85. Inferno

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Here we are, at the second film that made my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About.  You may know by now that Tom Hanks is my favorite actor.  You may also know that Felicity Jones has won me over in the last few years and that I consider her to have been robbed of an Academy Award.  And I also love Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels and found Inferno, specifically, to be exceptionally gripping with an unpredictable climax and some incredibly thought-provoking ideas.

Brown always performs extensive research into his books, basing the fictional narratives on very real-life facts and theories.  The results are simultaneously entertaining and didactic – a difficult combination to top.  The two previous Tom Hanks films based on his Langdon novels, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, were strong, exciting efforts that couldn’t possibly capture the detail and informational aspects of the books, but did an admirable job of telling the story.  I knew going into Inferno that, unless major plot points were altered for the film, the deeper ideas were unavoidable.  And that’s great because more people need to be made aware of them.  We can’t depend on China to save all of us, folks.

Having said all of that, how you receive the movie will probably depend on your perspective.  I’ll first assume that most of you haven’t read the book (I’ll get to the rest of you, shortly).  In that case, the movie is fine.  Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks (i.e. fantastic) and he has more to work with in Inferno than in the two previous installments in the series. Langdon is a central part of the mystery and is suffering from some physical maladies that add an extra wrinkle to the proceedings.  Jones continues her upward trajectory with a solid turn, as well.  She isn’t pushed very hard and her part will likely be remembered more for the character’s moments than the performance aspects, but she perfectly delivers what she’s given, casually conveying intelligence, elegance, and urgency.  Jones is about six weeks away from seeing her career truly explode as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is right around the corner.

The story wastes absolutely no time getting started.  Right off the bat, we hear about the power and danger of exponential growth (which I was actually teaching in my classes, this week, so nice timing, Sony!) and then the action begins!  And it rarely lets up.  Typically that’s a great thing, and I enjoyed the chaotic nature of the narrative, but I do think the first half of the film could use a few more moments where we all pause and take a breather.  So much is happening so fast that neither the characters nor the audience is allowed a moment to consider the repercussions or consequences of what it all means.  The movie clocks in at almost exactly two hours long (that includes the credits) but I think it would have truly benefitted from an extra fifteen or twenty minutes where huge events were allowed to resonate before speeding on to the next one.

The second half is paced much better and actually does allow time for reflection.  I’m under no illusions that director Ron Howard is unaware of the points that I’m raising.  I can only speculate, but my guess is that he reasoned the movie would play better to general audiences if the first hour was a nonstop adrenaline rush.  Maybe it will.  I guess we’ll see.  That’s not what my instinct tells me, but I’ve never made a movie.  I like Ron Howard but he’s been hit-and-miss for me, personally.  I usually feel like he makes really good movies that aren’t . . . quite . . . great.  But I always root for him and I’ve never questioned his talent.  Here, he excels at suspense and directing the cast.  But that pacing is going to vary depending on taste.

I mentioned at the top of the column that the deeper ideas in Brown’s book were unavoidable if the story was to be adhered to, at all.  And adhered to it is.  Mostly.  Here’s where there will likely be a divide between those who have read the book and those who haven’t.  Allow me to restate what I’ve said in previous columns: I have no inherent problems with changes – big or small – being made to a story that is being adapted to film if 1) the changes help make the transition to the medium of film and 2) the changes don’t betray the spirit of the original version of the property.  I’m going to work really hard to dance around the details, here, and avoid spoilers in the next paragraph.

The ending.  It isn’t “changed” as much as it’s shortened.  And the critical part that makes the ending to Dan Brown’s book so powerful and thought-provoking – the revelation that changes everything for the characters and the world they live in – is gone.  That original ending is not easy to digest from an intellectual or philosophical point of view.  It puts Robert Langdon and his allies in a place of moral ambiguity.  And it makes it nearly impossible to truly determine who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  Truthfully, the literary version of Langdon was always more conflicted during this adventure than the theatrical version.  The movie touches on it, but Book Langdon was more consistent in wondering if they would be better off failing at their goal, though he knew they had to try, anyway.  And then the revelation comes and changes everyone’s worldview.

I wanted that for this film, not just because it was in the book, but because it’s simply better.  It’s complex and philosophical and modern and relevant and something we should all be thinking about.  But the movie plays it safe.  And safe is fine.  But safe doesn’t get people talking.  It doesn’t get people talking about the movie and it doesn’t get people talking about a very real-life problem that is imminently threatening our species.  I hate that a movie that could have been truly important in sparking conversation instead opts for “safe”.  Maybe Howard didn’t want the film to be topical and wanted to stick to entertainment.  Or maybe he was afraid it was too deep for his target audience.  But I think that’s underestimating the people who are drawn to this sort of film.  So, as a result, this Ron Howard film, as with so many others, could have been great, but falls just short.  And it betrays the spirit of Brown’s novel.

