Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back to School

We follow Burt Young from Rocky Balboa to Back to School, the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy that serves as a bridge between the Rocky films and our next series. Back to School is a personal favorite, highly quotable among friends film that seems to e unfairly ignored when it comes to naming the best comedies f the 80’s.

The film follows Thornton Mellon, a true rags to riches success story. Mellon wet from an uneducated sideshow act to a wealthy manufacturer of plus size clothes. Mellon dumps his cheating trophy wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and heads off to rekindle the relationship with his son, Jason. (Keith Gordon) Mellon discovers his son discouraged about college, so he decides to get his degree, too, in solidarity with him.

Mellon realizes almost too late he cannot buy an education or relationships as his hilarious goofing around causes animosity with an arrogant economics professor, (Robert Whitehead) nearly destroys a budding romance with an English professor, (Sally Kellerman) and alienates Jason y paying others to do his work and gets him on the diving team by doing his old sideshow act. Nevertheless, Mellon overcomes t all, even the mistake of hiring Kurt Vonnegut to write an essay on Breakfast of Champions, to come out on top.

Mellon plays the aging, oversexed party dude to the hilt among an intereting menagerie of characters played by Burt Young, Robert Downey, Jr, and Sam Knison, among others. Terry Farrell hs a brief turn as Jason’s love interest. Sadly enough, heractig chops were improved by thetime she appeared on Deep Space Nine.

Back to School is a funny, frivolous film, but well worth your time.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rocky Balboa

We had to suffer through the disappointment of the awful Rocky V capping off the otherwise solid Rocky franchise for sixteen years until Sylvester Stallone, now sixty, decided to give closure to his two most famous characters, Rambo and Rocky. In spite of the implausibility of an aging Rocky stepping back into the rig to fight a champion less than half hi age, the ilm works. It serves as a fantastic final bookend to the series.

I have to admit Rocky Balboa resonates with me on an empathetic level, so your mileage may vary. Rocky is old, showing the signs of heading down that not so log walk into the twilight. His life has shrunk with Adrian now passed on and the rest of his family and friends struggling with their own lives. Rocky lives quiet life, dwelling on the much better past wile realizing that is as good as it is going to get. The last few years of my life have been quite similar, so I get a little twinge watching Rocky make the best of it than same way I do. Rocky is awfully pitiful, alternating between sitting by Adrian’s grave and regaling restaurant patrons with stories of his glory days.

Rocky gets a chance to pull himself out of his funk and reconcile with his son Robert I the way we should have, but did not get to see in the previous film, when an ESPN computer simulation shows Rocky I his prime defeating the current champ, mason ’The Line” Dixon. Both fighters have something to prove. Rocky wants to know he is not a has been. Dixon feels illegitimate because he has not faced any serious opponents. The idea now I the public’s mind that Rocky was better than him urns.

So the two wind up on a collision course in the ring. It is a typical Rocky fight. He loses the first round, starts pummeling Dixon later, and so on. The fight ends with Dixon winning a split decision against the slow, arthritic Rocky, which oes note he is not much of a boxer if that is the best he can do. But like the better films in the series, the best parts of the film are the personal ones outside the rig. Rocky reconciles with his son believably while reconnecting with minor characters from various past installment. He does not care about the match decision beause he knows he still has family and riends around him.

The best way I can think of to tell you how good Rocky Balboa is to assure you the cruel idea of a young boxer beating up an old widower never crosses your mind. The film has heart. It is the personal story you will be dwelling on. I would put it up there close to the first and third as the best films in the series.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rocky V

Do I really have to elaborate much on Rocky V? The series hit rock bottom with the film. Sylvester Stallone himself considers it the most ill-conceived, anemic enty into the series. If I am not mistaken, Gene Siskel is the only major movie reviewer to give Rocky V a positive review.

The big problem comes down to the film being so depressing. Tragic things happen to Rocky in every one of the movies, but he has always overcome them to achieve a considerable measure of happiness and success. Y the end of Rocky V, he is I his mid-40’s, broke, and brain damaged after a redneck street brawl. The end. Rocky V does not cap off the series. It gives it the finger.

