Tuesday, August 30, 2011

We Agree: Green Lantern

(read David's take)

2011, Martin Campbell

As I stated in my review of Captain America: The First Avenger, I have a big problem with movies that are so obviously made by a committee. Green Lantern is the worst offender since X-Men: The Last Stand. It's bluntly a terrible movie that is so obviously the product of too many cooks in the kitchen. The film lacks a consistency in tone throughout, as if it's trying to be all things to all people... space opera, comedy, drama, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, tragedy, etc. and it succeeds at none of it.

As a comics fan I'm more than intimately familiar with the Green Lantern Corps, with Hal Jordan and his origin story, and it's simple: an alien crash lands on earth, found by ace pilot Hal Jordan, he bequeaths upon him a Green Lantern ring, one of the most powerful weapons in the universe, making him a deputy in the intergalactic space police force. The film executes this origin story in an exceptionally convoluted manner, involving an extensive and unnecessary Top Gun-style action sequence and a supremely overwrought flashback sequence about Hal's father dying in a plane explosion (the flashback was so incredibly cheesy, the events of which are mentioned at least three times throughout the film, negating the necessity of the flashback itself).

Then the film ties Hal's Green Lantern origin story into that of b-grade villain Hector Hammond. The whole Hammond storyline seemed out of place like it was happening in another film world altogether. Peter Sarsgaard's portrayal of the nebbish Hammond is actually quite entertaining, but, again, almost pointless to the plot of the movie.

Once Hal receives the ring, he has no idea what to do with it and the film tries to play his confusion for laughs, and then wraps his discovery of its power into a forgettable sub-plot about Ferris Aircraft possibly losing a military contract. It's a good 15 minutes before Hal is scuttled off to Oa by his ring, something that, for good pacing, should have happened as immediately as he received it.

Oa is a planet without any logical or habitable structures. It's a place where Green Lanterns gather in large clusters to shoot their rings up in the air like Yosemite Sam after a rousing speech. They're led by the eternal Guardians of the Universe, a cranky group of large-headed, blue gnomes who seem to have it all figured out, that is except how to defeat their greatest nemesis, the embodiment of fear, Parallax. But that's okay, because Hal will do what hundreds of other GLs couldn't and defeat Parallax permanently, and in only about 20 minutes, which has to be some kind of record.

While on Oa, Hal gets about 12 minutes of training from Kilowog and Sinestro, then turns tail and runs home, thoroughly embarrassed. From what little they've established of Hal's character, turning tail from a fight or getting shamed into quitting something just doesn't seem his style (especially from someone who is supposed to represent the ultimate in willpower, I mean really). Yet, home he goes to sulk, until Hector causes a catastrophe at a Ferris Aircraft party, and Hal saves the day, I guess, proving that, hey, he's actually pretty good at this hero stuff.

Then Hector summons Parallax to Earth, Hal asks the Guardians for help in saving Earth from it, which they turn down (as I think the guardians were hoping to turn earth into and interstellar overpass anyway). Rejected, Hal gives a rousing speech about overcoming fear (a speech repeated at least three times in the film) and asks permission (why?) to go off and fight it alone. It's as confounding and inept a scene as I've seen in a major motion picture in years.

The green screening in Green Lantern is pretty bad... special effects in the film are ever-present so doubtlessly the effects budget was spread pretty thin, and everything suffered for it. The CGI characters didn't look very good, the CGI settings looked more fake than matte paintings, and the figures in action seemed to have so very little weight to them, like they were balloon people.

The film's editing was baffling, large sections of the film are comprised of quick jumps between sub-plots in 20 - 30 second increments, as if the editor was attempting some type of Paul Thomas Anderson/Magnolia-type emotional parallel between storylines. There was no emotional parallel, it was just bizarre, noticeable and even a little frustrating.

The film was, from frame one, overdesigned. The original Green Lantern costume and power battery are quite simple in their design, but the film goes overboard in attempting to give them an "alien" aesthetic, and winds up just looking fake. Abin Sur's space-ship, Oa, the adaptation of Tomar Re and Kilowog to the screen, all overdesigned, made more complex and ugly in the process.

The film utilizes two largely recognizable actors in Tim Robbins and Angela Bassett in tragically inept ways. These roles are not for stars of their caliber but for bit character actors used to slinging a half dozen lines with an off-beat gravitas. Bassett plays Amanda Waller, a comic transplant, who transitions from being a bad as show-runner of a covert government agency to an ineffectual government scientist.

And let's not forget that, in the film Hal has a best friend whom I'm not certain is ever given a name. I know from comics history class that he's Tom Kalmaku (aka Hal's Eskimo buddy Pieface, here played by New Zealander Taika Waititi best known, perhaps, as a director of various Flight Of The Conchords episodes) but he's never called "Tom" that I can recall and only saw reference to his name in the IMDB credits.

As far as the acting, it was acceptable. Mark Strong makes the perfect Sinestro, and Ryan Reynolds is a passable asshole as Hal Jordan, and even Blake Lively, who was singled out as terrible in the trailers wasn't as bad as the material they were presented with delivering. This film won't be making anyone's highlight reel.

The flaws of this film are great, in fact the entire film is perhaps one big folly, and yet, I want another Green Lantern film, just next time, do it right. Just don't go so overboard. I looked at the posters for this film as they were scattered around town at bus stops and on subways, images of Sinestro and Tomar Re cropping up everywhere, and it could have be so wonderful, it could have been a star-spanning epic that kids would embrace like my generation embraced Star Wars, getting excited over the minutia of the alien characters on display, alas, the suits and the hands wanted something different. They wanted a moneymaker, they wanted something that everyone would want to watch, and as a result got an unsuccessful flop that nobody should watch.

3 paragraphs on: His Girl Friday

1940, Howard Hawks (TCM)

Though I consider myself a bit of a cinephile, at the same time I recognize the gaping holes in my cinematic language. Howard Hawks is one of those legendary filmmaker's whose works I have somehow never seen, like Fellini or Preminger. I guess my natural tendency towards the fantastic and the science fictionistic have kept me in the cinematic gutter as far as classic cinema is concerned. I have seen hundreds of films that were made before the 1980s yet few of them step outside of genre.

His Girl Friday is a curious film that rather defies categorization, as few films do anymore. It's not an outright comedy, though the fast-paced banter between characters and the mad-cap scenarios where characters talking over one another certainly paint it in a lighter tone. There's a romance angle to it, but it's so subverted, so ancillary to the main plot, and yet, it's ultimately the entire point of the movie. There's a dramatic flourish revolving around the story a man convicted for the murder of a police office and sentenced to hang, yet shouldn't be guilty of anything more than manslaughter at best as he was in a manic episode at the time.

The set-up of the film finds Hildy (Rosiland Russell), an ace reporter, returning to her old newspaper to file final divorce papers with her ex, the paper's editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy has found herself a new beau and plans to marry him, but Walter's not ready to give up so easily, not on his marriage or letting his star reporter abandon his flagging paper. So through much conniving he gets Hildy on the story of the death row prisoner, while he continues to work his ways to drive a wedge between her and her husband-to-be. The actual story Hildy's working on takes precedence in the second act, Walter scarcely to be seen, while the third act turns into a somewhat tempered screwball comedy as the prisoner escapes right into Hildy and Walter's hands. It's an off-beat film, fun and engaging but lacking consistency. It's a film that offers some interesting (if Hollywood-ized) interpretations of the media and journalism of the day, as well as a female protagonist who not only competes with the boys but is respected by them. It's rather refreshing giving its age.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

2011, Rupert Wyatt

I have to say that, in general, I was more than a little astonished by the fact that they were making another Planet of the Apes movie. Let's face it, Tim Burton's 2001 "remake" was not great, taking a masterpiece of speculative SF and attempting to turn it into a big blockbuster franchise didn't work so well, and though they set up a sequel, thankfully it never came to fruition. The original series had five episodes to it, two derivative TV series (one animated, the other live action), and a number of comic books over the years. So the question then is this: where does Rise of the Planet of the Apes fit in? Is it part of the original series, or is it part of Tim Burton's series, or is it a fresh start?

