Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Retro Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

 (editor's note: After last week's Retro Review for The Dark Knight Rises, the Cap'n realized there was a series of Blogorium posts from 2008 that never made the transition from our old stomping grounds to the new one. As a result, it seemed like a good idea to share some other reviews that had been otherwise "lost" over the past four years).

We've gone a long time without Indiana Jones having a new adventure. In the time between Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we've had to make do with imitators like National Treasure, Sahara, and The Mummy. All of them were kind of cute, kind of stupid, but they weren't Indiana Jones movies.

What I'm here to tell you may not make you happy, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is also not quite and Indiana Jones movie. It's pretty close, but if you had a problem with the seemingly endless exposition of National Treasure, then this movie isn't going to sit well.

That being said, there's a
LOT about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I like. I was 100% on board with the movie for the first half of the film, and then something happened. Things shifted gears and it stopped being an Indiana Jones movie; instead, it felt like someone was trying to make an Indiana Jones movie and got about half of it right.

By now, I'm guessing most of you have or are seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This is good, because I need to talk *SPOILERS* and they're the kind of spoilers that most of you clearly don't know about.


as I was saying, almost everyone at work and in front of the Grande last night did not know the following:

- The movie takes place in 1957
- Indiana Jones is fighting the Russians
- The Crystal Skull belongs to an alien
- Yes, there are aliens in the movie (plural, although one is a corpse)
- There is a UFO at the end of the movie (really)
- Various other random things like Shia LeBouf IS in fact playing Indiana Jones' son, and Marion IS the mother, and John Hurt is NOT Abner Ravenwood.

I don't like being one of those "laundry list" spoilers because it feels kind of like "ha ha! I've seen it and you haven't!" Early on into the preview screenings of Episode III people were posting bullshit reviews, but as soon as the actual reviews came flooding in, bloggers and internet critics all used the same phrase as "proof" that they actually saw Revenge of the Sith. It was that retarded "code" whatever that Palpatine uses to kill the Jedi. It was stupid then and things like that are stupid now.

BUT, when the nine of us that saw KOTCS last night were trying to explain how we felt about the movie, it was clear just how little everyone knew. I was "shush"'ed for saying the alien and the UFO at the end were stupid, because nobody knew what the movie was actually about. Hell, we didn't actually know, and I think I knew more about the film than anyone else did going in.

So for those of you that didn't leave, yes, the crystal skull belongs to an alien that makes up one of the thirteen aliens in
El Dorado. Yes, the city of gold was created by aliens. This is actually not the stupid part, to be honest. This stuff was different, but far from too weird for Indiana Jones. I know a few people that didn't like the replacement of religious artifacts with sci-fi elements, but Indy does even say in the film "it depends on who your God is."

Just remember we're talking about the same series of films where the Wrath of God causes people to melt, and where Shankara stones can burn the hand of a Kali Priest. It's really not that outlandish.

In fact, as I said, the first part of the film is 100% on the level Indiana Jones adventure. Everything from the opening in Area 51 (that's where the Ark went, if you were wondering) to Jones surviving a nuclear test in a refrigirator and being blacklisted as a communist and having a pretty awesome motorcycle chase with Mutt (Shia) is just fine. I was totally into the movie.

Then they go to
Peru, and there's this shift. First things seem okay, but Jones slowly becomes less and less involved in things. On several occasions he stands next to someone looking at a map or something carved into a wall and says "this means this, which can translate to this word, which can also mean this." then another character will say "just like the blah de blah" and Jones says "Good!"

As the film goes on, this happens more and more, until the heroes are wholly removed from the action. Not like "tied up while the
Ark is opened", but like "stand there while the mystery solves itself and then repeat something they said ten minutes ago".

The second half of the film suffers from a more recent story problem that Steven Spielberg's been having: explain basic concepts over and over again so that even the dumbest person in the audience says "I KNOW ALREADY!". It plagued A.I., Minority Report, The Terminal, and War of the Worlds, and it's so bad in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that I became detached, especially in the second half.

It wasn't the monkeys or the giant ants of the waterfall you could not possibly survive; no, these are all things I expect from an Indiana Jones film. Even the bad cgi couldn't derail me (whoever invented digital motion blur needs to go ahead and try again), because it was inevitable. The jungle chase was still okay with the fakery because just enough of it was still real. The constant referincing of other Indiana Jones movies and the terrible Marcus Brody "blowjob" joke didn't even bother me. The problem was all the damned explanations!

Everything that happens after Indy and Mutt leave the
U.S. is like National Treasure. If they aren't directly involved in an action sequence, we have to listen to people talking about what this clue means or what that riddle means, and then they SAY WHAT THE ANSWER IS INSTEAD OF JUST DOING IT! Do you know when Indy says "The Shield is the second marker" in Last Crusade? Right after they open the Knight's coffin, not while they're in the library or in Elsa's suite. While they're doing what they need to be doing, and then they continue doing things.

National Treasure is so fucking long because every single time Nicholas Cage finds a clue, they spend another ten minutes talking about the clue. It gets so bad that John Voight even makes fun of the repetitiveness of the story in the movie! What makes Indiana Jones all the worse for this is that there are some genuinely great scenes in between all this unnecessary exposition.

When Indy sees
Marion again, I can't even describe how awesome it is. That big grin on her face and the really goofy reaction he gives makes it seem like old times again. Even the bickering, most of which feels like Last Crusade, is honestly pretty amusing. I chuckled anyway. Apparently Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had a hand in writing that scene, which may be why it works so well.

The scene in the quicksand with the snake shouldn't work, but Harrison Ford sells it so well that it does. When Indy and Marion and Mutt are in the truck, it feels like Indiana Jones again, and so does the ensuing chase. But all of this is punctuated with unnecessary "what this means" talk.

The alien at the end wouldn't be so fucking stupid if it had anything to do with what Indy and company were doing, but it isn't. They just leave and then hang around while Ray Winstone slowly dies like the henchmen early in The Mummy, and then they kind of mosey out of the flooding temple. Not run, mosey.

Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett is hanging out with the crystals statues that then bond together into this alien that sort of stands there while everything is sucked into "another dimension" (according to the suddenly lucid John Hurt), and then she kind of catches fire and then dissolves in a PG version of what happens to the vampires in Blade. Then the spaceship flies off into the "space between spaces", because apparently Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriter David Koepp couldn't commit to them actually being from outer space.

I know I'm recapping, but it's leading to the point at which I totally lost hope that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would ever be a real Indiana Jones movie: the last explanation. Harrison Ford seems to get stuck with most of the "howlers" of bad lines in this movie, but nothing takes the cake like "the Mayan word for gold is actually treasure, so they weren't talking about gold. What it really meant was that the treasure was knowledge."

At this point, David starting laughing so hard that many of us also cracked up. It was too much, even for an Indiana Jones movie. People who tell you that all the movies are this stupid might want to watch them again. As someone who studied the "worst" film in the series
*, The Temple of Doom, I can tell you that the "fortune and glory" talk at the end is nowhere near as bad as what Jones says on that mountain. Not even close.

It probably sounds like I'm bagging on the movie, which makes me feel bad. I honestly enjoyed the movie. I certainly didn't hate it or think of it as a terrible film, just a silly one. It IS a silly movie, one that has some amazing parts and some really stop dead in your tracks awful parts. It sounds terrible to say I don't regret seeing it, because that makes it sound like Star Wars prequel talk, and this is wayyyy better than Episodes 1, 2, or 3. It just could've been better than it is, and that's kind of why I'm bummed.

So should you see it, now that I've told you most of what happens (I haven't actually. I left out some really cool moments in
Peru and other incidental things in the beginning)?

Yeah, I think you'd enjoy it. Understand that this is not Raiders of the Lost Ark, and nothing ever will be again. Know that Harrison Ford brought his a-game and it shows in long stretches. Shia LeBouf? He's actually pretty good as Mutt, and he gets a couple of nice moments in the film. Cate Blanchett is pretty crazy in the movie, and when she has something to do, it's cool. She's awesome in the beginning of the film.
Marion has a handful of great scenes. The action is still great, and Spielberg still knows how to film it in a way today's action directors can't.

Whatever you do, don't go in expecting the movie to suck. There are plenty of goofy, silly, and stupid things that happen that could easily pull you out. Take them in stride, and remember the dinner scene in
Temple of Doom. Remember the seagulls in Last Crusade, or "no ticket!". Let it happen to you, and maybe you'll be all right.

If you want to see it, call me. If I'm not working, I'd be willing to watch it again. Like I said, the first hour is awesome!

* while it's really neither here nor there, Last Crusade is actually my least favorite. I've come to appreciate Temple of Doom for what it is.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Summerfest 4 Recap

 I know, you're thinking "Wait, what Summer Fest? How did I not hear about this?" Well, the truth is that Summer Fest 4's gestation has been long in the conceptual phase and sudden in its transition to reality. The Cap'n didn't really know when (or if) Summer Fest was going to happen this year. After last year's abortive attempt to get things off the ground, this year's marathon of all things schlocky and horror came together so quickly I barely had time to contact friends in town, let alone ones from further away.

