BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD

Everybody who’s a DC Comics fan knows the stories of the five Robins that have been with Batman. First was Dick Grayson, who later became Nightwing. Second was Jason Todd, who was murdered by the Joker. Third was Tim Drake, who became Red Robin. Fourth was Stephanie Brown, who is now Batgirl. And fifth is Damian, the biological son of Batman/Bruce Wayne. The stories of these five people are unique and a lot of fun to dig into and discuss with fans. Everybody has a favorite Robin.

Batman: Under the Red Hood is the story of the second Robin – only after he was killed by the Joker and brought back to life by Ras al-Ghul. Judd Winick wrote the script, based on the Batman arc he wrote that revived Jason Todd, and it serves pretty well, but I know it couldn’t do true justice to the whole story. There’s a lot of history in this tale, and all of it worth telling.

As far as this direct-to-DVD effort goes, the story can’t relate all the years Jason was around after Batman caught him stealing the tires off the Batmobile (something that fans simply couldn’t imagine being done even back in the early 1980s). He lasted for five years before getting killed, and was dead for seventeen years before he was brought back to life.

All the fans believed Jason was dead. After all, didn’t DC Comics run a phone contest for fans to decide his fate? (Right after that, Warner Brothers – the parent company – got hold of DC and asked what they were going to do with the warehouses full of Batman AND Robin products they had to sell!) So a third Robin was immediately in the offing.

Comic heroes are notorious for not staying dead. Used to we could point at Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes and say, see? Bucky’s dead. Only now Bucky is the new Captain America and Steve Rogers was dead – except that he’s now back alive too.

Simply put, there’s a lot of emotional context and resonance and real-time history missing from the pared-down story on this disc. However, it is slam-bag full of all things Batman. First of all, there’s lots and lots of action. And there’s a ton of Bat-toys. Then there’s the appearance of Nightwing, Ra’s al-Ghul, AND the Joker.

There’s a lot going on in this movie. The beginning of the film is gripping, and the assault on Jason Todd/Robin is brutal. Watching it with my twelve year old was a little hard because I didn’t expect that level of intensity. The Joker was played as perverse and evil, and he stayed that way through the film. I love how he turned the tables on Blackmask.

The art is rendered beautifully. Loved the explosive action, the detail, and the cityscape. The world depicted here really felt like Gotham in all its glory and grime.

I found the ending a little disappointing, though. Plenty of questions were raised, and everybody got a look at the heroes’ moral compasses, but the main question concerning Batman’s relationship with Jason Todd wasn’t satisfactorily answered. Batman makes a choice at the end, but where does he stand after he makes it?

I know part of this story is still ongoing in the DC Universe, so the movie is an excellent lure to pull readers into the six-part Red Hood story now being published. But in these direct-to-DVD adventures, I’d really appreciate a whole story. This one ends almost where it starts, and we still don’t know the true outcome.

This Blu-ray disc comes with lots of extras, including two episodes of the original Batman The Animated Series. These episodes recount the origin of Dick Grayson/Robin, so they’re a special treat. There’s also a lot of material (interviews and comic content) depicting Jason Todd’s history. And there’s sneak peek of the next DC Comics direct-to-DVD movie, Superman and Batman: Apocalypse. The best part, though, is the Jonah Hex short feature written by Joe R. Lansdale.

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GAMER

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Gamer arrived in theaters on Friday after a, literally, explosive rush of trailers. However, those trailers inaccurately reported that Gerard Butler hadn’t kicked this much butt in 300 years. The quote was taken from 300, the Frank Miller movie. Actually, the battle of Thermopylae took place over 2000 years ago.

Once upon a time, I was a diehard gamer. Lately, my 11 year old son is the diehard gamer in the house. He has more time to play than I do, but I keep him stocked in all the latest game systems and games. He’s leading the life I would want if I had more time.

Both of us were excited about seeing Gamer. The whole idea of controlling a flesh and blood avatar during a real battle just sounded cool. Neither of us would really want to do that, but we couldn’t wait to see it played out on the big screen.

The movie is written and directed by Neveldine/Taylor, the duo that gave us Crank and Crank 2. Gamer possesses the same frantic pacing of the writer/directors’ first two movies. In fact, if you have seen the Crank franchise, you will have seen much of the style and visual effects of this movie. Gamer just seems too familiar visually.

Another too familiar aspect is the lack of character development throughout the movie. Gerard Butler is posited as the hero, Kable, and Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter) is the bad guy. The history of each, and of the shared moments between them, come too late in the movie. There’s no investment on part of the viewer, and by that point the clash is coming to a head, so all attention is given to the climax.

