Batman: Assault On Arkham

Batman-Assault-on-ArkhamOver the past 6-7 years, Warner Brothers and DC have done a great job in making and releasing direct-to-video animated movies.  In most cases, they have done so well that fans often are left wondering why they can’t have the same success on the big screen.  Assault On Arkham is the latest entry in the animated DCU, and, much like its title, it packs a punch.

Assault is based on the Batman universe created for the Arkham Asylum/Arkham City video games.  It is also the first Batman animated movie to not be based on events already published since Batman: Gotham Knight.  While Batman is in the title and figures into the movie, it is really about the Suicide Squad.  For those not familiar with the Squad, it is a grouping of some of the more popular villains that can do some good every now and then.  The Squad gets its missions from Amanda Waller, only person not in prison that is not afraid of Batman.  For each mission, the objective is simple: get what Waller wants, or die trying.  That last option includes her remote-detonating bombs that have been implanted.  In this movie, the Squad is to infiltrate Arkham, recover something the Riddler has hidden, and then bring it back.  There is a subplot of Batman looking for a hidden nuclear bomb made by the Joker, as well as another subplot relating to Harley Quinn and her “sweet Puddin”.

Much like the video game, there is plenty of action.  Make no mistake: this movie is rated PG-13, and I feel it is a hard PG-13.  Unlike most DCU animated movies, the body count is high and the bloodshed is shown on-screen.  As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think about an episode of Kevin Smith’s podcast, “Fat Man on Batman”, where he was doing a “live” commentary of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker with Paul Dini.  During that podcast, it was discussed how WB was reluctant to release the first version because it involved shooting someone on-screen.  Of course that was 14 years ago, and Warners has changed.  The other jarring thing that makes this a hard PG-13 is the partial nudity displayed by Harley and Killer Frost.  Now don’t get that excited – both were from the back, but Harley was more exposed and hers led into a sex scene.  While Frost’s reasons made sense, Harley’s scene felt gratuitous.

The voice work was ok.  Kevin Conroy was excellent as usual, as was the use of CCH Pounder in reprising her Justice League/JL Unlimited role of Amanda Waller.  John DiMaggio was wasted as King Shark, when had done so well as Joker in Under The Red Hood.  When you have the guy who got great reviews while being compared to Mark Hamill for the Joker, then YOU USE HIM AGAIN.  Instead they went with someone else that did ok.  The new person doing Harley was fairly decent, but felt like she was impersonating Tara Strong – if she reprises this role again, she should change it enough to make it unique from Tara.  That is what Tara did to differentiate herself from Arleen Sorkin.  All of the other vocal performances were serviceable, but none really stood out.

The Blu-Ray comes with the following features:

  • Digital copy
  • DVD version
  • Commentary track
  • Making-of featurette
  • Sneak peek at next feature to be released (Justice League: Throne of Atlantis)
  • Harley Quinn featurette
  • 4 bonus cartoons
  • Best Buy exclusive: plastic Harley Quinn figure

My Advice:  If you just want action/violence with a thin semblance of story wrapped in the guise of the Batman world, then have at it.  This is definitely not for kids under age 13 due to the violent deaths.  I just wish they had spent more time developing a better story that would have made us care as to why we are watching this.  While I have included the trailer below, notice that it acts like the violence will be about the same level as the other movies.

Batma: Assault On Arkham Official Trailer from Warner Brothers and DC Comics
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Robin Williams, 1951-2014

As one grows up, there are actors and actresses that you expect to pass away during your lifetime.  Many, when they do pass, tend to evoke the response of “wow, they lasted that long…”  Then there are those entertainers whom you expect to be there forever.  For me, Robin Williams is one of those that falls in the latter category.  Since hearing the news, I knew that I would have to write this, and that I would need to do it while the feelings were fresh.  I just wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach it.  So I spent some time away from the computer and watched The Birdcage.  After finishing it, I felt ready to write.

The only way to properly do this is to approach it as if I were talking about my latest adventures at the movies.  Instead, as the soundtrack to Hook plays, I am going to tell you about how I grew up with the boy who truly never grew up.

morkandmindyIn the late 70s, I was but a wee lad.  Watching TV with the parents was fun as I got my weekly diet of Happy Days.  In 1978, a strange episode aired that looked to be a weird way for Happy Days to try to capture some of the interest people were having in aliens after the mega-success of Star Wars.  An alien named Mork showed up and my TV watching changed.  Mom was never big into science fiction, so mainly Dad and I would watch Mork & Mindy each week.  Mom would catch snippets every once in a while.  We moved out to Cheyenne, WY, in 1979 – a place that was as alien to us as anything that would pop out of a spaceship.  While living there, we happened to visit Boulder, CO, where the show was set.  We soon moved back east, but I kept watching.

