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REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Ann Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Cain, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, & Morgan Freeman
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Johnathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Produced by Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan & Charles Roven
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Music by Hans Zimmer
Edited by Lee Smith

Batman ponders if his latest act of destructive vandalism really justifies itself at the end of the day.

(This is a SPOILER ALERT. It’s alerting you to SPOILERS, so be cautious as you read into this review if you don’t want anything….spoiled. If you ain’t afraid of no spoilers, READ ON and ENJOY!)

   Movie trilogies can be tricky. It’s often quite a feat to maintain the same level of quality and presentation throughout three separate films which, when combined, create a singular ongoing story. Ever since the original Star Wars trilogy left a mark on the popular consciousness all those years ago, movie trilogies have been popping up left and right – we got the Back to the Future trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Godfather trilogy, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Evil Dead, Jurassic Park, Men in Black, and Spider-Man trilogies…hell, even the Toy Story movies became quite an epic trilogy. And, because of the difficulty in maintaining a giant story throughout three films, these movie trilogies have often been executed with varying levels of success. It’s just really challenging to keep a strict eye on the overall story being told when it’s stretched out over three full-length movies! It takes a very focused filmmaker or group of filmmakers with a solid vision to keep a level-headed hold on things, without letting too many excess details getting in the way of the overall goal. This is especially hard when you get to the final installment of a franchise because wrapping everything up with a nice little bow is often a daunting task…especially when all of the details won’t fit perfectly inside the box. The Spider-Man trilogy had this problem, The Matrix trilogy definitely had this problem, and The Godfather Part III is almost begrudgingly accepted as part of that epic film franchise. Even the great Return of the Jedi is generally viewed as the weakest chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s just hard to do a final, conclusive third installment that provides the appropriate sense of closure so desperately needed. Now, what I would REALLY like to say is that the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, gets all of these factors right and is a successful conclusion to what has been one of the best film franchises in recent memory…but unfortunately, my friends, I just don’t find that to be entirely the case.

   Let me just say this: I REALLY wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. I absolutely love Nolan’s previous forays into the Batman universe, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I find them to be intelligently made, greatly entertaining and thematically sound exercises in film escapism, and they paint a truly defining portrait of the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman. There are definitely flaws in both of those movies, but on the whole, they’re genuinely great works of cinematic art. They brought the superhero movie out of childish abandon and re-established Batman for a new generation, grounding his character in reality and achieving a new level of emotional complexity that no superhero movie had ever accomplished before. Christopher Nolan is a very competent director, even if his projects can – at times – be overly complicated or ridden with trivial details. I’ve been a fan of his stuff ever since I saw Memento, which is still one of my favorite films of all time. And after Inception, a movie I absolutely loved, I was under the impression that Nolan could do no real wrong. Well….I may have spoken a bit too soon. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a terrible film, but unfortunately, it isn’t a very monumental or effective one either. It’s kind of just….okay. It certainly isn’t a strong note to end this previously triumphant Batman trilogy on, and in all honesty, its grandiose epicness is actually kind of a detracting factor in its overall scheme. There’s just too many new characters flying around, too many subplots and storylines intersecting and evolving, and too many loose ends desperately in need of being tied up that it actually begins to work against the fluidity of the movie. Plus, there are some genuinely boneheaded decisions being made here and there, and they feel blatantly out of place in this otherwise well-written film series. The movie just feels like it’s trying oh-so hard to fit in all this excess story into a neat little package and to get quickly to the next scene, so much so that none of the individual scenes have any time to breathe – we’re just constantly being thrust into the next event without any time to consider what has just happened.

“You know, with that mask and those little ears, you look just a little bit like a Catwom…..oh shit, I’m sorry, I forgot we aren’t saying that.”

   So where to begin? Well, I suppose we should begin at the beginning – The Dark Knight Rises picks up 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight have transpired. Gotham City is experiencing an unprecedented era of peace and tranquility, thanks in part to a bill called the Dent Act which was passed shortly after Harvey Dent’s death in the last film. The city also dignifies Dent with a Harvey Dent Day, which takes place on the anniversary of his death – clearly, the city is still gaga over Harvey Dent, and is completely unaware of the fact that he became a depraved, cold-blooded murderer named Two-Face who tried to kill Commissioner Gordon’s entire family shortly before his demise. Blame for Dent’s death is still placed on the Batman, who hasn’t been seen since the first “Harvey Dent Day” 8 years ago. Coincidentally, Bruce Wayne hasn’t left his mansion in that time either. Right off the bat, this peaceful era in Gotham’s history makes for a pretty boring first act of the film – nothing is really happening. At the beginning of The Dark Knight, we’re instantly drawn into a tense, visually stimulating action sequence that establishes the tone and intensity of the movie in a way that never lets up throughout its entire running time. At the beginning of Rises, we just get….a bunch of people indulging in upper-class pleasantries and talking about how peaceful everything is. Yeah, lots of excitement there.

   Now, to be fair, the movie does begin with a pretty cool looking action sequence aboard an airplane which introduces us to Bane, portrayed with calm and collected brutality by Tom Hardy. But, as visually interesting as this sequence is, it doesn’t really give us a ton of information, or any bearing on who (or what) Bane is or what he’s doing on this plane. I mean, he’s there to kidnap this scientist guy or something, but I don’t know why this whole plane exercise was even necessary. It’s said at the beginning of the scene that Bane and two other companions were apprehended while trying to capture the scientist (named Dr. Pavel), but it was Bane’s plan to be captured. …Why? Because he wanted to show everyone how cool he is? Why couldn’t he just capture Dr. Pavel before, without even dealing with being picked up by the CIA and going through this whole convoluted air-hijacking plot? Bane does say he wanted to find out what Pavel told them, but it’s perfectly clear these guys don’t know jack shit about Bane or his plan, and Pavel quickly shouts he told them nothing, therefore rendering the point of this plan irrelevant. I guess he knows now! Couldn’t he have just intimidated that information out of Pavel after capturing him? I dunno, it just felt flimsy to me. Everything happens extremely quickly, and it’s shot with this sort of rushed feeling that we don’t really have a good established feel for what’s happening. There’s even this weird part where they take blood from Dr. Pavel and put it into the body of some corpse in a bodybag, as the plane they’re in is being destroyed and tethered by another plane. I guess the point of this was to make it look like Pavel died in the plane crash, but honestly, I didn’t even pick up on that while I was watching the movie. It isn’t explained in any way, and honestly, it just left me feeling confused. I guess it’s a smart move, but wouldn’t the CIA have been able to tell it wasn’t Pavel by his face? Or maybe the body would get so horribly mangled in the destruction of the plane after they drop it that it would be indeterminable anyway? And furthermore, why should Bane and company care if they know Pavel is dead or not? Bane kidnapped him, and it’s doubtful the CIA would be able to locate him from that point on. I just didn’t really see the point of the whole blood transfusion thing – or the plane hijacking, for that matter – and it already left me with an uncomfortable, disoriented feeling just 5 minutes into the movie.

Staring into Bane’s eyes, Batman recalls his earlier dance with Selina Kyle and realizes this probably isn’t the time or place to be thinking about such things.

   Anyway, back to the slow, boring first act. Right away it’s established that not much is going on – the characters even talk about it with semi-awkward expository dialogue. Bruce Wayne is hosting a Harvey Dent Day party at his mansion, but isn’t showing his face at it. Commissioner Gordon begins to give a speech, where he intends to tell everyone the truth about Harvey Dent, but decides not to for some reason, and awkwardly tells everyone that they’re “not ready for the truth yet.” Um…that’s kind of a weird thing to tell a large group of people gathered to celebrate someone’s life and death, especially since it implies they’re being lied to about something regarding that very person. But, of course, nobody finds this strange at all and goes about their regular business. It might just be me, but if somebody pulls out a pre-written speech and then hastily puts it away while telling us we’re not ready to hear the truth about it, I might just get a little suspicious. But anyway, soon it’s shown that one of the servers working Wayne’s party is not who she appears to be as she sneaks into Bruce Wayne’s private quarters and begins snooping around. Wayne confronts her, and it’s revealed he’s suffered some type of injury that limits him to the use of a cane. It becomes apparent that this mysterious woman is Selina Kyle, aka “The Cat”, a burglar who’s been quite popular in the news lately. She’s there to steal Bruce Wayne’s mother’s pearl necklace, as well as his fingerprints for an unknown client. After some witty back-and-forth, Selina kicks Wayne’s cane out from under him and he collapses, allowing her to escape. At the same time, she “kidnaps” a somewhat willing United States congressman, leading to a city-wide manhut. One thing I definitely like about the movie is Ann Hathaway’s portrayal as Catwoman – although she’s not referred to as Catwoman at any point in the film, which is pretty interesting. At first I was a little iffy about Nolan’s decision to cast her in the role, which I was pretty much used to seeing fulfilled by blonde bombshell actresses (or, in worst-case scenarios, Halle Berry. But we won’t talk about that). But I promptly put my foot in my mouth once I saw the sexy sassiness Hathaway brings to the role. She nails it perfectly, giving Seling Kyle a mixture of devil-may-care sassiness as well as a brutal killer instinct. She’s probably the strongest new character in a film that has a vast overabundance of new characters.

   So Bruce Wayne is crippled and out of the superhero game, even though we’re never told how or why he injured his leg in the first place. I guess in the long run it doesn’t really matter, but honestly, I would have really liked to know how a dude like Bruce Wayne, with all his physical gusto, got reduced to the status of cane-wielding recluse. This lack of information sets up an unfortunate precedent for the movie: it doesn’t really establish things very well. The absence of a proper grounding plagues the entirety of the film throughout its nearly three-hour running time, and eventually it’s nearly impossible to ignore the numbing sensation going on in your seat. Now honestly, I have a feeling if I go incredibly in-depth on this one I’ll be sitting here typing for years and never get this review finished, so I’m going to go a bit easier from here on out, simply for time and sanity’s sake. But almost everything in this movie just feels a little…off to me. There are so many little factors, so many little details that just feel unnatural or ill-advised that it starts to bring the movie down for me. Things like overly expository dialogue, and strange editing in regards to time and where characters are. At one point, we’re jumping back and forth between two events that seem to be happening at the same time, but when Batman finishes saving people in scene A, he immediately appears in scene B to save the guy in danger there too! Does Batman have a transportation device I’m not aware of? Is scene B happening at a later time? What the hell is going on? You see, there’s just a bunch of weird and confusing stuff like that happening that really shouldn’t be in a high-profile film of this magnitude.

Speaking of weird and confusing, at one point the film suddenly becomes one of those schlocky woman-in-prison movies from the ’70s for about 20 minutes. WHY, NOLAN, WHY?!

   Let me just state this again: this is not, by any means, an atrocious film. There’s definitely exciting action sequences, some great character development for the characters that actually matter (and, unfortunately, some develophment for ones that really don’t), great performances from most of the people involved, and competent direction from Nolan himself. I liked that the story, while jumping all over the place and never really focusing solely on one detail, compellingly displays an entire society falling apart at the seams. It represents a low point for many of our established characters, and raises the stakes to a near apocalyptic level fitting for an epic conclusion such as this. At the very least, it gave a substantial role for Bruce Wayne to play. After the Joker sort of stole the show from Batman in The Dark Knight, it can truly be said that Rises is actually a movie about Bruce Wayne/Batman, and his relationship with the world. We see him go through a lot of shit in this movie, and watch a pretty harrowing character arc unfold. Ironically, the highest point in the movie is also the lowest point in the movie, when Wayne is imprisoned by Bane in a deep, cavernous prison which is readily escapable if you are physically adept enough to scale a gigantic wall and climb to freedom. After a very tense and admittedly one-sided fight with Bane, Batman suffers a back-breaking loss and is tossed helplessly into this horrible prison. Bane punishes Bruce Wayne by making him see the downfall of Gotham society through a TV set that is somehow installed in an ancient prison made entirely of stone. I guess Bane had a really long extension cord? I know this is getting into nitpicking territory, but seriously, how the fuck did Bane install a TV set in that prison for Bruce Wayne to watch? Little details like this just made Rises feel illogical and empty-headed, when it’s trying oh-so hard to tell a deep, detailed story. Oh, and then Bruce Wayne receives a hallucinatory vision of Ra’s Al Ghul, portrayed once again by Liam Neeson in a nice cameo. In this hallucination – taking place entirely in Wayne’s mind – he receives some actual information that motivates Wayne to get his ass in gear and get the fuck out of that prison cell. Now, this sort of strikes me as odd, because…how can somebody receive useful information, information that is both beneficial to the character and to the audience from a damn hallucination? Isn’t that, like…a contradiction? Now, I understand that maybe Wayne had the mental fortitude to figure out the information relayed to him through Ra’s al-Ghost by himself, and the whole scene might be some sort of visual metaphor of Wayne’s brain piecing it all together. But, even if that’s true, it still shows that Bruce Wayne got his mojo back (so to speak) from a goddamn mirage, something which can usually be defined as an “unreliable source” to say the least. I just think it sort of reveals clumsy writing when the scribes feel it necessary to have a drastic character turn that sets everything up for the remainder of the movie hinged on a prison-psychosis hallucination.

   Seriously, there’s suspect stuff like this happening all over the place in the movie. I’m almost perplexed by the fact that a movie this huge, this grandiose and epic, so obviously crafted with attention to eye-popping cinematic detail by competent filmmakers could have so many logical fallacies and head-scratching “What?” moments. But I guess when you’re telling a needlessly intricate, multi-faceted story with an overload of disposable and necessary characters doing all kinds of crazy shit, it’s easy to overlook the little details. And the things that bother me about this movie really are little things in the overall view – but there’s enough of them to drag the movie down from being truly entertaining to me. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene where a big, nuclear bomb that could decimate the entire city and has been established as drastically unstable is being frantically driven throug the streets in a big truck, with Batman in hot pursuit in his cool flying contraption. At one point, Batman starts shooting missles at this truck in an effort to stop it. The entire time, I was just thinking to myself – “WHY ARE YOU SHOOTING MISSLES AT A TRUCK CARRYING AN UNSTABLE NUCLEAR BOMB?!?!” I couldn’t help but think that if Batman happened to hit the right point in that truck and hit the bomb, he would be directly responsible for the destruction of the entire city he’s trying to protect. It just felt so…DUMB! And then the truck stops extremely abruptly by falling from one level of road to the one below, which kills the driver (whom I won’t reveal) but somehow doesn’t kill Commisser Gordon, who was standing unrestrained in the back of the truck with the nuclear bomb in question. I think he definitely would have been tossed around in a grisly, neck-breaking fashion when the truck violently crashed to the city street below. And THEN, when Batman makes the decision to tow the bomb out to the ocean where it can safely detonate, he drags it on the ground a bit, and knocks it into a building or two by mistake. Why is that shit in the movie?! I mean, this is a highly unstable and ready-to-blow nuclear weapon – shouldn’t we be treating it with the utmost care and caution? I seriously want to tear my hair out thinking about it – the whole sequence was just so unbearably dumb that I was taken right out of the movie and questioning the logic of everyone who created that scene. But, in a way, that just applies to the whole movie – there’s a variety of “what the fuck were they thinking” moments that truly effect this otherwise grandly entertaining movie as a whole. And I’m sorry, I REALLY can’t look past them!

One can always count on Batman to be there when the desperate need arises to charge an iPhone.

   At the end of the day, The Dark Knight Rises is a big, loud, clunky, sporadically entertaining action film that focuses a bit too much on spectacle rather than telling a cohesive story. It’s as if Christopher Nolan, in his effort to construct an epic, emotionally satisfying, catyclysmic finale to his highly popular Batman films, let the truly important filmmaking details slip away from him in the process. What we really need is a solid, strongly grounded story – I don’t want to say “easier to follow”, because that implies that the film is overly complex or beyond understanding – but certainly something less muddled, and a bit more streamlined. This is a Batman film for chrissakes, not The Odyssey. To illustrate my point, let’s just take a quick look at Nolan’s last film, Inception. While Inception is usually perceived as a sort of convoluted and complex film, it’s actually not that hard to follow the story if you just pay attention to what is happening. Sure, there’s all kinds of dream-hopping and fast-paced action happening, but for the most part the story keeps things pretty straightforward. Everything is laid out for the audience, and we’re given enough information to keep up with the crazy, mindblowing adventures that the cast embark on. What’s more, Inception follows a streamlined and legible plot, one that sticks with the protagonist and follows his story through to its conclusion. The same can’t be said for The Dark Knight Rises, with its criss-crossing plots and subplots, its barrage of characters to keep track of, its jarring time jumps and murky editing. The reason why Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight work so well is because those movies tell grounded, logically sound stories that take us from one place to the next, while allowing scenes to breathe and find identities of their own. The idea of confusion or disorienting experiences even plays into Inception‘s conceit, because the characters are actually doing things that would generate such confusion – they’re infiltrating different levels of consciousness, impersonating other dream characters, going into other people’s minds, and so on. The intricacy employed by Inception actually works to its benefit, because it inherently imbues the film with a sort of otherworldly, dreamlike feel that compliments the subject matter appropriately. The Dark Knight Rises is essentially a movie about the good guy trying to stop the bad guy – it simply doesn’t need the same level of confounding plot twists and turns. (For the record, I know there’s deeper things going on in Rises than just Batman punching Bane in the face; the themes are mature, developed and relevant to the story. What I’m saying is, this is a goddamn Batman movie. It doesn’t need to be ridiculously complex.)

   Now truthfully, I’m not against shaking things up a bit and doing an epic tale that covers all kinds of ground, jumping from one character to the next – but that’s a bit harder to do competently without letting a bunch of extraneous details fall to the wayside. There’s all kinds of shit in this movie I haven’t even mentioned yet – Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a pretty decent performance as Blake, a Batman-friendly cop who somehow manages to figure out who Batman really is. Well…I guess if you really think about it it’s not that hard to decipher. But in a universe where no one has ever really been able to piece together who Batman really is, it’s just kind of odd to have this one character just figure it out all on his own…pretty much through guesswork. At least the little shit who figured out Batman’s real identity in The Dark Knight actually had some solid evidence to back his claim, and he actually worked for Wayne Enterprises! I haven’t mentioned the role played by Matthew Modine as stand-in Commissioner when Gordon is injured – they seriously could have cut that entire character from the movie and not missed a damn thing, his character was that pointless. I haven’t mentioned the curious decision made to make Alfred (always well-realized by the great Michael Caine) something of a over-emotional, crying baby in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the act of crying itself or anything like that, but seriously, did they really need to have Alfred bursting into tears in nearly every friggin’ scene he’s in? I think he’s in like…5 or 6 scenes in the movie, and he bursts into tears in three of them! We get it, he’s emotionally affected by what’s happening, it’s no doubt some heavy shit – but he doesn’t need to turn on the waterworks every time something emotional is happening! It’s just ridiculous! But anyway, I digress.

Joe Gord-Lev and Gary Oldman try to contain their excitement at being shoehorned into this review somewhere.

   While The Dark Knight Rises certainly wasn’t a bad movie – I was genuinely entertained and impressed by its scale and production value – it just felt like a lackluster, soulless and dimly thought-out one. Chalk it up to the trilogy-ending stigma, I guess. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy is certainly one of the most cinematically satisfying film series to exist in modern times. I’m definitely glad to have been around to see them unfold and effect the populace the way they have – they’re just really fun, well-made movies than people can relate to. And I will always appreciate his brilliant decision to ground the movies in reality and make them a bit more believable in terms of character – that is what the superhero genre desperately needed. But, sadly, I cannot in all fairness deem The Dark Knight Rises a wholly effective entry into the series, and it certainly ain’t no masterpiece, like some publications have been frantically exclaiming. It’s a truly confounding film, one that tries so hard (and often succeeds) to entertain you on a visually spectacular level, but fails to find a solid base on which to tell a truly compelling story. I was disappointed with The Dark Knight Rises, but in all honesty, it could have been a lot worse. It’s just a shame it couldn’t fully live up to its predecessors.

But seriously, it’s still WAY, WAAAAY better than Batman & Robin. Fuck that movie.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

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THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER: THE RECOBBLED CUT
Starring Vincent Price, Hilary Pritchard, Anthony Quayle, Paul Matthews, Windsor Davies & Joan Sims
Directed by Richard Williams
Written by Richard Williams & Margaret French
Produced by Richard Williams & Imogen Sutton
Cinematography by John Leatherbarrow
Music by various classical artists
Compiled & Edited by Garrett Gilchrist

The best damn story you never heard.

(Just a few notes before we begin: this review is for the 3rd version of The Recobbled Cut, otherwise known as Mark III. Mark IV, a more complete, slightly different, hi-def version of The Recobbled Cut has since been released and is available at various places online. This review was written before the release of Mark IV, so it’s not entirely up-to-date – however, it will still get the job done. Also, there are SPOILERS in here. I highly recommend you watch this film unspoiled, if you haven’t already. Whether or not you read this before seeing it is your choice. Anyway, on to the review!)

