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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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.

 

UNTRACEABLE

I watched the trailers for Untraceable with great interest and figured I’d go see it at the theater. I’m a sucker for the techno thriller involving computers and hacking.

Instead, life got in the way, then it was gone faster than I thought it would be. But the images of the action remained in my mind. When I saw it was coming out on DVD, I figured I’d pick it up. I even popped the extra bucks for a Blu-ray edition because that’s become my format of choice.

Diane Lane plays an FBI cybercrimes special agent, Jennifer Marsh. She discovers a website called killwithme.com and the violent sociopath driving it. She’s recently widowed, has a small child, and is definitely a candidate for a romantic subplot. However, that would have slowed the plot down and been a distraction.

Instead, the movie focuses on two issues that are made clear throughout the story. As a society, cyber technology has made our lives easier, but it has also made us much more vulnerable to anyone that knows how to turn that technology against us. The movie clearly shows that most people don’t know what they’re doing when they buy a new piece of software or download something off the internet.

The second message is a lot darker. Cyber technology has made voyeuristic vampires of a large segment of the population. Everyone wants to tune into some sort of “personal” website when they’re one of a select “few.” And they want to do it from the safety of their own homes.

I hope that the movie misrepresents how many people would tune in to watch someone get murdered, but I may be naïve. But in the movie, that cascade of viewers ends up being a load that invariably kills the bad guy’s victims faster and faster.

With the movie pared down to move and counter-move, a series of escalating losses as the FBI team closes in, Untraceable speeds along at a nice clip. In the movie theaters, savvy technocrats might not have been able to question as much of the killer’s computer abilities as I was. I watched the film with my wife and we paused it at certain intervals to make sure we were both registering the same information. Then we pointed out the plot holes to each other in the computer tech as well as the characters’ action.

The movie works well as a barn-burner, the action gets faster and faster, and the stakes spiral upward at an alarming rate. I’m glad the decision was made not to use Marsh’s daughter and mother against her, but I fully expected them to be used as bait. In fact, they were so much onscreen that I was almost ticked that they weren’t used in this fashion. At the end, when they promptly vanished to safety, I was irritated that I’d been distracted by the whole foreshadowing of the family-in-danger plot twist.

Still, I was emotionally involved to a degree as the characters pursued their target, and I was constantly trying to figure out how all the deaths tied together. When the reconstruction of what had happened – and why – came about, it was almost handed off to the audience in basically a memorandum sequence. And once the series of events was given a logical progression, the killer promptly broke his motivation for killing the people he chose.

The movie made sense, and then it didn’t. Untraceable is highly watchable, and the messages it carries are worthwhile, but in the end the film comes up short of making a lasting impression. Even the final scenes seems to be by rote and the fade to black is jarring, not smooth.

The Blu-ray disc comes with special features that include audio commentary by Director Gregory Hoblit, Producer Hawk Koch, and Production Designer Paul Eads. It’s worth listening to in order to see how they dealt with the different decisions of filming. The behind-the-scenes featurettes are interesting. But the real kicker is the exclusive to the Blu-ray experience, the Picture-in-Picture presentation that runs concurrently with the move. This is just another example of all this emerging technology at work. Who simply watches a home movie anymore when there are all those extras to play with as well?

GONE, BABY, GONE

I’ve been a fan of Dennis Lehane’s private eye novels about Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro for years. I keep wishing Lehane would write another book about them. Instead, he’s written a couple of stand-alone books that have become a movie (Mystic River) and one that will become a movie (Shutter Island).

Gone, Baby, Gone stands out not only as the first Kenzie/Gennaro book to become a film, but is also Ben Affleck’s first turn as a director. His brother Casey (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) stars as Patrick Kenzie.

Both the Afflecks grew up in Boston, and the choice to use Lehane’s background for the series, Dorchester, was a no-brainer. Ben Affleck, when drawn to the project, stated that he wanted to make that microcosm of Boston come to life on the screen, and he used several people from the neighborhood in roles. In my opinion, he succeeds admirably. The background has a unique feel and rhythm to it that he couldn’t have gotten while shooting somewhere else.

Another thing that really rings too is the language. The dialogue is coarse and explosive, the way it tends to be in crowded metropolitan areas. And no matter where you put them, areas of cities that are in disrepair always stand out and offer their own views of the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small town or a large town, people tend to be desperate, trapped, and unhappy while living there. Since they’re not strong enough, mobile enough, or brave enough to take on people outside their neighborhood, the bad ones tend to prey on people inside the local environment.

I liked the motivation for Patrick and Angie to get involved, the fact that Patrick knew the mother whose child was kidnapped. They’d gone to high school together, and no one gets out of high school without a history and usually scars to show for it. Angie is reluctant to get involved with the case because she doesn’t want to find a dead kid, which is how things like this normally work out.

