Friday, March 30, 2012

Angel Heart

If you watch the film noirs of the 1940s, you can see they implied some pretty seedy subject matter. The Hays Code was in full effect, and so much we take for granted today was not permitted, but filmmakers were able to sneak things in around the edges. My favorite example occurs in Murder, My Sweet in which Phillip Marlowe is drugged, wakes up in a locked room after who knows how many days, and finds the criminals took his pants off but left his shoes on.

By the seventies and eighties, the so-called neo-noirs, or modern-day film noirs, could bring those repressed tendencies to the forefront. Consider the incest in Chinatown, the overt sexuality of Basic Instinct, and the squeam-inducing violence of Blood Simple. Angel Heart (1987), directed by Alan Parker, is one of the more graphic film noirs to come out of Hollywood with exquisite bloodletting, hallucinatory imagery, and Satanic subject matter.

In 1955, NYC private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is approached by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to track down Johnny Favorite, a famous crooner who disappeared shortly after the war before Cyphre could collect what was owed to him. Angel's investigation takes him to New Orleans where he gets involved with Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), a girl whose mother was involved with Favorite; a local Voodoo cult; and others. As Angel gets closer to solving the mystery, all the witnesses he talks to wind up brutally murdered, and Angel suspects Favorite is trying to cover his tracks.

Heavy on style, Angel Heart drips with atmosphere. The shadows, fans, steam, sweat, smoke, blood, it's palpable. Most of the classic film noirs take place in the night time streets of New York, Los Angeles, or similar urban places. While some of Angel Heart takes place in New York, most of its shot in wintry daytime, a stark contrast to the steamy New Orleans locations. It makes you glad for air conditioning. Other elements are more ominous: the blood-stained walls of the church where Angel first meets Cypher (the result of a suicide we're told), the chicken foot left for a guitarist who talks too much, and the demonic Hand of Glory owned by a fortune teller.

Essentially, Angel Heart is a story of doom, specifically Angel's. As he investigates, he encounters more death, more hedonism, and more information that was probably best left undiscovered. The classic film noirs existed in a world on a brink of destruction, whether it be by Nazis, Communists, or other forces. Traditional forces of good could only stand by helplessly ineffective or be in league with the evil. The difference in Angel Heart is the Satanic aspect; I highly doubt the Hays Code would have allowed it in its day. This angle could have potentially come off as hokey or over-the-top, but Parker, by cross-pollinating so many different genres, manages to keep it grounded.

I don't want to give away too much about the plot. There are a number of unexpected twists and turns along the way, and I'm sure you can guess one just by reading the plot summary. Rourke is solid, but it's De Niro who steals the show, casting a calm, detached amusement whose sinister undertones go without saying. Angel Heart is one of the better modern film noirs.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I've always preferred to read the book before I see the movie, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of those rare times where the opposite occurred. Long story short, I've always admired director Terry Gilliam's work as a director, and in my senior seminar journalism class, a partner and I were assigned to pick three movies about journalism from three different periods (pre-1960, 1960-1980, and post-1980). My partner said I could choose any two movies if we used Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as our modern movie (for the record, the movies I chose were Ace in the Hole and The Parallax View).

The movie was ... weird. I can't say I enjoyed it. The visuals were astounding and the performances great, but I found the narrative repetitive and unpleasant. These two guys continuously get drunk and high and cause damage to everything they encounter, and there was very little variation.

So why read the book? Well, I've heard great things, and I really liked Hunter S. Thompson's Hells Angels. Some books aren't suited for visual media, and I thought by going back to the original text and reading Thompson's own words, I'd understand it and appreciate what it stood for.

Written in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a novel about reporter Raoul Duke (a stand-in for Thompson himself) and his attorney, a large Samoan known as Dr. Gonzo. They drive to Las Vegas in a red convertible with a trunk full of just about every illegal narcotic of the time. Duke, our narrator, is in Vegas ostensibly to cover the Mint 400 for a magazine, but he and Dr. Gonzo spend most of their time drinking alcohol, doing drugs, terrifying everyone they encounter, and destroying everything they come in contact with as they seek the American Dream.

