Sunday, July 3, 2016

China is Here, Mr. Burton: My 30th Anniversary Salute to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA


This weekend back in 1986, Twentieth Century Fox released the film Big Trouble in Little China. It's hard to believe that it has been three whole decades since John Carpenter's classic mix of action, fantasy, and kung-fu debuted in movie theaters. What's harder to believe is the fact that at the time of the movie's release, no one was prepared for what Carpenter had unleashed onto the screen. Big Trouble in Little China, like a lot of John's films, was not a commercial success. Nor was it greatly appreciated as it commonly is now. As a 9-year-old kid at the time, however, none of that shit mattered. It was the wildest Hollywood movie I had seen at that point, and it captured my imagination. It was also a major turning point in my understanding of film. All this results in Big Trouble in Little China becoming one of my all-time favorite movies.

The film centers on a trucker named Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), who's drawn into a mystical journey through San Francisco's Chinatown to help his buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) rescue his girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from a 2000-year-old undead sorcerer called Lo Pan (James Hong). Lo Pan must find a green-eyed girl to marry in order to appease the god that stripped him of his flesh, and he has an army of warriors (such as The Three Storms) and monsters at his side, ready to help him conquer the world once he is whole again. Aiding in Wang and Jack's quest are a civil rights attorney named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), newspaper reporter Margo (Kate Burton), and Lo Pan's Van Helsing-like nemesis, Egg Shen (Victor Wong).


Watching it now, 30 years after first seeing it, Big Trouble in Little China remains a high-flying, fast moving, fast-talking action/adventure fantasy. What makes this picture mind-blowing is how the film blends elements of American westerns, Hong Kong films, horror, 80s effects-driven tentpoles, and Golden Age screwball comedies so seamlessly that feels like it didn't require any effort at all. Like Ol' Jack always says, "It's all in the reflexes." It's the kind of genre-bending that hadn't been seen before, which is most likely why Fox were dumbfounded on how to promote it, and why a lot of audiences didn't understand it in '86. It's one of the most daringly imaginative and ridiculously entertaining genre mash-ups ever created. Without Big Trouble in Little China, we probably would have never gotten anything like The Matrix.


The imaginative tale is matched by a wonderful production design and costuming design that captures the world of San Francisco Chinatown and what could possibly lurk underneath. And the film is given an amazing sense of scope thanks to the cinematography of frequent Carpenter collaborator, Dean Cundey. Perhaps what gives Big Trouble in Little China its true sense of mysticism is the score by Carpenter himself and Alan Howarth. Inspired by Asian music handed to them by members of the cast, the synthesizer and guitar music is a journey itself, filled with pulsating rhythms, East Asian influences, and Carpenter's trademark spook factor providing as many twists and turns as Lo Pan's underground domain. It's a dark, magical score that gives me goosebumps every single time I hear it. Definitely my favorite score of all of Carpenter's movies.


One thing about the film that stuck out with me as a boy was its Chinese-American characters. Unlike some other beloved movies from the 80s, these people are not stereotypes. Guys like Wang, Eddie (Donald Li), and Egg Shen, even with all his prophecies and Anthony Hopkins-style Van Helsing lunacy, are depicted as real characters. While still maintaining their heritage, our heroes are just as All-American as someone like Jack, caricature of All-American he may be. There's no Long Duck Dong in this picture.

I remember seeing TV spots for Big Trouble in Little China before its July 2nd opening, and, right away, I knew it was my kind of flick. It had monsters, martial arts, visual effects, and Kurt Russell. Everything 9-year-old Josh could want. But the clincher was this: John Carpenter's name was above the title. When I saw that name, I instinctively knew I wanted to watch it. I had been watching John Carpenter movies ever since I was really little. They always stood out for me, but, naturally, I wasn't cognizant as to why. So when I saw those spots for his newest movie, and seeing Carpenter's name, that's when things clicked into place. I thought back to those movies I liked: Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, etc. I started recognizing the patterns I saw in those movies: the way the films looked, how Carpenter uses the same actors again and again, the fact that he wrote the music for his movies, the not-so-happy endings. When I finally viewed the film for the first time on home video, it was everything I expected and, to quote Eddie, a whole lot more! From that point on, whenever a new John Carpenter movie came out, I would be filled with anticipation.


It was the first time I started to understand what a director was, and the basic idea of a "director's style". When I began taking film classes in college, learning about directors and style came very easy for me, because John Carpenter's movies were the example that I would instantly think back to. In a way, Carpenter was for me what Alfred Hitchcock was for him. Big Trouble in Little China was ground zero for my understanding of filmmakers.

Although a box office failure, Big Trouble in Little China would find new life thanks to home video and cable. The legend of Jack, Wang, Egg, Gracie, Miao Yin, and the ultimate evil spirit, Lo Pan, would grow and Carpenter's wild-eyed adventure would go on to be a bonafide classic. As someone who has loved this film since childhood, it is truly awesome to see that it has amassed a devoted and far-reaching following. People like Quentin Tarantino, for example, who not only cast Kurt Russell in his Grindhouse installment, Death Proof, but also displays Jack Burton's famous t-shirt on a restaurant wall in that film. This movie has paid its dues, Jack. Let's all give a toast (with the six-demon bag magic potion of your choice) and say Happy 30th Anniversary to Big Trouble in Little China!