I will give some credit for its heart being in the right place. Rocky is seriously injured after his bout with Drago and I the poor house after his accountant squanders his fortune, yet he is prepared to start all over again and even take the offer of a Don King-esque promoter for another fight just to take care of his family. He becomes distracted from his son when the opportunity to mentor Tommy Funn. Rocky then has to struggle to find how his various responsibilities lie within his new lot in life.

What it does not work. Rocky’s misfortunes are more cruel than compelling. He never has that heartfelt reconciliation with his increasingly neglected son, which is odd considering the boy is played by Stallone’s real life so, Sage. The intention with Gunn was for Rocky to be his Mick, protecting him from the vultures that run professional boxing, but there is no emotional connection there, either. Rocky is angry over is losses and Gunn is jealous of being in his shadow, so they beat the tar out of each other in the back alleys of Philadelphia. Everything works out i the end. Sort of.

I cannot think of a single reason for anyone to watch .Rocky V. You can go from the fourth straight to Rocky Balboa without missing a beat. Unle you are a glutton for punishment, that is what I suggest you do. Even the rap theme music is awful.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rocky IV

If Rocky III was a slow descent into absurdity, Rocky IV is the freefall. Sylvester Stallone’s heart might have been in the right place, but his sensibilities re no where to be found. Did he not have someone nearby who could put the brakes on some of his most outlandish ideas or did he pull a George Lucas on this one?

Rocky IV was released in 1985, the same year as Stallone starred I Rambo: First Blood, Part II. He earned a reputation in the latter, which he denies, as a jingoistic Cold Warrior single-handedly defeating the red menace. I have often wonder why Rambo was pinned in such a way when Rocky had a far bigger case of it here.

The Soviet Union introduces irts star athlete, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) into the world of American boxing. I look with amusement 25 years later on what drago is all about. The Soviets have pumped him up with steroids to make him some sort of superman to destroy any American fighter who gets in his way. There were supposed to be hints of creepy genetic engineering and sneay, underhanded unsportsmanlike behavior that Americans would certainly never do. Seems quaint now considering the prevalence off steroids in professional American sports today. Or stallone’s widely know use of HGH himself, for that matter.

Apollo, feeling his age, wants to challenge Drago in an exhibition match. Rocky plays the Mick role to him, first discouraging him, then agreeing to be in his corner. He should have listened to Rocky, though, as Drago takes the match way too seriously and kills Apollo.

“If he dies, he dies.” said Drago to the press. Seriously, Sly. Let someone read your scripts before you film them.

Rocky feels guilty because he did not throw in the towel in time to save Apollo. In true Hollywood logic, Rocky arranges to fight Drago in Siberia on Christmas Day as revenge. I have often wondered if the Christmas date was supposed to be the godless Soviets taking a jab at Christianity, but the movie is already so full of over the top knocks against the communists, I will just leave that one up to you to decide.

Of course, everyone assures Rocky he cannot win. The audience was expecting that conflict. What we were wondering is whether Rocky wants to kill Drago in the ring, just beat him up, or feels like he ought to die as penance for Apollo. It is hard to tell because the script never quite decides whether rocky is fighting for Apollo, America, or himself. Everyone has their own theory, so your enjoyment hinges on how well you think the film played out your theory.

I go with the jingoism. Apollo’s death made the fight personal for Rocky, but his demise was still merely the catalyst for an East v. West conflict. I will grant you the boxing match is the most exciting of all the ones featured so far. I have a tough time believing Rocky could win, but there you go. The speech at the end in which Rocky personally brings on perestroika is as hokey as it gets. Then again, the Soviet Union fell six years later, so what do I know?