If you haven’t read Dan Brown’s book, you’ll never miss that, though.  And if you’re ready, willing, and able to stay focused and hit the ground running, you’ll likely have a good time.  The same can be said for those who have read the book as long as you’re capable of separating the two and recognizing them as the two independent entities that they are.  But, even if people have a good time watching it, Inferno falls frustratingly short of being important or particularly memorable.  There’s no reason to avoid the film; it’s not poorly made in any way.  It just reminds me of those people we all know who are hesitant to try anything for fear of failing.  Inferno has the ability to reach for the stars, but settles for the roof.

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85. Inferno

#ThrowbackThursday – Collateral

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Original US release date: August 6, 2004
Production budget: $65,000,000
Worldwide gross: $217,764,291

I know it’s not popular to praise performers once they’ve become hugely famous and successful.  And it’s especially not popular to overlook their quirky real-life choices or behavior that comes from being human – even if nobody is hurt by them in the process.  We’re a society that prides itself on tearing others down and attempting to make them regret succeeding and maybe even existing at all.

But screw that.  Tom Cruise is awesome.

You’ll notice that his new film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back hasn’t appeared in my March to 100.  That’s only because I never got the chance to see the original Jack Reacher.  I’ll try to correct that at some point but, here in its place, we have one of my favorite Tom Cruise films which features what also might be my favorite Tom Cruise performance.  That’s a bold statement because he’s had a lot of great ones.  But there was just something about his intensity and his willingness to play against type as hitman Vincent in Collateral that stuck with me a little more than any of his other roles.

But Collateral is not a one man show.  Sharing the load of a very heavy film is Jamie Foxx, also playing against type as the meek and insecure taxi driver Max.  Interestingly enough, ten years later, he would play another meek and insecure Max in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 when he took on the role of Max Dillon/Electro.  In that film, the performance was over-the-top and at times hard to watch.  In Collateral, it’s much more subtle and believable.  Foxx’s passivity is the perfect compliment to Cruise’s vehemence.

Joining them in a strong supporting turn as attorney Annie is Jada Pinkett-Smith.  Nowadays, she’s hamming it up in “Gotham” but, here, she gives a powerful performance that’s short on screen-time but long on substance.  Mark Ruffalo also pops up as the detective on Vincent’s trail.  Throw in a quick appearance by Javier Bardem and you have a heck of a cast that would count for (and cost) a bit more, today, than it did, twelve years ago.  (Okay, okay.  Jason Statham shows up, too, and blows the one line he has.  Turns out that Paul Bettany was right about him.)

The narrative of Collateral is a simple one: contract killer Vincent holds taxi driver (no Ubers back then, kids!) Max hostage, forcing him to drive around Los Angeles as Vincent completes his hits.  We follow them from one job to the next, learning a bit more about the pair as we go.

It had been a while since I’d watched Collateral.  Admittedly, there are a few bugs that I don’t remember picking up on, the last time I watched it.  The second act drags a bit as the structure becomes a tad repetitive.  The characters remain interesting enough to largely offset that, though.  My main issue with the film is that the biggest story beats all rely on extreme coincidence in order to occur, demanding that the movie rely on more suspension of disbelief than a film that is aiming to be this gritty and realistic should probably be asking.  I really feel like these story knots could have been untied relatively easily and suspect that it comes down more to convenience and time constraints than lack of awareness or ability.  Still, this happens at nearly all of the crucial moments and it did take me out of the story.

But everything else drew me back in.  The performances and characters are deep and complex and believable.  Foxx’s Max, in particular, is especially round, learning, growing, and changing in real time as we watch his life transform around him.  I’ve been a critic of his in the past (besides hating his turn in the aforementioned The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I thought his supremely lauded portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray was more of a great impersonation than a great performance), but here he plays it honestly and brilliantly.  I don’t know much of anything about Jamie Foxx as a real person, but I feel like he somehow relates to Max, in some way.  And, if I’m wrong, that says even more about this performance.

Collateral also provides the rare opportunity to see Tom Cruise as a villain.  He’s still Tom Cruise, so Vincent is a very smooth villain, but it’s a unique role for him, nonetheless.  He unquestionably owns it and seems to have a great time along the way.  And so do we.