Big Trouble in Little China is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. It is also available for streaming on Netflix.




Thursday, August 6, 2015

Late to the Party!

There was an episode of Modern Family where Claire and her brother, Mitchell, are working out. Claire mentions she had never seen the movie, Strangers on a Train. That prompts Mitch to turn to her with a condescending tone, saying, "You've never seen Strangers on a Train?!" That scene instantly came to mind when I thought of the idea for this post, because, when we watched that, my ex pointed to me, accusing me of doing the same thing whenever she mentioned a movie she had not seen.

The fact is, even though us fanatics go out of our way to see as many movies as possible, each and everyone of us have those classic pictures or well-regarded cult films that we have yet to experience. There's no rhyme or reason to why this happens. It just happens. So, I thought I would share with you some of those famous flicks that- seemingly- everyone has seen, but I'm still late to the party.



Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

I really do get a kick out of comedic horror movies. Evil Dead 2, Re-Animator, Shaun of the Dead, etc. Why I haven't seen the granddaddy of them all is beyond me.


Assault on Pecinct 13 (1976)

John Carpenter is, hands down, my favorite director. I should be ashamed of myself for not having seen all of his pictures, but the fact that Assault on Precinct 13 is one of those missing films adds an extra layer of guilt.


Blue Velvet (1986)

I must confess that David Lynch is kind of a weak spot for me. Which, looking back, is shocking considering my first was The Elephant Man at the tender age of four! Blue Velvet, one of Lynch's most popular movies, is streaming on Netflix, so I should get on this one. Like now.


Bullitt (1968)

There are a few classic action movies that have escaped me. Unfortunately, Bullitt is one of them.




Deliverance (1972)

I've seen bits and pieces of this on broadcast TV. So yeah, that doesn't count. 


El Topo (1971)

I have never seen a Jodorowsky picture. I'm totally interested, but I also held off watching the documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, for that very reason. I just don't feel right watching a documentary on a failed film project I'm interested in knowing about without at least having an idea of the filmmaker behind it.


Repo Man (1983)

Anyone who knows me would look at this entry and ask, "Wait, Josh hasn't seen this?!" Yes, as much as I love 80s cult cinema and punk rock, I still haven't seen Repo Man. WTF?!


Repulsion (1965)

I've heard friends mention this one quite a number of times. Given my fondness for Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, I feel this sounds like another must-see for me.


Shaft (1971)

One genre I'm sad to say I'm ignorant of is blaxploitation. Wow, nice choice of words there, Obershaw. While I've seen Blacula, and it is considered a part of that type of film, I feel Shaft would be a more proper introduction.


Vertigo (1958)

The closest I've come to watching this film is seeing the video for Faith No More's "Last Cup of Sorrow". Don't judge me.

And for the record, I haven"t seen Strangers on a Train, either.

Got any famous flicks you've never seen? Share them in the comments below. And be sure to follow me on Twitter: DoctorSplatter

Sunday, August 2, 2015

SUPERHERO SATURDAY (SUNDAY EDITION): FFucked Over: The Cinematic Misfortunes of Marvel's First Family


This Friday, 20th Century Fox will release Fantastic Four (2015), directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle) and starring Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, and Michael B. Jordan as the title heroes. The Fantastic Four was the comic book that made Marvel as we know it today. It made superheroes relatable. People with super powers yet still have very human problems. Without it, there would be no Hulk, no Spider-Man, no X-Men, and no Iron Man. Even though Spidey would become Marvel's flagship character (the Mickey Mouse of Marvel, as one said recently), the team of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Thing, and Human Torch should have been the first Marvel heroes in line to get the big-budget treatment the same way DC's first superhero, Superman, got in 1978. Sadly though, as of right now, The Fantastic Four have been cursed on the big screen. Before we see if this latest reboot can somehow break that dark spell, let us take a look back at the bad luck that has befallen Marvel's First Family so far.




The Fantastic Four (1994)

Directed by Oley Sassone, starring: Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp

I remember reading about a Fantastic Four movie that was in the can all the way back circa 1994. It was in one of those sci-fi magazines I would sometimes pick up at the local Thrifty's (now Rite Aid). I don't remember the article at all, but the image of Doctor Doom was forever burned in my memory. I learned from the Captain America and The Punisher pictures before it not to set my hopes up too high, but I was ready for it. I got pretty stoked at the prospect of seeing the FF and one of the most iconic villains in pop-culture come to life on screen, no matter how wonky it was going to turn out. But the film never came. It just vanished.

