The Dark Knight Rises

I was in a cranky mood when we went to see this. I was in Editing Mode. Is it a horrible movie? Hardly. Is it a great movie? Definitely not.

I think Christopher Nolan did great things with The Dark Knight. Even that one has some holes in it, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy watching it, again and again. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, and Rises … well, it’s not Return of the Jedi. It tries to go darker, and fails. But not without failing greatly, and giving us solid entertainment in the process.

What I liked/What I Didn’t:

Bane. Great villain, a big hulking menace for Batman to whale on. I really liked all the similarities to The Dark Knight Returns, the comic book that made me like Batman (and Year One, which Batman Begins cribbed heavily from). Topping the Joker may have been impossible, and Thomas Hardy- a great, rising actor- does the best he can with an idiotic mask that makes him look like Hannibal Lecter and sound like a kid talking through a paper towel tube. Hint: Darth Vader was INTELLIGIBLE. Bane needed subtitles. Coupled with “The Batman voice” by Christian Bale, the most important dialogue of the movie sounded like it was uttered while both men were trying to expel a twelve pound impacted fecolith. “Can I have a bat-lozenge?” Bane’s origin was interesting, and almost makes him a tragic antihero in the end, but his final scene is played for a very weak joke.

The parallels to current politics. TDK had the surveillance device that mimics Carnivore and Echelon (what the FBI is using to read this, right now) and Rises has The Dent (cough, PATRIOT) act, a heist on the Stock Exchange, and a Catwoman (never so named) who openly loathes and steals from the 1%. Anne Hathaway does a decent job, but lacked character development; the film suffers a bit from too many villains, including a surprise one in the third act. It’s not a perfect parallel, but it does make you think, something you rarely do in a comic book movie. The peace in Gotham is based on a lie, and this poisons the city. Sadly the villains reference the first film instead of TDK, for a couple of needless cameos; the poison lie of Harvey Dent is a brilliant bit of writing, but they don’t cultivate it. And finally, I found it very funny that a “failed energy project” was played as Wayne’s scandal, and I am glad that it doesn’t make sense now unless you followed politics very closely.

For the final act, the entire city is held hostage for three months. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for this one. The Joker’s plan in TDK lasted hours. Bane’s siege depends on Commissioner Gordon making a terrible tactical mistake, which I didn’t buy. I did like how it made Gotham into the crime-infested hellhole that opens Frank Miller’s 80’s-era “The Dark Knight Returns.” It seemed a bit forced, but the images Nolan gets to use to depict it are stunning. So I’ll forgive it. The music throughout the film is a sledgehammer to the heartstrings, and became incredibly annoying. THIS… IS.. EXCITING! DUN DUNT!  OOH ANGELIC SINGING! SOMEONE GONNA DIE! Yes, that bad…

The setup in the first act is excruciating. As a writer, I have never felt the pain of backstory and exposition inflicted on me in such a manner. And yet I forgot why Bruce Wayne has a limp (he jumped off a building with Two-Face, to save Gordon’s son).  If I watch this on cable and skip the beginning, I know I will like it a lot more. I can’t even remember how Bane was introduced. That’s not good.

Michael Caine has an early scene that makes you wish the movie was better. He’s utterly gripping in it. Once again, I never liked Christian Bale in this one except for the physicality. He looks like Batman, and he looks like he can pull off the stunts. But I never care about him, ever. He never looks haunted, just tired. He plays the Bruce Wayne playboy parts perfectly, but when he’s supposed to be the haunted orphan… I don’t buy it. Never did. But I still don’t want a reboot.

The ending was fantastic. The fight with Bane was pretty awful- two guys throwing haymakers and grunting and grimacing, when they are martial arts masters, and Bane was originally a wrestler- but they pull a decent switcheroo on you, and point the story to a definite ending, with not all loose ends tied neatly. And you know what must happen next. I look forward to that story, and I hope Nolan gets to tell it. If anyone can make the story of the Joseph Gordon Levitt character compelling, it would be him.

So it’s flawed, sort of like Spiderman 3, but not as weak. It reaches for the heavens and doesn’t make orbit, but it wasn’t a disappointment. I commiserate with Nolan- he has a lot to say in this one, and he manages to get it all in there, but in places, it is muddled and we nod along, waiting for the good stuff.

