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Friday Flicks: Heroes East, Heroes West

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: July 2018
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Opening this weekend:

TTG Movie Poster 5

Teen Titans GO! (To the Movies)
Many of us have never been sure why Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman's sidekick and the longtime alpha hero of the Teen Titans, has never been the star of his own movie. This animated kid-flick, based on the popular Cartoon Network series, both redresses this oversight and uses it as the source of the drama.

Robin (voiced by Scott Menville) deeply resents how the other DC characters, including Superman (Nicolas Cage), condescend to him and his friends, and how even Alfred the Butler seems to be rated ahead of him as movie star material. So Robin and his pals the Titans – dizzy Princess Starfire, shape-shifting, green-skinned Beast Boy (aka The Changeling), Goth-ish sorceress Raven and semi-mechanical Cyborg – resort to all sorts of tactics to make this happen. They try everything from courting an arch-nemesis, Slade (Will Arnett), whose similarity to Marvel's Deadpool is much commented upon, to traveling back in time and averting the traumas which produced the great superheroes, thus leaving them the only game in town.

Like the show, the film is very much in the brash, loud-voiced, aggressive, lightning-paced style now in vogue in kid's TV cartoons. As such, it can be a little exhausting in the long run for grown-ups, but moment to moment it's hilarious, flying through good-natured spoofs of everything from The Lion King to South Park to Stan Lee's cameos in the Marvel movies. It's not quite as deadpan and trenchant a superhero lampoon as last year's excellent Lego Batman Movie, also featuring Arnett, but overall it's much cheerier. It also features the obligatory upbeat, inspirational song about life, here titled "An Upbeat, Inspirational Song About Life."

 

Opening this weekend at AMC Centerpoint:

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings
At least as wacky as Teen Titans GO!, and even more imaginative, is this fanciful epic from China. It opens with the title character (Mark Chao), the head of a criminal investigation bureau in the Tang Dynasty, being entrusted by the Emperor with a McGuffin called the "Dragon-Taming Mace."

What a tizzy this causes. The power-hungry Empress (Carina Lau) deploys all manner of freaky warriors with magical powers, spectral or combustible or multi-armed or weather-conjuring, to get the mace back. 220px Detective Dee2c The Four Heavenly KingsWorking behind them are masked, cloaked figures called Wind Warriors—“Dangerous people with weird skills," to use Dee's phrase.

There are mysterious prisoners and cryptic clues and poisoned paintings. There's life-restoring acupuncture. There are meaningful sidelong glances and divided loyalties and seductions. There's rope-climbing while pursued by scorpions. There are multi-eyed giants and golden dragons and giant white apes and giant talking koi and illusory horrors that look like Dale Chihuly sculptures come to life. But Dee remains unflappable in the face of all this and more.

Our hero is derived from a historical figure, Dee Renjie, a famed 7th-Century magistrate also known in the west, from a series of novels by the Dutch author Robert van Gulik, as Judge Dee (judges were their own investigators in criminal cases in medieval China). But this movie—the third in a series, directed with panache by Tsui Hark—makes no more of a claim on history than Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It's a pure, off-the-wall fairy tale that makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon look like kitchen-sink realism, and the best of its wild special-effects flourishes are strange and thrilling.

The tone is light and often comic, though never quite campy, and the cast is terrific, especially Feng Shaofeng as a rather grandly troubled guardsman and Sichun Ma as an assassin struggling with a change of heart. At the center is Chao's relaxed, attractive Dee, chuckling to himself as he tries to cut fluttering gingko leaves with his sword. If they can be persuaded to read subtitles, kids who like superhero movies might enjoy this action-packed fantasy (older kids, that is; there's some spooky stuff and violence), and so might adults.