Monday, July 23, 2012

The 'I Already Spoke About Some Summer Offerings, So Here's the Comic Movies to Avoid Redundancy' roundup

Well, I've been putting this entry off for a while now.  Not because I wasn't certain of it, but because I had to wait for this last piece to fall into place for it to be ready.

That's right.  In the vain of last year's summer writeup, I decided to do something similar this year.  This at first presented a small problem, as I've already spoken in degrees on some of this summer's offerings in past entries already.  It dawned on me later that I have not, however, sounded on three of the big moneymakers of this summer.

So, in following up on our last entry here at the Third Row, it's time to sound off on this summer's comic book movies.  Big budgets, big names, big hype, big expectations and, surprisingly...actually some fairly big payoff this time around.

But I get ahead of myself...let's do this!

Three movies later, two successful, and the Ang Lee movie is STILL a sore spot.


The idea that's been four years and five movies in the making.  Well, technically four with The Incredible Hulk being done on Universal's tab instead.  In terms of cinematic gambles, this was one of the biggest rolls of the dice since New Line took a chance on Peter Jackson for Lord of the Rings.  In short, this movie had some SERIOUSLY big shoes to fill.

...which is why you can imagine everyone's relief when it not only did so, it did so with a vengeance.

The resulting movie is probably one of the most fun summer blockbusters to come along in years.  It's weird to try and find some way to sound off on this movie without repeating something that's already been said several hundreds of times over, but there's a reason for that.  As a big-budget popcorn film, this movie just worked on every level.  The script was solid with the dialogue flowing at a great pace, and coming from someone like me who has a love-hate relationship with Whedon's writing, that's saying something. The cast are all the top of their game, including new addition Mark Ruffalo in a show-stealing turn as the third man (and so far best) to be Bruce Banner/The Hulk.  Really, there's not much I can say here without running a loop you've all heard before.  Everything just clicked right.  This was a classic Hannibal Smith "I love it when a plan comes together!" moment where everything fell into place perfectly.  Kudos to Marvel for putting all their chips on this one, cause it paid off in spades.  Hopefully they can keep up the momentum from here, but even if they don't, people are gonna remember this high point for a good long while to come.

The Amazing Spider-Man Drinking Game
Every time Peter does something that should bite him in the ass as far as keeping his identity secret, take a shot.
WARNING: The Third Row takes no responsibility for any alcohol-related deaths caused by playing The Amazing Spider-Man Drinking Game.  Play responsibly.


You know, looking back, it's pretty surprising to realize how much of an underdog this film was compared to the other two offerings.  Both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were the result of a lot of buildup and previous movies leading into them with a lot of expectation from fanbases.  In between we had Sony rebooting the Spider-Man franchise after Sam Raimi torched the bridge and several old growth forests around it with his version's third film and being met with a lot of people wondering why they bothered.

The end result, while admittedly a pretty obvious bid by Sony to keep their rights, was actually better than I was expecting.  Admittedly, of the three offerings this summer, I will still say it was probably the weakest...but considering what it's running alongside, the odds weren't exactly in its favor.  That said, this isn't to say the film itself is bad.  A few issues, which we'll get into shortly, but some worthwhile strengths too.

As far as positives, the casting is largely well picked.  While I told myself not to spend too much of the film comparing it to the Raimi versions, one thing I will concede between the two is that I like Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker better than Maguire's.  Likewise, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben makes for a great supporting role.  The other strong performance goes to Rhys Ifans, taking over as Kurt Connors to finally give fans their awaited chance to see The Lizard on the big screen.  The actual Lizard is kind of underwhelming, but in his scenes as Connors, Ifans genuinely gives the character a sense of sympathy that the first incarnations only really seemed to achieve with Alfred Molina's turn as Otto Octavius.  In general, the casting even beyond these few holds up well.  The two other really noteworthy contributions being Emma Stone stepping in to fill the previously underutilized role of Gwen Stacy and Denis Leary as her police captain father and the movie's resident 'is he really a hero' skeptic.  While the two don't knock it out of the park as hard as the above three, they both carry their weight on the film and each manages to pull some good moments out of the material they're given.

