Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Film Review: Batman Returns

"Batman Returns"  *** (out of ****)

The Dark Knight is back to protect Gotham City in Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" (1992).

Watching "Batman Returns" one of the first things the viewer immediately notices is the way Gotham City is presented. It is a complete contrast in style to the gloomy character it was shown as in the first Batman (1989) movie. In the original movie, director Tim Burton created Gotham City as a gloomy, despairing figure to help visually establish the psychological mindset of its characters. It was the center piece in a story about two troubled and disturbed men; Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Joker (Jack Nicholson). In "Batman Returns" Gotham City resembles a carnival, a fun house. I called Gotham City a technical marvel in the first movie. In "Batman Returns" the city is not given the same edge.

The next thing we immediately notice is a shift in tone. The original movie was seen as taking a more mature, adult, approach to the Batman material. Back in 1989 this was considered a risky move. Viewers remembered Batman as the campy, live action cartoon show of the 1960s starring Adam West in the title role. "Batman Returns" is not campy, but, the movie has more of a comic feel to it than the first movie, which I compared to a graphic comic book written by Frank Miller. The comic approach taken in this sequel would become the dominate tone of the next two movies, which Burton did not direct. In "Batman Returns" however we see the beginning of the shift. Where "Batman" was considered too dark and violent for audiences in 1989, "Batman Returns" is more kid friendly. That is not a compliant mind you, just an observation.

The shift though did leave me conflicted watching "Batman Returns". Part of me felt it is a lesser film than the original yet part of me found it entertaining. I somewhat enjoyed the more comical approach to the material.

One of the elements that really hurts the movie is the villains. This time around there are three; Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). What I dislike about Catwoman and The Penguin is there is not a direct link to them becoming who they are and Batman (again played by Michael Keaton). In the first movie The Joker becomes who he is because of Batman dropping him into a vat of chemicals which altered his appearance. That gave him a pretty good motivation for wanting revenge against Batman. In the case of Catwoman and The Penguin, they have become who they are because of other people not because of Batman's doing. Because of that I couldn't understand why they make Batman an enemy. They have other people to blame.

Also, the characters themselves aren't as threatening as The Joker. Catwoman and The Penguin are at times comic relief. The movie has a naughty side to how it treats them. There is a strong sexual vibe. At one point in the movie when The Penguin sees Catwoman he actually says she is "the pussy he has been waiting for". Yes, there is a double entendre because a cat is sometimes referred to as a pussycat but I wonder will young children know that or will they think The Penguin just said a dirty word? The Penguin is presented as a very horny, sexually deprived character. Again, not exactly fitting if you are trying to give your movie a more kid friendly vibe.

I found the most interesting villain to be Max Shreck, a wealthy businessman that wants to build a power plant which will drain Gotham City of all its electricity. You can always count on a wealthy, greedy, businessman to make a good villain. They are so easy to hate. Shreck is the link between all these characters.

However, "Batman Returns" does do a nice job giving us the back story to the Catwoman and The Penguin character. I found Catwoman to be more interesting. Maybe because I like Michelle Pfeiffer more or because her story is funnier and easier to relate to. She works for Shreck as his secretary and feels she is under-valued. Who hasn't felt that way towards their boss? It is because of Shreck the nice Selina Kyle is turned into Catwoman.

One of the things I do like about "Batman Returns" is Michael Keaton. In the first movie it seemed he was kind of stiff, not comfortable playing the role. I had the feeling he was restricting himself from telling a joke. This time around Keaton appears more settled into the role.

An interesting relationship is portrayed between Catwoman and Batman. Once again the idea is presented here that the villain has something in common with the caped crusader. This also allows Catwoman to serve as a possible love interest since Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is not in this movie, though she is mentioned. I like the possibility of this romance more than the one between Batman and Vicki. What I am still on the fence about is should both characters have been so willing to reveal who they are to each other? "Batman Returns" flirts with the idea all of these characters have a hint of who they really are. This leads me to wonder, since Vicki Vale is not in this movie and she knows who Batman is, what prevents her from telling the world? After that incident doesn't Batman worry about that? Why would he be willing to have another person know his secret identity?

There are a lot of people who feel "Batman Returns" is a better movie than the original. This movie however made less money than the first one, $200 million dollars less. Box-office doesn't matter to me when it comes to the quality of a movie, but, it is interesting there was such a drop. Was there just not as much repeat business? It was still one of the highest grossing movies of the year though.

I can't help but feel "Batman Returns" is not as ambitious as the first film both in tone and style. "Batman Returns" is an interesting visual film though. The Penguin works with a circus gang (is this suppose to make us think of The Joker?) which gives Burton the opportunity to dress these characters in creative ways.

One reason which may account for the shift in tone is perhaps in 1989 the world was a scarier place. George H.W. Bush was president and the Cold War appeared to be coming to an end. In 1992 we had a new president, Bill Clinton. The Cold War was completely over. It is notable that The Penguin makes a mayoral run in this movie and is presented as a horn dog, Bill Clinton was seen in a similar light. Maybe the world could use a "lighter" superhero.

In the end I'd recommend "Batman Returns". I like Michael Keaton in the role. I find Michelle Pfeiffer fun to watch. The visual style of the movie is interesting. Composer Danny Elfman has written the definitive Batman theme. I like the relationship between Catwoman and Batman. And I liked the Shreck character. I felt the sexual vibe was unnecessary. It starts to make biblical references; the first born male child in every household will be killed which I didn't like. Still, the movie has enough moments that work.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Film Review: So This Is Africa

"So This Is Africa"  *** (out of ****)

The largely forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey star in this raunchy Columbia Pictures release "So This Is Africa" (1933).

Wheeler & Woolsey starred in 21 feature length films between 1929-1937. During that time they appeared in two comedy shorts; "The Stolen Jools" (1931) and "Oh! Oh! Cleopatra" (1931). All of these movies were released by RKO Studios except for "So This Is Africa". This makes it one of the more difficult films to find starring the comedy team. Nearly all of their movies have been put on DVD, thanks to Warner Brothers, but not this one.

"So This Is Africa" has a controversial past. It was made at a time when the production code was starting to be more strictly enforced. The censorship board forced Columbia Pictures to edit the movie. Like most Wheeler & Woolsey comedies "So This Is Africa" is filled with sexual innuendos. Take a look at the movie's tagline; "two big sexplorers go big dame hunting". This was pretty risque material for 1933. 

The sad part is the movie was sloppily edited. The cuts are noticeable. One liners are cut in mid-sentence. Fans of the comedy team or those who like pre-code movies have been disappointed a complete copy of the movie does not exist. But, we will never see the footage which ended up on the cutting room floor.

A lot of the movie doesn't make any sense at all. There is no real story arc, no character development but not all of that is because of the censorship board, a lot of that has to do with the script and it is not necessarily a negative thing.

Wheeler & Woolsey work best when they are in movies which don't have a strong plot. Plot  drags them down. They need freedom to do their comedy. A consistent story-line restricts them. Their best movie is "Diplomaniacs" (1933), their following film, which RKO Studios released immediately, to capitalize on this movie's success. RKO couldn't let Columbia Pictures make money off of their stars and that movie is even goofier than this one. Some critics and film historians compare "Diplomaniacs" to "Duck Soup" (1933). Both pictures are political satires.

