Up From the Depths With a Vengeance (Jaws: The Revenge, 1987)

Jaws_the_Revenge_PosterApparently, the one thing that could kill the shark was this film.  Opening up shortly before Christmas, we find Sean Brody is now working for the Amity police.  He lives with his mother (a returning Lorraine Gary).  He is called out to take care of a log floating in the bay.  As he tries to get the log, a large great white shark attacks Sean.

Mike comes home to be with his grieving mother and invite her to return with him to his Bahaman home where he is studying snails.  She gives in, though starts expressing a belief that the shark has returned to take out the family.  And sure enough, once in the Bahamas, the shark appears.

Most of the film is spent with Michael and local pilot Hoagie trying to convince Ellen that it is all coincidence, but she knows better.  In the meantime, Mike and his research partner Jake are secretly studying the giant great white.

While the idea that Ellen would be obsessed with the notion that the shark is seeking revenge on her family is intriguing…it is undermined by the fact that she is right.  The shark is calculated, ignoring people who are not related to the Brody family (one death is because the shark misses a Brody) and showing itself a skilled hunter, navigating its way through a sunken ship. The dialog also seems to ignore that Chief Brody killed the previous to sharks, with Ellen and Mike talking as if this new shark is the same shark from earlier films.

The film gets even more improbable.  It pretty much eats a plane (of course the shark downed a  helicopter in the second film).  The shark pops out of the water and roars.  Like a dinosaur.

Jaws: the Revenge completely ignores Jaws 3-D, and tries very hard to ties itself to the first film.  There are several duo-toned clips from the original, meant to draw parallels.  Except, they are presented in a way that implies they are memories of Ellen’s. But she is recalling things she never witnessed.  Martin killing the shark, Sean being killed by the shark…and so on and so on.

Really, all those call backs just bring more attention to how anemic this film is.  Even Michael Caine couldn’t save it.

Rage Against the Machine (The Dark Knight Rises,2012)

Batman_dark_knight_rises_posterIt was becoming clear that Nolan was planning to form a trilogy.  The Dark Knight ended with Batman on the run, taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death.  It suggested Batman would be hiding in the shadows in his fight against crime. There were no real casting controversies this time.  Generally, people seemed okay with announcements of Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway.

After the Dark Knight, people seemed to trust the team making these films.  So there was much anticipation when the Dark Knight Rises arrived four years later.

And right from the start?  The film kicks off with a nice little plane hijacking by the villain Bane.  This Bane appears to be a pretty brilliant criminal and Occupy Terrorist.  And yet?  The terrific setup from the Dark Knight is not used at all.  The film picks up eight years later with Bruce Wayne having retired Batman.  The police did their job, so Bruce retired the persona shortly after the events of the Dark Knight.  Apparently, no weird bad guys appeared after the Joker.  Wayne is in rough shape, physically speaking.   The years as Batman took a real toll.  He catches Selina Kyle busting into his safe during a party,  Kyle is a morally ambiguous character.  She is a thief of course, but she is not entirely without conscience.

Commissioner Gordon is deemed a hero, but this is eating away at him…and he keeps a letter on himself at all times confessing what really happened to Harvey Dent.  This certainly could have been a real damning situation.  Admittedly, I felt it would have been better to bring Two Face back as the central villain, out to humiliate and expose (and destroy) Gordon and the Batman.

Bane starts to wreak havoc on Gotham’s social and financial districts.  Forcing Batman out of retirement and into a confrontation, Bane breaks Batman’s back and  tosses him in  hole.  Ultimately Bruce Wayne must climb to the top to get free.  The film is a bit on the nose.

It turns out that Bane is teamed up with another villain, who is revealed to have ties from the first film.  And their plan just makes no sense.  They trap the entire police force underground and plan to blow up a bomb.

What makes the Dark Knight Rises so disappointing as a followup is that it is incredibly sloppy in it’s storytelling.  How and why things occur are not fully thought out.  The film is full of exciting sequences…but they don’t bring the film together.  The film is heavily focused on being a “last Bruce Wayne” story for the Nolan version.  But the villains activities don’t really have a satisfying connecting moment.  There is, technically, an “Ah HA!” moment.  But it still leaves a lot of Bane’s overly elaborate scheming kind of pointless.