Worth seeing if you liked the other two. Bravo to Nolan for writing a story with an ENDING, something Hollywood and Television are loathe to do. Stories don’t really end, I know. But the interesting parts do. They end this where it should be ended, and open doors for other stories that I want to see.

3/5 bat-lozenges

American Me

I watched this excellent movie the other night. Released in 1992, starring Edward J. Olmos, it is a daring portrayal of the inception of the Mexican Mafia from prison gang to street presence.

The movie begins with the ’40s Zoot Suit Riots, which to put simply, began with wartime racial hysteria and a hatred between soldiers and zoot suiters who flouted the rationing laws by tailoring flashy suits. Montoya Santana is literally a child of the riots, conceived during them after his parents are beaten and savaged by soldiers on leave in Los Angeles. The brutal beatdown turns his father bitter, and this poisons Montoya’s childhood. He runs with friends in a makeshift gang, and after a failed rumble, he and his pal J.D. break into a shop to hide, and are wounded by the owner.

Sent to juvie, Montoya is raped by a bigger prisoner on his first night, in a painful to watch scene. He immediately avenges himself, gaining a twenty year adult sentence, and an iron clad rep that brings him followers, and cements his presence as a gang leader when he is transferred to Folsom. Between the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerillas, he builds his own gang, the Mexican Mafia, to protect other Latinos at first, then it becomes a full fledged criminal enterprise.

When he is released, he is faced with a world that has changed. He’s never been with a girl. He’s never driven a car. When he meets a beautiful neighborhood woman named Esperanza, he feels as innocent as the boy he was before prison, and she falls in love with that side of him, unaware that he commands La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. The Italian mafia runs drugs in their community; he moves to take it over, and in a brilliant and shocking scene, Olmos juxtaposes Montoya’s love scene with Esperanza with the rape and murder of a mafia don’s son in prison.  Montoya has never made love to a woman, and once he is excited, he flips her over to take her like a jock would a prison punk, until she slaps and pushes him away.

It is very hard to watch, and three consultants to the film were later murdered for disrespecting the machismo and ethics of the Mexican Mafia, by contributing to this film. By not shying from the foundation of brutality that creates a man who can lead a murderous gang, Olmos does what Scorcese, David Chase, and other directors who’ve portrayed crime bosses were afraid to do. Show the monsters they really are, instead of feeding the glorification we give them.

While the movie gets confusing in the third act, it follows fact and makes Montoya almost a tragic and symbolic figure for the rebellion against hatred of his people. While he can never be called a hero, when thrown in the “animal factory” of prison he did what he needed to survive, protected his friends, and attempted to move from gangster to liberator, only to die before his redemption could begin. This is one of the best gang movies of the ’90s, and is still powerful today.


Mad Men – Far from Heaven, the series?

The highly anticipated return of the series Mad Men finally pulled me in- the show is set in the early 60’s in the legendary era of the martini lunch. Set in a high-power ad agency, it reminds me of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, with the subversiveness of Douglas Sirk, and 20/20 hindsight of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven. “Mad Men” was the self-imposed nickname that the Madison Avenue crew gave themselves, and they live up to the title.

Joan has wits to match.

The series concentrates on Donald Draper, a top ad executive working in New York City in the early 60’s. The show has gotten many accolades for its realism in recreating the look and feel of the era, from the skinny ties and slim suits to the well-coiffed women in office and home. Everyone smokes and drinks like mad, office liaisons are commonplace, every man is a cad with a piece on the side, and woman chafe at the societal boundaries that still corral them.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Don is in his mid-30’s and has younger men nipping at his heels, but he is still the big dog; though he often lies tortured on the couch before getting a brainstorm that comes up with the perfect ad campaign. The ad industry was just on the cusp of using known psychological concepts to market products as a lifestyle, and Don rejects it, though when he comes up with concepts on his own, they are certainly crafted as if by a head shrinker; he just doesn’t link the two yet.

Peggy smiles like a shark.