Gerard Butler is definitely action hero material and his physical performance is good. After seeing the film, I’d believe that Butler can walk into a room full of bad guys and take them all out.

Michael C. Hall as Castle, the man who invented the games Society and Slayers where flesh and blood avatars are mind controlled by other people, delivers a stunning bit of acting. He was a wicked combination of cool, competent, and cruel. The singing bit at the end totally blew my mind. I kept wishing I had a DVR controller so I could rewind that scene and watch it again. I’ll be buying the DVD primarily to watch Hall in action. I just wish there had been more of him in the film.

Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) and Ludacris were virtually wasted as cardboard characters. And I didn’t see anything of Logan Lerman’s character Simon that I could buy into, except for that really cool computer room he seems to live in.

I did enjoy the concepts that were explored in the film. The Society game was much like Second Life, only with graphic sex thrown into the mix. I found the scenes of the people playing the avatars in Society more disturbing than those who played in Slayers. If I don’t know if the filmmakers intended this kind of reaction on part of the viewer, but it’s strange how controlling someone in a twisted version of everyday life is somehow more perverted than controlling someone on a deadly battlefield.

Granted, the film had to straddle a thin line between action fans and, perhaps, science fiction fans, but I wish more attention would have been paid to the what-if scenario played out in the movie. The deeper issues of the questions raised were skimmed over in favor of blood and gore.

Gamer is a fun film for action junkies, but definitely lighter fare for someone interested in dealing with the intriguing possibility of the future.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Daniel Craig returns as England’s toughest spy in Quantum of Solace, and he’s taking no prisoners. In fact, M even tells him at one point that they might find out more information if he didn’t insist on “killing every lead we have.”

I grew up on Sean Connery as James Bond, and I liked them best when it was Bond the Secret Agent rather than Bond the Gadget Guy. Roger Moore had his run, as did Timothy Dalton’s rather limited engagement. For a while, I really enjoyed Pierce Brosnan as 007. Golden Eye was spectacular.

But Craig has brought that old hard-as-nails secret agent back that Connery brought to life. I have to admit, Connery had more of the devil-may-care flair and wowed the ladies more believably, and I have to say that he seemed just as deadly.

Craig is like a sledgehammer, though, and I think that makes him the perfect Bond who’s just starting out at MI-6. This revisionist history, with a nod to Ian Fleming’s original stories, is fantastic. I know there are a lot of fans out there that are probably bemoaning the loss of Q and all the gadgets, but take a look at all the computer tech that’s constantly on-screen.

I wanted to halt the command center sequences just so I could look at the sets and all the possibilities. I loved the touch-screen tabletop operations (and, people, that is going to be coming to a restaurant near you not too far in the future) and thought about how cool it would be to work at something like that. But I digress.

The movie opens with manic action as Bond is pursued by a team of heavy hitters through the hills of Italy. The twisting mountain roads and the desperate maneuvers through traffic really put an edge on the seat and I found it. The action was a little hard to follow, though, and I got lost in all of it more than once, but I was Bond. I’m forgiving where 007 is concerned.

Quantum of Solace also ties directly into Casino Royale. Not much story time has elapsed since that last movie, only an hour. Bond still burns to kill the people responsible for Vesper’s death, and his cold rage is like a tidal wave that pulled me along into his current mission. However, that barely made up for the thin plot that the action sequences hung on.

Judi Dench has never been better as the tight-lipped M. She had more screen time this movie, and she put it to good use. I love the relationship that’s developing between Bond and M, and the throwaway remark 007 makes that M thinks of herself as his mother is very telling. This is great stuff.

The Bond girls in this one were glamorous but not out of reach as so many of them have been. Olga Kurylenko provides a great look and a thirst for vengeance that’s a match for Bond’s own as Camille Montes. Gemma Arterton plays British agent Strawberry Fields (though her name is only given as Fields in the movie). Gemma had such screen presence that she is almost wasted in the rapid-fire backlash of the accelerating script, which is another area where a true plot in the film might have helped. I truly hope she gets another chance at a Bond film or something with equitable exposure on an international scale. She exudes innocence and independence all at the same time.

The villain, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), continues the new trend of having everyday villains instead of strangely warped ones. This is a big difference in the movies, but I’m all right with it so far. However, 007’s final fight with Greene at the end of the movie seems overwrought given that Bond has taken on multiple attackers at once earlier in the film. I had trouble believing that 007 would have trouble with one guy after riding roughshod over so many. However, the action was intense and there was a lot of emotion on another front.