The biggest stumbling block of the film is mainly in its overall story and execution.  While I can see why they chose to just reset and restart from scratch, and I do like some of the things they've changed for this version, the fact is, it's still an origin story we've already seen played out fairly recently.  Some of the elements it handles well, such as Peter's grief after Ben's death , but other times, it feels a bit more, for lack of a better word, mechanical.  In particular, despite the strong performance from Ifans I mentioned earlier, his overall role in the movie, and as a result, much of the second half, winds up mainly feeling arbitrary to give the film a more recognizable villain beyond just the thug that killed Peter's uncle.  The sad part being that Peter's manhunt for Ben's killer actually made for the more interesting conflict in the long run, even if it was then discarded about halfway through.  I will admit though, I do like the fact the killer is still out there.  Keeps Peter's mission going, even if I think the film dropping it just felt like they couldn't figure out where to go with it.

Really, that's one of the other things that wound up bugging me the more I thought about it.  When this movie uses something well, it uses it very well.  At the same time, when it doesn't, it stands out hard.  Alongside the above-mentioned awkward fit for Dr. Connors, Sally Field feels somewhat wasted in her role as Aunt May.  While the film gives us a strong sense of how Ben helped Peter grow into the man he is, May's contribution feels mostly pretty lacking and largely reduced to just being a voice of concern over Peter's secret life.  It's almost like she got handed a different script mid-way and they had her working off an old after school special on any number of substance abuses.  It's a shame really, with some better writing, she really could have made so much more of this character.  Unfortunately, you play the hand you're dealt.

Overall, it's a film I feel kind of mixed on.  On the one hand, the story itself has been done before and better, and in a way feels like, rather than go right into new territory, they're simply revisiting the origin because it's expected of them.  Which in and of itself I wouldn't mind, were it not for the fact it proceeds to hit several marks in a succession that feel less natural and more like they're trying to recapture the effect of the first Raimi film, with the success or failure of each largely hinging on how well the actors handle the reheating process.  Given the knowledge that Sony was risking losing their bid to the rights for Spider-Man, it makes it hard to look at the film and not see the obvious bid to get a film out there as quick as possible to re-up their rights claim before Marvel buys it back from them.  Despite this, there are still good elements within the film, largely as a result of the actors involved.  So while I feel like I should come down harder on this, I still can't help but see the potential in it to become better than it currently is.  As such, I'm going to reserve some of my judgment to see where they take this in the sequels.  Hopefully when they aren't in as much danger of losing their copyright hold they will be able to handle the later films with less of a 'by the numbers' feel and actually focus on handling the stories better.

Also, I do hope they at least find a better balance regarding how often Peter loses his mask in the sequels.  For a kid being treated as a vigilante by the cops, he is NOT doing terribly well at hiding himself.  I mean, I realize they want face time for Garfield, but there's a line here, Sony.

I'd be lying if I said that, after the voices from TDK and the advanced trailers, I was somewhat hoping we'd get a Batman vs Bane growl-off scene.
Sort of like an extreme death metal concert minus the other instruments.


It's strangely appropriate that this film and The Avengers both came out in the same summer and almost under the same timeline.  It was around this time four years ago that both were laying the groundwork for this fateful moment (2008 seeing the releases of Iron Man and The Dark Knight.)

Also, like the Avengers, this movie had a LOT riding on it.  Especially after how much of an impact '08's TDK made with people.  It was with this in mind I knew I was going to have to see this one as soon as possible, if only to avoid the fact the web was going to be spoiling this movie in almost record time.

With all this expectation, it took a fair amount of self-restraint to keep my expectations reasonable.  When all the dust settled and the credits finally finished rolling, if I had to find a single word to describe the movie, it would be satisfying.

Which sounds kind of low-key, admittedly, but really, that about says it all for me.  I didn't go in expecting the greatest movie ever made.  I didn't go in expecting it to surpass the almost 'lightning in a jar' reaction Nolan's last Batman outing got.  In fact, I made it a point not to compare it too closely to the first two films.  The more I look at them, each feels hard to compare to the others given how they each address the universe and ideas of the overall series.  I simply went in expecting a finishing piece to the Nolan Batman trilogy.

What I got was a finale I walked away from ultimately happy with.  I won't say it was the best movie ever, or a complete masterpiece, cause there were some minor things that I will admit could have been done better (but I will bite my tongue on those in the interests of spoilers.) 

Despite those, the film really did succeed where I was hoping it would - in providing a suitable follow up that continued to build on the world Nolan and his team had made and continued to push some of the thematic ideas that really warmed me up to this version of Batman in the first place.

In particular, this film's addressing of a theme in place from the first movie - the dividing line between simply being a man and becoming a pure ideal.  Again, I won't say too much since I don't want to be that guy, but I was really pleased with how the film continued to build this to the conclusion it takes things to.  While a couple of the other themes didn't quite hold up as well by comparison, I was very happy to see they stuck with this one to end.