The silly story in "So This Is Africa" involves a movie studio called Ultimate Pictures. For two years they have planned to make a movie in Africa. According to the head of the studio (Berton Churchill) African pictures are all the rage. Audiences thrive on them. An African explorer, Mrs. Johnson-Martini (Esther Muir) was sent to Africa to get footage of the jungle. Unfortunately, she was not able to. She reveals to the studio head she is afraid of animals.

After wasting several hundred dollars and two years it is decided to hire two vaudeville comedians; Alexander (Robert Woolsey) and Wilbur (Bert Wheeler) to accompany Mrs. Martini to Africa. You see, the boys won five tame lions in a raffle. A raffle in which they bought the only ticket that was sold. Since the lions won't hurt anyone Mrs. Martini is not afraid.

As soon as everyone arrives in Africa the story-lines disappears. Alexander and Mrs. Martini flirt with one another and Wilbur finds a native girl, (Raquel Torres), who looks an awful lot like Maureen O' Sullivan, who starred in "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932), so it could have been intentional.

In Africa a lot of the sexual innuendos start to fly. We learn of an Africa tribe comprised of all women who have the power to "love you to death". And it is mating season! What will Wheeler & Woolsey do?

Even in our modern times you can quickly tell why "So This Is Africa" would cause a stir. Still, the jokes that remain are funny. One scene involves Wilbur lost in the jungle, he screams for help only to hear his echo, he notices the native girl, she suggest they go in her cave. Wilbur yells out he can't go with her, to which his echo replies "don't be a dope"!

Another funny scene involves the audience being able to hear everyone's thoughts as they say different things. At one point Alexander and Wilbur can hear each other's thoughts and begin to argue mentally.

But my favorite scene might be a song and dance number. Alexander and Wilbur sing "Hello Africa" written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (the team also wrote songs for the Marx Brothers such as "Hooray For Captain Spaulding"). The song has a lot of funny lyrics involving how brave the boys are fighting animals and gets in some good visual gags. My favorite being as they are singing and dancing they trip over a man whose foot is wrapped in a bandage. He stands up to scold the boys but quickly realizes he is cured and starts to dance with the boys. 

It is this type of lunacy I enjoy watching. I like movies that try anything for a laugh. Movies which defy logic. The stories never make much sense. The plot is not what is important. Only the jokes matter. You can't take anything serious in the movie. You can't allow yourself to evaluate the plot. You can't judge the movie the way you would others. The only way to decide if the movie should be recommended or not is by asking yourself, did I laugh? If the answer is yes, the movie worked. If you didn't, it failed. I laughed. 

There are audiences that will look at this movie and complain the humor is corny and dated. You are correct! The humor is dated. In fact it is dated 1933! Naturally some of the humor will get "lost in translation". Jokes 80 years old may not make a twenty-something laugh. I'm not surprised and neither should you be especially since "There's Something About Mary" (1998) which pushed the envelope so far since that time we have had a slew of comedies that have tried to gross us out. But, "So This Is Africa" has enough jokes that work. It created enough situations that are funny for me to be comfortable recommending it. Yes, somewhere along the way the movie lost its plot but that's okay because it remembered to pack the jokes.

I have confessed in the past Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are not my favorite comedy team. There are several movies they appeared in I don't like. But "So This Is Africa" is one of the few that works. I rank it with their best such as "Diplomaniacs", "Peach-O-Reno" (1931), "Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1931) and "Half- Shot At Sunrise" (1930).

If you are able to find it "So This Is Africa" is worth seeing.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Film Review: Batman

"Batman"  *** (out of ****)

From out of the shadows and onto the big screen director Tim Burton brings us "Batman" (1989) starring Michael Keaton as the caped crusader and Jack Nicholson as his greatest arch-nemesis, The Joker.

The batman character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics and since that time has become something of a cultural phenomenon along with Superman. Batman first appeared onscreen during the war years in a movie serial in 1943 and was played by Lewis Wilson. Most people, of a certain generation, remember Batman from the 1966-1968 television show starring Adam West, it was considered to be a campy take on the superhero, though it remained the dominant interpretation of the Batman character for years afterwards.

Fans of the comics, which I am not among, nothing against Batman, I just never read comic books, often claim the original Batman comics had a dark side to them. It was this dark side, a more mature approach, that Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were after when they worked together on "Batman".

When "Batman" was first released in 1989 I was six years ago. I saw this movie in a theatre. I didn't like it. It was "too dark", "too violent". It lacked the light-hearted joy I was expecting as someone who watched the television show. I had seen the 1943 movie serial growing up too but that one was more of an action/adventure story. It wasn't intentionally campy. It was more of a piece of American propaganda during WW2. Batman goes after a Japanese spy.

My reaction, as a child, to "Batman" was actually the reaction of others. A lot of people felt the project was doomed from the beginning. Was Tim Burton the best choice to direct? At this point in time he had made "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985) and "Beetlejuice" (1988) also with Michael Keaton. Others felt Keaton was a bad choice for Batman. It was thought Keaton lacked a hero's presence. Prior to this movie Keaton had appeared in light-hearted fare such as "Mr. Mom" (1983). After the movie was released some did complain it was too violent, especially the scenes involving Jack Nicholson as The Joker.

How strange, 25 years later, the things people complained about then are now what fan-boys and some mainstream audiences, enjoy about these movies. They prefer their comic book movies be serious. They want to have dark and brooding characters. Look at how much audiences have praised Christopher Nolan and his re-booted "Batman Trilogy". "The Dark Knight" (2008) was the highest grossing movie of 2008. Some claimed it was one of the greatest movies ever made. A bit of an over sell in my opinion (I'm usually more reserved in my praise of movies) but I suppose it expressed people's enthusiasm. It is currently ranked number four in IMDB's top 250.

Would any of these later Batman and comic book movies exist if Burton hadn't made "Batman"? They probably would,but, it would seem Burton and company were a bit ahead of the game. They were asking audiences to look at Batman and The Joker differently. They wanted audiences to see these men as troubled and disturbed. Batman deals with the psychological trauma of having seen his parents killed as a child. The Joker is not a harmless prankster, as portrayed by Cesar Romero in the TV show, but a deranged lunatic. In the original comic book it was intended to present these characters as opposite ends of the same coin. We get a bit of that in this movie.

I wouldn't consider "Batman" though to be a completely "serious" film. It over does some bits with The Joker. Jack Nicholson takes the character in all directions. At first he is menacing but then the character starts to engage in comical behavior. His antics at a museum, destroying art, I found unnecessary. His television broadcast, where he informs citizens of his plans, felt misplaced. There is a bit too much screen time for the character (another complaint back in 1989) as well.

While I wouldn't consider this as comical as the television series there is certain comic feel to it. What it reminds me of most is a graphic comic book, say something written by Frank Miller, perhaps best known for "Sin City", which was also made into a movie. In fact Miller did contribute to the Batman comics in 1986 with a series called "The Dark Knight Returns". I haven't read that comic (again, I don't read comics) but it wouldn't surprise me if Burton was aware of this at the time and did draw influence from it.