Well, it's definitely not column B. I think the writers and director wanted to forget the Burton film existed. It's a little of column A, but mostly column C. The film paints a trajectory direct to the original film, even dropping some subtle notes in the background of Taylor and company's voyage into space in the background, and yet it doesn't fully jibe with the five films that comprise the original POTA series. In many respects it covers similar territory to the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, specifically the ape uprising against humanity, but it does so in a drastically different way, so either "Rise" replaces "Conquest" in the sequence, or it's a quasi-reboot of the series.

As I said, I was astonished that they (meaning studios/producers) would even bother to make another POTA film, but I was even more astonished to find that the film was more in keeping with the original tone of the series, balancing a light social commentary with SF themes and injecting an actual dramatic arc that the series never had before. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist searching for a cure for the Alzheimer's disease affecting his father (John Lithgow). The cure involves injections which help the brain grow new connective paths, and Rodman's experiments on chimpanzees had yielded remarkable results. Unfortunately, when his prime subject, a female ape named Bright Eyes, literally goes ape-shit, the project is cancelled. Rodman discovers that Bright Eyes' outburst that led to her termination was protective defensiveness, as unbeknown to any of her handlers, she had given birth to a baby boy. Rodman takes Cesar, the young orphaned ape home and cares for it, quickly discovering it has inherited the modified genes of its mother, and is hyper-intelligent, though still somewhat a slave to its primal instincts.

Cesar intervenes in a conflict between Will's father and a neighbour which gets him scuttled off to an ape sanctuary (Lithgow's patriarch role is a heartbreaking one in the film, and his relationship with both Will and Cesar is exceptionally well portrayed). Amongst his kind for the first time, but routinely tormented by humans, Cesar learns the cruelty of man and the dire conditions of his simian brethren. Naturally the ape named Cesar will lead them to revolution. There's a lot more that goes on between these major story beats, but that is the general breakdown, and it's fantastic, especially considering the fact that it's Cesar, a digital creation performed by Andy Serkis, that is the lead of the film, not Franco's Rodman. By the third act, in fact, Rodman's become somewhat irrelevant to the story and his participation in the films climax is virtually unnecessary.

The second act of Rise takes place largely inside the Ape conservatory, playing out like a heady prison drama more than science fiction or a summer action movie, as Cesar adapts to life on the "inside", establishes his dominance over the alpha male, and befriends an orangutan who can communicate with him in sign language. As intriguing as Cesar's origins and development were in the first act, carried largely by Franco and Lithgow, it's the second act which gives over to Serkis' performance and the apes, a daring move that leaves the film largely dialogue-free for much of its run though never actually requiring, a feat rivaled only by WALL-E.

Rise is impressive, a wonderfully intelligent piece of entertainment that is refreshingly old-fashioned in it's style of storytelling, but undoubtedly modern in its execution. The CGI apes, which is to say all of them, are quite remarkable, though they trigger a slight uncanny valley effect from time to time. The interaction between the cgi characters and the real world setting are some of the best executed I've seen, and it would seem the film spent it's money on making these characters as believable as possible instead of huge action sequences, of which this film only contains one, and it's a spectacular smoke-laden sequence taking place on the Golden Gate Bridge as a massive conclave of apes take on the San Francisco Police Department.

As a big fan of the POTA series, I can honestly say that this is the best of the films since the original. It's success has been the surprise of the summer, but it can only mean a follow-up is in order. I just hope they're not forced to go the "blockbuster" route for the sequel. These films work best on a smaller scale.

(NB* check out IGN's neat-o "Cheat Sheet" on the series)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Angel (complete series)

I started watching Angel via my roommate's DVD sets back in 2006, slowly progressing through Season 1 and even more slowly working my way through Season 2 making it as far as the end of the second disc before abandoning the series, not picking it up again until March of this year when the full run was uploaded to Netflix.

I found the first season a slog to get through, and my original impression still holds true. It's the difference between Buffy's serialized nature and the episodic format Angel adopted for the first season and a half of its existence. Where I left off in the second series - episode 8 - for my lengthy gap in viewership, was actually just the beginning of the first overreaching story arc culminating the return of Darla, now human with a soul, and the impact that has on Angel. It was the Darla arc that actually turned me around and got me invested in the show, as it showed some real depth to Angel's prophetic mission, framed in the context of his past as represented by his old lover. It was that arc that really started to build Angel into a Wolverine-like character, an old warrior, still not that bright despite his age, with a hell of a lot of inner turmoil and demons to escape. Much brooding abounds.

I was sad to see Elisabeth Rohm's departure from the show in the second season as "the cop who knows what's going on" but she got a good (if unresolved) sendoff. Meanwhile, I welcomed Andy Hallett's increasing presence as "the Host", later given a name: "Lorne, as in green". Hallett was such a wonderful character actor and an exceptionally bright presence, I was sad to learn he passed away shortly after the show had wrapped for good. There was a fun Buffy throw-back episode where Cordelia's old friend Harmony comes to visit, Cordy unaware at first that she had turned into a vampire. It's a cute one-off which had a surprise payoff for season 5. As well, Lindsey, pretty much Angel's chief nemesis of the series to that point, made a sudden and surprising departure towards the end of the season, more surprising in that he teamed up with Angel before vacating Wolfram and Hart for good, allowing Layla to step up as Angel's new rival.

By the end of the second season, the Wolfram and Hart angle had started to play itself out in tedious repetition. I knew in advance there was a payoff in season five, but there was a lot of treading water between those seasons. About the best aspect to come of W&H was Angel's answer to "what do you do when a bloodthirsty vampire winds up in the middle of a room full of lawyers" (lock the doors) which was one of the darkest and most powerful moments on the show.

While there was the "Darla" arc, it wasn't all pervasive, and the actual second season closed with a three-part story taking place in Pylea, Lorne's demonic homeworld, and while a complete tonal shift for the show, venturing into sword-and-sorcery light-fantasy, it was a welcome diversion.

The third season welcomed Fred and Lorne to the show as regulars, giving it a much needed jolt of energy and vibrancy. The noticeable pattern for Angel's seasons started to appear as they all open with three or more stand-alone episodes before they wade into a larger story arc, and the third, fourth and fifth seasons all seemed to be broken into two tangibly different (though not wholly unconnected) arcs. The third season featured the return of Darla, pregnant, culminating in her death and the birth of Angel's son, Conner. Suddenly, Angel's a father, which changed everything about his character immediately. Even if he had a mission before, he now had purpose, and even joy (though not ultimate happiness, naturally). But it wasn't to last. Culminating in Wesley's "betrayal" and the loss of Conner, that segued into Conner's return from the hell dimension, now a teenager and a powerful warrior, raised by Angel's old time-displaced adversary Holtz. The third season found the characters continually shaken-up, thoroughly exciting, but almost to its own detriment.

Wesley's arc, the choices he makes, and the shunning he receives is the best of the show's entire run, and his character's progression into a quasi-mercenary in the fourth season is ridiculously entertaining. Cordelia and Angel engage in a romantic wooing in the third season, which just gave me the wiggins (to borrow a Willow-ism), that was mercifully twice interrupted, first by the return of Cordy's romantic interest from Pylea, the Groosalugg, and then by the intervention of The Powers That Be. Cordy's growth as a character this season, however, was terrific, shedding much of her willful ignorance and ditziness, learning to fight, confronting her powers and taking on the matriarch role of the group (having gained a taste of royalty in Pylea, I suppose). There's a wooing of Fred from both Gunn and Wesley which was rather awkwardly executed, but thanks to Fred, Gunn finally came into his own late in the season.

And then there's Conner. Baby Conner worked well for the show, culminating in the big Team Holtz, Wolfram & Hart and Angel showdown, a solid sequence, if hampered by budgetary concerns. Conner's return as a violent, angry, emotional teen, however, made it hard to like the show frequently through the close of the third and all of the fourth season. Conner was a prat... petulant, whiny, aggressive, and irrational. Much of his motivation throughout the show seemed to be simply to serve as dramatic foil, getting in the way of Angel and company and contributing very little. Angel's love for his son, even though he had no part in seeing him raised, was never called into doubt however, and it was a great aspect given to the main character, differentiating him again from most other vampires in pop culture. Conner's presence, petulance and actions also led to some interesting scenes, such as the final sequence of Season 3 (the best cliffhanger of the series) and Angel's tough love speech at the start of season 4.