Alongside this, the cast continue to handle their work well.  For as much as we all joked about Christian Bale's 'gargle with a handful of gravel' voice in TDK, Nolan did dial back the modulation for this movie, and otherwise his performance as Wayne and Batman continues to hold up even as this film takes the character places that the movies had previously never gone to.  Likewise, returning favorites Michael Caine and Gary Oldman continue to deliver solid performances as Alfred and Jim Gordon also showing new shades of the characters that had never been addressed in prior filmed incarnations.  As far as the new cast go, the general watermark of quality has been maintained.  Despite the general mixed reactions with some of the announcements, such as Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and our first look at Tom Hardy as the masked Machiavellian strongman Bane, the two prove themselves well-suited for the roles, especially as they've been envisioned in this version.  In particular, the dynamic established between Hathaway and Bale makes for some pretty memorable moments that really make her take on the character stand out.  Though if any of the new cast really can be said to make a major impact, it would be Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Gotham police officer John Blake.  As the movie's token 'normal' person, he provides the movie a grounding element, and its through his eyes that we really appreciate just how much the Batman has become legend to the people of Gotham.

All in all, the film wraps everything up in such a way as to give everything a sense of closure while still giving the idea that life goes on within the universe.  When the lights came back up, I felt, as I said above, a strong sense of satisfaction.  Is it going to sweep any awards shows?  Probably not, however it still is as good an ending to the saga as I could ask for and I wish the cast and crew well on where they go from here.  It's been an interesting ride and one I'm glad I took.

As comic films went, I have to say, this has been a good summer, really.  Not a lot of offerings, but what there was has generally been good, if a bit awkward in the second case.If I had to pick a's hard to really say.  Based on pure entertainment, the Avengers takes the prize, hands-down.  At the same time, however, I look at The Dark Knight Rises and feel like this will be the one film of the three that will stay with me the longest and make the biggest impression on me in the long run.

This isn't to dump of Amazing Spider-Man.  Rather, again, I feel like that's more a case of still trying to live up to its potential.  I'm hopeful they will hit a better stride with a sequel from here that will make the bumps now worth it.

...treasure this moment of cautious optimism from me, kids.  These times are fleeting.

In closing, let me just say two last things.

First, a congratulations to the studios for taking a couple of really big chances on these films and actually managing to deliver when it came to game time.

and second, an additional congratulations to the cast and crew of TDKR for finally breaking the
'third movie curse' that has been kneecapping comic movie franchises left and right since the days of Superman.   It's been a long road getting to this point, but let's hope with the curse now broken, other part 3 installments will finally be able to continue the good momentum built by their first two as well.

...I promise, next week we'll go back to digging up things from the odder end of the spectrum again.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


...and so, after the last two straight up reviews, it's time for another 'Not quite a review, but still film-related' entry.

Now, as I'm sure half the internet is being reminded on a daily basis now, we're down to less than a week until Christopher Nolan's final Batman feature, The Dark Knight Rises, makes its theatrical release.  As one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer, this has a lot riding on it and can make or break at this point.  In any case, tension is at an all-time high waiting for this film.

So how can you pass the time for the next two weeks besides rewatching the first two movies until your own voice matches Christian Bale's 'smoke three packs a day' Batman growl?


That's right, if you REALLY need a Batman fix now, and the movies alone aren't doing it for you, now's a good time to start looking into several of the Batman storylines that have run in the comics over the years.

(Now, I realize several of you likely have already read these - in such a case, feel free to disregard this entry, revisit as you see fit, or even suggest some titles I missed.)

For those who aren't too familiar with the comics, consider these a decent primer for some good stories to get started with to help those next two weeks pass quicker.

That said, where better to start than at the beginning (or, failing that, a revisit of the beginning)

It says something kind of disturbing and amazing about the Batman fanbase that I look on this image and find myself completely at a loss as to a cheeky comment that hasn't already been said before.


This entry makes me sad, in a way.  Mostly because it reminds me how far off the deep end Frank Miller went around 2001.  Published in 1987, this is still considered among some of his best works, and for good reason.  In revisiting the story of how the murder of his parents inspired Bruce Wayne to become the masked vigilante with a penchant for savagely wailing on Gotham's criminal element, Miller managed to provide a gritty, down to Earth retake on the origin story, not just for Bruce, but for several other familiar faces.  Perhaps most interesting is the fact that, despite this title being named for Batman, much of the story focuses on then beat cop Jim Gordon.  It's through his eyes that we truly see the sorry state the city is in before Batman.  We join him in witnessing the police corruption, and his own internal conflict at the fact that this vigilante is actually doing the things that, deep down, he's felt were due.   Miller takes a character that's often treated as a support and turns him into a well fleshed-out focus.  Granted, the work does have a few distinctly...well, let's just call them Miller moments.  Things like Selena Kyle's backstory making her a prostitute at first. Then again, anyone who knows Miller is kind of used to this.  Despite these, the more stereotypically Miller elements are kept fairly restrained and he managed to tell a pretty solid backstory where he looks into the heads of his two leads and does them both proper justice.

