Saturday, August 31, 2013

Movie Reviews: "Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm" (1993)

Who doesn’t love Batman?

Whether you’re interested in the tragic character of Bruce Wayne overcoming adversity to rise from his parent’s death to become a symbol of hope and vengeance, or if its the morals and code of Batman to simply just loving superheroes, Batman is one of the most iconic and beloved heroes.

In fact, Batman even stands out above the crowd from fellow heroes to become more than just another costumed vigilante. It’s more than just the fact that Batman has no powers and relies completely on his ingenuity and wit, but Batman walks that thin line between light and dark, good and evil. He is so close to falling into the abyss, yet never once falters. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, but never resorts to taking another life.

It could be said that superheroes nowadays are our versions of the ancient Greek myths, like Hercules, Achilles and Zeus. These unbelievable individuals who have tragic elements to them, only to become something far greater than we could possibly imagine and stand as more than just mere men. Heroes like Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Batman are no different from the Greek myths in that regard. 

This might help to explain some of the appeal of superheroes these days and why there is an overabundance of hero movies. Not only are they bankable, but they’re inspirational. Who doesn’t want to fight along side Batman after watching him beat up the Joker?

Which brings me to “Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm,” the first Batman animated feature film. This film was made by the same people who created the 1990s Batman animated series, which is often regarded as one of the greatest animated television shows in recent history for it’s ability to take a character like Batman and make it accessible to both children and adults, and conveying a multitude of stories, being gritty, funny, heartbreaking, exciting, suspenseful and captivating.

So what does this movie do that the show didn’t do or couldn’t do? Not much, actually. There are a few points where the film can mention death and be slightly more graphic than the show ever could, but that’s about it. Other than that, the picture feels like a longer episode of the show.

The movie follows Batman, secretly billionaire Bruce Wayne, as he continues his mission to stop crime and corruption in the city of Gotham. One night though, a mysterious masked stranger starts killing random crime leaders, with Batman being blamed for the kills. Now the Gotham police force beings hunting down Batman, while he tries to put together the pieces of who is behind this masked murderer. 

I’ll give the movie this much: The mystery of the masked vigilante is quite compelling. At times, it seems like the killer is an other worldly being with mystical powers, being able to disappear and reappear at will and having super strength. Yet at the same time, the actions of the killer make sense and can be put together to solver the mystery over time. 

However, one thing that does bog down the movie is the overabundance of plot lines. There are so many different stories going on in the film that the mystery seems to get shoved aside at times and is even dropped by the time the Joker enters the picture. 

While it is nice to see Bruce Timm and Paul Dinni’s interpretation of how Bruce Wayne eventually evolved into Batman, at times it doesn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the movie. 

Some might say the film was trying to show that it’s impossible for Bruce Wayne to have a normal life with a family and loved ones, but I’ve always felt that was one of the many things the animated show itself was trying to say. Bruce is constantly haunted by the memory of his parents and wishes to make sure that what happened to him would never happen to anyone else, even if it means he must sacrifice his life to do so. 

One could interpret the origin of Batman as Bruce Wayne dying alongside his parents the night they were shot down. Whoever Bruce Wayne was before that night was killed as well. What was left over was then reborn as a creature of vengeance. 

Therefore, Batman isn’t a mask to protect Bruce Wayne. It’s the other way around. Bruce Wayne is a facade, not a real person. It’s one of the reasons why Batman has so many different love interests, yet isn’t willing to commit to any of them. The side of it which would normally care about love is just an act.

It is because of this that I don’t agree with how some people interpret the message of the film. I feel the film is trying to talk about when you’ve gone too far with vengeance and it simply becomes petty revenge. That once you’ve gone to that point, it’s impossible to recover. Near the end of the film, Alfred gives a speech about how he thought Bruce would have jumped into that abyss long ago and would have become no better than the Joker, but has never done so. That he stuck to his morals and never let them go.

Overall, I enjoyed “Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm” as much as any great episode of the animated series. The movie doesn’t try anything which the show never did, but it was still enjoyable for all the same reasons. Being able to tell a much darker yet interesting story that can be enjoyable for more than just children while conveying so many different kinds of emotional responses. 

Final Grade: B-

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Movie Reviews: "Kick Ass 2" (2013)

2010 was an interesting year for movies. When it first began, I didn’t expect much to come out of it. By the end of it all, I realized that the whole year had given us some really wonderful movies, including “Black Swan,” “The Social Network,” “Tangled,” “Toy Story 3” and the sleeper pick “Kick Ass.”