What reminded me of the excellent Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven was not only the technicolor look of the show, but the update to Douglas Sirk’s brilliant subversiveness. In Sirk’s classics All That Heaven Allows, Rock Hudson is the artistic and freethinking bachelor who Jane Wyman falls in love with, to the disdain of society and even her own children; in his remake of Imitation of Life, two single women, one black and one white, meet and manage to succeed; the black woman’s daughter passes for white and is ashamed of her mother. He skirted what was considered acceptable and there was always the suggestion of things still labeled taboo; in Far From Heaven, Haynes goes that extra step and lets us see what Sirk might have done, unfettered.

Do I want a child? Oh, the irony.

In “Mad Men,” society still has taut reins of conformity around its neck, and we see even the paragon of 60’s manhood Don Draper (Jon Hamm) chomping at the bit, though he hides it quite well. The women are more fascinating than the men, in how they consolidate what little power is left to be had. Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager, a buxom redhead with wits to match her … wiles, is the de facto alpha female; Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), the newcomer in the first episode, has clawed her way into copywriting by the beginning of season two, after some trials and tribulations I’ll leave you to discover. The men have their own problems; they live hard and it affects their home life. Super-cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) doesn’t think he makes enough to support a child yet, and his new wife is tortured by the bouncing babies throughout their social circle.

“Mad Men” is able to show us a side of the mythical 50’s and 60’s that even Sirk couldn’t allude to, and it makes for riveting viewing. The first season is available On Demand with some cable providers (even in HD) and the show plays Sunday nights at 10pm EST for the DVR-deprived.

80’s Trash of the Week: Night Shift

Love Brokers!

Michael Keaton might be best remembered as Batman, or Mr. Mom, or Beetlejuice, but he got his start in movies with Night Shift, with ex-Fonzie Henry Winkler. Directed by fellow “Happy Days” refugee Ron Howard and penned by 80’s staples Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This movie was on HBO approximately every 5 minutes in the 80’s, and I watched it nearly every time. When it popped on Mojo+ HD- your cable source for movies even HBO won’t play anymore– I decided to see if it lived up to my nostalgic adulations.

Batman 2.0 vs. the Fonz

Risky Business is probably the better-known killer pimp comedy, but Night Shift led the way. In the opening scene, we see two toughs throw a pimp out a window, comically landing in a basketball hoop. One of them is Richard Belzer, a comedian whose biggest role prior to this was in 70’s skit comedy The Groove Tube. At first we’re not sure whether we’re supposed to laugh or not, and then one of the kids playing ball says that shot should count, so we know it’s okay to chuckle at the pimp splattered on the pavement. New York in the early 80’s was still a tough town.

Slam dunk!

Shortly after we meet Chuck Lumley, a doormat of a morgue technician who’s getting stepped on by his boss, his fiancé, and the city. Back then it was a surprise to see “The Fonz” playing a nebbish, but he handled the role with aplomb, channeling Woody Allen but making the role his own. His boss bullies him into taking the titular graveyard shift, where he gets partnered with Keaton’s Bill “Blaze” Blazejowsky, the hyperactive doofus who has so many wacky ideas he carries a tape recorder to save them all. Great ideas like feeding mayonnaise to tuna fish, so you don’t need to add it to make tuna salad.

Ron Howard’s bro Clint gets the best boobies.

He’s a schemer who starts using the hearses to chauffeur people around the city, like Ron’s brother Clint Howard. This movie’s so old that Clint had some hair left on that big melon of his. He’s always a fine addition to a comedy in my book. Another 80’s icon who appears is Shelley Long, as Chuck’s neighbor Belinda- who just happens to be a call girl working out of her apartment, whose pimp was slam dunked in the opening scene. Now, I know the obvious joke is how the hell could Shelley Long make a living as a hooker? But she looked pretty good here, dolled up in sexy gear and acting appropriately perky. We meet her when Chuck goes next door to ask her to turn the music down, and gets roughed up by a huge cowboy in his underwear, a precursor to Times Square’s naked cowboy.

Before Cheers, she was a total whore.

Later, when Belinda needs help getting bailed out, she calls Chuck during Thanksgiving dinner. Being the pushover he is, he goes and his fiancé (well-played by Gina Hecht as a henpecking nightmare) follows with her parents. Once they find out what his friend does for a living, there is considerable strain on the relationship. This gives Blazejowsky one of his signature ideas- why not run call girls out of the morgue? With his gumption and Chuck’s financial wizardry, they could all be rolling in dough. Belinda gets her working girls in for the deal, and soon Blaze is rolling like a pimp in a Stutz Blackhawk luxobarge, and Chuck is getting ulcers worrying whether they’ll get caught. Their success of course raises the suspicions of the two killers from the beginning, so the cops are the least of their worries.