   I’m gonna start off by stating the obvious: it’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, things would never go wrong for talented people. The masses would always flock to quality-made productions, artists would always get the upper hand over money-grubbing business executives, and inspired creations painstakingly crafted by good-natured people would always see the light of day and achieve the accolades they deserve. Unfortunately, life has an unfortunate knack for being cruelly unfair most of the time, and if there’s anybody on the planet who can attest to this fact with absolute pathos, it’s Richard Williams. There’s perhaps nobody else in the history of cinema who’s been as royally fucked over harder than Richard Williams, the genius director and master animator behind The Thief and the Cobbler. Once upon a time, Williams was a man with a dream – to create the greatest animated film the world had ever seen. And, in 1964, he set forth on the path to accomplishing this lofty goal. Sadly, it would never come to fruition: Thief spent the next 29 years in on-again off-again production only to be taken away from Williams at the last minute and drastically re-edited into a shameful, Disneyesque shitfest released into theaters in 1993 (and 1995, confusingly) as Arabian Knight…or, The Princess and the Cobbler…or, in some cases, just as The Thief and the Cobbler, which is probably the biggest slap in the face considering the fact the “finished” product was NOTHING like the Thief Williams had envisioned. For a long time, the dream was dead – and nobody in the general public had any clue about the hideous buttfucking the system had given this once great masterpiece of animated cinema.

   Nobody, that is, until 2006, when a young filmmaker/animation aficionado named Garrett Gilchrist completed a little restoration project he titled The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut and released it for free onto the internet. Since then, awareness has been steadily growing regarding this lost animated gem, and for the first time, the public could finally sort-of witness the glory of what was intended to be the greatest animated film ever created by human consciousness. I remember stumbling along through the vast chasms of the Interwebz one day when I happened upon an article detailing the story of this troubled film in its entirety, which ended with a strong urging to seek out The Recobbled Cut. I had never heard of the released version of the movie before, and since I am a life-long, fanatically enthusiastic lover of animation, I was intrigued, and I took it upon myself to view this Recobbled Cut for great justice. And friends…it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, at least, in terms of cinema I’ve chosen to expose myself to. For you see, The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut is one of the most important and vital pieces of fan-made cultural preservation you will ever, EVER experience. I was absolutely blown away by Thief, even in its unfinished form – it really, truly is the greatest animated film ever made, a lovingly crafted and dazzingly animated epic tale of good & evil, fate & circumstance, random causality, dreams, and general cartoony goodness that will absolutely astonish your brain while you’re watching it. I really can’t say enough good things about it, which is why I’m writing this doozy of a film review to get it all out. It is now my responsibility to spread awareness of this film by any means necessary, and to alert the populace to both its raw, epic greatness and also its tragic tale of brutal mutilation at the hands of those unworthy of said greatness. And believe me, dear readers…I have every intention of doing so.

The titular Thief attempts to rob the titular cobbler….hilarity will no doubt ensue.

   It’s important to note that The Recobbled Cut is NOT The Thief and the Cobbler – that film was never finished in its appropriate form. Rather, The Recobbled Cut is an appropriation of what that epic film would have been. It compiles unfinished animation and original storyboards to complete a story inspired by the Arabian Nights legends which is flawlessly executed with the help of incredibly vibrant, instantly memorable characters as a testament to the power and beauty of animation. Why anybody would want to stop that from happening is BEYOND me, but, it happened, ladies and gents. I’m sorry to say it, but you were all deprived of one of the coolest fucking movies that has ever existed – and now I’m here to try and help pick up the pieces.

   The entire story of The Thief and the Cobbler – the production of the film itself, I mean – is long, confusing, and above all, tragic. First off, a brief background on Richard Williams: you know that old colloquialism about how someone “wrote the book” on a given topic? Well, Richard Williams IS that guy with concern to animation. Really! His book The Animator’s Survival Kit is considered THE definitive tome on the art of animation and is even used in animation classrooms all over. Also, he was the Oscar-winning animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. So basically, this guy rules at animating. Anyway, Richard Williams sought to make the entire film independently – with absolute creative control over what would happen in it. This was the obvious and highly important choice for the film, but a cold truth about the world is that independent animators don’t make a ton of money. Williams demanded perfection in the animation, down to the straightest line, striving to push the boundaries of what animation had previously accomplished – but doing so would cost a fortune. Think about it this way: time is money, and this movie took nearly 30 years to see some form of release – and it isn’t even fucking done yet. The amount of intricacy in the animation of this film is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing to see, but it didn’t come cheap. To pay for his expensive masterpiece, Williams (along with his animation studio) took on work from anyone who would be willing to pay – commercials, films, television shows, you name it, Richard Williams Studio was animating it.

Richard Williams himself. I would make a joke but I actually respect this guy, so I’ll just say that’s one silly ass camel he’s drawing.

   The film originally began life as The Amazing Nasruddin, and was set to be a tale about Mulla Nasruddin, a legendary figure from Near Eastern folklore. The film’s name changed to The Majestic Fool, and then to Nasruddin! and production chugged along very slowly. Eventually, Williams had a falling out with some of the people he was planning the film with, and it was also determined that Nasruddin! was “too verbal” for a proper animated film, so the script was thrown out sometime around 1972. (I’ve actually seen some footage left over from Nasruddin!, and trust me…they were right.) However Williams, having gained a lot of visual reference and inspiration from Middle Eastern artwork and folklore, decided to make an entirely new production based in this world that would ideally become the greatest animated film ever created. Now titled The Thief and the Cobbler, Williams began production on this new project in 1973. Production was extremely slow, and due to Williams not faithfully following the script he had written, scenes were pretty much animated on a whim. Williams made it a point to hire animation legends to work on the project – names like Ken Harris, Art Babbitt, and Emery Hawkins. You might not know who these guys are, but they are all considered legends in the field of animation, and true masters of their craft. The film was conceived as a way to preserve their craft for all generations to come. Williams himself made things a bit of a problem, since he didn’t like the tyranny of scripts or storyboards hindering his creativity and ambition. Because of this, scenes were being animated without any bearing as to where they would end up in the film – many of the scenes involving the Thief doing random things that are in the film exist because Williams wanted to keep his master animators busy while he plotted out the entire film in his head.

   After receiving some financial backing from a Saudi Arabian prince in the late ’70s and using it to complete the climax of the film (which contains some of the most intricate, complex and detailed animation ever committed to celluloid), Thief was comprised of about 12 minutes of completed footage. (The prince eventually backed out of the movie after Williams missed two deadlines and went drastically over budget.) Richard Williams put together a screening of the completed 12 minutes to show to potential financiers, and this caught the attention of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, who were in the process of prepping for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They checked out the animation for themselves, and after being thoroughly impressed, they offered Williams the position of Animation Director for Roger. Williams accepted the offer, knowing that he would finally be able to gain financial backing for The Thief and the Cobbler in return for working on such a high-profile project. And, after Roger was released in 1988 and became a huge box-office success which gained him two Academy Awards, it happened. Warner Bros. Pictures gave Williams proper funding, a distribution deal, and a 1991 deadline, and for the first time in the history of the film, it looked like it was actually going to be made. It was during this time that Williams began to truly gain the reputation of being a perfectionist blowhard: he was firing scores of animators left and right, staying extra late at the studio working on the film, and even throwing out entire completed scenes and re-animating them. To make matters worse, he still didn’t have a solid storyboard of the film, meaning the entire thing was pretty much in his head and nobody had any solid foundation to go on. By the time the 1991 deadline rolled around, production still had about 15 minutes of animation left to finish – animation which would take months to complete under Williams’ methods. It was also around this time that Disney began prepping their ad campaign for their new film Aladdin…which was also based on the Arabian Nights tales and bore some VERY striking resemblances to The Thief and the Cobbler (more of that later…believe me, it’s quite a tale). Feeling the pressure, Warner Bros. demanded Williams compile a workprint of the finished animation for the film, and use storyboards to fill in the parts that weren’t completed. Williams begrudgingly complied, and in 1992 the workprint was screened for the studio bigwigs.

Actual photograph of the distribution executives at Warner Bros.

   The bigwigs were not happy. An ever-expanding budget and Williams’ slow working pace made Warner Bros. frustrated and nervous, and after 4 years of financial support, they effectively backed out of the project, citing lost confidence in Williams. A few months later, The Completion Bond Company (basically, just a film insurance company…you can imagine how many creative people were employed over there) seized control of the film and booted Williams out of the director’s chair. Basically, they had legal control over the project at this point, and Williams had no say in how it would continue.  He was separated from his creation, and creative control was handed over to a man named Fred Calvert. Instead of finishing the film that Williams had started, Calvert decided to completely reconstruct the tone of the movie, and excise much of Williams’ original animation to make a more streamlined, family-friendly production. This differed strongly from Williams’ original vision of a mature, adult-oriented film…not in terms of “adult” themes, but you know…an actual film with a story that didn’t have cartoon animals singing about their feelings every 5 minutes. The execs ordered Calvert to finish the movie in the shortest amount of time possible for the smallest amount of money possible, and in 1993, Majestic Films bought the distribution rights from the Completion Bond Company and released this new version of the film in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler. Two years later, Miramax gained U.S. distribution rights and re-edited the film even further, making “brilliant” decisions such as adding Matthew Broderick and Johnathan Winters to the mix to provide voice-overs for the previously MUTE characters of the Thief and Tack the cobbler, and giving the film the oh-so-clever title of Arabian Knight. It was at this point the horrid fate of the once ambitious film was sealed.

   Arabian Knight was released in America in 1995 to terrible critical reception and box office failure. It was considered a poor, misguided attempt at streamlining Williams’ vision and a blatant ripoff of Disney’s much more successful Aladdin, which was released in 1992. Calvert had gone about adding horrible, unmemorable Disneyesque songs to the production, and those were also criticized for being the horrid piles of shame that they were. In the end, The Thief and the Cobbler had been butchered by the Hollywood system – a victim of both overzealous ambitions from the creator and cheap, uninspired completion methods from the company that stole it from him. A genuine work of art downgraded to a cheaply-made, by-the-numbers commodity. Richard Williams vowed to never speak of the film again, a vow which he has stuck to for the most part. And seriously, can you blame the guy?

   But you see my friends, we’ve finally come full circle: In the 2000’s, a filmmaker named Garrett Gilchrist set off on a quest to see The Thief and the Cobbler somewhat restored to its former glory. Going directly to the animators who worked on the film, Gilchrist eventually gathered together all of the released and unreleased footage, voice recordings, music selections and storyboards and edited it all together to create The Recobbled Cut, which currently stands as the closest anyone has come to completing The Thief and the Cobbler as a whole. Be happy that Gilchrist did that, ladies and gents, because he basically saved an entire work of art from tragic obscurity.

   So now, after reading that long and admittedly twisty tale, you may be saying to yourself “Well, that sucks for him. But why should I care?” The reason you should care, my friends, is because The Thief and the Cobbler – had it been finished – really, genuinely would have been the greatest animated film of all time!!! Seriously, this is a movie which would have been played countless times on television, become an international landmark classic, and would’ve had a grand impact on the face of cinematic history as we know it. The film is seemingly made out of pure imagination, streamed directly from some unknown and mystical source directly into your retinas. The quality of the animation is breathtaking – you can definitely see the effort that went into the flawless, fluid motions of the characters and the world they inhabit. The movie is just straight up fun to look at! It’s pure eye candy while also being a completely satisfying cinematic experience.

Did I mention eye candy and a completely satisfying cinematic experience?

   So now that you’ve heard the tale of how the movie was made, just what the hell is the movie about? Well, it’s about some really well thought-out and developed characters, for one thing. The hero of our adventure is Tack, a lowly cobbler in an old Arabian city who – through a series of seemingly random and coincidental events – ends up becoming the prince of all the land, with the beautiful Princess Yum Yum (that’s right) by his side. It’s also the tale of an unnamed Thief, who is simultaneously a crucial yet largely unnoticed part of the events which unfold. Sliming his way through the mayhem to be our antagonist is Zigzag, an ugly and very blue Grand Vizier who lusts for power and is extremely well-voiced by none other than Vincent Price, and undeniable film legend who goes all out to help imbue Zigzag with the right amount of hilarity and hubris and fully realize him as one of the creepiest, most lecherous animated villains ever devised. Despite her, uh, “simple” name, Princess Yum Yum is actually a very strong female character – we actually see her do things in the movie, and she utilizes her feminine charm (and wrath, at least on Zigzag’s vulture Phido) to get shit done. I really enjoy her character a lot because she’s not just an airhead princess – she has personality and that previously mentioned charm which shines through the screen because of her amazing animation. She’s treated respectfully, and it makes her character that much stronger.  And one thing I want to mention about Tack is his mouth – he doesn’t really have one. Well, he does, but it’s always closed and unmoving. Instead, his mouth expressions are handled by tacks which he keeps in his mouth like toothpicks – when he’s happy, they perk up! When he’s sad, they droop. It’s a really clever trick that works perfectly for guy who doesn’t really talk that much. All of these characters are so well defined, and have their own visual styles which are instantly ingrained on your memory – truly, there’s no better compliment you can give to successful animated characters.

   So anyway, the story begins with a narrator, who sets the stage by informing us –

It is written among the limitless constellations of the celestial heavens, and in the depths of the emerald seas, and upon every grain of sand in the vast deserts, that the world which we see is an outward and visible dream…of an inward and invisible reality.

   – which might be the coolest fucking opening line for any movie that has ever existed in the history of EVER. The pure epicness of that one line alone is but a taste of the glorious wonder which is to follow – but I’m digressing. The narrator continues to tell us that once upon a time, there was a city made entirely of gold. In the city, on top of the tallest minaret, were three gold balls of some magical variety. It had been prophesized that if the golden balls were ever taken away, then “harmony would fall to discord” and the city would come to “destruction and death.” Keeping up? The prophecy also states that the city would be saved by the “simplest of souls with the smallest and simplest of things.”

   This introduces us to Tack, who we find sleeping peacefully in his shoe shop. Soon after, the narrative introduces us to the Thief, who remains otherwise nameless throughout the entire film. The design of the Thief is hilarious – he’s a skinny, sickly-green fellow with a large cloak used for stashing a large quantity of stolen goods. He attempts to rob a little old lady, who immediately turns the tables on him by thoroughly beating him senseless and literally tying him into knots. It’s a great introduction to both the Thief and the old lady (who later turns out to be Princess Yum Yum’s nanny), and it properly establishes both the whimsical nature of the story and the cartoonish silliness employed throughout the film. Eventually, the Thief wanders into Tack’s shoe shop, where he vainly attempts to rob the broke cobbler of any cash he might have. Meanwhile, the sound of loud music can be heard, as an entirely self-important parade takes place on the street for Zigzag the Grand Vizier, who clearly thinks very highly of himself as he sort of dance-walks through the square as a group of hastily-moving underlings continually roll up and unfurl a carpet beneath his feet as he walks – it’s a hilarious image, and instantly defines Zigzag as the biggest douche ever. After waking to find he has accidentally stitched himself to the Thief while he was sleeping, Tack and the Thief awkwardly stumble out onto the street, where several of Tack’s tacks spill out right where Zigzag is about to step. He steps on one, and after screaming in pain he immediately orders Tack to be seized and taken to the palace, where his fate will be decided.

Note to any aspiring thieves out there: always have a swarm of flies buzzing around your face. Nobody will ever notice you.

   By this point the film has already established an important precedent: this is a highly VISUAL story – as it should be! The animation, character designs, and backgrounds are so gloriously rendered it’s almost unbelievable to witness. The main characters of the film – the Thief and Tack the cobbler – are entirely silent. As in, they DO NOT SPEAK. This is a very obvious aesthetic choice that Richard Williams made, and it helps to emphasize the visuals as the primary storytelling compenent. This is where the Miramax-helmed shitfest Arabian Knight goes horribly wrong – they actually give Tack and the Thief fuckin’ voices! Tack has the horrible misfortune of being awkwardly voiced by Matthew Broderick – whose involvement in anything pretty much guarantees a sheen of mediocrity. Miramax got away with this by making Tack the narrator of the film – and he pretty much spells out everything that anybody with half a brain could figure out just by, you know…watching the fucking movie. They even went in and added scenes of Tack saying such brilliant things like “Why can’t I ever talk when it matters?”…which is pretty much the stupidest, most disrespectful thing you could make a previously mute character say. But still, despite the horrible treatment Tack received, it’s nothing compared to the evil slaughtering the Thief’s character underwent. Miramax decided to make the Thief “a man of few words…but many thoughts” because, apparently, having an entirely mute character in a cartoon is too risky and ridiculous of a thing to do. So they got a comedian named Johnathan Winters to provide CONTINUOUS voice-over “thought-speech” to THE ENTIRE MOVIE. So basically, this just means that some asshole is making terrible, pop culture-referencing “jokes” over beautiful animation that has absolutely NO BEARING on the story at all! And worst of all, it doesn’t stop!!! The Thief is constantly jabbering away “in his head”, but nothing – NOTHING he thinks has anything to do with anything. It really is a baffling and infuriating thing to watch.

   You might be wondering why I’m getting so furious over some stupid voices added to an animated film, and the reason is because doing so completely rapes the entire point of what Richard Williams set out to accomplish, and because it totally bastardizes the characters! Tack and the Thief are NOT supposed to talk. Period. To think that they needed to talk for some reason is not only foolish, but offensive to Richard Williams AND the audience. We don’t need things spelled out for us, especially in an animated film where the visuals are all we need to understand what is happening. It’s self-indulgent, unnecessary, redundant, boring, and worst of all, annoying. It’s a big reason why Arabian Knight is considered an atrocious film. Now, I will add an asterisk here saying that Tack does indeed have one line in The Recobbled Cut, but it’s so gloriously awesome that I won’t spoil what he says or when he says it. When it happens, it makes sense and it’s just so surprising that your brain can’t help but enjoy it! With Arabian Knight, it doesn’t make sense in the slightest – it just illustrates how terribly Richard Williams and his art were screwed over.

Zigzag has the idea to ditch the whole “golden balls” thing and just sell his likeness to Disney.

   Anyway, I got a little sidetracked from the story…I’m sorry, but there’s just so much to talk about with this movie. Tack is taken into the palace where he meets King Nod – who is very appropriately named because he always seems to be nodding off to sleep – and his daughter, the beautiful Princess Yum Yum. Zigzag wants to have Tack killed because he “attacked” him in the square, but Yum Yum instantly sees something in Tack and purposely breaks her shoe so she can save the cobbler’s life. This infuriates Zigzag, who has something of a longing for Yum Yum himself. Meanwhile, the Thief sets his eyes on the legendary golden balls atop the minaret, and sets about trying to get into the palace walls so he can steal them. Why would the Thief want to steal these balls that are bound to the city’s fate? Well, the first thing you should know about the Thief is that he’s an idiot, and the second is that this guy does NOT think about anything besides stealing (another reason why making him a “man of many thoughts” is retarded). He’s the king of kleptomaniacs, putting stealing above his own life in almost every aspect. A lot of the movie revolves around scenes with the Thief trying to steal something in some way, even though it only directly influences the plot twice – he’s mainly used as comedy relief throughout the film, and indeed is barely noticed by any other characters as things progress. In fact, Tack is the only major character who directly interacts with the Thief, or seems to even be aware of his existence. There’s a scene in which the Thief has successfully gained access to the palace’s inner chambers, where he runs into Tack fixing Yum Yum’s shoe. The Thief steals it and Tack chases after him, leading to one of the most visually stimulating and powerfully exciting chase sequences in motion picture history. Tack chases the Thief through a series of M.C. Escher-inspired set pieces that comprise the interior of the palace – perspective and the laws of physics are thrown out the window and the characters are forced to make their way through the mayhem while we watch with delight. Seriously, it’s one of the coolest things you’ll ever see, and even though it only lasts about 40 seconds, it leaves a permanent imprint on your brain. Had Thief been completed and released into theaters, I guarantee it would have become one of the film’s standout and signature scenes. I guess we can thank our lucky stars that the sequence is one of the ones which is completely finished.