When I first watched “Kick Ass,” I was blown away. I didn’t expect much out of the movie going in. Maybe a joke or two at the superhero genre and its quirks, but what we got was an edgy, smart and stylistic approach to a coming-of-age story, a genre that I normally don’t care for. The writing was tight, yet funny, the fight scenes expertly handled, the characters were all diverse and interesting to watch, especially the smart-mouthed and feisty Hit Girl and her father played by the always funny and excellent Nicholas Cage, and it had a soundtrack that kept on giving great hit after great hit. 

Yet concerning the subject matter of the movie, it would be inevitable that “Kick Ass” would mostly get bad reviews. Copious amounts of blood and violence, a foul mouth that really went over the top at times and a twelve-year old girl that regularly gets beat up but then also kills more than a dozen people. It reminded me of the initial critical reactions to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” with critics hating it simply because it had a teenage boy killing and torturing innocent people for fun and pleasure.

The reason I don’t have a problem with the large amounts of violence in films like “Kick Ass” and “A Clockwork Orange” is because, for the world which the film sets up, these kids acting violent and full of rage and passion is perfectly normal. Their world is vastly different from our own, so much so that normal teenage rebellion isn’t enough for them. Killing is fun for them because the world is dark and ugly. As far as they are concerned, Hit Girl and Alex DeLarge are doing the world a favor.

Which brings us to the recent sequel to “Kick Ass” and the ensuing problem that I have with the film and its vastly different approach to the superhero genre. In the first film, the violence and amount of corruption and evil was necessary to establish why people like Kick Ass, Hit Girl and Big Daddy would dress up in tights and fight crime. While at times I did feel there was too much computer-generated blood and guts, I could get over that. 

“Kick Ass 2” on the other hand is unnecessarily violence, graphic and detailed. I don’t mean just blood either, but acts of torture, rape and bodily functions that had no purpose being in the film. These actions did not add anything to film that wasn’t already there, and mostly just served to gross the audience out. 

My feelings on violence and graphic imagery in cinema is to imagine it as another piece in the puzzle of the film. To try to analyze it, find where it fits in with the rest of the picture and if it helps to make the movie whole or if it only serves as a distraction. 

In some cases, like many great war movies, like “Apocalypse Now” or “Saving Private Ryan,” graphic images of people being killed in horrifying ways need to be accepted, since that is an essential part of the film. It helps to paint the image of the dangers and hellish behavior of war. Another picture like “Seven,” where the world has been corrupted by greed, crime and poverty that diabolical plans are constructed by evil masterminds to show the world just how weak it has become.

In other cases, violence can be overdone and only detracted from the film, like many terrible horror movies. One example that comes to mind is “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,” in which the simple action of being shot or stabbed will cause gallons upon gallons of blood and guts to be spilt. Or “300” where one slash of a Spartan’s spear will send huge arcs of blood to be sent across the sky. The only way something like that would work is if every person in that world had insanely high blood pressure.

It would come down to asking yourself, “Does the amount of violence and graphic imagery seem justified, given what we know and are shown about the world of this film?” If the answer is yes, there should be little to no problem with the movie. If you answer no, then odds are it is unjustified and superfluous. 

“Kick Ass 2” is an example of the latter. Which is odd, considering the first “Kick Ass” was a great example of the former. 

So what exactly does “Kick Ass 2” do that is so much more graphic and detailed than “Kick Ass?” Well, quite a few things, but mostly revolving around the actions of death and torturing people.

While “Kick Ass” had plenty of death in it, the film didn’t linger on it. Someone would die, and the film would quickly move on. Only once did someone die where the dwelled on it for more than a few seconds. 

“Kick Ass 2” on the other hand would take its sweet time on dealing with violent images. For example, there’s a scene where a non-superhero supporting character is killed off by some thugs of the villain (McLovin’...I mean Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Yet the film decides that instead of just cutting to the funeral of this character and letting the actors emotions tell the story, that we need to see every graphic detail of this character being killed even though no one else was around. 

There are also scenes where terrible actions that would be painful to experience are played up for laughs, including one where Hit Girl gets revenge on some school bullies by subjecting them to bodily torture. This had almost everyone in the theater cracking up laughing and I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the sound effects or the fact that these bullies were mean to Hit Girl and that its satisfying to see them get their comeupins. I’m sorry, just because someone picked on you during high school doesn’t make it okay to do what Hit Girl did.

It may sound like I hated “Kick Ass 2,” but I will say there were parts I enjoyed. Some of the fight scenes had interesting aspects to them or had cool gimmicks for certain people in the fight. For example, Jim Carrey plays a wisecracking hero has as much fun as he can with being a superhero, including sicking his dog on unsuspecting bad guys. It’s too bad Carrey only gets one good fight scene in the entire movie.

