Monday, January 30, 2012

Monday at the Movies - January 30, 2012

Welcome to Week Five of “Monday at the Movies.” In honor of the fact that I’ve been reading Grant Morrison’s six-year run on Batman (beginning with Batman & Son and running through Batman Incorporated), I wanted to thematize this edition and look at three animated Batman features starring the great Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) – Considered by some to be the greatest Batman movie ever made, it’s certainly a fantastic Batman film, but nowadays it’s impossible to put it beside The Dark Knight and assess which is better. But this film is outstanding, arguably the apex of the Golden Age of DC Animation, initiated by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series (from which this film is “spun off”) This film sets a retelling of Batman’s first year as a crimefighter against his ongoing battle against vigilante The Phantasm, who’s violently eliminating Gotham’s mobsters. Like every great Batman story, The Joker gets involved, and it’s here that one of the film’s greatest strengths comes into play: Mark Hamill, whose brilliant portrayal of The Joker is as iconic as it gets. As much as I loved Heath Ledger’s performance, Hamill’s is still the voice I hear when I read the comics. In fact, that’s true of the whole voice cast, including Kevin Conroy, who’s been turning in the best and most consistent Batman in any media (yes, even including comics) for the last twenty years. The visuals match the audio very well, giving us a pitch-perfect gothic Gotham in which the principals play out their action. But the film isn’t entirely perfect. While the Phantasm story is compelling, the resolution doesn’t quite hold up after repeat viewings. But the juggling of moods and eras – from young Bruce Wayne to today, from mob assassinations to Joker’s tricked-out hide-out – works extremely well, guided by a Shirley Walker soundtrack which encapsulates the quintessential Batman mood. In fact, while the film isn’t perfect (The Dark Knight, I contend, is), it’s certainly quintessential – the film most accurate to the comic book source material.

Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998) – The second animated film in the Timm/Dini-verse doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Phantasm, nor is it the best Mr. Freeze story done by this particular creative team. It’s not that SubZero is a bad film, by any means; it’s a perfectly serviceable story, with Kevin Conroy and Michael Ansara reprising their spot-on voiceover roles as the eponymous hero and villain. But SubZero doesn’t quite work on a number of levels, suffering predominantly by following such a divinely authentic Batman film. The plot is a bit contrived, placing Barbara Gordon in peril where a) she’s not allowed to be Batgirl, her heroic alter ego, and b) we know Batman and his allies won’t allow her to be hurt, making the whole exercise a bit futile. The way Batman finds Mr. Freeze is clever, but much of the movie is decidedly less than stellar. What’s especially disappointing is that the makers of SubZero were also responsible for “Heart of Ice,” the luminous animated series episode which redefined Mr. Freeze’s origins and recast him as a tragic figure, all with wonderful visuals. The visuals here aren’t as appealing, with some very distracting CGI work detracting from the darkly gothic look the series had previously delivered. As the last entry in this iteration of Batman’s adventures before a redesign for The New Batman Adventures, it’s sad the show couldn’t go out with a Phantasm-sized bang, but at least my favorite episode – “Mad Love,” in which we learn that The Joker’s sidekick/lover Harley Quinn was once his psychiatrist – was yet to be. And at least this was better than the severed-head Freeze we got later.

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) – While I was never as big a fan of Batman Beyond as I was of Batman proper, seeing the “PG-13” version of this film made more interested – though not a convert – in this rendition of the character. Wisely, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are still on hand providing the voices of the (now-retired) Caped Crusader and his Clown Prince of Crime, but the lead is Will Friedle as Terry McGinnis, the latest to wear the cowl (and Bruce Wayne’s secret son, according to one Justice League Unlimited episode). As Batman, Terry finds himself facing his predecessor’s greatest foe, The Joker – a man who’s supposed to be dead. This is probably a great Batman Beyond movie, but it’s not to my liking, mostly because I can’t attach myself to the futuristic atmosphere of the franchise. With one notable exception: the fifteen-minute sequence in the middle of the film in which we find out what happened during Batman’s last confrontation with The Joker and Harley Quinn, which taps into the essential differences between the two forces of good and evil. This scene returns to the original series vibe of a dark Gotham with blood-red skies and a sense that danger is lurking in every shadowy corridor. I still get chills during this scene, to which I’ve returned several times as the perfect coda to the DC Animated Universe that brought me to comics in the first place. While the Batman Beyond series went on for more episodes beyond this film, I’ll always look at this as the end of “my” Batman and Joker.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday at the Movies - January 23, 2012

Welcome to the fourth weekly installment of “Monday at the Movies,” in which we find ourselves once more pigeonholed into reviewing movies that begin with the same letter. This edition of “Monday at the Movies” is brought to you by the letter “A.”