There are some good jokes in the movie, and Keaton had loads of comic energy back then. He plays well off of the Fonz, and Shelley Long plays the role completely straight, and is at least as believable as Jamie Lee Curtis’s whore with a heart of gold from Trading Places, even if she couldn’t fill Jame’s bountiful brassiere with her ass cheeks. Gina Hecht has the thankless role as the frigid, neurotic fiance who disappears halfway through the movie, but she makes the most of it. It’s also the film debut of Kevin Costner, who you can see in the frat party scene. Howard wisely shows us a decent amount of boobs; in a movie about hookers you’d feel cheated otherwise, and this one delivers.

Charming 80’s New York hookers

The movie has a great tone, and its vision of New York has a touch of the sentimental- even though we get a tour of 42nd Street pre-Disney era, it feels more like They Might Be Giants than Taxi Driver. That’s expected of a comedy, but it’s a nice touch; it would be easy to make New York too smarmy, and thankfully there are no Typical Jewish Old Ladies, Brooklyn Policeman, Funny Black Homeless Guy or other 80’s urban staples. The rude delivery boys (Vincent Schiavelli), the persistent buskers who stick their saxophone in Chuck’s face, and the killer pimps never seem too cruel, even when they shove a fire hose down Fonzie’s throat.

Who wants to drink from the fire hose?

The film doesn’t glamorize prostitution, either- Shelly Long comes home with a black eye, so this is no Pretty Woman. Howard and the scriptwriters don’t make the violent scenes very funny, but instead juxtapose them with a funny ending, like a bunch of Girl Scouts beating Chuck with their cookie boxes, or having a pimp shoot himself in the foot during a gunfight, in a believable manner- when pulling a gun from an ankle holster. The ending loses steam, but it’s great to see Michael Keaton do his hyper dummy act, which would eventually be crafted into classic performances like Beetlejuice. The movie spends a little too much time showing us how Chuck grows a spine, but this movie holds up well. If you haven’t seen it, you should give it a shot- I miss Funny Guy Michael Keaton, and wish he’d get another chance to do comedy.

Extra helping of boobies.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? It would seem quaint
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: Low
High Points: Michael Keaton’s antics
Low Point: Ending drags
Gratuitous Boobies: 4 distinct pairs to make up for Shelley Long’s AA cups

Sweet 70’s Cinema: Over the Edge

No, not Over the Hedge with the talking squirrel. This is a serious movie about juvenile delinquency in the 70’s, a warning cry like other fine films such as Foxes, River’s Edge, and Bad Boys (the Sean Penn one). It’s a cautionary tale that leans toward exploitation film, but since it was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, a student of Marty Scorsese, the film has a very realistic feel, almost verité. It’s still good viewing today, has Matt Dillon’s first screen role, and would make a good double feature with any 70’s nostalgia film such as Dazed and Confused.

Young Matt Dillon

The film itself has a sordid story of its own. Supposedly based on true events that occurred in the planned community of Foster City California, it leads in with a lurid disclaimer about how it is based on true events, and how many acts of criminal vandalism by juveniles occur in the U.S. each year. Still, the movie was so controversial that it never got a theatrical release, and instead played on HBO in 1980. The action was moved to the fictional city of New Granada, a planned community that has been demolishing its few youth centers to make way for more profitable businesses, in the wake of 70’s stagflation. The script was written by Tim Hunter, who’d later go on to pen the bleaker and better-known River’s Edge, and Charles Haas, a journalist who wrote about the original events in an article called “Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree.”

