Thursday, March 30, 2017

Way Of The Dragon (a.k.a. Return Of The Dragon) : A 45th Anniversary Look Back At The True Gem Of Bruce Lee's Film Library

Sournce: Miramax Films
For most average film fans Bruce Lee is best known for his seminal masterpiece ,1973's Enter The Dragon, and rightfully so. However the year prior to the release of that major Hollywood co-production, he was given the opportunity to take full reign on one of his film projects with Golden Harvest Productions out of Hong Kong. He would be the writer, director, producer, and star of the film. This allowed fans to truly see the full scope and range of not only his masterful choreography with action and martial arts, but also his humane, comedic, and fun side that was not as often expressed in his other films.

 His first two feature films made in Hong Kong both broke box office records, 1971's The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury), and 1972's  Fist of Fury (a.k.a. The Chinese Connection). Following those successes Golden Harvest Productions gave "carte blanche" to Bruce Lee to make his next feature film. He made the best of this opportunity by asking for full creative control which they did not oppose. Much like everything else he did in life, Bruce wanted this to be the ultimate spectacle in martial arts movies. He did not want to limit himself to the usual period piece, stylized version of martial arts films that had been made to that point in time. He wanted his film to have style, panache, hard-hitting action, and great locations. He also wanted to make sure that his film would present a formidable foe instead of a bunch of hapless soldiers and wannabe warriors that would be easily dispatched in the action scenes. With all of the dedication, precision, and determination he had within himself Bruce was able to bring his vision to reality and create a martial arts masterpiece.

 The plot of Way Of The Dragon is standard fare for the genre- Bruce plays Tang Lung, who is sent to Rome to help his friends' niece Chang Ching-Hua (played by Nora Maio) who owns a restaurant there. The restaurant is under siege by a local mob boss (played by Jon T. Benn).  The boss wants to buy the place but Chang refuses to sell so they begin terrorizing the customers and forcing all the business away so there is no money to be made. Once the mob enforcers run into Tang Lung, the mob's reign of terror quickly comes to an end. Not wanting to accept defeat, the mob boss hires two of the best martial artists he can find, one being a Karate Champion named Colt, played by future action star Chuck Norris. A full on assault is thrust at Tang Lung who must save the day and face Colt in a duel to the death at the mighty Roman Colosseum. 

 There are many elements that make this entry in Bruce Lee's films stand out. The first is the use of locations outside of China, in this case Rome, Italy. It was not commonplace for films to be shot outside of China in those days so this was a big deal. The other element that stands out is the use of diversity in the cast. You can see that in his own way Bruce wanted very much for his fans, and the Chinese culture, to see themselves as being equals with other cultures and other countries. This was not presented as a direct "us against them" attitude as much as it was a "if they can do it, so can we" philosophy. Typically the martial arts action movies made at that time had the heroes fighting Japanese or Chinese villains, but Bruce would not let himself be limited to these basic formulas. In Way Of The Dragon we see him taking on the Italian Mob (which cleverly included a Chinese Consigliere to bridge the culture gap) and a American karate warrior. It was this kind of diversification that Bruce had been exposed to in his own life having lived in the United States prior to returning to Hong Kong to make movies. So it was important to him that he share this diversity with the Chinese audiences. These differences from the films that came before it are what make this entry so unique in Bruce's library. When Enter The Dragon was being made the following year Bruce lobbied for themes and settings that were similar to Way Of The Dragon however there was more of a challenge to properly depict the Chinese heritage and philosophies that Bruce wanted to convey due to the expectations and concerns brought forth by Warner Bros, the American studio that was financing that picture. In my opinion this adds a greater value to Way Of The Dragon simply because Bruce was not constrained by anyone. What we see in the final product is purely his vision for how the picture was intended to be seen and when you consider it was his first (and sadly the only) turn as the director of the film you cannot help but be impressed.

In the grand scheme of films Way Of The Dragon is still what it was always meant to be- a fun, hard hitting, stylized martial arts action film. If you watch the English version it has plenty of that quirky dubbing that was a constant in all martial arts film made overseas. It also has elements of editing and camera angles that make this very much a movie of the early 70's. Bruce's success with his films in China and around the world would increase interest in the genre and ultimately give birth to the "chop socky" films that would be released en mass throughout the 1970's, especially following the popularity of Enter The Dragon in 1973. But none of those films could match the polish that Bruce's films generated which was largely due to his unswerving dedication to be the best at everything he did. For this reviewer, Way Of The Dragon was truly the best of the best. If you have never taken the time to watch any of Bruce Lee's films, or if you have only seen Enter The Dragon, take the time to see Way Of The Dragon and be treated to the truest essence of Bruce Lee that was ever put on film.