It's almost too bad that Season 4 starts where it did (with Angel and Cordy missing, Wes out of the picture, Lorne in Vegas, and Connor, Gunn, and Fred keeping Angel Investigations going) and they didn't manage to get a couple of Angel-less Angel episodes in between the seasons, as building on Connor's secret, Wesley's and the Angel Investigations mutually exclusive frantic searches for Angel and Cordy would have had some nice character moments.

Season 4, as it stood, wound up being at equal times some of the best and some of the worst episodes and story ideas of the Series. Lorne-in-Vegas was a fun sidebar, as was amnesiac Cordy, though the latter wore thin quickly. The big nasty demon raining hellfire upon LA had its moments but that aspect overall was hindered by budget restrictions. The tenth episode of the season, "Awakenings" is arguably the series' best, as Angel Investigations needs to bring Angelus out of Angel in order to find the solution to defeating the big demon they're facing. Subsequent episodes featuring Angelus were a blast, as the neither Buffy nor Angel is ever as scary as when Angelus is loose.

Season Four had another re-teaming of Angel and Faith, which solidified a rather great partnership between vamp and slayer, redeeming the Faith character in a way that Buffy didn't really have the opportunity to, given Buffy and Faith's slayer rivalry. Also, the season introduced Gwen, a Black Lightning-meets-Black Cat super-powered super-thief who gives Angel a bit of a kickstart, and later reemerges for a team-up with Gunn. Gunn and Fred hit the rocks after a tense visit to Fred's past, and Wesley, well, as I said, he just kicks ass.

But Conner was ever a dour presence on the season, and Cordelia eventually started to weigh things down too. Conner, as antagonistic as ever, at least had dramatic purpose, while Cordy just seemed to be in the way. Behind the scenes, I heard, Charisma Carpenter got pregnant, didn't tell anyone until it was too late and the final third of the season had to be rewritten to accommodate. Cordy turning out to be the string-puller of the first big bad of the season was a bit of a stretch, but giving birth to the second big bad, Jasmine, was rather incredulous.

Jasmine was an interesting idea for a super villain, entrapping a legion of followers just by looking at her, but the storytelling, mired in Cordy's coma and Conner's rebellion, was a tedious slog to get through. As many "game changers" as there were in Angel throughout it's run (Doyle's death, Wesley's betrayal, Conner), none were as big for the format of the show as the finale to Season 4, when Team Angel accepted the deal to run Wolfram & Hart, L.A. Branch.

This led direct into season five, the strongest of the series, and most even throughout, in spite of its unexpected cancellation and premature endgame. Out went Cordy, in came Harmony and Spike, a particularly brilliant and and highly enjoyable trade-off I have to say. Season 5 thrived on the dynamic between Spike and Angel, the former having regained his soul in the final season of Buffy, and saving the world by sacrificing himself at the end of that series. His return wasn't much of a surprise watching so many years after the fact, but how he returned, and how he felt about returning (especially as a ghost) was fitfully entertaining.

There was so much going on with Angel in season five: dealing with his Connor issues; taking over Wolfram and Hart and the concessions that come with it; and confronting the prophecy of a "vampire with a soul" which, now that Spike's around, may no longer be referring to him. It was some meaty fodder for David Boreanez to play with. All this emotional turmoil kind of threw the character all over the map, but it was quite entertaining to watch, the apex of which found Angel transformed into a "wee little puppet man" in the series highlight "Smile Time".

Spike's return meant his story wound up overshadowing many of the other characters' prominence in the show. Lorne, now the head of Wolfram & Hart's Entertainment Division was scarcely seen and rarely in any meaningful capacity when he was. He did have a fantastic moment in the finale, though. Gunn had a terrific transformation with the company pumping a library's worth of legal knowledge into his brain as an "upgrade", making him their top attorney. But how that affected him, and how the other's saw him didn't come into play too much, and it was only during the "Fred/Illyria" story that it was highlighted (but obviously overshadowed). Fred, as my wife likes to say, got screwed over royally, leading me to proclaim that Angel (the show, not the character) hates women. Layla, Cordy, Fred... I was just waiting for Harmony to get dusted in the finale to complete the circle. And yet, I thought the transition from Fred to Illyria was exceptionally well handled, and I'm only disappointed that they didn't have more time to explore her character as a depowered old god in the modern world, and Wesley's love/hate relationship as her mentor.

Wesley, after his radical transformation in the fourth season, was sort of back to typical Wyndom-Price form after Angel's mind-wipe, but the Fred/Illyria story gave Alexis Denisof some real meat to work with (despite really not enjoying the whole Wes-Fred romance angle at all as far back as Season 3 (although I did enjoy the Layla gag in Season 4 where she does her Fred impression for him). As well, the episode where Wesley's dad comes for a visit is easily a high point of many highs in the character's arc, and I would have like to have seen his daddy issues explored further.

Angel got a "Season Six" sort of in comic book form, however I've had a bit of difficulty deducing which of the collected trades comprise "season six", as well, the art on all the IDW Angel and Spike books are quite horrendous. The Angel license has transferred to Dark Horse who will be starting an "Angel/Faith" series later this year.

Favourite Episodes:
Season 1: Five by Five, Sanctuary
Season 2: The Trial, Disharmony, Dead End
Season 3: Carpe Noctem, Lullaby, Sleep Tight, Tomorrow
Season 4: Deep Down, The House Always Wins, Awakening, Release
Season 5: The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco, Lineage, Harm's Way, Smile Time, You're Welcome, Underneath, Origin, The Girl In Question, Not Fade Away
Episode Guide @ TV.com

Sunday, August 21, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Priest

2011, Scott Charles Stewart (mostly a visual effects guy but also responsible for the other Paul Bettany specfic action, Legion) -- download

Did Paul Bettany wake up one morning and decide he wanted to be the next specfic action star? Is he trying to fill in Vin or Keanu's shoes by spreading his genre around? I don't know and the web ain't talking. So, from playing an avenging angel in Legion he plays another "religious" role in Priest, as a ... priest, if that is what you can truly call a trained squad of vampire hunters who don't use guns, just specialized hand to hand weapons and martial arts. It is based on a korean manga / manhwa but is a history re-writing where we have been fighting vampires since the crusades but only recently learned how to defeat them, and only after a world destroying battle. And now, in a dark future where everything has gone to shit, the vampires are coming back.

The director, being a visual effects kinda guy, makes a movie that looks great. The dark city suffering from ash-snow and an oppressed populace is grand and grim. The weapons and jet bikes and monstrous vampires are well done. But it's the stringing together of the well-crafted scenes of scifi and violence that are wasted inside the lame plot. I don't know if to blame the source or the screen writer, but if vampires were just monstrous (as in, blind naked CGI monsters) killing machines, why would there be a reservation where they are allowed to live? Wouldn't being a Renfield be better recognized a crime instead of just being frowned upon? And I get oppressing your populace to keep them in line but wouldn't scaring their pants off with another possible vampire attack be more useful than sticking your head in the sand and denying the are a problem? It was one of those movies where it was probably best to be not paying full attention so you wouldn't yell at the screen.

So, I began just watching the background and set-dressing. I liked the western element to the story, the idea of towns being abandoned to the countryside because the people were not interested in the religious oppression. But in a countryside that has been devastated by global warfare, what exactly are they ... harvesting? But it does add a feel to the movie in mirror to the dark steel & stone of the big city. In the end, all the movie has for itself is the look & feel. Oh that, and a dhampire in a black cowboy hat.

3 Short Paragraphs: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

2010, Oliver Stone (remember the days when ollie stone movies didn't just come and go?) -- download

Once again, I downloaded a movie and was not sure why I did. I guess, that unless I missed a movie in the theatre, that is the main reason I download movies. I am not sure about the movie and damn not-sure enough to know I don't want to invest $7 in renting the blu-ray = download. I won't even go into how hard it is to actually find a decent place that rents blu-rays. I was not a fan of the first movie, the seminal Charlie Sheen vehicle. I wasn't a fan because I don't know anything about making money, using money or even keeping money. Here I am over 20 years later, working for a financial software company, and I still don't know anything about the stock market, making money or keeping money.

But I was curious about what they would do this time round when so much of our recent news has been about investing companies and big corporation fat cats stealing people's money and barely going to jail over it. Gordon Gekko was the cliche that we compared all the real money villains to: Madoff, Enron, etc. See, I know so little about this grand money scheme, I couldn't think of more than one name. But now we have Gekko coming out of jail espousing that we are not only fine with the kind of business he did back in the 80s but we also sort of revering it. We all just want a piece of it.

