Batman: The Killing Joke (Full Review)

There are hordes of people who love Michael Keaton’s Batman movies or Nolan and Bale’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but not as many are aware that some of the best Batman films (Mask of the Phantasm, Under the Red Hood) have been animated ones. I fancy myself a Batman connoisseur. And when it comes to animated films about the caped crusader, there are few I don’t own and even fewer I haven’t seen. So when I heard that Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke was being adapted for an animated film, I immediately prepared my blank check. The excitement only grew when it was announced that the film would be DC Comics’ first ‘R’ rated animated feature.

Batman-The_Killing_Joke_(film)The Killing Joke, is a controversial classic for numerous reasons, but mainly because of the “definitive” back story it gives to Batman’s sadistic arch nemesis, The Joker. This animated version reunites the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) who worked together for over a decade on the Emmy Award winning Batman: The Animated Series as well as the popular Arkham video games. Tara Strong also heads the cast as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.

The plot to this animated feature is split into two parts. The first (not included in the original graphic novel) follows Batgirl as she tries to prove herself to Batman and take down a mobster’s nephew  (Maury Sterling). The second half features the Joker as he injures Batgirl and kidnaps her father, Commissioner James Gordon (Ray Wise). His twisted goal is to torture the Commissioner and prove to Batman that one tumultuous day can turn even the nicest people into maniacs like him.

All of the great philosophical questions about the sanity of both Batman and the Joker remain from the graphic novel and if you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, then it’s hard not to find some enjoyment in anything where those characters are done justice. That being said, it’ll be hard for casual fans and purists not to consider this Killing Joke film to be a bit of a disappointment. There are several reasons why.

The first, and most glaring, is its hardly relevant first half. A film about the Joker and named after the Joker should probably not go roughly half of its runtime without the character even being mentioned. And sure, the original graphic novel alone would hardly span the course of a feature length film, but instead of making the first half of the film a Batgirl mini-movie (that also makes the character seem juvenile), why not expand upon the flashbacks about the Joker’s supposed past? Limiting the actual Killing Joke portion of The Killing Joke to what was originally on the page just makes those elements feel rushed.

Then there’s the fact that this movie is supposed to be Rated ‘R’ and yet characters repeatedly say watered down swear words like “F’ing” instead of using actual profanity. This is especially unusual because other profane words that would be okay in a PG-13 movie are used several times. That might be a small gripe to some, but don’t promote something to be hardcore if it isn’t. Take away a few scenes with point blank gun shots to the head and one inference of rape and the movie could easily have been PG-13. In fact, if you’ve seen the PG-13 rated Batman: Assault on Arkham (a fun animated film about the Suicide Squad), you’ll notice that it is barely less extreme than Killing Joke.

The animation, while fine, only does Brian Bolland’s original artwork justice in spurts. The ending may also be anticlimactic and unsatisfying, but anyone who’s read the graphic novel knows what to expect. At the end of the day, I’ll add The Killing Joke to my collection and it’s certainly worth a watch for casual Bat fans. But if you were one of the people who paid more than the normal price of admission to try and catch the film on the big screen… sorry if it didn’t live up to the hype.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Batman: The Killing Joke (Full Review)

Star Trek Beyond (Full Review)

I was never a Trekky before J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise with his sensational 2009 reboot. 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, while divisive among purists, was an equally exciting adventure for me. So needless to say my expectations were set high for this third installment about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Even with Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) taking over for Abrams in the Director’s chair there was little for me to believe that Star Trek Beyond wouldn’t be another exciting entry.

STAR-TREK-BEYOND-5Beyond follows up with the crew of the Enterprise as they are knee deep in a five year expedition across space. Ship captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) contemplates stepping down as life becomes mundane aboard the ship, while his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) juggles his faltering relationship with shipmate Uhura (Zoe Saldana) along with the thought of also leaving the Enterprise to lead his home world. After a pit stop at a state of the art space colony brings them into contact with an alien (Lydia Wilson) who has lost her ship and crew, the Enterprise sets out to help her only to fall into a trap set by a mysterious villain named Krall (Idris Elba). The encounter leaves the Enterprise destroyed and its crew (Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin) kidnapped or stranded on an alien world. Kirk’s only hope of rescuing his friends lies in a orphaned alien warrior named Jayla (Sofia Boutella).