Despite falling into a few regrettable trappings, Collateral more than counterbalances them with an intense story and engrossing characters.  It’s easy to cheer for Max while Vincent is a classic love-to-hate villain.  I feel like this film has been largely forgotten over the years but, at the time, it played as one of Michael Mann’s more mainstream, crowd-pleasing pictures.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth discovering for the first time.  Part of the fun is in seeing the cast then and comparing them to where they are, now.  The rest of the fun is in seeing what Max and Vincent do, next.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Collateral

84. Keeping Up with the Joneses

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Keeping Up with the Joneses is another one of those movies of which I didn’t necessarily expect a whole lot, but that sucked me in with the cast.  Specifically, Zach Galifianakis and Gal Gadot (who was pretty handily the best thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  The trailer was fairly funny and director Greg Mottola has a couple of notable films on his resume with Superbad and Adventureland but that wasn’t enough to raise my expectations to the point where I was anticipating anything more than a fairly amusing diversion.

And that’s exactly what I got.  The cast that I was looking forward to is exactly what saves the film – almost singlehandedly – from being a total miss.  With the sole screenwriting credit going to Michael LeSieur, the script is almost a complete failure from beginning to end.  The primary goals of a comedy need to be, you know, wit and humor.  If not for the overachieving cast (more on them in a bit), nearly every joke and gag would have fallen completely flat.  The film is permeated by transparent, foreshadowed “jokes” that become tiresome within minutes.  I wanted dialogue to take me by surprise and zig when I expected a zag.  That’s the key to comedy.  Instead, the movie feels like it was written by someone who always found Jay Leno’s monologues to be the height of intelligent comedy.

Mottola’s direction of the comedy was really no better.  Sometimes, the gags need as much visual misdirection as verbal, and the camera angles and timing of the cuts and editing often betray the surprise element required of a successful joke.  I maybe smirked or chuckled a handful of times, but I was not once compelled to actually laugh throughout the entire film.

The marketing hampered the entre first act, as well, which is spent trying to deduce the true nature of the Joneses.  But that’s a lot of time to waste, since the film’s publicity continually shouts about how they’re undercover spies.  That isn’t the fault of the filmmakers, themselves, but rather an instance of the marketing department not understanding the film they had on their hands.  Had that revelation been kept a secret, the first act quite possibly could have been a lot of fun, which is a shame.

As I alluded to, the four principles in the cast manage to redeem the film into something watchable.  They all possess the ability to take an unfunny line or gag and deliver it in a way that makes it almost work in spite of itself.  For example, when Zach Galifianakis is forced to utter Random Unfunny, Pedestrian Line #31, it’s often Jon Hamm’s reaction as his character Tim that saves the moment.  And Galifianakis’s delivery, too, is practically always on point, allowing him to frequently take a line that is intended to be funny and, knowing that a genuine laugh isn’t likely, at least twist it to help make his pathetic underdog character Jeff more endearing.

It’s not just the men, though.  Isla Fisher accomplishes much of the same as Galifianakis and Hamm.  Gal Gadot plays it a little more straight but is quickly morphing into quite an action hero.  The other aspect of Keeping Up with the Joneses worth praising is the second-act action scene.  Here, Mottola really delivers, with inventive spots and immersive cinematography and shot selection.  Based on what I saw in this film, I think he might want to consider switching genres.  Gadot is the on-screen standout here.  It’s impressive to see how casual and effortless it appears for her to transform from graceful, elegant, and seemingly delicate into threatening, intimidating, and a match for virtually anyone who may cross her path.  For a few minutes, I forgot that I was watching a struggling comedy and believed I was in the middle of a lighthearted, well-constructed action picture.

The film attempts to be a mix between Spy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  But it’s not funny enough to match up to the former and there’s not enough quality action for it to match up to the latter.  The only saving graces are that mid-film action scene and a cast that’s too talented to be in this movie.  I can only speculate that perhaps they signed on because they saw it as a challenge to themselves.  I don’t know.  I don’t want to put words in their mouths.  Maybe they really liked the script and believed in it.  And that’s fine.  Perhaps I should just  be glad they signed on because they are the film’s only persistent merit.