Rocky IV is entertaining if not taken too seriously. The film is an interesting picture of how we viewed the Cold War in Ronald Reagan’s ’80’s. It is clearly defined good guys verses purely evil bad guys whose hearts are thawed out in the end by clearly defined good guy’s clearly defined goodness. It works on most levels, but itr is by no means a masterpiece.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rocky III

Will success spoil Rocky Balboa? According to Rocky III. But Mr. T will come along to beat the living snot out of him and Apollo will not only become his pal, but teach Rocky African-American rhythm, so it all works out y the end.

Rocky III is a dramatic shift from the first two films. Gone is much of the gritty, but honest humanity to be replaced by a sell out Rocky, manufactured to be an American hero and the glitzy Adrian who has replaced the humble, shy version. It is definitely as though the previous films have been completely forgotten. Rocky is permed, pretty, and soft as cotton candy in his newly found wealthy lifestyle.

Certainly, this is all set up for Rocky’s downfall at the fists of Clubber Lang (Mr. T) so he ca be built back up to the good natured scrapper he was before. The plan works effectively by Hollywood standards. Rocky III is another one of those films in which you like the protagonist succeed even if the journey to reach that point is rather silly.

Rocky has been built up into a sports icon by pounding a bunch of unworthy contenders in defending his title at the same time has gone Hollywood, appearing with the Muppets and duking it out in a charity event against Hulk Hogan. At the unveiling of a statue in his honor, he is taunted by Lang, a younger and more vicious fighter. Against Mick’s advice, he agrees to a match.

Rocky get the stuffing beat out of him as Mick dies of a heart attack over the stress of a pre-fight confrontation. Rough night for both of them, no?

Rocky falls into a deep depression, but is pushed out of it by Apollo, who offers to train him for a rematch. The training journey is not as poignant as in the first film. There Rocy need to believe in himself. Here he is far more emotionally damaged. The hurt I to the point you wonder if there is wisdom in putting him back into the ring.

But then you get lost in the absurdity of Apollo turning Rocky into a black fighter by teaching him rhythm. Well, it works. In the rematch, Rocky is able to dodge most of Lang’s punches. As he gets more frustrated, Lang becomes sloppier until Rocky can finally unload on him. Moral of the story: Sylvester Stallone can be blacker than Mr. T wit Carl Weaters’ advice.

That ought to merit four stars, right? how about Rocky III being such an essential ’80’s icon? The Rocky series is losing its heart, but Rocky III is still a very entertaining movie.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rocky II

A sequel to the sleeper hit Rocky was inevitable. Equally inevitable is that it does not quite match up to the original. Its heart is in the right place, but the challenges Rocky faces, which were sincere and human in the original, often fall into maudlin theatrics the second time around.

The movie begins right where the original left off. Both rocky and Apollo are taken to the same hospital because of their severe injuries. Apollo is interested I a rematch, but Rocky is in such bad shape, he announces his retirement. Only Adrian supports his decision.

The plot complications that follow are awfully contrived. Apollo is burned by the public sentiment Rocky was robbed of victory by the judges. He begin a smear campaign to goad Rocky back ito the ring. Meanwhile, Rocky is having a tough timesaving in on his fame because his lack of education is hindering his ability to read for commercial endorsements. As his financial woes worsen, he realizes boxing is the only thing he knows how to do. He is further pushed back into the ring by his old friends who think he is a coward for not facing up to Apollo’s challenge.

Now for the maudlin--Rocky and Adrian marry, she gets pregnant, but the baby is born premature and se falls into a coma. Rocky refuses to train for his rematch with Apollo until she wakes up. She does, but y that time, Rocky would have to be Superman to be prepared to fight Apollo. But he does anyway and wins even easier than he did the first time around when most of the movie was devoted to him training for the impossible task of defeating Apollo.

It sounds like I am down on Rocky II,but I am not. Sylvester Stallone created a very appealing, sympathetic character who I want to see win out I the end. My desire allows me to overlook the story quality, which is definitely about two steps below the first. I would place Rocky II in the middle of the pack in the series. It has problems, but it is still an enjoyable film.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rocky

We are going to combine two themes for this week. The connection with Oscar is Sylvester Stallone and we are going to coverall six Rocky movies. The best of the bunch naturally comes first. Rocky was shot on a shoe string budget in 28 days, but became a sleeper hit, both with audiences and critics. Rocky went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. As far as I am concerned, it is the greatest sports movie of all time.