popeyeIn 1980, my first exposure to the idea of making animation live-action happened when I heard they wanted to release a live-action Popeye, with Mork in the title role (I was 9 and only knew of him as Mork).  I wanted to see it, but my parents were not interested due to hearing bad things about it (i.e. it was a bad movie).  So I never got to see it on the big screen, but I have seen it on video since.  While it is not great, it is ambitious, and the casting of Robin Williams and Shelly Duval was spot on.  I think it didn’t do well because it wasn’t Mork being Mork or a frenetic Robin Williams doing his stand-up.  In what would become a theme for him in the 80s, people were not ready to accept Robin Williams the actor.

While Williams started exploring his acting range, the results were mixed in audience reception.  Even though he was the main character in The World According To Garp, all of the news seemed to circulate about how John Lithgow played a transsexual.  Moscow On Best_of_times_posterThe Hudson received good comments from critics for Williams’s acting, but bombed at the box office due to how it was marketed versus what unfolded on the screen.  At this point, Mork & Mindy had been off the air for two years and newer stand-ups like Eddie Murphy had stolen the comedy spotlight.  Williams didn’t let it dissuade him from taking interesting roles, but he did make sure there was room to work his comedic skills.  In 1986, he paired up with Kurt Russell in The Best Of Times.  By this point, I was 16 and would go see a broader range of movies.  Mom has always like Kurt Russell and asked me to go see this with her.  The movie is about two men replaying the final big high school football game in their career, and playing the “what if?” game of what life would have been like if they had won the game.  The movie also delved into some relationship stuff without getting too heavy.  While not a great movie, it wasn’t bad.  That same year, Robin Williams showed his humanitarian side by teaming up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to headline Comic Relief, a charity that focused on the homeless.

Who knew that all of this would be the quiet before the storm…?

Good_Morning,_VietnamIn 1987, audiences were finally mature enough to appreciate the range of Williams’s acting with Good Morning Vietnam.  Based on the life of Adrian Cronauer, Williams played an Armed Forces DJ that was supposed to help keep up morale.  The story evolves as he becomes known to the locals, and is despised as a “rebel” by his superior officers.  Many of the “broadcasts” in the movie are improvised bits from Williams.  While there were comedic moments, Disney was taking a big risk with this film.  Released under the more-adult Touchstone banner, a lot of the movie is focused on the character development of Williams and the complexities surrounding Vietnam.  Having been a baby when Vietnam was happening, it was difficult to put the movie in a proper frame outside of what I knew from history books.  In addition to creating one of the most quotable lines over the past 30 years in movies, Williams picked up what would be his first of 4 Oscar nominations, and kick off a 5 year-run that firmly established him as an actor for all genres.  This was also the start of a long partnership with Disney.  In 1989, Robin Williams provided the onscreen talent for the Disney/MGM Studios Animation tour when the park first opened.  This remained in place for about 12-15 years.

1989 brought us another iconic role from Williams in the form of Dead Poets Society.  Now, as much as it pains me to say this, I have not seen this movie.  It came out while I was recovering from a severe accident that sidelined me from seeing movies over a 4-5 month time span.  It garnered another Best Actor nomination, but the Academy was still reluctant to honor his work.  Upon hearing of his passing today, Erik Childress offered this video clip as to how the Academy should remember him during next year’s telecast:

Dead Poets Society Ending

This was followed by another dramatic movie, Awakenings.  While Robert De Niro got the nomination for Best Actor, many thought that Robin Williams should have been nominated for his work as the doctor.  At this point, it is now 1991, which saw the release of two vastly different, but important entries to Williams’s filmography.  The Fisher King continued the dramatic path that Williams had been on and earned him yet another Oscar nomination.

hook-posterThen Christmas 1991 arrived with Steven Spielberg’s ambitious live-action tale of Peter Pan titled Hook.  While some of my friends get annoyed with my waxing poetic about the soundtrack for this movie, what they haven’t heard a lot about is how much I truly enjoyed this movie.  I liked the idea of seeing what happened if Peter Pan grew up.  The movie also featured a cast that had star-power at every level.  Sadly, too many audiences let the production trouble news affect how they saw the movie.  Regardless, this movie shows us the struggle that Robin Williams was having: people wanted him to be the boy who never grew up, but he had more serious responsibilities.  This movie works because it is his soul.