Let the record show, when I tell my children of holiday traditions, I will update the myth of the Krampus for them...
Now, naughty behavior will be met by Batman beating them half to death. a bonus, this stands to make Halloween THAT much creepier for them


You know, while I will acknowledge that there are Batman stories out there that are considered better than this one, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't my personal favorite.  Like the above Year One, this provides a modern revisit on a familiar piece of Batman lore-in this case, the fall of Harvey Dent is a major element of the story.  There are a lot of things I could say for what makes this stick out. However, I think if I had to boil it down to one thing, it'd be the fact Loeb and Sale manage to succcessfully pull off a story where many of the stars of Batman's gallery all get their fair share of screentime while still blending into the overall story, as opposed to feeling like they were added simply for the sake of being there.  As a bonus, this story's murder mystery approach allows for Batman to play to his best strength as a detective.  He still gets his share of brawls, but really, the driving story here is more just trying to find out who's slaying members of Gotham's crime families before they explode into all-out war.  Anyone's a suspect (hence the all-star villain spread), and the final payoff still manages to surprise while making sense.  This story may not be said to have everything, but it certainly has enough to come close.

Additionally, if you have any particular affinity for the Nolan films, this is a must-read, as one can really see how their take on Gotham and Batman himself inspired the overall feel of the movies.

Also, if you enjoy this one, be sure to look into the sequel, Dark Victory.  I won't say it tops the original, but it still proves a very enjoyable companion piece.

I know it's an old joke, but I don't care:
When I read this, my brain processed it as a Calvin Klein ad.


Definitely the shortest entry on this list, but the brevity honestly helps it.  This one-issue one-off by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is still considered to be one of the best stories involving seminal Batman villain The Joker.  Like Year One, the interesting thing about this story is how it seems to say more for the other characters than it does for Batman himself, though his dynamic is certainly explored here.  Moore offers an curious take on the clown prince of Gotham, exploring, as best as a one-issue story can, just what makes him work and his philosophy.  The end result manages to both say nothing and speak volumes for one of the most popular antagonists in the Batman canon.  Again, like TLH (and Year One, for that matter) if you have any strong affinity for Nolan's Batman, you'll be able to see signs of this comic's influence in his work.  Much of the core idea of how Nolan depicts the Joker can be seen as a direct nod to Moore's take on the character, and his idea belief that anyone can be pushed to his level of insanity with 'just one bad day.'  A short, strange ride, but one well worth taking.

As an additional title along this line (albeit one that is a bit trickier to find as its own trade) another solid one-off revolving around everyone's favorite sociopathic clown arose during Grant Morrison's recent run working on the character.  If you have any comic places nearby that specialize in backissues, see if they have a copy of #663, 'The Clown at Midnight' for a surprisingly creepy look into the character.

Though newcomers approach Morrison's run with caution.  It is good, but he tends to include a lot of callbacks and past references to prior Batman mythos that may throw people unfamiliar with them.  Still, as you get further in, give his run a look.

When you can screw with Batman's head this much, it makes any comments about how less-than-flashy your costume looks hurt a LOT less.


Another story from the mind of Jeph Loeb, this is another exploration into the detective side of Batman.  Unlike the earlier TLH and DV, the case is much more personal for him on several levels, both in finding himself as a target of a man who seems to know who he really is as well as being reminded of the fate of a previous Robin, as recounted in A Death in the Family (an arc I'd say to take at your own discretion.  The part involving Robin is a great piece of Batman history, but the rest...yeah.)  Alongside the much more personal focus in the mystery itself, this story also serves to bring up some old ghosts of Batman's past in general, going back to the years before he took up the costume in the first place.  The end result, while not as explosive as Loeb's earlier mystery, still makes for a memorable conclusion, especially one standout scene in Arkham.