   Another thing I’d like to randomly point out about The Recobbled Cut that’s worth mentioning is the music. The music used here – like everything else about the film – is simply breathtaking and perfectly utilized for the visuals we’re seeing. The classical pieces chosen are so well-edited and synced to what is happening in the film that it almost seems like they were written for the movie, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know much about the process of how the film’s music was chosen, or about Williams’ full intent with how the music was utilized in it, but just judging from the way it exists in The Recobbled Cut I’ve come to the conclusion that Williams definitely intended for The Thief to be somewhat of a musical experience, too. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful, epic 40-minute masterpiece Scheherazade sort of serves as the main theme of the movie; its gorgeous strings and horns are heard throughout the film and various points. Without a doubt, it’s the single piece of music that gives the entirety of The Recobbled Cut its flavor. The rest of the music in the film is beautiful as well, and luckily for us, there are several moments where the animation has been timed sublimely with the accompanying music – there’s a scene where the Thief comically bounces around on the canopies of the marketplace windows in a botched attempt at getting to the top of the minaret, and the silly music chosen for the scene fits perfectly – the tone of the music, the swoops of the horns…it all matches with the action of the animation perfectly. There’s another scene with the Thief in which he has fashioned some makeshift wings out of palm fronds to swoop off a tall cliffside with, in an attempt to steal the ruby off of The Great Ruby Idol (gotta hand it to the Thief…he goes for the big grabs). After a very dodgy launch, he eventually soars into the air and begins flying around to the sound of a patriotic-sounding U.S. Air Force battle march, evoking the greatest memories of old-time aerial war films. The Thief and the Cobbler has a built-in lyricism to it, a structure of a somewhat loose and musical kind. The music seems to guide the story, while at the same time existing outside of it…indeed, the music somewhat serves as another character in the film, making just as much of an impression as the cast of characters it’s scoring. It’s really an effective move, and best of all, it’s done subtly – the music actually serves the story without interfering with it. This is MUCH different than the Bond Company/Miramax edits, which unnecessarily add some of the most laziest, monotonous, unoriginal, and straight-up simple-minded Disney-cribbing songs you could ever imagine. This literally shits in the face with Williams’ original vision, which – as I’m sure is quite apparent – was the polar opposite of the Disney brand of animated filmmaking.  I’ll give it to Aladdin…there are some pretty damn good songs in that flick, and let’s face it, that’s what Disney’s strong suite is. That’s why blatantly RIPPING IT OFF and then adding it to a film which was NOT supposed to have ANYTHING LIKE THAT IN IT is misguided, thoughtless, stupid, and insulting…plus many more negative adjectives I won’t list here. It literally boggles the mind. Now, I will say that The Recobbled Cut does use some of the score from the Miramax edit – not the songs of course, but just the background score – but it’s only in scenes where some other piece of music might not have fit, and in all fairness, the musical score of Arabian Knight was probably the least worst thing about that release. Gilchrist did a fantastic job of being able to pull together something great from sources of varying quality, and the score he’s stitched together is another miraculous triumph.

   So anyway, once the Thief successfully steals the golden balls (but loses them due to incurable clumsiness), the city is thrown into panicked chaos. Zigzag orders his lackies to retrieve the balls, and, once he has them, he uses it to his advantage by trying to coax King Nod into letting him marry Yum Yum in exchange for returning the golden balls. This offends Nod horribly, and he orders Zigzag out of the palace for good. Zigzag then decides to take the balls to the One-Eyes, a savage and fierce race of one-eyed men who plan to invade the Golden City and take it as their own. Meanwhile, the king sends his daughter and Tack (with the Thief in pursuit) into the desert to find the Mad and Holy Old Witch, the only one who can tell them how to save the city from the One-Eye invasion. Along the way they run into a group of comedic imbeciles called the Brigands, whom Yum Yum assigns as her Royal Guards to prevent them from pillaging their little caravan. The Brigands are pretty hilarious, but apart from getting our heroes back to the Golden City quickly after they’ve met the Witch, they serve no real purpose in the story. This isn’t really a bad thing though, because their foolishness adds a whimsical touch to the middle segment of the film. However, once they return to the city, they find the One-Eyes preparing for their invasion with a giant, impossibly elaborate War Machine and thousands of marching troops. I won’t spoil what happens from this point on, but I’ll just let you know that it involves some of the most complex, intricate animation ever devised and is an extremely satisfying (if highly unlikely) climax to the film. The War Machine sequence is also mostly finished, and we can definitely breath a sigh of relief that this unbelievably detailed animation is preserved for our enjoyment.

If they weren’t so evil and full of bloodlust they might actually make for a nice ensemble.

   On that note, let’s talk about the unfinished nature of The Recobbled Cut. Yes, this movie is not complete. The movie seamlessly transitions from fully finished animation one moment to very rough, sort-of finished animation the next, or in some cases, just basic storyboard drawings. Backgrounds are unfinished, sound effects are missing, and entire sequences are told through stills. You might be thinking that watching an unfinished film with still pictures and basic line drawings spliced in may seem tedious or boring, but you would be WRONG boy, because watching Thief with the incomplete parts intact is like looking into the brain of a genius animator. We get a glimpse into the process of traditional animation, and an understanding of how painstaking and meticulous the animators got with this thing. The unfinished footage actually adds to the movie, and in a way, makes it feel that much more ethereal – it’s really, really cool. I’ve actually watched the film with people who were unaware of its unfinished nature, and midway through they asked me if it was stylistically that way on purpose. After explaining why it was like that, they told me they thought it added to the film’s resonance. And it does! Now, don’t get me wrong – the movie would definitely be a LOT better if it was actually finished. There’s actually segments of The Recobbled Cut which feel bogged down because of its unfinished nature – mainly, the middle part of the movie where our heroes venture into the desert to meet the Mad and Holy Old Witch. This is definitely the part of the movie that would have benefited from just a little more time from Warner Bros before they pulled the plug. I’d much rather see the completed animation than storyboards added in to fill up space, but this is a classic case of taking what you can get. While it would be astronimically awesome to see Thief completed and fully animated, it is a visual treat to see the unfinished work spliced in as well – it just adds to the surreality of the film. Another interesting thing about The Recobbled Cut is that it actually uses some of the Fred Calvert-helmed animation to fill in space in a few key spots – King Nod gets an extra line when sending Yum Yum on her quest into the desert, some footage of Tack and Yum Yum meeting the Witch from The Princess and the Cobbler is used, and perhaps most appropriately a scene at the end in which the Thief is hoisted up above a crowd in celebratory recognition is used. All of these things were absent from Williams’ original workprint, and they are actually really tactful additions put in by Garrett Gilchrist. They work extremely well, despite their woeful source of existence. That’s makin’ some good lemonade out of some pretty shitty lemons, folks.

   At this point, I want to take a moment to focus on something you may have noticed in the pictures – Zigzag looks an awwwwfulllll lot like an effective combination between the Genie and Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. Just for reference, take a close look at the pictures here:

Zigzag, in all his blue and evil glory

The very blue Genie

The very evil Jafar

   The Genie and Zigzag are both blue and have wild facial expressions. Jafar bears a striking resemblance to Zigzag and is also a Grand Vizier to an uninvolved, somewhat lackadaisical ruler. A royal princess falls in love with a poor scamp and they go on an epic adventure together. Zigzag even has a pet vulture named Phido, and Jafar has a pet parrot named Iago. Both of the films take place in old-school Arabian marketplaces and palaces (although Thief‘s palace is much, much cooler). Both of the heroes are imprisoned by their respective Grand Viziers after getting up close and personal with their respective princesses. Both of the movies feature a trick based on the idea that they’re on film reels at their endings…Aladdin with the Genie’s “made ya look” thing and Thief concluding with the Thief stealing the film…and I could go on.

   Now, we could just chalk this up to extreme coincidence, and say that it’s just random circumstance that two characters from a multi-million dollar production would look so much like one character from a mostly independently-funded production which had been in the making for at least 28 years. You could also say it’s a coincidence that Aladdin and The Thief and the Cobbler both take place in old Arabian times, feature princesses, kings and grand viziers, and both take influence from the Arabian Nights folklore – hell, you could even argue that said influence is the reason for these striking similarities…in the story, at least. But then I could tell you a little story about an Japanese anime program called Kimba the White Lion, created by anime legend/godfather Osamu Tezuka. It ran on television in the mid-60’s and featured a colorful cast of talking animals. Kimba was the son of a great lion who strived for peace in the jungle and provided a haven for animals everywhere.

Sound sort of familiar?

Kimba, the white lion

Simba, the…er, regular lion

the_lion_king_simba_kimba02

Yeah….”pride rock” alright.

   So, you could say that all of these things are just a huge coincidence, and Disney just happened to create huge-budget movies that have striking similarities to these other lesser-known projects. Or you could say they are swindling assholes who completely jacked the intellectual properties of others so they could make a quick buck. You see, either one of these could be true, but they can’t BOTH be true. All I know is, Thief was in production for a LONG time before Aladdin was even a thought in anyone’s head. Over the years, Williams hired and fired a slew of animators, especially during the Warner Bros.-funded era in the late 80’s…right before Aladdin was conceived and created. Getting fired by someone is no doubt an infuriating experience, and William fired plenty of animators who logically might have gone to work for Disney. Not only that, but it’s kind of impossible to be working on something for decades and not have people in your related field gain knowledge about it in some way. The Thief and the Cobbler was infamous in animation circles before Aladdin was released. Now, I wasn’t there, and there’s no hard evidence to prove it, but I would NOT put it past Disney to completely rip off the hard work of someone else – especially if there were people there who felt slighted at Williams’ gall to create an admittedly self-righteous “greatest animated film ever” and fire the people he got to do it. I dunno, it just sort of makes sense to me. I almost don’t want to believe it, but it’s hard for me to look away from the probability that Aladdin is a giant, multi-million dollar “Fuck You” to Richard Williams. They basically took his beautiful, complex, artistically original masterpiece and warped it into a mainstream commodity to sell merchandise with. And it’s also hard to look over the fact that it was BECAUSE of Aladdin that The Thief and the Cobbler began to fall apart! And THEN you can look at the fact that Miramax – which, if you remember, released Arabian Knight – is a DISNEY-OWNED COMPANY. Warner Bros. felt the pressure from Disney because of Aladdin and backed out of The Thief because Williams couldn’t finish it on time. Now, they might have done this eventually anyway, but I’m willing to bet that if Aladdin wasn’t about to be released, they would have given him at least a LITTLE more time. It really is a clusterfuck of a situation – and Richard Williams just happened to come out on the bottom.

   Now, just for clarity’s sake, I would like to state that I am not trying to bash on Aladdin as a movie itself. In all honesty, I think I’ve pretty much been a fan of Aladdin for my entire life. If you ever asked me what my absolute favorite Disney movie was sometime over the past few years, I definitely would have told you Aladdin. In fact, the chances are very good that it was the first movie I ever saw…if you’ve ever read the “My Mission” section of this site, I mention that the earliest memory I can fully remember is going to see Aladdin with my family in the movie theater, so Aladdin has pretty much been there my whole life. But now that it’s exactly 20 years later, I’ve grown up, slightly matured, and learned many things about the world…and one of them is that Disney – let’s face it – is a pretty fucked up company. I don’t want to get into a long tirade about the evils of Disney or whatever, because honestly, I have quite a few mixed feelings about it…I mean, like I said, I fuckin’ LOVED Aladdin. And I still think Aladdin is a well-made film for what it is…but now, after experiencing The Thief and the Cobbler and learning of its long and winding history, I can’t help but look at Aladdin in an unpleasant and disappointed light. I mean, even if it ISN’T true that Disney completely ripped off Richard Williams’ ideas – which could possibly be the case – Aladdin still doesn’t measure up to the greatness that Thief was aiming for, and it certainly pales as a work of art by comparison. The Thief and the Cobbler was conceived from a purely genuine, creative place of inspiration, and was trying to break new boundaries as an artistic statement and in a wonderful field of expression. Aladdin is just the same ol’ Disney shit we’ve seen over and over time and time again, just shoved into a different package. It’s painfully obvious that it’s just another commodity with that “Disney Sheen” on it. And don’t get me wrong, the “Disney Sheen” is mighty fine – they obviously have been doing it right for generations now! And I don’t want to stomp on Walt Disney’s grave…I mean, the man built an EPIC legacy, pioneering animation as a major art form and influencing millions of people along the way. He made the very first animated film for chrissakes, he’s a goddamn American icon. But the company he built has become something of a money-guzzling juggernaut, doing everything in its power to suck the money out of your wallet. The vast control they have over the media is as undeniable as it is gargantuan and far-reaching – Disney owns a SHITLOAD of movie-production companies (again, including Miramax), TV stations, clothing lines, THEME PARKS, and other marketing what-have-yous. Disney has become a multimedia and cultural titan, and when they have that much pull in the entertainment industry, I think it’s fairly obvious they can do whatever the fuck they want – even if it is destroying a true artist’s potentially game-changing work of art. And The Thief and the Cobbler is DEFINITELY a game-changer – that’s pretty much what Williams had in mind, I think. So I dunno, the point is Aladdin is now officially in an awkward place within my psyche. There’s definitely a sense of innocence lost within me, and sadness over the fact I can never view a movie I previously loved with the same outlook again…The Thief and the Cobbler is pretty much to blame for that. But, overall, I actually think that it’s a good thing, and even something that my life has kind of been leading up to in a very strange, specific way – it’s like a lesson just for me about the nature of the world. For me, Aladdin is caught somewhere between a beloved childhood favorite and a lecherous, manipulative and totally underhanded marketing campaign. I’m guessing the truth is somewhere in the middle – but there is no doubt in my mind that The Thief and the Cobbler is vastly, unequivocally superior.

The Thief, doing his best impression of a Disney business executive.

   Man, I could literally write about The Thief and the Cobbler for days on end and never get tired of it, or run out of things to talk about. There’s just so many intricate layers to the film, and its meanings and interpretations. I haven’t even talked about the small, barely noticeable details that pop out at you every time you re-watch the movie because of the intricate amounts of things happening in almost every frame, or the scenes hand-drawn in fully-realized, twisty-turny three dimensional space which were animated WITHOUT the use of computer animation, or even the references to drug use and psychedelia when the Mad and Holy Old Witch inhales “mystic fumes” which show her the way to save the Golden City.  The film functions not only as a substantial dissertation on the random, chaotic nature of existence, but also on a really basic level as just a funny cartoon – the sequences with the Thief evoke the greatest memories of the classic Looney Tunes repertoire, with hilarious sight gags and visually pleasing physical comedy that would entertain even the smallest of children with no concept of the deeper themes being explored. That is the true mark of a successful film, in my opinion – one that works on a deeply complex level, and also on an entertainingly simple one. The Thief and the Cobbler will forever stand as one of cinema’s greatest disappointments, not because of the content of the film itself, but because it was never able to appropriately see the light of day. I just KNOW that if this movie had been released properly in the late 70’s, the 80’s, or even in the mid-90’s, it would have completely rocked the world of animated cinema and changed everything as we know it. It’s a highly inspirational and influential film, and I know this because it’s had a profound effect just on me and my life. It truly is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of my absolute favorites of all time. I honestly think my life is better because I have seen it, and I think a lot of people would benefit from viewing it and hearing its story. I highly, HIGHLY recommend The Recobbled Cut to literally everybody in the entire world…seriously, go onto YouTube and watch it, it’s pretty easy to find. I think there’s something for everyone in this movie, at least one thing that somebody can find and hold onto after viewing it. It’s a genuine work of art which has been swept under the rug for the crime of being perhaps TOO great…but it’s still there for us to experience.

   Perhaps The Thief and the Cobbler was destined for failure even from the beginning. Perhaps Richard Williams’ ambitions were too great, and maybe a movie of its scope and scale was just too much for the world to handle. But thanks to The Recobbled Cut, we at least have some semblance of the genius that Richard Williams was trying to give us. Garret Gilchrist should be praised for his invaluable efforts to restore the film to its former glory, and I thank my lucky stars I was able to experience it in some way because of his resolve. History might forget The Thief and the Cobbler, but I know that for as long as I live, I never will. Richard Williams once said the film he was making was in “the language of a dream” – perhaps that’s why it got lost in translation when he tried to express it in reality. But all I know is, in a perfect world, this movie would have been released, and it would have gotten the accolades it deserves. But even with its imperfections, the fact The Recobbled Cut exists as it does reflects the very world in which we live in…and you know what? I think it’s pretty damn good enough.

REVIEW: THE AVENGERS

THE AVENGERS (2012)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner & Samuel L. Jackson
Written & Directed by Joss Whedon
Produced by Kevin Feige
Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Jeffrey Ford & Lisa Lassek

No one takes city-wide demolition and chaos quite as seriously as The Avengers.

   You know, it’s funny – I didn’t really have a huge desire to see this movie. I’m not really a big comics guy – I certainly admire them, but I’ve definitely never gone out and collected superhero comic books the way so many out there do. My only real association with the world of comics is through the movies based on them – in case you haven’t noticed, I’m definitely more of a movie guy. And, given the slew of mediocre to terrible superhero comics-to-film adaptations out there (amidst the genuinely awesome ones, of course), I wasn’t getting my hopes up too much for this release. Honestly, a mega-million dollar movie with gigantic stars playing strong people in fancy suits doesn’t really throw my Indulgence Necessity Meter (INM) for a loop. I can appreciate the fact that these are all super-legendary characters with huge, devoted followings, and the fact it’s pretty cool that a movie like this has never really been done before – an epic unification of several large media franchises into one grand story. This is definitely what could be labelled as an “event film”. And yet, for that very reason, I felt this strange obligation to see it. I’ve definitely grown distrustful of the recent fascination with loud, high-budget, computer-enhanced, scenery-destruction-obsessed movies centering on spectacle rather than story – having my brain barraged with images of cartoon robots blowing shit up for no reason ain’t exactly my  idea of a fun time at the movies. But, the good news is, there’s still a possibility to have a wild spectacle-heavy action flick that actually manages to tell a decent story. I guess it was with that hope in mind that I actually decided to check this particular cash-in flick out. It’s shamelessly over-the-top, extravagant entertainment, but the best thing about The Avengers is…it knows that.

   Now, with that all out of the way, I can tell you that The Avengers is a really fun movie. I can definitely say I was entertained while I was watching it, and there enough new ideas and interesting turns in there to keep a seasoned film buff (read: cynical snob) like myself satisfied. I especially enjoyed seeing the personalities of these superpowerful titans bouncing off each other – even more than the incredible action sequences where they were physically doing the exact same thing. The movie really focuses on the forming of this group of extraordinary individuals into a cohesive team – which is cool when you start seeing Iron Man and Thor fucking throw down in the middle of the forest. I gotta say, it’s the most appealing thing about the movie, and exactly why it’s already going to gross near-Avatar­ levels – it’s just fun to see all of these movies meld into one. Although I am highly critical of the slew of superhero movies being shoved down our throats lately, I do have to admit their tactic was pretty genius – and it’s obviously working. I mean, it’s good for them – they get money. Meanwhile, we have to put up with mediocre films. I guess it’s a fair enough tradeoff, because eventually we get The Avengers – the big one that a bunch of those superhero movies were leading up to. They’ve taken the comic book mentality and thrust it onto the big screen – for better or for worse.

The Avengers are not amused by the smartass onlooking citizen yelling “Free Bird!”

   So The Avengers is fun. But is it really necessary? The answer is no, of course not. I’m not trying to say it’s not worth your time, or that it’s a terrible film – I’ve definitely seen plenty big-budget, star-studded action flicks WAY worse than this one. It’s just…..don’t let it get to your head. This is pure film fluff at its highest form – a purely mind-numbing exercise in awe-inducing spectacle with just enough plot and character development to be acceptable. And it is! This is a very quality made film. But once you get down to it, it’s just another superhero movie…or rather, several of them. It is interesting to see all of these stories intersect with one another, and there are plenty of individual character moments where – if you were to take the particular scene out of the movie and watch it separately – it would definitely seem like it was a solo movie for that character. That’s probably the movie’s greatest feat: effectively welding all of these crazy-ass epic stories together. I think the credit clearly goes to uber-writer/first time film director Joss Whedon here. I’m pretty sure Whedon’s entire life has been leading to his involvement with this film, meaning that he actually had a DEEP interest in doing a big-screen version of this comic book right. The dude’s actually written comics before, and he’s written movies (including the last one I reviewed) – he knows how both work and how to integrate them effectively, so it works! By this end, the movie was in VERY good hands. And it shows.

   So what the hell is this movie about anyway? Why, it’s about superheroes trying to save the fuckin’ world, ya dope!!! What else would it be about? I mean, you could also say it’s about how teamwork and putting aside differences – no matter how super you are – is the most effective way to get the job at hand done, but no, it’s about SAVIN’ THE WORLD!!! Therefore, the plot is quite simple: Loki, the evil and “adopted” brother of Thor (his words, not mine) portal-warps onto our planet and starts killing everyone he sees (except for the important characters) because he wants to rule the puny humans. He got here by using the Tesseract, an energy cube of unlimited and unknown power that us humans found at the bottom of the ocean. After some good guys get mind-bent over to Loki’s side, including the absolutely savage archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (the right-at-home Samuel L. Jackson) takes one in the bulletproof vest, said victim of pesky bullet-tickling waits for the bad guys to leave without killing him and orders the re-engagement of The Avengers Initiative – a super elite team of Earth’s mightiest heroes to take the son of a bitch down before he subjugates all of mankind. From that point on the entire movie is pretty much just down to meeting the Avengers, and seeing them overcome personal differences to have a drawn-out yet highly kickass battle at the end of the movie.