Really, the thing I caught most about the movie was that you can never make enough money. Shia's Jake Moore was a good guy. Still good at making money hand over fist & living in a lifestyle that astounds poor schmucks like me, but he was appearing to do some investing in Good as well. The big example was his desire to get an alternative energy company's research off the ground. But greed makes him want more and greed makes him dash his chances with Gekko's beautiful daughter Winnie, played by Carey Mulligan. And there is also the backdrop of the 2008 crisis and the sub-plot of Moore seeking revenge for the induced suicide of his mentor, but really, you are just left shouting at the screen as to why Moore is jeopardizing what he already has, playing into the hands of the ultimate lizard... er, Gekko. So, greed doesn't pay. Well, except for Gekko who is able to steal his family's cake and eat it too.

Friday, August 19, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Tamara Drewe

2010, Stephen Frears (a boatload of british TV and movies like High Fidelity and The Queen) -- netflix

I think I have already said it before but one thing about the light hearted british comedy that I really enjoy, is their ability to handle multiple plot elements without the movie being overwhelmed. A standard american (comedy) movie tries to be about no more than 3 things. Tamara Drewe is about a journalist returning home after a life-changing career and nose job, its about a writer's retreat, it's about infidelity, it's about fan obsession. But is all handled with a good amount of wit, emotion and balance.

But the tie or the driving force behind all the actions in the movie is the return of titled Tamara. She stirs up the emotions, she unravels the status quo, she dredges up the memories and she upsets the loathesome little fangirls. Yeah, the fangirls who adore the rockstar that Tamara shacks up with are scary little examples of how people in a small village can be led by their obsessions. But they do make you laugh.

It's funny but I thought, based on the movie poster and the plot description, that this was going to be a vehicle of fanservice titillation, carried through by Gemma Arterton who plays Tamara. And I was supported in that first thought when she walks on the screen in those short shorts. I admit, I was not going to be adverse to her character being such portrayed. But I was more pleasantly surprised when she turned out to be more than an instigator in others' plots but also very much on her own path of growth.

Bonus Paragraph! This is another of this summer's comic book movies! OK, comic serial...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Green Lantern

2011, Martin Campbell (Casino Royale - yes, Legend of Zorro - bleh) -- cinema

Let me start with the bold statement that Hal Jordan is an asshat. He's not a hero, he's not really a redeemed anti-hero. He's just a dick who gets in a jam and has to fight his way out. Let's continue pointing out how he gave his all for about 5 minutes and then ran home. Let's see how he starts out getting close to ruining his company's rep and business by pretending he is in the Top Gun remake. He beats up guys who thought they lost their job, but were also dicks for attacking him, with a super powered ring. But its all about fear he has to learn to overcome? Nah, he's just been called on being a dick for long enough.

But he is the best there is with a super powered ring, it seems. In a universe where guys with super powered rings have been beating up villains for a billion years (probably literally), Hal is able to defeat their greatest enemy (ever!) in about 12 minutes, including compressed movie time. So, is the universe full of wimpy bad guys or do the Green Lantern Corps just suck? I mean, one did just take credit for his 5 minutes training session of Hal.

If you haven't guessed, it's a bad movie. It starts with a monologue that I could have sworn was Geoffrey Rush's same character from The King's Speech giving a description of a world that I swore was going to lead into a bad 80s scifi movie, like Wing Commander. In fact, at different times I tried to turn my brain in that direction, hoping I could see it through the eyes of a 16 year old watching a great space flick. But then the plot would jump again (be a green lantern? no, run home. oops, bad guy. go back to Oa, get help? no, do it all myself) or Blake Lively would talk and I would be tossed back into my own body watching a bad bad movie.

Monday, August 15, 2011

X-Men: First Class

2011, Matthew Vaughn

X-Men: First Class wasn't nearly as stylized as I had anticipated. I was expecting a heavily 1960's spy film-influenced aesthetic, and while there was some of that, it wasn't as all-consuming as I had hoped. That was perhaps my greatest disappointment in the film. I knew January Jones would make a terrible Emma Frost, and as the character I know from the comics she was, indeed, a terrible fit, but as a generic, bouffant-laden right-hand-gal who really didn't have much to say or contribute to the film, she was fine, and the crystalline effect when she changed form was quite well done.

All told, the entire film was quite well done. Despite the disappointment mentioned above (which is actually what I was looking forward to the most) I actually wound up liking this latest installment in the X-Men franchise even more than I expected, and more than any other in the series.

Vaughn, whose previous films were the adaptations of the comic books Kick-Ass and Stardust, is doubtlessly a comic book enthusiast with a genuine interest in making a cinematic representation of a comic book on screen, and this film is the closest I've seen in years to achieving that in the superhero milieu, even if it's not yet perfected. Vaughn does it without any real overt or stylistic references to the act of reading a comic, like the "panel transitions" in Ang Lee's Hulk (which I loved) or the slow-motion action framing of Zack Snyder's Watchmen. Vaughn, unlike the rest of this year's crop of comics-to-film filmmakers, actually has a passion for the genre he's working in and it shows.

For starters, First Class is an origin movie, but unlike other such films it's not the origins of any of the characters in question, but the origins of the group. At this point Charles Xavier, Eric Lehnsherr, and Raven/Mystique have had three movies that have explored their characters, their motivations, their differences, so there was little need to rehash conversations already had here. Instead we're provided insight into how they came to be friends and what drove them apart. Throughout the film we learn the origins of all sorts of geeky things, like where the Blackbird came from, how Xavier got crippled, where the school for gifted youngsters came from, where Magneto got his helmet and more, but they're not the focus of the film, and for the most part they're not winking asides, but actually a necessary part of the story.

And there is a story, which draws even further upon the comics but also wraps it into the real world. This film introduces us to Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his Hellfire Club, which is a literal club in this case, and his plans for global annihilation followed by mutant rule. Shaw is playing both the USSR and the USA against one another in an attempt to drive them into nuclear war to carry through his plan, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Shaw's plan is silly, over-the-top and pitch perfect comic-book villainy. It's a big enough threat to warrant a movie, and just tangible enough, tied into the real-world scenario to add some weight to it, dampening the silliness.

It's also Shaw that draws everyone else together. Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) is transitioned into a CIA agent for the film, and is hotly investigating the Hellfire Club. When she discovers its mutant secret, she enlists Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), fresh from receiving his doctorate as a geneticist, to help her figure out exactly what's going on. On the CIA's first raid of Shaw's yacht, Shaw gets away, but they encounter Eric (Michael Fassbender) who has been searching years for Shaw (who has ties to his past in a concentration camp), facets of a Nazi-hunting espionage fable played out nicely by Vaughn and company in the film's early goings. The two big mutants together, through some solid comic-book style script work they find more mutants to hopefully help control their abilities, including Darwin, Havok, Angel, Beast, and Banshee.

There's a solidly executed b-story, a budding comic-book style romance between Beast and Mystique, the latter just looking for acceptance, the former convinced he will never find it. There's a kinship that they share, hiding their mutant deformities, and how their relationship ultimately plays out is deliciously tragic, and far less melodramatic than it could have been.

Fassbender is the breakout star of the movie, trying on a number of different languages and in general being a total badass while also having a softer side. At the same time, you can totally see how he ages into the determined and malicious Ian McKellen. McAvoy's Professor X is charming, playful, very intelligent with fits of wisdom, though showing his inexperience and limitations often. His journey to Patrick Stewart is less obvious, but not impossible. Jennifer Laurence is no Rebecca Romijn in that she can really, really act. She's not as long and lean and sultry, but she's not supposed to be. Here, Mystique is bashful, self-conscious and full of yearning and fear. Her youthful, sibling-like friendship with Charles Xavier came as a surprise but played out very nicely with an exceptional payoff. Romijn was never given much opportunity to develop Mystique (she was pretty much the Emma Frost of the X-Men trilogy, add a hint of sex with nothing much to say) so Laurence had a pretty clean slate to work with and did a great job. I would love to write "Bacon's Shaw was pure ham" but Bacon gave the character a simmering nefariousness without resorting to Nic Cage theatrics. Everything about Shaw was subtlety, except when he needed to make an impact and Bacon held it all in nicely.