"Batman" does a pretty good job at creating a story-line for The Joker and how he became this character. There have been different origin stories over the years. One involved The Joker disguising himself as another criminal and falling into a vat of chemicals which distorts his skin color, hair and lips. In "Batman" they take basic elements of that and combine it with "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), a German expressionist film directed by Paul Leni, based on a Victor Hugo novel. In the story a man is disfigured when a group of thugs slice his mouth open giving him the permanent appearance of having a grin on his face. The Joker is believed to be based on the physical appearance of the character from that story.

The downside however is, for all the time the movie spends explaining the origins of The Joker character, that same attention to detail is missing in explaining the origins of the Batman character. Also, take a look at the film's billing. Nicholson is billed first. The movie is called "Batman" but the guy playing The Joker is billed first. No doubt about it, Nicholson is an acting legend and a bigger name than Michael Keaton, but, it is just one example, from many, why some people feel too much attention was focused on The Joker and not enough on Batman.

As I already mentioned Jack Nicholson was definitely an interesting choice to play the character. He has the acting ability to pull it off but whether it was his decision or Burton's or a combination of both, I feel the character goes in too many directions. There is not a constant line of action. Sometimes it seems his motivation is not clear.

This is in contrast to my feelings of Michael Keaton as Batman. Keaton never seems comfortable to me in the role. I always had the impression he wanted to do something comical. There is a scene when he meets The Joker, as Bruce Wayne, where he gets his opportunity to engage in silly, comical behavior. But, Keaton looks too stiff in the role. There is a charisma missing.

With all Batman movies there is a love interest presented. This time it is Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) a photographer who has teamed up with a local reporter, Knox (Robert Wuhl) to track down "the batman", a person believed to be a criminal himself. No one believes Knox about this "thing's" existence, especially since the police are not talking about it, but, Vicki wants to help him with his story. Why? I'm not really sure. Her motivations aren't made clear either.

Batman is of course the alter-ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne. Vicki finds herself attracted to Wayne and he to her. Is she what he needs in his life? Is it time to stop fighting crime and demons from the past and settle down? Should he reveal to Vicki, he is Batman? These are the questions Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred (Michael Gough) ask one another.

All of this story is told against the backdrop of Gotham City, which at times looks like a technical marvel. The first scene we see of Gotham is of buildings sky high and traffic as people walk by. It honestly looks like "Metropolis" (1927) the great Fritz Lang movie. "Batman" has such a dark, sinister look to it. The costume and art design compliments the dark, tortured nature of the characters. Gotham City is not a happy place. Crime is rampant. Businesses have left the community. The visual design of Gotham City gets this despair across. The art direction was nominated for an Academy Award and won. This was the film's only nomination.

"Batman" is a much better movie than I remember. I am glad I saw it again. I don't think it is great, a masterpiece, but, it is an interesting movie. It goes on too long, the songs by Prince are out of place, The Joker character goes in all directions, Michael Keaton seems a bit stiff in his acting, but over all I like the movie. I like the tone of the story. I like the look of the film. I find certain aspects of Nicholson's performance effective and I love Danny Elfman's score.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Film Review: Ghostbusters

"Ghostbusters"  *** (out of ****)

In honor of the 30th anniversary of "Ghostbusters" (1984), which is being re-released this Labor Day weekend, I decided to take another look at "Ghostbusters" and "Ghostbusters II" (1989).

When I was six years old "Ghostbusters II" was released. At this point in time I was a fan of the Saturday morning cartoon series, which aired between 1986 - 1991. I was not aware there was a "Ghostbusters" movie. In 1984 I was only one year old. So, I thought the title "Ghostbusters II" was suppose to be a joke. They are calling it "two" when there wasn't even a first one, ha ha.

I went to see "Ghostbusters II" opening day with my father. I loved the movie. Clearly I never forgot the experience. It wasn't until after seeing part two, I rented the original "Ghostbusters". Believe it or not, I didn't like it. I found it boring and in the third act I found it kind of scary. Since that time I never watched either movie again.

As I decided to take this trip down memory lane and re-watch both movies I expected to have the same feelings; love the sequel, dislike the original. It is amazing how time changes a person's feelings.

For years I heard from people how great "Ghostbusters" is. Some call it one of the funniest comedies of all time. Others feel it is simply the funniest movie of all time. Again, all I had was my memories as a six year old to go on and I didn't think it was funny. All these years later I now think it is a funny movie, much better than the sequel but, I believe all of you are over selling this movie. Funny? Yes. Greatest comedy of all time? Not even close.

So what changed? Why do I now prefer the original "Ghostbusters" over "Ghostbusters II"? What's the difference? "Ghostbusters" began as a concept by Dan Aykroyd, who wanted to make a time traveling, science-fiction-ish comedy of a group of ghost busters. The idea was pitched to director Ivan Reitman, who saw the comedic possibilities but felt it was not possible to make. So the idea was scaled back and we have the final screenplay by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.

The original "Ghostbusters" was not meant to be a children's movie. This was a movie for adults. There is foul language, sexuality and some suspense. What will happen? Will the ghost busters live? Audiences didn't know there would be a sequel. The movie gave us something to root for. We are involved. By the time the sequel was released it had been transformed into a cartoon, toys were created, play sets, backpacks, costumes...ect. The second movie has a more kid friendly vibe to it. It is more cartoon-ish. The second one is more about the ghost whereas the first one was more about the characters. As we watch the second one we know nothing bad will happen. The ghostbusters will save the world. What are they going to do? Kill the characters off? Its a cartoon show for kids now! They can't do that. What will the kids say? There goes all the merchandise. The end of a franchise.

Dr. Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) are parapsychology professors who find themselves kicked out of a college campus, as the school will no longer fund their research. So, as a result they decide to go into the ghost busting business. Right from the beginning of the movie each character's personality is established. Venkman is the wise-cracking smart-alec. He got into science for the girls. He takes none of this serious. He sees amazing things through-out the course of the movie yet he always seems to be a skeptic. Stantz is a naive child. It is his dream to start a business dedicated to studying the supernatural and catch ghost. Spengler is the brain. He lacks Venkman's humor and Stantz's child-like emotion. Spengler doesn't allow emotion to interfere with the facts.

These ghost busters catch a break when a cellist, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) notices a demi-God has taken over her refrigerator, "you generally don't see that kind of behavior from an appliance" is Venkman's response upon hearing her story. Venkman finds Dana attractive and only cares about going out on a date with her while Stantz and Spengler want to solve this mystery.

"Ghostbusters" works for the most part. I didn't find it as funny as so many claim it is but the story-line works enough where I was interested in watching the entire movie. If I had found the movie funnier I would be giving it a higher rating. I also thought the movie goes on too long. The third act is somewhat weak. You could have taken 10 minutes out of the movie. The final confrontation goes on too long.

Most of the jokes come from the Venkman character, anyone who watched the cartoon series usually said Venkman was their favorite character. But, I guess the reason I personally didn't find the movie as funny as others is because I find Bill Murray to be funnier without a script, when giving interviews. His comedy is very subtle. A little too subtle for me. I can take it in small doses. This is why I always figured he liked playing supporting characters. He provides comic relief when necessary and disappears until another joke is needed. In "Ghostbusters" he has a lot of screen time. Murray never struck me as a leading man.