1992 saw a continuation of the Disney partnership in two ways.  Disney was able to get Williams to become the voice of a robot for the revamp of their 360-Circlevision attraction in the Magic Kingdom.  While the video is long, check out his performance, and notice how the Imagineers even made the robot look like him.  Thanks goes out to WDW News Today for providing this video:

The Timekeeper

Yet this pales in comparison to what was unleashed at Christmas.  Disney raladdineleased Aladdin and continued its streak of blockbuster animation.  Those who had missed out on the 70s and 80s when Robin Williams was at his zaniest, got a full taste with this movie.  Prior to this, Disney had steered clear of anything that would “put a date” on their movie.  In casting Williams as the Genie, Disney had to allow some pop culture to seep in in order to capture the full performance.

The final movie in this improbable 5-6 year run was Mrs. Doubtfire.  Continuing the path of family-oriented movies that started with Hook, Williams plays a father that is divorced from his family.  He assumes the role of a housekeeper in order to stay close, and the typical hijinks ensue.  Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan help tell this tale, and it remains light-hearted enough to still be considered a comedy.

birdcageSadly though, streaks are meant to be broken.  What followed seemed to be the story of his movie career: iconic hits with a lot of mediocre to bad movies in between.  Jumanji, while intriguing as a concept, suffered from poor story development.  Nine Months was more for Hugh Grant than Robin Williams.  1996 brought us another memorable movie, The Birdcage.  What made this interesting is that Robin Williams had to play the straight man to all of the wackiness around him, no pun intended.  Yet it is in the quiet moments that you see the true power of his talent as he wrestles with choices that parents go through.

1997 finally brought the role to Robin Williams that would validate his acting in Good Will Hunting.  For his turn as a psychologist, Williams was honored with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  While he never won when nominated as Best Actor, he won the only time nominated as a Supporting Actor.  The family-oriented pictures continued with his remake of the Absent-Minded Professor titled Flubber.

2002 saw another part of Williams – his dark side.  Insomnia and One Hour Photo both showed how he could be a truly terrifying villain if he wanted to be.  While I did not see One Hour Photo, I did see Insomnia and was blown away by his performance.  Sadly the only other movies I saw him in were the two Night At The Museum movies.  This is because I would hear bad things about the other movies right before going to see them.

Fittingly, my time with Robin Williams ends where it began: on television.  CBS aired The Crazy Ones in the 2013-2014 season.  While it never did well in the ratings, I watched it because I enjoyed seeing him on the small screen again.  He does have 4 movies in post-production that will come out.  Yet I can’t help but think selfishly of all of the unknown comedy we, the fans, will miss because he is gone.  The last time I felt this way was when Phil Hartman tragically passed.

While rumors swirl as to why he passed, I want to remember Robin Williams as he sought to bring joy to others.  The best way to close this out is with the music video for Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy.  Not only is the message poignant tonight, it shows a young Robin Williams playing on camera…

Don’t Worry, Be Happy
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Guardians of the Galaxy

From the very beginning, I have always talked about how the movies I saw as a kid shaped me and my interests today.  I am thankful that I grew up in an age where watching movies at home wasn’t easy to do.  I grew up reading interviews with Lucas and Spielberg where they cited inspirations being the old serials that they would watch at the local theater.  No matter how it was described, going to the movies for these directors and countless others like me was an event that was treasured, no matter how good or bad things were.

For me, the first science fiction movie I saw on the big screen was Star Wars.  Even with all of the normal things people point to, what captured me from the beginning was that this was a ride:  a rollicking ride through the universe with Luke, Han, and Chewy as our guides.  It was this fun I looked for in science-fiction movies then and now.  While my tastes may have matured over the years, sometimes I just want the Flash-Gordon, Han-Solo fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fun that can be one of these movies.  Sadly Hollywood is fixated that everything must be a space opera with great importance.

This does science fiction a disservice.

Why?  Think back to why many kids grew up reading Tom Swift and Jules Verne; watching Buck Rogers and Captain Kirk; and waiting forever to see Han Solo crack that cocky grin and blast his way out of trouble.  We thrilled to the excitement of their adventures and couldn’t wait for the next one.  Comics helped fuel this with superheroes that not only took care of Earth, but the whole universe.

While I am familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy, I have never really read anything except the Infinity Gauntlet trade paperback that Amber grabbed for me as a thank-you for taking her to the 6-movie Marvel marathon when The Avengers came out.  So unlike some of the other Marvel and DC movies, I had no preconceived notions of what to expect over the past 2 years as production began on this project.  I also made it a point to not really read a whole lot about this movie, choosing to remain spoiler-free as much as possible.

