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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE

** SPOILERS **

Batman: The Killing Joke unflinchingly and uncomfortably tells two sordid tales. At once DC Animation's controversial, R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's seminal graphic novel about The Joker crossing the line to "prove a point" that all it takes is "one bad day" for his madness to be inflicted upon anyone, The Killing Joke also surprisingly veers from the source material and delves into the tragic final days of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Batgirl emerges as the true hero of The Killing Joke, by virtue of being the character who suffers the most by far, but she manages to rise above the terrible circumstances heaped upon her (by comic book creators and animators). Poor Batgirl. She can at least take small solace that, by DC Comics' standards of how they abuse their female characters, she didn't find herself stuffed in a refrigerator by The Joker.

The first act of The Killing Joke is an original tale, narrated by Barbara, about her exciting nights swinging across Gotham's rooftops at the side of the Batman. They are, by Batman's definition, "partners but not equals," which makes her bristle. He is her mentor, her teacher (she describes him as her "yoga instructor" to her gay best friend in her civilian life), her crimefighting supervisor and... more. The Killing Joke pushes the envelope when Batgirl submits to her sexual attraction to Batman and they have sex on a rooftop under the watchful eyes of one of Gotham City's many gargoyles. This type of adult topic, and its myriad emotional complications, is an awkward fit for an animated superhero movie, and The Killing Joke ends up rather laughable for the attempt. As she deals with her hots for Batman, and his distancing himself from her because of it, she in turn is the unwilling object of the affections of an upstart crime boss named "Paris Franz." (Seriously.) Paris' own henchmen don't get what he sees in "Batman's bitch," but this is an obsession that nearly claims the lives of Batgirl and Batman. Batgirl finally beating Paris nearly to death but stopping herself just short of "crossing into the abyss" is a Phyrric victory. It only gets worse for Batgirl from there.

In both the graphic novel and the movie, The Joker pays a visit to Barbara Gordon's apartment ands shoots her without warning in the gut. She is paralyzed from the waist down. But The Joker isn't done; he disrobes Barbara and photographs her nude, bleeding, injured body. (The graphic novel implies The Joker also rapes her. The movie thankfully does not; rather it substitutes a scene of Batman interrogating prostitutes, who reveal The Joker's proclivities when he comes around as a paying customer. Yeesh.)  The Joker does all of this to torture Barbara's father, Commissioner James Gordon, into madness. He kidnaps the older Gordon, strips him nude, clamps BDSM gear onto him, and forces him to endure both a parade of his violated daughter's nude photographs and a grotesque song and dance number by The Joker in an abandoned carnival. As Barbara is hospitalized but survives, Batman spends the bulk of The Killing Joke playing catch up; his status as the World's Greatest Detective is suspect. The Joker literally sends an invitation to Batman to the abandoned carnival for their fateful encounter.

The Killing Joke also serves as a de facto origin for The Joker, though The Joker himself admits sometimes he "remembers things differently." But according to The Killing Joke, the man who would become The Joker was once a failed stand up comedian who resorted to a one-time night of crime as "The Red Hood" to earn enough money to move his pregnant wife and unborn child out of their grungy Gotham flophouse. When an accident claims their lives, he's forced to be the Red Hood anyway. As he led his criminal cohorts through a chemical factory (for some reason, the gangsters wanted to rob a playing card factory next door), the Batman's interference caused him to fall into a vat of chemicals, transforming him into The Joker. This origin from the graphic novel would form the basis of how Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier became The Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film.

The riveting words of Alan Moore paired with the evocative artwork by Brian Bolland made this story scintillating on the page. Moore and Bolland managed to generate a degree of sympathy for The Joker but as an animated movie, the stark emotions and tragedy play rote and feel limp. The celebrated talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, returning to voice Batman and The Joker, give a gung ho effort. Tara Strong as Batgirl heroically manages to provoke the necessary pathos and emotional heft. The Killing Joke takes pains to note in a denouement that Barbara Gordon does overcome her handicap, becoming both a hero and a symbol as the superhero information network Oracle. While The Killing Joke is no laughing matter, it does end with a joke, and the way Hamill delivers the punchline, his zinger surprisingly generates a genuine laugh from the audience. But sympathy for The Joker? Or for this movie? That's a laugh.