Adam’s Rib (1949) – I’ll not waste much time here and begin by saying that Adam’s Rib is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s easily the greatest of the nine films Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together. It’s also an extremely progressive picture, anticipating much of the women’s lib movement as well as advancing the cause of equality of the sexes long before the country at large embraced those ideas. Hepburn and Tracy play married attorneys Amanda and Adam Bonner, who find themselves on opposite sides of a case in which a woman attempted to shoot her philandering husband. The chemistry between the two is unindictable, as usual, but the Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin screenplay is solid, witty in all the right places but genuine and earnest in the moments when the relationship of the Bonners is tested by the case. On this latest rewatch (I’ve seen this film dozens of times since discovering it back in high school), I realized just how frequently the scene gets stolen, and surprisingly it’s not Judy Holliday who does the stealing. It’s David Wayne as Kip, the flamboyant musician who lives across the hall and harbors a strange infatuation with Amanda; the highlight scene of the whole film is easily when Kip performs his new song “Farewell, Amanda” for the Bonners, only one of whom is receptive. But it’s the relationship between Hepburn and Tracy that keeps me coming back to this film, because the way they play off each other is so pitch-perfect that it’ll make even the most embittered cynic feel romantic.

Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged (2011) – I believe this is the first nonfiction film I’ve reviewed for this site, and it almost didn’t happen until the DVD release. While there was never any doubt that I’d be seeing this movie at some point (Atlas Shrugged being my favorite book of all time – and there go the readers), it took two free tickets to one of the very limited screenings to get there. Chris Mortensen’s documentary is music to the ears of Rand’s disciples, poison to those who despise her work, and downright antithetical to those who’ve never read her stuff yet loathe her anyway. The documentary begins with a biographical sketch, delves full-force into the composition and publication of Atlas Shrugged and the attempts to film it, and concludes with an overview of the Rand resurgence in our culture today. The title, however, is a bit misleading; I went in expecting a profile on the ways in which Atlas Shrugged anticipated today’s economic/political scene, but what I got was more of an overview. It’s a good introduction to new initiates in the Objectivist school of thought or even for those curious what all the hoopla is about, but for those who have done a fair amount of reading on the subject (as, in all honesty, I have) there isn’t much new here. Of particular interest: Scene-stealer Al Ruddy reveals just how close he came to producing an Atlas Shrugged movie after The Godfather, right down to locking in Clint Eastwood and Faye Dunaway (perfect casting). While worth a look, this documentary doesn’t introduce much to the conversation surrounding the Objectivist revival; the really good stuff is in the last fifteen minutes, leading me to hope for a “sequel” of sorts exploring those matters in greater depth.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Monday at the Movies - January 16, 2012

Welcome to Week Three of “Monday at the Movies.” As Sean Connery once said, “I’ll take swords for $200.” And so, in tribute to that quotation, it’s movies that begin with the letter S for this week!

Sherlock Holmes (2009) – After loving A Game of Shadows, I felt compelled to go back and rewatch the first Guy Ritchie film about the sleuth of Baker Street (although my sister claims it’s a consequence of my “man-crush on Robert Downey Jr.”). And having just read A Study in Scarlet – the first Sherlock Holmes book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I was surprised by how detail-oriented this film is, despite its overall unconventional treatment of Holmes. It’s a fresh take on Holmes, but it’s one that doesn’t do injustice to the source material; small details like Holmes’s violin, Watson’s injured leg, and snippets of dialogue all seem like clever inventions of the screenplay, but they’re all drawn from the source. Downey is superb as the eccentric master sleuth, and Jude Law (of whom I’m not usually a fan) is suitably irritable and a perfect straight man for Downey’s antics. What I especially love about this movie is how well the script holds together, with a delightful reveal scene at the end in which Sherlock pieces together all the elements of villain Mark Strong’s plot in classic Holmes fashion. But the clues sprinkled throughout the film reward repeat viewings, as does Downey’s quirky performance. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hold him as one of our finest actors, and in this regard he does not disappoint. And that music by Hans Zimmer? First-class – you’ll be surprised that Holmes never had a major theme tune before a few years ago.