 Also unlike previous Fests, I limited Summer Fest 4 to one day, which had its pros and cons. The downside is that, as usual, I programmed more movies than we had time to watch, but the upside is that we ended up with all killer, no filler. I'll get into a breakdown of what we watched shortly, but as Summer Fest 4 was a consensus "hit," I may have finally landed on the formula five years in to its existence.

 Horror Fest was always designed to showcase classic horror films, creepy flicks, and generally crowd rousing flicks throughout horror history. Summer Fest was designed, in concept, to be a looser affair - we would watch horror comedies, B-movies, ridiculous failures, and "what the hell were they thinking?" movies. Summer Fest introduced us to Blood Car, Terrorvision, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, ThanksKilling, and Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, as well as noble failures like The Descent Part 2, Uncle Sam, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, My Bloody Valentine 3D, and Alien Apocalypse.

 For a while, I tried to mix in more recognizable horror and slasher fare into summer programming, with mixed results. The Friday the 13th films are a natural fit (summer camp), but The Prowler didn't work so well, the legendary Troll 2 fell flat, and while Creepshow and Shaun of the Dead were fun, they felt out of place. This year, by hook or by crook, I decided to just go crazy with the picks, and as you'll see, they epitomized what's great about Summer Fest.

 The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 - Just to clear things up immediately, this is the sequel to the original The Hills Have Eyes and not the sequel to the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Made in 1984, right after the surprise success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven apparently decided to cash in on his horror clout by writing and directing a sequel nobody was asking for.

 Where do I start with The Hills Have Eyes Part 2? Should I mention fact that Bobby and Ruby, two characters from the first film, return for no real reason. Bobby doesn't even go back to the desert, so the scene where his psychiatrist tries to convince him to is just an excuse for a flashback to the end of The Hills Have Eyes. Meanwhile, we DO follow the rest of the Yamaha Dirt Bike Racing team (with their "Super Formula" racing fuel) into the desert and down the same unmarked road because they forgot about daylight savings time!

 Ruby (the member of the cannibal family who did escape) is all grown up and Beast (the dog who attacked Michael Berryman's Pluto) join the team for no apparent reason, although it does mean we get a DOG FLASHBACK once the team's bus runs out of gas and they find an abandoned (?) mine. Of course, it's not abandoned, because Pluto is joined by Papa Jupiter's brother, The Reaper. They promptly steal a dirt bike to separate the team and then start killing them. But NOT eating them. No, Reaper likes to kill people and then dump them down a mine shaft (Pluto tells Ruby that before her character just disappears).

 Look, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 is a terrible movie. There's a major character that is blind and while we may not have been the most attentive audience members, we didn't realize she was supposed to be blind until halfway through the movie, just before she says it. Honestly, it seemed like Craven forgot he needed to make it clear she couldn't see, so suddenly a character who was walking around a moving bus with no problem is groping around the mysterious cabin late in the movie (but climbing down a ladder and up a rope despite not knowing where they go). Oh, and she's also psychic. Sometimes. This is as unnecessary a sequel as they come, but we had a blast trying to make sense of the mess.

 Carpool - A short film I first saw at the Nevermore Film Festival, a young woman is harassed by her boss until he accidentally dies and she tries to sneak the body out. Things compound as witnesses get in the way and her lust for murder grows. I think it's a little bumpy but overall pretty enjoyable.

 The Galaxy Invader - I first heard about this from Red Letter Media, who holds it up as a great "bad" movie, and I have to concur. Don Dohler's ridiculous movie about an alien who lands in the woods near the most dysfunctional hillbillies and yokels Maryland can produce. The alien isn't even that hostile, as he happily leads a college student and his professor into the woods after they rescue him. For a "Galaxy Invader," he (it?) only behaves with hostility when a gang of backwoods psychos try to capture / kill him.

 In truth, the "Galaxy Invader" isn't the most interesting part of the movie, as the perpetually dysfunctional Montague family provides most of the entertainment. Joe, the father with a t-shirt that has three of four large holes in it, chases his oldest daughter into the woods with a shotgun after she accuses him of ripping off her boyfriend's father. And it's not the first time he's tried to KILL his daughter after an argument at the breakfast table. It's a good thing that Joe and his 40-50 year old son JJ find the "Invader," shoot him, and steals the power source for his ray gun.

 Joe decides to sell it to Frank Custor, a dubious guy with a habit of smoking a magic cigar (the size constantly changes), drinking a can of Busch (unsolicited product placement), and wearing a hat that doesn't really fit. Instead of buying it, Custor talks Joe into putting on a flannel shirt (holes still showing) and going to the local watering hole to find more yokels to hunt the alien, who steals the power source from JJ (but doesn't kill him). In all honesty, the nonsensical domestic drama is more of the focus in The Galaxy Invader than, well, a Galaxy Invader, but the cheapness, bad acting, shoddy direction and cheesy special effects make it worth watching after kicking back a few.

 Tub - I don't want to say too much about Tub because it's better that you find this short film online and see what happens when a guy accidentally knocks up his... bath tub.

 Rise of the Animals - I must admit that I'm a little surprised that Rise of the Animals is regarded so poorly on IMDB and by user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes*. After watching the pre-credit sequence, I had hopes that it would be the low budget splatterfest of the Fest like Blood Car and ThanksKilling before it. It's not quite on the level of those two, but Rise of the Animals has a "can-do" attitude, a healthy sense of humor, some amusing puppet work, and sparingly bizarre CGI to keep moving things along. I'd put it up with last fall's The Puppet Monster Massacre as a no-budget wonder that uses the cheapness to its advantage. It has some memorable characters, decent gore, and we had a good chuckle as it continued to tell a story of animals deciding to start killing people, often in horribly violent ways.

 Blarghaaahrgarg - From the makers of Banana Motherfucker, a short I was unable to catch at Nevermore (but Neil has been raving about) comes the story of an exterminator who ends up facing down a, uh, booger monster. A booger monster with a ravenous appetite, terrible digestion, and a propensity for murder. It's a fast paced, gross, and funny, even for people who hate reading subtitles.

 Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies - Ah, The Asylum. They specialize in releasing knock-offs of movies playing in theaters (like Transmorphers and American Battleship) designed to trick people too lazy to pay attention. I call it "Grandparent / Uncle" syndrome, where family member who vaguely remember you wanting to see Transformers and see a movie that looks kind of like what they heard, so they buy it for you. They also were responsible for Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, a former Summer Fest movie.

 To be honest, I don't plan on seeing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter but when it was suggested we watch this instead of Demons, the consensus was "well, why not?" I mean, if it sucked, we could turn it off. We didn't turn it off, but that doesn't mean it didn't suck.

 Sure, I could nitpick the anachronisms (the concrete in Fort Pulaski and corrugated steel in Savannah where the zombie outbreak happens) or make fun of the misuse of the Secret Service or the idea that Lincoln mentors both Pat Garrett and a young Teddy Roosevelt while secretly fighting zombies in Georgia - much to the chagrin of Stonewall Jackson (I am not making this up) while John Wilkes Booth is a double agent in the Secret Service as "John Wilkins." And Porkins, I can't forget Porkins. I could mention the single shot rifles that don't need to be reloaded, or the secret prostitute that Lincoln has a history with (but her daughter isn't Lincolns, never fear, they wouldn't go THAT far).

 But instead, let's talk about the fact that early on it's established that Abraham Lincoln kills zombies with a collapsible scythe he keeps in his jacket. He repeatedly tells his Secret Service that shooting zombies in the head makes too much noise and they should find ways to sever the head, but he seems to forget about the only cool weapon in the entire movie for most of the movie. Lincoln is even shooting at the undead during the climactic battle when they blow up Fort Pulaski to wipe out all the zombies in Georgia and save the union. Then he makes the Gettysburg address, is bitten by a zombie, and sends Booth a letter asking him to assassinate him. That is why we continued watching, because writer / director Richard Schenkman clearly spent fifteen minutes on Wikipedia researching history before making this film. Kudos to him, because it's probably better than most Asylum films.

 But really, what is that saying? It's saying that fake beards go a long way. Yup.

 The Beach Girls and the Monster - No short film in between this time, we went straight for the money! And by money, I mean a sixty-six minute movie with so much padding I think it could have been an episode of Scooby Doo. See, the gyrating beach girls who hang out with surfers and beatniks and at least on ventriloquist are being attacked by a monster who strangles them, slashes them, and then leaves their breathing corpses in the sand.