Lights Out

LIGHTS OUT

** SPOILERS **

Teresa Palmer and her younger half-brother Gabriel Bateman have their lives ruined by their mother Maria Bello's evil imaginary friend in Lights Out. Having left home under muddled circumstances, Palmer must confront her family's past when her little brother begins having the same experiences she had growing up: seeing shadowy apparitions, hearing scratching noises in the dark, and finding the name "Diana" scrawled on the wooden floors. Oh, and also being attacked and having a crazy shadow lady try to kill him. "Diana" is the name of the wraith in question, kind of a cross between the evil girl in The Ring and Wolverine in silhouette, plus a number of other derivative monsters of the modern scary movie genre. In an effective opening sequence, Diana murders Billy Burke, young Bateman's father and current husband to Bello, who has a lifelong history of mental illness. Ultimately, all this means Palmer, Bateman, and her loyal mensch of a not-quite-boyfriend Alexander DiPersia, must spend a night in Bello's haunted house to get to the bottom of how to kill Diana. 

Lights Out plays fast and loose with Diana's vulnerability to light. We learn via info dump -- which is literally Palmer walking into a room of her mom's house and finding boxes of files conveniently detailing everything she needs to know -- that Diana and Bello were childhood friends in a mental institution. (Bello was hospitalized for "depression" and befriended Diana, who has a bizarre skin condition making her vulnerable to light. Oh, also she's an evil murderer who killed her father.) Diana died in an operation to cure her of her skin condition, but was reborn as a ghost who haunts Bello, keeps her crazy by making her not take her meds, and occasionally declares war on her family. Under these bizarre circumstances, Bello's loyalty to Diana is laughable. Diana's hauntings aren't confined to Bello's creepy home with its unusually enormous basement, however. She can go on field trips at will, attacking Burke in his factory workplace, and showing up at Palmer's apartment. And yet, any amount of light like candle light, a flashlight, black light, or even the LED of an iPhone can keep Diana at bay momentarily. What about Pop Rocks? If you crunch Pop Rocks in your mouth and they make sparks, will that keep Diana at bay?

Though Lights Out is creaky with its own rules and reveals, and the movie displays about as much understanding of mental illness as a Daredevil movie understands about trial law, it does better with being clear about how child protective services works, and what Palmer would have to do if she wanted to contest her crazy mom and claim legal guardianship of her little brother. Palmer anchors the tidy horror of Lights Out with determination and conviction. Palmer's desire to protect her younger brother is admirable and makes for one of the better sibling relationships in the modern horror genre. DiPersia, as Palmer's love interest Bret, is surprisingly loyal and upstanding. All he wanted was to be able to keep some stuff in her apartment (he negotiates down to one sock) and ease her off from being such a commitment-phobe, DiPersia is a solid dude for hanging in there and facing all this crazy and murder when other guys would have turned tail and ran. In the end, it was cool to see Palmer bet her bottom drawer on DiPersia and win. Though Palmer and her brother would probably have been safe if they sought shelter in a Motel 6; their famous slogan is "We'll Leave The Light On For You."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

STAR TREK BEYOND

** SPOILERS **

Find Hope in the Impossible

It's been a long road, getting from there to here. After being thrown together in a breakneck, timeline-altering adventure in JJ Abrams' rebooted Star Trek, and then weathering a grim downer in the maligned Star Trek Into Darkness, the young crew of the Starship Enterprise hit their stride in the pleasing and triumphant Star Trek Beyond. Helmed by Justin Lin and co-written by Simon Pegg, who pulls double duty as miracle-working engineer Montgomery Scott, Star Trek Beyond boldly goes where Star Trek has gone many, many times before: an edge-of-your-seat, by the book space adventure, but this time with an exemplary emphasis on the characters and their relationships, gleaning abundant warmth and humor while Captain Kirk and his crew once again save the universe. 

Winking at the "episodic" nature of life aboard the Starship Enterprise, Star Trek Beyond opens three years into their five year mission. Exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations can get banal, apparently, and a spacedock in the magnificent new Starbase, the Yorktown, finds Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) looking to move on up to a Vice Admiralship. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives tragic news: his older doppelganger from the original timeline Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died. Spock, also facing the end of his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), decides to leave Starfleet to continue the older Spock's work. The specter of death looms over Star Trek Beyond, both intentionally, as the movie outright and perhaps heavy handedly addresses the loss of Leonard Nimoy, and unexpectedly, with the heartbreaking recent death of Anton Yelchin, who vibrantly plays Pavel Chekov. Before the Captain and First Officer of the Enterprise can part ways, they are recruited into one more rescue mission in an uncharted nebula. Of course, it's a disaster.

