Tag: action (page 2 of 6)

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

My feelings on Christopher Nolan are well documented. I’ve gone in depth as to why the writer & director has earned my trust. Even his arguably weakest film to date, The Prestige, is interesting to me and overall a good film, even if it’s not quite up to the level of Inception or The Dark Knight. And as he closes his trilogy on Batman, Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, and the nature of heroism in the face of cynicism and despair, the question must be asked: is Nolan still worthy of my trust, and that of film-goers around the world?

Pretty much, yeah. The Dark Knight Rises is good. But before I talk about all the things it is, let me begin by telling you what it is not.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The Dark Knight Rises is not an immediate sequel to The Dark Knight. Eight years have passed, in fact, since the Joker’s reign of terror and the death of Harvey Dent. Batman’s act of taking the blame for Two-Face’s rampage has given the police unprecedented power, brutally cracking down on organized crime, throwing even the lowest mob peons into Blackgate Prison without bail or parole, and taking a massive psychological toll on Commissioner Gordon. Bruce Wayne, either the victim of an accident or beginning to succumb to the beatings he has dished out and taken as Batman, has become both reclusive and eccentric. He hasn’t completely lost his chops, though, as he catches a lithe and coy cat burglar making off with his mother’s pearls. And bearing down on the city is Bane, a mercenary with a peculiar speech pattern, utterly brutal methods, and a connection to the League of Shadows, the very organization bent on absolute justice that gave birth to Batman, who then destroyed it, or so he thought. We are told very little about the missing years, and shown even less, but the pieces are indeed in place for a massive endgame for Gotham City, and for Bruce himself.

The Dark Knight Rises is not without plot holes in general. In fact, the structure of the story seems a bit sloppy overall. I don’t mean that facts are missing and the audience is unable to put the pieces together. The story does work and has compelling, touching, and powerful moments. It’s simply assembled in an extremely odd way. The pace feels off at times, characters are explained to us rather than demonstrative in their actions, and as much as I can appreciate dichotomy in storytelling for emphasis and dramatic effect, there were times when the juxtaposition felt mishandled. No character exemplifies these problems more than Bane.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“You are in a lot of trouble, young man. To the principal’s office, let’s go.”

I don’t have a problem with Tom Hardy. I think he (and every other actor involved) did an excellent job. Nor do I have a problem with this iteration of the cerebral powerhouse that breaks the Batman (spoiler alert). I think that removing magical chemicals that make him a big slab of meat is a good move. The problem is that too much emphasis is placed on his ideology and personality and not enough is invested in making him truly intimidating. His malevolence, while keenly felt, is not motivated realistically. He is a monolithic sort of evil, Darth Vader without any of the pathos, and the film suffers for this. It’s not enough to cripple the film, not by a long shot, but it does cause things to limp here and there. The film is most certainly not perfect and, at times, not even all that smooth.

But it also is not a failure. The Dark Knight Rises does succeed in every single way it needs to succeed. It wraps up dangling plot threads from the other two movies. It allows long-standing characters like Commissioner Gordon and Alfred to have truly powerful moments, and also highlights the talents of newcomers John Blake and Selena Kyle. While we’re on the subject, Anne Hathaway was a perfect choice to play Selena. She completely inhabits the cat-like nature of the character, from a fickle streak to a truly independent spirit to loyalty and affection that are given on her own terms. It’s a shame we’ll only see her in this one film! Batman gets new toys, and while he isn’t seen as much as Batman in this film as in The Dark Knight, his presence is felt, just as much as Bane’s is.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The fact that she looks as good as she does is definitely the icing, rather than the cake.