After reading the book, I realize Gilliam made probably as good of a movie as possible given the source material. The advantage the book has over the film is Thompson's literary credentials. Whether he's describing all the different drugs Duke and Gonzo ingest and their effects or the freaked-out hallucinations Duke experiences, Thompson has a way with words. He's very descriptive, often crude, and very funny. Thompson was an early practitioner of Gonzo journalism, the hyper-stylized form in which the reporter flings himself full-force into the center of story, objectivity be damned, and although it's listed as a novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a classic example of the form.

Still, while I can appreciate the book's impact and Thompson's persona, I couldn't really get into it. Dr. Gonzo, in particular, I found to be be repellent and abrasive and not in a funny way. He's just a disgusting character who makes everyone around him miserable. And in all honesty, I can't see what larger point Thompson was trying to make. There's mention of the American Dream throughout the novel, but I couldn't grasp what he was getting at. Las Vegas is a rather sleazy place filled with assorted low-lifes trying to get rich quick and be famous, but most of the book focused mostly on two weirdos getting high. After a while, I felt like I was at a carnival watching members of the freak show bite off the heads of chickens; it's shocking at first but becomes tiring after a while.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rob Roy

When watching Rob Roy (1995), one can't help but be reminded of another movie that came out in 1995 about a rogue Scottish highlander, the passion he held for the woman he loved, and his rebellion against the ruling English. While Rob Roy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Tim Roth), Braveheart took home Best Picture, Best Director and a host of other nominations. I'm not going to try to make a comparison about which film is better, but I will argue that despite the similar setups, the results are entirely different.

Robert Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) is a clan leader in 18th century Scotland who borrows money from the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) to buy cattle and better provide for his people. However, another nobleman, Archibald Cunningham (Roth), to advance his own ambition, murders MacDonald (Eric Stoltz), a clansman of MacGregor, and steals the money. Unable to repay the loan, MacGregor is offered the chance to erase the debt if he falsely testifies the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir), a political rival of Montrose, is a Jacobite, denouncing him a traitor to the English crown. MacGregor refuses and becomes an outlaw. Cunningham leads the effort to capture MacGregor, and in the process, he burns MacGregor's home and rapes his wife Mary (Jessica Lange). Mary keeps the atrocity secret from her husband, knowing he would put himself in danger to avenge her.

If Braveheart can be described in one word ("FREEDOM!"), so too can Rob Roy: honor. William Wallace is a man who will lead his countrymen in a battle against tyranny in a clash of armies. Rob Roy is a man caught up in the political and personal backstabbing of British aristocracy who will become a fugitive rather than speak falsely against someone else.

Rob Roy is set in the waning years of Highlander life, a few years before the Highlanders participated in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, the failed rebellion to restore the exiled Stuart line to the British throne. Another uprising was attempted in 1745, but it too failed. After two revolts, the British government took steps to ensure a third would not follow, passing the Heritable Jurisdictions Acts of 1746, which removed Scottish lords from heritable jurisdictions, and the Act of Proscription that same year, banning traditional Highland dress. We also learn in the movie, many Highlanders are also being lured away to America to escape poverty. Essentially, the life we see Rob Roy and his people lead is a life that will soon be wiped out, confined to history.

As portrayed by Neeson, Rob Roy is a man of principal doing his best to resist the influence of the corrupting outside world, sticking to his values as society casts those values aside. The Highlanders here are rugged, honest working folks, content to in their simple ways. The aristocracy is indulgent, petty, and concerned only with money, and unfortunately, its members - the conniving Montrose and the ruthless Cunningham - have the power.

The movie does not have nearly as much action as Braveheart. There are daring escapes, tense chases, and duels over honor, but you won't see anything approaching the Battle of Stirling. Still, Rob Roy feels like an epic. The cinematography is gorgeous and has magnificent, sweeping shots of the Scottish countryside. The performances are solid, although Roth definitely is the standout, projecting a vicious cunning carefully hidden beneath a mask of dainty foppishness.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Getting It Wrong

This book marks something of a milestone for me because it's the first book I've discussed on this blog whose author I've met. I met W. Joseph Campbell about a year ago at the Phi Gamma Delta's annual Pig Dinner reunion at Ohio Wesleyan University. Mr. Campbell was a fraternity brother of my father (I myself never joined a fraternity), and technically, I met him a local bar because my dad and few others never bother going to the actual ceremony. I might be getting too detailed and off-topic given this little anecdote, but when you're writing about a book called Getting It Wrong, you want to be sure you're getting all the facts right.