  Well, one beach girl. There is a lot of jiggling and gyrating, in the tame way a 1965 movie can be, but most of the plot is about Richard Lindsay (Arnold Lessing), the son of Dr. Otto Lindsay (Jon Hall), who also lives with his stepmother Vicky (Sue Casey) and Richard's sculptor friend Mark (Walker Edmiston), who injured his leg in some kind of accident before the movie begins. Richard abandoned his plans to follow Dr. Lindsay as a Marine Biologist and instead bums around on the beach with Mark, and his girlfriend Jane (Elaine DuPont), who is probably much younger than he is.

 Vicky tries hitting on Richard even though he's probably also older than her (but younger than the even older Mark, who looks like he's pushing a midlife crisis) but is spurned. Dr. Otto doesn't like those beach girl "tramps," but mostly stays in the background. In a beach monster suit. SPOILER.

 Anyway, with all of that dramatic tension, we still have time for an extended opening credit sequence of dancing bikini girls (set to the music of Frank Sinatra, Jr.), a gratuitous surfing montage (from a projector Mark shows Richard), another dance sequence, a song and dance sequence complete with bad ventriloquism (he has a fake beard on) and baby-voiced singing, that climaxes with the beach monster killing a guy who looks like Roy Scheider, Mark getting blamed, and then Mark stealing a police car.

 It all climaxes with some of the worst rear-projected driving I've ever seen but is pretty damn funny in a "what were they thinking?" way. Again, not a good movie, but one that was fun to watch.

 A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master - So the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street movie was by far the highest quality film we watched on Saturday night. What does that say? Well, that The Dream Master is actually pretty good anyway, and director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Deep Blue Sea) took what could have been just a generic sequel opportunity and used his mad Finnish powers to make an inventive, visually interesting, sometimes clever expansion of the Freddy-verse.

 Also, it has a karate montage early in the movie, and the guy who does it loses to an invisible Freddy in his dream (budget shortfall).

 So yeah, Nightmare 4 is no A Nightmare on Elm Street, or even Nightmare 3, but I feel like The Dream Master has a lot going for it. After Freddy kills off Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Fake Kristen (Tuesday Knight filling in for Patricia Arquette), he then sets his sights on Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and her friends, but what he doesn't know is that the shy girl is going to be tougher to kill than he expected. Definitely tougher than the girl he turns into a cockroach, the girl with asthma he sucks the air out of ("want to suck face?"), or the guy he invisible karate's to death.

 But seriously, Harlin brings some energy to the film and comes up with some interesting visuals, like the kaleidoscope tunnel, the chest of souls (including naked Linnea Quigley in her only Elm Street appearance), and the dream loop that Alice and hunky Dan find themselves in as Freddy goes roach motel on Debbie (Brooke Theiss). He may even foreshadow Deep Blue Sea by turning Freddy's hand into a shark fin (Deepest Bluest) during an unconventional beach assault dream. It's definitely the most MTV-friendly of the Elm Street movies, but by the time you get to a third sequel I'm impressed that The Dream Master is as enjoyable as it is.

 Also, Nightmare 4 is notable for the soundtrack collaboration between Sinead O'Connor and MC Lyte. I did not see that one coming. Oh, and the Fat Boys with rapping Freddy. I saw that coming.

 So that was Summer Fest 4, which does not have a poster. Maybe I'll come up with one, but in the meantime it was a good time had by all. The cheese factor was exactly what it needed to be, and there wasn't an outright stinker in the whole bunch. Mission accomplished!

* To be fair, Rise of the Animals 3.3 on IMDB is rated higher than The Beach Girls and the Monster and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Some Helpful Tips for a Summer of Video Daily Doubles!

 Greetings, Educationeers! Cap'n Howdy with another summer-filled edition of the Video Daily Double. As we all know, summer is past the halfway point, and those of you who aren't in one of those "year round" schools (yuck!) are stepping it up to make the most of what's left. Well, let's remember not to push it too hard, otherwise you won't be able to enjoy lounging around and making mischief!

 Be mindful in your slacking!


 Our first film, Let's Play Fair, will help you maximize your time with others and make sure they'll still want to play again tomorrow!

 Our second film, Sleep for Health, is for any of you trying to squeeze in as much fun as possible by not getting to bed. Now trust me, you'll have all of your teens and college years to do that, so make sure you're prepared for future sleepless nights.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Retro Review: Hellboy II - The Golden Army

 (editor's note: After last week's Retro Review for The Dark Knight Rises, the Cap'n realized there was a series of Blogorium posts from 2008 that never made the transition from our old stomping grounds to the new one. As a result, it seemed like a good idea to share some other reviews that had been otherwise "lost" over the past four years).

I wish I knew what to tell you guys about Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I really do. But I don't even know how I feel about it right now, so it's hard to start hyping it up or tearing it down. That's the problem, really: it's not really bad or really good. It just is, and I'm not sure that's what I or any of you were looking for.

Hellboy II is a labor of love for Guillermo Del Toro, and believe me, it shows in every frame. There's some amazing creature work in this film, and not just during the Troll Market. Johann Krauss is, despite the lack of discernable face, body, and the voice of Seth McFarlane, a wonderfully realized addition to the cast. Everything you like about the first movie is totally intact and probably even better, but I feel like there's something missing.

For one thing, I never bought Hellboy's moral dilemma about whether he defended the right side. It's true that the movie plays grey with the "humans vs fantasy creatures" storyline, but not really as far as our main characters are concerned. The "hard" decisions they have to make don't really have any impact during this film whatsoever, so the gravity of their choices (particularly Liz's) don't register unless there's another Hellboy film in the future.

On the other hand, it is really silly, which is a good thing. When I say silly, I mean Mignola silly, in the same way that conversation Hellboy has with the kid in the first movie has a goofy tone. There's a scene with a drunken Hellboy and Abe that has no right to be as amusing as it is, because in any other film you'd be groaning instead of chuckling.

The action is similarly well staged, especially the fight at the end with The Golden Army, and I particularly enjoyed the way Krauss gets involved. The Troll Market is a veritable visual feast of things to look at, and many people will be pausing their Blu-Ray's of Hellboy II just to dissect this scene. The Elemental sequence, for as short as it actually is, is something to behold, and as close as the movie gets to where I think Del Toro was trying to go thematically.

I can't imagine telling anyone who enjoyed Hellboy to avoid this movie: there's simply to much to see and to savor in this film, and I haven't even talked at length about Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, or Doug Jones (who gets to be the body and voice of Abe Sapien this time). I didn't mention the "tooth fairy" sequence that takes the "Ants" sequence in Indiana Jones and turns it up to 11, but some surprises should be left to discover.

What I wonder about Hellboy II is that if I wasn't too overwhelmed by the myriad distractions visually, because the story didn't make much of an impression to me. There's an Edward Scissorhands tone throughout the film, and a sense of melancholy, but it just doesn't register where it needs to with Hellboy, Liz, and Abe. Something happens to Abe over the course of the movie that never gets a proper addressing at the end, partially because Del Toro opts to go for an upbeat, albeit bizarre coda.

So yeah. I don't know how I feel about the movie. It seemed like the people I saw it with didn't like it, which also doesn't help in sussing out the movie. Judging by the not-so-large audience for an opening night, the dreaded "box office numbers" may bury this film before its time, or worse still, it could damn the film with faint praise, as I feel I am.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Four Questions Raised by The Dark Knight Rises (and why they don't really matter)

 IMPORTANT SPOILER NOTE: This entire piece is predicated on readers having seen The Dark Knight Rises, because it spoils practically all the major plot points including twists involving characters and the end of the film. If you've seen the film or have no desire to see The Dark Knight Rises but are curious, please continue. If you haven't seen the film and plan to, please wait. I'll still be here when you get back.

 I was not aware that as a member of the online reviewing community that I was supposed to hate Christopher Nolan and everything he makes. Whoops. As someone who enjoyed Following, Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception (only Insomnia doesn't really do anything for me), I guess I failed the "Christopher Nolan is overrated and he's a sloppy filmmaker and I hate him and he sucks and people who like him are slobbering fanboys etc" demographic. My bad guys, I didn't get the memo.

 From the negative reviews of The Dark Knight Rises, I can tell that people who didn't like the movie REALLY didn't like it, but I have to say that I once again disagree with you. I don't think it's a consistent a film as The Dark Knight, but I found it engaging, emotionally fulfilling, and a fitting closer to Nolan's version of Batman. Whether or not it reflects your particular interpretation of what Batman should be, I think that the film succeeds in closing the larger story Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer were trying to tell using Bruce Wayne.

  That said, I can understand that some of the negative reactions to The Dark Knight Rises (and Christopher Nolan's filmmaking style in general) are based in legitimate complaints about logic lapses, continuity gaffes, and plot holes. I totally get why people are pulling their hair out that the majority of audiences don't seem bothered by these problems when they could (and should) derail most movies. Rather than providing an expanded thesis for why it doesn't matter to The Dark Knight Rises, my central argument is this: certain logical inconsistencies are forgivable in a film that succeeds thematically and emotionally. Also, I'm going to point you in the direction of Red Letter Media's Half in the Bag. Their review of the film succinctly covers why The Dark Knight Rises overcomes normally crippling problems, even if I get why many online critics can't abide by that.

