in the world. He's no longer what we're used to, he's no longer Batman. He's something... else The movie isn't even willing to push him into self-parody, Clooney languishes in this middle-ground of awfulness where he doesn't have room to act himself out of this restrictive rubber trap. The same can be said for literally everyone in the movie.

  Which is a shame because there are moments... very few and far in-between, but there are moments in the movie that look absolutely dynamic. If you can remove yourself from the dialog, the plot, and just about everything else and just look at these scenes...  they are crafted with technical skill and often an artistic eye. When Batman and Robin escape from Mr.Freeze's rocket by surfing out on the metal doors as the rocket explodes behind them? Perfect first example. It's a stupid scene. Batman had just said earlier, not three minutes earlier, that if the ship exploded it could kill thousands. Then he puts a bat-bomb on it and jumps the hell out. So you might be too busy facepalming to notice that regardless of the lazy writing, that moment actually looks... really cool. As well as an introductory shot of a mad scientist's lab in the amazon jungle, a car chase down the arm of a gargantuan statue, and more.

  These aren't reasons to watch the movie, but it's something I noticed which was nice. As well as the music, I love the theme. Yet aside from all that, there's not much to like about Batman & Robin. It plays out like a musical without singing and dancing. Everyone looks like they're in a stage play of Batman, Mr.Freeze is no exception. Trying to make his henchmen sing Christmas songs, while they're all freezing to death in his icebox of a lair. Lest I mention the opening, in the museum. Where for five minutes the movie is literally Batman on Ice! Complete with acrobatics, choreographed "fights", and some lovely spectacle. Ugh, agggh. It's so stupid looking. Batman and Robin consistently wait for bad things to happen. A villain needs to make a pun, so they stop... and let him, and then resume the chase. "You know what killed the dinosaurs?" Mr.Freeze asks... "The Ice Age!" he follows up. At this point, I'm not convinced a new ice age won't kill Batman and Robin as well if they take any longer to catch his shiny ass.

  I also realize that a review like this is objectively pointless. Nobody making the movie was trying to make a serious Batman movie. They were literally trying to sell toys to kids. What are we reviewing? The merits and demerits of a toy commercial? Who's the joke on here- honestly? Am I going to sit here and pick apart the acting in a toy advertisement? The plot? The seriousness? I'll say this, as a machine designed to sell toys, Batman & Robin succeeds with flying (neon) colors. There's no way a kid won't love this movie. Batman has a gadget for everything, and for a few bucks, your action figure of Batman can have all the same nifty gadgets. The movie displays everything possible. Bat-bikes, Batmobiles, Bat... skis? Which actually look like toys on screen. Nothing looks practical or functional. Things are loud and colorful for no reason except to make loud and colorful toys. I had the Batmobile from this movie as a kid. Who didn't? I also had the one from Forever, and I preferred playing with this one.

  From the zip, pow, whee sound effect scheme to the plot making excuses for new batsuits and bat-gadgets, to our villains looking like giant action figures themselves... Batman & Robin is a well oiled machine. Once you realize it is really ONLY selling toys to kids, you can neither hate it nor bash it. It exists. Oh well. It's good for a really painful laugh, and then you move on. Bruce Wayne seems like a closeted gay man here more than ever. He tries to explain to his long-time girlfriend that he's not the "marrying kind"... and it half sounds like a coming out speech. He seems largely immune to Poison Ivy's charm... I wonder why. Clooney probably just couldn't muster enough shits to give to make any part of his Batman performance serious. I don't blame him. I couldn't have either. I bet he realized he was only there to be an action figure for 90 minutes. That'd depress anybody interested in actually playing the dark knight himself.

  Sadly, not even nighttime is dark in this movi-er... toy commercial I mean. You've seen the bad press, you've heard the bad word of mouth. Even from a brand new point of view, Batman & Robin is beyond redemption. It will never been a good movie, or even a good Batman movie. The villains are toys, the heroes are toys, everyone and everything else is collateral damage. Aside from some really impressive sets, and a bombastic musical score, Batman & Robin is a movie that should have stayed in my childhood. Back where 9 year old me appreciated it. I will say this for this trainwreck of a production... sitting here, watching it, groaning at all the awful dialog, and averting my eyes from the over abundance of day-glo and neon... I found myself wishing, if only for a moment, that I was a little kid again. Because I know that as a little kid, this would still be a blast for me. When you're that young, any movie that gives you superheroes is golden. Batman & Robin was no exception, I loved it at that age, and for a moment I wished I was back then... loving it all over again.