Now, it's not perfect, not by any stretch. The whole Shaw-busting-in-to-recruit-the-recruits was well executed but poorly conceived. Angel's character became pointless and Darwin's death (and lack of subsequent resurrection) equally so. As well, the speech Shaw gives in this scene is virtually repeated by Magneto at the end. It would have been far more interesting had Angel stayed hesitantly on the side of the good guys and logically switching sides with Magneto at the end. But I can get past that.

This installment generally ties into the rest of the X-Men film series' continuity nicely without being overwhelming and overt about it. There may still be more than a few questions raised by how certain things conflict with the comic book folklore, but then that's to be expected from at this point. Yet, its detachment from certain characters and actors, allowed the Magneto, Mystique and Professor X to grow in different hands and in a different time period that gives the series a fresh start. As well, I should point out that this film takes place during at time before the first issue of the X-Men was ever published gives the movie an even more unique place in X-Men lore.

I would love more other-era X-Men films. A 70's blacksploitation-style or late-70's disco era with Dazzler would just be dy-no-mite.

3 Short Paragraphs: Stake Land

2010, Jim Mickle (some other small budget horror movies) -- download

I am still thinking about this movie after having watched it last night. It came to my attention via the usual specFic movie blogs over the past year, with good reviews and predictions on how it will do. But I always take those blogs with a pig of salt as most exist to be recognized by the film maker to get validation & free schtuff. Nothing wrong with free schtuff but it makes you no different than those standard reviewer names you see on the hollywood schlock posters. But this one was really an honest opinioned piece.

It's The Road meets a zombie movie meets I Am Legend -- story, not movie. Its a road movie, it's a post recent apocalypse movie, it's a monster movie, it's a plague movie. It explores the popular trope of vampirism as a virus but doesn't dwell on the virus and how its spread but more on the impact that rabid, bestial vampires have on society -- yeah, not a good impact.

I keep on floating back to the melancholy of the movie, the slow and tainted sadness it carries with it. We have heroes, true gritty fuck the bad guys up kind of heroes but not wooden and stoic -- their pain bleeds through the movie like the so much spilled blood in every scene. We see backward, nasty men do not just evil things but acts plain wrong. And yet we also see people just living on, dancing & singing and helping their neighbor. Even with all that is happening, with bad becoming worse, they push one more step forward to a possible relief.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Baker

2007, Gareth Lewis (Also known as Assassins in Love for you American types who like to rename movies) -- Netflix

Yes, ever since Band of Brothers I have been a big fan of Damian Lewis (brother of the director, BTW) especially those vehicles since he returned home. It's a shame he couldn't put his american accent to more work but Life just never hit it off with people. He will be back this fall with Homeland, a series that I can only guess tries to put the Dept of Homeland Security in a good light. Its intentions will probably fail as miserably as the show. But I will watch it for his charming smile and wit.

And I guess that is why he made such a good killer for hire (with heart of ... dough?) in The Baker; yes, another assassin movie. This time we mix it into an even more light-hearted comedy and even a bit of romcom. But weirdly enough, and I guess its something the british are able to do, but its done a hell of a lot more successfully than Killers was. For one, he actually seems to be a likeable character and our first intro (albeit failed) to him is letting someone off the hook, as long as they run away and give up their life of crime. Letting someone off the hook is not what his bossess have in mind for contracts so now he is on the run. And he runs away to an abandoned bakery in a small village, to think about what he should do next.

Of course, the setup is obvious and comes with its own set of misunderstandings and dilemmas, the least being that a man who has been killing for a decade or more doesn't know the first thing about baking. Toss into that mix the usual british countryside filled with ecentrics and plain weirdos and someone who just likes to blow up sheep. Oh and did I mention Jaime Lannister is also an assassin who has a crush on the baker? Hijinx ensue, quirky cute british style, for some giggles and quite a few smiles. Funny, how I am able to forgive a british comedy for just weak laughs and more smiles but wouldn't give an american one an inch on that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Adventures In TV Land

There was a time not so long ago when I was dropping regular and plentiful coin for DVDs of British and American TV shows that I couldn't access any other way outside of torrent sites (which I generally refrain from using anyway). There's not a lot of "Holy Grails" left in pop culture anymore, especially television. With so many cable channels trying to fill airtime, so many on-line streaming avenues, not to mention youtube piracy, it's not hard to encounter most TV shows with little to no expense and get your fill without ever feeling the need to "own" it on DVD.

The following are three shows from various U.S. cable channels that I had heard enough about to be incredibly curious but had never seen, whether it was because they had not run on Canadian TV, on-line streaming was inaccessible to non-U.S. regions, or I had just missed any Canadian broadcast (as I know one has aired on TECH TV, and another did air on Superchannel). I bought each on DVD or Blu-Ray, though not at the earliest available opportunity as my TV on DVD obsession passed a few years ago, so I haven't been keeping up on release dates. Plus, with all the fantastic television on right now, I'm fairly distracted as is.

Children's Hospital: Season 1 & 2
Created by ex-Daily Show correspondent and Hot Tub Time Machine star Rob Coddry, Children's Hospital is one of the first big web-to-TV success story. First appearing on the Warner Brothers' on-line streaming site theWB.com, it was a b-list celebrity-packed affair, 5 minutes at a time, loaded with tons of "hey, that guy" appearances, and a veritable wet dream for comedy wonks, which no doubt is what propelled it towards the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network. Coddry's sense of humor leans heavily towards the ironic, the jokes on the show tend to be flagrantly terrible (thus circling back around to funny), often pushing/reducing terrible or horrifying situations to one comedic extreme or the other (and sometimes both), and having a cast of characters, primarily doctors, who are idiots, continuing to comfortably exist their roles without logic.

The core of the series is its satire of, well, virtually every medical drama and/or comedy ever placed out there (Coddry's character rips off both a Hawkeye speech from MASH and Alec Baldwin's big speech from Malice, each used to great counter-effect). The hot-and-steamy sensibility of a Gray's Anatomy finds the doctors of Children's Hospital making out with each other in utility closets, on patient's beds, or sometimes with patients themselves. A quick-editing style maximizes the jokes but not at the expense of storytelling (though the characters are ciphers, changing on a whim to suit the needs of the comedy) as there are more than a few highly convoluted arcs throughout the two seasons, and a host of reoccurring gags that taper off and revive at a moment's notice.

The first season, in its five-minute chunklets, is quickly digested in 45 minutes, but is almost too much to take in at once. There's so many things flying under the radar that it's hard to catch them all, Michael Cera's P.A. announcements, for instance, are difficult to pick up the first time around, usually occurring at a scene change and the well-timed cast jumping in just before the announcement is finished. Beyond the dense characters and the medical-drama spoofing, the show works on another meta-level wherein Coddry (and much of the cast) play the role of actors who play the characters working on the show "Children's Hospital". A great second season episodes is a 60 Minutes spoof that goes behind-the-scenes of Children's Hospital for the taping of the "final episode", complete with reflective interviews from the cast, looking back at their "15 years on the show", as well as a glimpse at the "original pilot episode".

Characters have died and reappeared on the show in the next episode, new cast members are added and others disappear seemingly at random, and some are even spun off into their own shows. The internal logic of the show is pliable, so continuity, while somewhat maintained, isn't canon (each episode has a "previously on..." cold open, which features many new scenes not previously seen or inaccurate rehashes of previous events. It's certainly not a show for everyone, but if you're a fan of the absurd it's pretty damn terrific.

The League: Season 1

It's been said that fantasy baseball isn't for fans of baseball so much as it's for fans of numbers, odds, statistics and the sort. In much the same way the League, a buddy sitcom ostensibly about a fantasy football league isn't for fans of football or fantasy football obsessives, but instead for fans of comedy. There's no clear lead to the show as Steve Rannazzisi, Mumblecore heroes Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton, Quebec-bred internet comedy sensation Jon Lajoie, and comedians Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer all share relatively equal screen time in this loosely scripted, extensively improvised half-hour comedy from the FX Network.