So, thanks to those two things, the film isn’t a completely horrible time.  But it’s poorly written and almost just as poorly directed.  I wish everyone involved continued success but I also want to see better from those behind the camera, in the future.  I felt like they didn’t believe the audience would comprehend more intelligent humor and so settled for giving us the humor that middle-schoolers on message boards would come up with and think was just hilarious (Galifianakis at one point literally makes an exact joke that I remember making when I was in the sixth grade and about to get on an airplane.  I thought it was hilarious.  And for an eleven-year-old, it was pretty good.  But not for a major motion picture.).  So, if you find yourself sitting down to catch this one, immerse yourself in the efforts of the cast and lay back and enjoy that nebulous action scene that I keep referring to.  But don’t expect anything resembling a comedy classic.  You’ll only be setting yourself up for disappointment.

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84. Keeping Up with the Joneses

83. Ouija: Origin of Evil

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Not too long ago, I featured the original Ouija in one of my weekly #ThrowbackThursday features.  Though I liked Olivia Cooke as the lead, I found upon this repeat viewing that the film oddly mimicked the basic structure and story points of a very popular all-time horror classic.

Upon seeing the trailer for Ouija: Origin of Evil, it was clear that Warner Brothers knew that the Ouija angle was a good one but that audiences expected more from the idea than a typical teen thriller.  Ouija boards have a very real and widespread reputation and I know several people personally who have had frightening experiences with them.  If those feelings and experiences aren’t being translated to the screen in an equally horrifying way, then it’s quite frankly a waste of the property.

So, this prequel to that 2014 film has a completely different creative team, led by director and co-writer (along with Jeff Howard) Mike Flanagan.  You may not immediately recognize his name but Flanagan has a pretty sturdy reputation among horror geeks, already, having also directed and co-written the well-reviewed and received Oculus and, more recently, the Netflix film Hush.  In addition, he’s currently at work on a film adaptation of the Stephen King thriller Gerald’s Game.  Quite a respectable body of work for someone who’s really only just getting started.

Origin of Evil is unquestionably an improvement upon its predecessor.  In fact, I can’t immediately recall another sequel that is this significantly superior to the original in its series.  While the film isn’t entirely devoid of some elements that we’ve seen before in other horror films, it’s also nothing approaching a clone of any other film, in particular, either.

The movie is essentially a possession story, which has become a pretty popular trend over the last decade or so, to various degrees of success.  There are echoes of some of the more successful films from that subgenre, but there’s enough fresh material and ingenuity for the film to attain its own identity.

The film’s biggest asset is its sophistication and maturity.  We get to know the family at the center of the events and, though flawed, we come to care for them.  If a horror film fails to get the audience invested in its protagonist(s), then that horror film fails, period.  That’s not an issue, here.  Flanagan takes great care to write and then cast the principles properly, dedicating enough time to fleshing them out that they feel real and believable without making the film feel like it drags before the “good stuff” starts to happen.  These attributes make Ouija a good film, proper, before worrying about also making it a good horror film.

And, don’t worry; it’s a great horror film!  Complementing the well-laid foundation is the excellently structured horror narrative.  Flanagan doesn’t wait long to get into the supernatural activity.  But he also doesn’t give away too much, too soon.  The pacing is perfect, and he stays true to the basic “the-less-seen-the-scarier” template that almost never fails.  Once things pick up and the audience is a bit more privy to what’s actually going on, the beautifully-timed scares and deeply disturbing visuals don’t stop.  With only a couple of exceptions, these are unpredictable and, for me, often unimaginably unsettling.

I can’t get into details without spoilers, but I’ll say I had a bit of an issue swallowing part of the logic behind how to ultimately defeat the spirit.  However, as the climax continues to unfold, an explanation is presented, though not explicitly laid out.  So, if you see the film and come to a moment where you’re thinking that something doesn’t make sense, give it a few more minutes.

Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t quite have the depth or layers of The Conjuring 2, but it’s pretty easily my second-favorite horror film of the year.  And that’s in a year that’s been stacked with solid horror films.  Story and character take front-and-center while mood, atmosphere, and imaginative visuals pack the punch that’s necessary for an effective horror film.  Whether you prefer jump scares or creep scares, you’ll get your fix, while also getting a story about a family struggling to survive both literally and metaphorically.  The cast rises above what’s expected of them (Annalise Basso as Lina takes particular advantage of an opportunity towards the end of the film) and Mike Flanagan and his crew never talk down to the audience.  No need to consult the spirits; Ouija: Origin of Evil is an easy recommendation for horror films of all types.