  Not much else to say. Maybe in another 8 years or so, I'll watch it again. Not to review, not to criticise, not to groan at, but as a nostalgia trip. Like watching old commercials on youtube. It's an old friend from my childhood. The stuff nostalgia is made of. Does that make this movie okay? No, objectively it's still bad. We all know it. That hasn't changed while we weren't paying attention to it and I don't imagine it ever will. It's a weird chapter in this Batman franchise, but thankfully the last chapter. One that is easily skipped for those looking for good Batman movies- don't bother with this one. It's a frigid mess.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Batman Forever

  Batman Forever is neither as bad as I remember it, nor as good as I so badly want it to be. They had the groundwork for an immensely good movie, but spoiled it with a few bad apples. Does the good outweigh the bad? For once, I think it almost does. That's not to say though that this 1995 blockbuster is without some grave issues. First and foremost is it's sense of humor. Every movie has humor. It can be any kind of humor... Unintentional humor, dry humor, dark humor, black humor, gross humor... and then over-the-top Jim Carrey humor. I loath the inclusion of Jim Carrey in this, though it's probably not exclusively his fault... I can't imagine his one-liners and jokes being written at all. This stuff had to have been either ad-libbed on the spot by him, or pencilled in on the script somewhere, by him. I really don't think this kind of humor gets written. Jim Carrey is all over this movie like a stench. The stench of doom as it turns out...

  As I said with my review on Batman Returns, each Batman movie is both ranked by and remembered by it's villains. Believe it or not, it's my firm opinion that they've gotten Batman himself right 7 out of 8 times. (both Burton movies, this movie, and then the three Christopher Nolan movies). So the ruling stick by which we measure most of these movies is the villains, and ohhhh my god, these are the worst. Yes, Batman & Robin is overall a much much... much worse movie, but that was a sinking ship. This was a damn cruiseliner. You can understand the villains being god-awful in Batman & Robin, because everything else was god-awful too. Batman Forever, on the whole, is far from being god-awful. They got some things right. So in a way, the bar is raised in comparison to Batman & Robin. In fact, it's not bad at all. Yet, The Riddler and Two Face are without a doubt some terrible on screen presences.

  Firstly, they both play their roles with the seriousness of the Looney Toons. Val Kilmer has his brooding down, and everyone else is playing this straight... and then Two Face and Riddler over here have stepped right out of some twisted buddy comedy. What the hell? Riddle me this... which Batman villain kills wantonly, laughs all the time, paints everything in a specific colored motif, and gleefully delights in chaos? If you said The Joker, you're right, but this movie seems to think the answer is Two Face, because that's exactly what he's like in this movie. He's a cheap imitation of the Joker, only exceeding Jack Nicholson in how many laughs he can get in per minute. Tommy Lee Jones seems to be trying to upstage Jim Carrey the entire time.
Upstage. Jim. Carrey. Can you imagine for a second how over-the-top silly things turn out? Yeah.

  Jim Carrey himself makes little to no effort to even play the part. He's playing Jim Carrey. The funny noises, the one-liners, the physical humor, the innuendo, the pelvic thrusting, the annoying laughing... ugh. All of it. They bought Jim Carrey... they got Jim Carrey. This is NOT how the character of The Riddler should have been. Regardless whether or not he was different in the comics, the simple fact of the matter is that he's annoying on screen. Worse than John Leguizamo in Spawn. How he ended up being listed in dozens and dozens of reviews as the "sole highlight" of the movie... it... it hurts my brain. He's amazingly annoying every second he's on screen, providing only slight glimpses of true sinister behavior, it's ultimately lost behind his comic routine.
Both villains here seem to be comic relief, both competing to eclipse the other in how many gags they can pull off. The worst part about it, is that they clash with the quite serious and dark tone of the rest of the movie.