The film’s biggest issue is that it struggles to live up to the heights of its predecessors thanks to a script that makes the plot feel like a one off television episode more than a third installment in a film franchise. The stakes don’t feel nearly as high as in Into Darkness and the individual characters aren’t highlighted as well as they were in the 2009 installment. Throw in a relatively goofy ending featuring a song by the Beastie Boys and Elba’s stock adversary who simply grumbles and growls for most of the movie and it all feels like a step down.

But if you’re a fan of Star Trek in general, or just a fan of Abrams’ previous movies, then there is still plenty to love in Beyond. While some characters don’t get much of anything to do (Cho and Saldana), others have phenomenal dynamics that add social context and humor. The relationship between Pegg’s Montgomery Scott (Pegg) and Jayla is an endearing one and the dynamic between Spock and Dr. McCoy (Urban) is one of the film’s biggest highlights. Also, unsurprisingly, Pine is once again sensational as Captain Kirk, a leader so witty and brave that it’d be hard not to run through a brick wall for him.

The visuals are also stunning which should come as no shock. So even though Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite a classic, it’s still time well spent. It’s hard to blame any of the pieces directly involved when the story simply isn’t pertinent enough, so there’s nothing wrong with just sitting back and enjoying this one and hoping for a little more the next time around.

FINAL GRADE: B

Star Trek Beyond (Full Review)

2016 Ghostbusters (Full Review)

The original Ghostbusters came out in 1984. Who knew it was such an “untouchable” classic? The internet has somehow been outraged since the idea was first announced as if this is the first time an old film series has been kick started for modern day. And if this new film, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy), being full of women in the leading roles is the only reason you’re against seeing it… then congratulations, you’re a sexist… because being a male was never given as a prerequisite in the original. Now that the film is finally out, it’s past time to judge this new Ghostbusters on its actual merit.

Ghostbusters_2016_film_posterLike the original films, this one also follows three paranormal scientists and one regular, street savvy African American citizen as they band together to take out New York’s rising ghostly threats. Despite writing a book on the existence of ghosts, Physics professor, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is trying to put her ridiculed past behind her. That is until a real ghost appears and reunites her with childhood friend, co-author and fellow ghost scientist Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Together with Yates’ quirky engineer assistant, Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) they create ways to fight and trap the ghosts despite the New York City Mayor (Andy Garcia)’s attempts to keep the events private. With the help of MTA worker and eye witness Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), and with a not so intelligent secretary (Chris Hemsworth), they set up shot above a Chinese Restaurant as the Ghostbusters.

Even though the original film predates my existence, I grew up a fan of Ghostbusters and even had the toy play set as a kid. But I was admittedly skeptical about the film like many were as I was bombarded with goofy trailer after trailer and commercial after commercial. And in the first few minutes I almost felt like I was headed down a hokey path filled with sight gags and slime. But once all of the major players are introduced, this new Ghostbusters actually turns into hilarious summer fun. This is due, almost entirely, to the undeniable charisma and chemistry of the leading ladies.

Kristen Wiig’s socially awkward Gilbert comes off as endearing and her school girl crush on Hemsworth’s comically dumb Kevin works well. McCarthy is unsurprisingly solid in the leading role and her character’s reoccurring gag with the Chinese restaurant delivery boy (Deadpool’s Karan Soni) hits its mark every single time. Even Leslie Jones, despite being the weak link, manages to conjure up a few laugh out loud moments. But the queen of the film is Kate McKinnon. Whether it’s physical comedy or just snappy dialogue, the Holtzman character delivers every second she’s on screen and is enough to make even the surliest of movie goers chuckle.