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83. Ouija: Origin of Evil

#ThrowbackThursday – Batman

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Original US release date: June 23, 1989
Production budget: $35,000,000
Worldwide gross: $411,348,924

So much can be said about Tim Burton’s Batman.  Though this was not the first time that Batman had ventured to the big screen (he was featured in a theatrical serial in the 1940s and then the Adam West series transitioned to cinemas with Batman: The Movie in 1966), this film redefined the character for the general public.  Having been ingrained in casual audiences’ heads as goofy, campy, and silly for over two decades thanks to the aforementioned Adam West-led television series, Tim Burton’s take on Batman gave viewers a darker, more sophisticated, grown-up version of the character and the world around him that persists to this day and has even invaded other properties, for better or for worse.  Batman was not only a financial success, but it was the benchmark for all comic book films to come as well as the film that pioneered the summer blockbuster as we know it, today.

Even if nothing can approach the levels of pre-release controversy that we’re all accustomed to seeing with modern day releases, Batman wasn’t without it’s share.  Initially, the casting of Michael Keaton was met with confusion from some (“The guy who played Beetlejuice?!”) and total outrage from others.  There was even a letter-writing campaign (there was no e-mail, texting, or Twitter back then, kids.  Fan entitlement came at the cost of a stamp in those days!) that resulted in approximately 50,000 letters reaching Warner Brothers, asking for Keaton to be replaced.  As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, as Keaton stepped up and proved them all wrong.  To this day, he remains my favorite Batman.  (At the same time, African-American actor Billy Dee Williams was cast to play a pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent and nobody batted an eye, to my recollection.  Take that for what you will.)

Besides that, the darker tone garnered plenty of complaints from parents.  For many, the Adam West series had been their only exposure to the character and when they didn’t get more of the same (see?  Even back then, Americans didn’t want “originality”.), they weren’t sure how to take it.  This Batman hurt people.  He broke bones.  There was bleeding.  Cursing.  People die.  I remember being at the mall with my mom not long before seeing the movie, looking at Batman shirts.  A complete stranger started talking to us about it, saying that people were claiming it should have been rated R (it wasn’t that bad, dude, come on).  I was terrified that my parents wouldn’t take me to see it, after that, but those fears were fortunately unfounded.  (I do remember that we didn’t see it opening weekend.  Want to know why?  Because Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out the same day and my sister wanted to see that.  And she says our parents always loved me more!)

What so many were unaware of is that a man named Frank Miller had come along and written a book entitled THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (never read it?  Buy it here!) that had completely changed the comic book industry and people’s perception of Batman.  Now, don’t misunderstand.  Batman hadn’t been anything resembling the Adam West version for a very long time, even by that point.  But Miller’s book was the nail in the coffin for anyone hoping for a return to those days of innocence and naiveté.  Instead, what Burton delivered with his film was heavily inspired by the tone of 1940s Batman with a dash of Miller’s influence (though with nothing lifted straight from Miller’s material).

It shows from the very beginning.  Opening with Danny Elfman’s moody and haunting, yet inspiring, theme (also still my favorite movie score.  And, while I’m naming things from this movie that are my favorites, this Batmobile is my favorite, too.) while swooping through a three-dimensional stone-sculpted Bat-Symbol from a first person perspective, it’s clear that this isn’t the ’60s, anymore.  It’s still hard not to get amped up by those opening credits!

What follows is a thrilling, action/crime drama that easily holds up, 27 years later.  Burton wisely tells Batman’s origin in brief flashbacks, knowing that the audience would be much more interested in and entertained by the present-day world and story (a lesson that at least one other recent comic book film could have learned from).  And what a world it is!  The set designs are just absolutely breathtaking.  Gotham City lives up to its name with exquisite gothic architecture that transports the viewer into a world that feels at once familiar and like a grandiose dream.  Wayne Manor and the Batcave are far more awe-inspiring than anything I could have imagined on my own and the Batmobile and Batwing just serve as the icing on the cake.  Gotham City never looked better – before or since.

The character and wardrobe designs are top-notch as well.  The most obvious influence that this film had that continues on to this day is the black costume for Batman.  He had never dressed like that in the comics (and still hasn’t.  Or, if he has, he hasn’t done it regularly and it somehow escaped my notice.) and while I don’t believe the change was absolutely necessary (dark blues and grays would have still looked great), it worked well.  It worked so well, in fact, that more people envision him in all-black than any other way.

The Joker’s design was pitch-perfect.  Had Jack Nicholson possessed a smaller frame, he would have looked like a Neal Adams drawing come to life.  The surgically-enhanced perpetual smile on his face became an iconic image from the film and solidified him as being the Joker we knew and the Joker we craved.