  I can't say those two are the only bad apples in the bunch, but they're the outright rotten ones. What most people don't remember is that this is the first movie that put the nipples on the batsuit. It was more prominent in the next one, but still. Regardless, I like the Batsuit a lot this time, more than the previous two. It's really cool looking. Moving on. The next bad apple is Nicole Kidman as Dr.Chase Meridian. Let me spell that out for you... D-o-c-t-o-r Chase Meridian. Doctor as in professional psychologist. Yet she behaves like a hormonal teenage girl with a full-on Batman fetish! It's an obsession with her to the point where she uses the bat-signal just to summon the caped crusader for some alone time. She throws herself at him atop the police station like a desperate lonely housewife. It's ridiculous and pointless and I can't tell if Batman is turned on or confused, like the audience. Probably both. She doesn't come across as mature, strong, or intelligent. She's the worst of all the love interests in the franchise so far. Yet she makes a serviceable damsel in distress... so there's that. At least?

  Kidman is just under Carrey and Jones as the third worst bad apple, but not as bad. Though I can't believe Alfred actually says she's "wise" at one point. She's confused and man-hungry. She ends up not knowing whether she wants Bruce Wayne or Batman. This actually causes Bruce some turmoil. He has a Clark Kent complex over the crazy chick with the badly written lines which she legitimately seems to be rushing through. Anyways, she tapers off as the movie goes on and her total screentime isn't that much, which is good. She adds nothing to the movie anyways. Now lets start in on the positive. I think Val Kilmer is a fantastic Bruce Wayne, and a great Batman. He looks badass in the Batsuit, and dapper as Bruce Wayne. The fight choreography is actually fairly solid, I'd argue the best in the franchise thus far. The gadgets are sleeker and shinier, and the henchmen are a dime a dozen.

  There's plenty to like in Forever, from how they handled Robin's origin's, which in my opinion was done quite nicely- to his dynamic with Bruce Wayne. Great stuff that's often overlooked. Granted, it is hard to see that there are some perfectly good performances, action, and dare I even say... nuance, but it's all there. It's just outshined (literally) by all the bright neon and CGI renditions of Gotham. I really dig the look of the film, even if it is a bit too colorful. It's cheesy, but in a goodway. Like a Will Smith summer blockbuster. Nobody goes in expecting high art, but if you let it, it can really be enjoyable. The same reasoning can only be applied because there are actual merits to this movie. You can't tack on the 'summer blockbuster' excuse to anything and get away with it. (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Last Airbender, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I could go on...)

  Granted there are some silly parts... the villains seem to magically come up with random motif ridden hideouts and elaborately decorated lairs overnight, and Chris O'Donnell is a bit hard to accept as Robin at first, but I think he tries his damnedest to be sincere and authentic in the role. His pain and desire for revenge ends up seeming more genuine at times than Jim Carrey's evil streak ever is. Val Kilmer has his moments of stiffness, and the script calls for some hokey little gags, but the qualities of the actors behind the protagonists shines through (with bright neon, of course). I felt like most of the cast and crew were legitimately trying to make a cool Batman movie, and I'll be damned if it isn't at least really entertaining. There are some shots in this one, visually, which rank among some of my favorites in the entire franchise. Batman leaps off some tall structure to catch up with Two Face and his goons down below, and the camera follows Batman down as his cape glides him down with style. Not to mention the heroically gothic theme adds a sense of urgency and adventure to the movie, I found myself humming it long after the credits rolled.

  This movie has plenty of actual good acting, and some genuinely exciting moments. It's fun, so much so that it meets it's own flaws head on. It's neither overshadowed by it's shortcomings, nor does it ever completely overcome them. It's on the level with them, which means it's still a fun movie if you can accept it for what it is. Batman Vs. Jim Carrey and Imitation Joker. Which actually sounds pretty crazy. I had a good time with Batman Forever, and I think it's easier to digest than it's predecessor. It also really tries to get into the character of Bruce Wayne. Thus far it's the first movie in the franchise which tries to understand really why he's Batman, and the psychology behind it. Granted, it's handled with kid gloves... somewhat, but it's still interesting. In the attempt, if nothing else. There's also some recurring imagery which I found striking and meaningful. Overall, there's more to chew on than anybody would like to admit.

  I know half the internet might wanna burn me at the stake for ranking one of the Joel Schumacher directed Batman movies over a Tim Burton one... but in my humble opinion, Returns and Forever are completely on par. I just prefer Forever. Tough. Deal with it. I think it deserves a second look. After Batman and Batman Begins, Forever is now my third favorite Batman outing.