As for the villains, McLovin’ recruits several psychopaths into his ranks to fight off Kick Ass and his army of good guys. One of which is a Russian wall of a woman who isn’t afraid to kill immediately. While she has an incredibly stupid and unnecessary fight sequence with a group of cops, its her battle with Hit Girl that is the highlight of the movie. To see this sweet yet violent little girl who isn’t afraid to battle anything take on this behemoth and uncaring woman is fun to watch. 

It’s a pity that the fights are handled so differently from the battle sequences in “Kick Ass.” In the first film, there was very little use of shaky cam, the sets all felt unique yet vast, you could tell who was winning a fight at any point and the pacing was quick yet effective. “Kick Ass 2” however relied much more has fast editing and more unbalanced camera shots, making it harder to tell what was going on in the battle. Other than the two fights I previously mentioned, none of these sequences really stood out. 

If I could wrap up “Kick Ass 2” in one word, it would be “disappointing.” Considering how well the first film turned out with its simplistic yet effective approach to a real-life superhero, I went in thinking that this film would turn give us a solid follow-up to that. But poor cinematography, cutting great characters short out of the best moments and relying way too much on violence and graphic detail really brings this movie down. 

Final Grade: C-

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Video Game Review: "Fallout 3" (2008)

One of the last big statements that the late-and-great Roger Ebert made before he passed away was that “video games could never be art.”

While I respected Mr. Ebert more than anyone, I completely disagree with his assessment on video games. For starters, Ebert made it clear that he had only played one video game, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time” for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, released in 1991.

Since then, video games have made leaps and bounds in being both interactive and thought-provoking works. What were once systems with very limited hardware and capabilities have now become a type of entertainment that is on-par with the movie industry. Video games now can captivate the player just as much as any movie or novel can, if not more with it’s ability to be interactive. Many games change and evolve as the player makes decisions and alters the playing field.

There are many examples of video games that just as much an art piece as they are entertainment, including “Shadow Of The Colossus,” “The Last Of Us,” “Heavy Rain,” “Portal” and “The Walking Dead” game. All of these games seem to transport you to an entirely new world and feel as if you’ve taken just one step into a much larger role in this new world.

The reason I bring this up now is because I recently completed the longest game that I’ve invested time in, “Fallout 3” and I have a few things that I wish to say about the game. 

Now, my experience with video games has been rather limited when it comes to style and approach of “Fallout 3” which is a role-playing game. The longest game I had played up to that point were the Pokemon games, which typically take me about 22 hours to finish the main story. “Fallout 3” on the other hand took me 97 hours to complete everything, including the main story, side missions, random quests and the downloadable content that adds in extra missions in all new locations. This is unlike any other game I’ve played.

The story follows our protagonist, who has spent his entire life in a contained underground environment, known as a Vault, after a nuclear holocaust in the late 2070s made living on the surface. 

Now, roughly 700 years later, your father (voiced by Liam Nesson) has somehow escaped from the Vault and made it to the surface world, known as the Capitol Wasteland. Now everyone else in the Vault wants to capture you before you decide to do something stupid like chase after your father. 

So you decide to do something stupid and chase after your father.

After escaping the Vault and possibly killing dozens of helpless people with a baseball bat, you have now reached what remains of the Washington D.C. area and now must begin the search to find your father. 

You find out over time that the place is now filled with mutated creatures who survived the nuclear apocalypse, such as roaches, naked mole rats, bears and scorpions. You also find fellow Wastelanders who have lost all sense of reason and compassion and only wish to kill you for your supplies and loot. Not to mention you discover two different races of people, the Ghouls and the Super Mutants, who were once humans but were irradiated by the nuclear bombs and became monsters.

There are many different branching paths you can over the course of the game. You could be the nicest guy possible and help everyone you see, with your praise and attitude reaching all the Wasteland. You could also kill everyone you see without hesitation and possibly face the repercussions of your actions with more bullets and lasers. You could be somewhere in the middle, being kind to those you think deserve it and kill the ones you hate.

Honestly, there is no one right way to play this game.

You can play it fast. You can play it slow. You can skip all the side missions and quests, or you can play every one and forget all about the main story of finding your father.

There is also many different kinds of weapons and tools you can use along your journey. From blunt objects, like a baseball bat or a sledgehammer, to the subtle yet satisfying guns, like an assault rifle to a shotgun, to just letting your fists to the talking. Over the course of the game, it becomes possible to be a master at more than one kind of weapon and surprise your enemies by switching to a different kind of weapon in the middle of a battle.