Many years later, I discovered why. Produced by Constantin Films and the legendary Roger Corman, The Fantastic Four was never intended to be seen by the public. It was made solely so that Constantin could retain the movie rights to the property. The rights were just about to expire, so they enlisted Corman to rush a FF film into production on a meager $1 million budget before the deadline. The movie has since been bootlegged on video and later on the internet, becoming something of a cult classic. I put off viewing it for a long time, fearing it would be completely unwatchable. Growing annoyed with the dark, serious, no-fun-at-all approach to some of today's superhero flicks, and gathering that's what's in store for the new FF reboot, I was ready to let go of expectations- or lack of any- and finally check out this lost film. Despite shortcomings from every possible angle, The Fantastic Four somehow manages to be a worthwhile watch for the curious.

College students Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) are conducting a science experiment involving a passing comet. Something goes awry, and the two are caught in an explosion. Reed's best friend, Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith), manages to rescue Reed, but Victor appears to have perished. Ten years later, Reed and Ben, along with old friends Sue Storm (Rebecca Staab) and her brother, Johnny (Jay Underwood), decided to finish the experiment in Victor's memory, this time going into space. Unbeknownst to them, Victor has survived. Horribly scarred and donning a suit of armor, he becomes an evil dictator named Dr. Doom, and is out for revenge against Reed and his pals. Doom sabotages the experiment, and the foursome's spaceship is hit by cosmic rays. The group crash lands on Earth and discover that they are not only alive, but they also have gained super powers. Reed can stretch any part of his body (or any the budget will allow), Sue can disappear and reappear, Johnny can control and become fire, and Ben... Well, he turns into a rubbery rock monster.

Science!
Our newly enhanced heroes soon discover Doom and his vendetta, so they band together as The Fantastic Four to combat their old friend and save the world. There's also a strange subplot involving an underground-dwelling freak called The Jeweller, his weird infatuation with a blind girl whom Ben falls for, and Ben coming to grips with his new appearance.

Yes, The Fantastic Four is a cheap movie. It resembles more of a pilot for a show on The Sci-Fi Channel- yeah, remember when it was spelled correctly?- than a theatrical feature. The costumes look goofy, the acting is hammy, some of the sets are claustrophobic, and the effects are howlingly awful. Also providing unintentional humor is Dr. Doom's inaudible dialogue. I had an easier time trying to figure out what Bane was saying in The Dark Knight Rises. And The Jeweller is a piss-poor substitute for the FF's first foe, The Mole Man.

Rrv untrfrrd mrf mu plrnz fr thr rst ime. Ha-ha!

Shockingly, however, there is a tremendous amount of heart that shines through, making The Fantastic Four somewhat of a win. There is a strong belief and a sense of fun in director Oley Sassone and the cast in what they're doing that they make the most out of what little that was given to them. The result is a film that makes for an agreeable delight for the kids, and at least that's something. It's still a missed opportunity, though. If Constantin Films had just a little bit of that same belief, The Fantastic Four could have had been a piece of kitschy awesomeness alongside the likes of Barbarella and Flash Gordon.





Fantastic Four (2005)

Directed by Tim Story, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Jessica Alba, and Julian McMahon

After the debacle of the 1994 picture, 20th Century Fox released the first legitimate Fantastic Four film in the summer of 2005. Directed by Tim Story, Fantastic Four co-stars Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, and Jessica Alba as astronauts who go up into space for a little science experiment, get hit by some cosmic cloud, and come back to Earth with superpowers. The rest of the movie finds the group dealing with powers, celebrity, and each other. At the same time, an old college rival who was on that same mission is adjusting to his newfound powers in a less healthy fashion. By the end, there's a big showdown between the four mass-market-ready superheroes and the big baddie.

That's pretty much all you get. Fox didn't make a superhero film, they made a product. Thanks to the massive box-office success of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002, superheroes became a hot commodity. However, unlike those pictures, the debut of Marvel's First Family is rather formulaic: there's the introduction, the transformation, the heroes' journey, and finally the explode-y finale. It's so cookie-cutter you could almost guess what happens next as you are watching it. More egregious is that it tries really hard to make The Fantastic Four cool: Johnny Storm is into extreme sports, there's mainstream rock music, and it goes for the laziest of humorous dialogue. Also, they hired Jessica Alba. She wasn't cast to portray Sue Storm; she was picked because she was "hot".

"Like, I'm a scientist, and stuff."

The only things I actually got a kick out of while watching this movie are (future Captain America) Chris Evans as Human Torch, Michael Chiklis as The Thing, and the two of them together. Evans did a great job at making Johnny Storm a likeable guy despite his over-inflated ego. Bruce Willis was probably not available, or wisely said no, but Chiklis still perfectly captures The Thing's gruff but good-natured spirit. Not only do these two resemble their comic book counterparts in performance, but they make a great comedic duo.



Watching the film now, it's clear at this point in time the superhero genre was already in trouble of looking old. Fantastic Four, despite being based on a groundbreaking comic book, did absolutely nothing to redefine superheroes on the silver screen. Fox had a formula and they were going to stick with it no matter what. The Fantastic Four finally flew onto film, and then fell flat on their faces. Fuck.




Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

Directed by Tim Story, starring Ioan Grufford, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, and Laurence Fishurne

Flame out!

Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, and (ugh) Jessica Alba return as the Fantastic Four, celebrity do-gooders. Mr. Fantastic (Grufford) and Sue Storm (an even more plastic-looking Alba) are trying to tie the knot, but their day job always seems to be getting in the way of the nuptials. This time, a mysterious alien drops down to Earth causing weird things to happen, and it's up to our heroes to investigate. And Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) is back, too

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, released in the summer of 2007, would have been a pretty good movie. No longer bogged down by the origin story, this film gets right into it, with the superheroes in their element. Plus, there is an ample about of comedy this time around, usually revolved around either our heroes trying to maintain some sense of normalcy or when they-thanks to the mysterious alien- suddenly swap abilities back and forth. Plus, the visual effects are a vast improvement over the first picture.

I did say would have, right? So what's wrong this time? Rise of the Silver Surfer is awfully short, and in more ways than one. The movie doesn't have the time to be bothered with too much depth. Things are said, but not a lot is being felt. And just as things really start to ramp up, that's when things start to wrap up. Rather conveniently. Like in a we-ran-out-of-money kind of way.

Which leads us to this: this is a FF movie made by wimps. The more cosmic elements of the comic book have been translated very poorly, no doubt in an effort to keep things- and I'm shuttering as I'm saying this- "grounded". As an VFX, the Silver Surfer is looks great. As a character, voiced by Laurence Fishburne, he's just Morpheus from The Matrix spouting off doomsday prophecies. But that's nothing compared to the trashing the villians get. Instead of the classic Doctor Doom of the comics, we get a boring, barely frightening billionaire played by a TV actor who doesn't want his face covered up too long. And Galactus, one of the most powerful enemies in the Marvel Universe, The Devourer of Worlds, is reduced to a fucking cloud. A cloud! In space, no less!

Really?!
Yes, that was a typical fanboy rant there, but the climax was the culmination of everything that is wrong about this movie. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer seems to be conceived and executed with the same cut-rate manner as the 1994 film. This movie feels more like a Police Academy 4 than a second installment of a major studio franchise. It looked as if 20th Century Fox were burned-out on the Fantastic Four brand before the audience got a chance to be.

Got any thoughts on the Fantastic Four movies we've got thus far? Do you think the new movie will turn things around? Sound off on the comments below. And be sure to follow me on Twitter: @DoctorSplatter

Saturday, July 25, 2015

SUPERHERO SATURDAY: Review: HULK


Hulk (2003)
Directed by Ang Lee, starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte

From Universal Pictures and the Oscar-winning director of Life of CGI- I mean Pi- comes the one modern superhero movie that, to this day, makes me want to smash every time I watch it.

Eric Bana plays Bruce, a brilliant but emotionally distant scientist who, along with fellow scientist and ex-girlfriend, Betty (Jennifer Connelly), blow up frogs with gamma radiation in an effort to cure... something. I don't know, I forgot. Anyways, Bruce gets caught in a blast of radiation and survives, but now whenever he gets angry, he transforms into a rampaging, badly computer-generated, not-so-jolly green giant. A grizzly old fart named David Banner (Nick Nolte) begins stalking Bruce, claiming to be his father. Speaking to his son in riddles, we can guess- really, we can only guess- Banner passed some kind of side effect of self-experimentation on to his boy that was then triggered by Bruce's accident. There's also Betty's general dad (Sam Elliot) who wants the Hulk for something (still not sure), and some douchebag (Josh Lucas) that also has an interest in Bruce, but also has an interest in getting into Betty's pants.


I was really let down by Hulk when I saw it in theaters the summer of 2003. I thought it was overly serious and lame. Looking at the film now, however, I can honestly say- and I hate to quote an overused meme from the internet- but what the fuck is this shit?! This is a joke, right? In hindsight, it might as well be. It was 2003, after all. I wouldn't be shocked if Ashton Kutcher jumped out at us coming out of the theater going, "You got Punk'd!"

This is not an adaptation of The Incredible Hulk. Universal and Ang Lee had no faith in the source material whatsoever. Don't let the comic book panel-style split-screens and editing fool you; Hulk is a film ashamed that it's based on a comic book. There's no sense of entertainment value. It's all so, so serious. You might as well call this movie The Incredible Sulk (Thank you, Don Jamieson). Performance-wise, you've got mopey (Bana and Connelly) and crazy (Nolte, Elliot, and Lucas) and nothing else. Nobody seems to be having any fun in this movie. And Lee completely misses the point of the character. The Incredible Hulk is the Jeckyll and Hyde of the post-Atomic Age. He represents something base in us as human beings we all keep buried inside us, be it rage or anything else we don't want anyone to see. Instead, Ang Lee and co-writer James Schamus decided to blame The Hulk on Daddy.