What "Ghostbusters" reminds me most of is the 1930s & 40s horror/comedies like "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). Although "Ghostbusters" is not a horror film, the principle is the same. In those movies the story involved a basic horror film plot and the comedians would be used to comment on the cliche formula of the genre. In this movie's case you take the elements of a ghost story and then clash it with comedy. You have one character (here it would be the Venkman character) who comments on the ridiculous nature of standard ghost story cliches. Some have compared the Venkman character to Groucho Marx. This is not a correct comparison. I would rather compare the Venkman character to the characters Bob Hope played in movies like "The Ghost Breakers" (1940) and "The Cat & The Canary" (1939). Characters who are thrown into the plot, doubt what they see, try to explain it but are still scared in the process.

Someone who I found consistently funny was Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), a neighbor of Dana. He is an accountant who hasn't quite figured out he is a nerd and unattractive. He likes to pretend he is in great shape and is always trying to make the moves on Dana. There is limited screen time for this character, but, when he is on screen I laughed. I liked his speech pattern and choice of words and awkward behavior, he keeps locking himself out of his apartment.

Looking at the special effects 30 years later, they still hold up. I didn't find it laughable or cheesy. Exactly how is a "ghost" suppose to look? None of it distracted me. A lot of people feel the movie really has two parts; part big Hollywood special effects movie and part comedy. For me the comedy half worked more, I just wish there was more of it.

Director Ivan Reitman never really had anything quite as successful as the ghostbusters movies. He went on to direct "No Strings Attached" (2011), directed Billy Crystal and Robin Williams in "Father Day" (1997) and "Stripes" (1981) which had a similar sense of humor to "Ghostbusters" since some of the same people were involved.

While I don't think "Ghostbusters" is a classic comedy, one of the best of all-time, it is still an enjoyable movie with some nice comedic scenes, interesting story-line and decent special effects. As an adult I prefer this movie over the sequel. It has more of an adult appeal than you may realize if you haven't seen it in a while.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Film Review: Dick Tracy

"Dick Tracy"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

When Warren Beatty made "Dick Tracy" (1990) it was a perfect movie for someone like me. One reason was because I was the right age. In 1990 I was seven years old and the movie was marketed towards children. But, it was also a perfect movie for a kid like me because I grew up with my grandparents and would listen to "The Lone Ranger" radio program. I watched movie serials like "The Green Hornet" (1940) and "The Shadow" (1940). I even knew who Dick Tracy was. I never read the comic strip created by Chester Gould in 1931 because I never liked comics or comic books, but, I did see the early Dick Tracy movies; "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball" (1946) and "Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome" (1947) Boris Karloff was in that one.

"Dick Tracy" was released at a time when a lot of comic books and cartoons were being brought to the big screen (sound familiar?). A year earlier Tim Burton directed "Batman" (1989) with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It was one of the most anticipated movies released that year. At the time it was felt the movie took a more serious tone. It was dark and was even considered not for kids. Also released in 1989 was "Ghostbusters 2" the sequel to "Ghostbusters" (1984). The first movie was an original concept by Dan Aykroyd, after the release of that movie a Saturday morning cartoon was created which meant a sequel would have to be made. In 1990 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was also released. It was based on a comic book later turned into another Saturday morning cartoon.

Where "Batman" was thought to be too dark and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" too comical, "Dick Tracy" walks that fine line and finds the perfect balance of making sure the movie has a comic look to it with amazing art direction, costume design, breathless cinematography, a color cast of characters, most with exaggerated facial features and cartoon violence it also respects its material, Beatty, as the movie's director, takes all of this serious and tries to give the plot some weight. There is great visual artistry to "Dick Tracy" and that is what separates it from other comic book movies, especially the ones made today. Today's comic book movies are dark, brooding and violent. They take the joy, bright, fun nature of the comics away. "Dick Tracy" wants to retain what makes comics special to a child but also try to make it about people faced with mature problems. For my money, few, if any, comic book movies have come close to this.

"Dick Tracy" was Warren Beatty's third movie as a director coming behind "Heaven Can Wait" (1978) and "Reds" (1981). It may not have seemed like something Beatty would be interested in making. But after you see it, who else could have played this part and who else could have directed it and give the movie this look? Maybe Steven Spielberg, who was considered for a time to direct it, but who else could have acted the role?

"Dick Tracy" also has one of the greatest acting ensembles ever put together; Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, Dick Van Dyke, Henry Silva, Charles Durning, Seymour Cassel, James Caan and for pure eye candy we get Madonna doing her best Marilyn Monroe impression. How many other movies have been able to put together a cast like this? All that is missing is Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson.

Like Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies Beatty makes "Dick Tracy" a contemporary man. He is weak, flawed and vulnerable. In this movie he is torn between his duty to fight crime and his desire to lead a normal life with the woman he loves, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). In fact much of the movie deals with Tracy torn between two women; the innocent Tess and the more sexy Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Tess is the one you take home to meet your mother and Breathless is the one you want to keep as your own secret. Which one will Tracy chose? This premise takes up as much screen time as Tracy fighting the city's leading gangster, Big Boy (Al Pacino).

The movie is divided in two. One half is a homage to the great gangster films of the 1930s starring James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and part romance. It is also a homage to the Dick Tracy comic strip of course. It has its own gangster story as two crime bosses, Lips Malis (Paul Sorvino) and Big Boy compete over territory. Dick Tracy sees this as his best opportunity to capture Big Boy, especially when Lips goes missing.

Lips was an owner of a nightclub where Breathless sang now Big Boy is running the club. Tracy feels Breathless knows where Lips is and if he can get her to testify against Big Boy he will finally be able to take him down. But Breathless won't do it. Her feelings for Tracy get in the way. She is attracted to him and wants a commitment from him. Tracy loves Tess though and doesn't want to hurt her, even though she is getting tired of waiting around for Tracy to ask her to marry him.

In order the humanize the Tracy character more a character called "The Kid" (Charlie Korsmo) is brought in. All we see Tracy do is fight crime and entertain the idea of cheating on Tess. Having Tracy interact with The Kid shows Tracy in a father figure role, which makes him more appealing to audiences.

But the most special thing about "Dick Tracy" is the world it creates. The movie went to great lengths creating this world. Based on the Chicago landscape Warren  Beatty's team developed new buildings, a new skyline, we see classic cars drive by. It almost, kind of, sort of resembles our world but lacks the vivid colors. The movie goes out of its way trying to have a cartoon look. Often the background looks animated.

And then you have the makeup used for the villains. Some of the more memorable characters include Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman) whose face is twisted and mumbles when he talks. There is Flattop (William Forsythe), "Itchy" (Ed O' Ross) and Influence (Henry Silva). Some of these people are barely recognizable.

The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three; best art direction, best makeup and best song, "Sooner or Later" written by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote all the original songs.