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010) is Campbell's examination of ten commonly accepted myths in the history of American journalism. In each chapter, he explores an individual myth, how it likely developed and became accepted as fact, and what the true story really was. The myths include William Randolph Hearst telling photographer Frederic Remington to "furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war," the radio panic induced by Orson Welles' broadcast of War of the Worlds, the New York Times withholding information prior to the Bay of Pigs Invasion at the behest of JFK, the feminist bra burning on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968, Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon, Edward R. Morrow bringing down McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson saying if he lost Cronkite he lost middle America, crack babies as a "bio-underclass," Jessica Lynch as a female Rambo in the Iraq War, and the media's coverage of Hurricane Katrina as exemplary.

In his introduction, Campbell said the purpose of his book is not to scold the media for past failings but to align with a central tenet of journalism: news gathering. Media myths, he argues, can have adverse consequences, whether it be believing the media has more power or influence than it really does or marginalizing factual complexities, but it all comes down to the fact they are wrong. Journalists, reporters, historians and other media types must hold their industry accountable by setting the record straight and getting the facts right. If the media are not willing to hold themselves accountable, what credibility can the media have in holding other entities, such as the government, accountable in the eyes of the public?

How do myths take hold in the first place? Apocryphal or misleading information gets taken as factual and is shared before being vetted, such as how that famous quote became attributed to Hearst; the first known account of it was found in the memoirs of James Creelman, a widely traveled correspondent of the time known for exaggeration who offers no indication or citation of where he learned the supposed quote. Others times, the myths are held up as examples of heroic journalism, casting the profession in a positive light and extolling its impact on public discourse, such Murrow's takedown of McCarthy, even though the Senator's approval ratings were already slipping and other journalists such as Drew Pearson had been taking on McCarthy for years. In a nutshell, media myths make for good, easily-digestible narratives in which all the players fit in easily definable roles, and those stories are the easiest to share.

Getting It Wrong is a quick but intriguing read about some of journalism's most cherished stories, and Campbell backs it up with an impressive amount of research. In the end, it's really about what journalism is about: getting the facts and informing the public.

Beavis and Butthead Do America

Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996) is the feature-length spin-0ff of the MTV show, the brain-child of Mike Judge. In its heyday, the show generated plenty of controversy. Some parent groups and others claimed the show inspired bad and illicit behavior among children who watched it. Those opponents clearly never realized Beavis and Butthead, even in their own universe, are the worst people in the world, worthy only of scorn and mockery. My advice to parents: if your child watches Beavis and Butthead and emulates their behavior, the problem isn't the show.

The movie, I feel, is culmination against all that backlash, one big joke on all those people who said the pair was harmful. For those wondering what Mike Judge thinks of his characters, he makes Beavis and Butthead the two most wanted criminals in the country who unwittingly threaten to destroy the world but are too stupid to notice or care, even after the day is saved and they are honored by Bill Clinton. Beavis and Butthead are not anti-heroes or even antagonists; they are anti-protagonists. Vulgar, lazy, gross, immature, self-absorbed, moronic, and sex-obsessed, they exhibit no ambition, no development, no heroics, and no effort. Everything happens around them. They initiate nothing.

Highland, Texas teenagers Beavis and Butthead (both voiced by Judge) have a problem. Someone has stolen their television. While looking for it, they are mistaken for hitmen by Muddy Grimes (Bruce Willis), a drunk criminal who hires the two to "do" his wife Dallas (Demi Moore). Thinking they're being paid to "score," they end up in Las Vegas and eventually on the road to Washington D.C., not knowing a biological weapon has been stitched into Beavis' shorts. This draws the attention of ATF Agent Flemming (Robert Stack) who organizes a massive manhunt to locate America's new number-one fugitives.