The Mouse Pack

Our first introduction to the town’s kids is at the Youth Center, a hangar-like building where they hang around. It’s painfully obvious that there isn’t much to do in this town, and everything seems spread out so you have to drive or bike everywhere. Two kids are on an overpass with a BB gun and they shoot the windshield of a passing police car, who nearly crashes, then gives chase. As the cruiser flies toward the Rec center, two other kids, Carl and Ritchie, hide in the bushes. The cop arrests them on suspicion, and finds a switchblade in Richie’s pocket. Matt Dillon plays Richie as the standard rebellious youth; what he lacks in depth he fills with anarchic energy. I didn’t even recognize him in this early role, and it shows the promise he’d later realize. Carl is the smaller kid who’s always getting dumped on- reminiscent of Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He’s played well by Michael Eric Kramer, who never saw stardom after this. It’s unfortunate, he plays this part naturally, and we follow him throughout the film.

Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright

Later on their parents pick them up and they get the usual lectures, even though technically they did nothing wrong. The parents are more concerned with the weekend of visit of some Texas millionaires who might invest in the town and solve their financial problems. Carl heads to his room and puts on his headphones, blaring Cheap Trick’s classic teen lament, “Surrender.” The film’s soundtrack is excellent, mostly peppered with lesser known late 70’s classics from Cheap Trick and The Cars, with a few others like “Teenage Lobotomy” by The Ramones and “You Really Got Me” covered by Van Halen. Anthems of the era, which really puts you back in the time. It’s unfortunate when teen films like this use older songs or covers of them; years later, they’ll lose any possible nostalgic value.

Note the leaf on the blackboard

Back at school they are forced to watch an educational film about vandalism, but the principal just yells at their implacable wall of adolescent apathy, and announced a 9:30pm curfew. Later that night the kids go to a party, make out, drink beer, smoke pot, and pass around other drugs; at first it’s shocking, especially when you see the tow-headed youngster Tip smoking and dealing. They culled some of the actors and extras from the local town, and this gives the film a documentary feel. As Ebert stated in his 1980 review, it almost feels like we’re eavesdropping, or a kid is lugging around a camcorder. (We had them back then, but they weighed 50 pounds). Sometimes there’s a gritty, small-time mood like in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and you can see the mentor’s touch here. At the party, Carl meets his girlfriend Cory, and they smoke a joint; as he leaves, he gets ambushed by Mark the BB gun kid, who thinks he snitched on him. He and some friends beat Carl up and take his money.

The 70’s classic, Destruction: Fun or Dumb?

Carl just can’t get a break; back at home his parents are more upset that he got in more trouble than why he’s getting beaten up. The parents are clueless but aren’t played as idiots; they are just too caught up in their own lives and dealings, and seem to think that kids raise themselves. The next day, Carl lashes out at his Dad by setting firecrackers off underneath the Texans’ car, setting the engine on fire, and of course, torpedoing the business deal. The parents then announce that the Youth center will be shutting down a while, since a kid was caught with drugs there. This gives the kids even fewer options to stay out of trouble, and after an argument with his Dad, Carl runs out to hole up in one of the unfinished condos with his girlfriend.

Aimed right at you

One of the girls in their pack stole a gun from her parents bedroom, and they practice shooting cans out in “the fields.” They use all the bullets, but later decide to play a prank on Tip, who ratted out Carl to Mark the other night. Richie echoes Dillon’s later role in The Outsiders by running around pointing an empty gun at people; this leads where you expect it will, and forces the parents to confront the problems of the town at a big meeting at the school. Who’s watching the children during the meeting, you might ask?

Echoes of a Nuremburg rally

From here the film follows a more predictable track, but thankfully we are spared any tearful or overly insightful monologues by Carl or any of the other kids. Kaplan is smart enough to let us draw our own conclusions from the performances, and realize that these kids are facing a profound emptiness from both their parents and the community; we don’t need a rehash of James Dean’s emotional outburst in Rebel Without a Cause; this film follows that classic’s arc closely enough, with Dillon channeling Sal Mineo sans the not-so-latent homosexuality.

Burn it down

Of course with the parents all in one location, the kids decide to lock them in. I was hoping that the film would veer towards the surreal ending of Lindsay Anderson’s If… with them burning the building down, but it never gets that bad. The kids do go all “Lord of the Flies” in a matter of minutes, blowing up police cars with stolen guns and fireworks, stealing cars and wreaking havoc. It seems out of place, and spirals far out of control, with a finale that seems more at home in something like Vanishing Point or Crazy Larry Dirty Mary.