Of course, this was all anchored by Jack Nicholson, himself.  Heath Ledger continues to get all the press but Nicholson’s Joker was just as strong, even if it was a different approach.  Nicholson was portraying the Joker that Bob Kane originally envisioned when the character first appeared in 1940.  His sense of humor is sadistic; he’s not actually supposed to be funny (at least, certainly not within the context of which he’s making his jokes or behaving in a jovial manner).  Only he and his posse should be finding humor in his antics.  I’m speaking within the framework of the film, of course.  There’s plenty to laugh at/with from the audience’s perspective.  But there’s never any doubt that, if that world was real and we were there, we wouldn’t be laughing.  Nicholson comprehends this and lets loose with 100% Joker, 100% of the time, and it’s glorious.

Keaton, too, understands the dichotomy that exists within his own character of Bruce Wayne/Batman.  This Bruce Wayne is charismatic but also benevolent.  He behaves in a way that doesn’t let on to the fact that he has a darker side.  In other incarnations filled by other actors, Wayne often seems like he’s unable to put on the Bruce Wayne face and frankly makes it easy to suspect that he could be Batman.  Keaton charms with sincerity as Wayne and no one questions it – unless he allows them to get too close, which explains his hesitance towards forming an attachment to Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale.  But he gives in to her and, Vale being a reporter, she immediately knows something is up.  All of this works because of Keaton and his ability to subtly change himself when he switches from Wayne to Batman.  His Wayne has the outward appearance and behavior of being someone who feels complete and would gain nothing by being a vigilante.  Combine that with his physical stature and it’s easy to see how he could go unsuspected as being the Bat.  Perfect casting.

Basinger fills Vicki Vale’s shoes with grace, intelligence, and charm.  It’s not hard to understand why Bruce would fall for her, despite his misgivings.  Nor is it hard to understand why Alfred (Michael Gough, giving us the best on-screen Alfred to date, as well) works so hard to play matchmaker – even making a questionably huge executive decision towards the third act of the film to help push that notion along.  Most people probably see Vicki as the token love interest, but Basinger makes her irresistible.  Seeing as how Batman’s existence and Gotham City’s safety depends on Bruce Wayne very much resisting her (at least from his perspective), she actually almost serves as another foil, pitting Batman against Bruce Wayne in the most dire of all internal struggles.

All of that adds up to the quintessential Batman experience.  And, while Batman was far from the first film I saw in the theater, it was the first one that I remember feeling like a true experience (I had another one, last weekend!).  There could be minor tweaks, here and there, but this was pretty much exactly what I wanted when I first sat down to see it in 1989 and it’s what I still want today in 2016.  I love the recent cinematic incarnations of Batman.  I liked Ben Affleck’s performance.  I love the Christopher Nolan films.  In fact, I think The Dark Knight Rises is probably my favorite Batman film, overall (due largely to Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy).  But, to me, Tim Burton’s vision is the truest.

Apparently, other people felt the same way at the time.  It broke all sorts of records, grossing over $411 million worldwide (I personally don’t believe inflation matters when regarding movie grosses, but, for fun, that would be a hair under $800 million, today) and turning Batman into a phenomenon across the globe.  Without this movie, there would have been no “Batman: The Animated Series”.  Likely no Christopher Nolan films.  No Arkham games.  Or, at least, we wouldn’t have gotten those things when we did or in their current forms.  Batman is the most popular fictional character in the world because of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton.

Beyond that, the immense success of the film prompted studios to re-evaluate their release strategy.  The summer blockbuster started to become a regular occurrence after Batman.  That business model remained essentially unchallenged until Titanic arrived in December of 1997 and became the highest grossing film of all-time (which it remains to this day) and opened up the doors for big holiday season releases.  And then, in recent years, Marvel Studios began releasing films at all times of the year to great success and the model is currently undergoing another shift.  Nonetheless, we still got huge release after huge release (often on top of each other) over the course of this past summer, as we do every year, and that traces back to the success of Batman.

Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t just one of the defining films of a generation.  It was a film that changed the entire industry forever.  It affects all film lovers to this day and its significance can and should not be understated or ignored.  Batman and his supporting cast are all wonderful characters that are open to many different interpretations.  And we’ve seen a lot of them – some great, some . . . not.  But for the purest, most authentic live-action version of the character, look no further than Tim Burton’s 1989 classic.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Batman

82. Shin Gojira (Godzilla Resurgence)

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Count me among those who outright loved Gareth Edwards’s 2014 American Godzilla.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was unquestionably high-quality with a sense of poetry to it that the 1998 Roland Emmerich version lacked to the point of starvation.  But Shin Gojira marks my very first opportunity to see a Japanese Godzilla film in a theater.  And if you want to do the same and you live in America, move fast!  It’s only in theaters here from October 11 until October 18 (an unusual Tuesday-to-Tuesday cycle).  When I saw that it was Now Playing In A Theater Near Me, I naturally became super-excited!  Part of the idea behind my crusade to see 100 movies in a single year was to get some variety in there.  So, I finally have a foreign film and a Godzilla film from his country of origin!