Speaking of Arkham, while these aren't explicitly Batman per se, the ARKHAM ASYLUM series is certainly worth giving a look if you're intrigued by the mythos and want to try a different turn with it.  There are several stories in this line, with the two strongest being Grant Morrison's A SERIOUS HOUSE ON SERIOUS EARTH, a darker look into the criminal minds that inhabit Gotham's famous madhouse, and LIVING HELL, a story that dances the line into black comedy about one unscrupulous investor who discovers the hard way why the insanity plea is so rarely used in Gotham city limits.  Each of these stories really offers its own unique spin and highlight on the villains that have become such a loved part of the Batman mythos, so if you find yourself enjoying them, feel free to give these a go.

It's sort of like a lost episode of The Super Friends...
...except with several  of the cast members getting killed off cause the network censor called it early that day.


While I already acknowledged some of Morrison's line can get kind of daunting for those not really familiar with a lot of the background lore for Batman, this is still one of the storylines of his that makes for a pretty solid starting point.  Even if you don't really know of some of the supporting characters who, in themselves, are other costumed heroes of other nations in a dynamic akin to Batman, they still stand pretty well on their own in this story, that plays out like a bizarre superhero take on 'And Then There Were None.'  It holds up well on its own, as well as providing setup for the larger story Morrison was laying out at the time if you decide to venture on ahead from here (again, it is worth it, just realize going in blind could prove awkward.)

I initially had reservations about using this image since it IS spoiler territory
...but Hell with it, if you're looking for Knightfall, chances are you already know this is coming. ESPECIALLY with the new movie coming.


...once again, the books that inspired Nolan turn up here.  Alongside the somewhat infamous 'A Death in the Family', this is one of the biggies in Batman history.  At least, Knightfall itself is, anyway.  The two books that make up the first installment in this trilogy, Broken Bat and Who Rules the Night, make for one of the altogether darker chapters in the Batman canon as they first introduced readers to the, at the time, new villain Bane.  The two later chapters are something of a mixed bag by comparison.  Much of the impact is largely just in the first third of this story, though the later parts make for an interesting middle finger towards the 'darker, edgier' style comic heroes were taking during the 90s.  The first two books, however, are where a lot of the really memorable parts of this storyline come in - Bane's protracted psychological war to completely destroy Batman, the now famous 'broken bat' of the first book's title, and the exploration of the ideal of the Batman vs the actual human Batman.  It makes for an interesting look at the comic book hero, and seeing him at his limits shows us a whole other side of the character than we usually get to see in the comics.  For not actually meeting until the end of the first book, the battle between Batman and Bane still manages to maintain a very personal element for both parties that really helps tie the assorted extra storylines together.  Will Nolan be able to do this book justice?  Can't rightly say at this point, but points to him for considering it as a source for ideas given just how much it adds to the character and universe.

I'll say this much for Frank.
He DOES get more creative with the fanfiction 'vs' matches than a lot of other people do.


Once again, we take a visit to the time before Frank Miller went completely off the rails.  In a sort of appropriate bookends, where the last story by Miller recounted the Dark Knight's origins, this work by him explores his later years.  An alternate universe piece, this envisions a Gotham that, despite the Batman's best efforts, remains largely the same.  Many of the old villains have since been bogged down by age, but other threats still pop up.  After years of having the cowl hung up, an aged Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement to try and take back the city he once fought for.  While the piece definitely shows signs of Miller wearing his politics on his sleeve, it definitely introduces enough interesting ideas to make up for it.  Things like the change in Gotham's stance towards vigilanteism (after some years of acceptance, Batman is back to being public enemy #1 in the eyes of the new commissioner,) and exploration of the rifts that have formed between the heroes as the world they fought for changed (the bad blood between Batman and Superman drives much of the second half of the book, especially after the cold threat of nuclear war finally bubbles over.)  In terms of how it handles the world at the time it was written, as well as the comics it's trying to explore, Miller takes this several interesting places.  The result is a grim, but compelling tale of a future that might have been and some interesting developments of the familiar faces readers had come to know and love.

On an interesting sidenote, it's strangely humorous to note that, despite the general consensus towards Frank Miller's depictions of women, he actually broke some ground by giving readers the  first female Robin.  Further adding to the surprise, and some relief given she's only 13, Miller doesn't invoke the sexualization that has also drawn him his share of criticism.

Hopefully these help keep anyone who's itching for a fix busy until Friday.
And again, if you see any worthwhile ones I missed, by all means, give them a shoutout, cause I'd bet money I missed something.

Till next time!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Third Row's European Vacation

Or: What's the Italian For 'A Man Walks Into a Talent Agent's Office and Says...'?

I'm gonna preface this review by explaining something about myself that some of you who know me in real life already know.