Serious stares are only that much more serious when there’s an eyepatch involved.

   Normally, I would say that such a lack of plot would be a detriment to a film this huge, but in a strange way, the miniscule narrative is actually part of the fun of the movie. Since everything is laid out for us to understand, we can pretty much just focus on the characters, which is a GOOD thing. If there’s one thing Joss Whedon can do, it’s write snappy, witty dialogue that fits characters appropriately, and it’s really fun to watch. Another big thing working for the movie are the performances: there are a lot of kickass actors in this film, and while their talents might be better off being in some Oscar-baiting type of material, they work wonders here. I may be biased, since I think she’s one of the most beautiful women on the entire planet, but Scarlett Johansson really knocks it out of the park as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. I also think she’s a really gifted actress, so that helps as well. I will admit, I’ve always thought of Scarlett as having a bit more class than this kind of movie…seeing her in this makes me think of the scene in Lost In Translation where her character sees a dumb blonde actress doing press for a stupid action flick she did. But I can definitely say that Scarlett brings a lot of class to the role, and she totally looks badass beating the shit out of countless thugs, so maybe it’s not that big of a deal.  Anyway, her character was introduced to the movie-going populace in Iron Man 2, and quite frankly, apart from her scene where she kicks a bunch of dudes’ asses in a hallway, she was pretty much wasted in that movie. (I actually think that entire movie was a waste, but that’s another review.) It’s really refreshing to see her strut her stuff more here, and her character manages to fit in quite well amongst the hodgepodge of superhuman testosterone.

Even with 6 other dudes, having a chick like that on the team pretty much evens out the hormonal scorecard.

   Also bringing something surprising to the table was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. Now, The Hulk hasn’t really had the greatest luck when it comes to super big-budget film adaptations. Hulk, the Ang Lee-directed first outing from 2003, was a boring, self-indulgent mess. The Incredible Hulk, the 2008 reboot starring Edward Norton, was….pretty cool, I guess, but nothing great. This time around, The Hulk is one of the most enjoyable things about the movie, and I really think it’s because of Mark Ruffalo. At first I wasn’t really sure how he would measure up compared to the other actors (especially Robert Downey Jr., who still is my favorite out of all these people) but Ruffalo definitely holds his own and kind of makes me wish they had gone with him from the get-go. He brings a charming awkwardness to Bruce Banner, making him a strange, nerdy type of fellow who just happens to be harboring one of the most unpredictable and destructive forces in the galaxy inside his person. Next to Downey Jr., who was pretty much born to play the role of Tony Stark, I’d say he gives one of the film’s strongest performances.

   I really don’t have a lot else to say about The Avengers…it’s really quite a simple film, at least in terms of what it’s there to do. It’s certainly a fun, exciting, very well-executed piece of commercial filmmaking, and it actually has a brain thanks to a competent writer/director. The action sequences are exhilarating, although a little lacking in suspense (c’mon, you already know they’re going to win. It’s, uh….it’s obvious), and it has great dialogue and performances from everyone involved. But I will say again…this is purely a piece of commercial filmmaking. I’m hesitant to even really call it “art”…this movie was definitely made because the people making it want to make a yacht-full of money. And they are succeeding. The movie’s already broken the world record for the highest grossing opening weekend of all time, and it’s only going to keep getting bigger from there – I wouldn’t be surprised if it dethroned Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time.  But what I’m trying to say is, there are definitely more artfully executed, genuinely thoughtful movies out there that are probably more deserving of the the jillions of dollars and heaps of accolades this movie will accrue. The Avengers is a pop culture-infused juggernaut, the result of a carefully laid-out plan to infiltrate the wallets of as many average citizens as possible. I’m probably sounding more grumpy and lame than I mean to, but in all honesty, I just don’t think this movie is that big of a deal. It accomplishes telling a coherent story with a multitude of epic characters, and for that it’s impressive. I definitely recommend it to anyone looking to have a fun time watching a movie, because at the end of the day, that’s what movies are for! But like I said…just don’t let it get to your head.

REVIEW: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)
Starring Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchinson, & Jesse Williams
Directed by Drew Goddard
Written by Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon
Produced by Joss Whedon
Cinematography by Peter Deming
Music by David Julyan
Edited by Lisa Lassek

You know, on paper the whole Rubik's cube thing seems like quite a cool idea, but a bit of the novelty wears off once you find yourself in desperate need of a bathroom.

   If there’s any genre truly dedicated to embodying the simplistic fun the world of films can be, it’s the horror genre. In my opinion, no other genre of moviemaking lends itself to the intrinsic silliness, the pure, imaginative, and almost decadent spectacle associated with grabbing a camera and shooting stuff with it – a single genre obsessed with portraying the most abstract, depraved, mindfucking type of experiences you could ever achieve in a theater. One thing that humans beings love is watching other human beings pretend to meet gruesome, horrific fates. Groups of friends gather together ceremoniously to watch horror movies and willingly share in getting the ever-living crap scared out them. Basically what I’m saying here is, the horror genre is a very crucial part of the filmmaking universe – it encapsulates everything magical about the art of cinema, even if it can be incredibly gross and macabre at times.  I mean, think about it – almost every important and influential filmmaker out there has crafted at least ONE horror movie: Spielberg, Scorcese, Kubrick, Coppola, the list goes on for ages. Countless young filmmakers start their careers by making cheesy little horror flicks on cheap, shitty cameras – it’s just fun making horror movies!

   However, despite the continous love the populace feels for horror movies, an unfortunate stigma the genre has acquired over the years is that it’s just grown so…..repetitive. Redunant. Boring. Played out, even. It’s gotten to the point where you can literally guess exactly what’s around every turn, who’s going to die, HOW they’re going to die, etc. etc….even if you’re not really a horror film buff! There seems to be a blatant sense of laziness clouding the genre nowadays, a notion that “hell, people have paid for this shit time and time again…..so why would they stop now?” I believe If there’s one thing that should be absolutely dreaded by any creative force in the world, be it an individual artist, a group, or even an entire industry, it’s mindless repetition. I’d rather people just stop creating things, or at least take a break once they’ve reached a creative plateau, instead of endlessly churning out the same run-of-the-mill product, effectively diluting anything imaginative or original. Once you stop looking for new ideas, creative ways to bend storytelling to new limits, and genuinely interesting premises, then the entire world can feel the gears beginning to rust – the horror movie especially has become both a victim and perpetrator of this heinous crime.

   Bringing a big, fat can of oil to the party is the new film The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and written by Goddard and Joss Whedon, both of whom hail from cultish fanboy fame and glory. These two dudes have a bunch of underground TV hits under their belts – Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, and Dollhouse are just a few of their credits. I myself am not a part of the Goddard/Whedon following, but after seeing this film, I could easily see myself checking out their other projects. Basically, The Cabin in the Woods is a tale we’ve seen a billion times before – a group of young, college-age friends go out to a cabin in the middle of the woods and suffer horrific and terrifying fates at the hands of……some ungodly creation from hell. But, one thing that The Cabin in the Woods does – as it quite loudly proclaims in its advertising – is take that age-old (read: clichéd) idea and take it to some unpredictable, mystifying new heights. And hooooooo baby, you ain’t never seen anything like it before.

For one thing, it's got rampant woman-on-stuffed-animal action....an interesting turn of events to say the least.

   Now, before I continue, I just want to warn you: The Cabin in the Woods is not an easy movie to talk about adequately without giving away what happens. If you are genuinely interested in seeing this movie, then please, DO NOT READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW. If you want to truly experience a movie as strange and wonderful as this without any preconceptions, go to the theater right now and SEE IT. Because – and here’s a spoiler of my own review – this movie is REALLY good. If you want to know why and haven’t seen it yet, and have no problem with spoilers, then read on, my friend! But, if you don’t want to have an awesome experience spoiled for you, then I insist that you stop reading this and PLEASE go see this movie!

   Still with me? Good, because we have a lot to talk about. Like I said above in my spoiler warning, The Cabin in the Woods is an AWESOME movie, but not quite for the reasons you’d expect. One thing that needs to be stated about The Cabin in the Woods is that, as far as I’m concerned, it is secretly a comedy. This movie made me laugh a LOT more than it made me jump, and it wasn’t because things happening in the movie were corny or cheesy – this movie is genuinely clever and witty in its execution. Basically, The Cabin in the Woods serves a giant genre deconstruction – a movie made by true lovers of horror who are disappointed with the way the genre has turned out. It’s important to understand that this film is making a statement about the nature of horror films, while also working as one in its own regard – knowing this definitely plays a part in how the movie is perceived. If you’re going to this movie expecting something you’ve seen before, you are in for QUITE the surprise.

Another spoiler alert: creepy shit happens.

   The movie begins with a rather generic-looking title sequence – dripping blood with spooky images in it, red text, the works. But then suddenly, the film smash cuts to a plain-looking room in an office building, with two white-collar guys talking about something so mundane it’s just impossible not to laugh. We follow these guys – who turn out to be key elements of the story, and are expertly played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins – out into a fancy-looking compound, continuing their droll conversation until giant red text cover the entire screen with cheesy horror music – THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.  It is truly an unconventional way to begin a movie labeled as a “horror” film, but then again, this is quite an unconventional film.

   We are then introduced to the protagonist of our movie: the very pretty Dana, portrayed by Kristen Connolly, who is getting ready to leave for the weekend with her friends. We soon meet those friends in the same scene, and they appear to be the normal horror movie fodder – a jock, a smart jock, a bimbo, and a stoner. But one thing I appreciate about this movie is that it actually establishes character very well – at least, as well as it needs to. This scene is full of great little moments and lines that set up these characters’ personalities, and all of the actors compliment their roles very adequately. My favorite character in the movie is definitely Marty, the quite articulate and surprisingly wise stoner who is hilariously played by Fran Kranz – he rolls up smoking a giant bong that turns into a Thermos and is soon waxing intellectual about the state of humanity and the fact we’ve let things get too far out of hand. “Society needs to crumble,” he says while rolling a joint, “we’re all just too chickenshit to let it.” Regardless of how you may feel about such a notion, I definitely give Whedon and Goddard props for introducing such a heavy theme into a mainstream horror flick – it doesn’t mean a lot at this early point in the movie, but it will definitely come back later in full effect.

That moment of curious recollection where you feel you've seen all this somewhere before...it usually happens before somebody does something stupid.

   Anyway, the kids get to the cabin after having a run-in with a particularly foul gas station owner named Mordecai, but are fully unaware their every move is being monitored by people in the facility we saw at the beginning. Jenkins and Whitford’s characters are sort of the main puppetmasters, pulling all the strings and manipulating events to influence the decisions of the 5 kids. That dude Mordecai I mentioned is actually apart of their scheme – in one of the film’s funniest scenes, he calls the puppetmasters to preach all kinds of creepy and ridiculous nonsense, unaware that he is on speakerphone and everyone listening to him is trying not to laugh their asses off. You see, Mordecai is the “Harbinger”, the guy who basically screams “YOU WILL DIE” at the “guests” before they arrive at the cabin. His purpose is to intimidate the cabin-goers, and establish a sense of unease in them that they inevitably choose to ignore. By pointing out this paradigm, giving it a name and reason for existing, the film effectively singles out every other time this ploy has taken place in countless other movies. How many horror movies have you seen where the main characters encounter some strange, undeniably creepy fellow who sets an uneasy tone for the rest of the movie? From my own experiences, my personal answer is WAY too many to count.

   This is where I’d like to talk about the interesting dynamic that sets this film apart from all others – the notion that there are people behind the scenes, actually controlling what’s going on according to a strict set of guidelines. The people running this operation know exactly what they’re doing, and how to achieve it – there are brief mentions of toxins in the newly-dyed blonde hair of the character Jules (played by Anna Hutchison) that alter brain operation, and more obvious manipulations with the “pheremone mists” that are deployed when Jules and Curt (Chris Hemsworth) are out in the woods to get a little busy. You see, this movie offers up a sort of ridiculous explanation for why characters in horror movies always make the same stupid and obviously pre-conceived mistakes – there are people directly manipulating it. And this is actually TRUE, because the people writing the scripts for those movies are usually following the general, pre-plotted outline and make their characters act accordingly. This whole “puppeteer” foil is brilliant – acting as its own entity inside the reality of the movie, while also making the external audience (you know, us) aware of the almost routine exercises that lead to these people being brutally slaughtered. The characters played by Whitford and Jenkins have a sort of detached sense of humor about what they do – they’re portrayed as regular Joes whose job just happens to be orchestrating the violent deaths of young, college-going human beings. The other people in their facility are equally detached – at one point, the entire staff starts making bets on which horrible atrocity will be unleashed upon our unwitting heroes. It’s maintained that this is just a job – a horrible one, but one that human beings must commit and cope with for…a purpose. As a self-aware, genre-critiquing foil, the whole “Death Operation” idea is executed perfectly, and I believe it’s what makes the movie great. There are two stories happening at once – the main story with the kids in the cabin, and alternate story with the people behind the scenes controlling it all. Eventually, these two stories collide, and the results are, simply put – a doozy.

I dunno about you but I would completely trust a multi-billion dollar internationally top secret undercover operation to these people.

   So the kids start to get murdered by a “zombie redneck torture family”, a choice unwittingly picked by Dana out of a cornucopia of hellish freaks, beasts, and monstrosities. This is where the horror movie aspect of the movie works really well; the zombies actually look pretty damn scary, and there are even a few creative embellishments here and there. I especially enjoyed the zombie that wielded a bear trap as a weapon and swung it around in the air like a lasso to latch onto the backs of escaping victims – even if I saw that in a normal horror movie I’d STILL think that was a hilarious idea. Eventually the kids start to understand that something is NOT right when the tunnel they’re escaping through caves in due to an explosion (cued by a frantic Jenkins at the facility, trying desperately to keep them from leaving), and when Curt dramatically tries to jump the gorge that would lead to freedom, only to be killed instantly when he smacks directly into an invisible force field keeping them caged inside. Eventually the survivors come across an elevator that takes them down into the facility, where a blockade is set up to execute them before they cause any further trouble. Backed into an inescapable corner, Dana spots a conveniently large and bright red button that says “SYSTEM PURGE” and pushes it. This unleashes all sorts of hell and painful, torturous mayhem as the countless horror movie monsters run rampant on everyone in their path, resulting in what is undoubtedly one of the GREATEST climaxes to ever exist in cinema history! Seriously, if I had to choose one simple reason to see this movie, I’d pick the final 20 minutes of the film where absolutely absurd chaos reigns supreme….it is A LOT of fun to watch! There are many visual allusions to horror films past, and indeed the entire scene is a loving celebration of why horror movies are so damn awesome in the first place – any kind of horrific fate can and WILL happen, no matter what. The survivors use this chaos and unpredictability to make their ways to the very bottom of the facility, where an explanation and the end of the movie both reside.

   So, at this point I’m gonna delve into the BIG spoiler of the movie, the big juicy secret which I’ve avoided mentioning until now. If you’ve been reading this and haven’t seen the movie, you might be wondering just what in the hell is the exact reason for all this brain manipulation and horrible acts of violence. The answer, to put it quite simply, is – human sacrifice. The fact of the matter is, the old gods which used to rule the Earth – they’re referred to as the “Ancient Ones” – have agreed to stay underground and let humans do their thing on the surface, so long as they are appeased by the bloody sacrifice of 5 particular youths at some sort of regular rate. The gods demand the blood of certain human archetypes: The Whore, The Athelete, The Scholar, The Fool, and finally, The Virgin. These 5 people, whoever they may be, are manipulated and brainwashed into being unwilling sacrifices to these gods, so that the rest of humanity may live. That’s right, the entire plot revolves around an intricately elaborate sacrifice of young blood to ancient, as-of-yet dormant gods. And my guess is, by the time you’ve finished reading that sentence, you’ll have already decided if this is the type of movie for you. Once the survivors make it to the sacrificial center room, we’re treated to an awesome cameo from Sigourney Weaver as The Director of the entire operation, who explains the details I just laid out for you. If the blood quota is not met by sunrise, The Director says, the Ancient Ones will rise out of their dwellings and wreak havoc upon the entire human race, no doubt ushering in a new era of life on Earth…with significantly less humans. I won’t spoil precisely what happens in the end, but I will say that the whole “society needs to crumble” theme I addressed earlier plays heavily into the proceedings.

Bro, it's like....a cabin, inside of a cabin, inside of a CABIN....it's like, the Inception of horror flicks, no joke.

   Simply put, the premise for The Cabin in the Woods is inherently silly and over-the-top. Once you begin the apply real-world logic to it and try to pick apart how the whole operation could work, you realize the silliness of it because there’s no way it could feasibly function in reality – for example, whenever somebody is killed, the Puppeteers pull a giant wooden lever which siphons their blood into a sacrificial offering for the gods. The whole mechanism for how this blood is retained is never explained, and honestly, there really is no way to logically explain how they got the blood to flow exactly where they needed it to go. But, despite the flaws in logic that would normally make other movies fall apart, I feel that this absurdity is precisely why the movie works, and what makes it so lovably strange – it’s a completely outrageous story that exists to point out the tired clichés of a genre that might have gotten too needlessly predetermined for its own good, while establishing a new precedent in movie silliness. The movie is more focused on having fun than making sense in a truly logical way; the logic holds up just enough for the plot to work, and that’s really all it needs. I don’t feel that Cabin is a movie that should be held to “regular” movie standards, because it is clearly not a “regular” movie….it’s trying to be something a little more than that.

   The Cabin in the Woods is definitely a comedy in disguise, a critical smart-ass of a film that picks apart and pinpoints every expectation of the horror genre we’ve grown to both love and hate. It’s a self-referential, self-aware movie that deliberately doesn’t play by the rules…in fact, it completely defies those rules and makes us question if they should even be followed to begin with. It delves into the idea that things might go a little deeper than we previously assumed, the idea that there is something vastly greater going on right beneath our noses. These are the core reasons why I particularly enjoyed the movie – it exists to make the audience watching it aware of what makes these movies tick, while also existing as its own hilarious story which stands up on its own. I just enjoyed the themes of the movie, what it was trying to convey to the audience, and on top of that it was well-written, directed and performed outside of all that other “deep” shit. I have no qualms with saying that The Cabin in the Woods is a groundbreaking film in that regard. It’s an undeniably funny movie that provides a fresh and interesting perspective on what we’ve previously accepted as the norm, and not just in horror films. Like I said before, I’m not a big Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard fan, but I can definitely say that they have achieved something very original and needed in the realm of horror movies. I’m hoping that the movie finds a wide audience that will understand and be inspired by its convictions, although to be honest it is a very weird movie. If you’re the type of person who can deal with unconventional, self-referential moviemaking, then this is definitely a movie for you. If not, well…..the remake of Friday The 13th is always a safe option.

TIM AND ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE (2012)
Starring Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Twink Caplan, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis, Robert Loggia, Will Forte, & Will Ferrell
Directed by Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim
Written by Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim
Produced by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Dave Kneebone, Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim
Cinematography by Rachel Morrison
Music by Davin Wood
Edited by Daniel Haworth & Doug Lussenhop

Hope you've got your wolf-saddles ready kids, because you're about to embark on one batshit crazy excursion.

   I’m just going to make this clear right off the bat: If you are not aware of, or haven’t already seen the Adult Swim network’s appalling (in many senses of the word) program Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, then chances are you are NOT going to like this movie. If you are not a fan of weird, creepy, absurd,  and borderline psychotic humor that intentionally attempts to disconcert the audience, then you will NOT like this movie. If you are more prone to enjoying films such as The Smurfs, or Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, or The Lorax, then you will probably NOT like this movie. I’m just expressing this….let’s call it a “warning”….because from here on out in this review, we are no longer going to be in our comfy, politically correct, morally safe world that we all know and understand so well. We are now dealing with the world as conceived by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. And this world, my friends, is not for the faint of heart.

   That being said, as somebody who has seen the show this film is spawned from and has no problem at all with insane, comically depraved humor, I can safely declare that Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is a flat-out, astronomically hysterical masterpiece. That’s right, I said it – MASTERPIECE! Never before in my life have I seen a movie so uproariously entertaining and so expertly executed by its creators in a purely brilliant exhibition of their craft. The only other movie that can even come close to it by those terms in my mind is – unsurprisingly – South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, another TV-show-to-movie adaptation created by two dudes who knew exactly what kind of movie they wanted to make. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie not only succeeds at what it’s trying to do, but it also completely usurps the previous standards held by the public as to what is acceptable to be shown in films and what isn’t. It tells a more cinematically pleasing story than almost every single movie I’ve seen over the past year, give or take a few. It consistently delivers – in spades – enough humor to last for 10 so-called “comedies” being cranked out by the major studios. Basically, it puts every big hotshot movie director in the mainstream movie business in their place by displaying how to tell an effective story for dirt cheap while utilizing the most obscene, profoundly grotesque humor to do it. Tim and Eric have shown that when it comes to crafting something original, creative, and – most importantly – achingly funny, they can roll up there with the very best of them. You might say it’s a wake-up call for the outmoded and monotonous studio system.