 So here are four perfectly fair questions raised by scenes in The Dark Knight Rises that don't have answers to speak of, and why most people never even think twice about them. I'm going to try to explain what the problems are resulting from the questions, how the film doesn't acknowledge them, and why they are ultimately irrelevant to the success of The Dark Knight Rises. They aren't the only issues that could be raised, but they are four tied directly to the way Nolan constructs the story I imagine infuriates some viewers.

 1. Why does the chase scene following the Stock Exchange hostage crisis turn from day to night in eight minutes?

 The Problem: So Bane and his mercenaries attack the New York Gotham City Stock Exchange* and initiate a program using Bruce Wayne's fingerprints to make a series of bad trades, bankrupting Wayne Enterprises. As the police surround the stock exchange, it's clearly daylight outside, and at best could be argued to be dusk. Unless Gotham's stock exchange closes later than the New York Stock Exchange (4pm) or the sun sets earlier in October (identified during the Gotham Knights football game that happens shortly thereafter), it's hard to argue that Gotham City went from daylight to pitch black in the 8 minutes it takes to run the program executing the trades.

 Why It Doesn't Matter: Nolan gets away with this lapse in continuity and editing because most of the chase scene between the police and motorcyclists happens in a tunnel, thus allowing Batman to sneak up on the cyclists with the Batpod using his power shortage device introduced earlier in the film. In fact, two policemen (a veteran and a rookie) are surprised that the lights go out, and the older cop sees Batman and tells his partner, "Son, you're in for a show tonight!"

 Because Batman is so associated with darkness and the subsequent GCPD police chase of Batman (allowing Bane to escape) is more dynamic at night than in daylight, it's acceptable in visual terms to cheat the sunset during the tunnel sequence so that when Batman emerges from the other side, the news footage Selina Kyle and Jim Gordon see (separately) is at night. The image of the lone Batpod on the highway pursued by red and blue lights is a more lasting image.

 The sequence culminates with Batman appearing to be trapped in a dark tunnel downtown, where acting Commissioner Foley and John Blake believe they have him trapped. The dark alleyway disguises the Bat, Wayne's new vehicle, allowing for the surprise reveal that transitions from the chase to Batman's rescue of Selina Kyle from Daggett's thugs (including Bane). So the transitional lapse, while noticeable, is forgivable because it provides a more dynamic and exciting chase sequence in short order.

 2. Why does Bane drop everything he's doing in the midst of an elaborate plan to ruin Gotham city to fly halfway around the world to drop Bruce Wayne in the prison he grew up in?

 The Problem: After Bane cracks Batman's mask, breaks his back, and then walks away, Selina Kyle leaves the sewers and the camera fades to black. It fades in on Blake seeing Kyle try to skip town and he catches her at the airport. After unsuccessfully trying to convince her the police could protect her from Bane, Blake admits he was looking for Bruce Wayne, and when he asks if Bane killed him, Selina responds "I'm not sure."

 The film then cuts to a series of images, partially blurred, of someone being carried over rocks in harsh sunlight, before Bruce Wayne wakes up in a prison cell with Bane leaning over him. Bane informs Wayne that he is "home" and that Bruce will suffer here, watching the mercenary manipulate Gotham City into destroying itself before he finishes Ra's al Ghul's mission from Batman Begins. But was it worth the effort to abandon overseeing the construction projects in the sewers to fly from Gotham City to India (where location shooting for the prison took place) just to drop off Bruce Wayne next to a TV screen? It's implied he's paying two of the prison elders (one of which is the doctor responsible for Bane wearing a mask) to keep Wayne alive, but was the effort necessary?

 Why It Doesn't Matter: Taking Wayne to the prison in the middle of a dastardly master plan seems like an impossible task, until you remember that before Wayne entered the sewers with Selina Kyle, Miranda Tate suggested they could "take my plane and fly anywhere," which Bruce replies to by saying "not tonight." That explains how Bane smuggled Bruce Wayne out of Gotham City and flew across the country. They "how" is less important than the "why" - Bane's punishment of Wayne is "more severe" because it mirrors his own exile, his own sense of loss and being unable to protect the people most important to him.

 It also removes Bruce Wayne completely from his comfort zone: not only has he been wiped out financially and lost Alfred's support (and presence), but now he finds himself physically incapacitated and spiritually broken. It also thematically ties into the opening of Batman Begins, where Bruce Wayne is introduced in another foreign prison, that time by choice. He was figuratively "rescued" from that "hell" by Ra's al Ghul, who invites him to the League of Shadows, so being exiled to another kind of "hell" by someone excommunicated by the League is dramatically appropriate. His ultimate escape from the hole is the final transformative act that brings Batman to the point where he's capable of overcoming Bane, so while it functions as a lapse in story structure, thematically the sidestep is appropriate and necessary to live up to the title The Dark Knight Rises.

 3. How does Bruce Wayne climb out of the prison well, and more importantly, how does a man with no money and no contacts get back into a heavily patrolled city with one entrance and frozen waterways without being noticed?

 The Problem: It's established early in The Dark Knight Rises that Bruce Wayne has been physically incapacitated from his activity in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. A visit to a doctor in Gotham Central Hospital (played by Reno 911's Thomas Lennon) ends with the information that Wayne has no cartilage in his knees, lingering shoulder damage, scar tissue, and minor brain damage from repeated concussions. The doctor indicates that he "cannot clear you to go Heli-skiing" before Wayne sneaks off to visit the injured Gordon. Wayne has to put on a knee brace that allows him to use his left leg without a cane, but there's not reason to believe that after Bane broke his back that they did not also remove the brace while stripping Wayne out of the batsuit.

 So you have Bruce Wayne with a protruding vertebrae, two knees without cartilage, and whatever additional damage from his fight with Bane (a visible opening on his forehead, broken nose, and bleeding lip), lying on his back in a prison at the bottom of a massive hole. The only way out is to climb up to a small walkway and then leap to another stone. If you miss, the rope holding you up does further damage to your back, not to mention the force with which you crash into the walls of the opening.

 After Wayne's back is adjusted - which I'm going to overlook to avoid making this section even longer, but let's say that it's dubious at best - and he hangs by rope for a week or so (long enough to go from five-o'clock shadow to scraggly beard) until he can walk, he immediately tries to scale the exit and fails. So he begins an intense exercise regiment, tries again, and fails. Only the third time, after he chooses to "fear death" and not use the rope, does he succeed. But how does a man with no cartilage in his knees pull off a combination of advanced rock climbing and leaping to escape?

 Moreover, when he escapes, how does he get from India (?) to Gotham City when it's been established he has no money and all of his friends are trapped under Bane's thumb. Furthermore, how does he even get INTO Gotham City when we only see one FEMA truck cross the bridge during the four months Wayne is imprisoned and there's no way to cross by water as the river is frozen over. It's established how difficult to cross the ice because Gotham citizens who choose "exile" over "death" in court (presided by the Scarecrow) are forced to venture out and face falling into the freezing waters. So the idea Wayne could cross that way is even more remote, yet he shows up to talk to Selina Kyle 23 hours before the nuclear bomb is about to detonate.

 Why It Doesn't Matter: This seems like an insurmountable problem, but the truth of the matter is that none of this is relevant to the narrative or the themes of The Dark Knight Rises. Escaping from the hole in the ground is a continuation of the "well" leitmotif from Batman Begins (complete with a flashback / dream of Thomas Wayne being lowered down to help young Bruce and asking "why do we fall?") and ties into to the title. Again, this is a film about the Dark Knight Rising, so it's emotionally satisfying to see Bruce Wayne save himself from his failure, even if the final moment before his leap includes a silly appearance by frightened bats swirling around him. Sure, he shouldn't be able to do it, but he does, and we as an audience cheer for the hero to overcome his lowest possible point.

 As to the "how" of Wayne getting back to Gotham City, I hate to say it, but it's not important. It's that he gets back, that he's able to forgive Selina and ask for her help, and that despite having the opportunity to escape, he returns to save his city from Bane. His appearance justifies the statement that he hasn't given Gotham "everything", "not yet." The logic of how he got there isn't as important thematically as being there, as being willing to sacrifice everything - including his own life - to protect the people of Gotham City.

 4. If Lucius Fox had more than one "Bat", then why didn't Bane find it while pillaging the Applied Sciences armory and use it against Batman when he returned?

 The Problem: So when Lucius Fox introduces the "Bat" to Bruce Wayne early in the film, he indicates that "yes, Mr. Wayne, it does come in black" and mentions that the auto-pilot doesn't work. He asks Bruce to work on the auto-pilot, and it becomes a running joke / plot point that it doesn't work, necessitating Batman to fly the bomb over the harbor and (presumably) being killed because he can't eject.