Reel Rating (Out Of A Possible Four)



Way Of The Dragon at IMDB

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Batman Returns: A 25th Anniversary Look Back At Tim Burton's Second, And Devise, Batman Film

Source: Warner Bros.

Batman Returns is the 1992 sequel to Tim Burton's hugely successful 1989 film Batman. Even though"Returns" was a box office success in the summer of '92 it was, and remains, a divisive entry in the Batman franchise, particularly for die hard Batman fans. For the most part it suffers from a "love it or hate it" label but it is a film that can be entertaining to revisit years later.

In 1989 Warner Bros. and director Tim Burton brought Batman to cinema screens. The movie was destined to succeed for a few reasons- first, the movie was revealed to be a departure from the previous generations' Batman of the 1960's as depicted in the television show (with Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin). By the 1980's this was a welcome change since comic books had taken on a much darker and intense tone. Secondly, the marketing for that movie was, in the opinion of this reviewer, one of the biggest of recent memory for any movie. Batman seemed to permeate from every type of media outlet whenever possible and people were soaking it up. The box office success confirmed the love for the character and the film when total receipts estimated in excess of $400 million dollars. Without much of a surprise, Warner Bros. was keen to get started on a sequel.

Tim Burton was reluctant to come back for a sequel since sequels were not something he was a big believer of as a director. But when you direct of one of the biggest grossing films of an entire decade the studio will go to great lengths to get that you to swing back into the director's chair for another movie. The angle that Warner Bros used to get Burton back was to offer more creative control of the second film than he had in the his first effort (if you look at Burton's other films prior to the first entry you quickly notice that 1989's Batman is a departure from what was typically more his style). Burton felt that with more control he could concentrate his energy and style on some of the other characters in the new story since he already established Batman in the first film. Once he agreed to sign on his first priority would be to make sure that Michael Keaton would return as Batman/Bruce Wayne,which he agreed to do. The studio was keen on having the Penguin be the main villain in the second film and they asked screenwriter Sam Hamm, writer of the first film, to draft a script. Burton took issue with Hamm's script and eventually had a new writer (Wesley Strick) brought in to rewrite. One element that stayed from the original treatment was the inclusion of Catwoman as a companion villain in the story. Burton liked the new story line which was loosely inspired by an episode of the 1960's television show called"Hizzoner the Penguin"/ "Dizzoner the Penguin" (the episodes were always presented as two-part stories) in which the Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham City. With the casting rounded out to include Danny Devito, Michelle Peiffer, and Academy Award (tm) winner Christoper Walken, all of the pieces were in place for production to began on Batman's new adventure.

Batman Returns focuses on the tumultuous and wild life of Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a The Penguin), played by Danny DeVito. Born a deformed infant, his parents are so ashamed of him that they decide to put him in a basket and throw him into the river  (Yikes!). His river journey lands him in the sewers under the Gotham City Zoo where he is subsequently raised by a family of penguins. We fast forward 30 years later to find that Cobblepot, who has become an urban legend called "The Penguin Man of the Sewers", a figure that people have often heard of but have never seen. Oswald has spent his time below devising a plan to thrust himself back into the world and take revenge on the society that has shunned him. His plan begins during Gotham's Christmas tree lighting ceremony where the mayor (played by Michael Murphy) and one of Gotham's most well known figures, Max Shreck (eccentrically played by Christopher Walken) are in attendance. Cobblepot then unleashes his "Circus Gang" onto the crowd. Even though the police, with the assistance of our hero Batman, stop the Circus Gang from causing total mayhem and destruction, they are able to follow through with their bosses plan of kidnapping Shreck. Shreck is brought below the surface where he comes face to face with Cobblepot.  We then learn that Cobblepot has prepared a wickedly devised blackmail scheme to force Shreck to assist him with his plan to "re-emerge" into society so he can out find out who he really is and who is parents are. But as we would suspect, Oswald's plan is far from being as simple as it sounds. Once Oswald is brought out to the public in a clever ploy that makes it appear that he has foiled a kidnapping of the Mayor's infant, the public looks upon him with sympathy and affection. Shreck now sees this public sentiment as an opportunity for both of them to prosper, so he convinces Oswald to run for mayor of Gotham (in between everything else we discover that the current Mayor of Gotham is not cooperating with Shreck's proposal for a new power plant). Everything looks to be going their way with the public support growing daily, but in the background Batman has his suspicions. He believes that Cobblepot already know who his parents are and that there is more to this story than meets the eye. His suspicions, as usual, are correct. Oswald is secretly devising a plan to destroy Batman so that when he becomes mayor no one will stand in his way to reign with supreme control.