Rocky tells the story of Rocky Balboa (Stallone), a good natured collector for a loan shark. Rocy I a local fighter who gets the chance to fight the world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) when the umber one contender is in injured. Rocky is chosen solely because Apollo likes hi Italian Stallion nickname.

Rocky enlists the aid of a former boxer, now elderly manager named Mick (Burgess Meredith) and his friend Pauly (Burt Young), who allows him to practice punching slbs o meet at the meat packing plant he works. Such has become a cultural icon.

The real story of rocky is not the upcoming boxing match, but the developing love story between Rocky and Adrian, (Talia Shire) a pet store clerk and Pauly’s sister. Adrian, like Rocky, is not glamorous or even removed from the streets. Rocky’s wooing of her is so real, it makes the movie. Hollywood has not been able to pull off a romance quite like that since, in my humble opinion.

Rocky does not think he can defeat Apollo. He just wants to go the distance--15 rounds--to prove that he can. Apollo does not take him seriously, either, but the match becomes itense when Rocky takes advantage of his overconfidence and knocks him down in the first round. Rocy goes the distance, but loses a split decision. It does not matter, though, because he has won Adrian’s heart.

There is so much about this movie that has ingrained itself in the public conscious--punching carcasses, ’Yo, Adrian!” and running up the steps of Independence Hall--you know all of them even if you have never seen Rocky. If you have not, shame on you. It is a great film. You do not have to care a thing about boxing to love it.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Oscar

We follow Tim Curry over to Oscar, a 1991 comedy in which he plays an elocution expert hired to help mobster Sylvester Stallone fit into polite society when he maes a promise to his dying father to go straight. But the mob keeps pulling him back in. The film is a remake of a French film with the same title ad directed by the great comedic director, John Landis.

You would hope with such factors going for it, Oscar would work, but it really does not. The failure of the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Stallone. He is an action star who can do drama effectively, but he not a comedian. Oscar is a screwball comedy along the lines of the Marx brothers in the ‘30‘s and ‘40‘s. That sort of thing is a fine fit for Curry, who is about the only truly funny thing in the film, and surprisingly, Marissa Tomei, who plays Stallone’s rebellious daughter.

I suppose the plan was for the absurdity of Stallone being cast so far out of type was supposed to be amusing, but it is more painful instead.

The plot is complicated by the existence of three identical black suitcases that continually get mixed up with each other. Each contains a different item-- jewels, Tomei’s underwear, and $50,000--that confuse everyone’s intentions when they get mixed up. In the resolution, only the suitcase with the underwear is at the house when the cops arrive, so no one gets in trouble. That qualifies as a happy ending.


Critic savaged Oscar and I do not blame them. The only reason I would sit through it again is if someone threatened me with Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! instead. Considering Analyyze This, Roert De Niro miht have pulled off the main character and made Oscar funny, but Stallone needs to stay as far away from comedy as possible.

Watch it for Curry if you dare. Try a couple YouTube searches solely for his performance instead. You will be happier.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

We follow Susan Sarandon over to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the purposely cheap homage to classic science fiction. Sarandon once quipped he had been in fifty plus movies, many of Oscar caliber quality, but this is the one goig in the time capsule. Kind of sad, really.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a British comedy/B-movie/science fiction/comedy/rock opera about two motorists, Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon) who are stranded at the mansion of Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), a mad scientist from the planet Transylvania, while on their honeymoon. Furter is also a weird transvestite who makes Eddie Izzard look like a tent revival speaker.Furter is o the verge of creating his masterpiece, the perfect specimen of a man e calls Rocky.

The film is narrated by a criminologist played by Charles Gray, who is taking a big step backwards from portraying James Bond’s archenemy, Blofeld. The criminologist presides over the ensuing wild an wacky happenings, including some pretty catchy song and dance numbers, one involving Meatloaf, some gruesome twists, bad special effects, sex, and Sarandon in her underwear. Curry, too, but that I not a selling point.