If you’ve only watched the movie, you should really read the book as well. Patrick and Angie’s relationship means a lot to the book series, and in particular to this novel. The movie can’t pull in all the history or the emotional angst that is in the pages of the novel. There’s just not enough room.

Patrick’s investigation immediately puts him in harm’s way of the police and the bad guys – which is exactly how a private eye story should operate. The PI is always the man or woman outside of the world that needs to be investigated. In this case, Patrick belongs to that world but he’s stepped outside certain aspects of it.

Although I knew the story and what was going to happen, it was great seeing Ben Affleck’s vision of it and Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Patrick. The city seems almost to close in on the viewer, especially during the scenes where Bubba leads Patrick to the house where the kidnapped boy is being held by drug addicts and a child molester.

Ed Harris turns in a fantastic performance as Remy Bressard. I love watching Harris work anyway, but seeing him in this role was a pleasure. Morgan Freeman, solid as ever, wasn’t given too much to do, but he always shines. Michelle Monaghan plays Angie Gennaro, but the focus is so much on Patrick that she almost gets eclipsed in everything. She’s so strong, though, that she seizes moments and makes them her own.

I really enjoyed this film. I liked the look and the pacing, though some people may find it a little slow in places. I was just glad to see this world come to life, and I think Ben Affleck did a marvelous job of doing that. Hopefully other novels in the series will be developed as well.

The plot twists and turns, but by the time everything gets sorted, there are hard choices to be made. The great thing is that the viewer is forced to make those choices as well. The subject matter is powerful and moving.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: NEW FRONTIER

 

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Comics scripter and artist, Darwyn Cooke, created quite a splash when he wrote the mini-series, Justice League: The New Frontier. Those issues have been gathered into a graphic novel.

When I first read the issues, I have to admit to being a little put off. The story seemed to meander a little and took too long to develop in some ways. But it was really interesting seeing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash during the paranoid times of McCarthyism. The art seemed a little too unfinished for my taste for the first couple issues, but it was the first time I’d ever seen any of Cooke’s work. His writing and his art grew on me. By the third issue, I was won over by the storyline and the different look of the characters.

Justice League: The New Frontier is the second of DC Comics’ and Warner’s direct-to-DVD efforts. The first was Superman: Doomsday. Hopefully there will be a lot more to come. The special editions have the trailer for the Batman animated feature that will be coming out soon.

The movie strikes the same tone as the graphic novel. The mid-1950s to 1960 are represented in a number of ways. The suspicion of anyone from outside the country – including of Superman – is well-defined. Hal Jordan (voiced by David Boreanaz, Angel, Bones) as a Korean Air Force fighter pilot is well done and sets up his eventual recruitment by the Green Lanterns.

The Martian Manhunter (voice by Miguel Ferrer, Crossing Jordan, The Bionic Woman) seizes a big part of the story as both an alien newly arrived to our planet, a detective, and an outsider viewing the strange and politically suspicious world of the 1950s. One of the best parts of the movie for my son and I was watching the Martian Manhunter change into various characters while he watched television. When he unexpectedly changed into Bugs Bunny, we both lost it.

I really missed the opening segments of the comic book where the Losers comics heroes took on the dinosaurs of Dinosaur Island. I didn’t like the ending the Losers experienced, but I really noticed them absent from the continuity.

Like the comic series, you have to watch the movie closely to figure out everything that’s going on. The original Justice League origin story featured an alien menace to the world. The retelling of that origin, in the Justice League series recently on television, features a threat from Mars. And this movie also features an otherworldly menace, although it takes a while to build to that threat.

I loved seeing so many of the lesser known heroes of the DC universe in action: the Challengers of the Unknown, the Blackhawks, the Metal Men, Adam Strange, and others. When Darwyn Cooke wrote the original comics, I knew that he loved the characters and was paying homage to so much of their roots. That same kind of care and consideration is evident in this DVD production.

The Blu-ray video was fantastic. The colors were bright and varied. King Faraday’s gray eyes were arctic and really distinguished him. The audio was just as impressive.

As for special features, the disc comes fully loaded. There are two different commentaries and several features regarding the making of the film. One of the best pieces was the preview of Batman: Gotham Knight that’s supposed to come out in July. The anime style artwork looks breathtaking. There are also three of director Bruce W. Timm’s favorite Justice League Unlimited episodes on the disc.

Although Justice League: The New Frontier is a cartoon and is about characters familiar to kids, parents need to know that the violence is at times very graphic and the language can be occasionally coarse. All in all, though, this is a great movie to own, especially in the high-def versions.

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