I don’t think The Dark Knight Rises is the best film of Christopher Nolan’s career so far. It certainly isn’t the best one of his Batman trilogy. What it is, however, is very good, quite enjoyable, and an excellent way to bring the trilogy to an end. As much as the disjointed nature of the first act and some unnecessary repetition of themes and motivations don’t help the pacing problems of the story, the connections to the stronger films and the gaining momentum towards the climax of not just this film, but the Dark Knight story overall, carries us through to a satisfying end. I think the three films, as a whole, will stand up for years to come, even if this final entry into the trilogy limps or muffles a line here and there.

Stuff I Liked: John Blake is a great addition to the cast. The systematic way in which Wayne is both broken down and driven into his initial confrontation with Bane. Alfred staying true to his convictions, Lucius Fox cracking wise, and Gordon never giving up. The Pittsburgh location & elements. And do you suppose Nolan called up Aaron Eckhart and got permission to keep using his face?
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Don’t tell me what motivates our heroes, our villains, and the people caught in between, show me. The Batvoice. A couple of Bane’s lines were very difficult to follow completely; even if you can discern the gist, you miss out on a detail or two. The pace of the first hour or so feels very much off. There are undeniable plot holes.
Stuff I Loved: Cillian Murphy’s cameo. Wayne Manor and the new Batcave. Hans Zimmer’s score. Great shot construction and action sequences. The Bat. The dichotomy of Bane’s erudite voice and polite mannerisms with his brutal hand-to-hand skills and intimidating form. The last fifteen minutes. Everything – absolutely everything – about Anne Hathaway’s Selena Kyle.

Bottom Line: This is not Nolan’s best work. But Nolan’s work is always of such quality, such vision, and such passion that it’s hard not to appreciate it as simply good film-making even when it’s not blowing your mind. Because of the technical genius at work, the overall power of the performers, the spectacle of this tale’s climax, and the ways in which this trilogy is drawn to a close, I unreservedly recommend you go and see The Dark Knight Rises.

Game Review: Bastion

Saying goes that a proper story starts at the beginning. This one ain’t any different. Not all video games roll out to store shelves full of glitz and glamor, backed by big studios with lots of cash. Some are quiet affairs. Some are carefully assembled by a small, tight-knit group of fine people with a singular vision and talent coming out their ears. Don’t let the name fool you. Supergiant Games is anything but, ‘cept in the dreams department. It’s those dreams, after all, that gave us Bastion.

Courtesy Supergiant Games

Bastion’s set in Caelondia. It was a nice enough city, once. Plenty of innovation, opportunity for those after it, haves and have-nots, just like any city. It was nice enough, before the Calamity hit. Nobody really saw it coming. Sure there were rumors of new hostilities between Caelondia and the people out past its walls, the Ura, but nobody expected this. Nobody expected the world to just stop working the way it should. Nobody expected the land to all but disappear, bits of it floating in great seas of empty air. Nobody expected any of it, least of all the Kid.

Don’t know if he’s got a proper name, or if we’re supposed to saddle him with one. He’s the first warm body we meet in Bastion, though, and just about every move he makes is narrated. Good thing, too. Things are a bit violent and chaotic in the wake of the Calamity. All sorts of beasts, creatures, and foes come at the Kid from all sides. We watch the whole thing from above as he goes to work on all comers with a variety of tools, long arms, and some really interesting surprises. He’s capable, this Kid, but he ain’t the only survivor of the Calamity.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
He’s got a mean swing.

I mentioned his actions are narrated, right? Turns out the narrator’s a character, too. Goes by the name of Rucks, kind of a seasoned older fella with plenty of stories of his own. Seems that way, at least, but his focus is on the Kid. Even as the Kid rolls, blocks, fights, and explores, Rucks is filling us in on what Caelondia was like before the Calamity, what the Kid’s coming up against, and how the Bastion can fix things up. Right, almost forgot. The game takes its name from your home base, a sort of last-resort refuge for folks from Caelondia who could make it out of the Calamity. Not that many did.