Papa, can you hear me?
Lee's goal of elevating the material completely backfires, as Industrial Light and Magic give us the worst visual effects ever for a big summer movie. The CGI is so cartoony that it's unintentionally hilarious to watch. The Hulk looks like a 'roid-raging Shreck. Also, why is he almost as big as fucking King Kong halfway through the movie? But the biggest laugh-out-loud effects sequence is when Hulk comes face-to-face with three ugly Hulk Dogs. The awfulness of the VFX next to the woe-as-me tone of the film is really jarring. I'm sure ILM were embarrassed by their work on Hulk. They were able to make Yoda face Christopher Lee in a lightsaber duel just the year before! They should be embarrassed.

Visit your local adoption center today.
Not surprising the word "Incredible" was left out of the title of this movie, giving how bad it is, but Ang Lee should have left Hulk out of it, too. There's barely any resemblance to the character or his magazines in this movie. This picture is Ang Lee's criticism of us as American moviegoers. Congratulations, bub. You made us feel bad for watching a movie based on a comic book. I hope you're happy, you prick. I'm glad Crash won.

Does this version of Ol' Jade Jaws still make you want to Hulk out? Sound off in the comments below. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DoctorSplatter

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Does it Come in Black?: My 10th Anniversary Tribute to BATMAN BEGINS



"But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, you become something else entirely."
"Which is?"
"Legend, Mr. Wayne."

And with those words, a legend was reborn. Today marked the 10th anniversary of the release of Warner Brothers' and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Looking back like most pop-culture enthusiasts, the film was a major reinvention of the character, ushered in the era of the reboot, and has had a lasting impact- for better or worse- on superhero filmmaking. As a Batman fan, though, I couldn't help but celebrate the milestone from a personal perspective. Between being a superb picture and the most faithful adaptation, Batman Begins remains my favorite film about the Caped Crusader.



Still haunted and angered by seeing both of his parents murdered in front of him when he was a small boy, billionaire heir, Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale), disappears from his home in Gotham City to search the world for a way to combat evil. He is recruited by Ducard (Liam Neeson), a gentleman who mentors him to be a member of a secret society of warriors. Bruce eventually rebels against the group and returns to Gotham City, a urban sprawl ruled by crime and corruption, with mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) at the center. With the help of his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and his company's tech guy, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce combines his skills, gadgets, and his childhood fear of bats to become Batman, a terrifying symbol for justice.



Batman, the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, has been my favorite fictional character since I was 12. I had been a fan of Batman before that, through years of watching him and his sidekick, Robin, on Saturday mornings and the 1966 movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward. But it was the summer of 1989, the mania that swept the country in anticipation of Warner Bros' big-budget Batman starring Michael Keaton as the title hero and Jack Nicholson as his arch-rival, The Joker, that turned my casual fandom into complete obsession. I became enthralled with the character and the mythology of Gotham City. The 1989 film reinvigorated my interest in comics and love of gothic fiction, as well as opened me up to new concepts in art, classical music, and film. Because of that movie, Batman has been an obsession that continues- and continues to evolve- to this day.

Thanks to the comics, Tim Burton's movies, an acclaimed animated series, and tons of action figures from Kenner, Batman was a pop-culture staple throughout the majority of the 1990's. And then 1997's Batman & Robin happened. Unlike the dark, edgy Burton pictures, that movie (and to some degree its predecessor, Batman Forever) was nothing more than a campy, candy-colored cartoon that was constructed - poorly- just to sell toys. Everything that was cool and relevant about the character was sucked out by Batman & Robin just like what POP did to U2 that same year. Soon, the one-two punch of Blade and The Matrix- both WB properties, ironically- changed the way audiences perceived movies with comic-book sensibilities, paving the way for the success of Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man on the big screen. Even though there were some highlights for fans, such as the animated Batman Beyond and comic arcs like The Long Halloween and Hush, for a few years after 1997, Batman was old news to the general public. A punchline. It was "Pow!", "Zap!", and "Wham!" all over again. Dark times for The Dark Knight.

In 2003, Warner Bros. got underway on a new Batman movie. Audiences may have moved on, but the studio never gave up on one of their biggest franchises. Two of the most documented attempts to revive the character on film included one that would pit Batman against Superman (Hm, I wanna say I heard something like this before?) and a straight adaptation of Frank Miller's four-issue miniseries, Batman: Year One. At this point, I didn't really care all that much. The deeper I got into the comics, the less valuable the previous films became. I was sure Warner Bros. would never really do a more faithful version of Batman. I didn't even know who this Christopher Nolan guy was anyways. I hadn't seen Memento by that point.

The casting was the thing that started to grab my interest. Christian Bale, known at the time for the controversial indie black comedy, American Psycho, was announced as the next actor to take on the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne. This took me by surprise; Warner Bros. wasn't going with a star this time. Being a fan of Bale's performance in American Psycho, I found myself clapping for the studio for choosing a guy I felt could get the job done.