What makes this game stand out though is the ability to interact with the world in a way that I’ve never seen before. Whenever you talk to anybody in this game, you’re given unique dialogue options, some of which are heartfelt and kind, while others are rude and funny. Choosing a bad dialogue option could cost you dearly if you’re facing someone with a bigger weapon than you. 

As you making those choices through just your words alone, the landscape of the game changes. New or better places become available to you, unique weapons and loot is a possibility and it can increase your karma and lead to other people respecting you. It was always satisfying to receive an option to ask about places I had never heard of before and suddenly know right where I was going.

Like most video games do, as the game progresses further in, the more difficult it becomes. Stronger and faster enemies are introduced, strong locks and computers are added which are increasingly difficult to pick and hack and new type of guns and weapons are given to your enemies.

The good thing about this gradual difficulty increase is that, because the world is so open-ended, you can immediately skip to an area with a fantastic gun or armor build and run rampant through the game. Basically, the game is about as difficult as you want it to be. Going for great armor or weapons will make the game look easy, but you can skip on that option and go for a Leroy Jenkins style character who runs into everything unprepared.

Overall, “Fallout 3” is an experience that I won’t soon forget and I’m glad that I played the game for as much as I did. The game felt like nothing I had ever played before and moved at a good pace to keep me interested in what I was doing. Fighting enemies never got boring or tedious and there was enough variety too keep me going. For the experience, “Fallout 3” was unlike anything I had ever watched or played.

So to answer the question of video games being art, I feel that while video games are more about the experience and interaction than anything else, there are those rare video games that are able to take that interacting and experience to a higher level and make you feel like you are one with the character in the game. Those games aspire to something higher and become not just a game, but an art form.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Movie Reviews: "Duel In The Sun" (1946)

I’ve slowly been getting interested in the Epic genre. Lately, I have been hesitant to do so, mostly because of how much the word “epic” has changed over the last few years. 

What separates an Epic from your average action/adventure story? That mostly comes down to the size and scope of an Epic. The cast is typically huge, the range which the film covers is grand and awe-inspiring. Even the simplest shots in an Epic have dozens if not hundreds of extras in the background or foreground. 

There are many examples of an Epic movie, including “Ben-Hur”, “Lawrence Of Arabia”, “How The West Was Won” and more recently the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. The one that I wish to talk about today is one of the earliest examples of an Epic and one of the most beloved: “Duel In The Sun.”

I first heard about this film during one of the many documentaries that Martin Scorcese starred in, where he talked about some of his favorite films of all time. Scorcese discussed quite a few films, like “Citizen Kane” but the film that he adored the most was “Duel In The Sun” where he talked about the use of the sun as a transitional tool and the struggle of the main character being understandable yet heartbreaking.

Scorcese was right about that.

At it’s most basic thematic level, “Duel In The Sun” is a tragedy. Things start out terrible for the protagonist of our story, but things only get worse over time without ever getting better. Even when things start to look like they’ll get better, reality has to rear its ugly head and snuff out all light and hope in life.

Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), working out of a bustling western town during the height of the old west, witnesses her White sheriff father kill her own Hispanic mother out of a moment of passion when learning that she had been cheating on him. Before he is hung for his crimes, her father wishes to give Pearl one last chance a good life and sends her to a cattle ranch run by Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and Laura Belle (Lillian Gish). 

Upon arriving at the ranch, Pearl is smitten by their two sons, the kindhearted and smart Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and smooth talking lady’s man Lewt (Gregory Peck). Pearl and the two brothers then begin a struggle to overcome their own feelings and ambitions for the opposite sex, while Pearl tries to fulfill her father’s final wish to live a good and happy life, without giving into temptation and lust. 

Right away, what sticks out about this film is the color scheme and how detailed and vast the background seem to extend. Shots of the rocky Texas terrain seem to stretch on for an eternity, while also having their own distinct colors. The first shot of the ranch which Pearl stays at throughout most of the film looks huge compared to their tiny bodies and even tinier with how little sky there seems to be above the house, like it stretches up to the heavens. 

Even when these locales don’t seem larger than life, their colors speak for themselves. The main color you’ll end up seeing in this film is a very bright red, sometimes contrasted by a dark shade of blue. This works most effectively during the sunset or sunrise and the lighting is reflected off of the characters, putting them in an entirely new light.

As I mentioned earlier, this film behaves like a tragedy, but this is something that normally is not the case for an Epic. In most other grandiose films of this nature, it’s a story of triumph and overcoming impossible odds to make the protagonist as big as the film itself.