Jeffrey Wright returns as Felix Leiter, and his budding camaraderie with Bond continues. Again, this is another relationship that’s fun to watch develop.

Marc Forster makes the most of his direction and the countries he was allowed to shoot in. Gorgeous countryside and old cities speed across the screen, all carefully orchestrated to ratchet up the tension. Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade concocted a killer plot that’s kind of believable (Bond films really haven’t been so much in the past) and filled with references to the world we all live in regarding natural resources and what’s currently dividing the world.

The film is sleek as a bullet and shot through with action sequences (most of them literally!). The frenetic pacing threw me off at times because the switchbacks simply came too suddenly and I couldn’t stay up with the plotlines. Conflicts rose and fell, M was constantly caught in the middle of things, and James was playing his own game and changing it after every rock he turned over.

Nope, a real international spy would be loath to blow up as many things as 007 does, and definitely wouldn’t have the body count, but this is espionage fantasy at its finest. Leave the critic at home, grab a big bag of popcorn, and settle in for one of the most action-packed 007 films of your life. You’ll leave with a smile on your face and an impulse to drop a heavy foot on the accelerator!

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM

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The Forbidden Kingdom is a martial arts/fantasy romp that makes no excuses for itself. The movie isn’t supposed to be a thought-provoking emotional journey. It’s just good, clean fun with a lot of over-the-top violence thrown in. I sat down, gave my adult self a brief leave of absence, and thoroughly enjoyed myself with predictable plot twists, stunted character development, and villains who were just bad without getting into why they were villains.

Jackie Chan plays Lu Yan, an Immortal that drinks to keep his power flowing. Kind of like Popeye, only with wine instead of spinach. His kung fu is mighty, but more than that, he mugs for the camera and takes pratfall after pratfall in a way that only he can. I enjoy watching him work because he’s so good with facial expressions while he’s pulling off incredible feats and taking a lot of physical punishment.

Jet Li plays a dual role as the Monkey King and Sun Wukong, a somber monk. As the Monkey King, Li gets to access a humorous side of himself seldom seen in his movies. He’s been relegated to the tough guy role as either villain or hero in most of his films. When he first appeared in the movie in heavy makeup, I didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t till I watched him go into action that I knew who he truly was.

The movie centers around Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) as he tries to find his way in the real world. He loves kung fu movies and has made a friend of Hop, an old Chinese pawnbroker. After the initial setup where we see that Jason’s life isn’t really great, thugs force him to help them break into Hop’s shop. While there, Jason tries to protect a strange staff that Hop says has been there for a hundred years or so.

As the danger increases, Jason gets transported to a mystical world, joins up with Jackie Chan, and is told that he’s the Traveler, the one who will take the staff back to the Monkey King. From that point on, the movie turns into a road film, with death and adventure around every corner.

I loved the fantasy elements in the film. The choreography of the fight scenes was excellent. Jackie Chan and Jet Li were flawless, and it was awesome to see them working together for the first time. For martial arts enthusiasts, The Forbidden Kingdom is a visual treat.

Even better, the camera work takes advantage of the beautiful countryside and the elaborate-looking sets. I felt that if I could step back into ancient, mythical China, this is exactly what I would see. Angarano evidently picked up martial arts pretty effortlessly, because he looks good in action.

Golden Sparrow (Liu Yi Fei) provides a semi-love interest for Jason, as well as comic relief. She has a mission to kill the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) for murdering her parents. She also squares off agains Ni-Chang (Li Bingbing), a white-haired female warrior who wants the elixir of immortality.

I bought the Blu-ray version because I wanted the high-def experience and was willing to pay the extra bucks for it. The digital video was absolutely amazing, filled with detail and eye-popping color. The audio side of thing delivered thunder through the subwoofer and a range of sounds through the other speakers that followed the movements on the screen.

The Blu-ray also delivers interesting features. Although I was familiar with the legends of the Monkey King and the Eight Immortals, the video presentation was welcome and I saw new resources I hadn’t seen before. There were deleted scenes and commentary, but I have to admit that I was looking forward to the blooper reel. Jackie Chan movies generally include outtakes that run during the credits. I noticed them missing at once, but was relieved to see the inclusion of the blooper reel. Chan shows the mistakes that happened during the filming, but he also shows the accidents he suffered through. Viewers will find themselves torn between laughing out loud and cringing in sympathy.

Watching this kind of movie is a lot like buying a favorite candy bar. You’re not going to get anything new out of it, but that chocolaty deliciousness will hit the sweet spot – which was exactly what you were after when you bought that treat. I watched this with my son and we had a great time. I recommend this one for family nights and evenings when you just want to vege out.