More casting news followed, and I started to get excited. Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's faithful butler, Alfred, was a no-brainer. Plus, what a coup to get an actor like that for a Batman movie, considering how the last couple of films turned out. Add to that, the likes of Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy signaled to me this was not going to be the kind of Batman movie I had grown accustomed to seeing as a teenager.


Up until the movie's release, I had no clue what kind of movie this was going to be. I remember all of the trailers centered primarily on Bruce's training. The film had this aura of mystery behind it, despite the internet world's attempts to uncover as much of it as possible before its unveiling. I even remember the marketing behind it being kind of scaled-back. For a Batman movie, anyways. Still, with the Dark Knight being my favorite character, I was there for Batman Begins that Thursday night preview in the summer of 2005.

The picture I saw that night was one I thought I would never see. Batman Begins was the Batman film I had always wanted. Unlike the previous franchise, which reduced the title character to a supporting role for movie stars to act goofy as the villians, this Batman movie was about... well, Batman. In addition, it was the best action/adventure movie I had seen since the original Die Hard. I fell in love with the movie. I went back to see it two more times that summer. Back when it was affordable to do so.

Ten years later, Batman Begins remains a remarkable movie. Inspired by comics such as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, as well as 1978's Superman The Movie, Christopher Nolan fashioned a Batman movie with scope, thrills, and class. This is the best kind of action film. One where the balance of character, story, plot, and visuals is effortless.  For the most part, the cast is extraordinary, especially Bale going out of his way to not only bring a Bruce Wayne worth being invested in, but also giving us the most physical and fearsome Batman ever. It's a gorgeous film to look at too, thanks to the cinematography of Wally Pfister. What is surprising, now and then in equal measures, was the restraint in the use of CGI. It is only there to enhance what is on screen, rather than this century's standard practice of essentially creating all we see on screen. The action scenes are greatly executed, but the most exhilarating is the car chase involving the newly-designed Batmobile, or The Tumbler, as it is called in this film. It's up there with Bullitt, The French Connection, and To Live and Die in L.A.


Even though it was Nolan's intention to have the character "grounded", the film looks and feels like a Batman story. The actors inhabit the roles they play. Michael Caine has had a career that spans decades, but he is Alfred in this movie. Hell, Gary Oldman even looks like Jim Gordon in the comics. Bruce's moral center is clear and present in this film, something that wavered in many of the others. The gothic tone of the comics is still very much a visual and thematic factor in Batman Begins. The sepia color that is present in the film and its promotional materials gives it a silent-era monster movie vibe. The one thing that drew me to the character of Batman is his willingness to go into the places no one else will. Whether it is a dark alley, a dungeon-esque sewer, an asylum run by the inmates, or in the darkest parts of our minds, he jumps in so that we, the reader, can experience these from a safer distance. Batman Begins is the ultimate cinematic version of that. The theme of fear and the appearance of Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow brings that element of the comic to nightmarish life.


I tend to rank all the Batman movies by both their quality and their adherence to the source material. For me, Batman Begins remains at the top of the list. And I don't apologize for that. The sequel, The Dark Knight, isn't even #2. I'm not knocking The Dark Knight at all. It's a magnificent film. A spectacular crime drama. It just doesn't feel like a Batman movie the way its predecessor is. Compared to Batman Begins, both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises fall short due to Nolan's overwhelming dedication to that grounded approach and a conceit that Batman needed to transcend where he came from. The gothic feel of the first picture is absent. Batman's moral center drifts toward the extreme by the end of The Dark Knight, and then seems non-existent in the final movie. Everything is all so, so serious. Why so serious?

Regardless, I will still watch anything that has Batman in it, because he still is my favorite fictional character. Each iteration of the superhero means different things to different generations, and, as a fan and student of this character, I know better than to deem one better than the other. It's all a matter of personal tastes. As someone who got sucked into the mythology at the end of the Eighties, Batman Begins was and still is, for me, the film that did that version of the character true justice.



Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video, and for streaming on Amazon.com

Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: JURASSIC WORLD


Jurassic World (2015)

Directed by Colin Trevorrow, Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D'Onofrio, BD Wong

Great sequels are really rare, and great sequels deep into a film franchise are practically non-existent. But I can't recall if there's ever been a case where an installment to a long-running movie series has surpassed all the sequels to almost be neck-and-neck with the original. Well, we have one now, and that is Jurassic World. While not as inventive as the first picture, this fourth film in the franchise chews up the previous sequels and spits them out, leaving it the fittest to survive alongside Jurassic Park.

Twenty-two years after the events of that film, Isla Nublar has since been transformed into Jurassic World, the theme park John Hammond had always envisioned. In order to keep people interested in dinosaurs and keep that cash coming in, the park's owner, Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan), and manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), had the scientists- headed by the only cast member from the original to make an appearance in this one, B.D. Wong- create, by way of gene-splicing, an all-new dinosaur to be their next big attraction. Instead, they created a monster in Indominous Rex, a beast with the size of a T-Rex and the intelligence and bloodlust of a Velociraptor. Needless to say, Indominous breaks free and goes on a rampage, killing every living thing in sight. It's up to JW's raptor handler, Owen Grady (a fantastic Chris Pratt) to stop Indominous before she starts to make dinner out of the park's guests, which include Claire's visiting nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins).