"Dick Tracy" is a visual fest, a splendid blend of a live cartoon but takes its story serious. There is much to enjoy from the acting, the makeup, the cinematography and the costumes. "Dick Tracy" creates a new world of us to marvel at.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

After reviewing the original live action version of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) I kind of painted myself in a corner. I recommended that movie because I said children who would have seen the movie at that time would be very excited seeing their favorite characters "come to life" on the big screen. I went on to write the original version was like a live action cartoon. It had a playful tone to it which children would find appealing.

I suppose on some level I can say the same about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" (1991) and by that logic I should be recommending it. So, I haven't given myself much wriggle room to justify my not liking this sequel very much.

The biggest difference between the two movies I feel is this sequel is actually a step down. It is a "dumb down" version. But, then I have to remind myself, I am talking about a movie involving four human size, English speaking turtles who have been mentored by a talking rat. Exactly how "intelligent" was the original to begin with? What I mean is the original ninja turtles movie seemed to be geared towards children who were fans of the cartoon series, which originally ran between 1987 - 1996. I would imagine the audience for the first movie was probably children aged between 5-7 years old. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" seems geared towards children aged between 3-5 years old. The movie hasn't grown with its audience. Mind you only a year passed between the two films, but, who was this movie trying to reach?

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" takes place where the first one left off. The turtles have killed Shredder (Francois Chau) the leader of a clan known as The Foot. They have been responsible for a rampant crime wave in New York City. Afraid The Foot might come after them, the turtles leave the sewer they lived in for 15 years and have moved in with their human friend, reporter April O' Neil (this time played by Paige Turco) while they look for a new place to live.

What our turtle friends don't realize is Shredder didn't die at the end of the first movie. He is alive and has discovered "the ooze" which have made the turtles what they are. Since The Foot and Shredder himself have failed to stop the turtles Shredder decides the best way to compete with the turtles is to create his own mutants.

Helping the turtles in this movie is another human, a pizza delivery boy, Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr.) he serves as a kind of replacement for Casey Jones, a character in the original movie played by Elias Koteas, who was a street thug that helped the turtles fight Shredder and The Foot.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles II" suffers from the same problem all sequels suffer from. It is basically a rehash of the original. It has little new to offer. It follows the formula of the first film, which was a box-office success grossing more than $100 million dollars. I would even go as far as saying a sequel wasn't necessary. It was all just an attempt to cash in and make more money off these characters, which was why the first movie was created, to capitalize off the success of the Saturday morning cartoon and all the merchandise associated with it.

The humor in this is juvenile and repetitive. It is a collection of pizza jokes expressing how much the turtles like to eat pizza. The director, Michael Pressman, and the writers couldn't even have the decency to make the movie somewhat interesting for mom and dad sitting in the audience.

This sequel gives Donatello (Mark Caso/ Adam Carl voice) and Leonardo (David Forman / Brian Tochi voice) a little more to do, which I felt was a problem with the original. It was difficult separate which turtle was which. Only Raphael (Kenn Troum / Laurie Fasco voice) and Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti / Robbie Rist) were given much to do in the first one and helped distinguish their personality traits.

The movie's original director Steve Barron, for whatever reason was not brought back. Michael Pressman seems to have suffered after directing this movie. He only directed one more feature film, a Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle, "To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday" (1996). After that he has only directed TV show episodes on programs such as "Weeds", "Law & Order" and "Blue Bloods". As is the case with Elias Koteas, Judith Hoag, who played April O' Neil is missing. She has said in interviews she was not asked to appear in this movie.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" has a more playful tone than the Michael Bay remake it, which I think is the right choice but this one just feels too silly and goofy. You can't take a story like this too serious, I understand that, but, this movie gives us nothing to really root for. It is just a collection of bad jokes, mostly delivered by the Michelangelo character and an opportunity to see Vanilla Ice. If you are too young to remember this movie's original release and/or are too young to remember Vanilla Ice, consider yourself lucky. The rest of us had to endure a time when a song called "Ice, Ice Baby" was popular.

While the first ninja turtles movie was no masterpiece, the sequel feels like an unnecessary retread. If you want to watch the turtles in a live action movie, just watch the first one. Also interesting is this sequel made less money than the first one. This sequel grossed $78 million perhaps suggesting audiences were a bit "turtled out". Cowabunga dude!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Film Review: Fading Gigolo

"Fading Gigolo"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

After I watch any movie I always start off by asking myself a very simple question. Did I like the movie I just saw? It has to be an absolute answer. It can't be maybe. Either yes or no. After I answer that question the next one I ask myself is more difficult. Why? Why did I like the movie? Why didn't I like the movie? And the answer can't be a simple "because". What kind of review would that make? This is a good movie because. Thank you and good night.

I mention all of this because after watching John Turturro's "Fading Gigolo" (2014) I had a more difficult time than usual answering the questions. I was somehow stuck in the middle. Initially I was going to give the movie three stars but it didn't feel right to me. I couldn't justify a recommendation. What would it be based upon? I didn't find the movie to be completely entertaining or satisfying. But why?

In "Fading Gigolo" Turturro stars as Fioravante. He works part time in a flower shop. His best friend is Murray (Woody Allen). Murray owns a bookstore that after years of business, he inherited the store form his father, must close its doors. Both men are strapped for cash.

During a visit to Murray's dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), she mentions to him in passing that her and her friend, Selima (Sofia Vergara) were talking about how they would like to have a menage a trois. She asks Murray if he knows anyone that would be interested. Now, why a dermatologist is speaking this way to a patient is beyond me and why she would ask him to help is a another story. All I can say is, I better start going to see a dermatologist. Who knows what can happen!

Murray suggest his friend Fioravante would be able to do it. Fioravante is shocked. He is an older man. He doesn't consider himself attractive. And, he has never done anything like this before. Murray suggest they ask the women to pay a fee, thus making Murray Fioravante's pimp.

At this point you really don't know what to expect from "Fading Gigolo". Is it going to turn into a raunchy sex comedy? It is going to tell us you can't have sex without love? Is there some moral to this story?

That's largely the problem with "Fading Gigolo". I could never tell its intentions. What is the purpose of this story? What did John Turturro want the audience to think after the picture?

The plot soon focuses on a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn (the film takes place in New York) and a widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis, who I first noticed in the movie "Cafe de Flore" (2011), she is a well known singer in France). Her husband has been dead for two years. Together they had six children. Also in the community is Dovi (Liev Schreiber) he patrols the neighborhood. We also catch him staring at Avigal. He admires her from afar.

Murray, sensing Avigal's loneliness, suggest she meet his friend, who now calls himself Virgil. The movie now is about the difference in culture between Hasidic Jews and the Gentiles. The Hasidic community, in particular Dovi frown upon "their women" mixing with non-Jews.

It's not exactly clear what any of this has to be with Turturro's original concept? Turturro has said in interviews, one of the original ideas to intrigue him to make this movie was the idea of people paying someone to be with them because they are lonely. But, I just feel there were other ways Turturro could have given that theme across without involving Hasidic Jews and getting bogged down in explaining this community (which the movie never does).

When I first saw the trailers for "Fading Gigolo" I thought it seemed like a vanity project for Turturro. An older guy having the opportunity to film sex scenes with beautiful women. In this one movie Turturro would position himself as a handsome man. Women would throw themselves at him and call him a great lover.