Lord of the Flies

What detracts from an otherwise excellent 70’s mood film is the ending, and expository dialogue such as the Texan stating, “Seems like you were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you wanted to get away from.” It’s deserving of its cult status and succeeds when we’re hanging with the kids; it brought me back to my early youth in the 70’s, when we often had nothing to do except romp in our “fields,” smash up abandoned cars, and cut down trees with tools we lifted from unminded basements. But our little “mixed use” community was tightly knit; we had legions of old ladies sitting on porches to keep us from climbing on the rooftops of disused factories, or other shenanigans. This was a neighborhood so dull that everyone would come out and look when the old greenhorn found a garter snake in his garden and cut its head off with a shovel; the only one of us who went wrong was a kid named Travis whose parents were never around, leaving him to cruise the area on his Huffy, and steal from backyard gardens to eat some meals. One day he decided to throw a cinder block at another kid’s head, probably because that kid didn’t have to eat raw tomatoes for lunch that day. New Granada in Over the Edge was a whole comunity of little Travises, so perhaps the ending isn’t too unreal.

If you want more detail on the film, it has an extensive fan site.

The Dark Knight

There will be a sea of nerds waxing superfluous about the utter success of this film; I’m afraid I am among them. Any movie as hyped as this one will generate backlash, and some will anticipate it and thrive on it. We are so easily jaded by our entertainment. The Dark Knight is beyond mere spectacle and elevates the superhero movie beyond all previous heights, as its material dives into the darkest depths, going into the abyss we never expected “comic book movies” to go. It builds a tragedy worthy of Greek myth and sets it in a complex, living Gotham as real as one of James Ellroy’s crime epics.

The Nolan brothers wisely delve into the rich past of the Batman character and pluck many of the best themes from the classic stories- the rise of fellow vigilantes, the misguided “Sons of the Batman” from The Dark Knight Returns; the Joker as the agent of disorder, pushing those with moral codes to the precipice of breaking them, from The Killing Joke; the concerns about surveillance from Kingdom Come. The script is definitely the best of the superhero crop, surpassing such classics as the original Superman as it weaves the tale of the Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent– the white knight of Gotham, and the Joker.

There’s a glimmer of hope in Gotham when we return; Detective Gordon is now running an elite squad, D.A.’s Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are putting high-profile mobsters away, and Bruce Wayne and Alfred are rebuilding the Manor, operating from a concealed bunker. The movie opens with a bravura heist sequence inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat, where the Joker’s minions rip off a mob bank. Batman is hunting down the top dogs in the crime world, one being a money launderer he follows to Hong Kong; while he’s away, the Joker hires himself out to the crime bosses, to eliminate their nemesis.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is more theatrical psychopath than clown; with his grungy make-up, and scarred cheeks recalling the old silent film The Man Who Laughs that inspired the character, he carves a swath through the underworld because he’ll do things even they won’t. His war with Batman is full of surprises, and seems more at home in a thriller like the Bourne Trilogy– lethally cunning ambushes that would be an assassination plot worthy of their own movie. They come one after another, and the films 152 minute running time only drags long enough to for the Joker to pull the rug out from under us- again. No one is safe, and by the end of the movie you’ll realize that like the villain, the Nolan brothers through the rules out the window when they wrote the script.

The emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne and his allies go through is as terrorizing as the bombs going off left and right. There’s even a dash of Seven in the mix, when the Joker rigs up two ferries with explosives, and gives each group the other’s detonator; if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll detonate both of them at midnight. The resolution is pretty daring, and recalls The Killing Joke, when Jim Gordon was the target. The brutality is leavened with dark humor- the Joker in a nurse outfit, and of course the steadying hands of those two great actors, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

They’re back as the butler who gives Batman his center, and the inventor who gives him his gadgets, and while their roles are reduced this time, they are given memorable, irreplaceable moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart cover the lawyer roles with aplomb; Gotham’s white knight is no cardboard cut-out. But the movie isn’t all thrilling plot and fine acting- we get our share of action movie excitment as well. The Batmobile returns and is trumped by the faster, more maneuverable Bat-pod, which looks a lot like that 4-wheel motorcycle concept Dodge based off the Viper. He pulls some amazing tricks with it as he duels with the Joker in a ten-wheeler on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

I did not see it in IMAX, but I will be, as soon as the local theaters aren’t all sold out. The movie is a marvel of editing, and if the Nolans ever tire of the franchise they can give Michael Mann a run for his money in the gritty crime movie genre, but he still has them on style. Is the movie perfect? The ending is. Like the comics I mentioned, The Dark Knight shows the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin, and this one lands right on the edge- they each own this film, and who truly wins in the end will be discussed on message boards and on the way out of the theater. Go see it, it lives up to the hype.