 

APPALOOSA

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Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as two talented town tamers in Appaloosa. The movie hit the big screen this weekend and I took one of my sons to the first showing early this afternoon. We both had a good time, and my trust and confidence in the stars was well deserved.

The movie is based on the novel written by bestselling author, Robert B. Parker. Parker has been writing the adventures of Spenser, a private eye born in Laramie, Wyoming, for years, and Spenser is as rough and tumble as any gunfighter in the Old West. Lately, the author has successfully dipped his quill into the Western arena.

I read the book when it came out a few years ago and had a good time with it. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the two heroes in the novel, and was pleased to see it reflected in the movie. Ed Harris plays Virgil Cole, one of the most feared and respected lawmen in the Old West. Viggo Mortensen stars as Everett Hitch, Cole’s dedicated and deadly right hand man.

The book creates a tight plot line with a lot of twists and turns. When I read it, I saw how easily it could become a screenplay. Parker writes lean, muscular prose. Obviously Ed Harris saw the same thing because he negotiated the rights to star and direct in the film.

Appaloosa starts off with a bang. Three of them, in fact. Bragg, a powerful man in the small but growing town of Appaloosa, faces the town marshal and defends two of his men that raped and killed a man and his wife. When the marshal doesn’t take no for an answer, Bragg kills the marshal and his two deputies.

Virgil and Everett arrive and Harris takes advantage of those couple moments to establish sweeping shots of the desolate countryside. Harris stays primarily with the characters and the action, but there are a lot of opportunities to shoot the sweeping landscape. The action takes place in Appaloosa, outside of town, in the hills and mountains, and in another small town with Mexican architecture.

I loved the detailed Old West setting. The bar and buildings look and feels well-researched. The house Virgil is buying on the outside of town is incredibly small by today’s standards, but Allie (Renee Zellweger) acts excited about having it built.

Of all the characters in the movie, Zellweger – in my opinion – has the hardest time pulling off her role. The character is complicated because she bounces between a sympathetic and naïve woman to a cold and calculating one. This type of female character often shows up in Parker’s work, so long-time fans won’t be surprised to watch her in action. However, Zellweger’s performance actually softens the character from the book.

Parker likes showing the dichotomy between the strong, silent male and one that can be twisted around a conniving woman’s little finger. Many of his characters have suffered through that in his novels. That paradigm is understated and succinct in the movie, but it still works well.

The author has also penned a sequel that came out this year, Resolution. He has one more planned that will tie up Virgil and Everett’s saga.

The film’s action is compelling. The movie and the actors keep a lot of balls in play. The sound effects on the gunshots are especially well done. Many viewers might not be able to tell it, but the gunshots sound like heavy thumps, from coarse black powder rather than the cleaner-burning cordite all of today’s rounds are made with.

There is a moment of brief nudity and the language is rough in a couple places, but not in any way that will be overly offensive. I think Appaloosa is a modern tribute to yesterday’s Western movies in a lot of ways. The heroes are brave and noble, but they’re also flawed. Harris and Mortensen play those iconic lawmen to the hilt with a hint of swagger and elegance by the bushelful. If you’re a Western fan, this is a movie you’ll enjoy. And if you haven’t seen a Western in a while, this is one you don’t want to miss.

 

RIGHTEOUS KILL

I’ve been waiting for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to do a movie together forever. Now I’m waiting for them to do a good one.

I know, that sounds kind of harsh, but after plunking down the bucks and spends months in happy expectation, I’m owed a sour grape or two on this review. That feeling doesn’t come from the acting. Both of them are as good as it gets, at the top of their respective games. But both of them get measured by the material they waded into.

I liked the initial scenes of them working a case together when a child killer gets off and De Niro decides to frame him for another murder. That plot point comes directly from the noir genre, when the good guy does a bad thing even though it’s for a good reason. That one small act sets up the ramifications that are to come.

If De Niro and Pacino weren’t involved in this movie, I don’t think audiences would have paid much attention. The trailers all paint it to be a serial killer movie where the serial killer is a cop. In fact, I was surprised to see the script take so long to develop that idea.

However, there is a big conceit in the film that sets up a nice twist (although I had it figured out before we got there, though – admittedly there were some curves along the way). Unfortunately, that twist also prevents me from talking about parts of the movie, the good and the bad.