After watching "Fading Gigolo" my original thought may not have been too far off. "Fading Gigolo" seems to have nothing to say about these characters or sex. It throws a twist late in the game at us which comes out of nowhere and gave the audience no prior warning as to the characters feelings for one another.

Does "Fading Gigolo" want to say something about women? What goes on in their heads? How do they view love and sex? The movie almost makes no comment on any character's behavior. Nothing is learned.

Turturro is a talented actor. He may be best known to the public for his work with the Coen Brothers in movies like "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and Spike Lee movies; "Girl, 6" (1996) and "Clockers" (1995). He was also in Robert Redford's great "Quiz Show" (1994) and co-starred with Woody Allen in the "comedy" "Company Man" (2000), which neither man directed.

Woody Allen on the other hand is the greatest comedy filmmaker since Charlie Chaplin. He usually doesn't appear in other director's movies (Allen says because no one asks). Though his role here reminded me of the character he played in "The Front" (1976). That movie was about communism and the blacklist, but, Allen played a bookie.

It is always a pleasure to see Allen onscreen but he actually isn't that funny in this movie. He is doing his usual schtick, the stuttering, the wild hand gestures, the cowardice behavior, but it doesn't translate as well because Turturro hasn't given him much to work it. Though between Allen and Turturro, Allen has the better character and is more pleasurable to watch onscreen. At least Allen gave us "Magic in the Moonlight" (2014) this year, which is more entertaining to watch than this.

"Fading Gigolo" feels like a missed opportunity. It could have used a few more re-writes. It needed a definite position. It needed to make a statement. To better understand its characters. And to have better jokes.  

Film Review: World's Greatest Dad

"World's Greatest Dad"  *** (out of ****)

This review is dedicated to Robin Williams, who died on August 11, 2014. He was 64 years old.

When it was revealed Robin Williams had died, I, like most people, was sad and shocked. I didn't expect it. I didn't see it coming. And, while everyone started re-watching "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993) or "Aladdin" (1992) or "Good Will Hunting" (1997), for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, another movie came to mind, this Bobcat Goldthwait dark comedy, "World's Greatest Dad" (2009).

I remember when this movie was released in theatres but I never got around to seeing it. I thought of the movie in reference to Williams' death only because it deals with death and suicide. I wondered, if now, after Williams death, we could read something into the movie. Were the signs of depression there in Williams? What type of projects were interesting him to work on?

A lot of people fail to realize or chose not to think about it, but, comedy is very dark. Happy people usually don't become famous comedians. Whether it is Richard Lewis, Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin, comedians have been known to deal with personal demons. They are sad people. Richard Lewis, for example, wrote a book about his problems called "The Other Great Depression".

Comedy can touch on serious subjects. Comedy takes real issues, real problems, and tweaks it here and there to find humor. Comedy can deal with death, divorce and even suicide as in the case of "World's Greatest Dad". Comedy comes from a dark corner in people's souls. It doesn't surprise me to know Robin Williams was depressed. It is the nature of comedy. Only after going through pain can you begin to laugh. Comedy shows us the world and human nature in a gentle way but makes us face our faults.

In "World's Greatest Dad" Williams plays Lance Clayton, a poetry teacher (perhaps a nod to "Dead Poets Society" (1989), his Oscar nominated role) who has never been published. He has written a few novels but has had no success. He wants to become famous, the creative process is not enough for him. He wants to make money and be loved by the public.

Lance has a son, Kyle (Danyl Sabara). Kyle is a loner. He stays in his room and watches porn mostly. He only has one friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), who he bosses around. Kyle wants nothing to do with his father. Whenever Lance makes a suggestion for the two of them to hang out, Kyle rejects it as a dumb idea. The two have nothing in common and each day it becomes a little harder for the two to communicate.

If his relationship with his son isn't difficult enough, Lance must also contend with his "girlfriend", Claire (Alexie Gilmore). Both are teachers at the same school and must keep their relationship hidden. Claire does such a good job of hiding their relationship she doesn't even have time for Lance. Instead Claire spends all her time with another male teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons). Claire says the two are just friends, but, when was the last time you could trust a woman? Lance has eyes and can see what is going on, even if sometimes he won't admit it to himself.

Lance has a job he doesn't like, surrounded by people he doesn't like, a girlfriend he can't trust and a son that doesn't seem to like him. Why can't Lance get ahead? Why does it always seem to be to other people that have good things happen to them? Why do other people always seem happier? When will our time come? When will life ease up on us and stop being such a miserable, gruesome, challenging experience?

As faith would have it, Lance's son would have to kill himself before good things begin to happen. One day, Lance finds Kyle accidentally killed himself while masturbating. Kyle liked to put a belt around his neck and choke himself before reaching climax. Something went wrong and now Kyle is dead. Wanting to protect his son's image, Lance rearranges things so it looks as if Kyle hanged himself and left a suicide note.

The note goes public and is published in the school paper. Soon, people who never liked Kyle, now feel a connection with him. Kyle was "one of them". Kyle represented every person that ever felt like an outsider. Lance's poetry class becomes popular as all the other students want to ask Lance about Kyle's likes. The school library will be named after Kyle, when it is discovered Kyle had a love of writing. Actually, Lance wrote a pretend diary for Kyle, representing his daily struggle.

Lance is asked to be on TV shows, Claire starts paying more attention to him, life finally seems good. People notice Lance, but, it is Kyle that is getting all the attention. And people only want to be close to Lance to feed off of his 15 minutes of fame.

And here "World's Greatest Dad" hits on some uncomfortable truths about people and society. People are no good. They are evil, jealous and greedy. People are only interested in filling their own pockets. People will latch themselves on to other's success. They will exploit someone's grief for their own gain. And, we turn the dead into symbols. We champion causes in their honor. As a way to remember someone. But, half the time, we don't know these people. We project ourselves onto them. They become what we want them to be. In the end, it all boils down to, everything is about us.

"World Greatest Dad" hits its mark. It presents its ideas clearly. It makes its social commentary in a non-threatening way. It is subtle. The performance given by Robin Williams is subtle. He is a man defeated. Life has beaten him up. There is anger and hostility there but Williams keeps it all inside. This is not one of his "maniac" roles. This is not the genie in "Aladdin", or his character in "The Birdcage" (1996). He doesn't do voices and impressions here. There is despair hidden in this character.

My biggest problem however with "World's Greatest Dad" is it is not funny enough. There were no big laughs. I smile and nodded at the picture. I may have chuckled (do people still chuckle?) once or twice but a big belly laugh? No. Not for me. The comedy in this comedy is wanting. The social message in this comedy is strong for the most part. That is what makes the movie work. It has something to say and says it, despite coping out a bit at the end. I would have preferred a darker ending. I don't want to see characters have a moment of clarity. I don't believe that exist. I liked the more cynical nature of the film.

The fact that Robin Williams could do a movie like this and "Jumanji" (1995) says something about his talents. He could be bright and bouncy in one movie and dark in another. He plays a serial killer in Christopher Nolan's brilliant "Insomnia" (2002) with Al Pacino, a remake of an equally great Scandinavian film. But then he acted in another dark comedy, directed by Danny DeVito, "Death to Smoochy" (2002) or what about his role in "One Hour Photo" (2002)?