Attacked by an unknown alien vessel, using thousands of mechanical bees to disable the Enterprise, the crew is forced to abandon ship. Just as in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Enterprise is destroyed in this Star Trek 3, with the saucer section crash landing on a rocky alien planet just like the Enterprise-D did in Star Trek Generations. With most of the crew captured and the bridge crew separated, Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, and Mr. Sulu (John Cho) must find a way to reunite, get off the planet, and solve the mystery of their new enemy Krall (Idris Elba), a fearsome warrior with a murderous beef against the United Federation of Planets. They're alternately betrayed and aided by two very cool female additions to the cast, the duplicitous Kalara (Lydia Wilson) and the resourceful Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Both women are caked in alien makeup, yet create fetching, appealing performances, especially Boutella, a scene-stealer as Jaylah. What transpires are classic Trek moments: phaser shoot outs, betrayals, last second rescues, manic space battles, a motorcycle chase, and that time-honored Star Trek standby, Starfleet Officers sleeping in caves. Just like in Star Trek First Contact, our heroes use "classical music" to amusing, Kirk-smirking, eye-rolling effect, as the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" returns in a callback to the 2009 film.  Both the Enterprise crew and Krall's alien forces are after a MacGuffan, a disc that allows the holder to control the mechanical swarm of bees, but it seemed like Krall was doing just fine making the bees do his bidding without it. 

Rife with Trek references, Easter eggs, and in-jokes, it's a bit shocking how much of Star Trek Beyond's plot points are derived from and driven by the prequel series Star Trek Enterprise. The starship crashed on the alien planet that Kirk, Scotty, and crew salvage and use to escape is an NX-class ship, the same ship class as the Enterprise that Scott Bakula captained. It turns out Krall is actually a long-lived and mutated former M.A.C.O., the pre-Federation space marines that used to serve as ground troops on Bakula's Enterprise. There are references to the Xindi (season two of Star Trek Enterprise) and the Romulan War. Even the blue Away Team jackets and uniforms Kirk and Chekov wear (the costumes in Beyond are the best ever in any Star Trek movie) look like a fashionable evolution from the blue Star Trek Enterprise jumpsuits. In-depth knowledge of Star Trek Enterprise isn't necessary to enjoy Star Trek Beyond, but there are enough Easter eggs here to fill a carton.

Though many of the plot points feel like Star Trek Redundant, the cosmic joy of Star Trek Beyond is spending time with these characters we love and who clearly love each other. Pegg and his co-writer Doug Jung exhibit a thorough grasp of the characters and what makes them tick. For his third outing as Kirk, Pine is more mature and disciplined, much less the irritable hothead of movies past. (It's Kirk's birthday, just like it was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where Kirk (is he even 40 yet?) laments getting old.) McCoy spends a great deal of screen time caring for an injured Spock, the two friendly rivals commiserating on the abundant respect for each other they are at pains to admit. Scotty and Jaylah form a sweet bond, as she slowly grows to trust these strange men who are sincerely trying to stop the villains who murdered her father and her people. Uhura and Sulu, captured by Krall, nonetheless exhibit bravery and resourcefulness in trying to learn his motivations and keep their fellow captured crew mates safe. And it's gratifying to see Yelchin's Chekov be part of so much of the action alongside Kirk. The end credits fittingly dedicate the film to the late Leonard Nimoy and #ForAnton.

In the end, Star Trek Beyond can best be appreciated as a metaphor for life. Life can be good, things can be going well, safe, happy, routine -- and then disaster! What do you do? Don't be afraid. Be brave. You trust your crew. You trust your Captain. You trust your skills. You trust yourself. You stand together. There's strength in Unity. You find Hope in the Impossible. These are the important lessons that Star Trek can teach us, when Star Trek is done well. Star Trek Beyond is Star Trek done very well. Even with the vaccuum the late Yelchin leaves going forward, we hope the crew of the Starship Enterprise continues to boldly go where no one has gone before. To echo Kirk to his best friend Spock, "What would we do without you?"

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ghostbusters

GHOSTBUSTERS

** SPOILERS **

Paul Feig's Ghostbusters is something strange in the neighborhood. Casting four of today's funniest comediennes, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, as the new all-female Ghostbusters, Feig and his co-writer Katie Dippold, hang them out to dry by crafting a goofball comedy as unwieldy and erratic as the proton streams that generate from their proton packs. The story, of course, is mainly identical to the 1984 original: strange supernatural occurrences infect Manhattan. Odd ball scientists and childhood friends-turned-rivals Wiig and McCarthy investigate, with McKinnon, a physicist and handy inventor, in tow. Soon, after copious amounts of sliming, they discover ghosts are real. Shunned by academia, they are joined by Jones, an MTA employee chased by a ghost in the sewer, and the four women go into business for themselves as the Ghostbusters.