When the Kid does find survivors, their stories get told, too. Rucks ain’t shy in that regard. Takes a little doing to get all the details, but it’s definitely worth it. As the Kid’s doing his thing, he’s earning back parts of the world, which he brings to the Bastion and changes into upgrades for his weapons, improvements to the Bastion itself, even fresh bottles of spirits from Rucks’ private stock. The best thing about all of this is how seamless it is. Other places might see you moving from story to gameplay to upgrades and back again with audible clacks and clunks. Not Bastion. If it’s got seams, they’re pretty stylish ones.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
Calamity really tore things up. Down to the Kid to make it right.

Normally this’d be where someone like me’d do a summation of the experience, lay out likes and dislikes, maybe even tack on some arbitrary number. But I ain’t gonna do that to ya. Not this time. This is different, and deserves different treatment. It’s a fine tale as well as a fun and challenging distraction, well worth your time and effort to seek out. Art’s gonna pull you in. Music’s gonna stick with you. Best of all is that it’s available to ya just about any way you please. Consoles, digital distribution, hell, you could buy it through Chrome and play it literally anywhere. So what’re you waiting for? Find your way to the Bastion.

Story like this ain’t gonna tell itself. You gotta make yourself a part of it.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Aliens

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating: there was a time when sequels were not foregone conclusions. People like a good serial, to be sure, but not every entry into a genre is going to become a bestselling franchise. These days sequel hooks are practically a requirement as part of the conclusion of a story. Having one person survive a horrific ordeal doesn’t necessarily qualify as a sequel hook, but it does have the advantage of concluding the original story in a satisfying way while leaving the door open for a new story to pick up where the original ends. Such was the case in 1986 when Ridley Scott’s Alien was followed by James Cameron’s Aliens.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Of the events aboard the ill-fated Nostromo, there were two survivors: Warrant Officer Ripley and Jones, the ship’s cat. Rescued by a salvage team as the Nostromo’s shuttle drifted through space, Ripley is awakened from cryonic stasis to find 57 years have elapsed and she has no evidence of the unknown attacker that savaged her crew and forced the destruction of her ship. The company revokes her flight status and tell her that if such creatures exists, the 50-60 families that colonized the planet her crew landed on would have said something, right? When the company loses contact with the colony, they tap Ripley to accompany a team of Colonial Marines sent to investigate. They have military training, superior firepower, plenty of attitude… and are completely unprepared for what awaits them.

This film is a significant tonal shift from the original Alien. Ridley Scott’s film is a claustrophobic and shockingly intimate descent into nightmare, while Cameron’s plays more as a sci-fi action yarn with horror elements. Even so, there is a coherence in aesthetic that keeps the stories feeling closely related beyond threads of the plot. Despite not taking as much time to expound on every character involved, Aliens still contains the close environments and elements of tension that make the original memorable to this day. In other words, it does what a sequel needs to do in order to be a true success: it holds true to the original while expanding the scope of the story.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
It’s all about girl power.

While many action films draw their power from the decidedly male side of things, Aliens also continues the tradition of not only having a female lead, but playing on rather feminist themes. Alien dealt very much with rape and bodily violation (even if it was interspecies) while Aliens focuses on female empowerment and motherhood. From the smart-gun wielding take-no-prisoners Vasquez to the dropship pilot Ferro, women are seen comfortably holding positions of power and performing jobs with distinction. Ripley herself continues to grow, showing a great deal of depth and complexity along with the ingenuity and bravery that got her through the first encounter. This isn’t to say the men are marginalized by any stretch. Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen turn in great performances, and Al Matthews’ Sergeant Apone is quite memorable, serving as the template for future Marine sergeants in places like Halo. Carrie Henn turns in one of the most effective child performances I’ve ever seen. Finally, Aliens pulls off the feat of making everybody want to punch quintessential nice guy Paul Reiser in the face. Though I’m sure those who didn’t like the TV show Mad About You wouldn’t need his role as a sleazy corporate douchecanoe to add to their incentive.

