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February 13th, 2017

RING OF DEATH (1980) **

A dimwitted country bumpkin goes into town at the request of his aunt. There, he meets a monk who refuses to let him pass unless he can beat him in a fight. Since his aunt has told him never to fight, he tries to avoid contact. The monk persists and the bumpkin accidentally kills him with one punch. Fearing a murder rap, his aunt sends him off to find his father, who happens to be an evil general, and an asshole to boot. He doesn’t want anything to do with his kid so he tells him his father is actually some old dude. The bumpkin eventually gets an old drunken Kung Fu master and his cranky wife to teach him the martial arts to prepare him for an upcoming fighting tournament.

Ring of Death was definitely riding on the tails of Drunken Master as both films revolve around a young fighter and a drunken Kung Fu teacher. There is more of an emphasis on the comedy than the Kung Fu too. While there are some funny moments here and there (when our hero slices a guy’s hand, he says, “Now you can’t even jerk off!”), the bulk of the comedy is played way too broad for it to really work. Likewise, there are only a handful of decent fight sequences, although most of them suffer from weak choreography. The training montages are pretty good though.

The big problem is with the main character. He's more or less a gullible buffoon, which makes it hard for the audience to really root for him. Sure, you feel sorry for him because so many people take advantage of him, but he’s too much of a simpleton to take seriously as an action hero.

AKA: Bastard Kung Fu Master. AKA: Jung-ri’s School of Yong—hyung-ma.

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JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2 (2017) *** ½

John Wick (Keanu Reeves), perhaps the quintessential 21st century badass, is back, killing scores more disposable henchmen in this fun sequel. This time, he is forced to come out of retirement to perform an assassination he clearly does not want to do. Since Wick’s profession has several layers of intricate laws, codes, and oaths, he is unable to refuse. After he is double-crossed, he goes out for vengeance.

The gunfights and shootouts offer little variation from what we saw in the first movie. While some may be disappointed by this, I can’t really fault the filmmakers’ “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” mentality. Although I would've liked to have seen more creative shootouts (the lone exception is the cool hall of mirrors finale), the hand-to-hand stuff yields a few novel deaths. In one scene Wick kills a guy by shoving a lit cigarette down his throat. Wick also partakes in a grueling fight with a rival (played by Common) that features shades of the Piper/David brawl in They Live. The standout scene though is when he kills a bunch of people using a No. 2 pencil.

What I enjoyed most was seeing the expansion of John Wick’s criminal world on a global scale. The world-building aspect was what made the first movie so great and this one doesn’t disappoint. I mean when Franco Nero shows up as the head of the Italian Continental Hotel, it’s just cause for celebration. I also loved the bit with the armorer who provides weaponry services in the same way a wine steward recommends a fine Cabernet. The stuff with the homeless criminals, who have their own underground network (led by Laurence Fishburne) is really cool too.

If there is a flaw, it's that it all feels less personal this time out. In the first one, John Wick was out for revenge because they killed his dog. In this one, he’s just forced out of retirement and betrayed. Sure, the whole One Last Job thing is an equally sturdy action movie cliché as the Death Wish cliché. It’s just that it lacks the same cool badass drive that propelled the original. Still, once the flick gets into gear, John Wick kills lots and lots of people, which should be enough for the Wickians out there.

The set-up for the sequel is absolutely brilliant. In fact, the whole movie feels like a placeholder for a bigger, grander finale that’s yet to come. Having said all that, treading water has never been so exhilarating.

Nero gets the best line of the movie. When John Wick arrives in Rome he greets him with open arms. Then he quietly takes him aside and asks, “You’re not here to kill the Pope?”

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THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017) ****

At first, I was unsure how they were going to make this work. I mean Batman was the best part of The LEGO Movie. How can you make a whole film entirely around him? It’s like making a Happy Days spin-off about Fonzie. Sure, it sounds good on paper, but he’s really best when he’s bouncing off the other characters.

Luckily, my fears were squashed from the very first frame of the movie. No, from before the first frame. As soon as you hear Will Arnett’s voice, you are instantly transported. For the next hundred minutes you are immersed in all that is Batman. What you slowly realize is that it's not a film about LEGO Batman. It is a film ABOUT Batman. What is crazy. What is downright insane is that this is without a doubt the best Batman movie of all time.

Strike that, this is THE BEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.

This is not hyperbole. This isn’t me being cute. I loved every single frame of this flick. If you love Batman as much as I do, then it is my sincere hope that you will love the movie as much as I do. If you are a casual fan or a Batman die-hard like me, you are guaranteed to at the very least walk out of the theater with a stupid grin on your face for two or three hours afterwards.

I tried to make this review as Spoiler-Free as possible, but in my excitement, I let a few occasional spoilers out. I would never dream of spoiling the pure joy of this movie to you. So please note, that is THE BEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME (yes, even better than The Expendables 2 and Star Wars), and you should stop reading this, go out and see it, and come back and finish the review. You’ll be glad you did.

If you love Batman, then you will love this movie because this movie loves Batman. It is celebration of all things Batman. It takes everything that has come before, the good, the bad, and the ugly and accepts it. It embraces it. It owns it and wears it like a badge of honor. When Batman whipped out the Shark Repellent, I applauded.