I have seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show three times. The first time was as a favor to a friend who was in an audience participation version at the university of South Carolina. The experience had all ternary callbacks to the screen and various actions the audience is supposed to take. The night was all about the social experience of beig part of the fan base. It is like following the Grateful Dead, as near as I can tell. A good time.

The other two times have been once on television at Halloween an earlier as I watched the DVD. For this review. I hae to say when the movie has to exist on its own merits without the addition of an audience having fun, the movie flops. The bad script and cheap special effects are done on purpose as homage to the bad science fiction features of the past, but the impact of it is lost when it is just you watching it. The thrill jut is not there. I must confess there as not much thrill for me to begin with.

I have serious doubts I will ever watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show again and certainly not as a way to kill an idle evening. There is nothing here to recommend it for that. In a group, though, it might be worth your time if you ave the right heart attitude. That is, you are there to have a good time with riends, not to get egaged in a movie that cannot quite hold your attention. Some of the songs will stick with, though.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a good showase for character actor Curry, but he has been in a lot more enjoyable films and television shows than this.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bull Durham

We follow Tim Robins over to my favorite baseball movie, Bull Durham. Bull Durham is officially labeled a romantic comedy because of the love triangle between the three main characters, but do not let that fool you. The real romance here is the love of baseball. If you have anything less than a religious devotion for the mystique of the game, most of Bull Durham’s appeal will be bewildering to you.

The story revolves around “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner), an aging minor league catcher who has log sense missed his chance to make it to The Show. He is assigned to the Durham Bulls in order to prepare a young pitching phemon named Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laroosh make it to the majors. Nuke is chosen by baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) as her chosen affair for the season, but she finds herself increasingly attracted to Crash instead.

Crash teaches the wild, undisciplined Nuke al about the skills of baseball from pitchig technique to the pointless banter of sports interviews all while competing for Annie’s affection. None of them are quite ready for the next step lie is going to bring. Nuke is too immature to handle the big league. Crash is frustrated by jealousy over the opportunity he never got, but Nuke is not taking seriously. Annie does not want to grow up ad have a real, romantic relationship. Therein lies the tension.

But the true heart of the film is the love of baseball. The gam is practically a main character when you consider how much it permeates the lives of everyone. If you cannot comprehend paying homage to a makeshift shrine to Yankees catcher Thurmond Munson, a huge part of the film is going to be lost to you. More so than…say, Field of Dreams, another great baseball movie which nevertheless uses baseball as more of a ca than a main theme.

If I had the physical prowess to play a team sport, I would choose baseball so much of Bull Durham is wish fulfillment for me. Your mileage may vary, but it is still a classic sports film and one that I have seen numerous times without it getting old.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Shawshank Redemption

After a bite more of a hiatus than I had planned, we get back to movie reviews. We follow Morgan Freeman from The Dark Knight over to one of my all time favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption.

The Shawshank Redemption centers around Andy Dufresne, a banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover based on strong circumstantial evidence. Dufresne spends nearly twenty years in prison. During that time, he follows the principle of blooming where you are planted by maintaining as much of his previous life as possible. Drufresne befriends his fellow prisoners, in particular Ellis ’Red” Reddings (Moran Freeman) in his efforts to add humanity to their imprisonment.

Dufresne finds himself protected by the guards when he uses his banking skills in a money laundering scheme for the warden. Oe begins questioning Drufresne’s integrity at this point. He has up util now gotten himself into trouble on behalf of his fellow inmates. Now he is helping exploit them for his own benefit.

After a fellow prisoner reveals a story that might clear Drufresne is killed by the warden, the true story of the movie is revealed. Drufresne has had a twenty year plan of escape he finally completes after his betrayal. There is payback to the warden, too.