Did I really just spend all that time describing the plot of something with Beavis and Butthead in it? Judge uses the feature-length opportunity to take the boys out of Highland and away from the usual supporting characters, although Principal McVicker, teacher Mr. Van Driessen, and neighbor Tom Anderson make appearances. Anderson and his wife Nancy are in a running subplot about how they're on vacation and keep running into Beavis and Butthead (of course it ends with Anderson's life completely ruined as usual).

Beavis and Butthead Do America a little more mainstream and little more polished from a technical standpoint than the show, but Judge's subversive streak remains strong. The humor thrives on Beavis and Butthead's idiocy as much as the show did, but Judge manages to find scenarios and ideas to keep it fresh and funny. By taking them out of Highland, Judge finds new places for the boys to get into trouble: a Las Vegas hotel, the Hoover dam, Yellowstone Park, the desert, and finally the White House.

There's not a whole more I can say about the movie, but if you like the show, you'll probably enjoy the movie.

Kingdom of Heaven

Spoiler alert, about 100 years after European Crusaders took Jerusalem, the Muslims re-took it. In Kingdom of Heaven (2005), shortly after Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) surrenders control of Jerusalem to Saladin, he asks the Sultan (Ghassan Massoud) what the city is worth.

"Nothing," Saladin says. "Everything."

Kingdom of Heaven is director Ridley Scott's historical epic about this clash between Christians and Muslims over Jerusalem, and while it has its fair share of majestic images and screen-filling armies battling it out, the movie is more about the individuals at the center of the struggle, the knights, generals, and noblemen (and woman) who plot, calculate, negotiate, and politick toward their goals in the Holy Land. At more than three hours in length (the director's cut), the movie is ambitious in scope and story, exploring the dynamics of a religious conflict that even today has not subsided.

Balian (Bloom) is a French blacksmith mourning his dead wife and child when he's approached by the father he never knew, Baron Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a nobleman back from the Crusades. Godfrey offers to take Balian to Jerusalem, telling him the land holds great promise for an enterprising young man. Balian refuses at first but joins the expedition after killing his half-brother (Michael Sheen), a priest, who desecrated his wife's body because she committed suicide. The party journeys to the Holy Land, but Godfrey does not survive the trip. Before his death, he knights Balian and appoints him his successor.

Balian reaches Jerusalem, where he allies with its king Baldwin (Edward Norton), who is dying of leprosy, and Baldwin's adviser Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). He also makes an enemy of Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who is angling for the throne and married to Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green). She and Balian fall in love. Guy has the backing of the Knights Templar and its leader Reynald de Chatillon (Brendon Gleason), and they grow increasingly aggressive and violent toward Muslims, trying to provoke a war. Baldwin and the Saracen leader Saladin (Massoud) have an uneasy truce, but Saladin also seeks to conquer Jerusalem for Islam.

Scott has assembled a very strong cast for the movie. Everyone looks and feels like they belong in the period (aided by excellent costumes and local design). The best performance in the movie is by Edward Norton, uncredited and unseen beneath a silver mask. As the dying Baldwin, the Leper King of Jerusalem, he plays an honorable and just ruler trying to ensure the safety of his people and kingdom. Even as his own body crumbles, he marshals all his efforts toward keeping the peace from following suit.

What really makes the drama is the players on both sides are complex. Except for Guy and Reynauld, there are no villains. Jerusalem is valued by people of all faiths in the movie, and if only they could learn to co-exist, the region could find peace.

The action scenes are where the movie falters. While not outright bad, Scott relies on shaky-cam, slow-mo too often, and for the most part, they are more distracting than thrilling. The siege of Jerusalem, with catapults launching hundreds of fiery payloads, is impressive, but I preferred the slower, character moments.

Fortunately, Scott works in some excellent images and awe-inspiring shots. The cinematography shows us the harshness of the desert, the impressive size of armies and knights marching off to fight, and the bustling activity of the city in all its exotic wonder. This film really creates a sense what it felt like to be alive during its setting.