 But wait! At the end of the film, not only is there another "Bat" in the Applied Sciences armory - meaning that Fox didn't just paint the prototype black - and Fox is asking about what he could have done to fix the auto-pilot. So if there was another "Bat" in the armory, the same armory that Bane broke into and used to his own advantage throughout his occupation of Gotham City, how is it that no one ever found the other "Bat"? One can't even argue that they found it but couldn't fly it, because none of Bane's mercenaries would know how to use the Tumbler initially either (clearly they didn't know their Tumblers had Batpods or they might have used them in the final chase scene). Having another "Bat" would have removed Batman's aerial advantage and seriously complicated the final battle, so it might have benefited Bane to look a little harder.

 Why It Doesn't Matter:  Bane didn't find the second "Bat" because... well, I don't know. The psychological advantage of Batman having "superior air power" provides the audience two moments to be thrilled: 1) when Batman frees the GCPD from the sewers using the "Bat" and 2) when the "Bat" deactivates the cannon on a Tumbler as the GCPD are advancing on Town Hall, where Bane and the Blackgate inmates are waiting for a massive showdown. It also allows for the "Bat" to escape from missiles in a manner not dissimilar to Iron Man in The Avengers.Two "Bat"s would necessarily complicate the final chase scene, would remove Bane from his element as a ground-based brawler (who else would fly it?) and would be less interesting in the "beat the clock" detonation finale.

  Now, why introduce a second "Bat" at all?

 Okay, this is a bit trickier, because the reveal of the second "Bat" is tied into the final "twist" in The Dark Knight Rises. The scene only exists because we the audience need to know that Bruce Wayne DID fix the auto-pilot and therefore could have ejected before the bomb went off (despite the suggestive editing that made it look like he didn't). That way Bruce could theoretically have survived, replaced the Bat signal, amended his will so that Blake found the Bat-Cave, and the mansion would be a children's home (thematic tie-in to the beginning of the film). It holds up logically about as much as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle finding the exact cafe that Alfred went to in Italy and sitting at exactly the right table so that they would see each other. It's a dramatic device used entirely for the benefit of the audience, not for the internal logic of the film.

 I hope this helps explain why The Dark Knight Rises manages

 * This is a minor point, but it does speak to things that drive Nolan detractors crazy: no one in the production of The Dark Knight Rises makes any effort to disguise landmarks associated with New York City and Pittsburgh, PA, where filming partially took place. The Broad Street subway tunnel entrance is visible in a number of shots prior to and following the motorcycle escape by Bane, and the Saks Fifth Avenue is also on prominent display during the truck chase during the climax of the film. Meanwhile, no change was made to the sign on Heinz Field (digitally or otherwise), where the Pittsburgh Steelers play. The Steelers and former coach Bill Cowher appear as the Gotham Knights, and it's easy to pick out Ben Rothlisberger and other players during the National Anthem. Hines Ward appears to be playing himself during the kick-off return, as the name on his jersey hasn't changed. I guess it's possible that the crew thought comic book fans also didn't watch football, but this is an odd lapse of suspension of disbelief.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Retro Review (Part Two): The Dark Knight

 As I was preparing to put this retrospective of way back four years ago, I went digging to see what I wrote about The Dark Knight in 2008. The Blogorium existed in a proto-form at the time, mostly as a byproduct of a Myspace page I no longer update, so I knew I must have said something about the film. 2008 was the summer of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Happening, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe, all of which had accompanying reviews. But for some reason my write up for The Dark Knight never made the transition, so I thought I'd share it with you now:

The Joker Begins...

You have a bad day at the movies. Something you hoped to really enjoy doesn't go that way, and you feel bummed. You start doubting the ability of a movie to actually deliver what everyone says it does. Especially when the same people who loved that movie you didn't start ranting and raving about the second coming, arriving at a theatre near you this Friday. But you already have a ticket, because you hoped. Maybe you still have hope that one bad apple didn't spoil the whole basket. But you're still worried that you're being set up for disappointment again.

And then you watch The Dark Knight.

Folks, I'm not going to sit here and hype this movie up any more than you've already heard. By now you've fallen into one of two camps: 1) the die hards who will be seeing this no matter what, or 2) the casual viewer, curious about the Heath Ledger connection who will make up most of the matinee audiences.

The point is that both of you are already going to see it, so I don't need to tell you that of the four sold out auditoriums at the Grande tonight, I didn't hear one bad word about The Dark Knight. Not even lukewarm. I can tell you that The Dark Knight is exactly what you were hoping it would be but not in any of the ways you were expecting. Truthfully.

Yes, a BIG chunk of that comes from Heath Ledger's Joker. Neil has been saying for a few months now that the reason you see so many of the same clips over and over again in the ads is because they can't show you anything else. He's right, but not totally. While it's true that The Joker is an agent of chaos and does some truly heinous things on-camera, what Ledger and Christopher Nolan did with the character doesn't translate in "bite sized" clips. If you could hear one of his monologues about "where I got the scars", you'd understand. Or, will understand.

Or the magic trick. Jesus, the magic trick.

What may surprise many of you is how much of the film focuses on other elements, particularly leading up to why the Mob(s) hand control over to The Joker. The less I tell you about Two Face, the better, but let me say that Harvey Dent's arc in the film is possibly more interesting than Batman's, Gordon's, or even The Joker.

I know, I know; I promised no hysterics, or hyperbole. Once you've seen the movie you'll understand the "Oscar" push for Ledger, and I'm not exaggerating when I say he'd deserve it. No one's made this comparison to my knowledge, but it might help if you think of The Joker like Anton Chigurgh. The only difference is that he talks more and might be more terrifying for it.

There are so many things I'd love to tell you about The Dark Knight, but I think it's better you see it for yourself. Know that it's exceptional filmmaking, and while I couldn't possibly imagine calling it The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight is miles beyond Spider-Man 2.

A warning: Please don't take your children to see this movie. In fact, even though The Dark Knight is rated PG-13, this is in no way a movie for impressionable youngsters. The title is VERY appropriate, and the film is at times relentlessly bleak. The ending, while wholly fitting with the film, is not one of hope, and it doesn't give you the kind of thrill to see the next film (or really give you any idea who Nolan wants Batman up against). It's the ending that a film called The Dark Knight should have, but the middle and end have more than enough thematic material to traumatize the youngin's. Not to mention the Two Face makeup. Just a heads up.

So yeah, my batteries are recharged. I really want to see it again, and to figure out if The Scarecrow was doing what I think he was doing, or if Lucius Fox really did hint at Catwoman...


Okay, back to the future, and let's take a look at some reflections four years later, in anticipation of The Dark Knight Rises.

 Let's start with the last paragraph, because yes, there is a throw-away joke during the scene where Bruce Wayne is talking to Lucius Fox about the new armor, and Wayne asks about dogs. Fox says something to the effect of "Are we talking about Rottweilers or Chihuahuas?" before offering "It should work against cats," which if you want can be taken as knowing foreshadowing of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)'s presence in The Dark Knight Rises, although every review is making a point of saying no one ever calls her Catwoman.

 The other part, the one about the Scarecrow, came from misunderstanding what Jonathan Crane said after Batman ties him up with the Russian mobsters and imitation Batmen. Instead of taking his line about Batman's mental state not being "my diagnosis," as a snarky comment, I mistakenly believed that Crane was somehow behind the fake Batmen who show up before the Tumbler arrives. By the second time I'd seen The Dark Knight (which was about a week later), it made sense, but when I wrote that initial review there was some confusion about Cillian Murphy's cameo.

  Very quickly, while I couldn't possibly know that Heath Ledger was going to die when he did and the way he did, this initial review leans heavily on the "Joker" side of things. I was very impressed by Ledger, an actor I hadn't really paid attention to beyond Brokeback Mountain, and the execution of the Joker's "plan" was so much more interesting than Ra's al Ghul's in Batman Begins that I fixated on it. That, and the "magic trick," which comes out of the blue the first time you see it but I realize now was sort of the "Order 66*" of The Dark Knight: bloggers used it as way of proving they'd seen the movie.

 I want to clarify the The Dark Knight to Spider-Man 2 comparisons, because I think I know what I meant to say, but it didn't come out clearly at all. Spider-Man 2 is a great comic book movie, like X2 or Iron Man or even The Avengers. This is not diminishing those film in any capacity, but The Dark Knight surpasses great comic book movies and stands among great movies. It deserved its Academy Award nomination, even if there was no chance it was going to win (quick, who can name the Best Picture for 2008?)

 One of the reasons that I'm continually impressed by The Dark Knight, including this past weekend, is how well it works beyond being adapted from a comic book. Later reviews, particularly ones that arrived after the backlash began (one you can see being played out in early reviews for The Dark Knight Rises, but also Inception) pointed out that The Dark Knight is a lot like Heat or other Michael Mann ensemble pieces. It's more of a police procedural that happens to feature a guy dressed like a bat, a dude who wears "war paint" and self-inflicted scars (I think), and eventually a dude with a half-exposed skinless face.