The show hits it out of the gate the first episode in, establishing each of the characters, their professions, their relationship with one another and their level of investment in fantasy football, as well as the league itself, not to mention Shiva, the coveted trophy that goes to the season's winner. The show coasts along on a comedy wave through the remaining five episodes. What I appreciate about the League is how fluid it is. It uses the same type of set-ups that a show like Seinfeld might use, but it's freedom from the rigidity of a script finds it taking a much softer -- meandering even -- course, along the way collating the funniest elements that still service the larger story. A set-up like Ruxim mistakenly using a urinal for a wash basin at a Chinatown restaurant is limited to a few immediate jokes but it's not looped back into the larger story at any point. It's a funny situation, as are many on the show, that doesn't necessarily get exacerbated into a cringe-inducing scene. The League generally handles its "cringe humour" by diffusing it, primarily through how the characters react to it. Unlike other shows that use the style, here the characters are less neurotic, less insensitive, and far more aware of themselves, meaning they're able to get over certain things, and the stakes generally remain pretty low.

Also, unlike other "cringe" shows, "The League" is less metropolitan, more suburban, using Chicago as a much different location than New York or Los Angeles. Its stars are all well cast for their roles, free to do as they will within the confines of their character (differing Children's Hospital), Lajoie is frequently allowed to sing a newly minted, typically inappropriate-to-the-setting song, (trading in on what made him internet-famous) and the comraderie between the main cast is tangible from the start. It's one of the funniest, most enjoyable shows I've seen.

Party Down: Season 1

The workplace comedy is a tough one to pull off, because, ostensibly, the people working together aren't necessarily friends, and yet you have to believe that they can function together as a whole. Most sitcoms aim for the family or friends dynamic as opposed to the work dynamic because the workplace setting can start to feel limiting, claustrophobic. I found the Office became that after two or three seasons, as there wasn't a lot of escape from the Dunder-Mifflin sales room. Party Down is a show about co-workers who are not friends, who generally tolerate one another, and who are competent enough to do their jobs but would rather be doing something else. It follows "Party Down", an L.A.-based catering company and their employees, each episode taking place at a different event. The different settings allow for completely fresh scenarios to happen each episode, such as catering a porn awards after party, or a junior republicans social, or a Russian mafioso's acquittal party, spawning different discussions between characters, leading to additional insight into the people, their past, and their life outside of work without actually going there. This also permits for different guest stars - Ed Begley Jr., George Takei, Molly Parker, amongst others - to interact with the crew, which is heavy with stars.

The center of the show is Adam Scott's Henry, a failed actor rethinking his life, joining the Party Down team in the first episode, a motley crew of mostly other wanna-be Hollywood types, with Lizzy Caplan's Casey a struggling comic, Martin Starr's Roman a caustic SF nerd/scriptwriter, Ryan Hansen's Kyle the typical teen-show-handsome/handsome-but-dense actor, Jane Lynch's Constance a past-her-prime bit-part actress with stories to tell, and Ken Marino's Ron, their team leader, whose desperate desire is to open up a "Souper Crackers" soup buffet franchise. All of these characters, with their differing stages of career and differing backgrounds lead to an intriguing group dynamic, such as Constance taking Kyle under her wing, or Kyle's playful relationship with Roman, oblivious to how much Roman loathes his very existence.

Party Down can be crass, at times graphically so (as seems to pretty much be a prerequisite for a Starz-based program) but given the template, the actors, and how natural the comedy seems to emanate from the situations, it's surprising this didn't make it as a network show... legend has it Paul Rudd created the show as a Steve Carrell vehicle pre-Office and it made the rounds about studios and networks for years, always appreciated but deemed too "inside Hollywood". It only lasted two seasons, and was thrown for a loop by Jane Lynch's sudden "Glee" departure during the tail end of the first season (Lynch's Best In Show co-star Jennifer Coolidge did a wonderful job filling in), but it's grown a rather avid, and rabid fan base postmortem, with the requisite calls for a movie to happen. A mini-reunion was held this season on Children's Hospital, to much fanfare.

Final Note: There's an incestuousness to these shows, with Rob Coddry appearing in an episode of Party Down, while the League stars Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer both had roles on Children's Hospital. Ken Marino migrated to Children's Hospital after Party Down (as did Megan Mullally who took over for Lynch on Season 2 of Party Down). Rob Huebel, one of the stars of Children's appeared in the League. I could go on.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Paul

2011, Greg Mottola (really? the Adventureland and Superbad guy?) -- download

I saw the trailers and saw a lot of comedy that I would normally turn my nose up at. But for some reason, and maybe it was purely the presence of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I found myself giggling at the juvenile jokes. It IS their writing vehicle so maybe I suspected that. I knew I would see it but expected to just roll my eyes at most of the Seth Rogen humor and just enjoy the story of two comic / alien nerds finding a real alien. But, I was actually very pleasantly surprised.

Paul may be a crass juvenile alien but he actually has a lot of depth there. He is the product of someone that has been raised on american pop culture for more than 60 years with very little actual human contact, stuck in a warehouse of area 51. The parallel between our main human characters and the alien are obvious, now that I think about it, basement = warehouse. The fact he has had 60 years introspection into the human condition also explains his depth. What really surprised me was the warmth in the character, the actual emotional range.

Around the interaction between the nerds and the alien we have a chase movie. Yes, its ET all over again but that is not where the references stop. This movie is all about the pop culture references, sometimes overt and sometimes just sitting in the background without any rhyme or reason. We have one liners from Star Wars and even Jaws, we have numerous references to Steven Spielberg and his movies and we have just weird geek references -- cantina country version anyone? There is no way Pegg and Frost could play geeks without saturating the movie with the references and I am sure hunting down the references has now become a geek quest unto itself.

Friday, August 5, 2011

3 paragraphs on: Swamp Thing

1982, Wes Craven - netflix

There are two things that surprise me about Wes Craven's modest adaptation of DC Comics' Swamp Thing character: 1) just how bad it is and 2) just how good it is. Visually it's a dire product of a low budget, of 1980's cheap effects, of at best A*Team-like action sequences, and of atrociously bad supporting actors. The Swamp Thing costume ages worse each time I see it, looking more like a rubber suit with each viewing (this would be my third ... or fourth). The thugs who work for Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) are in full campy acting mode, they apparently didn't get the memo that it was supposed to be a serious action-fantasy-drama. Yet, the remainder of the cast, Jordan, Ray Wise, Adrienne Barbeau, Dick Durock, Reggie Batts all give the characters the same investment as they would in a John Carpenter flick. There's actually character behind these characters, personality and a connection with the events of the film.

Though titled "Swamp Thing", it's Adrienne Barbeau that carries the picture, providing a tough, smart, resourceful, and drop-dead sexy (without being all sexy about it) Abigail Cable whom we follow as she arrives deep in the Louisiana swamps at an experimental and deceptively primitive research facility where Dr. Alec Holland and his sister are on the path to new breakthroughs in plant-based weaponry and science. But they have an adversary in Anton Arkane who will stop at nothing to steal their research, and does, killing Alec and his sister and fire bombing the lab. Abby escapes but in the bayou escape isn't so easy and Arkane's men, though all giggling fools, still seem to be around every corner. But Abby has a protector in the form of a hulking green plant-man who intervenes at every interception. It's Alec's spirit manifested into a supernatural, super-powerful being, his resurrection allowing Abby and Alec to explore their romantic connection that was snuffed out just as quickly as it was lit. But first, revenge. Swamp Thing fights a Pig Man. The end.