Batman Returns

  I never enjoy this one as much as I always like to think I do. Yet, of all the times I've seen it I think I've enjoyed it most this time. Burton's sequel to his own smash hit is something of a head scratcher though. It's too funny, and not in a good way. The humor is bleak and nasty, even gross and unsettling. This isn't Batman. This is Tim Burton. The climax of the movie has Danny Devito's Penguin, directing an army of literal penguins- all with missiles strapped to their back to go and blow up Gotham City. I still to this day can't swallow that. It looks silly, it is silly, it breaks the movie for me. Yet on the other hand, we have the best on screen portrayal of Batman and Catwoman together in the same movie. Do you hear me Dark Knight Rises? Do you?

  Unfortunately, this is more the Penguin's movie than it is Catwoman's, which is even stranger to me because the only real reason to have a secondary villain in any movie with Catwoman is so that we can have a larger scale danger behind Catwoman, and maybe include a subplot where she struggles between teaming up with Batman, or you know... killing him. Yet this movie has the spotlight on Penguin, something like... 75%? It's not pleasant, but I don't imagine it was supposed to be. Let me stress this though, it's really uncomfortable to watch. The Penguin waddles around in leather work boots, and the filthiest long johns you've ever seen, complete with sweat stains, and what I'm 90% sure is skid marks. I don't even want to know. This is a far cry from the monocle-wearing, suit-clad Penguin we all know that goes wuaghhhh wuaghhh wuaghhh. This is a disgusting sewer cretin that's more mutant than mob boss.

  It doesn't work for me. Not a bit. I heard that at one point Christopher Lloyd was being considered for the role, and thinking back to him in the Addams Family movie... I would've preferred him. Not that Devito was bad, but casting Devito lent the role to a nastier tone. Can anyone see Christopher Lloyd being asked to do the same things? I have no doubt the role would've reverted more to 'mob boss'. Yet, that isn't Tim Burton. Burton wanted a cadre of characters who are strange and weird and genuinely freakish. Batman included. Speaking of, he's better this time around. I can't put my finger exactly on how, but off the top of my head... improved fight choreography, new gadgets, tweaks to the costume, et cetera... Keaton is as great as ever and seems to have real chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer.

  The two have sparks between them (or maybe just a lot of rubber and latex) in or out of costume. Pfeiffer is a great Catwoman, sexy, scary, unnerving. She's not a thief though, not that I recall. I remember her causing a lot of mayhem, trying to get revenge... but no stealing, per se. Wasn't that Catwoman's whole thing? She was a cat burglar! Hence the literal cat motif.  Alas, it seems the writers and Burton are less concerned with faithful adaptation and more with just creating really frightening characters. In fact, the movie was so violent and sexual that McDonalds backed out of a happy meal toy deal. Damn. Batman and Catwoman's scenes together play out like a... gothic leather/latex fetish reel. Not saying that's bad, clearly we've finally found out what turns Batman on.

  As for the violence, Batman still kills people. He straps a bomb to a bad guy's chest and drops him down a manhole or something. Boom. Batman struts away, off to punch another henchman or something. Yet, he protests when Catwoman wants to kill the man who's been trying to murder her the entire movie. Whaaaat? Also, Penguin pretty much bites a guy's nose off, complete with on screen blood spray. All these things... just add up to a movie that doesn't quite feel right. Penguin doesn't even seem all that evil until the end, Catwoman just seems like a crazy lady with an identity crisis, and Batman just seems confused a lot. These villains are nastier than they are evil, they feel weird for the sake of being weird.

  Batman takes a backseat to pretty much everything else going on in the movie. I'm also pretty sure Christopher Walken as the evil industrialist Max Shreck gets more screentime than Keaton as Bruce Wayne. In the end, this is a hurried movie. Yet, just like it's predecessor, Batman Returns has pacing issues. It has fits of intensity then long moments of characters just being... odd. Plotting, planning, sitting around in dimly lit rooms, brooding. This is the stuff the Tim Burton Batman movies are made of. You either dig, or you don't. I dig. Yet, while this one was a much bigger effort, with a lot of the rough edges from the last one sanded down, I don't feel like it's necessarily better. It's good, but not great. The tone and the weirdness almost put me off entirely.