Kingdom of Heaven is not a film to watch for its historical accuracy. A number of details and facts are altered or removed for dramatic convenience. Still, as a historical capsule of the time, with a story built on character dynamics and politics and aided by an amazing visual style, it is a compelling watch.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Thin Man

You know those movies that would otherwise be forgettable but have one element to elevate them into the realm of awesome? The Thin Man (1934) is a classic example. As a melodrama and a murder mystery, it's certainly passable, but the on-screen pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy as a husband-and-wife detective team transforms the movie into a hilarious, sardonic, and witty screwball comedy, and even nearly 80 years later, it still holds up.

New York inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) has gone missing and is suspected of murdering his secretary lover Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead). His daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) believes he's innocent and turns to family friend Nick Charles (Powell), a retired detective visiting from California, and his wife Nora (Loy), a rich heiress, for help. Nick isn't too interested in the case, but he's egged on by Nora, and soon other assorted characters start popping in: cops, gold diggers, hoodlums, lawyers, and more, all seeking help and information.

Based on a novel by Dashell Hammett, The Thin Man is surprisingly not hard-boiled. Sure, dead bodies turn up, and the police are for the most part helpless to solve anything, but the plot is not a descent into depravity or despair. Hammett's work provided the basis for a number of great film noirs, but here, the tone is playful and giddy. While there are moments of danger, the Charleses act more like they're dinner hosts on a lark. Instead of surreal, expressionistic complexities and images, the plot here is gleefully silly, practically playing second fiddle to the banter of Powell and Loy.

The dialogue is really great: a lot of sarcastic put-downs, one-liners, and double entendres. Nick and Nora are essentially the smartest people in the movie, and they enjoy one-upping each other in regular rounds of verbal jousting and toying with others. Sample dialogue: "You know, that sounds like an interesting case. Why don't you take it?" she asks. "I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for." In their first scene, Nora, after finding out Nick has already had six martinis to her first, promptly orders five more. While everyone else is running acting slimy, suspicious, or scared, Nick and Nora find it all amusing.

Describing Nick and Nora as dinner hosts probably is appropraite given they're frequently hosting parties and attending other social gatherings. At their Christmas party, where they force drinks on everyone, all major players in the murder investigation turn up seeking Nick's help, piling on the comic tension until it erupts. Later, the identity of the killer is revealed at a dinner party Nick is hosting, all according to plan.

The murder mystery around Nick and Nora is fairly run-of-the-mill for the time. Nothing about the crime or resolution stands out (especially compared to the film noir genre set to emerge in the next decade), and maybe a little too much time is spent on some of the supporting characters who aren't as interesting as the Charleses. Still, The Thin Man remains great fun, done with great style, class, and humor.

Making Movies

Sydney Lumet was a great director. Among the late filmmaker's work is 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and The Verdict. IMDB lists around 75 film and television credits to his name ranging from a 1951 television series called Crime Photographer to 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, his final film before his death in 2011. He was nominated for an Academy Award five times, received an honorary award in 2005, worked with some of the greatest actors and technicians in film history, and was amazing prolific during numerous eras and styles. When someone like Sydney Lumet writes a book about directing, you read it.

Written in 1995, Making Movies is Lumet's account of how to make movies as director, the responsibilities overseen, the challenges inherent in the form, the people one deals with, and the different steps of the process. Lumet's films often had a nitty-gritty atmosphere to them, and the same applies to his book. This is an exploration of the job and what it takes. While directing movies is a rewarding and artful endeavor, Lumet explains how it's not all glamorous; it requires an enormous commitment of time, energy, talent, and effort.

The book;s structure parallels a movie production starting with the idea for a movie. Lumet calls this the most important decision in the entire process: what is this movie about? The answer to that question dictates everything else that follows, everything from the cinematographer and production designer hired, the look of the movie, the film stocks used, the actors chosen, the type of performances striven for, everything. What a movie is about affects how it is about it.

Lumet divides the book into chapters by the given step of the process: script, style, actors, camera, art direction, shooting the picture, watching rushes, editing, sound and music, sound mixing, the final cut, and showing the completed movie to the studio that financed it. Along the way, Lumet shares his philosophies and stories illustrating where he got his beliefs about filmmaking. He works in both positive anecdotes and depressing horror stories about his experiences.