Now is a good a time as any to reveal my voice in the wilderness theory Drufresne actually did kill his wife and has been corrupt the entire time. No one else goes for the idea, but honestly, prison never seems to harden Dufresne enough that he would ecome a crook or set I motion a plan of revege that would lead to the warden’s downfall. The seeds of that would have to have been there from the beginning. Drufesne would always have had to possess the capacity for cold evil.

No one else goes for that theory, huh?

The resolution to The Shawshank Redemption is incredibly implausible. That Drufresne could hide his escape efforts for nearly twenty years is beyond all reason. Yet I accept it because the heart of the film is so compelling. The bonds that Drufresne forms with his fellow prisoners are genuine and sometimes touching. At times, I have to stop and realize these guys are murderers and rapists undeserving of such an emotional connection. It is the mark of a well done film that I have to do that.

The Shawshank Redemption was not a big hit at the box office, but was one with critics and word of mouth has given in a ew life on cable and DVD. It is a prison film, o there is a claustrophobic mood throughout. Some very unpleasant this happen that you can probably guess. I have already said the ending is implausible. Yet, things all come together to make a truly good film.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Dark Knight

We follow Morgan Freeman, who played Lucius Fox in Batman Begins, over to the reprisal of the role in The Dark Knight. As much praised as I heaped on the first, sequel deserves more. The only reason I have doubts Batman Begins is not the greatest comic book film of all time is because I am quite confident The Dark Knight takes the top spot.

I cannot review the film in any capacity without admitting Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker steals the film. The praise heaped upon Leder’s performance was not just posthumous sentimentality. He would own the role even if he had not tragically overdosed months before its release. Some speculate the role may have contributed to his damaged state of mind. The Dark Knight’s version of the Joker took the most demented, homicidal elements of the character and put them on screen.

I have to dip into my geek soul a moment, too, and express my prior trepidations. Early indications were the Joker’s origin was going to be changed from a crook scarred and made insane by a plunge into toxic chemicals to a psycho in clown make up. It sounded like one of those changes comic book fans are prone to burn creators in effigy for trying to pull off. Mercy, he is going to be played by the guy from Ten Things I Hate About You, to boot!

I should have had more faith in Christopher Nolan and Ledger.

While the Joker steals the show, everyone else is in fine form. Christian Bale shows he was no fluke in Batman Begins. No small feat there. Michael Keaton limped through his second turn as the Caped Crusader. He was the last guy brave enough to try twice. Newcomers Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal are fine additions to the cast, as long as they both lasted.

If I may delve into comic book geekdom again, Two Face is one of my favorite Batman villains. He could have carried a whole movie far more entertainingly than did Tommy Lee Jones’ awful interpretation in Batman Forever. Far too campy to suit me, that was.

I do not care what anyone says, Maggie Gyllenhaal is adorable. I will fight any man who says otherwise.

The Dark Knight is nihilistic, cynical about the public perception of heroes, and very brilliant. It deserves all the accolades it gets for beig what I likely the greatest comic book movie both eeksand non-geeks alike can enjoy. Beware, though. My cynical self agreed quite often with the Joker’s cynical view on human nature. A scary thought.

Ratig: ***** (out of 5)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Batman Begins

Ken Watanabe serves as the bridge between The Last Samurai and Batman Begins. Out of all the cast connections I could have made to eventually get to Batman Begins, would you have ever expect that one? I enjoy being as unusual as possible. The unexpected twists are always the best ones.

Before I get into the review, let me tell you what this movie means to comic book fans in general. It is debatable whether Batman Begins has lost its lofty perch I the last five years with comic book based movies rapidly increasing in quality, but for a time there, it was the greatest comic book movie of all time. Fans considered it a godsend because we could finally stop pretending Tim Burton ad made the quintessential super hero film with 1989’s Batman and hand the honor rightfully over to Christopher Nolan. Because he is a geek like us who understands what comics are all about.