80’s Trash of the Week: Masters of the Universe

1987 was a great year for the action movie. Arnie would solidify his action-star status with Predator; Paul Verhoeven would bring us to new levels of bleak satire and gore with Robocop; and Frank Langella would reach the nadir of his career as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe.
With a budget of $17 million that ballooned to $22 million, the He-Man movie had more money than Predator, Robocop, and Full Metal Jacket. Most of it seems to have been spent on an extended, boring chase sequence on hoverboards through alleys in the abandoned California town. The effects aren’t bad, it’s just horribly choreographed and directed. At one point when He-Man is supposed to be flipping over and coming back at a baddie flying after him, they just show Dolph Lundgren’s head upside down. Great job. Darth Milk and I aren’t good at the maths, but we figured out how you take a budget millions larger than 3 classics and get a crappy movie:

$17 million^greyskull = CRAP

For you non-mathnerds, that means that when you expound millions of dollars to the power of greyskull, which is an imaginary number signifying infinite cheesiness, you will get the steaming poo pile that is Masters of the Universe.

The movie should have been a great success; it was based on a wildly popular toy and cartoon series, which I remember watching and loving. It was simple: Prince Adam was the Clark Kent of Eternia. With his Pete Rose haircut and gentle nature, no one would suspect that when he drew his magical sword and uttered “By the power of Greyskull!” he would transform into He-Man, savior of the planet. He was the only man powerful enough to stand up to Skeletor, the skull-headed conqueror who wanted to enslave all living creatures. He had some buddies to round out your toybox, too. Man-at-Arms, who had a G.I. Joe helmet and a porn mustache; Teela, the spunky gal sidekick who could hold her own in a fight, and being a kid’s cartoon, we needed an animal and an annoying whiny character, so we had Cringer the Tiger and Orko, the flying douchebag. The cartoon is an 80’s classic, and He-Man would give a moral to the story at the end of each episode, to keep us buying toys instead of smoking crack and stabbing each other.

Frank Langella needed money

When Mattel approached the Cannon Group to make a movie about He-Man, their fate was sealed. Infamous for such productions as the Death Wish sequels and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, they made some of the most memorable cheesefests of the 80’s, and Masters of the Universe is no exception. The cartoon sprang from toys originally made for the 80’s classic Conan the Barbarian, which had a bounty of breasts, blood and beefcake, and was deemed unsuitable for children. (Little did they know we all watched it on HBO anyway). So what was Mattel to do with all those toy molds? Give them some spare laser guns from Star Wars ripoffs, come up with some goofy names, and blammo, kids get to play with musclebound swordsmen in furry red banana hammocks without being associated with one of the most brutal fantasy movies of all time.

Surely pitched as Conan meets Star Wars

The toys were a big hit and spawned the aforementioned cartoon, but by 1987 He-Man was sort of played out. I was a junior in high school sporting my fro-mullet and I can’t recall what the kiddies were watching by then, but Darth Milk was probably watching Mario Brothers and jumping on mushrooms in his backyard. Kids were playing Nintendo, and didn’t care for He-Man’s moral condescension and proselytizing anymore.

Even Orko boycotted this film

First-time director Gary Goddard was handed the reins, and Dolph Lundgren got the starring role after Sly Stallone snubbed his nose at it. He had made Cobra for Cannon the year before, probably the most ridiculous of his films. Dolph just came off of playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, and rivaled Arnold Schwarzenegger in both size and speech impediment, but never had the charisma. I liked Dolph in Showdown in Little Tokyo, and he does have a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, but he’s pretty dry, and a forgettable He-Man.

“Around here, it’s against the law to wear banana hammocks.”