In addition to its cast being well-rounded and progressive rather than running entirely on machismo, Aliens seems to have something to say about the nature of asymmetrical warfare. Here we have a team of highly-trained well-armed soldiers plunging headlong into an environment they know little about, trusting their high-tech weaponry to prevail over whatever’s in their path. But the enemy is something they’ve never encountered before. They are belligerent and numerous. They exist in a setting that is unnerving and (let’s face it) alien to the Marines, and they use the enemy’s ignorance to their advantage. They conceal their numbers, they strike without warning, and their methods are brutal and inhumane. This setup could be used as a metaphor for quite a few of America’s wars, though Cameron had Vietnam in mind when he was making the film.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Oo-rah.

All the same, it goes without saying that Aliens is decidedly less frightening than Alien. There are elements of horror, to be sure, mostly in the form of jump-out scares, but given the expansion of the cast, the shift in focus, and the presence of so many automatic firearms, this should come as no surprise. It does have tense moments, though, exemplified in the Special Edition scene involving the sentry guns. It’s funny to me that 20th Century Fox said this scene showed “too much nothing” when building tension in a movie like this is essential to its success. I guess it shows what studio executives know about storytelling.

No matter what edition you see it in, Aliens is definitely worth watching. It’s solid construction comes from being built on the great foundation of Alien and it wisely finds ways to expand its scope without sacrificing what worked the first time around. A strong female lead, great character beats all around, and the visual aesthetic of a sci-fi action director who would become one of the best in his field contribute to make a memorable film that may other movies and several first-person shooters would borrow heavily from for decades. It’s a great mix of fun and frightening.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Ghost Rider

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/ghost_rider.mp3]

There was a time when superheroes subscribed to a certain template. If the handsome face of the hero’s alter-ego didn’t emerge from the phone booth in brightly-colored tights and a complimentary cape, he simply wouldn’t be welcome at the Superfriends clubhouse. As time went on, it was realized that this sort of pigeon-holing was kinda stupid. Many heroes eschew the capes for reasons of safety as well as fashion, and some also wear clothing more practical than tights. I can only think of one, however, who even goes so far as to completely go without the handsome face, or any flesh on the skull whatsoever. That’d be Marvel’s Ghost Rider, and like so many comic books, his story got made into a major motion picture.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The Ghost Rider is, for all intents and purposes, an agent of Satan on Earth. Mephisopheles has limited powers over mortals, you see, and sometimes gets impatient to collect the souls he’s owed among the degenerate human populace. So every generation or so he offers someone a deal for their heart’s desire in exchange for servitude on earth as well as torment in the afterlife. The latest sucker to fall for this one-sided contract is Johnny Blaze, the younger half of a carnival stunt-riding double act who signs up to save his father from the cancer that’s killing him. Naturally Old Scratch exploits a loophole and Johnny spends the next decade or so trying to kill himself in stunt shows only to make himself an obscene amount of cash. It’s the Devil’s son and a few fallen angel cronies going on a rampage that prompts Mephisto to call in his debt, transforming Johnny into the Ghost Rider to track down the rogues and secure a contract worth a thousand evil souls.

Ghost Rider joined the Marvel pantheon in the 70s when the bombastic writing was cribbing entire pages of notes from Stan Lee, and the art looked like it’d ridden into your living room off of your Iron Maiden poster though a pallet of surprisingly bright colors. However, he really came into his own around the 90s when a lot of comic book writers and artists thought it was really edgy and original to have their super heroes emerge from Hell, like Spawn or Lady Death. He’d always worn a black leather biker jacket, natch, but the 90s are where the spikes and chains and so-called edginess comes from. The movie takes big art cues from this awkward period in comic-book history and it doesn’t quite work as well as the director might have intended. There are a couple cool bits with the Devil himself but a lot of that is probably due to Peter Fonda’s undeniable screen presence instead of the somewhat lackluster CGI on display.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures
“Nice bike…”

