Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie

2012, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim -- threatre

If you don't know Tim and Eric, this isn't the place to start.  Your best bet is to hit up youtube, check out a couple of sketches from their series Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job! and see how that catches your fancy.  The duo are single-handedly (double-handedly?) responsible for a whole new sub-genre of absurdist in comedy, largely based around editing room tricks and a retro-80's cable-access aesthetic.  They're experts in the lingering pause and reveling in, well, not precisely gross-out comedy but certainly the unattractive and freakish sides of their brain.  The results can make you laugh, feel unsettled, or nauseated, sometimes all at once.  I don't see a lot of middle ground in people's reactions to Tim and Eric.  They're either going to appreciate it or turn it off.

Awesome Show has impacted the comedy word rather dramatically, a Monty Python for its day without being anything like Monty Python, moving further and further inward from the fringes, and that influence will continue to grow and extend as the up-and-coming comedians start to wield more influence in the world of comedy.  It'll certainly be interesting to see what the average comedy film looks like in 20 years.  I imagine it won't look much like this, though. 

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie isn't quite what I was expecting, but then I guess it was my own fault for anticipating anything from the duo.  At this stage I can't even recall what it was I thought it would be.  Perhaps I was just expecting it to be dirtier, and not in a bawdy sense, just that it's far more polished and looks far better than their usual 80's shot-on-videotape aesthetic (though there is some of that too, it's just used sparingly).  Though they abandon the visual flourish, they hardly abandon the 80's motif as the basic premise of the film screams 80's comedy, where there's a ridiculous conceit (or two) to overcome in order to buy into the characters and their motivation.

In this case Tim and Eric were given a billion dollars to make a motion picture, and what they deliver is a 3-minute production starring a Johnny Depp lookalike strutting around in a suit made of diamonds.  The financiers (including Robert Loggia and William Atherton) obviously aren't all that pleased and they give the duo the opportunity to repay them their billion dollars or they will pay... with their lives.  The opportunity to redeem themselves arises in the form of a late-night infomercial promising a billion dollars to anyone who can resuscitate a direly dwindling shopping mall, seemingly abandoned (at least by shoppers) and overrun by the hobos and wolves.  This all leads to awkward relationships formed between Tim, Eric and the motley crew of renters in the mall, including the owner's nephew, a pasty, sickly, snot-nosed John C. Reilly, (the owner, by the way, played by Will Ferrell), a caustic sword store owner (Will Forte) and the kiosk owner whom Eric has a sever crush on.  It's, in 80's tradition, a setting where all sorts of comedic situations can arise and off-beat personalities can appear, which leads to much humour, more weirdness, and plenty of gross situations (there's a diarrhea bath sequence that is, yeah, perhaps even more disgusting than it sounds).

Sketch comedy doesn't have a great track record transitioning to the big screen.  Monty Python has a couple under their belt, Saturday Night Live has exponentially more failures than successes, even groundbreaking acts like Mr. Show, Tenacious D, and the Kids In The Hall couldn't pull out successful features (though Brain Candy has shown some longevity, while  Run Ronnie Run and The Pick of Destiny are best forgotten).  Where Monty Python and the Holy Grail has made (and continues to make) as many Monty Python fans (probably more) than their Flying Circus tv programme, few films have drawn new audiences to sketch comedy troupes.  Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie is yet another that plays to the converted.  It's certainly more accessible than Awesome Show, Great Job!,  but just barely.  The funniest parts (of which there are many) all play to the audience that is attuned to their type of humour.  At the same time there's a lot of comedy that dies on the table.  Unsuccessful jokes would be buried in the rapid fire pace of Awesome Show, but here they just kind of flop around awkwardly like a dying fish.  A cameo from Zach Galifianakis, in particular, reaps little comedy reward, despite really, really trying.

As you may surmise the film features a slew of Tim and Eric's high profile friends, but on the flip side much of the cast is filled out by amateur or cable access performers of the sort that you'd see frequently on their television show.  It's telling then that these unassuming, awkward performances yield more laughs than most of the major players.  In some respects it's the script versus the riff, and when Tim and Eric follow their instincts things work out somewhat better than when they let their friends cut loose.  But then there is the diarrhea bath, so, you know, maybe not.

I didn't hate the Billion Dollar Movie but I wasn't impressed, and more damningly, I wasn't surprised by it (at least not in the good way).  To be honest, I had a good time, but it's not one I felt an immediate desire to repeat.

3 short paragraphs: Cedar Rapids

2011, Miguel Arteta -- Netflix

The main character of Cedar Rapids, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), is a bit of a drip, a stunted man-child who has never ventured outside of his small farming town.  Unlike most comedies of the Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell variety where the stunted man-child is the butt of the joke, here we're ask to sympathize with Lippe as we come to know his somewhat tragic past and understand how it is that he came to fear the world outside his small town and find himself still wide eyed and naive.  Despite his emotional underdevelopment, Lippe isn't incompetent or a buffoon, as were so used to seeing in this sub-genre of comedy, as he holds down a job as an insurance agent, and exceeds quite well at it.  When his co-worker unexpectedly dies in a freak sexual accident, Lippe is forced by his boss (and surrogate father figure) to go to a regional awards conference and lobby for his agency's third straight award.