With over 30 films that span seven decades bearing his name, Godzilla is Japan’s most iconic and enduring pop culture export.  I can hear some of you, now.  I know many people love their Pokémon, but I’ve already stopped hearing about people playing Pokémon Go and the most recent movie made only about $20 million, worldwide, and less than $1 million domestically.  That property, while unquestionably successful, has a rabid, but niche fan base.  Today, I saw kids, I saw elderly, and I saw everyone in between.  I saw all colors.  I saw men and I saw women.  And it was sold out.  Godzilla may not be the hot property that Marvel or Frozen is, but he has a wide variety of dedicated fans and they were all super-excited to be there, today.

And, I loved being in this crowd.  The film is presented in its original Japanese language with English subtitles.  This is the best (and, in my mind, only) way to watch a foreign film.  Dubbing unfairly cuts out half of the performances that the cast works so hard to provide.  If you can’t hear them speak, you can’t be drawn into their work.  You can’t feel for them or feel with them.  They become video game avatars.  This crowd knew that and respected it.  They weren’t scared off by a little reading.  (You do need to be a fairly fast reader.  If you can’t read as quickly as people talk – and sometimes with captions at the top of the screen and dialogue simultaneously at the bottom – you’re going to have a problem.)  They also appreciated the special effects.  There are some computerized visual effects with the assistance of motion capture, but much of it is practical and none of it tries too hard to be mind-blowing.  Part of Godzilla’s appeal lies in the nostalgic aspect of a time of simpler filmmaking.  Some of it is silly.  Some of it is deliberately funny.  Some of it is surprising.  And terrifying.  And brutal.  It’s everything.  And, we, as an audience embraced it all.  This was my top moviegoing experience of 2016, and much of it had to do with that room of people.

This film actually marks the first time that Gojira (which is how I will refer to him, from this point forward, since this version of the character is from Japan) has been completely rebooted in a Japanese film.  The original 1954 classic Gojira never happened in the world of Shin Gojira as this is modern-day Japan being introduced to the giant Kaiju for the very first time.  In fact, for his initial appearance in this film, he is in his aquatic form and doesn’t yet look like the giant lizard you’re picturing in your head (don’t worry, though.  He gets there, soon enough.).  He looks downright bizarre – even shockingly so – as the movie kicks off.

And, boy does it kick off quickly!  There’s no set-up, no build to Gojira’s arrival.  At the beginning, he’s there.  Unlike the typical American approach to filmmaking where we get to know the principle characters before the action kicks in, here, we get to know them through the action.  As they scramble to collaborate and combat this unexpected and unprecedented threat to their very survival, we see what motivates them as individuals.  We learn how each of them thinks and we come to believe in the choices they each make along the way.  For my money, the standout is Satomi Ishihara, playing Japanese-American ambassador Kayoko Ann Patterson.  Her screen presence equals that of Gojira, himself, and she commands attention whenever she appears.

Underneath the action/adventure surface (which delivers completely), the film is a political metaphor on a couple of different levels.  For one, I found it incredibly interesting to see the American government through the eyes of Japanese filmmakers.  What I took away from it is that the filmmakers are respectful of America but also skeptical and never quite sure what America’s motivations are, even when helping out.  I’m not saying they’re right or wrong.  It’s great food for thought, though, and I really enjoyed seeing that perspective.

In addition to that, the film boils down to one fairly simple idea that you would think we, as a species, would have figured out by now, the world over.  Yet, it regularly feels as though very few have.  That idea is that if the people that are put into any given positions are actually qualified to hold said positions, then when problems arise, they are handled more efficiently and with much less collateral damage.  And this isn’t limited to governments.  So often, people have jobs due to who they know or who they paid off or because they cheated their way through school and faked their credentials or any other various reasons.  Eventually, they’re called upon to deliver and it never goes well.  Putting the most qualified people in the position is always the best idea.