 That's not to say it downplays the comic book component, but there's something about The Dark Knight that feels like Gotham City is a real place, with actual neighborhoods and city blocks and that functions without Batman. We spend a lot of the film with the police, Gordon's crime unit, the District Attorney's office, the Mayor (Nestor Carbonell of The Tick and Lost fame), and on the flip side, with the various criminal enterprises, headed up by the likes of Eric Roberts, Chin Han, and Michael Jai "Black Dynamite" White. There's even a Gotham City talk show hosted by Anthony Michael Hall (not actually Hall, but "Mike Engel") that figures into the second half of the film in a not-so-trivial way. Two ways, in fact.

 Compared to Batman Begins, the Joker's ultimate scheme feels miniscule but is no less important to the film. After all, he's already done the damage he planned for Batman - he killed Rachel Dawes and corrupted Harvey Dent - so what if a demonstration of human nature at its worst backfires? I like that it seems like something a guy who chooses to have limited means could pull off, and that his smaller acts of terror have more impact that Ra's al Ghul's sweeping attempt to level Gotham City ever did in Batman Begins. It helps to ground The Dark Knight in a reality that makes the crime more visceral, more potent. You don't need the splash of Jack Nicholson announcing that "This town needs an enema!"

 Oh, can I pick a nit quickly? It's something that sticks with me every time I see The Dark Knight, because while it doesn't need to be explained, necessarily, it might have helped to have a passing line between Gordon and Batman after he arrests the Joker to explain that someone knew Jim Gordon wasn't dead. It's fair to assume Batman knew, because why would he put himself in the position where the Joker had him dead to rights if there wasn't backup? Harvey Dent clearly didn't know, based on his reaction, and no one else involved in the escort did either. To be fair, this is Christopher Nolan using a cheat based on the assumption that because the audience doesn't know he's alive, it doesn't matter that no one else seems to. The surprise is for our benefit, even if the plan seems vaguely defined after it happens.
 Since the film and its villains were announced, I always assumed that The Dark Knight Rises would be more like Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, if only because there were continuous rumors that Liam Neeson would appear and accordingly Ra's al Ghul would be somehow involved in Bane (Tom Hardy)'s plan to be "Gotham's reckoning." I've avoided as many spoilers as I can, but I do know the film opens eight years after The Dark Knight, where Bruce Wayne is physically and mentally out of the picture as a result of Rachel's death and the deal he made with Gordon to cover up Harvey Dent's death. Beyond that, I know very little, but it seems like Bane is trying to finish what Ghul started on a broader scale than the Joker was ever interested in. That, or it's Knightfall.Then again, with Bane being involved, and Knightfall being what comic readers know Bane for the most, I kind of always thought it was going to be Nolan's variation on that particular arc. We'll see tomorrow.

 The Dark Knight is a movie I've watched several times over the last four years, and I find I continue to enjoy the film and discover little things here and there (I still love that the entire time we were watching Batman Begins we could see the Batpod, we just didn't know that's what it was). It's not just a better movie than Batman Begins, it's a damn fine movie period. Not just as a comic book movie, or as a sequel, but as a film in its own right, The Dark Knight works.

 * Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. If you look up early reviews, including Kevin Smith's, you'll see Order 66 mentioned in every single one of them, even if it's apocryphal at best in Star Wars lore.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Video Daily Double to Keep You Out of Trouble!!!

 Hello, all my brave Educationeers! I know that this is a big week what with the "Bat Man" movie coming out, which in my humble opinion you are probably too young to be watching but I'm not your parents. I am merely the proprietor of this Blogorium, and accordingly can only hope to steer you in the right direction with another Video Daily Double.

 Now since I know it's "cool" or "hip" and "with it" to emulate your comic book superheroes, and as it is still (hypothetically) impossible to actually become an "Iron Man" or a "God of Thunder" or a "Hulk" without wasting a lot of green paint, I suppose many of you are going to pretend to be the "Bat Man" and fight crime. But vigilantism is only going to get you in trouble with the police, and you don't have the benefit of being a millionaire playboy who can afford to trick them with your high tech gadgetry. Unless you are, in which case we are accepting donations here at the Blogorium. But anyway, let's make with the educating!

 Don't be a vigilante!


 Our first film, Fire and Police Service, should give you some idea of what the police and fire departments do, which is to say "things you do not need to be doing while wearing a mask."

 Our second film, Right or Wrong? - Making Moral Decisions, will help you with that nagging feeling that I'm just a sourpuss and a party pooper. These are important decisions, and becoming a vigilante is ALWAYS the wrong one. Always.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Retro Review (Part One): Batman Begins

 As some of you may know, the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy comes to a close this Friday with The Dark Knight Rises, and in the spirit of pre-gaming I decided to watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight again this past weekend. If each part is a stand-alone entry in a larger story, it makes sense to take a look at the first and second chapters again. That way, I can walk into The Dark Knight Rises with plot points and small moments fresh in my mind. After all, if we are to believe the hype, Nolan has tied all of the films together with his third entry.

 I had actually seen The Dark Knight more recently than Batman Begins (quite a few times more recently) so I thought I'd focus on the first film today, a movie that I enjoyed with a few caveats. At the time it did wonders to erase the memory of Bat-nipples and "ice" related punnery, but I can't quite go so far as to say that Batman Begins was a total success. I gather you've seen the film by now (it's been seven years and if you're even considering watching The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, I strongly urge you to) so rather than deal with a plot synopsis, I'm going to jump right into what I think works, what I think doesn't necessarily work, and some adjustments to my reaction after seeing it again two nights ago.

 First, let's look at what works:

 - Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne
 - Treating Batman like the monster in a horror movie for his first outing.
 - The supporting cast (including Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer, Mark Boone Junior, and yes, Katie Holmes)
 - Keeping the villains (mostly) simple: mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) with limited use of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson).
 - In general, the idea that most of the film is grounded in reality, including how Wayne gets his "wonderful toys."
 - The chase scene between the police and the Tumbler (which is admittedly surpassed in The Dark Knight using similar geography).
 - Keeping the retelling of the "origin story" short and to the point, and extra points for Joe Chill (Richard Brake) killing the Waynes (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart) instead of  Jack Napier / the Joker (I'm looking at you, Tim Burton!).
 - How little Batman figures into the first half of the film, and when he does, how Wayne uses each outing to improve his skills.
 - The hallucinations resulting from Scarecrow's toxin, especially when we see Batman through Crane's drugged vision.

 What doesn't work so well:

 - Ra's al Ghul's ultimate plan, which is of a James Bond villain caliber, complete with a super gadget, speeding train, and exposition spouting guy at waterworks who tells us the same things Gordon, Batman, and Ghul have already said.
 - The cowl for Batman just looks clunky. Sure, they address this in The Dark Knight, but this isn't The Dark Knight, so I have to dock it points for the suit being cumbersome.
 - The fight scenes are a little "meh" and not always easy to follow, from the opening Chinese prison fight to the League of Shadows ninja battle to Batman's final showdown with Ra's.
 - As much as I like Liam Neeson as Ducard / Ra's, it might have been more effective to keep "week one" of Batman's tenure devoted to Crane and Falcone. If you really needed to add someone else, Mr. Zsaz is already in the film but mostly underused.
 - When Ra's arrives, Gotham begins to look less like a real city and things turn into "movie" reality, where the train fight looks like a soundstage and so do all the streets it passes over. It's a shift from what made the film so interesting to the typical "comic book movie" showdown.
 - Setting everybody in Arkham free in the "Narrows" turns out to be basically a wasted opportunity, as the film quickly shifts Gordon and Batman back to mainland Gotham as they race to Wayne Tower.
 - Similarly, Rachel Dawes' arc as a prosecutor ends up being much ado about nothing, as all of the setup in her building a case around Falcone and Crane disappears so that Batman can save her three times. She doesn't even do much in the chaotic prison break, other than protect a little boy (future Joffrey Baratheon Jack Gleeson) and taser (taze?) Scarecrow.

 What I didn't mind so much this time:

 - Really, it's just Bale's Batman "voice," which is kind of a Clint Eastwood growl. It used to bother me and sometimes make me laugh but to be honest with you, I don't mind it distinguishing Bruce Wayne from Batman. That he doesn't use it consistently is still a peeve, but otherwise it didn't bug me.
 - I mentioned Jack Gleeson, now famous for Game of Thrones, as appearing in the film, something I didn't realize until I put Batman Begins on again. It's not a big part, but he does appear in the middle of the film and then again during the climax.
 - In light of where it goes in The Dark Knight, I no longer mind the sequel-baiting "Joker" scene that closes the film, and the discussion between Gordon and Batman about escalation really sets the stage for the next film.
 - This is total speculation, but I suspect that The Dark Knight Rises will have a lot more in common with Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, especially with early reviews citing Ra's al Ghul as an inspiration for Bane (Tom Hardy)'s master plan. Also, it drives the "full circle" concept home more than simply continuing the post-Harvey Dent saga.