Essentially, the basics of directing are identical to almost any other managerial position. A director has to have a clear vision of what he or she wants to accomplish, hire the best-fitting people to carry out the task at hand, be prepared for unexpected developments, know how to communicate and work out any potential issues, understand every aspect of the organization he or she heads up, balance ambition and restriction, and take charge. Being a director is being a leader. "There are no small decisions" in movie making, Lumet writes. When things get rough, everyone in the cast and crew has to be able to look to the director for understanding and clarity.

What helps the book is how Lumet comes off as very personable, knowledgeable, and professional, not a self-promoting egotist. He gives enormous credit to many of the actors, crew members, and technicians he's worked with over the years. Nor is he not out to stir gossip. Anyone he had an issue or problem with is not mentioned by name, only the lesson taken away from the experience. Readers seeking for a tell-all should look elsewhere.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Batman: Under the Red Hood

It certainly is not a unique character trait among superheroes, but one of Batman's defining characteristics is his refusal to kill. Spider-Man is the boy-next-door hero; you can't imagine him taking a life. Superman is so powerful yet he has a wholesome, boy-scout persona. Batman, it could be argued, has the most deranged, psychotic, and dangerous rogue's gallery that it would be understandable if elected to kill his foes, and yet, his refusal to give in to that temptation, his strength not to sink to his enemies' level, I think, makes him more heroic than if he did dish out Death Wish-style justice. Batman already exists in a dark world, and we need someone who stands above.

Batman: Under the Red Hood
(2010), a straight-to-DVD animated features, explores that aspect of the Dark Knight's psychology as well as another crucial component: his guilt. Comic fans are aware that two events have haunted Bruce Wayne: the murders of his parents and the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Both these traits of Batman, his refusal to kill and his guilt, are at the forefront of the movie and at the center of the story. Batman: Under the Red Hood is at once one of the Caped Crusader's darkest tales and one of his most psychologically and emotionally involving.
A new figure has emerged in Gotham City. The Red Hood (Jensen Ackles) is taking on the city's underworld, intimidating criminals to work for him and killing those who don't. Batman (Bruce Greenwood) struggles to stop the Red Hood and figure out his identity, aghast the Red Hood knows he is Bruce Wayne. Who he learns the Red Hood is shakes Batman to his core. Meanwhile, Black Mask (Wade Williams), enraged at the hits his criminal empire has taken, breaks the Joker (John DiMaggio) out of Arkham Asylum, hiring him to take out the Red Hood.
Many of Batman villains have always held a degree of sympathy or at least a measure of understanding: the tragic Mr. Freeze, devoted to his dying wife; the scarred Two-Face, torn between good and evil; the seductive Catwoman, somewhere between love interest and criminal; the meek Ventriloquist, controlled by a psychotic alter ego. The Red Hood might very well be the most personal foe because in a way, Batman made him.

!!!SPOILER ALERT!!! The Red Hood is Jason Todd, whose death at the hands of Joker is counted by Batman as his greatest failure. After Dick Grayson abandoned the Robin mantle to become Nightwing, Batman once again worked alone until he took Jason, a disadvantaged street urchin, under his wing, training him, teaching him, and fighting along side him. After his death, Batman blamed himself for not being able to save him and spent a long time before he took another partner, not wanting to put anyone else at risk. Revived by Ra's Al Ghul's Lazurus Pit, Todd is resurrected and using everything Batman taught him for all the wrong reasons. Instead of justice, he seeks revenge. Instead of defending the innocent, he's a violent vigilante and crime lord, barely distinguishable from the goons he takes down.

In the final confrontation, we learn Red Hood doesn't blame Batman for his death; he's merely angered he didn't kill Joker to avenge him.
In his eyes, Batman did not value or love him as much as he thought. Batman again argues that is a line he cannot cross; it would only lead to more killing until he was no better than the other criminals, but Todd cannot accept that reasoning. The movie captures this tragic downfall of a partnership. Robin going from a happy, bright-eyed kid to a disturbed, bitter killer is heartbreaking, and the final shot and line of a dialogue is a sad coda, a reminder of all that hope and promise gone.

