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Saturday, July 21, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

I went to see the latest Batman movie, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES — oh, how I wish someone would call a moratorium on the use of any permutation of the word "rise" in movie titles — at Manhattan's Ziegfeld theater last night, and I was certain whatever merits the film may have possessed would be canceled out by a dire pall being cast over the whole thing in the tragic wake of what is now being rather crassly referred to in the media as "the Batman Massacre" or "the Dark Knight Massacre."

As reported all over the news yesterday (and on this blog), a 24-year-old madman by the name of James Holmes launched a senseless armed assault upon an audience that had settled in for the midnight screening of the film in a mall in Aurora, Colorado, and his attack resulted in the confirmed shooting deaths of at least twelve people (some reports state a count of fourteen) and the injuries of between thirty-to-fifty, some of which are critical. As a reaction/preemptive measure against possible copycat incidents, NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly order deployment of an augmented police presence at theaters running the film in the Five Boroughs (there were two cops in attendance at the show I saw), and as a result the audience entered the theater with the tragedy of the shooting reinforced. The atmosphere was an odd blend of enthusiasm over a new Batman film and foreboding due to the inevitability of considerable gun violence in the narrative, and there was even a fat, bespectacled geek — who, because of his pronounced girth, was referred to by my friend Suzi as "the pregnant guy" — with poor social skills and a borderline-Moe Howard haircut on line behind me who cringe-inducingly attempted to lighten the mood by telling those who were buying to tickets that they could now "get on the line to be shot." Those within earshot all turned to him in stunned silence, with facial expressions that quite clearly communicated, "SERIOUSLY, dude?!!?" (He shut his fucking mouth after that.) Anyway, the audience nonetheless remained enthusiastic as the lights dimmed.

This time around, it's eight years after the events of the previous installment and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, semi-hobbled by his injuries and making his way around Wayne manor with the aid of a cane. After having defeated the Joker and allowing himself to falsely take the blame for the death of Harvey Dent, Wayne retired his Batman persona and his state of emotional limbo greatly troubles his ever-faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). But Wayne is shaken out of his complacency when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) ingeniously manages to break into the family safe and steal his mother's pearl necklace. That event ignites Wayne's curiosity as to why Kyle would be after the pearls, and what he discovers brings him into direct conflict with gravel-voiced mercenary/terrorist and extreme badass Bane (Tom Hardy), who engineers one of the most audacious and dire schemes this side of one found in one of the better James Bond movies. But exactly why is Bane doing what he's doing, and what the hell does any of this have to do with anything? I won't tell you any of the whys and wherefores, other than to say that by the time the credits roll, we get to see Bruce Wayne face his greatest challenge to date, one that it is extremely — and I do mean EXTREMELY — unlikely he will survive...

I'm a lifelong fan of the Batman character and his adventures in the comics and on television, but I never had any love for the live-action movies featuring him, largely because I felt they lacked the element of fun, felt far too overblown, and seemed cold in such a way that I didn't give a damn about any of the characters. The Tim Burton installments were super-hyped examples of his usual stylistic masturbation and the two that followed his films were justly lambasted, with the latter of the pair, the infamous BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997), frequently and deservedly cited as one of the worst major motion pictures ever made. Then came Christopher Nolan and his grittier, more "realistic" take on the Batman and his world, and critical acclaim, blockbuster box office success, and audience adoration followed. That said, I know I'm in the minority because I myself found Nolan's Batman films to be over-long and boring, plus once again cold and characterless (though I did like Heath Ledger's take on the Joker), so I approached THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with absolutely zero expectations, seeing it solely so I could join in the inevitable discourse on the film from an informed viewpoint. Thus it is that I'm quite shocked to have enjoyed the film rather a lot, and I proclaim it the only live-action Batman film that I genuinely like. To me, that is a minor miracle.