As a follow up to the Dark Knight (and Batman Begins) this is a well cast movie full of plot-holes to the point of Swiss Cheese.  Catwoman is a fun character, and Hathaway’s performance is great, without drawing on earlier film versions.  Freeman, Cain and Oldman are great in their roles, vital to the enjoyment of this film.  As a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he is always welcome, and his tenacious cop  Blake (in spite of a “groaner” of a name reveal at the end) is likable…he is also pretty obvious the out of they wanted to make a fourth film without Bale, as the Bale Batman seems to have run it’s course.  That Bat Voice starts to grate on a viewer, especially after three movies.

I wish Nolan’s series could have ended on a higher note, but that was not meant to be.  We have a movie with some fine performances, some good action scenes and a rather hard to buy into massive plan by villains even taking into account this is a movie about a guy dressed as a bat.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Knight (the Dark Knight, 2008)

batman-the-dark-knight-posterThe recasting of Rachel Dawes with Maggie Gyllenhaal might have been the biggest casting controversy if not for the announcement of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Oh, the internet exploded.  And then the movie came out and made a lot of people eat crow.  The late Heath Ledger gave one of the best takes on the Joker.  An anarchist who just wants to watch the world burn, The Joker starts out appearing like he is trying to take over the mob, only for them to be shocked as he proves he does not care about their goals at all.

The Dark Knight improves on the action scenes, showing how much Nolan learned.  The story is mostly quite strong.  They introduce the heroic Harvey Dent, a new DA with no fear of the mob…causing Bruce Wayne to question if Batman will be necessary any more.  Of course, Dent is doomed to be twisted into a brutal caricature of justice.

The Dark Knight is full of twists and turns, as well as challenging questions in regards to spying and information gathering.  How far do you go to stop someone?  Admittedly, the film tries to have it both ways, allowing Batman to go to far, but for it to be a one time deal.

The film also struggles a bit with exactly what it wants to do with Two Face…and it really squanders an opportunity that could have played into the next film.  While the Joker story line seems so carefully plotted, the Two Face story line just feels rushed.  But in the end, the overall film ties together nicely.

As noted, Ledger’s Joker borders on brilliant.  The performance is downright unnerving, helped by musical queues that make it feel all the more disturbing.  The returning cast are all excellent, and Gyllenhaal holds her own (as pretty much the only woman of consequence in the film) with heavyweights like Oldman, Freeman and Caine.

Nolan has shown Great vision for Batman, and only improved on Batman Begins.  It is an intense and  exhilarating ride of a film.

When I Was a Kid (Batman Begins, 2005)

Batman-Begins-posterIt took until 2005 for Batman to return to the big screen.  From the start, we knew this was going to be a more serious take on the character than the previous films.  They were starting over and taking their inspiration from Batman: Year One.  Warner Brothers brought in Christopher Nolan (director of Following and Memento) to craft a Batman for the modern movie age.  They started to announce their cast and people started to get excited.  Christian Bale. Gary Oldman.  Liam Neeson.  Literally the most controversial casting choice was Katie Holmes…and that was more after the film was released.

Batman Begins is a refreshing take on the character.  It followed closely the stories such as Year One.  And instead of going with villains we had already seen, they opted for two that had not been used in film before.  Ra’s Al Ghul was a longstanding comic book Bat Nemesis who ruled over the elite league of assassins.

Young Bruce Wayne struggles to come to terms with the death of his parents at the hands of low level thug Joe Chill.  He plots to kill Chill, but is convinced by Rachel Dawes (Holmes) to not give into the revenge.  So Bruce drops off the grid and wanders the planet  getting into scrapes and apparently lots of prisons…until he meet Ducard, the mysterious emissary to Ra’s Al Ghul.  After training with the league of assassins, Bruce discovers that the League has plans to erase Gotham off the map, believing it is beyond saving.

When Bruce returns to Gotham, he decides that he needs to use his training to combat the decay of the mob and other criminal activity.  The film also focuses on Detective Jim Gordon and his attempts to deal with corruption inside and outside his force.  As Batman, Bruce Wayne realizes he has an ally.  Of course, the League of Assassins has no intention of giving up their plan.

Nolan was not known for being an action film director prior to this, and it shows.  Sometimes things are to tightly framed making the action hard to follow.  There are great action sequences, but there are times where they are not as easy to follow.

The story is not hard to follow, and unlike previous Batman films, the multiple villains  does not ruin the pacing.  And how the villains are tied together makes sense.  Nolan and his time understand how to intertwine the elements of a tale.