You might also say this sight should be a wake-up call for any rationally sane sleeping person.

   Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (or B$M for short) is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. From pretty much the first 15 seconds of the movie to the after-credits bonus scene, everything about it is so hilarious it’s almost hard for me to believe it actually exists in this universe. Trust me on this one, you have NEVER seen a movie like B$M before. T&E’s humor is mostly derived from highly satirical, sarcastic, and surreal vignettes that highlight the monstrosities of modern-day living, ranging from fake commercials that advertise horrendously shoddy products to extremely awkward encounters with perplexing and uncomfortably troubled people. No joke is too low for Tim and Eric, and believe me brother, when you see the things that happen to the characters in this film….you will understand that. The movie was released on the internet back in January, and is just about to make its debut in theaters on March 2nd. Now very quickly, I’m going to address the background of Tim and Eric, because I’m fairly certain there will be a quite a few out there who have no idea what the hell this shit even is. Tim and Eric are two guys who met in college and started making warped, twisted comedy sketches and putting them on the internet. They eventually landed a show on Adult Swim called Tom Goes To The Mayor, and after that were given a live-action sketch comedy show called Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! which lasted 5 seasons, garnered a devoted fan base, and featured an extensive list of celebrity cameos that is probably much too classy for a show of Great Job!‘s stature. But anyway, onto the review! The premise of the movie is as follows: Tim and Eric are two Hollywood entertainers who are given a whopping $1,000,000,000 by wealthy businessman Tommy Schlaaang (played with extraordinarily maniacal gusto by Robert Loggia), head of the Schlaaang Corporation to make what should surely be the greatest film of all time. Instead, they blow all the money on things such as personal makeovers and hiring a personal shopper/spiritual guru named Jim Joe Kelly (deftly portrayed by Zach Galifianakis), whom they pay $500,000 a week. Once Schlaaang sees the extremely short completed film starring a false Johnny Depp, he declares “I WANT…MY MONEY…BACK!” and that “YOU MOTHERFUCKERS….ARE GOING TO JAIL….FOR WHAAAAT YOU DID!!!!” I can safely say that Loggia gives my absolute favorite performance in the entire film, embuing Schlaaang with a unparalleled sense of unrestrained evil. In terms of classically over-the-top performances, you really can’t get much better.

   Anyway, since they blew all the money and have absolutely no way to pay it back, Tim and Eric go on the run to avoid having their fucking hearts eaten by Schlaaang and his equally evil cohorts. After a coke-fueled night of partying, arm amputation and penis piercing (yes, really), Tim and Eric see a commercial advertising to “one, possibly two men” who are looking to make a billion dollars running a shopping mall. A pretty woman named Katie (Twink Caplan in a surprisingly emphatic performance) appears in the commercial and Eric instantly falls in love with her, a love which he expresses by constantly masturbating to a cell phone image he took from the commercial. With their goal in view, Tim and Eric shed their pristine Hollywood images and become reputable businessmen by establishing their own company called Dobis P.R. and head off to the “historic S’wallow Valley” to run the mall. But, when they get there, they find the mall extremely dilapidated and that the owner Damien Weebs (played to perfection by co-producer Will Ferrell) is a little less trustworthy than he seems. Tim and Eric then set about restoring the mall to its former glory and trying to gain a billion dollars to pay back Schlaaang and save their lives.

Believe me, if you had this guy on your case, you'd desperately resort to mall restoration too.

   The plot is extremely silly, but then again, the entire movie exists as a testament to silliness and general absurdity. The remarkable thing about Tim and Eric is how great they are at squeezing a laugh out of ANYthing – facial expressions, the way lines are read, the way scenes are edited. The thing that makes the movie truly effective is the manner in which T&E establish the world they and the other characters inhabit. Anything goes, and any moment that seems normal can instantly take a turn for the intensely deranged. Just wait until you get a load of John C. Reilly as Taquito, quite possibly one of the most pathetic and uncomfortably hilarious characters to ever be conceived by human consciousness. A visibly malnourished yet wholly loveable man-boy, Taquito has spent his entire life in the mall and lives solely off the frozen microwave taquitos he has lying around his hovel. Irreparably sick from eating nothing but expired taquito meat, he constantly coughs and hacks violently, even coughing up blood at one point (“it’s just natural”, he pitifully quips). I really don’t know how John C. Reilly does it, but he manages to create a sympathetic character out of the otherworldly creepiness and discomforting mess that is Taquito. I have never seen a character so horribly depressing yet played with so much warmth and innocent appeal; I can honestly say this character is among John C. Reilly’s greatest performances as an actor, and a true testament to his abilities. I really do not think any other actor in the world could have portrayed this character…and I doubt that any would have wanted to.

   And while we’re on the subject of great performances, let me just say this: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie has one of the best comedic casts I have ever seen in any film, and everybody brings their absolute A-game to the table. If anything, this shows Tim and Eric’s strength as directors: two guys who are seemingly unmatched at being able to coax an effectively depraved performance out of their talent….or, in some cases, lack thereof. I have absolutely no idea how Tim and Eric talked some of these people into doing some of the things they do in this movie, and I honestly believe that the majority of the cast in this film give some of their greatest performances ever. Will Ferrel KILLS as the shady Damien Weebs, a creeper who desperately wants to rid himself of the horrid mall he’s stuck with. The scene with Tim and Eric in Weevs’ office is one of my favorite in the whole movie, and Ferrell’s performance in it is gut-bustingly hilarious. I already mentioned Robert Loggia and John C. Reilly, who both commit to their roles dutifully, but there’s also Will Forte, who plays Alan Bishopman, the proprieter of a sword store in the mall called EZ-SWORDS. Bishopman is paid a monthly fee to NOT sell swords, making his existence in a dilapitated mall quite beneficial indeed, and he sees Tim and Eric’s new efforts to restore the mall as harmful to his way of life. Forte plays the character with inspired lunacy, and he makes a perfect secondary antagonist for T&E throughout their trials.

The cast sees an MPAA film rating committee and react accordingly.

   I also want to focus some attention on Twink Caplan, who succeeds at portraying the only relatively normal human being in the entire film. I’d never seen Ms. Caplan in anything before this movie, but after seeing her in it I can definitely say I’d love to see some more of her work. She knocks this performance out of the park, playing the only straight-man (straight-woman, rather) character in the movie. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love this character, and how perfect she is for the movie – she provides a fleeting sense of normality to the zany proceedings happening all around her, and also unwittingly becomes a monkey wrench in Tim and Eric’s alliance by distracting Eric from “makin’ the mooney”, as Tim puts it. Things come to a head halfway through the movie when Eric goes on a date with Katie to a restaurant called “Inbreadables”, where everything from the food to the cutlery is made out of bread. Before this scene, Tim made Eric swallow a pill referred to as a “spanish fly”, and during the dinner it begins to kick in. Eric begins to hallucinate and trip out in a VERY intense manner, and Katie hurriedly takes him to the SHRIM Healing Center located in the mall, while Tim swoops in for a little….alone time with Katie. I won’t give away what happens from here, but I will say that what follows is quite possibly the two greatest scenes ever to be intercut with one another. Never has there ever, EVER been ANYTHING like it in the history of cinema. Whether that is a good or a bad thing….I’ll let you decide.

   I can honestly say that Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is one of the most cinematically pleasing films to be released in recent memory. I will admit, the plot mainly serves as an excuse to have all kinds of crazy shit happen, but the story being told is actually very solid, and there are things at stake for the characters. You actually want Tim and Eric to succeed at their goal, and watching them try to attain it is interesting and entertaining in itself. Events flow into each other naturally, and there’s a definite sense of story structure that’s almost uncalled for in a movie such as this. What I’m saying is, B$M actually works as a movie, instead of just being just a collection of skits strung together. I loved all the little nuances, and how T&E incorporated key elements of the show into the movie subtly yet effectively – the fake commercials, cameos from regular cast members, and the cheap, campy animation. There’s just so much content in the film – the movie’s only an hour and a half long but it feels so much more substantial than that. There are so many little jokes and subtle details that pop out at you through repeated viewings.  In fact, this movie requires repeat viewings, if only to pick up on all the great moments you missed from laughing so hard! I really can’t knock a movie that is so consistently funny throughout and still offers something new every time you watch it – I must admit, I’ve already seen it 4 times and I keep picking up on new things! Replay value of that sort doesn’t really happen a lot these days, and it’s a truly refreshing thing to see.

I would say that this image makes more sense if you see the movie, but that would infer "sense" actually applying to this scenario.

   In translating their show to a full-length feature film, Tim and Eric have somehow managed to capture the same feel and spirit of the show and also create something exciting and truly original. They’ve somehow made a movie which humorously points out the commonplace and overused elements of movies and visual storytelling in general while also providing an experience which lives up to those very cinematic elements in a very satisfying way. I can definitely say that there is NO comedy on the planet quite like Tim and Eric’s. They do what they do, and – hate it or love it – there’s no denying that it is exceedingly original. My friends, I absolutely love Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. I find it to be one of the funniest films ever made, extremely entertaining, and appropriately rebellious in its execution. B$M eschews any conceivable notion of political correctness and generally accepted societal expectations and puts the “What the fuck?!” factor on overdrive, and for that, I cannot praise it enough. Rarely nowadays does filmmaking get this rebellious and brave, and even in a movie with a dude getting his dick pierced in full view of the camera it must be appreciated when it happens. Tim and Eric have created something truly magnificent, and I can’t wait to see the movie again on the big screen when it’s released in a few days!

   So final thoughts? I highly, HIGHLY recommend Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie to anyone with an open mind for comedy and a strong stomach. I’m simply loving the fact that big-time film critics are going to watch this movie and write reviews about it; it is simply a movie which defies criticism. And trust me, this movie is going to get VERY bad reviews. But this movie wasn’t made to appease the stupid critics! It exists to be what it is and is completely unapologetic about it. I’m gonna say for the record that I’ve reviewed this movie based solely for WHAT IT IS, which is a hilarious and deliberately absurd piece of art that exists to be funny, and succeeds tremendously at it. In the grand lexicon of cinema history, will it leave a dent? Hell, probably not, but it’s still a damn fine piece of abstract filmmaking, and I consider it to be a substantial accomplishment in that regard. It’s not a conventional film in the slightest, and just for that alone I consider it to be one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. There are things that happen in this movie that you will not be able to unsee, things that will surely stick in your memory for quite a while. I can say it’s certainly more memorable than anything in Transformers 3 was, or almost any other mainstream movie coming out recently. I really hope that Tim and Eric find a wider audience because of this movie, because they deserve it. I’m just doing my part to spread the word.

And now, I leave you with one final thought:

SHHHHRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Review: RED TAILS

RED TAILS (2012)
Starring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Daniela Ruah & Bryan Cranston
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
Written by John Ridley & Aaron McGruder
Executive Produced by George Lucas
Produced by Rick McCallum & Charles Floyd Johnson
Cinematography by John Aronson
Music by Terence Blanchard
Edited by Michael O’Halloran & Ben Burtt

Did you guys hear?! They're making a Tuskegee Airmen video game! It's going to be SO awe....oh, wait.

   If there’s one thing that I feel should be eradicated from the face of the planet, it’s racism. Seriously, it’s probably the stupidest notion that mankind has ever conjured, one that gets absolutely nothing accomplished and feeds on people’s fears and lack of knowledge about others. I’m happy that racism seems to be less of a problem today than it was as little as 50 years ago, but it’s definitely still there, and frankly, I feel the people who practice racism today need to get with the fuckin’ program. We don’t need to be afraid of each other anymore! We’re all people! It’s literally mind-boggling to me that anyone would treat someone else cruelly based solely on their skin color. But hey, this is a movie review, not a dissertation on racial ethics. The reason I bring it up at all is because race is topic #1 in Red Tails, the new project straight from George Lucas’s vast and unfathomably bottomless wallet. This film is based on the amazing true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black regiment more officially known as 332nd Fighter Group of the Air Force during WWII, and is the first Lucasfilm production since 1994 that has nothing to do with Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Now I don’t know about you, but I felt much appreciation towards George Lucas for doing something beyond his multi-billion dollar franchises, and finally producing one of those “great film ideas” he’s been touting for so many years. So here we are – a brand new Lucasfilm movie based on the stories of a group of true American heroes, featuring a nearly all black cast and badass recreations of exciting WWII aerial battles. With a setup like that, Red Tails should be, like, the greatest thing EVER, right?! Well….the sad truth of the matter is no, my friends. No, it definitely isn’t.

   Red Tails was, according to the G-man himself, “designed” to look like the aerial battle films of the 40’s. And, given the exorbitant amount of detail put into the CGI dogfights in the film, I could say this “design” worked perfectly. But Red Tails, despite having excellent production value and a promising cast, unfortunately falls short of its seemingly infinite potential. And while the movie is by no means excruciatingly terrible – it provides some great visuals and a couple exciting moments – it just isn’t very good either. It’s kind of just….ehhhhhh. Which is disappointing, because honestly, I would’ve LOVED to give a movie like this a glowing review full of hyperbolic complimentary adjectives, praising it for its character depth, its execution, its style, its themes & message, the works! But each of these things I’ve listed are all where the movie just completely, utterly misses the mark.

Now THAT'S how you hit a mark! You know, these filmmakers could learn a thing or two from their own fake little plane pilots.

   My real, main beef with this film is the performances. I really don’t know what happened, because the cast in this movie is potentially GREAT and chock full of talented actors, but nearly every line in this movie is delivered with a hokey, unnatural undertone that completely takes the viewer out of what’s happening! I knew it wasn’t a very good sign when the very first line of dialogue in the movie actually made me laugh out loud in the theater. The line is delivered in German, actually, by an evil Nazi fighter pilot – I know he’s evil because his over-the-top and deliberately evil delivery of the line was meant to imbue that sense into my brain. While I was laughing I was thinking to myself “seriously….THAT was the take you used? The one that completely sounds equivalent to what a little kid would sound like while pretending to be an evil Nazi in a school playground game?” And not only that, but the dude’s facial expression – it was just soooo overplayed and corny! Like he was so obviously trying to convey that he was AN EVIL NAZI and he was ABOUT TO TAKE OUT THE AMERICANS! And then the American pilots start talking, and they sounded completely unconvincing as well! It’s like everybody in the movie deliberately decided to act terribly, and for all I know, that could have been their decision….but if it was, they didn’t do a very good job of conveying that was their intention. It just sounded like shitty, amateur line reads in a major multi-million dollar studio movie.

   In the very first scene of the film I was already taken out of what was happening because of the wooden performances by these people! Oh, and get this – during this seemingly exciting and intense battle sequence, they decide to let the opening credits roll using a VERY plain font in a very distracting shade of bright red that takes up the entire middle of the screen! So while this “action” sequence plays out – I put “action” in quotations because there isn’t any reason to care about anything that’s happening yet, thus making the “action” boring – there are giant red letters blocking our view of what’s happening! There’s these gloriously rendered CGI airplanes shooting the shit out of each other, and we can’t even kind of enjoy it because there’s giant letters in the way! So even if you wanted to enjoy the battle taking place onscreen, you couldn’t because they shoved the opening credits right in the fucking way! Couldn’t they have devised a less distracting method of rolling the opening credits? This whole opening sequence is, without a doubt, one of the most boneheaded openings for any film I’ve ever seen. I was seriously dreading the rest of the movie after viewing this haphazardly constructed sequence, and it wasn’t even 5 minutes into the film yet!

   Luckily, things started to get slightly better in the very next scene, once we actually meet the Airmen themselves. After the disaster of an opening sequence, we finally meet the main characters of the movie, and it’s refreshing that they actually have some personality and charm. I have to say that, despite my criticism of the acting in this film, the young African-American actors portraying the Airmen do a damn fine job of establishing a sense of camaraderie to the audience. You get the feeling these guys all like each other, and have been through some shit together. This is where I can actually give some credit to the filmmakers – in terms of character relatability, they actually managed to convey something extremely crucial, and that is the true brotherhood of the Tuskegee Airmen. So we start to get to know the pilots as they trade casual insults and witty remarks with each other, and they’re all pretty likeable dudes – the main two we get to know here and throughout the movie are Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), the latter of which blows up a German train by himself by disobeying orders and taking it head-on – effectively establishing his recklessness and penchant for disobedience. Although individually, almost every actor in this movie comes off as a little stale and wooden, as a group these actors shine, and since this is a movie about a group of courageous people, I can’t really knock them for achieving that. I can give ’em a pat on the head for it, at least.

It's a little known fact that the Tuskegee Airmen did, in fact, invent the badass pimp strut.

   Soon we’re treated to a scene that establishes the 332nd’s struggle to be recognized as legitimate fighter pilots in the war – a war room scene in which Col. A.J. Bullard (portrayed by Terrence Howard) takes on the clearly bigoted white warlords (for lack of a better term), the head of which is portrayed by Bryan Cranston. It’s no secret that the 332nd are pretty much regarded as a joke amongst the high brass of the war, who have no intention at all of letting these dudes see any real combat. Bullard is there to push these racist assholes into letting his men fight in a real battle, and he’s got his work cut out for him. The scene is pretty well done, but I want to take a moment to focus on the truly talented Bryan Cranston. For one thing….he’s barely, barely in this movie at all!  Now, this is a small point, since the movie is clearly not about him, but I feel like more could have been done with his character to justify the very fact that an actor of Cranston’s talent is in this movie! For those not in the loop, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White on TV’s absolutely amazing show Breaking Bad, and if you’ve seen even one episode of that magnificent show, then you understand just how great of an actor Cranston is. When I saw him in the trailers I thought he would be a formidable antagonist in this film about race issues during the war. But the dude’s literally got two scenes in the entire thing and they were BOTH in the trailers!!! I’d say his grand total was….about 4 minutes of screentime, give or take? It’s just disappointing, because I was really excited to see Cranston bust out his formidable talents in this movie – but no, he was only there to serve as a small hurdle in Bullard’s fight for equality. I dunno, I just feel like if they were going to give him such a small role, they should have cast a different actor in the part…but like I said, this is absolutely just a personal beef I have with the movie, it doesn’t really effect it as a whole….but man, I was achin’ for more Cranston! And I really think he could have made the movie just a LITTLE better! But anyway, back to bigger things.

   I really have to pick apart the tone of this movie, because frankly, I feel like it’s just completely off. Now, I know the point of this movie (according to George Lucas at least…a “man of his word”, no doubt) was to harken back to the days of simple, jingoistic, flag-waving war films, complete with the corniness and over-sentimentality that notion implies…but I’m not really sure if the story of the Tuskegee Airmen was really the right one for G.L. to do that with. The Airmen faced a LOT of hardships while fighting to attain some respect in the harsh times of the war, and I don’t feel like their story is one that can be dealt with lightly. This movie tries at once to be an examination of race issues that unfortunately plague society and also a big, dumb action flick with badass CGI dogfights. It just…doesn’t…WORK!!! There have been countless films made in the past that deal with the exact same issues this one does in much more profound and meaningful ways…Remember The Titans comes to mind, as does A Soldier’s Story, and Glory. This movie feels like it’s trying oh-so-hard to be in the same league as those movies, but it ends up brushing over the very things that made those movies emotionally notable and thematically strong to get to the mind-numbing dogfights. And while racism is definitely a big issue in the movie – there’s a scene in which Lightning goes to a military bar and is immediately told to leave by the white men in uniform there, and later scenes which show the Airmen slowly gaining respect amongst the ranks for being badass pilots who escort bombing raids to relatively casualty-free success – I just feel like overall, it wasn’t really given the attention that it definitely should have received. This is another reason I felt Bryan Cranston should have been in the movie more – his character would have been the  perfect antagonist for the 332nd! I mean, that’s what I was expecting him to be, at least! He could have been actively trying to sabotage the Airmen or sully their reputation somehow, or SOMEthing! But after the Airmen get their new planes and respect from the higher-ups, he’s just gone – as is any real form of racial bigotry in the upper ranks of the Air Force. To me, this just signifies that the movie didn’t really know what to do with its own themes, and sort of just abandoned them for glorified, CG aerial acrobatics. And while the dogfights are definitely exciting and fun to watch, there just isn’t that much depth to what is happening to make it truly captivating.

Bet you never thought you'd be yawning at something like this, did you?