That said, I still kept up with basic news: casting, director assignment, etc.  I was intrigued by two casting choices:  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, and Bradley Cooper as Rocket.  I had not watched any of James Gunn’s work, but the general vibe was one similar to how people felt about Joss Whedon directing The Avengers:  it will; either be tremendously good or tremendously bad.  When the first trailer hit and I heard “Hooked on a Feeling” as part of it, I knew that this was not going to be a typical sci-fi/superhero movie.  This had the potential of being a great entry in the genre.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-IMAX-poster-700x1024In early July, I got lucky enough to score a pass to a special IMAX preview of the movie.  In the 17-minute screener, I got to see one of the major scenes that highlighted what the movie would be:  a rollicking good time.  The 3-D looked amazing, and the casting was dead on.  As a bonus for going, everyone got a special poster to take home.  All I could think about on the way home was how good this movie was going to be when I saw it completed.  For something that I had minor interest in before, I was now rabid for more.  Yet I still avoided spoilers – I knew that to indulge now would ruin what could be a truly fun experience in the theater.

I did get to see it on the Thursday night before opening, but I had to settle for the AMC Dine-In theater.  I say settle because it is not outfitted as an ETX screen.  I chose the dine-in option due to not knowing when I was leaving work and the ability to reserve my seat.  AMC was running a promotion for Stubs members that gave them a free random pin with ticket purchase; I got Gamorra.  I settled into my seat, ordered dinner, and waited for things to unfold.

For once, I had not built this movie up too much in my head before seeing it.  There is a lot of good to enjoy, enough to offset any bad.  So what did I like:

  • Chris Pratt – He brought the wholesomeness of Andy from Parks and Recreation and gave him an upgrade on intelligence.  This movie works because of Pratt’s acting.
  • James Gunn – What unfolds is a master class on how to make a fun space movie.  Even with the stakes being high, Gunn drops the angst and focuses on why we have loved Tom Swift, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers for decades.
  • standard_fantasticThe soundtrack – Gunn once again shows the importance of a choosing the right songs to tell a story.  It’s easy to do when someone is composing; Lucas used to brag that you could watch Star Wars with just the Score audio track and no dialog.  But choosing songs that people know to help tell a story is infinitely more difficult.  Over the past 10-25 years, very few movies have had a soundtrack of songs that essentially became another cast-member: 10 Things I Hate About You; Garden State; and Love Actually all spring to mind as solid examples.  Gunn’s use of the songs in Guardians can be summed up with the tile of the tape: Awesome.
  • Bradley Cooper – His voice work for Rocket sold the character.  Time and again people think voice work is easy.  It isn’t and done poorly, it can ruin a movie.  Cooper did it quite well.
  • Visuals – Even with limited locations, one never feels cramped in this galaxy.  It is expansive and beautiful and ugly, all at the same time.
  • Story – For the most part, a fairly simple story that does not require any knowledge of the comics or even the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe.  This can be a stand-alone movie and last for decades.
  • “Stingers” – There are two scenes during the credits and are worth staying for.  I will not spoil either of them.

So was there anything I did not like?  Some minor quibbles, but nothing that kills the enjoyment – here is what I noticed:

  • The Collector – For a character that seemed to have a lot of hype, not much other than him explaining the infinity stones.  Granted there was a lot to cover story-wise for the movie, but this character is going to need some type of development if it is going to continue being a through-thread.  This was the second time seeing him, with the first being during Thor: The Dark World.
  • Homages – Now that the first movie is done, let’s ease back on the homages to Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk.  Some of the best scenes for Pratt’s character were original ones that did not try to make the same tired jokes of the “rebel sleeping with every female alien” or the “mystical quest”.

My Advice:  Pay full price and see it in 3-D IMAX; well worth the money.  I anticipate seeing this movie 1-3 more times in the theater.  It is on my top 10 list for the year, top 5 for Marvel movies, and one of the top in the genres of Science-fiction for me.  I anticipate enjoying this one for years.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Wide-560x282

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Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

The art of movie reviewing has suffered yet another loss.

In this age of technology where anyone can throw up a website and start spouting their opinions as if people cared <trying not to look in the mirror right now>, the art of honest critique has been reduced to whatever inflammatory remark can generate web hits.  Yet we forget that not so long ago, we held certain public critics in esteem.

As I have mentioned before on this site, Siskel & Ebert were reviewers that I grew to know from the time I was still single-digit in years.  There were times where I thought they were too harsh on movies I liked and there were other times where I thought they were spot on.  What I didn’t realize until much later is that they helped with the development of thinking critically.  They didn’t simply tell you a movie was bad; they took the time to explain why.  While Siskel was admittedly the more artsy of the two, it was Ebert that I often agreed with more.