Williams didn't seem to have a middle ground. It is either a maniac character or a reclusive, tormented person. Was the real Williams like that? Happy one moment, sad the next. I don't know and it would be foolish for me to "read" into the man.

Born Robin McLaurin Williams on July 21, 1951, Williams first came to the public's attention playing one of those maniac, bright and bouncy characters, an alien named Mork on the television show "Mork & Mindy". The series ran from 1978 until 1982. Williams even won a Golden Globe after the show's first year for best actor. He would also get to work with one of his comedy heroes, Jonathan Winters, on the show.

The TV success lead to his first major starring role in a movie, working with the legendary director, Robert Altman, on "Popeye" (1980), with Williams in the title role. From there Williams would go on to receive a total of four Oscar nominations. Three of them would be in the best actor category for his roles in "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987), "The Dead Poets Society" and "The Fisher King" (1991). The one time he won was in the best supporting actor category for "Good Will Hunting".

Williams' incredible improv skills and rapid wit will truly be missed. He was always "on", always funny. Always doing anything for a laugh when he was in front of an audience. He was a brave performer, willing to walk to the edge and then deciding to go a little further.

I only know Bobcat Goldthwait on the other hand from his work in "Police Academy 2" (1985) and its sequel "Police Academy 3" (1986). I wasn't expecting this type of movie from him, both in humor and commentary. He is an interesting voice. It will be interesting to see what else he has in store for us.

Film Review: Goldfinger

"Goldfinger"  *** (out of ****)

"Goldfinger" (1964) was the third Ian Fleming novel to be made into a motion picture after "Dr. No" (1962) and "From Russia With Love" (1963) and is considered by many to be the standard of excellence all other Bond films must be compared to.

"From Russia With Love" established the Bond formula as we knew it pre-Daniel Craig but "Goldfinger" may have perfected it.

As with the two previous Bond films this one stars Sean Connery as secret agent 007, who is widely believed to have been the best James Bond.

Watching "Goldfinger" again I noticed something that first caught my eye when I re-watched "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977) with Roger Moore (my favorite Bond). The public's general perception of James Bond is that he is basically an adolescent, always chasing after pretty girls. That simply is not true. Pay attention to a moment  early on in "Goldfinger". We see Bond (Connery) on a mission. He is in a hotel room with a pretty girl. He can see a man approaching him from behind with a gun. He notices this in a reflection of the girl's eye. Without thinking twice about it Bond uses the girl as a shield and she takes a hit on the head as the man strikes her instead. Then Bond throws an electric fan in a bathtub and electrocutes the man stating that the situation is "shocking".

In this moment we notice two things. One is Bond is always focused on his mission. Women aren't a distraction to him. They are a tool to be used to gather information. Bond flirts with women the way a femme fatale lures men into committing murder. It's not personal, its business. Bond would never allow a women to interfere with his mission. His assignment is always his main goal. Remember, Bond usually can't charm the male villains the way he does the female characters.

The second thing you notice is the humor of Connery's Bond. People used to (and some still do) complain about Roger Moore's interpretation of Bond as being "too comical". The late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel used to say Moore looked like a guy who didn't want to get his tuxedo messed up. His clothes were always perfectly in place. But, that is not fair. Pay attention to Connery. After every fight Connery's hair never moves. His clothes are always in place. It rarely looks like anything phases him. He is cool, calm and collected. It is comical and Connery seems to be more of an action star compared to Moore.

When the plot demands it though Connery takes it all very serious. The best example would be the famous scene where Bond is tied down to a table as a gold laser is about to cut him in half. "Do you expect me to talk?" Bond asks Goldfinger (Gert Frobe). "No Mr. Bond. I expect you to die." is his reply. In that moment there is genuine suspense. Will Bond die? Is this the end of the Bond franchise? Audiences in 1964 may not have been sure of the answer to those questions. And Connery plays it for all its worth.

"Goldfinger" really has a rather simple plot. A man named Goldfinger wants to break into Fort Knox and make the world's gold supply radio-active, thus increasing the value of his gold supply and causing economic chaos world wide. And that is only revealed to us an hour into the movie. But, plot isn't what makes "Goldfinger" fun to watch or memorable. You could argue the same is true for a number of Bond films.

What makes "Goldfinger" fun to watch is the beautiful women, the gadgets, the cars, the villains and the wise-cracks. It is style over substance. It is all atmosphere. It enjoys the conventions of the Bond formula.

"Goldfinger" has a lot of "first". It was the first time Guy Hamilton directed a Bond film. He would go on to direct "Live and Let Die" (1973), which marked Roger Moore's debut as Bond, "The Man With the Golden Gun" (1974), another Roger Moore Bond movie and "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) again with Sean Connery.

It was also the first time Shirley Bassey would sing a Bond song. "Goldfinger" may be the most memorable of all the Bond songs. Perhaps only "Nobody Does It Better", from "The Spy Who Loved Me", is as popular. Bassey would go on to sing the title song for "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker" (1979), which is better than most people give it credit for.

And, most importantly it was the first time we see Bond drive an Aston Martin. The only other time would be in "Skyfall" (2012). I remember seeing "Skyfall" in a movie theatre and the crowd cheered when they saw the car.

"Goldfinger" probably has the greatest name of all time for a Bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) who works as a pilot for Goldfinger. But, she is not the greatest Bond girl of all time. She is not given much to do in the film. She is not really an active participant in a large majority of the plot. The name is what makes her memorable. Not her acting.

I used to think "Goldfinger" was the greatest of all the James Bond movies. But, watching it again prior to this review, my feelings changed. I don't see it as a great piece of cinematic art. I see it as a good action movie. Connery is fun to watch. The Bond girls are pretty. I like the Goldfinger character and his henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata). There are things that are fun to watch. There are moments of enjoyment. But, a great movie? I'm not so sure of that anymore.

As I say, plot isn't the driving factor in this movie. It is style over substance. And, that hurts the movie for me a bit. I'm not actively involved myself. Oh, there is a scene or two that I have mentioned when Connery creates suspense as to the faith of the character but overall you aren't rooting for much.

There will be those that my say I am being too harsh. I am expecting too much from the movie. I should enjoy it for what it is. I do enjoy it for what it is. A decent action movie. I like the movie. I recommend seeing it. The movie was even nominated for an Academy Award in the best sound effects category. Of all the categories this movie could have been nominated in, the Academy chose best sound effects. Not even best song at least.

"Goldfinger" has a lot that makes it memorable. Good villains, beautiful women, a great car and a terrific song.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"  *** (out of ****)

After watching the latest live action movie adaptation of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) and the huge amount of disappointment I felt afterwards, it seemed like a good idea to go back to watch the original live action movie version, the 1990 adaptation.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" originally began as a comic book published by Mirage Studios in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It was intended to be a parody of existing comic book superheroes such as Marvel Comics' Daredevil character and New Mutants as well as Frank Miller's Ronin.

While I have never read these comic books (comics was never really my thing) I have been told these comics had a very dark and serious tone to them.