I would love to discuss the film in more detail but to do so would mean giving away several very major plot surprises, so I'll just have to ask you to trust me on this one. What I can say is that Bane's terroristic shenanigans had me actively wondering throughout the film just why he would give a shit about what he was doing, and after things looked like it was another case of lazy writing that expected us to simply say "Oh, he's just doing this because he's crazy" and just accept it as rote, the final act happens and everything falls perfectly, satisfyingly into place. At the moment when it all finally made sense, I swear it felt like something physically clicked in my head, and that realization made me smile from ear to ear. As a very finite end to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES succeeds quite admirably. I obviously recommend checking it out, but in closing, here are a few points worth noting:
  • The script places a distinct emphasis on character and as a result the film engaged me from start to finish.
  • Once again, everybody and their dog knows Bruce Wayne's secret, but this time around that knowledge is vital to the plot and is not at all annoying or idiotic.
  • Anne Hathaway is terrific as Selina Kyle, who's better known to the world as Catwoman but never named as such here.
I like Hathaway in certain roles, but I had grave doubts about how she would handle playing a character who's sexy, seductive, and more than a bit of a badass in the butt-kicking department. I should not have worried, and I found her version of the character to be the most interesting femme fatale yet seen in a Batman film.
  • The sequence where Bane and his heavily armed men pull off a cyber-crime with automatic weapons a-blazin' snapped the audience's thoughts right out of the movie and back to the shootings in that Colorado movie theater. The silence in the Ziegfeld during that sequence was as absolute as the vacuum of deep space, and it chilled me to the bone.
  • Months ago, Bane's dialogue as heard in the film's trailers was found to be unintelligible by audiences, so his lines were re-recorded and supposedly fixed. Your mileage may vary, but I found his dialogue to be very hard to understand about half the time when he was in a scene. Fortunately his actions speak for themselves, and at least his line "I am Gotham's reckoning" no longer sounds like "I am Gotham's rectum."
  • The film has some bone-crunching hand-to-hand violence, but it is in no way unsuitable for kids. However, it should be pointed out that the movie runs 164 minutes and that's excluding trailers, plus it's very much a plot and character-driven film, so I don't necessarily recommend it for the under-twelves who may expect non-stop action (though the film certainly does not skimp on visceral mayhem). Oh, and be sure to take a pee break before the movie starts. Believe me, you'll be glad you did.
And perhaps the most important point I would like to make is that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is less of a straight-up Batman film than it's a cops-versus-terrorists summer blockbuster action movie that Batman pretty much incidentally happens to be in. You could eliminate every Batman-specific element from the script and change the hero's name to "Jack Action" and the end result would be the same and no less entertaining. Not exactly a gripe, but worth making note of.

Lastly, after this film there will inevitably have to be another reboot for the batman franchise, and I'm curious to see in which direction the series goes after the audience-pleasing tone set by the efforts of Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, et al. Just don't forget to keep the emphasis on character and keep things fun, Warner Brothers! Don't subject Batman to the cinematic fist-fucking that MAN OF STEEL looks like it's going to provide for Superman. (The trailer ran before THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and, brother, it looked like ass.)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

TED (2012)

Big pimpin' with a little stuffed bear.

Christmas, 1985: A lonely eight-year-old boy longs for nothing more than a friend and when he receives a plush teddy bear as a holiday gift, he adores the toy and makes a wish that it could talk to him for real and that they would be best friends forever. The wish comes true and the boy and his bear share a tight bond from then on, even through the animate toy's brief period of '80's-era fame. 2012: The boy has grown up to be the thirty-five-year-old John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a man-child pothead whose job at a car rental agency is only a break in his time spent watching repeated viewings of the 1980 FLASH GORDON movie, drinking beers and smoking copious amounts of weed with his now-older, semi-worn, foul-mouthed talking toy bear roommate, Ted (voiced by Seth McFarlane). It's a total bromance and the two clearly love and depend upon one another, but the fly in the ointment of their arrested developmental bliss is Lori (Mila Kunis), John's live-in girlfriend whom he's dated for four years and who is quite understandably fed up with Ted's ubiquity in her lover's life. (NOTE: Lori is in no way a bitch or a villain, so the audience totally understands her very reasonable feelings on the matter.) She everything a guy could want and during the fancy dinner date to mark their fourth anniversary as a couple, Lori expects a proposal but instead receives earrings. That prompts her to float the idea that John should ask Ted to move out so the lovers can have a life with just the two of them sharing a place (and hopefully spur John to finally grow up), a prospect that does not sit well with either John or Ted.