 Okay, so Batman Begins is pretty much the way I remember it: a mostly good film with touches of great that I enjoyed a whole lot in 2005 and still dig today. I think its flaws are more evident than The Dark Knight's, a review I'll get to on Thursday, heading into the weekend of the Batman. In the Nolan filmography, I'd have to put Batman Begins before Insomnia but after The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Memento. It's more polished than Following, and this isn't a "favorite to least favorite" scale, because I think there are fascinating aspects about all of his films, but it's not a movie I leap to revisit (like the first four are). It's a solid reboot of the Batman story when it was desperately needed and it set the stage for a spectacular sequel.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Blogorium Review: Indie Game - The Movie

 Here's a great example of a documentary that takes a subject I wouldn't normally be interested in (the developers of independent games) and making an engrossing film that I thoroughly enjoyed. I guess between The King of Kong and Indie Game: The Movie, maybe I should rethink the whole "why would I want to watch a movie about gaming?"

 I guess there's a built in assumption I have based on knowing how boring it is to watch someone else play video games (or for someone to watch you) that this would somehow translate into a cinematic experience. I know, it's short-sighted and ridiculous, but when I first heard about Indie Game: The Movie, my initial reaction was "eh." Positive reviews kept coming and when the opportunity arose, I said "why not" because I do like to try out movies I wouldn't normally gravitate towards*.

 Not knowing much about the world of independent game developers (to be honest, I haven't really played that many indie games), I came in with no real expectations about what directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky would be documenting. Indie Game: The Movie showcases four developers of three games - Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, one of the most successful indie games ever.

 Team Meat is closing in on finishing their hotly anticipated game, with Refenes and McMillen working on either coast (Asheville and Santa Cruz) working feverishly to meet Microsoft's X-Box Live Arcade Game Feast promotion. The stress of taking the flash version of the gory, politically incorrect Super Meat Boy - which involves a skinless boy trying to save his bandage-covered girlfriend from and evil fetus in a jar - is wearing on Refenes, who is broke and has no social life to speak of. McMillen, the less socially inclined of the two, is nevertheless feeling the strain on his marriage as they reach the final stretch.

 Phil Lord's Fez, announced at the Independent Games Festival in 2008, is still trapped in a constant state of development four years later, and the anticipation towards his game is turning into open hostility. Lord and his one Polytron employee Renaud B├ędard have torn down and rebuilt Fez from the ground three times, but the conceptually fascinating game - a 2D pixellated character discovers the world is actually 3D - requires hand designed textures and its open-ended levels are difficult to explain to the waiting masses. With his former partner threatening a lawsuit, Lord is wracked with anxiety about debuting the long-awaited demo for Fez at the Penny Arcade Expo, but with his booth set up an attendees lining up to play it for the first time, he faces another nightmare: the Fez demo has a number of "game killing" glitches, forcing him to restart the game while players stand aside.

 Blow, who created Braid in a burst of experimentation and included his "deepest flaws and vulnerabilities" in the game, was met with acclaim upon release in 2008, but it came at a cost to the designer. Despite the accolades, Blow felt that reviewers and players of Braid were missing the deeper messages and themes of the game, and in his attempts to defend his intentions, he was treated as someone with thin skin who looked down on his audience, tainting his experience and success.

 There's a small moment when McMillen and Refenes are voice chatting on Super Meat Boy's release day, and Edmund says something to the effect of "do you remember that game Braid?" and Tommy laughs and says "yes." While the overall conversation is about the possibility of beating its sales record, based on the section about the reaction to Braid (including screengrabs of people criticizing Blow), it did make me wonder if Team Meat shared that opinion as well. (Another interviewee jokes that Blow "must have something better than Name Alert" because of his supernatural ability to locate any time he's mentioned online and post a comment.)

 Indie Game: The Movie is less about the development of the games than it is the people who make them and what drives them to devote so much time and energy. There's surprisingly little footage of coding, and other than a section devoted to Lord's in-progress design of Fez's background textures, the film is more about the four developers and their games are in the background (albeit an ever looming background for Team Meat and Polytron). Edmund McMillen's story about one his earlier games, Aether, mirroring how he viewed life as a child and then discovering a drawing his grandmother kept that validates him is touching. Lord, introduced through footage of winning an award for Fez in its conceptual state and through online interviews when he was "hot," is quick to put a human face to the guy being lambasted for not delivering his game fast enough.

 While it shouldn't surprise anyone that people are unfairly maligned online by their "fanbase," it is nice of Pajot and Swirsky to show us what all that piling of feels like to someone trying their hardest to make concept reality, and not blithely ignoring them or leading them on. Fez did come out in April of 2012, by the way - the film was completed before its release.

 So Indie Game: The Movie, like The King of Kong, is successful because the people behind the games are so fascinating. I've never been much of a Donkey Kong player, nor do I have an X-Box, so I can't play Fez or Super Meat Boy from the XBLA, but I will probably look into Braid (it's available on the PSN), and I did try the demo for Warp, one of the games that plays during the closing credits. Indie Game: The Movie was made possible by Kickstarter, and it's a fine example of a independently funded film that gave me insight into a world I might otherwise have overlooked. It comes highly recommended by the Cap'n.

* Okay, so that hasn't been the case lately; I mean, let's look at every review since this summer started. Clearly I need to get back on track with what you wouldn't normally see.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Trailer Sunday Presents the Films of Frank Henenlotter

Basket Case

Brain Damage

Basket Case 2


Basket Case 3

Bad Biology

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summertime Job Tips with the Video Daily Double!

 Good day to you all, my friendly Educationeers! As Cap'n Howdy promised, I'm keeping an eye out for you as you spend your summers wading in the waters of "gainful employment." Today's Video Daily Double (actually Triple!) brings you some great ideas on how to get a job, keep a job, and how not to make rash judgements about propaganda you might have heard. Let's learn so you can earn!

 The rhyme so nice I'm using it twice: Let's Learn So You Can Earn!


 Our first film, The Librarian, will help you learn why you always wanted to be a librarian. I know a few, and they're cool people. Actually, none of that is sarcastic, so you'll just need to come up with something sarcastic and pretend I wrote that instead.

 Our second film, Atomic Energy as a Force for Good, is dedicated to another friend who works in the NE industry and is doing his best to make sure it's a safe source for good. Also no sarcasm here, but any pro-nuclear film is going to generate its own unintentionally.

 Our third bonus film, How to Keep a Job, is probably going to be the most useful for you. Hint: don't pick your nose in front of customers. Or your boss.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Retro Review: Eight Legged Freaks

 Yeah. That's right. The summer of 2002 had a number of memorable films - Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Insomnia, Undercover Brother, The Bourne Identity, Scooby Doo, Lilo and Stitch, Minority Report, The Road to Perdition, The Kid Stays in the Picture, xXx, One Hour Photo, Signs, and uh, The Master of Disguise* - and I'm going to talk about a movie most of you forgot. Oh, who am I kidding, most of you never saw Eight Legged Freaks, so what you forgot is that a movie called Eight Legged Freaks ever existed. But it did, and among all of the other movies I saw in 2002, that was one of them.

 Actually, despite the fact that I haven't seen Eight Legged Freaks in, oh, six or seven years, it's still a better movie than anybody would have ever given it credit for. Think of it like 21 Jump Street - you know how all of a sudden your friends are raving about that movie even though when all of you saw the trailer you were like "eh?" Well, you aren't going to be as enthusiastic about Eight Legged Freaks but it is a movie that's much better than the trailer suggests.

 Here's the trailer, just in case you also wiped it from your memory:

  So yeah, the Men in Black-ish music, the dumb spider sound effects, and the presence of David Arquette is probably good reason to assume that Eight Legged Freaks would suck. I get that. But because this fell in a period where Cap'n Howdy still "watched everything," I went to see the movie with some friends, assuming at the very least we'd have some laughs and tear it a new one. Only that didn't really happen because behind the bland marketing is a well meaning throwback to schlocky giant monster movies from the 1950s.

 Yes, David Arquette is the star of the film, but it also has a respectable supporting cast that ranges from "wow, they were in that?" to "Wow! They were in a real movie?" For example, a post-Ghost World / pre-The Island Scarlett Johansson plays the daughter of Arquette's love interest, who is played by none other than Skinemax staple Kari Wuhrer (also in Hellraiser: Deader, Anaconda, Sliders and The Crossing Guard? Really??). Also appearing in Eight Legged Freaks is Doug E. Doug (Cool Runnings, Cosby, and Mo Better Blues?? Man, I have got to watch some of these movies again), just to remind you that in 2002 Doug E. Doug was still working. That's not meant to be a slight to Doug E. Doug, by the way, but I have a feeling more of you said "who?" than said "Wow! Doug E. Doug!"