Watching the Japanese and American governments figure this out the hard way (the OBSCENELY hard way!) together is at times humorous and at times heartbreaking.  But it’s always entertaining and even enlightening, in some ways.  And it’s never, ever predictable.

If you’re in America like I am and you want to catch Shin Gojira, you better hurry.  Let me remind you, it’s only in theaters for one week (technically eight days), from October 11-18.  Which means that, as of this writing, you have three days left.  And I urge you to go.  It’s getting really difficult for me to bump movies off of my 2016 Top Ten, at this point, but Shin Gojira forced me to do it.  It’s one of my favorite movies of the year and, as I said above, my very favorite theatrical experience of the year.  Days like today are exactly why I love going to the movies.  Digital downloading – legal or not – can’t touch the experience I had today.  So, stop waiting for it to arrive on Netflix and go embrace this piece of art.  While you can.

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82. Shin Gojira (Godzilla Resurgence)

81. The Accountant

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The Accountant is the latest film from director Gavin O’Connor, about an autistic mathematician who gets wrapped up in the shady business of his equally shady clientele.  While O’Connor has been hit (Warrior) and miss (Jane Got A Gun) for me, I can’t say the same for the outstanding cast – maybe the strongest in any film, this year.  Taking the lead is Ben Affleck and he finds himself surrounded by the likes of J.K. Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow, and Jean Smart.  That’s pedigree right there, folks.

I knew, if nothing else, I’d enjoy that cast.  Affleck is a tremendous talent both on- and off-screen, Simmons gave one of the greatest performances of all-time in Whiplash, Kendrick was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for Up in the Air, Bernthal is one of the three best performers in the history of “The Walking Dead” (along with Andrew Lincoln and Melissa McBride), Tambor is an ever-reliable character actor, Lithgow has reached legendary status over the years, and Smart has compiled an impressive filmography over the course of the last three-plus decades.  Also, I’m a mathematician, so the film had that in its favor, too.

Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  What I got was a solid action thriller that didn’t quite live up to its potential, mostly due an eye-rolling “twist” in the third act.  Leading up to that, The Accountant mostly has a strong sense of identity, narrowing its focus towards telling a compelling and exciting story with believable, sophisticated characters.

Affleck’s Christian Wolff is a well-meaning man who keeps company with people who aren’t quite as well-meaning.  Being as intelligent as he is, he knows what he’s capable of and what his talents can be best used for, and those things aren’t legal.  He needs the money, though, and has complete confidence that he can handle himself.  In his downtime, he relaxes with his Jackson Pollock original painting and his copy of ACTION COMICS #1.  When he finds that other, much more innocent people have gotten mixed up in his dirty business, he sets out to fix the problem.

Nearly the entire film works, and works well.  The narrative is complex and mature.  The characters are strong and intelligent (unless one considers how long it takes Cynthia Addai-Robinson’s Investigator Medina to find the obvious connection between Wolff’s aliases).  The pacing is brisk but even.  Not all of the remarkable cast gets as much screen time as I was hoping, but they’re there to serve the story and they each get at least a moment or two to shine.  For the most part, all is well.  Until it happens.

I’m not going to spoil exactly what it is, but as I mentioned above, there’s an attempted twist that completely fails and nearly derails the film.  It’s a twist that isn’t a twist.  And I say that because this “twist” is frustratingly clichéd and entirely predictable.  Up until that moment, the film is an intelligent, seasoned thriller that asks its viewership to rise up to its level.  And then it feels like O’Connor suddenly wants to pander to a less-discerning general audience that needs a “surprise” in order to spread positive word of mouth about a film.  It’s unnecessary and disappointing.  Making the entire situation even more frustrating is that the film as a whole would have been better served and of an even higher quality than it was shaping up to be had the twist been revealed to the audience near the beginning and then used to help build the tension for a more captivating climax.  I just know that had the twist been confirmed earlier in the picture, the denouement would have had a much stronger sense of urgency and the suspense would have been through the roof as the audience waited for the truth to dawn on the characters.

The good news is that, once the reveal takes place, the way the film handles it is fresh and unexpected.  But by that point, I was so deflated by being hit with such a common Hollywood trope that it wasn’t enough to make up for it.

The Accountant is a very good film that is almost (and could have easily been) a great film.  I hate to punish it so much for one crucial mistake, but it’s a creative choice that completely boggles my mind.  Or at least, the handling of it does.  The film is still worth checking out for everything else (the action, which I’ve failed to mention is intense and riveting, as well) but brace yourself for a “twist” that you will have probably deduced on your own long before the film reaches the end.

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81. The Accountant