   Instead of a truly deserving antagonist who could very well screw everything up for the Airmen on the beauracracy side, we’re given some kind of weird, half-assed antagonist in the form of one German dude who is affectionately dubbed “Pretty Boy” by the pilots. This guy REALLY DOESN’T LIKE the Tuskegee Airmen, and for some reason, happens to be on the opposing side every time they have a new mission. I mean, I guess that could be plausible, but it just feels really dumb and coincidental to me. Basically, this dude’s job is to look mean and shoot at the Airmen in an attempt to give us a sufficient “bad guy”, but we literally learn NOTHING about him, other than the fact he’s evil.  He really serves no purpose AT ALL in the movie and even gets shot down midway through. Seriously? This is what we get? You’ve got a kickass actor like Bryan Cranston and you completely waste him so we can see some shitty actor pretend to be all evil? What a gyp, man!

   Anyway, back to other stuff that doesn’t work. I really didn’t like the way this movie looked – everything has this over-lit, glossy feel that really detracts from the gritty reality the Airmen faced. It just feels so fake and sterilized, much like the Star Wars prequels did. While this helps the dogfight scenes have a distinctive look, it makes the rest of the movie seem as artificial as the dogfight scenes themselves. And think about this, kids: there was a time, way back in the day, where people would actually go up into the sky and stage dogfights with REAL planes, and the director and DP would be up there with them trying to capture all the frenetic action. Um, can you imagine anybody NOW doing something crazy like that?! Of course, the answer is NO! Now, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, any actual filmmaking effort can be thrown to the side in favor of convenience. I mean, if they could do it 70 years ago, why can’t they do it NOW? I dunno, this doesn’t really matter in the long run, but my point is you can go ahead and have CGI dogfights in your film, I don’t care, whatever….just please, try to make them feel real, please!

"Nice job, the green screen looks great! How much am I getting paid for this again?"

   There’s a few more things worth mentioning because they definitely drag the movie down too. I almost don’t even want to mention the romance subplot with Lightning and a local Italian woman named Sofia. Never before have I seen a romance subplot so shoddily shoved into a movie. It’s really just there to make you sad when he gets shot down at the end, so I can’t really say it adds much more depth than that to the story. Seriously, it’s not even worth going into elaborate detail for, because I honestly think my brain would explode if I attempted to do it, and it would get boring anyway, so I’ll just spare us both the strain. Just know that it SUUUUCKS. The dogfights are really cool, but even those have this otherworldly, Star Wars-like feel to them, even down to the sound design. Basically, this movie has so much going for it but never really lives up to what it could have been – a really great action flick with a solid social resonance. It simply juggles too many things at once, and what’s more, it heaps on pounds of cliches and features some truly crummy acting from most of the people involved, even the big names like Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr., both Oscar-recognized actors. I would normally mostly blame this on first-time film director Anthony Hemingway, who has made a name for himself directing episodes of TV shows like CSI:NY and The Wire. I’m sure he’s quite talented and can direct well on the little box, but for a big-budget action flick of this magnitude, he probably wasn’t the right choice. But I dunno, in the end I’m really just going to blame George Lucas for it all anyway, because let’s face it, it really just boils down to him in the long run. You can’t tell me that George Lucas didn’t have complete creative control over this movie. It was his money financing it, for God’s sake, you can’t just tell the guy with all the moneys NO!

   Believe it or not, I actually think Red Tails has one or two redeeming qualities about it – it captures the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen and their camaraderie, and in that regard, it is a success. I’m definitely more aware of these people because of this movie, and even if it was lame, I’m glad I’m more conscious of them and the fact more people will be too. When I went and saw the movie, there were a LOT of people in the theater. Not only that, when it was over, a lot of them applauded it. It did somewhat capture a rousing spirit of adventure through somewhat likeable (if extremely one-dimensional) characters, but I doubt the people who applauded it picked up on the incredibly half-assed manner in which it was executed. But hey, if the people are entertained, what’s the difference in the end? It might just be one of those things that strikes a chord with audiences, even if the thing in question is schlocky as hell and shoddily made. Hell, just look at Troll 2.

No seriously, look at Troll 2. It's excruciatingly hilarious!

   I had really high hopes for Red Tails.  I wanted George Lucas to prove to everyone that he’s really not a soulless, money-grubbing businessman, that he actually has some filmmaking ability left in him and that something bearing his name – aside from the original Star Wars trilogy and first three Indiana Jones films – could be crafted, creatively inspired and genuinely poignant in its actualization. But instead, we get a corny, simplified, just-entertaining-enough-to-get-by action flick that could have been so much more. They’ve made the point of saying it’s like that on purpose and it still isn’t even passable under such stipulation! There’s just so many things wrong with it strictly in a filmmaker’s perspective…things like cliched writing techniques, wooden acting, awkward editing, and trivial and unneccessary subplots that don’t add anything to the story! I really feel that real American legends such as the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a lot better than this. Making a corny, pandering 40’s B-movie throwback in 2012 that simultaneously tries to honor the story of highly respected war heroes completely cheapens and makes light of what said heroes went through…even if your intent wasn’t to do that at all! The movie is just a failure. On many, many levels.

    So I guess in the end, while I managed to find a few redeeming things about Red Tails, it’s generally just another multi-million financial investment from George Lucas, in a grand-scale attempt to add some credibility to his one-trick pony name. Let’s see if it pays off.

Review: BATMAN FOREVER

BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
Starring Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Nicole Kidman, & Chris O’Donnell
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott-Batchler & Akiva Goldsman
Produced by Tim Burton, Peter MacGregor-Scott, Benjamin Melniker & Michael Uslan
Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt
Music by Elliot Goldenthal
Edited by Dennis Virkler & Mark Stevens

I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I had this hanging on my bedroom wall as a child....well okay, maybe I'm fully ashamed.

   Everybody knows that Batman is cool. He’s got the cape, he’s got the car, he’s got the cave and the gadgets, and he goes out at night and beats the shit out of imaginative villains and average street thugs…all while maintaining his alter-ego status as a playboy billionaire bachelor. Simply put, Bruce Wayne/Batman is one of the most iconic creations to ever spring from American culture. Plus he’s AWESOME. And, given the box office earnings of the films based on the character, the public generally agrees with this sentiment. But, for a very short time in recent cinematic history, the Batman movie franchise was not only dead in the water…it was butchered, torn to shreds and strewn about for the game of the fishes swimming there. What started as a captivating, brooding, triumphant saga with the Tim Burton-directed Batman in 1989 ended as a stupid, embarassing, cartoony mess just 3 films and less than a decade later with 1997’s repugnant dungheap Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher. The Batman cinematic dream all but faded into shameful memory until a talented and promising filmmaker known as Christopher Nolan resurrected the Dark Knight from the throes of mediocrity with 2005’s excellent Batman Begins, and America could once again celebrate one of its most beloved characters in the manner he so rightly deserved. But, the old Batman film series is still there, lurking about in the shadows – not unlike the character for which they are named. And while the two Tim Burton-directed films – Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns still hold up fairly well, the two Joel Schumacher-helmed films – 1995’s Batman Forever and the previously mentioned abomination – live on in a somewhat woeful infamy. And while I could no doubt write an entire book on the subject of why Batman & Robin is a turgid, offensive, and unwatchable mess, I’m instead going to focus on the first Schumacher production – the one that still manages to maintain a shred of dignity and respect for the character of Batman. I’m going to talk about Batman Forever.

   Batman Forever (or Batman For More Than A Day, as my father calls it) exists as an interesting middle point in the first Batman film franchise – not really as serious or involved as the first two movies, but not nearly as mind-numbing and vomit-inducing as the one that followed it. Instead, it’s somewhere in between – it still holds on to that mystique and intrigue that the first two films established, while also starting to stray into campy, silly territory.  This is clearly why Michael Keaton, who played Bruce Wayne/Batman in the previous films, opted out of this one – he didn’t like the direction the series was taking. Really, if we should blame anyone for the death of Batman, we should blame Warner Bros. – they’re the ones who decided to make the Batman films “more mainstream” (even though the first two films grossed a combined total of $678,171,278. Clearly pretentious, underground, indie type of stuff). Burton was relegated to “producer” status, to…I dunno, make him feel important, I guess.  Directing duties were passed unto Joel Schumacher, who at the time was a relatively successful filmmaker who had directed films like St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), The Lost Boys (1987) and Falling Down (1993; actually a really great movie). A decent fit at the time I suppose, but the Warner’s guys had no way of knowing how this director would completely fuck up the series in just a few short years. Anway, Michael Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer, a script was written and shot, and eventually Batman Forever made its way to theaters, where it went on to gross a respectable $336,529,844, despite receiving a tepid reaction from critics. I remember seeing the film as a child very well – it was in Los Angeles with my family, actually, and as a child I was completely enthralled by the spectacle taking place before my eyes. It wasn’t until later, after I grew up and became a cynical film snob that I realized how mediocre the movie really is – but wait, all is not lost!

After all, it's got stuff like fancy headwear! What's not to love?

   I actually think that Batman Forever, despite its MANY flaws, is pretty decent. It’s genuinely entertaining throughout, time is actually spent on developing characters (well…some characters) and the film touches on many important issues that define the character of Bruce Wayne and his relationship with himself as the caped crusader known as Batman. The movie’s plot is a bit…..thin, to put it mildly, but there’s enough there to keep one interested in what happens. There’s still a devotion to characterization and tone, and general filmmaking style. This, of course, is entirely unlike the film that follows Forever, which was just a giant toy ad featuring horrible puns about ice delivered by a grossly miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger….but I’m getting off topic here. The point is, this is actually still a MOVIE – it delivers a cinematic experience in a manner befitting the most fun and entertaining summer blockbusters. The writers saw fit to give Batman and new addition Robin (played by Chris O’Donnell…remember him?) character arcs that make sense and add to the dramatic elements of the story.

   That being said, the flaws in Batman Forever are almost too numerous to elaborate on in full detail. Just for fun, let me dissect the very first scene in the film – Batman’s harrowing rescue of a poor security guard from the evil clutches of Harvey Dent/Two-Face. So the setup is Two-Face (played with over-the-top zeal by Tommy Lee Jones, more on him later) is robbing a bank and holding said security guard hostage. The scene successfully establishes Two-Face as a maniacal asshole and we get a sense of his lunacy as he flips a coin to decide the security guard’s fate. Once it’s decided that the guard will live, he is bound, gagged, and thrown into the bank vault as bait for Batman. After Batman kicks a bunch of dudes’ asses he makes his way into the vault and un-gags the guard, who screams “IT’S A TRAP!” before the vault door shuts. So far, so good – but this is where things start to take a turn for the ridiculous, and somewhat confusing. The entire vault is chained to a helicopter hovering outside and then pulled out of the building, allowing it to hang freely above the streets of Gotham. I’m not sure why the entire vault is able to be moved with such ease….maybe it helps when they’re cleaning it or some bullshit. Kind of makes stealing it a lot easier, especially when you have a helicopter that can simply pull it out of the building. Then, the personal lockboxes in the vault open up and start spewing some kind of red liquid, which is identified when the terrified guard screams out “OH NO! IT’S BOOOOILING ACIIIIID!” Two-Face then does the audience the favor of elaborating on the fact it’s the very same acid that disfigured him and made him into a raving lunatic.

Severely acid-charred madman, or new Clearasil spokesman? You decide.

   Okay, let’s just talk about the logic of this event for a moment, shall we? First off, Two-Face had to have previously planned to lock Batman in this vault, and then somehow rig the lockboxes to shoot “boiling acid”. But we saw Two-Face flipping a coin earlier to decide the fate of the security guard, meaning that the coin could have very well landed on the other side, and Two-Face then would have been bound to killing the guard. This was an option! So if Two-Face already had this plan to trap Batman in the vault with the boiling acid, why would he flip a coin to decide if he should let the guard live to use as bait? Did he have someone else in mind to use as bait if it was indeed determined that he would kill the guard? Like, was there an actor just standing off to the side waiting to be bait or something? I’m pretty sure Two-Face can’t predict which side his coin will land on when he flips it – that would negate the whole point of flipping a coin.  So if the coin landed on “kill guard”, he would have shot the guard in the face and he wouldn’t have had any bait to lure Batman into his elaborate trap! Why even flip the coin at all? Why not just throw the guard in there like he ended up doing anyway without the hassle of potentially having to kill the very thing that would lure Batman into his trap? And then there’s the very fact that the boiling acid starts spewing from the lockboxes – how would somebody rig up this incredibly dangerous and elaborate contraption? Did Two-Face bring tubes, wiring and vats of liquid acid along on this bank heist? Did he get his dumb thug guys to wire it up? If there is indeed something hooked up to the vault that is feeding the boiling acid into it, why can’t we see it hooked up to the outside? Um….what the hell is going on?

   You see, this is what’s known as “sloppy writing” – the writers wanted to establish Two-Face’s coin-flipping schtick and also put Batman in a deadly situation that sort of ties in to Two-Face’s own acid disaster, so they just threw them into the movie without even thinking about the contradictory logic of the scenario. And I know this doesn’t really matter in the long run, because it’s just a stupid Batman movie, but these are pretty common sense things, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, Two-Face is supposed to be a criminal mastermind – he wouldn’t be making potentially plan-threatening mistakes like this.

   And it only gets better from here, my friends. So once the acid starts pooling up and rising at the bottom of the vault, Batman and the guard hang on for dear life near the vault door. The guard’s glasses fall into the acid and disintegrate, establishing the fact that yes, this acid will kill them if they fall into it. Batman then reaches down and pulls out the guard’s hearing aid and uses it to listen to the vault door as he tries to figure out the combination, while the guard unconvincingly screams “HEY – THAT’S MY HEARING AID!” . Now, usually hearing aids are reserved for people who are, you know – OLD. People who can’t hear well anymore. The actor playing the security guard looks like he’s in his late 30s, maybe early 40s – AT BEST! What the hell is he doing with a fuckin’ hearing aid?! I understand that the filmmakers needed to give Batman a clever way to get out of this situation somehow, but c’mon!!! If you indeed wanted to make the whole hearing aid bit plausible, wouldn’t you at least hire an actor who looks like he actually NEEDS a hearing aid? It’s probably one the most inexplicable and convenient turns of events I’ve ever seen in any movie in my life, and it’s not even effective because the security guard in question isn’t even pushing 45! And then, to make matters even worse, later after Batman opens the vault, rigs it to swing back into the building perfectly, and saves the guard, the police come in and Commissioner Gordon says to the guard “You’re gonna be all right, young man, just stay calm.” I guess hearing aids are all the rage for the semi-middle aged in Gotham City. Or maybe the filmmakers think the audience is retarded. Either way, the hearing aid thing is incredibly stupid.

But not nearly as stupid as this. Thank God for Arkham City, that's all I'm sayin'.

   Let’s move on from the incredibly sloppy writing already present in the very first action scene of the film and focus on some good things – the first of which being Jim Carrey as the film’s main antagonist, The Riddler. Now personally, I find Jim Carrey to be absolutely hilarious. He’s always been one of my favorite actors, and he was undoubtedly the reigning king of comedy during the 1990’s. Nearly all of his movies released during this period are classics in my mind, and most were highly successful with audiences. When I heard he was going to play a villain in the new Batman film as a little kid, I couldn’t WAIT to see it! And Carrey doesn’t disappoint – he knocks the role of Edward Nygma/The Riddler out of the park. Carrey’s brand of inspired lunacy somehow works well in this film, and doesn’t distract from the brooding seriousness that Bruce Wayne is imbued with. He goes for broke in the role and it makes for a truly memorable performance. Plus, whoever’s idea it was to give him an orange flat-top….pure gold. It’s fun to watch Edward Nygma go from a borderline psychotic scientist who’s obsessed with Bruce Wayne to a fully psychotic mastermind villain after devising a way to suck the brainwaves out of the citizens of Gotham (yes, that’s really the plot, get used to it).  There’s a scene halfway through the movie where Nygma, having both stolen and legitimately earning millions of dollars, throws a grand gala for all the elite of Gotham to attend, including his idol/enemy Bruce Wayne. Nygma does everything he can to rub his success in Wayne’s face, while Bruce maintains an utmost cool. At one point he puts on glasses, which forces Nygma to instantly don glasses of his own as well. A few lines of dialogue pass and Wayne takes the glasses off again, which Nygma hastily does in turn. It’s a little moment, but it reinforces notions of the Edward Nygma character in a purely visual way, without bringing too much attention to itself. Jim Carrey imbues the role with a perfect dose of zaniness and as a result The Riddler definitely comes off as one of the stronger villains in the first Batman film series.

   Another thing I like about the movie is the romance subplot between Bruce Wayne and Nicole Kidman’s character Chase Meridian. Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman have pretty believable chemistry with each other, and their scenes together are written very well and have a certain flirty sexiness to them. This is testament to the acting abilities of Kilmer and Kidman, who do very well in their respective roles. I do think it’s kind of ridiculous that in her second scene in the film she instantly jumps Batman’s bones on the rooftop of the police station – the only reason she does so is to get the whole romance plot going. I guess it’s kind of believable that she would instantly have the hots for Batman – I mean, he‘s friggin’ Batman, after all. And the movie even does try to justify this a little bit…but I still feel that the whole thing is a little forced just for plot convenience. Anyway, it’s no huge deal – she digs Batman and Bruce Wayne digs her. The main reason this is in the film is so Bruce Wayne can question his role as savior of Gotham City…he seriously considers giving up the superhero life and settling down with Chase. This is supposed to add dramatic tension to the story, but we all know that it isn’t going to happen (the movie’s called Batman Forever, for Chrissakes), so it ends up feeling a little tedious…but I give them credit for trying to shake things up a bit. Overall, I like the Chase Meridian character. I feel like she challenges Bruce Wayne in a mental capacity, and it’s fun to see him sort of meet his match outside of his darker second life.

Seriously, if this don't make you want to rip the rubber nipples from your real ones, I don't know what will.

   Anyway, back to stuff that doesn’t really work. As time has gone by, I realized I don’t really like Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. I feel like he makes the character a goofy Jack-Nicholson-as-The-Joker impression, totally hamming it up in a way that belittles the intent of the original character. Harvey Dent/Two-Face always struck me as more of a tragic character, with a certain intensity that made him a formidable foe for Batman. Tommy Lee Jones plays him as a gimmicky, clown-like trickster who’s obsessed with the number 2 (robbing the 2nd Gotham Bank on the 2nd anniversary of his accident, rigging a bomb with 200 sticks of TNT). [Whoops, turns out he actually does this in the comics after all…but I doubt he did it as childishly there as he does in the movie. Anyway, my bad. – Trent] There’s even a scene in the movie that could be considered downright blasphemous to fans of the comic books: So Two-Face and The Riddler break into Bruce Wayne’s house and chase after him and Chase Meridian. Two-Face sits and watches his thugs chase them around while continuously flipping his coin to get the outcome that he desires. One thing you need to know about Two-Face is that he does NOT question the outcome of his coin tosses. He rests everything upon fate and chance, which is what the coin symbolizes – it’s pretty much the defining trait of the character, apart from his half-burnt face. This scene shows a complete disregard for Two-Face’s character and I’m almost completely dumbstruck at the fact it’s in the movie. This isn’t Tommy Lee’s fault, but it is a blight on the character he plays and just makes him look even worse. Two-Face is totally cheapened in this film and it’s one of the weakest things about the entire production.

   This film was made in a time when superhero movies were still considered to be hokey, mindless entertainment instead of serious, character-based stories chock-full of true dramatic potential. Comparing the first 4 Batman films (especially the last two) to Christopher Nolan’s new take on the character not only makes them look like a joke, it’s just simply unfair. Nolan bases his films on a respect for the character and the world of Batman and grounds them in reality, while the first 4 movies treat him as some sort of spectacular, otherworldy mythical figure. This is most apparent in the Schumacher-directed movies, especially in regards to the much-maligned and infamous rubber nipples (Batman & Robin always takes the heat for this one, but they are in this film, too), which were said to be inspired by statues of Roman gods. Batman is at his best when he’s a relatable human being, even if he is an absurdly wealthy one. This is why the Nolan directed Batman films are so effective – they make you really relate to the character of Bruce Wayne, and they focus more on the human side of him, as well as providing the awesome ass-kicking Batman action. There’s a warmness to Bruce Wayne, a kind of charismatic likeability – you feel like you could hang out with this guy, even though he might be a little intense.

   The first 4 Batman films are all more focused on the Batman side of Bruce Wayne, rather than the character as a whole. The films are all built around the scenes in which Bruce Wayne is in the Batman suit, kicking ass – the rest of the movie kind of exists just to get to these scenes. Michael Keaton had a bit of that charm about him, but I’ve never really thought of him as a great fit for Bruce Wayne – he just seems a bit underwhelming to me, and even scrawny. Val Kilmer, I think, actually fares best out of all of the 90’s Batmans, but he plays Wayne with a bit of a coldness, and a hint of unrelatability. He kind of seems like a boring nerd at times, one with a slight holier-than-thou attitude. Kilmer doesn’t really put a lot of emotion into his line reads – in the scene where Bruce and his butler Alfred (the completely natural Michael Gough, seemingly born for the role) figure out who The Riddler is by deciphering the 4 very simple riddles he delivered, the “eureka!” moment when Bruce Wayne states “Edward Nygma” is so plainly expressed by Kilmer that I almost feel like Bruce Wayne can never feel true elation. I know Batman is supposed to be all stern, but at least a little hint of an exclamation point at the end of “Edward Nygma!” would have been appreciated! I mean it’s a big moment for them!