The film is also nearly perfectly cast.  Bale sells the notion of a man with a singular purpose.  Michael Caine’s Alfred is a new and unique take on the character in film and television.  He is a bit rougher and has a military background.  You can see he was hired as much for his strength as his support.  He can be tough, wise and gentle when it is called for.

And then there is Gary Oldman’s Detective Gordon.  He is struggling to try and keep things together, but not out of incompetence, but simply because Gotham is falling apart and the seems, and at times, he seems alone in trying to stem the tide.  It is great to see the movies finally elevate his presence.  He is a far more important to the Bat Mythos than Burton or Schumacher ever seemed to realize.

As Ducard, Neeson brings an self righteous arrogance that sees him in a role of dangerous judge and jury.  Lucius Fox is played by Morgan Freeman in one of those Freeman roles where he is wise and underestimated.   Cillian Murphy’s psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane is creepy, even before he dons his Scarecrow mask.  Holmes is the weakest link.  It is not that she is terrible, but she is out of her depth with the rest of the cast.

Gotham is no longer a hyper stylized city with crazy architecture.  Instead, it is a rundown city, with a recognizable look that could be the streets of a large metropolis.  It is very effective.

Batman Begin’s is a solid start to a new series of films.  It is the path I wish Bryan Singer had followed with Superman.  We are introduced to an exciting world with much potential (as hinted in the final moments of the film).

What a Scrooge Part 7 (A Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992)

 In 1992, the Muppet team took a crack at the classic tale. With out a doubt, they did a strong job, making this one of the best of the Muppet films and a nice addition to the collection of films based on Dickens’s great tale.

Obviously, being for children, the themes are greatly simplified, though the song lyrics still reference the core ideas of A Christmas Carol. The story opens with The Great Gonz-uh-Charles Dickens and his friend Rizzo the Rat amid the busy streets of England. It’s a charming and romanticized look that is very effective for the Muppet world. I presume that the central reason for a narrator is to help younger viewers follow the story (plus, they get numerous laughs).

And then we meet Scrooge, played by the talented Michael Caine. Caine actually takes a bit more subtle approach than those who came before him in the role. Oh, he’s mean, but it’s in a more subdued fashion, and his outbursts of anger are limited. This is effective, especially since this version is aimed at families, presumably with young children.

While the scares of the story are toned down, they are certainly hinted at. The film takes obvious liberties you would expect in updating for a family viewing experience with the Muppets. For instance, there is both Jacob and Robert Marley, portrayed by the cantankerous heckling duo that we all love Waldorf and Statler. And they are no less entertaining in chains. There is a nice effect as the door knocker turns into one of the Marleys that is particularly strong. In most versions it is a ghostly apparition, but it’s a physical change here.

In the Muppet version, we see an indication that the Marley Brothers were not good friends to Scrooge when partners, rather they were even a bit unkind. I cringe in the moment when Scrooge whines about how mean they were to him, because it is a rare misstep in Caine’s performance. Scrooge isn’t that kind of whiner. This also creates a problem, they don’t seem to care about Scrooge at all. In the previous incarnations of the story, Marley comes across as wanting to bring Scrooge this opportunity for Redemption, these Marley’s seem rather indifferent to Scrooge’s fate. So as we have seen, he is warned of a visit from three ghosts.

In between, we have visits from “Dickens” and Rizzo the Rat. Much of this is comic relief, and very entertaining. But I will gloss over it, because it is far funnier to actually just watch it.

The first Ghost is a rather interesting and unique take. When the Spirit of Christmas Past appears before Scrooge, she is soft spoken and child like. She floats, with her robes swirling and dancing through shards of light. Ebenezer takes her hand and they fly above the streets. The transitions in time and place are nicely done, though clearly enamored with the early digital technology. We go to the school, where we see young Scrooge. The scene rapidly passes time until we see young Scrooge, around may 13. There the headmaster preaches the greatness of capitalism. Interestingly, this version both glosses over his relationship to both his father and sister, to the point they are never mentioned (in spite of the fact that we have, at this point, met his nephew Fred). They quickly zip to the home of Fozziwig (played by, uh, Fozzie the Bear). There we are briefly introduced to Belle, in which a future relationship is implied. In all previous versions, this is expanded on more, but such is the nature of family films-keep it brief and simple. They jump to the day his relationship with Belle ends.