  Batman himself is still great though. The gadgets, the fighting, the brooding. All of it. However, in a franchise that focuses more on it's villains than it's hero, you wonder if that's enough. Everyone distinguishes the movies by the villains. "Is that the one with the Riddler?" "Nah man, that's the one with the Penguin." "Oh, yeah that's right." Nobody says "That's the one where Keaton's Batsuit looks a little better." It just doesn't happen like that. If only the villains were on par with Batman himself, this one had the potential to surpass the last one, but in the end... it's content to simply be... weird, dark, and gross. It's one ultimate saving grace is the fact that after spending so much time with such disgusting and strange villains, you want Batman to swoop in and save the day, and isn't that the whole point? To have villains you want the hero to stop? Thus making the movie incredibly watchable, but... little else.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


  Batman is a big deal to me, seeing as how I saw it after Batman & Robin, and then also after Batman Forever. I was a 90's kid. Not an 80's kid. My dad also felt it was too dark for me as a youngster whereas the ridiculously neon stylings of Batman & Robin was a natural progression from my early childhood favorite: Batman: The Movie. So after years and years of camp and cheese, my dad bought me Batman. It was nothing short of a revelation. A revelation I can imagine being nothing short of a cultural phenom when it came out. Comic book movies don't have to be lighthearted or campy. Brilliant notion.

  Batman takes it to the extreme for it's era. It's less concerned with flashy action scenes, and more concerned with the oddities of reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne (Keaton) and the psychotic proclivities of The Joker (Nicholson). It's more concerned with style and awe instead of story and pacing. Batman has fits of intensity, and then long sequences of socializing and investigating. Characters brood over newspaper clippings or TV monitors, they lurk around preparing for their next encounter. Plot-wise, Batman is tight as a drum. Story-wise, I feel it leaves something to be desired.

  I don't feel like Bruce Wayne has much of a character arc here. We follow him around as he goes sorta nuts over reporter Vicki Vale (Basinger), but it seems like he's only peripherally interested in her. Alfred seems to be far more smitten with the concept of Bruce settling down than Bruce is smitten with anything but being Batman. He always seems preoccupied or deep in thought. Although he does eventually realize that he should invest in a relationship with Vale, the realization hits him with the impact of someone remembering where they left their keys.

  This whole situation does end up producing one of the movie's best scenes. But you wonder how he got to that point, emotionally. He's been such a champ at being detached thus far. Then again, this is why I love Keaton as Bruce Wayne. His performance is odd, aloof and weird, and deserving of a better plot- not a cliche romance that honestly adds very little to the movie. This is not a substitute for an actual character arc. He starts and ends the movie in the exact same emotional state. He learns nothing, he doesn't grow as a person, nada. Yet... I think this is simply because Batman himself is not the focus. The villains are. They will always be, at least until Batman Begins. However, the movie's strengths far outweigh these weaknesses.

  Batman succeeds where virtually all it's successors utterly fail. Gotham city. Gotham and Batman are inseparable. You can't stick Batman in California and maintain the same tone. Batman inhabits Gotham City the way a bat inhabits a cave. It has to be dark, creepy, and have danger lurking around every corner. Gotham City here is not just New York dressed up as Gotham, it's been built from the ground up. It looks like something out of a dark and twisted dream. Old and new architecture are present, but they clash. It isn't a smooth blend of old and new, the new industrial architecture is like a cancer, ravaging Gotham. Steam vents and smoke stacks sprout from the buildings like insidious weeds in a dying garden. This city was crafted behind the scenes, it wasn't just a set that they put together. There are matte paintings, miniatures, and all kinds of effects used to bring Gotham to life.

  They understood that Gotham had to live and breathe, just like the dark knight himself. It shows, and the end result is nothing short of breathtaking. As a backdrop, the city is a fantastic stage for the plot to unfold. Double dealings, dirty cops, mob bosses, and of course the caped crusader himself taking no prisoners. It isn't really fair to slight the movie about the romance subplot, because I also think that it is interesting to measure how Bruce Wayne interacts with women. The freakier they are, the more interested he is. I mean... he can't possibly have normal tastes. No way. Batman is not the mask, Bruce Wayne is. Bruce has no time for the mundane, and as actor Robert Wuhl remarks at one point in the movie, the rich are odd "because they can afford to be." Well, Bruce is so rich, he can not only afford to be odd, he can afford to be Batman.