….And don’t even get me fucking started on George Clooney. Again, that will all be in the Batman & Robin review book.

Anyway, I know I’m kind of straying from the review and unfairly comparing Batman Forever to Nolan’s films, and I apologize for that, but I feel like it’s kind of hard not to. I just feel the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is more substantially realized in the new movies, while the older ones are kind of one-dimensional – even though they try not to be. It’s all in the tone of the flicks, and how they’re executed. There’s not really a focus on getting to know Bruce Wayne as a person, it’s more about the fact he flies around and kicks ass as Batman – and also about the over-the-top, comically maniacal villains. However, despite having said all that, I DO give Batman Forever credit for trying the hardest out of all 4 of the original Batman flicks to delve deeper into Bruce Wayne’s psyche. Chase Meridian is a psychologist, and during the scenes in her office many thematic elements are touched upon which reflect later in the film – namely subjects like duality (blantantly through the character of Two-Face and subtly through Bruce Wayne and his double life as Batman) and obsession (Robin’s vendetta on Two-Face for murdering his entire family, Edward Nygma’s obsession with Bruce Wayne). There’s a great scene in the movie in which Bruce sees a framed painting hanging on Meridian’s wall that is obviously in the shape of a bat. Bruce asks her if she’s got a “thing for bats” and she replies that the painting is in fact a Rorscach test, and meaning is inferred by the one viewing it. She then tells him the question which should be asked is if he’s got a thing for bats. This is a totally awesome way to establish Bruce’s mind state to the audience, and also brings up the question of what that Rorscach would look life if viewed by someone else. We, the audience, view it clearly as a bat, but only because we’re seeing the test through Wayne’s perspective. It could very well look like anything else to Chase Meridian, and anyone else for that matter. It definitely brings up a few questions that challenge the viewer’s perception, and I love it.

The Riddler and Two-Face are VERY disappointed with today's Garfield strip.

   This is why I consider Batman Forever to truly be the deepest out of all the 90’s Batman films (I should say all the live-action 90’s Batman films, because the animated Mask of the Phantasm is easily the best and most psychologically complex 90’s Batman film) because the writers actually delve into the meat of what makes Batman Batman, and Bruce Wayne’s inner conflict with his own vigilantism and lone wolf lifestyle. Bruce is presented with not one but TWO people interested in intwining their lives with his by way of Chase and Robin – the former as a love interest and the latter as a crime-fighting partner. This is definitely new territory for the withdrawn Bruce Wayne (well, at least in these movies) and it messes with his mind a little. He even considers quitting the Bat-game for this chick, which sort of feels a little abrupt considering he hasn’t really known her that long – but it’s something I could realisitically see happening to a guy who runs around in black tights with rubber nipples. Also, he is completely against letting Robin be his partner for no real legitimate reason, implying he might be acting a bit more selfish and defensive than he truly lets on. This is all great character building stuff, and it’s done very effectively and subtly.

   For me, it’s these things that save Batman Forever from being a schlocky, over-the-top, thinly-plotted action flick. While the film certainly bears all of those unfortunate qualites, it also manages to provide real emotional depth to the things that are transpiring onscreen – and for that reason it receives a saving grace in my mind. It’s really interesting that all of these deeper psychological themes exist in the movie, because there’s also all kinds of slapsticky, off-the-wall stupidity and immaturity (probably brought on by Carrey’s presence in the film, admittedly) that sort of bring the film down from being a truly satisfying Batman narrative.

Presenting the latest and greatest of Batsuit features....the mouth illuminator. Handy when delivering hackneyed attempts at cutesy humor.

   Before I close up I just want to mention a few more things that stick out to me, mostly just little things I couldn’t really fit it anywhere else. There’s a scene in which they awkwardly try to reference the 60’s Batman TV show by giving Robin the line “Holy rusted metal, Batman!” once they get to The Riddler’s island. Batman says “Huh?” and Robin says “The ground, it’s all metal, it’s full of holes, you know? Hole-y!” to which Batman replies “Oh.” I’m almost positive that this was a cute attempt at self-referential “humor”, but my oh my does it come off as forced and awkward. I love the scene in which The Riddler says to a kidnapped Chase about his glowing jacket, “Like the jacket? It keeps me safe while I’m jogging at night!” which I hope was improvised by Jim Carrey. Also, the film actually has a pretty killer soundtrack. This, of course, is the film which brought about Seal’s simply awesome song “Kiss From A Rose”, and also has a great track by The Flaming Lips called “Bad Days” which is very effectively used to establish Edward Nygma’s shitty apartment when he gets back from murdering his boss. 90’s music….gotta love it! And speaking of the 90’s, the entire movie is just such a testament to the time in which it was made….the tone, the set design, the general execution of the film – it all just screams 90’s to me. Anyone who wants a good nostalgia trip would be very well served by watching Batman Forever – it’s a relic of 90’s filmmaking style. I also like the scene in which Robin steals the Batmobile and goes for a cruise around Gotham (even though I have no idea how he could have possibly done that, and the movie doesn’t even try to explain how), eventually finding a gang of brightly painted neon skull dudes or something who are trying to…I guess rape a poor, twenty-something 90’s chick. Robin saves the girl and gets to have a glorious kiss with her, complete with sweeping and heroic music, and I think this scene is really fun and works well, while establishing that Robin could in fact legitimately pass as Batman’s partner….plus the fight is underscored by an awesome Offspring song, which can’t hurt a 90’s movie at all.

   So, to bring this very lengthy review to a surely much-anticipated conclusion, Batman Forever is, despite being heavily flawed in its complete execution, still worth checking out and enjoying if you’re in the mood for a fun, dumb superhero/action flick. It’s got juuuust enough smarts to not make your brain completely corrode inside your skull, and it’s got some pretty well-designed action set pieces that please the eye. It’s a silly film, and completely dated when compared to the new Christopher Nolan Batman films, but it’s still worth watching if only for a trip down 90’s nostalgia lane. Good performances, dumb writing, and great action. Gee, with a combination like that, what could possibly go wrong?


SO MUCH. SOOO MUCH COULD GO WRONG. OH GOD PLEASE END THE PAIN PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE NO MORE!

Review: SUPER MARIO BROS.

SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)
Starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper & Samantha Mathis
Directed by Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel
Written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté & Ed Solomon
Produced by Jake Eberts & Roland Joffé
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Mark Goldblatt

If this awesome poster doesn't make you want to see this, then brother, I don't know what will.

   It was bound to happen eventually – a big-budget, full-length feature film based on a video game. After decades of adapting from other mediums, it was only a matter of time before somebody in Hollywood decided to make a movie inspired by the interactive worlds that games offered. And in the early 90s, the video game market was still relatively new – still evolving and growing to the level of sophistication (depending on who you ask) that we know and understand today. And at the forefront of the video game revolution was Super Mario Bros. – undoubtedly the most successful video game of all; the game that singlehandedly made Nintendo a household name and saved the video game industry from becoming a forgotten, irrelevant fad during the mid-80s. Mario was the Mickey Mouse for the gaming generation, a veritable icon for the ages and beloved mascot for a titan entertainment company. So it’s really no wonder that Super Mario Bros. became the first ever movie based on a video game – and unwittingly set the unfortunate precedent for almost every video game-to-film adaptation to come.

   Upon its release in 1993, Super Mario Bros. was universally despised by pretty much everyone who saw it. It was loud, strange, tonally inaccurate with the games that inspired it, and generally boneheaded in its execution. The film cost $48,000,000 to make and only recouped $21,000,000 from the box office. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down – an unavoidable kiss of death for movies during the 1990s. Bob Hoskins, who had the distinction of portraying Mario in the film, would go on to say that it was the worst thing he ever did and that he wished he could delete the film from his life – and this is coming from the dude who was in Heart Condition. If there were a picture in the dictionary to go alongside the word “failure”, the poster for Super Mario Bros. would surely do the most justice.

Or maybe this one, actually.

   But, my friends, I have a sort of deep, dark secret I would like to confess to all of you right here and now: I actually kind of enjoy Super Mario Bros. I know, I know, what the hell could possibly be wrong with me?! How can any of you trust my word on films when I actually enjoy a travesty such as this film?! Well to that I can assure you that Super Mario Bros. exists for me purely in the realm of guilty pleasures – something that is so horrendously, appallingly terrible that I just have no choice but to love it for being so bad. I first took a shine to the movie as a young lad, when I rented it from Zip’s Video without any knowledge of its abysmal performance at the box office or any care what critics thought of it – I was just a little kid who loved the Mario video games, so a live action movie was pretty much the coolest idea ever! I really liked the movie as a little kid, so maybe that effects my judgement of it as an older, semi-wiser adult. But, to reiterate, I definitely do understand that the movie is bad. And to be fair, Super Mario Bros. isn’t bad in the way that a movie like, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is bad. Super Mario Bros. actually has several redeeming qualities about it that save it from the realm of evil, offensive, mind-destroying crappiness that so many other movies fall into. What could those qualities possibly be? Read on, my friends, read on!

   For one thing, Super Mario Bros. actually tries to take itself seriously – which can either be construed as a bad thing or a noble thing, depending on your view. There is a sort of devotion to the reality the film is trying to present, even if it is a silly and over-the-top one. You get the feeling that the characters in the movie actually believe they’re participating in the ridiculousness being put upon them, and because of this, it’s actually possible to be drawn into the world of the movie, rather than being alienated from it and detached while things are going on. I guess what I’m trying to say is, while the tone of the film is COMPLETELY different than the tone of the games, it establishes itself for what it is and remains consistent throughout its running time. This is something which cannot be said for a LOT of movies considered to be in the same vein as Super Mario Bros., so I give the movie some credit for actually staying faithful to its own grand design…unfortunately, it’s just a very misguided one.

   Anybody who’s ever played a Mario game knows what the deal is: Princess Toadstool (later renamed Peach) gets kidnapped by Bowser, a big, menacing, fire-breathing, evil & spiky-shelled turtle, and it’s up to Mario (and sometimes his brother Luigi) to go on a magnificent quest through bright, colorful worlds to rescue her – all while defeating troublesome enemies along the way. There’s not really much else to the early Mario games – they’re lighthearted platform adventure games with catchy music with a VERY thin plot to give you an excuse to bop digital bad guys on the head. I’m sure when people went to go see the movie back in 1993, they were expecting something similar to this, since – you know, it was based on the game n’ shit. But instead of seeing this bright, colorful world filled with smiley happy characters, they got a grungy, dilapitated hellhole populated by unfriendly and ugly dinosaur people and controlled by Dennis Hopper. The plot is, Mario and Luigi are plumbers from Brooklyn, and get sucked into an alternate dimension where dinosaurs have evolved into intelligent beings (who happen to look exactly like humans), and are now actively being pursued by King Koopa (NOT Bowser) for harboring a piece of meteorite which belonged to Princess Daisy (NOT Toadstool) that can be used to merge the dino-dimension and the human dimension into one. If you’re saying “What the fuck?” to yourself after reading that sentence, trust me….you are NOT alone. The makers of the film, in a vain attempt to modernize and ground the film in some kind of reality, completely morphed the concept of Mario into some kind of sci-fi/action/comedy spectacle flick….and the effect is, needless to say, quite confusing.

Seriously, how do you go from THIS........

..........to THIS?!

   Gone were the bright green pipes which housed chomping Pirahna Plants. Gone were the mushrooms which made Mario grow larger and stomp enemies. Gone were the green-shelled turtles and mushroom-shaped Goombas which populated Mario’s world. Gone was anything that even remotely tied in to the Super Mario Bros. franchise visually, save for the appearance of Mario & Luigi themselves and one sole Bob-Omb. It was all replaced by lavish, S&M-inspired hysteria and dystopian grunge with only mild references to the actual games themselves (a nightclub called “Thwomp” and another called “Bullet Bill’s”, for example) in a sort of send-up of 90’s New York culture. I think this is primarily why so many people rejected Super Mario Bros. upon its release: it was just way, WAY too different from what they knew and loved from the video games. Not only that, but it was a lot more violent and harsh than the games, which exemplified kid-friendly cuteness in almost every way. I’m positive there were MANY parents out there who stormed out of the theater with their children once they laid eyes on the dark, dystopian society the loveable Mario & Luigi found themselves trapped in and the surreal, violent antics which occurred there. You go from such simple themes as adventuring and saving a princess to fascist rule by an oppressive dictator, childhood abandonment, the concept of evolution AND de-evolution, and inter-dimensional domination, to name a few.

   So what hell happened here? Well, I think that when time came to develop the Mario license into a live-action movie, there were several problems that instantly came into play:

1. There’s no plot.
2. Nothing in Mario’s world tangibly exists in reality.
3. Faithfully recreating the exact style of the games would cost a shit-ton of money.
4. The only people who played video games were little kids….and maybe weird adults.
5. Nobody had ever made a video game into a movie before.

   I think this last one was the most troubling for the creators of this film, since they had absolutely nothing to go off of – they were essentially creating a brand new genre of films. Now personally, I think that notion would be incredibly exciting and open up a nearly endless well of creativity, and maybe it did for the movie’s producers – but they didn’t necessarily use that creativity in a very productive way. I still believe it is VERY possible to make a good, solid Mario movie using the actual style and characters from the universe of the games, but apparently at the time the filmmakers thought they needed something a bit more substantial to make a live action movie with. The result, unfortunately, was something wholly unworthy of being considered anywhere near the quality of the games which inspired it.

   But, if you recall, I did say that I actually enjoy Super Mario Bros., and I really, truly do. I completely understand that it is is a terrible movie, with a hopelessly inept script and somewhat hammy acting from all parties involved, but for some reason, I can’t bring myself to completely write it off as another failure from the bowels of Hollywood. There’s a sort of quirky charm to the movie, a kind of lightheartedness that endears itself to me. The movie begins with what could possibly be the worst animation ever committed to celluloid – I don’t know if they were trying to emulate the 8-bit look of NES games, but the poorly-drawn, barely lip-synced dinosaurs in the intro look laughably terrible. Then a cheesy-sounding narrator with a bad New York accent begins to awkwardly expose the plot before the opening credits even begin, effectively showing that these filmmakers have absolutely no idea how to begin their own movie. Seriously, they could have done away with this entire opening segment and the movie probably would have made at least 10,000 more dollars…but this is just speculation. Anyway, the movie really begins with a mother leaving her baby (a giant, unhatched egg) on the front stoop of a nunnery in the middle of the rain, along with a mysterious piece of blue rock. Then, when she goes back underground to go into her dimension, Dennis Hopper comes out of the shadows and grabs her by the shoulders….which makes the whole cave shake for some reason, and the mother screams while the rocks presumably bury her alive. We don’t know for sure because it cuts away instantly to present-day Brooklyn, where we meet Mario and Luigi, two plumbers who are dangerously low on funds. We follow them around and get to know their personalities, and they eventually run into Daisy, whom Luigi falls for and which gets out plot going. I’ll stop summarizing here because I think you get the idea – this movie is pretty damn ridiculous.

Koopa wants to hit it too.

   Despite the shortcomings of the heavily flawed script,  it does actually make sense in its own way – I know what motivates each character, I know what the stakes are and what happens if Mario and company fail, and because of that, I can actually squeeze a small amount of dramatic tension from the story. The characters have a sort of goofy charm about them, and the actors try their best to breathe a little life into them. It’s not Shakespeare, but c’mon, it’s a stupid movie based on a video game! And hey, the production value on the film is GREAT! It really is a fun film to look at, even though what’s transpiring onscreen is enough to make you question what the hell the directors were thinking. The set designs are creative and elaborate, the makeup effects are pretty damn dazzling, and the creature effects are very impressive. It’s very clear that a lot of money went into this production, and they actually used it to create a believably hostile environment filled with strange and perplexing characters. This is all part of what makes movies fun to watch – complete immersion into a make believe world.

   Although, for this feat, I should really give credit to production designer David L. Snyder – the same man who designed the sets for Blade Runner. He’s pretty much the reason why the movie looks cool, because the film’s directors – the husband and wife team of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel – probably didn’t have much to do with that. Stories of the duo’s inability to control what was happening on their set are now infamous, but needless to say just from watching the movie, these two people were in way over their heads. It’s really mind-boggling to me that the movie’s producers (including Roland Joffé, the director behind the critically lauded filmed The Killing Fields….WTF?!) didn’t try to find someone with a bit of a track record for big-budget adventure flicks….the only movie these two yahoos had directed was a little noir film called D.O.A. (1988) which was critically accepted but bombed at the box office. Their biggest success was creating the popular 80s commercial character Max Headroom. Other than that, Rocky and Anna were pretty much hacks whose “arrogance had been mistaken for talent”, according to Bob Hoskins. Inexplicably these two people were put in charge of a big-budget video game adaptation and this was the result. Not to mention the screenplay had been rewritten several times by several different writers and wasn’t even completely finished by the time production began…in essence, making Super Mario Bros. was almost more unbearable than the movie itself. It’s really a shame, because the potential for something great was squandered by people who thought they knew what they were doing.

When we said we wanted to "gross millions" this isn't exactly what we meant.

   Super Mario Bros. exists as one of those rare movies where everything goes completely wrong but is, for some reason, still somewhat entertaining. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo actually have pretty good chemistry and are pretty believable as Mario and Luigi, and Samantha Mathis, who plays Princess Daisy, tries her damned hardest to be a convincing emotional center for this movie and somehow manages to succeed at doing so. Dennis Hopper gets to have the most fun by being a completely over-the-top asshole, and I’m pretty sure he just agreed to appear in the film to score drug money – but his performance is memorable nonetheless and one of the saving graces of the film. And for all the silly antics and ridiculous occurrences that happen, the movie is actually smart enough to give Mario and Luigi character arcs – Mario is portrayed as a sort of average Joe everyman, someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural phenomenae or wild stories until he finds himself in the middle of one, while Luigi is portrayed as a goofy younger guy who has trouble talking to girls, until he falls for Daisy and eventually gains confidence…ok, I might be reaching with that one, but it’s still a small semblance of an arc nonetheless. My point is, things actually happen in this movie, and the characters have things to do and are developed semi-well. It’s not complete garbage, as most people who see this movie would have you believe. It’s harmless popcorn entertainment, just smart enough to provide some inspired moments but ultimately an unfocused, flawed production. I’d only recommend it to those who like to sit around with friends and watch subpar movies for fun, but other than that, I can’t really recommend it in any serious fashion – even though I personally like the film for what it is. What could have been at least marginally great is now instead one of the biggest blunders in recent cinematic history, and it set the stage for even more atrocious video-game-to-film adaptations that are still being made to this day. I guess there’s something about the interactive experience games provide that gets lost in translation to movies – or maybe the people who make video game movies think that the movies themselves have to be like actual video games, instead of actual movies. Whatever the reason is, it’s definitely been one of the worst genres to exist in film history – and it all stems back to Super Mario Bros.

   Oh, I almost forgot to mention the best part: the movie ends with Daisy running back to our dimension to fetch the Mario Bros. for another adventure, ostensibly setting up a sequel which would never, EVER come. Such high hopes, yet nothing to show for it…in a tragic way, it pretty much sums up the entire movie.

Review: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011)
Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Stefen Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish
Produced by Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg & Kathleen Kennedy
Cinematography by Janusz Kamiński
Music by John Williams
Edited by Michal Kahn

Yeah...Tintin's a pimp like that.

   So, it’s finally arrived. The one, sole film I was eagerly anticipating for alllll of 2011. And now that The Adventures of Tintin, the 30-years-in-the-making dream project of uber-director Steven Spielberg and big-budget adaptation of Belgian comic book artist Hergé’s brilliant masterwork has finally seen the light of day, there’s only one real question left: was it worth the wait?

   The answer, my friends, is an exhilarating & doubt-relieving “YES!”

   Spielberg completely knocks The Adventures of Tintin out of the park. It’s a nearly pitch-perfect tonal appropriation of the legendary and still-popular series of Tintin comics, the first of which was published in France in 1930. Spielberg, co-producer Peter Jackson and their army of technological wizards at WETA (the special effects company behind the Lord of The Rings trilogy….need I say more?) have turned the beautifully simple yet stunning 2-D line drawings of Hergé into fully three-dimensional animated lifeforms through the still-evolving artform of motion capture filmmaking, and the resulting visual effect is sincerely mind-blowing. Spielberg and his team have not only made one of the most exciting and cinematically pleasing films of 2011 and adventure films in general, they’ve also made the absolute best motion-capture animated film thus far. It’s still a relatively new technology, and only a few such films have been released, but this movie easily sets the bar of quality at a very high level for any more to follow.