No iteration of the Dark Knight is left unmentioned. Even the ‘40s serials get a shot out. The movie takes EVERYTHING that makes Batman the goddamned Batman (nipples on the batsuit and all) and lovingly flaunts it loud and proud. Folks, I can’t even express to you how good it felt to see Adam West do the Batusi on the big screen.

This is the best iteration of Batman we’ve ever seen on the silver screen. His relationships with the other major character are fleshed-out better here than in any of the other motion pictures. (Save for Commissioner Gordon, who retires early on.) The bond between Batman and Alfred (beautifully voiced by Ralph Fiennes) is poignant. Yes, this is at face value, a kiddie movie, but their scenes together capture the relationship better than anything outside of the comics. When Alfred tells him, “You can’t go around dressed in black and brooding all your life”, it’s in the way a parent would tell a goth teenager, but it perfectly suits the character.

The formation of Batman and Robin (an irresistibly enthusiastic Michael Cera) is better here than in Batman Forever. If you’ve ever wondered how in the world a swinging bachelor like Bruce Wayne would ever come to adopt a young boy in tights, this movie sums it up perfectly. The way they eventually learn to work as a team is a joy to behold. When Batman finally admits that Robin has done a good job, it’s truly a wonderful moment.

The relationship between Batman and Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is the best I’ve ever seen. Sure, the movie boils their dynamic down to a rom-com cliché, but in doing so, it makes it that much more potent and heartfelt. It deals with their mutual need to be feared in such a simplistic way that when Batman says, “You complete me”, he’s not just referencing Jerry Maguire; he’s acknowledging that a hero is essentially nothing without his arch nemesis.

The movie also captures the psychology of the character perfectly. Again, it treats it in the simplest forms, but that’s what makes it resonate so powerfully. It also answers the question what does Batman do when he isn’t fighting crime? The scene where he waits for his dinner to cook in the microwave is both funny and at the same time tragic.

Another important question: “Does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement or does Bruce Wayne live in Batman’s attic?” Take a second to give that question some thought. It gets infinitely more complex the more you think about it.

I was expecting lots jokes and pop culture references going in, but I was caught completely off guard by this movie’s heart. What is so glorious is how it turns on a dime. It goes from being hilarious and irreverent in one scene to downright moving in the next. The fearlessness in which it takes hold of you and makes you feel a spectrum of emotions is powerful filmmaking on any level.

Take for example the scene when Batman finds out the Justice League is holding a party and didn’t invite him. It’s bad enough not to be invited, but then they ask him to take their picture. Just the look on his face at being excluded is oddly moving.

So is the way Batman pushes his makeshift family of Alfred, Robin, and Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) away. In his mind, he’s saving not only them from physical harm, but he’s saving himself the emotional pain of potentially losing them. He had a family once, and they died. He isn’t about the same mistake twice.

Those pop culture references though are what really made it for me. I mean how many movies do you know of manage to work in a Passenger 57 reference during the main character’s big introduction? How many of them feature a sidekick who knows Gymkata? Heck it’s worth the price of admission alone just to hear Batman’s computer password.

Once the Joker breaks out of the Phantom Zone and brings all of his pop culture cronies with him, it’s like the toy box of your mind unleashing nostalgia cruise missiles into the pleasure centers of your brain. I’m trying my best to avoid spoliers here, but (SPOILER) I mean there was a moment there when the Joker unleashes Gremlins on the Batwing and Batman has to fight them off where I just wept from pure joy.

The movie starts with a Michael Jackson quote, which Batman attributes to himself. That message is prevalent throughout the film. When the song itself plays at the end, I found myself choking up a bit.

Will Arnett triumphs over all others who have worn the cowl. He was great in The LEGO Movie as Batman. Here, he IS Batman. I would be perfectly fine if DC stopped production of their live-action movies and gave us nothing but LEGO Batman sequels year after year.

Zach Galifianakis just might be my favorite Joker. As much as I love Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, Galifianakis just hits it out of the park. That has a lot to do with the way he plays off of Arnett and how the script was written, but he makes the character his own.

Ralph Fiennes is the definitive Alfred. He was born to play the role. The pained way he dutifully obliges Batman under the constant hope that the Dark Knight will eventually see the light and learn to admit he can’t save the city alone is wonderfully written to begin with. Fiennes delivery is note-perfect every step of the way and gives the character several unexpected layers.

Heck, this might even be my favorite version of Bane (Doug Benson). Notice I didn’t say “most faithful”. He’s mostly just a riff on Tom Hardy’s unintelligible Bane, but every time he opens his mouth, it gets a laugh.

Yes, I understand this is a kid’s movie. Yes, I understand we are essentially watching toys being manipulated by cutting edge stop-motion animation. However, The LEGO Batman Movie cuts right to the heart of what makes Batman tick and captures it better than any other live action film or cartoon ever did. It takes everything from the character’s seventy-eight year history and funnels it into one streamlined monument to his continued endurance, relevance, and awesomeness.

I know that fans were relieved when the live action films turned dark and broody after the goofy ’60 TV show softened the character. The LEGO Batman Movie does the unthinkable. It asks the question, why can’t Batman be both goofy AND broody?

The film’s aim is not to mock what the serials, cartoons, TV show, Burton, Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done with the character, but to treat it as just another step in the character’s journey. Another (LEGO) brick in the wall, if you will. That’s what makes The LEGO Batman Movie such a special experience. If we could all be like Batman and embrace ALL the parts that make us who we are, even the missteps, we’d be better people for it.

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