  Batman himself is brought to life wonderfully in this movie. He's dark, violent, odd and memorable. The casting of Michael Keaton has gone down in history as one of the riskiest casting choices ever, and one can see why. He doesn't look like a Batman at first glance. Hell, he doesn't even look like a Bruce Wayne. Yet, Keaton inhabits the role with a very dark distance about him. He seems a million miles away whenever he's Bruce Wayne, and as Batman he has a violent fire behind his eyes. Nicholson is still the best Joker, gleefully delighting in the chaos and the mayhem he causes, something Heath Ledger's Joker never did. Ledger's Joker is far more deadpan, much less hysterics. Which work in the Nolan movies, but here...? We needed Jack Nicholson's insanity. It's perfect.

  Between Batman and the Joker we have a gaggle of gadgets and guns and henchmen and vehicles and... it goes on and on. It's ridiculously fun, as most of the movie is. There's no denying that. From start to finish, Batman commands the viewer's attention with an out of step time period, and a gothic art deco style that one simply can't place. It's a comic book brought to life. That's all the explaining I've ever needed to do. In the translation though, it does lose a few things, and reinterprets a few other things. It adds a connection between Batman and the Joker that... seemed odd and tenuous at best, but I guess it completed this little circle they had going of "you created me and I created you". I'm not a huge fan on that point, but eh. It doesn't change that much about either character. Worse things have happened. Like... Batman & Robin.

  Anyways, despite it's sparse action, and style-heavy proceedings, the movie is still careening towards the inevitable showdown, which doesn't disappoint. The movie is big on spectacle if nothing else. Not the sort of Michael Bay spectacle we've all come to expect from summer blockbusters these days... but a sleek, gothic, stylish brand of spectacle. Then again... this is directed by Tim Burton. It's a fantastic movie to look at, and is a true experience. To date, despite it's shortcomings, I believe it's the best Batman movie, and it also happens to be my favorite Batman movie. In the process of writing this, I've also been watching it's sequel, Batman Returns... contemplating whether or not I want to write a review on it. But you can be sure that if I do, it'll be at the same Bat-Time on the same Bat-Channel!

The Challenge

  Now here's a movie that makes collecting VHS worthwhile. The cheapest most available copy of this movie is $40 on ebay. Not including shipping. Some heathen went ahead and uploaded a VHS-rip to Youtube a while ago, but there's something about owning movies like this that just automatically make you better than people who don't. Not really. I kid, but it's certainly really cool. I always seem to have on hand, an armada of cool movies most people I know haven't seen. Introducing someone to something they'll like is always a great feeling. Whether it's food, a movie, a band, a book, even a video game. It's an awesome feeling. In part, it's why I have this blog. To introduce people to movies I think they'll like. I think you guys will like this one. Enter: The Challenge.

  I actually bought this from a friend of mine. He runs a store here in Pennsylvania called Jay and Brian's Excellent Video Store. One of the coolest places to go if you dig movies, period. Now as far as I know, this movie isn't even available on DVD, so the tape itself is pricey as I pointed out above. They happened to have a copy for $25. A veritable steal. Trust me when I say, it was totally worth it. The movie is about an out-of-luck ex-boxer named Rick (Scott Glenn) who's offered a ton of cash by a Japanese man and his sister to covertly bring a valuable sword back to Japan for them. Rick agrees, and unknowingly ends up in the middle of an age old feud between two bitter brothers. A feud that seems destined to end in bloodshed!


  I love old ninja movies, old samurai movies, old Scott Glenn, young Scott Glenn, ninjas in general... samurais in general... samurai swords... swords, swords plus Scott Glenn... Scott Glenn with sword vs samurai with sword? Perfect. Okay okay, I'll stop. Yet if any of that sounded remotely appealing, you should probably watch this movie. Scott Glenn is a typical cocky American fighter. He comes across like a poor man's David Carradine in just about everything, yet for some damn reason I like Scott Glenn better. Like... by far. So watching him learn the ways of the samurai and go through some crazy shit was really fun. His performance really carries most of this movie. Not gonna lie.

  The first two thirds was almost straight drama, a few chase scenes here and there. Nothing much to speak of in terms of spectacle or action. Yet the drama is tense and suspenseful. It's directed with laser pointed efficiency by director John Frankenheimer. He does a masterful job here. Alas, Rick is consistently pulled back and forth between both brothers. One a simple sensei with a dojo and a philosophy couched in the old ways, and the other a billionaire businessman with a compound fit for a G.I.Joe villain. It should be fairly obvious which one is the villain. Yet I found myself at times mentally putting myself into Rick's shoes. What does he care about either side?