Ah yes, good shit, let me peep this further.

   Before I continue, a little history lesson – because I’m almost certain that the average American citizen out there has little to no idea as to who or what the hell Tintin even is! Steven Spielberg wasn’t a fan of Tintin until 1981, when a French review of his new film Raiders of the Lost Ark compared the thrilling adventure flick to a series of comic books known as The Adventures of Tintin. Curious, Spielberg looked up the classic books and instantly fell in love with the tales of Tintin, an upbeat young reporter with a flair for mystery-solving and adventuring, as well as the other characters that populated his world. And get this: Before his death in 1983, Hergé himself declared Steven Spielberg to be the only one capable of appropriately adapting Tintin to the big screen – and with an endorsement like that it’s safe to assume some kind of creative energy was going to go along with these proceedings. Once he managed to get the film rights in his pocket shortly after Hergé’s death, Spielberg set about a 30-year quest to bring Tintin to life on the big screen – a quest which has finally come to fruition with The Adventures of Tintin.

   I’m quite happy to say that Tintin factors quite heavily into my life as well. I was about 11 years old when I first came upon the comic books. They were available to check out from the library at Brichta, the fondly-remembered elementary school I attended at the time. As soon as I completed my first book I was hooked, ever-fervently returning to the library as often as possible to try and get my hands on a new Tintin adventure. Herge is easily one of the best storytelling talents of the last century: his stories were intricately plotted out and unfurled with a captivating pace, his drawings were detailed yet stylistically cartoony enough to please the eye, and his characters were so richly defined and developed. Tintin’s travels took him all over the world, allowing him to explore all sorts of places a young lad like myself would only dream of seeing, and what’s more, he had an always-questioning nature and a devotion to figuring out what was really going in his surroundings – something I identified with heavily then and now.

This is the stuff dreams are made of, kids.

   So when news came that two excellent filmmakers – Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson – were collaborating to create a trilogy (that’s right! There’s gonna be 2 more! Oh joy!) based on the Tintin books, I nearly leapt in the air and shouted “yippee!!!” but then didn’t because such a thing would be considered silly. And just my (and everyone else’s) luck, the two die-hard Tintin fans – Jackson being of the lifelong type – have created a film with so much love for the source material that it shines brightly as a triumph in visual medium adaptation. Tintin pretty much gets everything perfectly right – the tone, the character’s personalities, and most importantly, the sense of pure, unapologetic adventure. You feel the rush of the film as you’re watching it, and get swept up in its grandiosity. It’s really an experience like no other.

   One thing that really needs to be pointed out is the way this film is shot. It literally feels like it was filmed in a cartoony reality, a place that exists on planet Earth where these cartoon people exist and go about their lives – such is the realism of the camerawork done by the extremely talented Janusz Kamiński, Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer since they worked together on Schindler’s List in 1993…and if you’ve seen that movie, you know why Spielberg’s doesn’t let this guy out of his sight. The film looks like it was shot in a physically tangible realistic environment, but was in fact completely created in a digital world. The technological wizards I mentioned earlier created the digital environment, giving Spielberg the ability to literally control the camera with his thumbs via a small, Game Boy-like monitor. And what’s great about this is that because of this new technology, Spielberg can get shots that he could only dream of before – shots that would be utterly IMPOSSIBLE to achieve through conventional camerawork. Shots such as having the camera point directly into a mirror, shots where the camera hovers above a speeding car, or shots like the genuinely epic and complex chase sequence through a Moroccan port town that weaves in and out of buildings while all sorts of chaos happens at once – seriously, one of the best sequences in the entire film. And it all happens in one shot!

"I say, ol' chap, this appears to be quite a bitchin' interactive whatsit!"

   Because of this blend of realistic and extravagant camera styles, the hyper-real looking animated characters look even better. The producers did a brilliant thing by making the characters look, as Peter Jackson says, “exactly like real people – but real Hergé people!” The characters’ designs are stylized to be what a person would look like if Hergé was the one makin’ the humans. The effect is pretty breathtaking, even if the character designs seem kind of awkward-looking at times. One of the biggest concerns about motion capture animated films is that the human characters portrayed in them often come off as more creepy than realistic – as human beings we can sense when something else is human or not, and seeing something fake and digital trying to closely mimic a human is a little strange for the mind to experience. This is a big reason why films like The Polar Express and Beowulf didn’t really resonate with a lot of audiences – it’s hard to make your digital characters emulate all the specific and intricate details that make us human. The Adventures of Tintin sort of falls prey to this problem at some points – mainly in scenes with a wide variety of people – but I can happily say that for the most part, Spielberg has attached a sense of human relatability to his digital characters. Facial expressions are KEY in this, and Tintin’s characters have a wide variety of authentic-looking expressions and emotive qualities. There were a few moments where I could actually see Daniel Craig performing underneath the digital puppet that was his character Ivan Sakharine, the antagonist of the film – the way his eyes moved, his movements. I definitely got the impression that a real, live human being was underneath all that digital makeup.

   Which brings me to the most crucial aspect of this film – the performances. All the technical wonders would be for naught if the actors portraying the characters didn’t convey the vibrant personalities of Hergé’s creations, and thankfully, everyone nails it right on the head. Jamie Bell is impressive as Tintin, perfectly capturing his youthful eagerness for adventure and positive, intelligent outlook on all situations. Andy Serkis, the motion capture titan who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, has the honor of being the most memorable character in the film: the hilariously drunken Captain Haddock. As a fan of the original comics, I can say that Serkis perfectly gets everything about Haddock right, and it is wonderful. Comedic dynamos Simon Pegg and Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead fame portray the bumbling Thomson and Thompson, two identical detectives who are high in the running for the title of Dumbest Duo in Creation.  Everybody does their respective character justice, and as a fan of the books, it’s a truly delightful thing to see!

"Aw dude, what hell happened last night? Look at the plane, man! Aw, my dad's gonna kill me!"

   The attention to detail and deft direction by Spielberg show that he has a love and deeper understanding of what exactly makes Tintin work. He’s made a live-action animated film, one that seems like it jumped off the comic book page and implanted itself into the movie genome. The unfortunate downside to all this is, while the movie is definitely good, I’m worried of it finding an audience in America. The movie has already been out for 2 months overseas, where it is being very well-received as the Tintin series is very popular in other parts of the world. But while still being relatively well-known here, American audiences might not be the type to flock out in droves to see this very different looking movie based on a Belgian comic book. The film and comic book series are generally for younger audiences – this being the first PG-rated film Spielberg has made since 1991’s Hook.  The film carries over the abundant slapstick humor present in Hergé’s comics, and while it was a treat for a fan of the series like myself to see, I kept wondering if somebody who wasn’t already affiliated with Tintin and was just seeing these characters for the first time would even know what the hell they were watching. It’s not the typical modern American film, which is one of the most complimentary things I can say about the movie, but also something which might hurt its chances here. There weren’t that many people in the audience with me when I saw it – I’d say around 10 to 14, including myself. It’s not bad, but not nearly the amount of attention I feel Tintin deserves. Time will only tell if the movie resonates with audiences – but, I do feel that the sheer power of Hergé’s characters and story plus Spielberg’s strong directive vision will be enough for audiences to identify with and appreciate.

   So bottom line? Tintin is WELL worth your time and money. I HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who is a fan of fun, mind-blowing cinema and thrilling adventure stories. We’re in the hands of Hergé, Steven fuckin’ Spielberg, and Peter fuckin’ Jackson here! There’s really no way this movie could be bad! It’s a film that was brilliantly handled by above-average filmmakers who not only blew every other motion capture film out of the water, but perfectly translated a timeless and precious universe of richly defined characters onto film in the process! And what’s more, the movie is just fun to look at, even if there weren’t incredible performances and involved storytelling going on at the same time (which, thankfully, there are). The Adventures of Tintin is an expertly crafted film-going experience, and it did the awesome task of living up to my VERY high expectations. For that alone it is my favorite film that’s been released in 2011, and probably one my favorite Spielberg films overall.

   Now it’s time to see him bait the Oscars with War Horse. Two huge movies coming out in one month? And in this year in cinema? No one else should even bother coming to the Academy Awards next year.

Review: SUPER 8

SUPER 8 (2011)
Written & Directed by JJ Abrams
Produced by JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg & Bryan Burk
Cinematography by Larry Fong
Music by Michael Giacchino
Edited by Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey

I didn't know they remade Star Wars with little kids!

   For my very first review on this site, I have chosen a very recent film directed by the quite talented JJ Abrams. It’s actually the review which sort of inspired this entire website, so I think it’s a fitting place to begin for a variety of reasons. Primarily, Super 8 is a movie which exemplifies everything that is wholly thrilling about the art of cinema and also inadvertently displays several things that are wrong with it. In essence, Super 8 is a confounded labor of unabashed love – it’s completely adherent to a style of filmmaking and thoroughly well-composed, but is overall crippled by its own reverence. For what it’s worth, I think JJ Abrams’ intent with the way this film ends is in the purest of best intentions – but he unwittingly betrays the very conceit his film is based around, and it’s slightly disappointing to watch.

   Before I go any further I just want to state for the record that I actually really enjoy this movie for the most part – I think it’s exceptionally well made, the child actors are all talented and have great chemistry together, it has great special effects, and it successfully evokes that sort of 80’s movie feel of ordinary people taking part in something extraordinary. It’s also very funny; I found myself laughing quite a bit, even during some of the more intense action scenes – Abrams’ characters are just that good. But after I saw it for the first time, I left the theater with a sort of conflicted feeling….something that was poking at my inner film critic incessantly. I wasn’t really sure why, but now I’ve put my finger on it and can accurately put it into words.

   Now before elaborating on all of that, I’m going to elaborate a bit on JJ Abrams first, because I think it applies to how his art can be understood. JJ Abrams is a wunderkind. The dude straight up knows, understands, and respects the art of storytelling through motion pictures. His passion and devotion to cinema is truly a humbling thing to see, and it shines apparent through everything he touches. He’s very well known for being the brainchild behind many hit shows on television – including Lost, which admittedly, is one of my absolute favorite shows of all time. He directed the pilot episode of that show, and let me tell you, I would be very comfortable with saying that it is one of the best first episodes of any television series in history. (The last episode, however, is another debate entirely, harharhar….) One thing that stands out about Abrams’ style is that he is VERY good at making things intense. The guy can wring excitement out of actors standing in place and pretending to run while he jiggles the camera around – it sounds silly but the guy can make it work! He’s an artist who finds the means to get the fucking shot he needs, when he needs it, and he does it like a boss. He is truly a director born, filled to the brim with creative ideas and the pathos to execute them.

   So now that I’m done kissing his ass, I’m going to emphasize his knack for making things INTENSE!!! Abrams has clearly seen a jillion movies with characters and situations that command focused attention; he’s learned how to build character enough to make you care about if they’re in danger or not and he knows how to manipulate this to his advantage. The way his action scenes are shot and edited are key in this, and what’s better is he uses the story to add emotional heft to what’s happening in them. I’m going to use a positively fascinating scene from Super 8 as an example – the train crash sequence.

Yeah....you're probably gonna want to run now.

   This is my favorite scene in the entire film, and it leaves me jaw-dropped and speechless every time I watch it. I’m almost certain that no other train crash in the history of cinema has been as intense as this one. In the movie, the main cast – a group of young friends who we’ve spent some time getting to know – have arrived at a lonely train station in both the middle of nowhere and the night to shoot their zombie flick on a Super 8 film camera. *Note to all – this is where the title of the film comes from. Ya get it?* While shooting a crucial scene with a train rolling by (for “production value” the lad director specifies), the hero of our film – a boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) – notices a truck turning onto the tracks and driving straight towards the oncoming train. Train and truck collide, and the train starts to de-rail violently – right next to these kids. Scared beyond all recognition, the kids run for dear life while the train literally rains from the sky all around them. If you haven’t seen this train crash, you’re just going to have to take my word on it – it is scary. The raging speed and deadly velocity with which the impacts of the derailing train are imbued with are truly a sight to behold; it’s really quite frightening. And what’s more, these kids who we’ve come to know and (hopefully) like are caught RIGHT in the middle of it!!! RUN, GODDAMMIT!

   The train wrecks in such a violent fashion you kind of roll your eyes a bit when absolutely nobody dies in the scene – not even the dude who ran his friggin’ truck into the train in the first place. And I’m NOT saying that somebody NEEDS to die, like movies are better when characters are getting mowed down left and right – but c’mon, if there was a group of REAL people caught up in a swirling mass of metallic carnage and mayhem like the one we just witnessed, I’m pretty sure SOMEBODY would perish, or at least be mortally injured – but this is getting beside the point!!!

   The point is, in this scene Abrams raises the stakes for his characters by putting them in a death-defying situation that not only sparks the plot of the flick, but also sets the precedent for what is going to follow. The reason this train crashes is so the creature can escape and get the story moving – and if you’re going to crash the vessel which carries your main plot point/focus of the film in such an intense and violent manner, it sort of hints that the creature in question will itself be intense and violent. And it is!…..for a while. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to introduce something so pants-wettingly intense into a film, it would only be wise to continue with that same tone of intensity whenever the creature is around, so the rest of the movie doesn’t pale in comparison to that one scene. And Abrams, for a majority of the movie, does an excellent job of this. Whenever the creature attacks, we only get fleeting glimpses of it, and we are given a sense of its power and attitude towards human beings through its destructive actions.

   Weird things also start happening around town after the train crash: dogs start evacuating town in large numbers, the engines are torn from all of the cars at the local dealership, microwaves and other electronic devices are starting to go missing – and people are as well. To us, this is clearly the work of the monster, doing whatever its pissed off alien creature heart is intent on doing. As the plot chuffs along, things continue to get complicated for the characters, situations occur, and things start to come to a head when the town is evacuated and the military rolls in to go to war with this extraterrestrial nuisance. While all of this is happening, the kids uncover information about the monster and its plight: it’s bein’ held prisoner by the government and just wants to go home goddammit! During this information download, we are told by a very reliable source (the former government scientist turned high school teacher/dude who ran his truck into the train and started this whole crazy mess) that the monster has come to despise all humans and has developed a pretty surly attitude. And this holds true, because we’ve seen the creature murk any and all humans he comes into contact with thus far. But there’s a crucial moment near the film’s end that drives a hard, rusty nail into its own heart – and there’s no coming back for the poor little monster flick.

I swear, this image is a lot less hilarious when viewed in context.

   So Joe and his buddy Cary (Ryan Lee) are traversing through the beast’s underground lair, where Joe’s kidnapped crush Alice (Elle Fanning) is being stored as an afternoon snack alongside a bunch of other townsfolk who have disappeared. When Joe and Cary get there they see the alien with a leg literally dangling out of its mouth – this alien digs on human flesh. After creating a distraction, Joe saves Alice and some of the other adult humans and make an escape, but the monster finds them and picks off the two adults in a manner most becoming a pissed off subterranean alien (and he’s homesick too….you think Radiohead has a right to be miffed here?)

   The film begins its unfortunate decline from a glorious sprint to a saddening limp when the creature backs the kids into a corner menacingly. It is at this moment in the movie where things begin to make an almost preposterous turn for the warmhearted. Joe, understanding the alien creature towering before him, bravely steps forward and imparts upon it the knowledge that not everyone is horrible. The monster picks Joe up and examines him carefully, presumably making a psychic connection with the boy, as we’ve been given such information numerous times at this point. It’s at this point the monster sees the overwhelming goodness in Joe and – in a moment of “humanity” – the monster’s eyes change to that of a happy puppy (seriously…it’s almost enough to elicit “awws”) and he lets Joe and his friends leave with their lives. The kids are then reunited with their parents, all is well with the world, and the alien rebuilds its ship and takes off into the night sky while everyone watches solemnly.  Sounds pretty happy and cathartic, right?

   Well, it is. But see, the thing is – up until that point, the movie was NOT that type of movie. That monster had every inclination in the world to rip those kids limb from limb (like he had done to pretty much every other human he came in contact with) but through the power of childhood innocence he changes his mind and leaves without harming a hair on their heads. I think I’m sounding a little more critical than I intend to, but this is basically what happens at the end of Super 8.

   Now, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing ever. I GET that Abrams is saying that the power of good and understanding is a universal thing, and even the most savage of beasts can be calmed if only they get a little empathy from somebody. I GET that it’s all well and good that the kids are reunited with their fathers, who have come to their own moral victories. These are all strong thematic choices that are perfectly capable of resonating effectively with an audience – but one thing I ALSO get is that a movie shouldn’t compromise its own stylistic integrity to satisfy the sappy resolution the filmmakers think the audience needs – that is just bad storytelling, and worst of all, it’s insulting to the audience.

   Super 8 seems to operate on this principle that if you conjure up images of catastrophic calamity and danger and then wrap it up at the end with a safe, risk-free bow, it’ll all work out to cinema gold. But even though Abrams’ intentions are good, his film doesn’t seem to realize that it’s pandering to its audience by doing so. The fact is, he expects us to do away with all of the information we’ve been told about this creature and its behavior and accept its newly found heart of gold. It doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, merely because the script wants to get to its sugary, please-everyone conclusion. It’s almost like Abrams created this powerful, angry, truly terrifying movie monster to raise all hell but then put a leash on it, domesticating it so he can impress the guests coming over for dinner. The doe-eye scene that Abrams gives the monster makes it look downright cute – and that is NOT something you want your big, scary movie monster to be!

The Super 8 monster, seconds from unleashing its unspeakable terror

   So what am I saying, exactly? That JJ Abrams should have had the kids who we’ve come to know and root for torn to shreds and ended the movie that way? Well, yes and no, actually – I believe if you’re going to create that kind of situation, then the characters need to be true to themselves and react accordingly. Quite frankly, I feel that the monster would have torn the flesh off those poor little kids and gone about his merry way – that’s just the kind of intensity I picked up from this savage creature. But, the characters didn’t necessarily have to BE in that particular scenario – I feel that there might have been a more effective way of getting these characters to confront that stayed true to the nature of the monster and also provided the kind of wonderful closure Abrams was striving for. What could that scenario have been? I dunno, maybe there could have been a dramatic standoff with the military where the kids come between the war of the worlds and convince the trigger-happy Americans that this alien came in peace and just wants to leave in the same vein! It’s just as believable as Joe reaching into the monster’s heart and convincing it to spare him. The fact is, there’s a gaping logical flaw in the movie’s climax solely to get to the happy ending Abrams wanted, and it sacrifices all the artistic choices he made in the first 90 minutes of the flick to do it.

   My main beef with this turn of events in the film is I know Abrams is a smarter filmmaker than this. I know that he’s a dude who likes to push boundaries, and I know he’s the kind of dude who likes a good, thrilling story – his work on television and as director of Mission Impossible III and the new Star Trek is evidence enough of this. So why does the immeasurably strong and volatile creature that kills humans on sight have a completely inexplicable change of heart when it comes to gobbling children at the end of Super 8? Because I think JJ wanted to remind us that – hey, monsters are people too, and in movies, children never get hurt! It’s just been predetermined that we (the audience) would choke the ending down better that way, even if it’s completely contradictory to everything that came before it. And again, I’m NOT saying that the kids HAD to be killed in that scene, or that the movie would have been BETTER if they did – I’m just saying that if you’re even going to put your characters in that situation, don’t have one of them (the monster) act completely against its own motivation just to satisfy our “need” to see the children go unharmed.

   I’ve been singling out Abrams for the way this all turned out…and in being the director I do think he fields most of the blame…but I think it might be a little more fitting to lump producer Steven Spielberg into this paradigm as well. Spielberg is well known for having noble, sappy, Hollywood-friendly endings in his films, and hey, that’s just his cup o’tea. But it seems his knack for making the end of his films look like Norman Rockwell paintings has bled over to this venture, and it has completely neutered what could have been a wholly satisfying cinematic experience. I can’t say anything for sure, since I am not privy to the process behind how this film was made, but I’m willing to bet Spielberg’s influence is (ironically) a key factor in the harming of this film’s potential.

Like father, like illegitimate son!

   So final verdict? Super 8, overall, is a pretty decent movie…certainly one of the best to come out of this foul year for cinema, the year 2011. It captures a feeling of excitement and wonder that is admittedly absent from mainstream cinema these days, and it’s because a talented director was at the helm. There are true, heartfelt character moments in the film that other films would give their right arm for! But the glaring flaw in storytelling logic cannot be overlooked, and even though I believe the film is trying to pass along a positive message and provide the audience a good ol’ happy ending, it ends up betraying its own conceit and is therefore weakened as a whole. It’s really quite a shame, because the movie IS good and it stands up on its own legs – they’re just kicked out from underneath by overzealous good intentions.

   But at least the dogs knew to get the hell outta there! There wasn’t even potential for one to become a snack in this movie – that’ll show that flesh-eating alien!