Stalag 17 (1953) – I’ve consistently ranked this as one of my favorite movies of all time, and with the holidays just passing it’s a perfect time to revisit this World War II prison camp flick set during Christmas. Director Billy Wilder hands in this fantastic film in which William Holden is Sefton, an American POW suspected of being an informant for the Germans. But as Sefton remarks, “There are two people in this barracks who know I didn't do it. Me and the guy that did do it.” But don’t mistake this for a mere suspense/thriller; Stalag 17 is not your typical WW2 film. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny in moments, dramatically wrought in others, and unfailingly entertaining. And coming from a guy who hates narration, the voiceover work by Gil Stratton as Cookie is top-notch, advancing the plot but nuanced enough to make us wonder how much we can trust a narrator who stutters. The dialogue is snappy, the mystery compelling, and the last twenty minutes addictively watchable. And don’t be too distracted by stars Holden, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves, and Sig Ruman – there’s an ensemble cast behind enemy lines, and each of them gets a moment to shine, from the “At Ease!” newsman to the Grable-obsessed Animal. One final word by way of recommendation – no one who has seen this movie at my recommendation has come back with anything less than complete love for the film. It might not be the most accurate POW film you’ll see, but it’s by far the most entertaining.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Monday at the Movies - January 9, 2012

Welcome to Week Two of "Monday at the Movies." On the docket for this week, four films adapted from popular novels (an unintentional link), including one where The Cinema King reverses a decade-long antipathy toward a particular fantasy film!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011) – I’ve never been overly captivated by the Harry Potter franchise. That is, I’ve never fallen head over heels in love with the movies, but I’ve taken them for what they are – well-done and imaginative but otherwise unremarkable fantasy adaptation films. And this film (affectionately dubbed 7B by myself and others) had to do a lot to win me over, mostly because I couldn’t approve of paying to see it after my now-legendary attempt at a midnight show of 7A. Now that I’ve rented it (for free), I’m ready to say that 7B was a well-done close to the franchise, but I think a lot of reviewers fell over this movie in a dead faint by overstating the film’s good attributes – chief among them a strong cast of England’s Finest (including a great turn from Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort) and exciting action sequences. This is an effective second half of a film, but as a film in its own right 7B doesn’t quite work. There were plenty of moments where the film faltered by standing on its own, including moments where a quick expositional memory jog would have filled in gaps or even moments where the film didn’t clearly articulate what was happening (i.e., the moment when one character dies – but it’s not clear which of two characters). I liked it, and I wouldn’t unsee it, but it didn’t quite live up to the hype. Fans and devotees, though, will gobble this up.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Mark it, loyal readers. The Cinema King has to reverse policy. The first time I saw Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Tolkien series, I fell asleep. After a rousing introduction narrated by Cate Blanchett, the film faltered for me. But after ten years of decrying the film as “The Wizard of Oz without ever actually getting to Oz,” the browbeating of literally everyone else who saw it induced me to give it a second shot. And honestly, I’m kind of glad I did. Fellowship is much more exciting then I remember, with plenty of great cast members and a plethora of well-directed rousing battle scenes. I’ve also tried reading the Tolkien novels, but those I find completely impenetrable because the story takes a backseat to the mythology and the linguistics; fortunately, Jackson makes knowledge of each creature’s name nonessential and wisely prizes the narrative and character interactions. The best of these is Sean Astin’s level-red dedication to and compassion for his friend Frodo (Elijah Wood, who’s nowhere near as amiable as his traveling companion). I was glad that I opted to rewatch this film and moved toward the second one with eager anticipation.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – After a good experience with the first film, I was incredibly disappointed with The Two Towers. Here is the glacial pace I remember, the problems of divergent focus, the not-much-happening mood pervading most of the whole film. After a promising first installment, the Lord of the Rings franchise starts to fall apart for me. Where the first film had strong character interaction, here Peter Jackson loses track of many of his key players every so often without a thematic link to bind them together. The film’s only significant action sequence comes at the end, much like in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End; here, though, the two hours of buildup are nowhere near intriguing enough to merit a three-hour runtime. While new characters Gollum and the Ents are entertaining and well-performed, they’re not given much to do other than tease things to come in the third installment. And my problems with Frodo continue here; he’s generally unlikeable, frequently misled, and more than a bit condescending. And a closing monologue about the nature of endings alludes to the problems of this film as a story – there isn’t one. But the promise of an ending is enough, I believe me, to do something I never thought I'd do - watch the third film.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – Knowledge of the cast alone (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, and John Hurt) was enough for me to pick up the John le Carré novel before even seeing a trailer, and I’m pleased to report that the film lives up to the book’s reputation and does a classy, thorough job of adapting the source material. Gary Oldman plays the uber-collected mole-hunter George Smiley, pursuing a double agent at the top of British intelligence during the height of the Cold War. The performances here are solid, as expected, although the atypical nature of this spy story (nothing blows up, and more relies on what is not said than what is actually done) might alienate some. Additionally, the plot is obtuse, although like Inception the right amount of mental calisthenics will prevent audiences from getting too lost in the details. But director Tomas Alfredson does an extremely solid job creating a very 1970s vibe throughout the whole movie, juggling flashbacks and multiple settings with great visual cues (such as the color of Smiley’s trademark specs). If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy doesn’t net Oldman the Oscar he’s deserved for so many years, it might be time to hang it up as far as the little gold man is concerned.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Monday at the Movies - January 2, 2012