In 1987 a Saturday morning cartoon adaptation was created, which lasted until 1996. Other versions followed, but, for the purpose of this review we will only discuss the original cartoon series. It became very popular with young children. An impressive marketing line was created featuring action figures, t-shirts, bedding, lunchboxes, pencils, Halloween costumes and video games. Even I must admit to having these products when I was younger and was a fan of the Saturday morning cartoon.

With all of this marketing in place and a built-in fan base a live action motion picture only seemed natural. Even if the movie was bad it was going to make money because children would be excited to see the ninja turtles "come to life" on the movie screen. And, you wouldn't know the movie is bad until after you've seen it and spent your money. I also remember when this movie was released and pleaded with my parents to take me to see it.

This version of ninja turtles is much more playful and comical compared to the Michael Bay over-budgeted remake. In my review of Bay's adaptation I wrote the movie takes itself too serious. You have to have a sense of humor when dealing with a movie about human sized, English speaking, pizza loving ninja turtles. I also wrote all I saw on screen when watching the new version was an over budgeted silly story.

Make no mistake about it, this 1990 version is not a great movie. It is not as intellectually stimulating to me as watching an Ingmar Bergman or Akiria Kurosawa film, but, it has fun with the concept. It is basically a live cartoon. Children who walked into this movie would be pleased. They are familiar with the characters, their personalities are presented faithfully and they will laugh at Michelangelo's wise-cracks. He is usually the favorite character of any young boy.

As I watched Bay's version I felt the idea of humans talking to giant turtles and a rat was just too bizarre. I suggested the movie should have been done in animation. When a movie is animated there is a greater level of suspension of belief. You can get away with more. You can ask more of your audience because it is not a reflection of the real world. We understand that walking into the movie. Having live actors interact with turtles and rats was too much for me to accept.

And that is an important difference between the 1990 movie and the 2014 movie. In the 1990 version, the turtles aren't meant to look real. In the 2014 movie they are. Some Hollywood genius got the idea, hey, why don't we remake the ninja turtles. There have been so many technical advancements with computers we could surely make the ninja turtles look more realistic than the human sized puppets used in the original.

This was the same problem I had with Peter Jackson when he remade "King Kong" (2005). Yes, Kong looks better. They threw a lot of money into the production. But, does that mean it was necessary? The 1933 version of Kong was fine. Yes, it looked fake but it was a fantasy adventure movie. Kong didn't have to look real. The same principle applies to the ninja turtles. The turtles don't have to look real in order for the movie to work.

Watching "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" it wasn't strange for me to see the turtles interact with humans. It was like watching "The Muppet Movie" (1979). In fact, Jim Henson was responsible for the ninja turtle costumes in the movie. The look of the turtles help add to the cartoon effect of the movie. The fact that the turtles don't look real makes it okay when you see humans talk back. Though, for a child, it would be very exciting to see the turtles presented this way because this is how they would envision the cartoon characters looking in "the real world".

The movie takes place in 1990 New York City. Crime is rampant. A group known as The Foot is suspected of being behind recent robberies. Nothing is safe. We see televisions stolen, people being pick-pocketed and delivery trucks stolen within the blink of an eye. A news reporter, April O' Neil (Judith Hoag) reports on these daily activities and blames the police chief, Sterns (Raymond Serra), who has no clues on The Foot and is not able to stop them.

April's boss, Charles (Jay Patterson) is getting pressure from Sterns and the Mayor to tell April to lay off. Her reports only make the people angry and the police cannot stop the crime. They want April off the story. Plus, Charles has his own problems trying to raise his teenage son, Danny (Michael Turney) who is going through that whole angst period.

One day April is attacked by The Foot, a clan that dresses like ninjas and is comprised of young boys. Coming to April's defense, from the sewers, is four human sized turtles who are ninjas themselves. They attack the clan without April seeing who did it however one of the turtles leaves their weapon behind.

In order to get the weapon back, Raphael (Josh Pais, who sounds a lot like Andrew Dice Clay) follows April, who is attacked once again, as the clan suspects she is in with the turtles, and rescues her, bringing her to the sewer where the turtles and their father figure, a human sized, English speaking with a Japanese accent, rat named Splinter (Kevin Clash) lives.

Splinter explains how he was the pet of a ninja back in Japan. They came to New York where Splinter was left on his own. While in a sewer he noticed four turtles in a radioactive substance. He gathered the turtles together for protection and noticed the next day they had grown in size and spoke English. He decided to teach the turtles the way of the ninja and gave them names; Leonardo (David Forman / Brian Tochi voice), Donatello (Leif Tilden / Corey Feldman voice), Raphael and Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti/ Robbie Rist voice).

The head of the clan, Shredder (James Saito) learns about the turtles and how they are interfering with his crime wave. He wants to capture the turtles and kill them.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" does a pretty bad job developing characters. The human characters fare the worst. Not much is really known about April O' Neil but the worst is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) a street thug who becomes friends with the turtles and serves as an eventual love interest for April. When Casey first sees the turtles he doesn't even question their appearance. He never asks for an explanation. He doesn't seem surprised. Have New Yorkers really seen it all? No real back story for him is given. And, if he is to serve as the love interest, nothing is developed between him and April. We never sense any chemistry between them. We don't see love blossom between them.

Only two of the turtles are shown as having distinct personalities which helps us separate them. Raphael is the rebel, the teen with a chip on his shoulder. He likes to beat people up and ask questions later. Michelangelo on the other hand is seen as the wise-cracking party guy. The other two turtles; Donatello and Leonardo aren't given much to work with. I was never sure which is which. Fans will argue it is easy to tell which turtle is which by the color of the mask they wear. I am color blind so I can't tell based on that alone. I need a personality to tell them apart. A filmmaker or screenwriter should not rely on the color of a mask to help its audience tell which character is which. Work on development of character. Give them something to do.

It is silly to wonder if this movie is trying to make some sort of social statement. It is a movie about turtles. But, what is/was the point of all of this? Why make this movie? Does it say anything? Or, was it all just an attempt to make money and cash in on the marketing success already established by the Saturday morning cartoon? It was clearly an attempt to make money. Notice the product placement; Burger King, Domino's Pizza. But is there anything to the story?

It is interesting the younger characters are products of a broken home. Danny doesn't seem to have a mother. It is only his father we see take care of him. We suspect the teenagers we see working for The Foot come from broken homes. The turtles have a father figure but no mother figure. There is no Mrs. Splinter. This makes the young boys feel like outsiders.

I would imagine one theme of the movie is families stick together. To follow the old cliche, the family that plays together, stays together. When people work together they are at their strongest. As individuals we all have something that makes us special but when people work as a unit, they are unbeatable.

The movie was directed by Steve Barron. He worked on music videos prior to the movie. He directed the video Burning Up for Madonna and Reckless for Bryan Adams. He also directed the SNL movie adaptation of "The Coneheads" (1993). Nothing in this movie suggest the work of a truly talented filmmaker, a visionary. Just about anyone could have directed this. Just don't try to do anything fancy and keep the actors in focus. To Barron's credit, he does just that.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was a hit at the box-office, grossing more than a $100 million dollars. Two more sequels followed. This is the movie version I would recommend watching if you want to see the ninja turtles brought to life. Leave the Michael Bay adaptation alone.