When it comes to warnings, I can be kind of an idiot.  By 'kind of' I mean, 9 times out of 10 when people tell me not to look at something, there's a voice inside me that goes " know you're gonna look, right?"

I would be utterly screwed if the Ark of the Covenant were presented to me.  This is the kind of curiosity that makes H.P. Lovecraft protagonists.

Further, it's this siren's call of morbid curiosity that lead to this entry.

This is one of those movies, we all encounter this at least once, where you learn about its reputation before you learn about the film itself.  Said reputation spurred me to look up the info on the movie...what I read left me unsettled and a touch disgusted...
...and realizing, much as I hated to admit it, that sooner or later, I would be watching this movie.

From the titles for this week's entry, some of you may already know what I'm talking about.  In which case, you may want to back away from the splash zone, cause this entry, we're taking a trip to a little town called Salò.

Trying to explain this film for anyone unfamiliar with it is...somewhat daunting, really, so let me try and boil this down as best I can.

In the beginning, we had Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.  A well-respected director with a keen eye for shooting some very beautiful and acclaimed movies, most notably his 'trilogy of life' films that lead to this project.  Sometime after finishing Arabian Nights, he reportedly fell into a depression.  If there's one thing that you can count on when a director gets depressed, it's that the characters in his works WILL suffer for it.

In keeping with this, Pasolini shot for the big leagues with this, his final film, 'Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom.'

As the title suggests, the story is loosely adapted from the infamous work by the Marquis de Sade (which, in my idiotic sense of car crash draw, I will likely subject myself to some day.)  Transporting the story of human nature's tendencies toward's cruelty and moral relativism to 1940s Italy (fun fact: the Italians view the town of Salò in particular as a reminder of their time as a fascist state.)  Here, four men, still credited as libertines despite the time and setting change, all propose the ultimate orgy.  With the clout offered to them by their position and soldiers, they round up nine young men and nine young women.  They then inform them all that, for the next 120 days, they are at the mercy of these four men and their numerous attendants.  What follows is like a waking nightmare as the unfortunate youths are subjected to all manner of physical, mental, and sexual torture with intent to debase and dehumanize.

Now, with a premise like that, one would expect this film to be simply tasteless sleaze.  A cavalcade of violence and sex designed purely to shock, offend, and/or titilate.  Surprisingly, it isn't.  It's certainly shocking, don't get me wrong, and within the context of the film, their actions have no real purpose other than serving the twisted whims of the libertines. 

Despite this, the film feels neither exploitative nor titilating.  In fact, I'd say if you know anyone who feels titilated by this film, you might want to keep your distance from them.  Not to tell you who to see and not to see, but that right there's a warning sign if ever I've heard one.  The film handles its actions in a very straightforward manner, actually.  It never feels like it's trying to manipulate your emotions or play up an act excessively.  It plays itself out and lets the very horror of the act itself speak for it.

Also, outside of the context, the film's horrors certainly carry a message with them.  Rather than simply being 'because I felt like it' or shock for shock's sake, the brutality in this movie says a lot, both on its own and to its audiences about inhumanity and the dehumanizing effects of certain systems on people on several levels.  On the surface, there's the obvious theme of how fascism leads to those in power treating those beneath them as subhuman and casually abusing and discarding them at their whim.  On the next level up, Pasolini adds some of his own political touches to the film, lending the ideas of loss of humanity to how a capitalist system can destroy people on every level.  This was confirmed to a degree by Pasolini himself with regards to the now infamous 'Circle of Shit' section of the movie, where he confirmed the victims being made to eat feces was in part an extension of his own feelings towards consumer capitalism and junk food. 

While I definitely find both of the levels of this interpretation interesting, I honestly feel like they have a sense of missing the forest for the trees, as it were.  I mean, there's a definite universal idea behind this movie that goes beyond singular political alignments, and I think de Sade himself had intended.  To say this is just what one ideology does to people seems to simplify the fact that, as history has shown us, just about any political or ideological system can devolve to such a point to demonstrate a propensity for cruelty like this movie features, and in some cases, worse.

On that last note, it's interesting to note that, for as strong a reputation as this film has for its shocking and graphic content, from the sounds of things, the original text is actually MUCH worse.  By this, I mean on reading samplings of it, I can imagine de Sade thumbing through a copy of American Psycho and thinking "Oh, isn't this cute?"