Swamp Thing works tremendously well in its human connections and character development, and fails tremendously when it strives for action and fantasy. Though I was never much of a fan of the comic book series, I'm acutely aware that it was largely a drama, with elements of fantasy, horror and romance throughout, but it rarely ever strove to be the same as its DC Comics contemporaries, and in turning Swamp Thing into a poor man's Lou Ferrigno, the film suffers over and over again, each time he's called upon to intervene. I would love to see someone like Guillermo Del Toro tackle the character with a modern effects budget. I'm sure an environmentalist bayou fantasy wouldn't be a commercial blockbuster but it could be a hell of a film.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Diary of A Wimpy Kid

2010, Chris Columbus - netflix

With Harry Potter being the overwhelming and all-consuming phenomenon that it was, Hollywood has for the past decade been on a frantic and desperate search for "the next Harry Potter", adapting literally every book series that has done remotely well into a film series (okay, not literally, but it doesn't seem that far off does it?). The adaptations of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series have yielded Disney diminishing returns, but it's no surprise since it started off so toothless. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was well adapted, maintaining much of the dark humour but didn't quite catch on like the book series did. Twilght though a phenomenon all its own still doesn't have anywhere near the same broad appeal as Harry Potter. Then there's the less notables: City of Ember, I Am Number Four, Jumper, and I'm sure dozens of others I'm forgetting all based on quasi-popular fantasy/sci-fi book series looking to elevate to the next level. Forthcoming are adaptations of the grim Hunger Games, Edgar Rice Burroughs classic SF/fantasy John Carter series, and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. But what these film don't have that Harry Potter did, is the groundswell effect, a rabid fanbase that didn't come through the product by force but by word of mouth, and retained by quality. Not only that, the Harry Potter series reached out to people of all ages. A friend's daughter is 3 and has attentively watched the first movie numerous times. My wife's 50-something aunt and her husband went to see Deathly Hollows Pt. 2 having never watched nor read anything Harry Potter before. The series works so well because it can capture the juvenile mind early on and then entice the adult mind later. The attention and care put into the world and the characters will be legendary, living alongside C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkein as a masterpiece of epic fantasy for the century to come and beyond.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, though it shares the same director as the first two Harry Potter films in Chris Columbus, is just another also-ran in the youth book-to-screen adaptations. The conceit is an engaging one, that the Greek gods are still ruling on high, mating with the human population on a frequent enough basis, their half-blood children, Olympians all, are imbued with talents and traits which must be hidden from the modern-day public. The big-three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades are generally out of the "fathering" game, which makes Percy Jackson a unique commodity, and thus he's been kept hidden from the other gods and Olympians by his human mother. But Zeus is no fool. When his lighting is stolen, his only thought is one of his brothers or their offspring are capable of being responsible. Thus Percy Jackson's crummy little life is revealed to be something greater, and he sets out on a quest to clear himeslf (though not before going to Olympian camp, where he learns his best friend is a satyr and makes googey eyes at the daughter of Athena.

Though intending to be reflective of the classic hero's journey, the films core plot isn't all that inspired, and Percy's raison-d'etre isn't all that heroic. Percy himself becomes rather cocky and confident too quickly, lacking any of Harry Potter's humility or reservations about his own ability. Ego of the gods is a longstanding tradition, but it makes for a somewhat unlikeable hero. Even though I do have a soft spot for the superheros of yesteryear, I admit I'm not well versed in the intricacies of Greek mythology, but it's easy to see there are a lot of contradictions to classic mythology which the film and story are the lesser for. It's a fairly middling attempt made to integrate the gods of old into a modern context, and that's perhaps the most unfortunate part. The relevance of the Greek Gods to modern society is nil, so it would have been nice to see how they deal with that conflict in the film, instead they're just kind of dealt with like demons and vampires are on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There's a couple of good scenes (the casino sequence is a good one) and more than a few derivative ones (the Medusa sequence, featuring Uma Thurman as the Gorgon). Some of the effects were terrific (Poseidon's changing to human form made for an awesome opening sequence), others less so (the half-blood camp was altogether a silly place). The acting was universally acceptable, from the teens to Thurman and Steve Coogan chewing up scenery, yet, I'm not certain who guided Percy actor Logan Lerman to react to his mother's death at the hands of a Minotaur with general indifference at worse, a slight mope at best. The film made pains to skew "modern" but even though it's only a year old film at this point it felt dated by at least five or ten years. This film, though enjoyable, wont have much relevance to target age group of pre-teens/teens, and doesn't have much of a larger crossover appeal (though given the scope of the action it was definitely intending to) with an adult audience because it's frankly too juvenile in its action and adventuring (which is likely a result of its shift in Percy's age from 12 to 17 in the adaptation process).

2010, Thor Freudenthal - netflix

Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn't meant to be a direct Harry Potter replacement, but it is yet another mining of a successful book series for hopeful cinematic success. The appeal of the "Wimpy Kid" series is targeted squarely at the pre-teen/tween category, but like any recollective (if that wasn't a word before, it is now) TV series or film (Wonder Years, Stand By Me, Freaks and Geeks, Everybody Hates Chris) that looks back upon the complexities of growing up, it can have innate broader appeal by pointing out the universality of the character and his situations. The difference here is it's a more immediate recollection, taking place in something close to modern day, and narrated in lead character Greg Heffley's voice, like reflecting upon a photograph just after it was taken.

The Wimpy Kid book series features a lot of cartoon illustrations, something which the film adopts nicely as a comedic device to accentuate Greg's emotions or display his situations to an exaggerated effect. Greg Heffley has just started middle school, where as a small pre-pubescent with a highly immature best friend, embarrassment looms around every corner, and Greg invariably runs head-long into it. The Wimpy Kid series is "cringe humour" of the Seinfeld-ian/Curb Your Enthusiasm sort for the juvenile set and it's pretty effective at it. Greg is, quite frankly, a selfish, awful character, only looking out for himself and his own desire to be a "cool kid", and it's this aspect of the character that wears down his appeal and charm as the film goes on. My stepson was defensive of the character, which I can understand being so much closer to the age and emotions of the character that he can connect with his emotions and situation, but ultimately he makes every wrong decision, constantly says the wrong thing, and doesn't seem to ever express remorse. I'm quite sure he's a bad role model, even if he's not exactly a bad person.

The Freaks and Geeks influence is apparent, as Greg, who likens himself a popular, relatable, likeable fellow is either willfully oblivious of his true standing as outcast or completely blind to it, charging through his world with ownership of it, but what he doesn't realize is that he's not the only one who exists in his world, nor does he ever seem to realize his behavior has repercussions that don't just impact his own life.

I have to give the film credit for reigning in the juvenile humour (burping, farting, vomiting) and omitting the nods to adults that seems to permeate much of the youth film market (mostly in the guise of repackaged TV series), and also for attempting an American Splendor for the tween set. But at the same time, I'm not certain whether the influence of a selfish and self-serving lead is presented with enough awareness for kids to understand the irony in this wimp's so-called life, and if they see it for the warning it should be.

3 paragraphs on: Return of the Living Dead

1985, Dan O'Bannon

The horrific-comedy or comedic-horror film has come a long way in the past 25 years since this somewhat loving-yet-uncommitted spoof of Night of the Living Dead emerged. What horror films generally considered comedy was a lot of pratfalls and broadly constructed, generally dim characters. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 took the pratfalls and dim characters to new extremes with a full-on slapstick, Loony Toons horror, while Nightmare on Elm Street, though not necessarily of the same vein, threw in wordplay as its key source of levity. Later on, the Scream films basically reinvented horror with a self-awareness, that was very quickly beaten to a bloody, stabby, chainsawed pulp by pale imitators and the dire Scary Movie franchise. And then there's Shawn of the Dead, which didn't impress me as much at first but has in hindsight ballooned into the epitome of what a comedic-horror film can and should be. Compare Shawn with Return of the Living Dead and it's like a student film next to Shawn's Citizen Kane, but it shouldn't be.

I like Dan O'Bannon's screenplays, his 70's partnership with John Carpenter on Dark Star, the screenplays to Alien, Lifeforce, Total Recall, even Screamers and I can see in Return of the Living Dead an enjoyable script, but in his own hands as director it's done all wrong. It's got all the charm of a low budget gore fest, except that there's very little gore, thus no charm. The zombie make-up and creature effects are quite crappy and the "gags" (to use horror film parlance) aren't well executed or very clever. The film's editing is poor to the point of distraction (there's an exceptionally bad freeze frame during the opening credit sequence) and the characters are all whiny, leaving none of them as stand-outs or the hero (really the only memorable character/actor in the entire film is Linnea Quigley, thanks to a rather awesome strip-dance sequence and her extended nudity).

O'Bannon had a clever ideas for bringing his zombies into existence (a little to clever, actually, being a bit twee in relating it back to Night of the Living Dead) and for spreading the plague, but his lack of skill as a director and lack of involvement with his characters left the film as a sub-par B-grade endeavor, but one that's had a lasting (and some would say negative) impact on the genre and popular culture at large... it was O'Bannon who coined the zombie's "braaiiins" refrain.