 And look, I realize that this particular headlining cast (with the addition of a bunch of familiar character actors and Tom Noonan) isn't helping make my case but Eight Legged Freaks is actually a lot of fun. The cast is clearly having a good time while still taking the premise of giant spiders banding together to attack a small town seriously enough that the movie doesn't collapse on itself. Believe me, the idea that solitary creatures like spiders would wander around in packs (different arachnids, mind you, not even the same kinds of spiders) is enough to deep six something like Eight Legged Freaks, but the movie isn't trying to be anything other than a quasi-modern version of Them!.

 For some reason I don't see Eight Legged Freaks on television that much, which is weird because it wouldn't require much editing and it's the kind of movie that belongs on a Saturday afternoon matinee showcase on some channel... TNT maybe. I'd say Syfy but they're busy with their own crap like Camel Spiders (which borrows roughly the same formula of vaguely recognizable "stars" fighting a CGI monster menace). But that's just it: Eight Legged Freaks is better than Camel Spiders. You're going to enjoy Eight Legged Freaks more, and if you consider yourself a fan of Syfy Originals, there's no reason not to seek this movie out.

 Just don't seek to hard. I mean, it's not like it's going to be hard to find (check the bargain bins or markdown section at used DVD stores) and like I said, this isn't going to change your outlook on marketing in trailers or anything like that. Eight Legged Freaks is a enjoyable, if slight, movie that wants nothing more than to make you chuckle, and it mostly succeeds at that. Seriously, put down Camel Spiders and give this a shot. It's not like Camel Spiders or Arachnaconda won't be playing next week before the next Syfy Original airs.

 * Seriously, did you think I was going to say Halloween Resurrection?

Monday, July 9, 2012

So You Won't Have To: Cabin Fever 2 - Spring Fever

 Despite the title in question, I didn't actually approach Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever with the intention of tearing it a new one. It is true that I haven't heard a kind word about what could at best be called a "really unnecessary sequel," but the film was directed by Ti West, who made two films I really enjoyed (The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) and one I'm still looking forward to watching (The Roost). The version of Spring Fever released on DVD may not represent West's vision for the film (more on that in a bit), but I thought that there might be enough of his style left in Cabin Fever 2 that it could overcome the negative buzz.

 Boy howdy does it not. Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever just sucks. I'm not saying that Eli Roth's Cabin Fever is some kind of classic, but it's uneven tone is helped by some impressive gore and mounting tension in the mid-section. Cabin Fever 2, on the other hand, takes all of the offbeat comedic moments, removes all of the tension, and replaces disturbing makeup effects for an onslaught of gore and projectile blood vomit. It's a movie trying really hard to be funny and gross at the same time and feels like it desperately wants to be a throwback to 80s splatter flicks. That would be fine, but there's this fidelity to the first film (in particular, the goofy parts of Cabin Fever that don't work) that leaves the film a jumbled mess.

 Top billed Rider Strong (returning from the first film) is smashed by a bus before the opening credits roll, for reasons unknown. It turns out that the fact he sort-of survived the end of Cabin Fever and is hit by a school bus heading away from the middle of nowhere, North Carolina* to Springfield, where Spring Fever is set. His infected blood and guts being spilled all over the front of the bus is irrelevant because the water source his body was floating in at the end of Cabin Fever was the source for Down Home Water, a bottling company that delivers tainted product to the same school in question.

 We learn all of this in an animated section during the opening credits, just in case audiences a) didn't see Cabin Fever or b) weren't paying attention to the beginning of Cabin Fever 2. Seriously, while Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews, also returning) is being a goofball and insisting the bus driver killed a deer (one wearing a watch and shoes), the Down Home Water truck drives by right before the animated sequence starts, and then flashes back to the same scene just in case we didn't get it the first two times. Later in the film, Deputy Winston watches the truck driver (Larry Fessenden) start spewing blood and there's a flashback to the first Cabin Fever so that we're clear that Winston went through all of this in the first movie. That's 30 minutes into Spring Fever, by the way.

 Anyway, so we've moved away from the discomfort in juxtaposing city college students against dubious hillbillies (something Roth toyed with in Cabin Fever) and to generic "small town USA" with a high school prom, some outcasts, a jerk, his ex-girlfriend, and a few caricatures disguised as school faculty (no, seriously: the biology teacher [Angela Oberer] has a harelip and yells all of her lines). Now, Cabin Fever certainly had its share of stereotypical characters, but at least Roth played around a little bit with our expectations. Not only are the characters in Spring Fever barely more than "types" but they aren't the least bit interesting. It's hard to care about someone, let alone feel invested in their living or dying, when there's no one interesting on screen. Every opportunity to do something fun with them is squandered repeatedly.

 For example, there's an 80s styled montage of high school students going to a Disco-themed Prom that continues setting up that the villainous ex-boyfriend (Marc Senter) has a black belt by having him practice in his make-shift dojo (shades of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4). So we should expect some kung fu action right? It's set up not once but twice that he's into the martial arts, but instead he just beats one guy to death with a fire extinguisher and smashes his ex-girlfriend Cassie (Aliexi Wasser) in the head with a hammer. His idea of "fighting" the protagonist, John (Noah Segan), is to shove him around. Total waste of setup there, gang.

 In deference to West, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever was taken away from him by the producers and Lionsgate and was subject to reshoots and re-editing without his involvement. He asked to have his named removed from the film (in order to make Spring Fever an "Alan Smithee" joint), but since West wasn't in the DGA, his request was denied. How much of Spring Fever is West's and how much is the producers' is up for debate, but there are certainly chunks of the film that look like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers.

 Okay, so I'll give him a bit of a pass for not being involved in the final product, but I'm not seeing much of the movie that worked in the first place either. Even the West-ian tracking shots happen during scenes where characters aren't doing anything engaging, and there's zero tension in the film. This is coming from a director who excels at setting up tension. Instead there's non-stop gross out moments: a janitor pees blood into the punchbowl, the sidekick Alex (Rusty Kelly) gets a blowjob from a girl with braces and mouth sores and then later squeezes bloody pus out of his dick, and the aforementioned girl with sores is also a stripper with boils all over her breasts. By the time a biohazard team swoops in, The Crazies-style, to lock everyone in the school, I didn't care that the prom turned into a bloody vomit spewing chaos. That's supposed to be the major set piece of the film, I think.

 There are two moments in Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever that surprised me, and I don't know they it can be attributed to West or not, but they are the rare moments were the goofy tone helped instead of hurt. After Deputy Winston gets Toby (Judah Friedlander), the night guard at Down Home Water, killed, he decides he no longer wants to be a cop and runs away with his cousin Herman (American Movie's Mark Borchardt). While nothing that Winston does in the movie makes any sense, there is a moment where Herman is trying to bribe a police officer into letting them drive through a restricted area. He drops some money on the ground, and as the cop bends down to get it, Herman drops the silliest looking elbow drop you're likely to see and knocks the officer out. I will admit that it was so out of left field that I laughed.

 The other moment comes from something that doesn't serve any purpose in the story but is weird enough to mention: so it's set up in biology class that Frederica (Amanda Jelks), the "fat" girl, has a crush on presumptive Prom King Rick (Thomas Blake Jr.). Rick seems to be making fun of her in class, so when he invites her to come skinny dipping with her in the pool, we expect some high school humiliation of the "fat" girl by the "popular" kids. Nope; it turns out that Rick does want to have sex with her but then the flesh eating disease starts doing its thing on her and he's killed when he accidentally falls into the pool trying to fish her out. It doesn't have any bearing on the narrative (unless you count a quick moment when Cassie sees Frederica's corpse in the pool later) but was unexpected.

 Still, two moments do not a watchable movie make. Ti West fans are best of avoiding Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, as are fans of Cabin Fever and, well, most horror fans. DTV horror aficionados are going to have more fun with the Wrong Turn sequels than this, and its reputation as a forgettable unnecessary sequel is deserved. There's nothing you're going to get from watching this movie, and in all likelihood we'll never get the third film a superfluous animated epilogue promises (during Mardi Gras, no less). West moved on to better films, and Eli Roth has the satisfaction of knowing that for all of its faults, his Cabin Fever could be much, much worse. The proof is in the sequel.

 P.S. It's worth mentioning that Rider Strong (Cabin Fever), Larry Fessenden (I Sell the Dead), and Judah Friedlander (Feast) have a combined screen time of seven minutes in an 86 minute movie. Giuseppe Andrews is in and out of the narrative, Mark Borchardt has a slightly extended cameo, and Michael Bowen (Lost, Walking Tall) has a pointless role as the "gay for no good reason" Principal who also yells all of his lines. Don't let their names fool you in the opening credits.

 * I'm not positive it's ever made clear in Cabin Fever that the film takes place in North Carolina, or that I just know that it was filmed here. Cabin Fever 2 was also filmed in NC, but on the opposite side of the state in Wilmington.