In the midst of all of this chaos a new figure emerges on the streets of Gotham- The Catwoman (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). Selena Kyle, a former personal assistant to Max Shreck, was left for dead by her boss after she took it upon herself to read secret files that explained the deceptive truth about his new power plant. Once she explains to Shreck that she read the files in order to prepare for a big meeting he shoves her out of five story window, sending her to her death. Unfortunately for him, she is brought back to life by the "mystical" power of a band of alley cats. She awakes a changed person, more feline, and manically bent on revenge. She quickly sees that using the Penguin is the easiest way to get to Shreck. She also sees that she has an enemy in common with Penguin- the Batman. Using her "persuasive" charms she gets Oswald to work with her on a plan to kill Batman while maintaining her own agenda. Together they devise an evil scheme to frame Batman for the murder of Gotham's "Ice Princess" (bubbly portrayed by Christi Conaway).

Their scheme works as planned-  the Ice Princess is attacked by a pack of rabid bats, planted by the Penguin, causing her to fall to her death. The bats offer a deceiving indication to the public that Batman is the culprit. Suddenly people switch from seeing Batman as Gotham's hero to now being a ruthless killer. Following her murder he flees to the Batmobile to escape only to discover that Penguin has planted a control device which allows remote control of the Batmobile. Batman finds the device and breaks it narrowly avoiding more disaster at the hands of the Penguin. During the Batmobile altercation Penguin goes off in a rant about how easily he has duped the foolish citizens of Gotham City and luckily Batman has the sense to record the whole speech on his CD drive (that ever clever Batman). The next day Penguin appears at in public to make a speech when Batman interrupts the feed and plays the recording from the night before exposing Penguin's true feelings about Gotham's citizens. The crowd quickly turns on him and suddenly he is seen for the true criminal that he is. Penguin scurries back to the river and finds his way to his secret lair where he assembles his army of penguins to reign terror on all of Gotham. He reveals to his Circus Gang that he has been able to compile a list of all of Gotham's first born sons. He intends to kidnap these children and have them all thrown in to the river like he was, cementing his revenge on Gotham City for his own banishment. With Penguin's evil plan in full force and the Catwoman lurking in the shadows out to kill Max Shreck, it's up to Batman to foil their plans and save the citizens of Gotham from utter disaster and mayhem.

When viewing Batman Returns for the first time it catches you off guard as to how different the tone of film is in comparison to the original. The first entry in the series was more of a straight on comic book adaptation that followed a more traditional formula that viewers expect from superhero movies. This one takes much more "artistic" liberties and certainly has a more fantastical element that was not as prevalent in the predecessor. It almost seems like the Batman character, who is very much grounded the same way he was in the first film, was placed in a whole new setting and atmosphere. One almost gets the impression that Tim Burton made up for all of his trademark elements in this film that he was not able to do the first time around. In fact, it may be easier for a casual viewer to watch Burton's 1988 film Beetlejuice and then jump into Batman Returns instead of watching Batman (1989) and then Returns. However, as I stated in the opening of the review, the film does grow on you once you get over the tonal differences.

The depictions of the Catwoman and The Penguin by the respective actors who played them are quite good and they do a good job of carrying the story. The Catwoman and Penguin's only live action appearance prior to this film was in the TV series of the 60's so their newer, darker and harder edged interpretations are fleshed out well. Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Catwoman was outstanding and is considered by many to be the best depiction of the character thus far. Danny DeVito plays the Penguin with an appropriately "chilly" demeanor and has no shame in taking a twisted pride in his gruesome nature. The fans reaction to Devito's portrayal has been somewhat divisive throughout the years but I feel that it is perfect for the style and tone of this film and I have believed for many years that he has not received enough credit for how great of a job he did with the role. His transformation into the twisted Oswald Cobblepot feels very genuine on screen and you can tell he really put his efforts into making a strong character. Christopher Walken certainly brings his maniacal brilliance to his performance as Max Shreck in spades and Michael Keaton's return as Batman/Bruce Wayne was just as solid as ever.

In the grand scheme of the Batman franchise Batman Returns at best runs in the middle of the pack for me. The film has some good Batman moments, some good humor, and some "where did that come from?" elements. If you are a fan of Tim Burton's other work you may have a greater appreciation for this entry even more so than the original, but if you are more a general superhero or die hard Batman fan, than this one may take a little getting used to. The one factor that truly helped bring this movie up a couple of notches was the future direction the films were headed in following its release. Even though Batman Returns did very well at the box office, scoring in excess of $265 million dollars, the generally divided response to Burton's second film by critics and fans alike made the studio decide that they needed to go with a lighter, more child friendly approach to the Batman character. This led to a new director and a new take on Batman that was definitely lighter, and unfortunately too silly and slapstick at times, than fans wanted to see. But because of those changes that took place and the films that were spawned as a result of those changes, a look back at Batman Returns now makes it a stronger entry than it was when it was released which is a credit to the film and its makers. 

Reel Rating (Out Of  A Possible Four):


Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight - Dark Side of the Knight: Director: Constantine Nasr (2005)