But a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do, so Ted and John reluctantly agree to part for the sake of John's relationship with Lori, consequently establishing Ted in his own dinky flat and getting him a job at a local supermarket (where Ted's meteoric rise in the store's hierarchy is chronicled in amusingly ludicrous detail). Though he gives it his best shot, John finds life without his constant companion of twenty-seven years to be quite difficult, and vice-versa for Ted, so the situation swiftly becomes an emotional tug of war for John that involves him blowing off his job (under ridiculous pretenses) and occasionally Lori so he can spend time with his boozy, potheaded, hooker-frequenting best bud bear. As Lori becomes increasingly irritated at how badly John is blowing things, the writing may soon be on the wall for their relationship, but meanwhile Ted finds himself in the sights of a creepy pair of stalkers who seek to obtain the talking toy by any means necessary...

WARNING: The remainder of this review contains minor spoilers, so if you don't want to have anything ruined by finding out about it beforehand, it is advisable to stop reading now.

TED is the debut movie effort as a director for FAMILY GUY creator Seth McFarlane, who also shares the scripting credit here, and while the film is certainly not without laughs, it's disappointing to see that McFarlane has stayed so firmly within the comfort zone of the kind of material we've seen beaten to death on FAMILY GUY, with the sole real difference being that he's now operating without the constraints put on his frat boy humor by the FCC. (Thankfully, the film does not rely on the frequently-repeated and increasingly unfunny full-length musical numbers and non-sequitor "gags" that forced me away from FAMILY GUY few years back.) Yes, TED is funny and has more heartfelt sentiment than one would likely expect, but much like AMERICAN DAD and THE CLEVELAND SHOW, it's a case of Seth McFarlane once again proving that he's pretty much a one-trick pony, which is damned shame since the guy does possess comedic talent when he's not lazily relying on his own tropes. (The film itself even comments on Ted's vocal resemblance to FAMILY GUY's Peter Griffin, which makes sense because both are voiced by Seth McFarlane, only Ted rocks a pronounced "r"-dropping Boston accent.) Then again, his hewing so close to what he's done a million times before may be part of the game plan, because I'm convinced that the only audience that will really take to TED in earnest is the one that tunes in every week to Fox to watch three cookie cutter McFarlane animated shows that are only slightly differentiated by their voice casts and character designs/setups.

And speaking of repetition of McFarlane's tropes, the one that most sorely rankles me is on display here with flags proudly unfurled, and that is his constant masturbation over his adoration of the 1980's, specifically of its utterly manufactured and largely soulless pop culture. Yes, Seth, we know you enshrine that decade, but must you continue to inflict that worship/necrophilia upon those of us who were there to experience it as teenagers/adults and who can view it minus rose-colored glasses for the incredibly empty period that it was? It's been tiresome in McFarlane's TV work for ages and I certainly would rather not pay the exorbitant NYC movie theater prices to be fed more of a flavor that I already cannot stomach.