Roger, in his relaxed manner, never made the audience feel stupid.  He gave his critiques in common language and used analogies that sat well with most.  Watching the ease at which he seemed to fit with the “common man,” it is easy to forget that this man also won a Pulitzer and wrote a screenplay that became a major movie (one that he refused to review out of conflict of interest).  He was the one that introduced me to the concept of story being important.  He understood that not every movie was made to win the Academy Award; that at the heart of it all, movies were there to tell stories.  It didn’t matter the genre or premise, but if the story was true, and those making the movie believed in it, then the movie would blossom.  Rarely did he blame technique – the issue with most bad movies was the story or the director failing to get the cast to execute the story.

Sadly, his last few years of life were filled with constant battles.  Yet, over the past few years, Roger Ebert left the world a virtual treasure trove of written essays, reviews , and opinions about so many things beyond the world of entertainment.  Did I necessarily agree with all of it? No, but I think he wanted it that way.  He wanted to spark discussion and thinking.  He embraced Twitter and social media when he could no longer speak; he let his keyboard do that for him.  In 2010, he even started an electronic newsletter that gave you a link to more writings and all he asked for was a one-time fee of $5.  While he caught flack for that request, I gladly gave the $5 and now have 162 copies sitting in my email folder.   Sadly the last one was delivered just a couple of days ago on 4/3.

I will never know if he ever visited this site, even though I sent the link to him years ago in response to a question he asked on Twitter.  I would like to think that if he did, he enjoyed what he saw.  I do hope that wherever he is, he is reunited with Siskel in a private screening room, enjoying their favorite movies over and over again.

As the balcony lights dim for the last time, I leave you with a few quotes from Mr. Ebert that showed his character:

  • From a review of a Rob Schneider movie: “If he’s going to persist in making bad movies, he’s going to have to grow accustomed to reading bad reviews.”
  • “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”
  • “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
  • “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t”
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Footloose (1984)

Those involved with making movies dream of having that unexpected small-budget movie reap big box office numbers.  The rarer feat is when the soundtrack equals the success of the movie, and, in some cases, exceeds it.  When one thinks of iconic soundtracks in the 80’s, one of the first to spring to mind is Footloose.

FootloosesoundtrackalbumcoverFootloose has all of the ingredients needed to be a successful soundtrack in the 80’s:

  • Kenny Loggins – He accounts for 2 of the original 9 tracks, including the title song that has become the one thing Kevin Bacon dreads hearing at parties.
  • Pop tunes mixed in with what passed for rock in the 80’s
  • Several radio singles – 5 songs were bona fide hits, most notably the title track and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”

Footloose also benefits from being one of the few soundtracks that was reissued at least 15 years after its initial release.  The reissue added 4 tracks that, while decent, really didn’t do much to add value to this soundtrack.

Here is the track list:

  • Footloose (Kenny Loggins) – An infectious party song that still gets people tapping their toes and feeling good about the event they are attending.  This is one of a handful of songs that Loggins provided the late 70s and 80s that made him a go-to artist for soundtracks.
  • Let’s Hear It For The Boy (Deniece Williams) – An easily forgettable pop song that did well over the summer of its initial release, but not a song that endures.
  • Almost Paradise (Mike Reno/Ann Wilson) – The love ballad of the movie powered by the strong vocals of the lead singers from Loverboy and Heart.  You could not avoid this song for most of the 80s at weddings and dances.
  • Holding Out For A Hero (Bonnie Tyler) – Strong music combined with a raspy, sultry voice, this song became a double-threat.  Introduced in Footloose, Hero took on a life of its own by becoming the title song for the TV show, Cover-Up.  Even David Copperfield got into it by using it as the music for his levitating over the Grand Canyon trick.
  • Dancing In The Streets (Shalimar) – Another pop song that proved a one-hit wonder for its singers graces the list.
  • I’m Free (Kenny Loggins) – Loggins’s second contribution to the soundtrack is actually the better song of the two.  This was used to help showcase Ren’s gymnastic montage.
  • Somebody’s Eyes (Karla Bonoff) – I had to go back and listen to the track to remember this forgettable song.  It was most likely used as filler in one of the malt shop scenes.
  • The Girl Gets Around (Sammy Hagar) – Used to introduce the wild side of the preacher’s daughter, I enjoy this song whenever it pops up on the old playlist, particularly driving down the road.  One cannot forget seeing Ariel riding two trucks down the road like a water skier at Crystal Springs.
  • Never (Moving Pictures) – This was also used in the gymnastic montage.  While not a bad choice to end the soundtrack on, it definitely is not a song you remember for long.

My advice:  Pop this on the next time you are driving or doing housework – the fast nature of most songs will help speed up time while letting you enjoy a trip to the 80’s…

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