Jurassic Park didn't become the classic it is just because of the fact that it revolutionized visual effects. It has endured, because, much like King Kong or Jaws, it is a wholly-satisfying and thrilling fun time at the movies. After two follow-ups that clearly had no idea how to recapture the magic of the original and stand on their own legs, director Colin Trevorrow pulls off a miracle and gives us a Jurassic sequel that builds on the premise of the first picture and actually succeeds in recapturing the spirit and enjoyment of that first picture.

Unlike the previous two films, making John Hammond's dream a reality is the most logical and interesting way to warrant a continuation of the original. We finally get to see the park open for business, and the film manages to instill awe and wonder of the place, before everything goes to hell. There are some spectacular prehistoric attractions, but the most memorable is the Sea World-like showcase of the ocean-beast, the Mosasaur. Universal went back to Hawaii to shoot Jurassic World, and director of photography, John Schwartzman makes you feel like you're on vacation watching the movie.


Speaking of which, something I personally dug about Jurassic World was its playful satirizing of theme park culture, specifically Universal Studios itself. Having visited the place numerous times, I got quite a few chuckles out how much the park in the movie resembled Universal Studios here in Los Angeles, from the escalators to its own version of City Walk. Jimmy Fallon, who appears in the video on Universal's backlot tour, even shows up on a tour video in this film.

To paraphrase a line from a lesser Jurassic picture, it all starts with ooh's and ahh's, but soon there's running and screaming. Jurassic World does deliver quite a bit of dino-action. What was surprising was how throwback it was in shooting the action sequences, as opposed to inducing sickness and utter confusion in audiences with that modern shaky-cam crap. Commendable, yes, but it does make those scenes feel all-too-familiar, especially when they nod to moments from the first. Also, the absolute absence of animatronic animals in this installment prevented the scares from reaching the same level of terror as something like the T-Rex breakout in the first movie. The sole use of CGI adds too much safety to all the chaos. I will say, though, that unlike more recent monster movies, like Cloverfield, Pacific Rim, and last year's Godzilla, it was refreshing to actually comprehend both what the monsters look like and the action on display.

Another aspect of Jurassic Park that keeps bringing people back is the collection of memorable, likable characters. While some, if not most, will describe the ones in this film as not being three dimensional, you have to admit that Jurassic World did something right in giving us characters that you want to see survive. Too often in movies like this these days, the humans tend to be either douchey or just plain dumb. Jurassic World breaks the mold by having everyone likable, even shady characters like the head of security played by Vincent D'Onofrio. Even the kids don't get on my nerves. Truly, though, this is definitely Chris Pratt's movie. He brings genuine charm to all the badassness, making Owen Grady the best human character introduced in any of the sequels. How awesome would it be to see this guy alongside the likes of Drs. Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm?



Despite a lack of freshness and on-set creatures, Jurassic World pulls off an impossible feat of being the worthy follow-up after more than one failed attempt at coming close to matching the first film. It's a dinosaur flick that thrills and leaves you feeling good after it is all over, which is what the original film did. That makes Jurassic World the sequel Jurassic Park deserved all along.

Jurassic World is now playing in theaters.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: KING KONG (1976)


King Kong (1976)

Directed by John Guillermin, starring: Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, Rick Baker, Ed Lauter

Nostalgia has certainly become less cool than it used to be, if it was really ever cool at all. For me, my enthusiasm for stuff from kid-dom reached a point where I ended up feeling exhausted and ultimately unfulfilled. It's why I sold off quite a large chunk of my action figures, which were doing nothing but gathering dust in the closet. A major result of letting go of nostalgia is looking at things you had a fondness for when you were young, and then realizing that they don't have the same effect on you when you're older and wiser.

Produced by Dino de Laurentiis and released by Paramount Pictures, the 1976 remake of the classic film, King Kong, offers us a modernized (for that time) take on what is essentially the same story. Instead of a film crew, it's now an oil company called Petrox, and it's greedy exec (Charles Grodin), journeying by ship to a mysterious island looking to score "the big one". The Jack in this version is Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a primate paleontologist who stows away to warn the ship with the legend of a large beast said to roam the island. And then there's Jessica Lange, in her debut, as Dwan. No, that wasn't a typo. Dwan is a wannabe actress who survived a yacht sinking and winds up being rescued by Jack and the Petrox crew. She becomes the object of affection for Kong, a forty-foot gorilla who is worshiped as a god by the island's natives. Kong ends up being captured by the Petrox gang and taken to New York City to be shown off as a mascot for the oil giant. Kong breaks free and wrecks havoc, which climaxes with the beast battling, not airplanes on top the Empire State Building, but with helicopters on the roof of the World Trade Center.