Despite a spiritedly funny opening scene where Zach Woods gives a tour of a haunted Manhattan mansion, Ghostbusters quickly goes as limp as the lone wonton in the Chinese soup McCarthy complains about in her main running gag. The Ghostbusters gradually stumble upon a meandering plot by an utterly forgettable and uninteresting villain to open up the ley lines beneath Manhattan and bring forth supernatural evil, or something. Though the entire city of New York is threatened, Ghostbusters lacks any urgency or palpable stakes. Scenes and entire sequences feel hacked and slashed, the movie assembled in editing like a jigsaw puzzle smashed together by a child having a temper tantrum. Wiig and McCarthy are basically interchangeable characters whose initial disconnect after a falling out is quickly forgotten. Jones rises to the occasion, bringing some sense of fear and disbelief when confronted with terrifying apparitions. Meanwhile, there's McKinnon, delivering an oddball performance completely disconnected from every scene in the movie she occupies. 

Feig pays laborious homage to the original Ghostbusters, with dutiful but infernal cameos by every surviving cast member from 1984 save Rick Moranis. Ghastly appearances by an unsightly CGI Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man garner the effect of checking them off a list. The inimitable talents of Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire and Charles Dance of Game of Thrones are utterly wasted in little more than walk ons. Until he starts dancing for no reason into and throughout the end credits, Chris Hemsworth scores the biggest laughs, outshining all of the Saturday Night Live professional comediennes, as the Ghostbusters' dim bulb secretary. For all the abuse they unfairly attracted and continue to from the dregs of society (some of it cannily referenced in the movie), the all-female Ghostbusters deserved a better written, better directed, better edited, better structured, better movie in which to bust ghosts.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

** SPOILERS **

"This is most peculiar," a young Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) remarks when, lost exploring the wilds of the African Congo with her scientist father, she encounters an equally young Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard). Certainly, what are the odds a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed American woman would meet the love of her life, a beautiful blonde, blue eyed British Lord raised by gorillas in the jungles of Africa? (Although Jane was specifically referring to Tarzan dropping to all fours and sniffing her crotch. Tarzan's got game with the ladies.) Years later, Tarzan and Jane are happily married, living in his ancestral castle in England as Lord and Lady Greystoke. Tarzan, you see, was born John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, but he was stranded in the Congo as an infant when his parents were killed. Baby John was adopted by a gorilla named Kala and raised among the apes. He gained mastery over the animals and was given the name Tarzan (not by the apes, obviously). Tarzan and Jane is quite a story, one that would be the basis of pulp tales that would enthrall the 19th century world ("Him Tarzan, you Jane" is quoted right back to their faces). 

Civilized, Lord Greystoke is quiet and thoughtful, the wildness in him subdued. But international politics and the machinations of Christoph Waltz, would lure Tarzan back to the jungle. Waltz, an envoy of King Leopold II of Belgium, schemes to save the bankrupt Belgium government by extracting the diamonds of the Congo, which are controlled by tribal leader Djimon Hounsou. Hounsou will give Waltz the diamonds if he delivers his arch enemy, Tarzan. Tarzan killed Hounsou's son, you see, because Hounsou's son killed Tarzan's mother. Not his human mother, his ape mother. Jungle life is sordid and complicated. Nonetheless, Tarzan and Jane, with Samuel L. Jackson, an American envoy investigating the rumored shady dealings of the Belgian government in the Congo, march right into a trap set by Waltz. Tarzan is easily captured and hogtied; Jackson manages to rescue him while Waltz flees with a kidnapped Jane. Thus begins a merry chase through the jungle as Tarzan tries to save Jane, trapped aboard Waltz's steam ship. Waltz would soon come to regret trying to hold Jane hostage, however. She's cunning, brave, and has wildness in her to match her husband.

Speaking of wildness, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises would remark that civilization has defeated Tarzan, and he'd have a point. As Tarzan sheds his clothing (keeping his torn khakis on rather than donning the traditional loincloth), he must Tarzan-up and re-embrace his full Tarzanity. For most of the movie, Tarzan has a rough time of it. He loses a wrestling match with a gorilla and readjusting to savage jungle life is more difficult than he anticipated. (Jackson managing to keep pace with Tarzan in the jungle without being killed requires the most suspension of disbelief, in a movie that is essentially all about suspension of disbelief.) Still, Tarzan becomes wilder and wilder the closer he gets to Jane, and soon, he fully embraces his status as being Lord of the Jungle, master of all CGI animals, able to command legions of computer generated beasts to do his bidding. Much like he did in the last four Harry Potter films he helmed, director David Yates bleeds much of the color from the jungle, and his CGI animals reek of pixels. Skarsgard makes for a physical, visceral Tarzan, and the camera simply loves Robbie. The Legend of Tarzan is replete with thrilling jungle fights, but the touching moments mostly involve Tarzan rubbing his head against people and beasts he loves, like a pride of lions he'd known since they were cubs, or Robbie herself. Amusingly, The Legend of Tarzan's take on 19th century European politics curiously reflects modern day, as England realizes the duplicity stemming from Brussels and decides to #Brexit from their joint affairs in the Congo. As coincidences go, that's pretty wild.

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