Soon, Scrooge finds himself visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. He is portrayed as more absent minded and jovial than other incarnations. The Ghost shows Scrooge the city, all while singing about how wonderful Christmas time is. He brings him to see his nephew’s party. I found myself a bit put off by Fred. In all previous versions, Fred is a kind and loving person, like his mother. He speaks lovingly of his Uncle at all times no matter how Scrooge treats him. But here, Fred is cruel and mocking of his uncle. It generates justified pity for Scrooge. Your pity for Scrooge should never be easily justified. He may deserve the ridicule, but to this extreme? It makes Fred less of the man he is. Then the Ghost brings him to Bob Cratchit’s home. There he witnesses the family’s boisterous celebration. He is, of course moved by the plight of Tiny Tim, and asks that fated question. However, due to his rather forgetful nature, the Ghost’s words lack Oomph. He doesn’t have the passionate anger of Edward Woodward(The Ghost of Christmas Present in the George C. Scott version), and honestly, his harsh throwing back of Scrooge’s words in his own face…falls flat. The Ghost leaves him in a graveyard, all alone.

Suddenly, mist floods the cemetery, and we meet the final Ghost. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has arrived. The Ghost walks Scrooge to those familiar haunts…the men laughing and joking about attending a funeral only if a meal is provided. A visit to a pawn shop where people are selling the dead man’s property. And finally, he sees his own demise. Scrooge realizes that the dead man is him. Scrooge begs the spirit for mercy, only to find himself back in his bed. As relief spreads through Ebenezer, he starts to dance and become excited. He looks out the window, calling a young muppet. He asks the young muppet to run and get the prize Turkey. Then he steps out and begins to wish people a Merry Christmas, before he breaks out into song.

He leads the singing crowd that gathers behind him to the Cratchit Home, where he promises a raise to Bob and asks that his family join Scrooge (and the whole town) in a Christmas meal. It’s a very sweet ending featuring a pleasant little song.

It might appear if I don’t like this one as much as other renditions of the tale, but that is not true. The Muppets are full of fun and whimsy, and a Christmas without whimsy is not Christmas at all. It’s a fun film, with clever jokes and images. For instance, before the Ghost of Christmas Present is gone, he is starting to age, or at least his fluffy beard begins to gray. Michael Cain brings us a slightly gentler, more quick to sentimentality Scrooge than other actors, but he still does a terrific job (how often does he not, anyways?). The puppets are grand. The songs are not quite up to par as earlier Muppet efforts, but the closing tracks are great.

A Bond By Any Other Name… (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2015)

kingsman-the-secret-service-posterLike Matthew Vaughn’s previous Mark Millar adaption (Kick Ass), Kingsman: The Secret Service promises to be a bold and irreverent take on it’s genre.  Kick Ass poked fun at super-heroes through excessive violence and profanity.  Kingsman follows through.  It is irreverent, extremely violent at times and full of profanity.

And yet, it seems to be a bit more loving of it’s target.  It is as much homage to the classic spy films of the past.  Colin Firth’s Galahad is older, handsome and stylish.  He seems proper and speaks of manners even in a fist fight.  Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a rough hooligan lacking a sense of manners.

But when we first meet Eggsy, his father has died, and the promising future is dashed.  His father was a secret agent, a member of the Kingsman organization.  Heartbroken, his mother appeared to have never recovered from that loss.  Eggsy gets in trouble with the police, only to meet Galahad who invites him to join the Kingsman Organization.

Unsurprisingly the other recruits are high society kids.  The film focuses heavily on Eggsy going through each test, and building his friendship with Galahad.  The central villain is a flamboyant tech genius named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).  His goal is to wipe out a massive number of the human population to save the world from global warning.  One of his more interesting quirks is that he does not take pleasure or joy in the actual death, but he is certain that it is a worthy end.

The film is comically violent (there are at least two scenes of massive carnage) far more than any Bond film ever managed.  But the film manages to be entertaining.  There is good humor, and the cast has great chemistry together.  I especially liked how the three women are characters, not love interests. One of his competitors, Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is his equal, and he supports her not because he wants to date her, but because they are friends.

Eggsy is a troubled guy, but he is decent, a supportive friend, cares deeply for his mother and baby sister…he has solid qualities that Galahad seeks to steer towards a greater good.

The film is, all in all, quite a bit of fun.  The characters are likable, the cast is solid through and through.  It is an effective action movie, even if some of the beats are somewhat predictable.  The film embraces it’s super-spy inspirations and follows the conventions.  It does it with fun style (Valentine’s henchwoman is pure old school Bond).

While there are moments that seem to relish the crass violence, overall this film is an effective adventure that left me smiling.

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