This was my introduction to King Kong, and the film blew me away when I first watched it as a two-night broadcast on NBC. It set off my life-long love affair with all things monsters, especially The Eighth Wonder of the World. Even though I spent more of my life loving and obsessing over the 1933 original, and then having Peter Jackson's 2005 remake as a companion piece, I still retained that nostalgic fondness for the first Kong I was exposed to.

But then I saw the movie again for the first time in decades. Revisiting this version turned out to be, much to my surprise, a huge letdown. I am shocked by how different King Kong '76 looks to me now, compared to how I remember it. As much as people bemoan Jackson's vision as over-indulgent, at least he had the decency to make a classy production that honors the original. Despite its own ambition at being a spectacle, this first remake comes across as boring, cheap, and a bit slimy. I despise Honest Trailers, but they have my full permission to take this one to task. That's how deep my disappointment runs.



The center of this miscalculation was hiring Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the script. Now, I love Semple's work on TV's Batman, as well as the glorious rock fantasy of both 1968's Barbarella and especially 1980's Flash Gordon. But the camp sensibility found in his other works is so out of place with the almost mythological level of Kong. In addition, the screenplay adds no new ideas to enhance the story. It just merely updates it to the 1970's, sometimes giving you the same eye-rolling that you would do watching lot of our modern remakes. That's because there are elements and dialogue that practically freezes the movie in its era. Kong's final stand on top of the World Trade Center is a major example, as well as Dwan's constant yammering about horoscopes and signs. And, of course, there's her famous exclamation, "You goddam chauvinist pig ape!"

The time period also brings up another big issue I have with this movie. I know that this was still the point in the 70s before Lucas and Spielberg cleaned the cultural landscape enough for Reagan to finish the job. However, I still think the highly-sexual overtones seem more appropriate for B-movie knock-offs of Kong than a major studio redux of a landmark film. The bestiality theme is not subtle at all in this picture. First off, there's a native high priest in a barely-there ape costume gyrating and thrusting in front of Dwan as she's being prepared to meet her mate. And I don't know about you, but that oil-black bolt on the giant gate is about as phallic a symbol as they come. The movie surely doesn't hold back when depicting that Kong is, to quote Jeff Bridges in the movie, "turned-on" by Dwan. While there was a scene in the original where Kong practically strips Ann Darrow of some of her clothing, in this movie, Kong gleefully pulls Dwan's top down, but she's hardly phased by that!

Boobies!
I'll admit that, as someone who's grown disillusioned by the sole reliance on CGI these days, seeing the practical effects on display in this King Kong was a welcome break. Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker are the men responsible for bring the big guy to life, mostly by way of an actor (in this case, Baker himself) in an ape costume and several masks performing on miniature sets. It's not unlike the techniques used in a Toho Godzilla movie. Problem is, Toho had been doing that for nearly twenty years by this point. While sometimes very successful in King Kong, it was hardly innovative. If you're going to attempt to out-do such a groundbreaking movie like the 1933 version, you have to do better than standard practice. Well, apparently that was the plan early on. Rambaldi constructed a life-size robot of Kong that was supposed to be utilized for this production. But the plan backfired, and the robot Kong ended up being used in about three quick shots in just one scene in the movie.

"Be-boop."
I actually would not have minded the cheesy, taudry script and man-in-suit effects so much if this version of King Kong was, in fact, more of a jaunty rip at the legend. But director John Guillermin tries to blow it up to mythological proportions. Sadly, though, the way he does it is by moving the picture along at such a languid pace. This version is nearly an hour shorter than Peter Jackson's, but it feels so much longer. The ponderous movement ends up having the adverse effect of magnifying the campy value of the other elements. The one scene that does benefit from being drawn out is the reveal of Kong himself. It's a suspenseful build-up where we first see trees swaying and hear trunks breaking. Then, it cuts to tracking close-ups of eyes as they move through the jungle. Next is an over-the-shoulder view of something pushing the trees aside as if they were nothing. Soon, the camera is from the point of view of the thing as it enters the clearing and looks down towards his new bride. Legendary composer John Barry provides a monstrous score that stomps alongside the beast. Then, everything stops. Dwan looks up, and the next shot is Kong, in all his glory. It is the one scene in the whole picture that actually lives up to the legend of the Eighth Wonder of the World. This was the moment where my fascination with movie monsters began, and it still gives me goosebumps to this day.

Yeah, I got nostalgic there for a moment. Sue me. It still doesn't change the fact that after so many years of kind looking-back, I was really insulted watching this version of King Kong. One part of me wishes I had left this film a distant fond memory, but, as a Kong enthusiast, I guess I needed to gain a sharper perspective on this part of the- still on-going, apparently- legacy of Kong. If you are going into this movie expecting it to be on the level of the original or Peter Jackson's, don't get your hopes up. If you're wanting a silly monkey-suit romp in the vein of King Kong vs. Godzilla, or even this film's sequel, King Kong Lives, then by all means, go ape.





King Kong is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures, and is currently available to stream on Netflix.