Even the action sequence at the film’s too familiar climax manages to be exciting. Sprinkle in some hearty cameos from the original main cast and this movie does enough to make for hearty entertainment even if it is something we’ve seen before. The only glaringly bad thing about the movie is the awful remix of the original theme done by Fall Out Boy. It isn’t as good as the first Ghostbusters, but who said it had to be? This movie has enough in its cast to be enjoyed on its own without having to be compared side by side to a film that is over 20 years old. So if you’re a fan or a newcomer that’s willing to see a movie before you judge it and if you’re more interested in comedic timing rather than the actors’ chromosomes, then this new Ghostbusters should be time well spent.

FINAL GRADE: B

2016 Ghostbusters (Full Review)

The Shallows (Full Review)

Remember Jaws? Well, if you were born after 1985 then probably not. Sure, you remember the general premise and the iconic theme music, but everything else is probably a blur to anyone in my generation. So it only makes sense to make a similar film with a relatively scaled back budget that has the same goal of making audiences afraid to go in the water.

the-shallows-435The Shallows stars Blake Lively as surfer and nursing school dropout, Nancy Adams. After her mother succumbs to cancer, Nancy ventures to a secret beach where her mother once vacationed. There she encounters beautiful scenery, perfect waves, a pair of friendly fellow surfers, and the smartest shark imaginable. After being bitten, she becomes stranded on a small rock, clinging to life as the shark waits for an opportunity to finish her off.

The simple nature of the film is one of the best things it has going for it. You can basically count the characters on one hand and the movie is over after an hour and a half. Essentially, you get what you come to see: Blake Lively vs. a man-eating shark. The suspense comes in solid enough doses to always keep you interested and Lively does a decent job making you care about her character, which is important considering she is rarely, if ever, not on screen.

But check your notions of common sense and realism at the door. The shark goes from vicious, instinctive predator to Jason Vorhees with fins pretty quickly. Then there’s the glaring plot hole early on in the movie that has Nancy being bitten by the shark in the leg, but managing to swim away. How did she swim away when no one else could? Don’t think about it. Better yet… how did the shark not bite her leg clean off when it chops a burly man in half later in the movie?

But The Shallows isn’t a documentary during Shark Week. It’s meant for 90 minutes of B movie suspense and a few cheap laughs just like any slasher film. If you turn your brain off and just watch, then the movie is effective. And no matter how nonsensical it gets at times, it’s hard to consider a movie this simple and straight forward disappointing.

FINAL GRADE: B-

The Shallows (Full Review)

The Legend of Tarzan (Full Review)

If you’re like me, the only big screen memory you have of Tarzan is the 1999 Disney animated film. So, unlike the majority of Hollywood’s remakes and reboots, it actually seems like the right time to make a live action film about the man raised by Apes in the jungles of Africa. With David Yates (Director of the last 4 Harry Potter films) at the helm and Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style technology at his disposal, the elements are there for Legend of Tarzan to at least be a viable summer adventure.

The_Legend_of_Tarzan_posterThe Legend of Tarzan begins with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) now going by his birth name, John Clayton, and living happily with Jane (Margot Robbie) in his late parents’ London estate. While there are flashbacks shown to give the character’s origins, this movie is not an origin story. It probably should’ve been though, because the plot is ridiculously too complex for its own good. And it’s noticeable pretty early on.

Sure, some are familiar with the Tarzan story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be retold or re-imagined. Instead of getting a simpler story that focuses more on the characters and Tarzan’s growth and inner struggle to find his identity, we get a bunch of flashbacks that often disrupt pacing. The actual plot involves Belgium’s occupation of the Congo and a corrupt Belgian captain (Christoph Waltz) attempting to trade Tarzan to a rival African tribal leader (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for access to diamond mines. And none of it works. The drawn out set up makes the first half hour a bore and when the set up of a movie is dull, what reason is there to care about the rest of it?

It would be nice if the action were a saving grace. But the CGI is noticeably not as strong as anticipated and several of the battles make no physical sense. Sure, being raised by apes makes Tarzan strong and his reflexes elevated but no human being would be able to survive a vicious thrashing to the spine by a full grown gorilla let alone be able to stand and fight shortly after.

Samuel L. Jackson brings welcomed humor and fun to the film as George Washington Williams, a real life African American journalist who penned a letter to Belgian’s King regarding the inhumane treatment of the tribal natives. And for what it’s worth, none of the other performances are bad. But an overly complicated plot coupled with a poorly put together narrative and clunky action makes The Legend of Tarzan feel like one big, forgettable attempt at something that could’ve been really good.