The rest of the cast isn’t much better. Frank Langella dons some white makeup and becomes Skeletor, relishing the role, but most of the time he just gets to sit on the throne and look ugly. Max Von Sydow was the best part of Flash Gordon, but he wasn’t covered in bumpy white latex. Billy Barty plays a little hairy dwarf troll named Gwildor, created for the movie as a replacement for Orko, the little floating wizard in a hajib and cape. While Orko is missed, mostly because I wanted to see how bad he’d look, Billy Barty is one of my favorite little people actors, and manages to craft a decent character out of the horrible dialogue he’s given. He and Langella end up being the movie’s only saving graces.

Luckily they land in a California town with a population of 5.

The movie also ends up being mostly set on Earth, for budgetary reasons. Now, I don’t know how filming in abandoned Whittier, California was cheaper than finding some spot of desert to call Eternia. They begin out in the rocky wastes, where He-Man and friends are fighting with Skeletor’s minions, who look like the Star Destroyer crew from Star Wars. They escape into Gwildor’s little hobbit hole, where he shows them The Key, which looks like a medieval anal torture device. It’s a musical key that opens portals to anywhere in the universe, and Skeletor has the other one already. So of course, they escape using the Key, and wind up behind a school in California.

Saurod is still bitter that he couldn’t get a date to his prom.

This subplot seems aimed at getting teens to go see a kid movie; Courteney Cox and her musician boyfriend are making out in his convertible when Gwildor steals their bucket of fried chicken with a grappling hook. Eventually they meet up when Skeletor sends his bad guys- Beast Man, Blade, Saurod, and Karg- through the portal to create some shenanigans. They beat up a coach and trash the gym, which was decorated for the prom! How horrible. A local cop, the dependable jerk character actor James Tolkan, gets involved and does the usual stupid stuff to further a plot- arrest the good guy, play with the Key so the bad guys can find them, and otherwise be a pain in the ass.

Surfin’ Etern-I-A

The script by David Odell, who wrote the classic The Dark Crystal and the turd Supergirl, is definitely once again in the turdpile of the spectrum. He doesn’t even have anyone say “By the power of Greyskull!” because He-Man never has to transform. If they had rented a tiger to be Battlecat, kept things in the desert- which can’t be that expensive, since so many shitty B movies have been shot out there- this could have been much better. Moving it to Earth and giving us useless teenager characters confuses everything, and makes the battle scenes have to be in places like a music store. When Skeletor finally arrives, he rolls down Main Street like a float in the Thanksgiving Day parade, and they couldn’t afford any extras, so California looks completely deserted except for a cop, two students, and the guy running the guitar shop.

“And what’s that? Skeletor has shot down the Snoopy balloon!”

I wanted to at least get some laughs, but it’s monumentally boring and barely worth watching to laugh at. At 106 minutes long, it drags on forever, inserting plots about Courteney Cox’s parents having died in a plane crash, which lets Skeletor’s hench-babe Evil-Lyn trick her into giving up the Key. And her boyfriend’s musical memory helps save them in the end. In the director’s commentary, Goddard says that the original ending made preview audiences weep openly; all I can say is, it was probably over wasting 2 hours of their lives watching Dolph Lundgren try to enunciate in English.

You may have “the power,” but I have a gold lamé cape.

The final battle between Skeletor and He-Man is decent, and he does get to yell “I… have… The POWER!!” as he draws his sword. You can see they spent a lot of money on effects, but mostly it’s repetitive, unexciting battles between people with laser guns in suburbia. When He-Man is finally captured, Blade tortures him with a laser whip, and they didn’t even bother syncing Lundgren’s flinches with the animated whip. Flash Gordon of seven years prior looks and feels better, and is a lot more fun.

Villain rule #48: Never build a bottomless pit in the throne room.

I will say that the costumes for the creatures, such as Saurod and Gwildor, are quite good. Cannon would go on to create more atrocious films like Captain America before their death knell was sounded in the early 90’s. I will thank them from the bottom of my teenage heart for 1985’s Lifeforce, with its abundance of boobies. The 80’s wouldn’t be the same without Golan-Globus and Cannon Group films, but sometimes that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? IMDb Pro lists it. God help us all.
Quotability Rating: Zero
Cheese Factor: High
High Points: Final battle; Billy Barty
Low Point: Courteney Cox goes back in time to save her parents (weep)
Gratuitous Boobies: Nary a boobie. Needed a She-Ra cameo.