The movie plays with time a lot, going back and forth with things as it escalates the action and builds suspense. De Niro and Pacino bring their respective characters to life almost effortlessly, and they play off each other well. However, the plot is almost a cookie-cutter serial killer movie that I’ve seen time after time. Even De Niro and Pacino couldn’t remove that miasma of familiarity.

One of the more stellar arcs of the movie is the enmity expressed between the two homicide teams vying for the lead on the murders. John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg deliver understated yet believable performances as the rival detective team.

Carla Gugino, beautiful as ever, portrays a hard-nosed forensic cop involved with De Niro’s character. I had really mixed feelings about her character, but I think I was supposed to have those. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson played a gang banger leader that became interwoven in the plot. Brian Dennehy was the crotchety boss that’s in every crime flick, leaning on the heroes and threatening to pull them off the case.

The city shots and action in the streets was well done. I felt like I was out there with them, running through alleys, and surrounded by cavernous buildings.

However, the murders and the notes accompanying them just felt like retreads. Playing with the time, shooting back and forth between the past and the present, helped off-set some of the plodding nature of the investigation, but not by much.

I enjoyed watching De Niro and Pacino. I always do. But they just needed something stronger to do in this movie than what they had. When the final frames played through, with the terribly predictable ending after all the secrets had been revealed, I felt robbed in a way. I got De Niro and Pacino, but I didn’t get the movie that I was led to believe would be delivered.

If you missed it in the theaters, the movie will be a good DVD rental. I’ll pick up a copy for nostalgia and watch it again when I’m not feeling so critical, but I don’t think I’ll change my opinion about the package.

 

EAGLE EYE

Eagle Eye landed in movie theaters after a big advertising push. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie stars Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Billy Bob Thornton in the key roles. I loved the teasers and trailers I saw, and my appetite was thoroughly whetted for an action/adventure romp.

When the movie opened up with a Middle East terrorist operation, I knew the show wasn’t going to stay out of politics and that bothered me somewhat. Given everything that’s going on in the news at present, I really wanted a respite from politics and the twins, doom and gloom.

Once Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) was onscreen, the tone took a definite change. I relaxed a little as we got into Jerry’s life, and that became a landslide of change when he’s notified of his twin brother’s death. In just a few short moments more, the game was in play. Jerry gets framed for being a terrorist in a way that forcibly made you check disbelief at the door. The first incredible thing, to me, was that he opened all the boxes containing weapons and military intelligence information. After the first one, I would have been out the door. I wouldn’t have needed the creepy voice on the phone.

Unfortunately, Jerry’s instincts are hampered by the script, which says that he’s supposed to stand around there and get caught by Homeland Security. The second incredible thing to me is that Jerry’s connection to his dead brother and the top secret project he was working on didn’t immediately trigger a lot of red flags throughout the intelligence community.

LaBeouf really pulls off the character, though. Jerry felt real, a desperate slacker blindsided by something far beyond his comprehension. Michelle Monaghan plays Rachel Holloman, a single mother, who gets trapped in the same web of deceit and double-cross that has snared Jerry.

After the opening acts have played out, I started grooving on the movie. It feels very Hitchcockian, and I was reminded again and again of North by Northwest, including the attack plane pursuit. I love movies with lots of action, layers, and duplicity that keep me guessing throughout. Eagle Eye did precisely that.

I loved the escalating chase and the unknowable stakes involved. Billy Bob Thornton plays Special Agent Tom Morgan and provides a lot of tough guy lines perfectly. He won me over immediately and ratcheted up the suspense by being so good and so dogged at his pursuit. Rosario Dawson portrays Air Force Office of Special Operations Special Agent Zoe Perez as his counterpart in the USAF. Both of them have limited time onscreen, but they deliver solid performances that keep the movie spinning like a top.

I had a blast during the movie, but a lot of it went through very familiar moves. There’s nothing in Eagle Eye that hasn’t been seen before, but it’s solid entertainment and the kind of story that I love watching. The special effects and stunt crews obviously had a great time putting this movie together, because there didn’t seem to be anything that didn’t get wrecked, shot, or “blowed up real good.”

One stumbling block, for me, was the final scene of the movie. It just felt like a Band-Aid, something that Hollywood insisted on sticking in to hint at a romance. The story was tight enough that it didn’t need the romance. The final scene in North by Northwest works because the story lent itself to that subplot. This one just doesn’t work and felt false.

I forgive the movie its political overtones and undisguised President bashing because it was fun. If you’re going to get irritated over either of those issues, I’d suggest passing this one up. But if you want an actioner with heart, plenty of tech-paranoia, and solid characters doing what they’re supposed to do, Eagle Eye is fun, fast-paced, and entertaining.