  The sensei is aloof and devoid of any sort mentor-like warmth... and the businessman, although his methods are ruthless... he's willing to give Rick a huge chunk of change to deliver the sword to him. From this perspective... it's no contest. Rick ends up seeing that the meager sensei is an honest and hospitable person. He ends up devoting himself to learn from the sensei, and in due time becomes a trusted student. The arc is nicely handled, even if we have seen it a billion times. Also, a movie like this simply would not be complete without a romance subplot. It might've been leaner without it, but they used it to decent effect to give the plot a kick in the butt when it needed it.

  If you've seen The Hunted with Christopher Lambert, this will seem a little too familiar. Fortunately though, The Challenge scratches the itch that The Hunted presented. The Hunted might have had a tighter pace and a little more action sprinkled throughout, but it felt fairly basic. I can't explain how The Challenge feels any different through the first two thirds of the movie... but it has charisma, and it has Scott Glenn. They both feel a little basic I guess, but The Challenge was clearly building up all this tension and drama for a hell of a climax. The Hunted's climax felt par for course, but The Challenge went straight up Delta Force on me.

  Rick and his newfound sensei storm the enemy's fortress to rescue a damsel in distress and settle the brotherly feud once and for all. It's so awesome! The snappy editing shines through, highlighting the action scenes in a way we just don't get anymore. This movie was made with the right people, in the right era, and in the right way. The drama, tension, and charisma all bubble to the top in the climax. The movie ends with a bang and one of the best sword fights I've seen in long time. It's interesting to watch Rick fight in the movie, because clearly he's adopted the skills and ideals of the samurai, yet unlike so many other movies in the same vein, Rick is still a cocky American fighter. He throws punches in a sword fight, and uses whatever he has around him when he's cornered like he's in a bar fight. It's great.

  The movie itself is a most excellent find, I'm glad I bought it and I'm glad I saw it. It was worth the money I paid for it, and I readily suggest it to anyone looking for a good east meets west movie with Scott Glenn, swords, and a badass climax.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

  I'm a comic book nerd, yes. I have boxes of comics, true. Yet I wasn't the least bit familiar with Guardians of the Galaxy when I heard this movie was coming out. I didn't make an effort to acquaint myself with their paperback adventures before I saw the movie either. Yet, damn. The trailer made the flick look like a lot of fun. A rag tag team of mercenaries and outlaws who've banded together to stop a ruthless space-tyrant from destroying the entire galaxy...? Hell yeah, sign me up. I love movies like that. If this is tl;dr for you, just believe the hype. 'Guardians delivers on all the promises the trailers made. It's incredibly fun, action packed, and full of heart. Go see it.

 Ooga chaka. Ooga, ooga. Ooga chaka. The words have become nothing short of a mantra for fans of 'Guardians. The song by Blue Swede was first connected to this movie by one of it's trailers. It was catchy. It worked. It got the song stuck in everyone's head, and subsequently... the name of the movie along with it. Yet, what I didn't expect, what I wasn't prepared for, is how much better that song works in the context of the movie.

  The lead of the movie, is a guy named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). In a way, he's like a walking, talking, time capsule. When he was 9, he was abducted by aliens. So since then apparently, he's been kicking around the cosmos being a 'legendary outlaw'. He calls himself "Star-Lord". One of his most prized possessions is his old Walkman cassette player. He only has one tape, labeled "awesome mix vol.1". I'm not really spoiling anything here folks, there's so much more to all of this that I'm intentionally not revealing, but trust me when I say I am getting to a point here.

  Quill is a man out of time and without a family, so when someone takes his Walkman from him, and starts listening to Hooked on a Feeling, he goes to get it back. Clearly about to get his ass kicked, he still manages to say "Not Blue Swede man, that's MY song!" Quill is protective of his Walkman like nothing else in the entire galaxy. It's more than a cassette player to him. You'll see why. But once we understand that, we realize that when he says "that's MY song!", he's defending one of the last sacred ties he has to Earth. It adds this whole nother layer to his character, as opposed to him just being a generic Han Solo knock off. He's defensive as hell about his things, and a little vulnerable because they're his last connection to Earth. I love it. I feel as if I've gotten a little sidetracked though, but I can go right into talking about the soundtrack from here.