FINAL GRADE: C-

The Legend of Tarzan (Full Review)

The Purge: Election Year (Full Review)

Despite having a unique premise, the first Purge movie did little to establish itself as anything more than a more gruesome reboot of Panic Room. But 2014’s Purge: Anarchy made the necessary improvements to make the series standout, mainly by expanding the characters and scope while also hammering home the underlying political allegory. The Purge: Election Year seeks to continue that good fortune and keep this popular film franchise from falling back into the mediocre doldrums of most modern day films in the horror genre.

The_Purge_Election_YearYou don’t have to see the previous Purge movies to get what’s going on. In the near future, America has an annual twelve hour period known as the Purge, where all crime including murder is legal. The horrendous act is sanctioned by a government ran by elitists known as the New Founding Fathers. In Purge: Election Year a senator (Elizabeth Mitchell), whose family was murdered during the Purge when she was a teen, is threatening to win the upcoming Presidential election and end the violent practice. This obviously makes her the target of the New Founding Fathers, and they set out to eliminate her during the Purge. Her only protection is her bodyguard (Frank Grillo reprising his role from Anarchy), and a few everyday citizens.

There is plenty to like about this movie if you’re in to the action-horror genre. The action is intense and anything but boring and most of the characters involved are likeable even if they are relatively generic. There is no greater example of this than Mykelti Williamson’s performance as store clerk, Joe Dixon. The entire character’s arc follows a wholly predictable pattern, but the endearing performance makes every cliché line feel genuine and humorous more times than not. The likability of the characters is just barely enough to get through some of the more cartoony moments of the movie.

The biggest problem with The Purge: Election Year is that it just isn’t different enough from Anarchy. Once again, a skilled battle weary character has to navigate through violent streets with the aid of every day citizens. Even the ending feels too familiar to the previous film. The too often over-the-top moments make it feel a bit less authentic than the previous installments as well. But while the leap in quality doesn’t match the gap between Purge 1 & 2, there’s enough here to be entertained. And it’s also worth noting that the inevitable sequel has a half-decent set up.

FINAL GRADE: B-

The Purge: Election Year (Full Review)

The Secret Life of Pets (Full Review)

You don’t have to own a pet to know how much fun they are. These animal companions bring compassion and a playful spirit to our lives that many can’t imagine living without. So it’s fitting, that in a week where we have every reason to feel disheartened, a movie about pets comes along to make us smile a bit.

The_Secret_Life_of_Pets_posterThe Secret Life of Pets stars comedian Louis C.K. as Max, a dog living happily with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until she adopts a larger dog from the pound named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). After their squabbling causes them to both get lost in New York City, they find themselves on the run from Animal Control and from a psychotic bunny rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) who hates humans and the pets who love them. Their hope for rescue lies in the neighboring pets led by a prissy Pomeranian with a crush on Max (Jenny Slate), a chunky, apathetic cat (Lake Bell), a lonely hawk (Albert Brooks), a feisty parakeet (Tara Strong), and a pair of dogs with a major attention problem when squirrels come around (Bobby Moynihan and Hannibal Buress).

The premise may not be all that fresh; think Toy Story meets Homeward Bound. But everything Secret Life of Pets lacks in story, originality and pacing it makes up for in laughs. There are far too many characters in the movie, but each one that pops up on screen will deliver a side splitting joke whether it’s a guinea pig lost in an air ventilation system or a paralyzed, nearly blind basset hound that throws parties because his owner is always away. A fine voice cast helps, and each member of the ensemble fits their character almost perfectly. No one is an example of this more than Kevin Hart, whose hilarious performance as Snowball alone makes the movie worth seeing.

You don’t have to own a pet to find this movie both funny and endearing. And there are certainly more poignant animated films or ones with a better story and flow. But when it comes to sheer humor, The Secret Life of Pets delivers for adults and their kids and I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard in an animated family film.

FINAL GRADE: A-

The Secret Life of Pets (Full Review)