In terms of how this holds up as a movie beyond its ideology and interpretations therein, I think this is a big part of what really helps separate this from just being written off as another shocker.  The film itself is shot with a great eye for its visuals.  Its soul-searing visuals.  ...OK, even outside of that, Pasolini gets some beautiful countryside shots, and in general some of the scenes that aren't dedicated to depravity and human debasement are pretty damn nice looking.  The acting likewise, is mostly pretty good, especially given how much of the cast weren't established professionals.  I mean, you have to admire a group of teens who are willing to be filmed in various stages of undress being made to do all sorts of horrible things.
...though on this note, it does help that, from the sounds of things, the actual filming was pretty loose. A lot of light goofing around and whatnot, with much of the real horror coming together in the editing room (so much so that, in a few scenes, you could still see a few of the 'victims' cracking up in the background.)  Despite that, it's still played well enough that you do feel pity for these innocents, as well as a degree of disgust/shock when some of them go from victim to attacker in the infamous 'Circle of Blood' finale.

The more I distance from the initial shock of the film, the more my opinion of it kind of seems to be a curious split.  On the one hand, I have to admit, I am glad that I saw it.  There are some very interesting ideas in the film, and while they sometimes DO get lost in the noise of the "OH GOD!" factor that comes from de Sade's contribution, the ones that do get through do leave an impression on you.  At the same time, while it was worth the watch, I'm not sure I can honestly say I'd be in a hurry to watch it again or own it.  Which is both a good thing and a bad thing in a way.  While I don't feel a burning desire to own it, there's a part of me that feels I won't actually need to, but rather that it's going to simply stay with me (for good or ill.)

One of those awkward moments where the experience isn't pleasant, but there is a certain reward to it afterward in a way.  To those who do own and rewatch it, I tip my nonexistent hat to you, for you have a higher constitution than I.  I also feel a sense of relief, some alarm, and admittedly, a touch of disappointment at realizing that we'll never know what the other two parts of the 'death' trilogy this was supposed to be a part of were.

On this final note, that is one other fascinating thing I have to say for this movie.  That reputation the film has gained has lent it a sort of unique mythos.  Between its intense and controversial subject matter, the circumstances that led to its being made, and Pasolini's unfortunate and somewhat mysterious murder after its completion that may or may not be a result of his final work, the film has gained a sort of strange mystique.  Even if you don't see it firsthand, the backstory around it still makes for a fascinating learning project if you feel curious enough to look into it.  Hell, if one felt so inclined, they could make a pretty damn interesting documentary just around the legacy around this film, which in some ways almost eclipses the movie itself.  Made it.  Managed to discuss the film in a reasonable manner without numerous capitalized exclamations of shock at the things I've seen in that 1 hour 50+ minute span.  I'm torn between feeling rewarded by my sense of curiosity and desiring to throw it down a flight of stairs.

...I should probably do the latter, it'll just hurt me again later.

...and yes, I realize this makes two reviews in a row without screencaps.  In this case, it was a blend of a low number of work-safe images and the question of how many cheeky captions could I make for images for this without feeling like an absolute bastard?  Even I have limits, you know.

I promise, images will return with the next entry.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Because sometimes the strangest things you dig up are also some of the best

Well, it took several entries and half-reviews that also bordered into larger commentaries, but at last we're back with a full on film review here.

I have to admit, in finally getting a momentum going, I kind of wanted to make the first review back something that stood out.  Which made for tough goings in choosing one.  I found a couple of possibilities, some of which will likely turn up in weeks to follow.

Then I stumbled across this sucker almost entirely by accident.

Like many people who are familiar with his name, when I think of Katsuhiro Otomo, the first immediate thought is inevitably going to be his magnum opus Akira.  Between the two versions of that story, as well as other projects, the man's name is firmly entrenched in popular culture as, first and foremost, an anime director and manga writer.  Which was why, in researching some of his lesser known work before, I was surprised to find he's tried his hand at live-action film making a couple of times over the years.

...I also knew then and there we had a winner on something to start the reviews up with again.

Sadly, his first live-action attempt, 'Give Me My Gun, Give Me Freedom' still eludes me (if anyone out there knows how to find a copy of this, translation or no, I will be indebted to you for tipping me off.)  After some digging however, I was able to track down his second feature, done with regular collaborator (and also great director) Satoshi Kon, the comedy-horror movie 'World Apartment Horror.'

It's at this point I'd like to apologize now for the lack of screencaps on this entry.  The only version of this I could find was an old VHS rip, and that at a pretty small resolution.  Watchable, certainly, but for reference images, left a lot to be desired.  If people really want, I can see about editing some in later, but for now, just seemed like it'd be best to omit them for the moment.