Welcome to the first installment of "Monday at the Movies," the first of what should be a more frequent way of updating the blog without the time-consuming aspect of full reviews. Full reviews aren't gone by any means, but they'll be more infrequent and saved for special occasions (good or bad). Check back each Monday for a look at what The Cinema King's been up to and what he's thought during his travels.

(This post will be a bit longer than usual, since I'm playing "catch-up" on the movies I've seen in the last month or so. Christmas is a great time for the movies.)

Fail-Safe (1964) – I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m in love with Sidney Lumet’s work, and this was a bit of an unusual choice for a New Year’s Eve movie choice. But as always with Lumet I wasn’t disappointed. The film’s treatment of measures to prevent an accidental attack on Moscow in the height of the Cold War still carries all the tension it must have fifty years ago, due in large part to Lumet’s capacity to induce anxiety via his careful manipulation of the camera. High marks also to Henry Fonda, who brings his trademark integrity and earnestness to the role of the troubled President of the United States, who has to convince the Russians that the bombers are not sanctioned while wrestling with a number of impossible moral conflicts – which are then asked of the audience at the film’s startling and alarming conclusion. While the film becomes a bit heavy-handed when the President deplores the policy of mutually assured destruction, Fonda’s intense delivery sells it in a way akin to Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). If this film doesn’t grip you and hold on until the very end, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller gets a stellar treatment here in the hands of director David Fincher. The book was addicting like very few I’ve ever read, and the film doesn’t disappoint. Fincher keeps the plot moving (despite a few tweaks from the novel) in a quick and cerebrally engaging way, but the real star here is a career-making performance from Rooney Mara as the troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander, who embodies the character and all her subtle quirks opposite a typically stoic Daniel Craig. The suspects in the disappearance under investigation – Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson – all do good work, especially Skarsgard who never disappoints (see Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor, and Mamma Mia for a sense of his range). I’m willing to forgive Trent Reznor for stealing last year’s soundtrack Oscar from Hans Zimmer, because the music here is suitably unsettling, creating a mood perfectly complementary to the visuals Fincher crafts. The film might leave some cold because it’s not standard Hollywood/awards season fare, but it’s a movie which requires thoughtful engagement and a critical understanding of the “man’s inhumanity” theme that pervades the work.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) – I can’t remember the last time I saw a straight action film, one that didn’t play games with the audience or deliberately try to subvert the genre with a series of improbable twists. Pixar veteran Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) does a fine job with this fourth Mission: Impossible film, which fortunately doesn’t require the first three installments to make sense. The acting doesn’t accomplish much beyond providing bodies to live out the film’s action sequences; it’s impossible, for example, to forget that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise and not Ethan Hunt. But those action sequences are something else indeed, thrilling and exciting in the best escapist tradition. Kudos to Bird for yanking the breath out of my lungs even in moments when I knew that they wouldn’t kill the star, and if the franchise continues like this (even with Jeremy Renner, who seems to be groomed for taking the reins) I may have to accept this mission.