For an animated feature, Batman: Under the Red Hood is pretty violent. People are murdered, tortured, beaten, and nearly set on fire, and while not graphically so, it is pretty intense. One way Red Hood dispatches an assassin startled me some. Coupled with the mature themes, this is not appropriate for younger children.

While the writing and voice acting is pretty strong, the movie could have used a longer running time (75 minutes) to explore all the developments. Black Mask in particular, one of my favorite lesser-known villains, could have been replaced by just about any other crime lord, and it would not have altered the plot much. His idiosyncrasies aren't really explored (although I liked his relationship with his female adviser voiced by Kelly Hu because she's his only henchman who doesn't appear to be afraid of him). Act 3 also feels very rushed once Black Mask hires Joker with a major action (did you actually think Joker would work for Black Mask?) taking place off-screen.

Still, Batman: Under the Red Hood is a strong addition to the Batman canon. It's deep, intense, and poignant in its own way. Not bad for a cartoon, eh?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin (2006) has all the ingredients for a great movie. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley play a pair of warring crime bosses, and in the middle of their conflict, a naive innocent becomes entangled after a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis plays an enigmatic hitman with a hidden agenda working both sides. Unfortunately, the film acts too clever and hip for its own good. Rather than get involved with the story, we're distracted by snide jokes and dialogue and narrative gimmicks.

Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is staying at his friend's Nick's place when a couple of thugs mistake him for Nick and drag him to their boss, The Boss (Freeman). It seems Nick owes the Boss quite a bit of money, and Slevin can't convince him he's not Nick. The Boss offers to erase the debt if Slevin kills the son of his rival, The Rabbi (Kingsley). Meanwhile, Nick also owes the Rabbi money, and in another case of mistaken identity, he gives Slevin 48 hours to pay up. Slevin gets help from Nick's neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu), and all the while, a mysterious hitman known as Mr. Goodkat (Willis) is manipulating the crime bosses to use Slevin.

As evidenced by the summary above, the plot is complex but satisfying, for a while. Drawing a similar premise to Hitchcock's North By Northwest (in fact, that film is referenced in the dialogue) and The Third Man, Lucky Number Slevin is the story of a naive innocent in over his head because of the actions of an unseen, so-called friend. Slevin spends much of the first half of the movie being dragged from dangerous person to another, and each time that happens, something worse is piled on. The way it's one damn thing after another is amusingly grim and darkly humorous.

There are also nice tweaks in the characters. Instead of mad-dog gangsters, Kingsley and Freeman play their roles more like mannered businessmen. Freeman, in particular, does not stray too far outside his usual range, so it is disconcerting to see an actor known for authoritative, kindly mentors play a disquieting criminal who calmly discusses murder and revenge. Lucy Liu, as the romantic interest, we learn, is a coroner and only too eager to join Slevin along on his efforts, a nice change from the usual, disbelieving female who usually just tags along. The relationship between Slevin and Lindsey feels like it could work in a quirky romantic comedy and actually is rather charming.

The film opens with a great scene featuring Willis that unfortunately undercuts everything else that happens. Sitting in a wheelchair at a nearly vacant bus station, Mr. Goodkat tells a nameless stranger this story about a man who owed bad people money and ended getting his whole family slaughtered. Then, Mr. Goodkat tells him about something called the Kansas City Shuffle before demonstrating in shocking fashion why he brought the wheelchair. This sequence sets up a revelation mid-way through the film that might have been unexpected had we not seen the flashback at the start. As a result, it's hard to care whether Slevin will able to get out of his predicament because we're just waiting for the big secret to come out. Once the secret's out, the rest of the movie is more flashbacks and exposition to tie everything together. This also serves to tell us that some of the scenes and actions we saw never happened, so the film is not playing fair.

Not helping the dialogue. It's not terrible, but the movie is smug in how clever it thinks it is. Maybe if it were snappier, I would have found the lines funnier, but some of the exchanges go on and on. We get it; they're exchanging banter.