Nolan takes the Neal Adams Batman--take my word for it, non-comics geeks--and puts him on screen proper for the first time ever. He is dark, brooding, and far more Batman than Bruce Wayne, just like he is in the comics. Nolan rounds out the film with a stellar cast, including Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Rutger Hauer. That illustrious group could make ay film shine, much less one based on a comic book character.

What I really liked were the layers. There are characters and situations introduced in the film that have special meaning only if you are familiar with the comics, yet not knowing all the details does not detract from the general audiences’ enjoyment. Secret geek code, if you will.

The Scarecrow is not a particularly prominent villain in the comics. It was a risk to make him the main villain, but it works splendidly.

As does pretty much everything. The acting, the story, the production design--it is all good. I am even willing to forgive changes made in the costume and vehicles--no small feat for a loyal comic book geek--because it all gels. Batman Begins isa classic in the comic book to film genre.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Last Samurai

We follow tom Cruise over to 2003’s The Last Samurai. The film has been derided as Dances with Wolves in Japan. While The Last Samurai does not hit all the marks as well as does Dances with Wolves, it isa worthy film within its own right.

Cruise plays jaded ex-army Captain Nathan Algren. Algren is haunted by his actions during the wars against Native Americans. Since leaving the army, he has madea living telling his war stories at gun shows to enthusiastic crowds. Their excitement only deepens his cynicism.

Algren gets the chance to help modernize the Japanese military, but is soon captured by samurai forces who want to remain true to tradition. While in their custody, Algren finds solace in appreciating their ways and opts to learn the ways of a samurai.

His journey is a interesting, albeit predictable one, for anyone who hasseen similarly themed movies. Or if you have see Shogun, for that matter.

The romance of the old ways comes to an abrupt halt--literally--when the samurai are mowed down by a Gatlin gun. The theme of The Last Samurai is one cannot stand I the way of progress. Even cultures one may feel are worthy of survival have to adapt or die off. Such an effortless massacre comes across as a ar too heavy-handed way of resolving the issues. It is supposed to have a heavy emotional impact. It comes across as so blunt as to be borderline parody. I admit--I laughed at how hard the film was trying.

The Last Samurai is a beautiful film. Nineteenth century Japan is recreated magnificently. If you have a eye for art design, you should watch just for that. The film is entertaining, but nothing special. The creators wanted to make classic here, but could not quite pullit off. Perhaps if Americans were more intrigued by Japanese culture.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Magnolia

We move away from Paul Thomas Anderson’s log and unpleasant Boogie Nights to his follow up, Magnolia--a long, but far more pleasant film. Or at least I think so. I have introduced the film to friends over the last decade. Most of them thought Magnolia was an overly complicated mess with an out of left field ending that serves as an admission Anderson had no clue where he was going when he started. Needless to say, I disagree.

I need less linear thinking friends, too. Help me.

The film begins with three short stories which all revolve around extraordinary incidents of coincidences from uran legend. They set up expectations that the relationships involving the large cast of characters will wid up overlapping in extraordinary ways.

We catch these relationships all on one rainy day in the San Fernando Valley. Some of these relationships are happy, others are stressed or sad. For example, there isa religious cop who has fallen in love with a woman so blindly, he cannot see she is strung out on drugs. A young boy is under tremendous pressure to win on a game show by his father. The host of the game show is an old man dying of cancer while his young trophy spends her day trying to score morphine.

That is just a sample of all that is going on, including an Oscar nominated performance by Tom Cruise as a smarmy self-help guru who teaches how to seduce women. His scenes unintentionally echo some of the actor’s later earnest shilling for Scientology.

Following all the stories can get overwhelming. Just as you expect something to happen which will tie them all together as hinted in the beginning, frogs begin raining from the sky. The event affects every story in a different way, though not necessarily offering closure. Such is the chief complaint from those who demand all films wrap up every story in a neat little package.

I do not have that problem and am content to leave certain stories open to interpretation based on what has come before. Magnolia is a big, emotionally charged ilm for which you have to toss out all logic in order to enjoy. It does not fulfill a regular moviegoer’s expectation, but it does offer something wonderful.

Rating: **** (out of 5)