There's also the aforementioned subplot about the pair of stalkers who want to obtain Ted, an utterly unnecessary narrative element that brings the film to a dead halt whenever it rears its head, and even causes the last reel to needlessly devolve into a chase sequence. I suppose the creative thinking behind this was to provide some kind of conflict that would lead to the tragic events of the final act, but I say that rather than give us a rote chase about which we don't necessarily care anyway, why not have Ted get torn in half by an encounter with a dog who'd been eyeing him as a possible chew-toy in the park from an earlier point in the film? The stalkers are introduced into the narrative during a park scene and they offer nothing other than a setup for the chase-and-rescue-attempt sequence that we see coming a mile away, so why not instead have something like the dog scenario I just postulated? It would have been much more tragic to see Ted rent asunder by a Rottweiler, a savage attack that would have borne none of the goofiness of the image of a hicked-out Giovanni Ribisi climbing up a lighting tower in pursuit of the fleeing Ted after hours in Fenway Park, and one that would have added deep pathos to the pain and futility of John and Lori's desperate attempt to save Ted with their crude sewing skills. (Don't worry, Ted survives after Lori makes a wish that magically restores him.)

But with that said, the film does have many laugh-out-loud moments, some of which are genuinely brilliant, specifically:
  • Patrick Stewart's pitch-perfect storybook-style narration that exudes just the right tone of childlike whimsy...until he shatters the mood with observations about how the only thing more powerful than a young boy's wish is an Apache helicopter "because they have missiles and machine guns, they're total death machines," and a bit during the ending narration that makes brutal and direct commentary on SUPERMAN RETURNS and Brandon Routh to such a degree that it made me laugh until I was reduced to a state of barking coughing. That part got my vote for the funniest thing in the entire film...
  • Or rather it would have if not for the utterly brilliant party sequence at Ted's apartment, a bit that makes the film's one genuinely hilarious use of an '80's reference. John and Ted are both established early in the film as loving FLASH GORDON, both for its being a so-bad-it's-good movie and for teaching them about good and evil and right and wrong at an impressionable age, so while out with Lori at her boss's lavish party during what was supposed to be his time of building a life just for him and his girl, John receives a call from Ted, who's in the middle of throwing a raucous party at which Sam J. Jones himself, the star of FLASH GORDON and their idol, is in attendance. John ditches Lori at her douchebag boss's party with the intention of meeting Jones and returning before she notices he's gone, but upon meeting his fifty-eight-year-old hero — and it really is Sam J. Jones, who's very gamely in on the joke — and being invited by him to do shots of tequila, things get interesting, to say the very least, and the results are a fucking riot to behold.
"Death to Ming!!!": Ted and John share shots with their idol, Sam J. Jones.

I have hated the 1980 FLASH GORDON movie since it came out because I grew up on the character and his adventures and felt that that movie was an intentionally campy piece of shit, but Jones's willing and hilarious participation in TED has gone a long way toward redeeming FLASH GORDON in my eyes, so maybe after thirty-two years it's time to give FLASH GORDON a second chance and accept it for the goofy treasure that many feel it to be. If I come away from TED with nothing else, I will at least remember it for working that minor miracle.

So the bottom line from me as far as TED is concerned is this: It is definitely funny and worth a viewing, but its script is inconsistent and very much a rehash of territory previously well-trod by McFarlane, so as such I do not think it warrants paying full price to see it at the theater. (Here in NYC, it averages around fourteen bucks for adult admission, and the matinee that I saw today came to ten bucks thanks to it being an early show and due to points wracked up with my Regal Cinemas club card, which also landed me a free movie ticket for my next visit to the Court Street Stadium 12.) I do, however, very much recommend TED once it hits cable. "FLASH JUMP!!!"

Sunday, July 1, 2012

KING BOXER/FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972) AT LINCOLN CENTER

The annual New York Asian Film Festival has kicked off once again and though my finances are tight there was no fucking way I was going to miss that most seminal of 1970's kung fu flicks, 1972's KING BOXER, better known here in the Sates as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, the Shaw Brothers Studios movie that ignited the infamous '70's martial arts — or "chopsocky" — boom. With my friends Mark, Adam and Jen in tow, I braved the 90+ heat and made my way to Manhattan's Lincoln Center for the show, perhaps the most incongruous of settings for a screening of a film that first captured American imaginations in the seedy and often dangerous grindhouses of the nation's urban jungles.

Original Hong Kong release poster.