Another aspect of the movie that doesn’t always fire on all cylinders is the main plot. Johnny’s story and his awareness of and ability to control his curse are more than often pushed aside for the villains’ pursuit of the demonic MacGuffin. It’s a storyline that feels a lot like a rehash of the plot of the original Blade. But unlike that post-Matrix vampire flick, the ‘main’ villain doesn’t have a sliver of the Devil’s charisma or presence. Your mileage may vary but it seems to me that trying to out-ham Nicholas Cage never ends well. And you know how in Blade or The Matrix there was an actual credible threat to the protagonists? Not the case here. You’d think that the Nephilim, the antediluvian giants supposedly wiped out in the flood chronicled in Genesis, would be more than mere cannon fodder disposed of with the ease of flicking ants off of your desk. Add a tepid, predictable and poorly placed plot, and you have a film that sucks all the fun out of the room whenever it drags us away from character beats or interesting interplay.

If the film were more about those moments, though, it might have worked more positively. I’ve spoken at length about Nicholas Cage in the past, and it’s clear that he’s enjoying playing Johnny Blaze. He’s cool as can be when jumping over a dozen big rigs on a motorbike and wonderfully eccentric with his jelly-bean eating and love of monkey-based television, but when he encounters the girl of his dreams he turns into a barely functional fanboy. For her part, Eva Mendes plays off of his nervous earnestness with a sincerity of her own, trying to play it cool but being more emotional than she’d like to admit. The very best moments, though, happen between Cage and the always enjoyable Sam Elliot, a grizzled stranger tending graves known only as the Caretaker who knows more about the Ghost Rider than he lets on at first. The scenes between him and Cage are pretty damn compelling, and if it had been him acting as more of a night-to-night mentor showing Blaze how to hone his curse and use it for good rather than letting it rule his life, I feel it would have gone over a lot better with audiences.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures
He does this pointing thing a LOT.

The biggest problem I have with Ghost Rider is this. Not that the acting is bad or the plot is weak or the effects a bit cheesy in places. It’s that so much more could have been done with this character and his relationships, with the girl and the old man. The most egregious example of this is when the Caretaker whistles for his horse, reveals his true nature and rides with Blaze to the city of the damned for the final showdown, only to turn around and let Johnny wade in there alone. It was a literal out-loud “What the FUCK?” moment that had me tearing my hair out in sheer frustration. There’s so much going on with Sam Elliot’s character and a good deal of earnest chemistry between the two Riders (and even some between Cage and the underrated Mendes) but it all goes to waste. It’s every bit as disappointing as it is infuriating.

For a flick named after the devils bounty hunter on a badass demonic chopper, Ghost Rider seems to go nowhere. At times it will evoke movies like Tim Burton’s Batman or body horror chronicles like The Wolfman but it never quite rises above the level of mediocre. Every positive thing I could say about it, such as some of the dialog and a few choice scenes like the bit where he drives straight up the side of a building, is balanced by something inexplicable or downright awful, like the total lack of tension, Ghost Rider lassoing a helicopter for no reason, and pretty much everything involving Blackheart. If you’re watching a movie and wishing the action scene would just end already so the hero can get back to talking to the weird old guy in the graveyard, something’s gone wrong somewhere. It never drops to the level of unwatchable, but I cannot in good conscious recommend Ghost Rider, mostly because it teases us with glimpses of what could have been before shoving more generic supernatural action in our faces. It’s like going to a nice restaurant and being offered a few samples of fabulous appetizers only to have the waiter dump a bowl of generic salsa on your head and charging you full price for your samples. You’re unsatisfied, frustrated, you smell funny and you’ll be picking cilantro out of your hair for a week.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Dirty Harry

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/dirty_harry.mp3]

In an ideal world, police officers are sworn to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. Even in our fiction, even when they’re no longer fully human, we’d like to think that there’s some sort of compassionate protection between those of us abiding by the law and those driven to defy it. And in our minds, these men and women are paragons of virtue, living embodiments of justice, the sort of good-souled citizens that chase down purse-snatchers and rescue cats from trees. We don’t like to think of them doing things like beating a suspect bloody in view of the public or abusing their power to assault the innocent even if they’re irate. But they often do, and such a policeman who does these sort of bad things, for good reasons or no, is the one introduced to us at the titular character of 1971’s Dirty Harry.