Panic in the Streets (1950) – This, my first experience with the legendary director Elia Kazan, wasn’t a knockout. The premise is promising: investigators have 48 hours to find the murderers of a plague victim before they infect New Orleans with the disease. Richard Widmark is more than capable as a public health official, and a young Jack Palance is appropriately ominous as the murderer, but the film suffers from a split focus, never finding a balance between pursuer and pursued. There are long stretches of film where we don’t see Widmark, for example, a problem which drops a lot of the tension in the film. Compounding this problem is a dated and distracting misunderstanding of germ theory, which makes some of the film’s twists a bit, shall we say, inaccurate. Perhaps in the 50s it held up better, but as the second installment in a TCM double feature with Fail-Safe, Panic in the Streets didn’t raise much commotion for me.

Rango (2011) – I had extremely high expectations for director Gore Verbinski’s first animated film. And being a big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the inclusion of Johnny Depp as the star was icing on the cake. Unfortunately, I think my high expectations were insurmountable for the film, which ultimately disappointed me. The story of a thespian chameleon who becomes the sheriff of the town of Dirt, Rango flirts with the western genre without ever doing anything productive with that sporadic flirtation. Depp’s voice acting is first-rate, giving life and nuance to Rango, and the other voices (Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, and Timothy Olyphant channeling Clint Eastwood) do good work, too. But the story is a bit weak, overladen with scatological humor and other jokes that try too hard. I’d love to have seen what the film would have looked like in the hands of a more capable screenwriter (i.e., someone from the Pixar stable).

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) – Not everyone was in love with Robert Downey Jr.’s second outing as the master detective, but I was – although not initially. Downey and Jude Law still have excellent chemistry as the eccentric Holmes and his straight-man partner Watson, but the scene stealer here is not Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (who’s quirky but doesn’t quite gel) but Jared Harris as archenemy Professor Moriarty. Harris is a calm yet psychotic counterpart to Holmes’s intellect, evenly matching our detective at every turn. While the first half of the film struggles to find its footing, the second half rebounds from the uncertainty with a compelling Holmes-v-Moriarty cerebral match that spans several nations. It might be spoiling something to say that the film adapts “The Final Problem” among others, but it’s not spoiling anything to say that director Guy Ritchie does a good job adapting the source material to his own unique style and sensibilities. The standout feature, though, is once again the vast amount of infectious fun that Robert Downey Jr. seems to be having, and I can’t wait for the next film.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012 -- A New Direction

No, not a review of Roland Emmerich's 2009 disaster-porn feature. Rather, a new direction for The Cinema King.

I realize I've been entirely remiss in my duties as monarch of this fair kingdom (Blogger tells me I haven't posted in nigh on a year). But rather than exchange some platitudes and excuses about my extended absence, I want to say that I'm revamping the format of this establishment and tweaking the way we do business, the better to edify you, cinematically speaking.

New look in hand, it's time to continue to evolve. Beginning tomorrow, in honor of the new year (and perhaps last, if the Mayans are to be believed), I'll be changing the way I review movies, providing a more timely and more sweeping scope of what's good, bad, and ugly in the world of celluloid. I hope this'll be a weekly or biweekly feature, but I hope it'll make the waits between reviews more bearable.

What is it, you ask? Ah, stay tuned. The ride begins tomorrow...