In many ways the perfect kung fu movie with which to indoctrinate the West thanks to it being a beautifully-realized goldmine of the genre's tropes, KING BOXER/FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH stars legendary HK cinema bad guy Lo Lieh in a rare good guy role as a kung fu student who suffers through all kinds of heinous martial treachery as he strives to improve his skills and come out on top in the regional kung fu championship, the winning of which will make him worthy enough in the eyes of his teacher/adoptive father to marry the teacher's sweet and demure daughter. There's a lot more going on here than just that, but let it suffice to say that for the first time American moviegoers got such tropes as:
  • The master being cruelly murdered, thus necessitating heroic/audience catharsis payback
  • The musical performer/whore with a heart of gold
  • A musical score cribbed from other sources (whether legally or not is irrelevant), in this case Quincy Jones' IRONSIDE theme and some of the cues from John Barry's scores for either THUNDERBALL or DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
  • Bad guys who are so obviously, cartoonishly over-the-top evil that they may as well have flashing neon signs on their foreheads that read 'I AM EVIL AS FUCK"
  • The presence of highly skilled and incredibly evil/ruthless foreign import antagonists, more often than not the Japanese, as is the case here
  • An evil kung fu school whose leader seeks to gain control over the whole martial arts world in his region
  • A do-or-die martial arts tournament toward which everything builds
  • The hero learning a secret technique that either borders upon or crosses over into the realm of straight-up superpowers, in this case the devastatingly lethal "iron palm" technique
  • Some memorably sadistic set pieces involving violence/mutilation/torture
It's a hell of a lot of fun and damned near the template for kung fu films of its era, and it was deservedly a smash hit at the box office. Success like that does not go unnoticed internationally, so someone at Warner Brothers had the good sense to import KING BOXER, dub it, make some minor edits, and release it in the U.S. under the more sensationalistic title of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, where it played first in inner cities to capacity crowds and lines around the block before settling in as a perennial on grindhouse double and triple bills for the rest of the decade and beyond. Its success ignited interest and opened the international doors to such greats as Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, Jackie Chan and Gordon Liu, so we fans of the genre owe this film no small debt of gratitude. (It also allowed for the importing of turds like STREET GANGS OF HONG KONG, 18 BRONZE GIRLS OF SHAOLIN and BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE, but you've gotta take the bad with the good.)

Poster for the American release.

So well known was it during its era, even those who aren't into kung fu movies have heard of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH and its title is now a part of our common pop culture lexicon. And as for my own personal estimation of the film, it's on my short list of martial arts films that I watch at least twice per year because sometimes I'm just compelled to do so, a task made that much easier thanks to Celestial Pictures' gorgeous remastered DVD of the film.

So I went to see the film at Lincoln Center and was delighted to discover that the director of the movie, Chung Chang-Wha, would be present for a post-screening moderated Q&A session and also to receive the festival's annual Star of Asia Lifetime Achievement Award. Needless to say, being the geek that I am, I immediately resolved to meet Chung after the show.

Chung graciously receives his lifetime achievement award, a rather minor accolade when one considers how his film almost singlehandedly changed action cinema in the West forever.

FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH played to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd — much to the overheard surprise of one of the theater's staff, who apparently only expected the films of more recent vintage to draw this kind of throng — and the print that we were treated to was a 35mm version with the original KING BOXER title and in Chinese with subtitles, thus avoiding the pitfall of awful dubbing that far too often turned the dire tales of martial heroism and tragedy into unintentional farces. At the end there was thunderous applause accompanied by whoopin' and hollerin', and then Chung sat down for the Q&A session, after which he signed autographs and kindly allowed photo-ops with his fans.

You knew I wasn't going to leave without meeting and getting photographed with Chung Chang-Wha, right?

Due to the harsh financial realities of unemployment, I rather doubt that I'll hit any of the other films in the festival this time around, but I could not be happier that I chose FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH as the one entry not to miss. If you've never seen the film, check out the DVD, available as KING BOXER, at once. I promise you won't be disappointed, provided old school kung fu flicks get you going.