Courtesy Warner Bros

His full name is Inspector Harry Callahan, and his fellows in the precinct call him ‘dirty’ due to the habit of nasty business falling into his lap. The man can’t even eat a hot dog without running into a bank robbery he has to foil. The main thrust of the narrative is Callahan’s chase of a serial killer calling himself ‘Scorpio’. It takes quite a bit to track this maniac down. However, when Harry’s over-zealous pursuit of Scorpio when the killer kidnaps a little girl leads to the villain’s release on a technicality. Harry must take the law in his own hands if he wants to see justice done to the murder, even if it means dirtying his hands further and perhaps even ending his career.

Until this film, Clint Eastwood was mostly known for spaghetti westerns and a stint on Rawhide. It would be Harry Callahan that catapulted him to stardom. The detective would be quite good not just for his acting career but also helping him develop as a director, though his first time behind the camera actually came the same year with Play Misty For Me. He’d go on to be a highly successful and iconic actor as well as an acclaimed, thoughtful and powerful director, but in 1971 he was busy setting the foundation for all sorts of future cop dramas and their actors, from Charles Bronson to Bruce Willis.

Courtesy Warner Bros
At least he has nice shades.

And make no mistake, this flick’s very much a product of the ’70s. A good deal of its content is nowhere near what we would consider politically correct today. The presence of blood so fake I was wondering if they used ketchup or hot sauce is counterbalanced with nudity that goes over the line of tasteful into gratuitous territory. There’s some casual racism, a soundtrack from the creator of the Mission: Impossible theme best described as ‘groovetastic’ and more drab suits with hideous patterns than you can shake a magnum revolver at. None of these things, however, caused as much a stir at the time as Dirty Harry’s behavior.

He breaks into places without a warrant, beats information out of suspects while they scream for lawyers and doesn’t think twice about executing someone in cold blood. This staightforward portrayal of personal justice had many critics at the time calling the message of the film ‘fascist’. But Harry does not exist in a vacuum. Not only is he driven to these ends by the actions of someone truly depraved and irredeemable, he is fully aware of how these things can and do affect him. When he’s got Scorpio under his heel, his expression is of a man tortured by the knowledge that he may be too late to save a little girl’s life. And in the end, when all is said and done, he tosses away his badge, knowing that his actions have served nobody but himself, and protected no one.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The famous handgun.

It’s this strong if morally ambiguous internal compass of his, coupled with his fortitude and excellent skills at delivering snark that made Dirty Harry into an iconic character. He’s cited as an inspiration for multiple film series, including Death Wish, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Pretty much any iteration of hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners vigilante justice can be traced back to his actions, from the Boondock Saints to modern interpretations of the goddamn Batman. And while Arnold and Sly may run around battlefields with bulging muscles and big machine guns, a single slender man in a suit with a revolver can be ten times as compelling and chilling, especially if that man is Clint Eastwood and that revolver is the Smith & Wesson Model 29 chambered in .44 magnum.

Even if it wasn’t a landmark piece of work, Dirty Harry is still a good watch. It is definitely showing its age in some places, from the width of its steel sedans to the archaic radio equipment Harry and his partner have to deal with. However, Eastwood carries much of the film’s drama, action and even humor, and would do so in future films. For fans of thrillers, cop films and examinations of absolute powers of justice in the hands of one man, Dirty Harry is definitely recommended. You’ll definitely have a better understanding of why would-be macho cops sometimes squint their eyes and ask punks if they feel lucky.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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