“Duel In The Sun” instead uses its Epic backdrop to tell a rather personal story of choosing between doing the right thing against giving into your primal urges. Pearl is constantly changing her mind on what she really wants out of life, ranging from settling down with a cattle herder, being the go-to love interest for one of the two brothers or going to school and learning. At times, this can be jarring and makes it look like she can’t make up her mind, but isn’t that just like anybody else? To think long and hard about what you really want out of your life and what it would mean to everyone around you?

If I did have a complaint to make about the film, it’s that there are several plot lines that drag on for far too long and aren’t nearly as memorable as Pearl’s transition through life. For example, Jesse’s story involves betrayal and regret and pursing goals that he didn’t initially see. Yet, this plot line is abandoned at one point in the film and isn’t brought up again. There is no resolution or ultimate realization for Jesse, so it doesn’t add much.

Oh, one other minor complaint is how long it takes to for the film the start. Traditionally, Epics will have an overture with just their score playing for three or five minutes before the opening credits start. “Duel In The Sun” however has both an overture and a prelude, which together is nothing but music that lasts at least twelve minutes. One overture is fine, but two? Then it just becomes a test of patience. 

Overall though, “Duel In The Sun” is an interesting experience when compared to other Epics out there and how different in its story and structure it can be. Instead of telling a triumphant story of redemption and romance, the film decides to be tragic and personal. Oddly enough, this film came out before most of the classic Epics, like “Ben-Hur” or “The Ten Commandments” yet sticks out like a sore thumb when looking at those films side-by-side.

Final Grade: B-

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Movie Reviews: "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988)

You gotta love movies that make you feel like a kid again. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is the perfect example of a film that does that, all while entertaining in every way possible.

Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve sat down and watched “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” I had seen large amounts of scenes on television several times, especially the ending, but never the whole movie. Even though I had seen a good chunk of it, this film still managed to blow me away at just how superb it was.

Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is a private detective working in Hollywood during the 1940s, only in this version of California, the world of cartoons coexists with our world in a place called Toon Town. Valiant is hateful towards all ‘toons’ after one murders his brother and partner. 

When the toon Roger Rabbit is the suspect in the murder of the man who played Patty-Cake with his saucy wife, Jessica, Roger seeks out the help of Valiant to clear him of his crime. Valiant believes that Roger didn’t kill anybody, and the two set out to find the real murderer and learn the true sinister plan.

One of the things that is so attractive about this film is how it is set up like a typical film noir during the 1940s, with murder around every corner, the bad guy having many ulterior motives for his crimes, the femme fatale who may or may not be in with the crooks and a general sense of mistrust and dread.

Yet, at the same time, by incorporating toons into the whole mess, giving them their own world and reasons for wanting to make cartoons in the first place, there is comedy and laughter all over the place.

Normally, these two types of films would not go hand-in-hand. But here, they work perfectly to counter balance one another and make for an unforgettable experience. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a film quite like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

There is just so much to love about this film. The cartoon world is creative, funny and crazy. The characters are likable yet understandable in their strengths and flaws. The jokes just roll right off the tongue and work perfectly in this world. The story is organic and flows naturally at its own pace. 

Yet, interestingly enough, it’s weird to think about the implications of the antagonist. The bad guy (whose identity will remain anonymous) did everything so that he could better the creating the first freeway. The guy gave into greed and capitalism by saying we would be better off if we have faster and more effective ways of traveling, even if it means that many toons have to die to complete that task.

And you know what? He won. 

We did build freeways. We gave into this terrible persons’ way of thinking so that we could get from one location to another faster than before. Everything that he was fighting for was accomplished, even though his way of going about it was despicable. 

Even with all of these reasons for why this movie is amazing, they’re not the main reason why everyone loves this film. Sure, everyone probably loves it for different reasons, but I think there’s one consistent reason for why “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is so beloved.

This is the movie that everyone always wanted to see as a kid. The film is clever at taking the timeless cartoons that everyone grew up with, such as “The Looney Tunes” and all the Disney cartoons and animated movies at the time, instead of the modern day cartoons.

Let’s face it, if you grew up watching these kinds of cartoons, you were envisioning a movie like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” where all of your favorite cartoon characters came together into one big event. This film brings those childhood fantasy of ours to life.

Not only that, but this film treats these characters with the same love, dignity and respect that we always noticed when we saw them. The film doesn’t try to do a modern day retelling of Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse, it just gives us Mickey and Bugs the way that we remembered them.

You can tell that Robert Zemeckis and his fellow filmmakers put all of their time and energy into recreating the same zaniness, passion and joy that they experienced when watched these timeless toons as children, and the result is a film that is a perfect love letter to the great cartoons and to childhood.

Final Grade: A