  "Awesome mix vol.1" provides the songs for the movie, and dear God, it's fantastic. It's even better how they incorporated all these classic songs into the movie: through the main character's Walkman and his old mixtape. It's perfect. Perfect. Not to mention, refreshing. I love hearing these songs, and to have em all in a fun space adventure like this could've been a tacky disaster, but James Gunn knew what he was doing. He infuses Guardians of the Galaxy with an ever-present sense of retro pop-culture. Our hero isn't a Captain America type. He doesn't take time to solemnly contemplate his life, he's content to believe he's an amazing heroic outlaw while he sings along to Come and Get Your Love.

  But "Star-Lord" is just one fifth of this team, crashing into the picture with no measure of tact but plenty of style is Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a genetically modified Raccoon, and Groot seems to be a large... sentient... plant. Thing. Either way, they're a ridiculously fun duo who have real onscreen presence. It's easy to forget these two are computer generated. The actors doing the motion-capture and voices for them, (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) are simply great. Rocket and Groot could've easily been relegated to simple comic relief by a lesser director, but Gunn knows these two have a lot of heart, and he does them both justice. So much so, I was misty eyed at a certain part towards the end.

  Next up is Gamora. (Zoey Saldana) Again, this could've been such an easy character to get wrong. I can't get into her backstory too much without giving away plot points I'd simply rather not.  Suffice to say, she's a character who grows throughout the movie into someone we end up genuinely caring about. When she starts to open up to the other protagonists, we also start to warm up to her. Saldana brings her endearing toughness to the role as only she can. She seems to have an amazing penchant for playing alien females who learn to tolerate a brash and immature lead. Hmm...

Lest we forget Drax (Dave Bautista). Whoever wrote his dialog deserves a handshake. Drax got his fair share of chuckles, without becoming comic relief. In fact, that can be said for everyone in the cast. It's just really snappy and witty dialog. Drax is no exception. He's a hulking badass who simply wants revenge for the death of his wife and kid. He's very direct about this and more than anyone has to learn how to rely on teammates. What's interesting about Drax is that he cannot grasp the concept of metaphors. He is 110% literal about everything he says, all the time. There's a moment when he opens up to the others and you can just feel the raw sincerity in what he's saying. Kudos to Bautista for taking those extra acting classes upon finding out he got the role. That kind of dedication and passion really shows.

  And it shows in the entire cast. Everyone is totally committed to bringing their A game. Chris Pratt deserves special mention though. Going from a purely comedic persona, to something of a real badass is no small feat. He has infectious charisma, perfect comic timing, and a mean glare that could burn a hole in a Stormtrooper. Not to mention he has sculpted his body to fit the hero look. So much kudos to Pratt. He's a fantastic Star-Lord, and I look forward to seeing lots more of him in the future. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the villains. Lee Pace plays Ronan the Accuser.  He has palpable on-screen presence and manages to chew enough scenery to come across as a truly evil bad guy. He can't help it if he's the most 2 dimensional thing in a very 3 dimensional picture. He serves his purpose. Be evil. He does it well.

  Then, playing the Emperor to Ronan's Darth Vader riff is Josh Brolin as Thanos. His performance is all too brief, but he has a lot of gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. When he shows up, it's chilling. You clearly get the vibe that he is not one with whom to mess. Which brings me to my next point, the visuals. They're simply fantastic. There has to be at least a cool dozen scenes I wanted to freeze and somehow produce wall-sized posters of so I could stare at them all day. Visually, this movie is the best kind of eye-candy. It's not just full of computer generated ships and lasers, it's all put together on the screen with artistic flair. These guys knew what they were doing. There are moments in the movie that are downright gorgeous to look at. They literally leap off the screen in IMAX 3D as well. Which was put to great use here as I never felt that I was looking at a flat image, there was a great amount of depth and quite a few pop-out scenes that never managed to feel pretentious.

There's probably a half dozen things I've neglected to talk about, but overall Guardians of the Galaxy is a ridiculously fun movie that overcomes any flaws it might have had with charm, grace, beautiful visuals, spot-on humor, and incredibly fun action scenes. It's the most fun I've had rumbling around in space since the original Star Wars. It even manages to be more fun than say, Serenity. In a mad scramble looking for movies to compare this to... I couldn't even come up with an adequate shortlist. Too many space faring movies are dark and droll. This is a movie with the all the right ingredients to put the magic back into Saturday matinees. One of Marvel's best movies so far. Hands down.