(In an extension of the earlier offer, if anyone can help me find a better quality copy of this movie, I will likely be indebted to them.)

So with that, let's stop the previews and get to the feature, shall we?

The story here plays out as equal parts similar and different.  We've all heard about stories that sound, if only in parts, similar to this set-up: protagonist Ita (played by Hiroyuki Tanaka) is an up and coming member of the Yakuza.  His bosses have assigned him to clear out a local apartment for demolition after the last member they sent to the job, Iri, vanished under strange circumstances.  Upon arriving, Ita finds the Japanese tenants have all left, either from being bought off or scared off.  However, now he must contend with the numerous foreigners living on the second floor.  Faster than you can say 'I smell a sitcom,' the communications breakdowns fly and an increasingly agitated Ita becomes more and more desperate to make these guys leave.
...of course, further complicating matters is the ghost in the building that has targeted him and is believed to have driven his predecessor out of his mind.

It all sounds somewhat silly, and to be fair, some parts of it are meant to be (scenes such as Ita's threats being misunderstood by the tenants, leading some to respond to his calls of 'Yakuza' by taking his name to be 'Yaku-san') but overall, it still manages to carry itself fairly well.  The tenants all have their assorted roles they fill without feeling too much like archetypes.  Some of them start going that path (well-meaning Chinese student Chan for one) but as the movie goes on, they begin to move beyond their established molds.

The biggest challenge that seems to be presented to the cast, and one of the more jarring elements for the film comes as a result of the diversity featured therein - cast members switch languages around quite a bit, often in the same conversations.  Eventually you get into the pattern of it, though it does seem odd when the Japanese subtitles suddenly come onto the screen because a tenant has switched to Korean partway through a conversation.  Even further when they start working in English at times.  While I can't speak too definitively for their language skills with many of them, their English is handled relatively well.  Really, the cast largely survive the lingual shifts without it hampering their performances too much.  The only stumbling coming to mind being near the end of the film when Indian resident Kara, in a moment I can't say too much for for spoilage reasons, switches into English in the middle of explaining his actions. 

For a man fueled by revenge, his English lines don't seem to carry the same anger his Japanese do.

On this note, I have to give Otomo and Kon some pretty strong points for where they decided to take this story.  For what could have easily just been a very light comedy, the film still manages to say a couple of substantial things regarding the subject of race relations in Japan.

 It doesn't get too deep into them, naturally, as this isn't a film designed to really explore and debate them, but the fact is the movie doesn't try to just gloss over them.  The final third of the movie in particular brings the fact that these tenants aren't particularly welcomed with open arms elsewhere to the fore, as they are faced with the debate over whether to deal with the ghost inhabiting their apartment, or leave it to drive Ita mad and thus deal with the man who's been trying to force them out.  For a film that's predominantly a comedy to address these elements for more than just humor is actually a nice touch, especially handling it in a way that doesn't feel overwrought playing up the emotion.

For not having much experience with live-action projects under the belt, Otomo still manages to make a solid effort with this film.  The camera definitely gets more of a chance to move around and explore scenes than other Japanese films sometimes allow for, and the western roots the man has credited as inspiring his love of film can definitely be seen in the way some parts of this are shot. 

Longtime Otomo fans will, of course, also be pleased to see that, even though this lacks the big sci-fi settings he's known for, his penchant for the 'final act = all Hell breaks loose' idea still makes an appearance here, in a particularly memorable fashion involving, without giving too many elements away: ghostly posession, a welder-cum-witch doctor, and a confrontation between the tenants, the Yakuza, and Ita's predecessor, now quite out of his mind.

I'm not gonna say this is a career high for either of the two major players involved in making it happen.  It's a fun movie, sure, but it can get a bit dodgy at points, and the acting, as I said above, is hit or miss depending when in the movie you look.  Nevertheless, it's an interesting experiment for two people predominantly versed in animation and the freedoms it can provide in a story as well as a rather curious breed of movie in general.  Granted, Japan has combined horror and comedy before this (I will again pimp out Obayashi's 'House',) but the way the two are blended here, complete with the creators' working in a subtheme of race relations, manages to give the film enough of a unique voice on its own.  For the bumps in the road, it's still an interesting enough trip to take for something different, and worth the time should you be lucky enough to stumble across it somewhere in your travels.

Feels pretty good to be back into reviewing again.  Also, to be able to shine some light on a film that hasn't gotten a lot of love, really.

Hopefully will be doing these more often, including several had on backlog in the future.

Catch ya hopefully sooner rather than later