Captain America: The First Avenger

2011, Joe Johnston

One of the main problems I have with the bulk of the superhero movies in recent years is the decided lack of singular vision. These films are generally the product of a committee, written, re-written, scrapped and written again, the input of multiple producers and writers, studio heads and license holders all taken into account. Take a film like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, Bryan Singer's X-Men (or even Superman Returns), Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy or Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and you see films that had someone shepherding the entire thing, from the story and the characters to the look and feel. The results may not be always terrific but at least there's typically a thorough consistency to the film itself. Recent endeavors, from Spider-Man 3 to Iron Man 2 to Thor feel far more disjointed, as if there's not actually a story to tell, but instead a presence that needs to be put on screen to make money from (and moreover, not to make money from ticket sales but instead from merchandising).

Captain America: The First Avenger is probably the least offensive and most engaging of these products, but it still never quite feels like it's truly its own vehicle... and by title alone, "The First Avenger", it's not, given that an Avengers movie is slated for the Summer 2012 and a preview for which is featured after the credits. While much of the fun of DC and Marvel comic books is the "shared world" concept of a larger picture to consider, I'm not certain it's an effective avenue for film, where tens- if not hundreds- of millions are spent on producing films over a two to three year span. Comics come out monthly, some heroes having more than one title... there's ample time for them to cross bridges with other characters and books. It makes less sense in film, as screen time is far more limited and precious, and it's easily wasted by diversion into aspects irrelevant to the plot.

The main story of Captain America takes place during World War II, and can be explained rather simply (because his origin has always been able to fit on a one-page recap) as Steve Rogers, a 98-pound weakling volunteered to test a super-soldier serum, thus making him an enhanced human, stronger and faster than any other man. He becomes a symbol for America's war effort, and eventually a hero on the battlefield. During one mission Rogers is apparently killed, falling to his death from a missile / plane in the arctic, but he's frozen, found and revived many years later, a man out of time, but ever the hero.

The film follows these rhythms, but is primarily contained in the early 1940's wartime setting with only a prologue and epilogue in the modern day. Rogers is played by Chris Evans (his face digitally transposed and hollowed out onto a skinny actor's body rather flawlessly, only on the slightest occasion even remotely triggering an uncanny valley reflex). His time as his scrawnier self is surprisingly lengthy, the film takes its time in establishing Rogers' character as patriotic, courageous, resourceful, and determined with a big heart without being precious or corny, but beyond those initial scenes, once he becomes Captain America, he's really not very present as a character, the film seems instead more focused on establishing the icon. I don't recall Evans saying anything of any real importance while wearing the costume. That's all well and good, but why can't it be both. The film avoids the "getting used to the changes" routine standard for many superhero stories, but at the same time avoids getting into the mind of the character.

As a result, as the film progresses Captain America and his relationships with the other characters have little weight. The romantic tension between Rogers and Peggy Carter never materializes, just sort of chastely simmers. Steve's friendship with James "Bucky" Barnes is twisted from its comic book origins where Steve is more like Bucky's sidekick to start, but the reverse never actually happens because their relationship is never developed any further. Though they feature strongly as background players, the Howling Commandos are never named as such, nor are any of the individual members - not even the Nick Fury stand-in or the striking handlebar moustache-and-bowler hat Dum Dum Duggan - referred to by name, ever. They are there as part of the "Marvel Universe" world building, as is Howard Stark, Tony "Iron Man" Stark's resourceful father (and the derelict World's Fair that featured prominently in the finale of Iron Man 2 is shown here in its glory in the 1940's), and overt references to Thor's mythology. It would all be fine if it were handled more naturally, as if they were actual integral parts to the story and not just overt references/nods/winks to other movies and comic geek wankery.

The Red Skull/Hydra story is quite nicely woven into the World War II setting, even if it plays in a very similar vein to a Justice League (animated) story line where the JL travels back to World War II to stop Hitler usurper Vandal Savage, in both story as well as in its deco design.

The design of the film is quite nice overall, even if it's not always filmed so spectacularly (there's a fuzziness to the 1940's New York, that I guess is supposed to reflect the soft-focus lenses of the era, but moreover gives it the sense of poor CGI). The sets and costuming have an old-school adventure feel to them, a feeling that threatens to permeate the entire movie but either Johnston never committed to it or there was too much interference to permit it having that singular vision of an adventure serial.

I've never had much love for the character, a patriotic symbol for a country that isn't mine, and a superhero whose personality always seemed rather...non-existent (so maybe they did get it right in the film?) but I was okay with this film. It's far from perfect and it could have been better in many ways, but it has its charms as well, so it's not a total loss.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

3 Short Paragraphs: Jane Eyre

2011, Cary Fukunaga (new director that did 2009's Sin Nombre) -- cinema

I admit, I have a weakness for the Bronte/Austen stories commonly considered period chick-flicks. Marmy knows them like the back of her hand so she helps me keep up with the often complex plots while I spend as much time watching the costuming and setting. This is the third version of Jane Eyre I have seen, the previous two being the 1997 A&E version and the 1996 Zeffirelli one. I have probably seen bits of the 1983 Timothy Dalton version as well. I will also admit that I never understood the "romance" of a plain woman falling for a domineering angry man. Sounds more like the makings of a made-for-tv american south crime drama to me.

But this one is grand in a way I didn't find the others. Jane is played by Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Mr. Rochester by Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), and both lend some weight I hadn't seen before. The way Fukunaga laid out a scene also helped, as the bleakness and structure of the landscape really drew me in. It was in that landscape that let me believe the isolated love that grows between the two, two people who need the other even if culture and circumstance really don't like the idea.

I was also glad the "horror" aspect was played down. I am sure that in a world of Poe, the scary elements of the crazy lady in the attic could be seen as gothic horror. But here we see it depicted in the tragedy of a man overwhelmed by the weight of mental illness and obligation. We also see the battle of obligation vs. the self-serving nature of wealth. I have no idea how authentic this is to the book but it rang more true than previous versions did, for me.

3 Short Paragraphs: Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus

2010, Christopher Ray (honestly, do we care who directs these direct-to-video or direct-to-SyFy crap fests?) -- download

And then there is bad-B or C- or F or whatever the bottom of the scale is for bad movies. At least this one is done in the attempted feel of doing a bad movie for the sake of a bad movie, ala MegaShark vs Giant Octopus. But can I actually state out loud that some people do terrible movies on-purpose but still do them badly? This whole sub-genre discussion of being a bad movie but maybe "getting it" that the movie is terrible confounds me in the way that Uwe Boll still continues to make money. Do I love it, do I hate it, do I love to hate it?

This movie pales next to the terrible movie from which it may be considered a sequel. The first had bad special effects, terrible acting, incredibly cheap sets and an 80s pop singer (Debra Gibson) as scientist. This one has even worse special effects, terrible acting, a 90s TV star (Jaleel White aka Steve Urkel) and so much re-used footage the entire movie may have actually been about 20 minutes. But it lacks the glee the other had. You aren't giggling at how bad it is but sighing and rolling your eyes.

While I enjoyed its emergence, I hope the Z-grade creature feature mini-genre fades away. Bad movies going straight to DVD/OnDemand/NetFlix/NextParadigm are something that will always be with us but it's a waste of energy and money doing a bad attempt at a bad movie. And we will probably run out of washed up ex-stars; hell, even C Thomas Howell has successfully come back with a career.

3 Short Paragraphs: Drive Angry

2011, Patrick Lussier (actually the guy who did Dracula 2000) -- download

This movie, another in the long line of B- movies being made to pay off Nic's tax debt, was just made to have pithy quips made about it. It has the plot of a bad rip-off of Ghost Rider, Nic's usual over the top acting and the feel of a grindhouse flick. But by the gawds, I loved it.

No, it's not good good. It's schlocky B good, in the way that it was made with a love for the grindhouse genre without going the way of the tongue in cheek homage. It has violence and fan-service and gore and wild stunts that would have 17 year old boys yelling out loud in the theatre. But it had some stylish aspects that made me smile with glee.

William Fichtner as The Accountant, no not The Devil but big D's accountant, is played perfectly. The character is not done with campy evil but with an amoral (as in morality is not part of his makeup) sense of responsibility. Cage's Milton (really, will any B movie fans catch the reference?) escaped from Hell and while it may have been for admirable reasons, he still did what he should not have been able to do. And surprisingly, Billy Burke's evil devil worshiping Jonah King is just a bystander in the connection between The Accountant and Milton when he probably feels he is the true focus. The idea that Big D would actually not care much for baby murderers, considering he was setup to punish them, is another thoughtful aspect that made me smile.