Leaving behind his lover/ex-high school teacher/surrogate mother (played by a game Sigourney Weaver), Lippe hesitantly ventures to the conference where he's quickly adopted by a motley trio, including the resident loudmouth whom his boss warned him away from (John C. Reilly) and an adventurous, spirited woman (Anne Heche) who Tim is destined to sleep with the moment he sets eyes on her.  What naturally occurs is Tim Lippe's coming-of-age in rapid fashion.  The more people he encounters, the more his peurile worldview is chipped away at, until eventually it just crumbles.  Over the course of a weekend Lippe's parental figures disown him, his faith in honesty, fair play, and equality are rocked, and he is forced, for the first time, to address his own sense of self.

Cedar Rapids is, in many respects, a smaller-scale Up In The Air, where the main character has a set way of life and people from outside break through and change it.  The romance between Helms and Heche mirrors that of Clooney and Farmiga, but it's actually handled with far greater maturity here, despite Lippe's immature reaction after sobering up.  This isn't a raucous comedy, but a character-driven one, though there are still some good laughs to be had.  It's genuine and engaging with likeable characters, even the abrasive Reilly, who quickly establishes himself as unfiltered but trustworthy.  There are no cheats here, and characters aren't sacrificed for the sake of plot or comedy, which may not make it as appealing as other man-child comedies, but it does distinguish itself in that regard.

3 short paragraphs: Rio

2011, Carlos Saldanha -- Netflix

For a few days after watching Rio for the first time, my daughter kept asking to watch "the bird movie".  I would divert her attention to something else, usually Pixar related or something a bit shorter.  Rio isn't a terrible movie, but it's also not an exceptionally engaging one either.  The central character, Blu, a rare blue macaw, was poached as a hatchling in Brazil, and smuggled into Minnesota where he's accidentally ejected from a van and rescued by a young girl, Linda.  Decades later he's a fully domesticated animal,, though never having learned to fly, and sharing a near-symbiotic relationship with Linda.  A Brazilian zoologist approaches Linda about bringing Blu to Rio de Janiero in order to mate with Jewel, an equally rare female blue macaw, in hopes of preserving their species.  Though hesitant (as she's a bit of a shut-in) Linda agrees, but Blu and Jewel don't exactly hit it off, and are targeted by poachers who steal them from their sanctuary.  The separation anxiety between Linda and Blu is palpable, but as Blu and Jewel escape, chained to each other, Blu also experiences nature versus nurture anxiety.

The components should all be there for a solid animated feature, having some deep emotional and psychological underpinnings, and an adventure with some weight for the characters, but it just never clicks.  Part of it may be Jesse Eisenberg as Blu.  Yes, he's the quintessential neurotic performer, perhaps the best since Woody Allen, but he's also not terribly appealing, and Blu isn't particularly charming or funny. Invariably, at times it feels like a nerd-winning-over-the-hot-chick kind of 80's teen comedy, the kind which always focuses on the guy and provides little characterization for the girl, treating them more as a prize at the end of their trials and tribulations, but even then the romantic aspect is barely present.  More than Blu's need to return to Linda, it's Linda's almost crippling dependency on Blu that has the biggest impact, but Linda, like every other character that is not Blu, gets the short-shift story-wise.  This is Blu's story, but it seems following almost any other character would be more interesting.

Ultimately, the adventure Blu and Jewel go on is underwhelming, in part due to the nature/nurture conflict Blu experiences.  It's a "leaving the nest" allegory, with Blu falling in love and invariably leaving home, that doesn't clearly identify itself as such until the finale.  The characters they meet along the way are the expected comic relief types, voiced by George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, and Tracey Morgan, amongst others, all contributing little to the character, and somewhat inessential to the main conflict.  Surprisingly, the climax at Carnival actually does the big party parade a disservice, looking far too spare and less spectacular than the real thing.  There's a workable, likeable story within, but somehow Rio fumbles it all into yet another generic CGI kiddie pic by trying to be too many things at once.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Rango

2011, Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean: 1, 2 and 3) -- Netflix

(kent wanders into the desert here)

OK, first up, today as I looked up the movie on IMDB I realized that Gore Verbinski was not a gray haired man in his 70s.  What alternate reality was this old man a movie director?  But I imagine in both realities he directs exciting and well written movies starring Johnny Depp.  Yeah, I am a fan.  Pirates and Depp.  So, anyway, this time round Gore is doing a not-quite-for-kids animated movie about a chameleon who gets mixed up in an old west style evil land baron story.  Yes, cartoon style talking animals living as humans do but in the world that humans still live in.  But the logic of the situation is not the point, any more than the fact that Sponge Bob lives under the sea but still goes to the beach is the point of that cartoon.

This is brilliance.  This is a chameleon who acts out his own one man plays inside a terrarium that is populated by a dead cockroach, a headless Barbie and a wind-up fish.  That is, until a bump on the road sends him flying into the desert.  And into a story not quite of his own creation.  You see, in the desert  there is a town full of the afore mentioned talking animals.  They have trouble not only with red tailed hawks but the town's mayor (and his scaley cronies) and apparent water robbers.  Rango, self named, is chosen by the townsfolk to recover the water and save the town.  He gets to become the hero he has been faking all his life.

If you thought that because it is a computer animated movie it was for your kids, you sure thunk it wrong. This might have some slapstick and some funny talking animals but really, are the kids going to catch the film references? Are they going to snicker over the armadillo playing Don Quixote?  They definitely won't recognize the Sergio Leone style but they might recognize the grizzled old Spirit of the Desert.  Hint hint, I think you can guess which human the spirit is modeled after, even if he is voiced by Timothy Olyphant.  Along with the lovely "cinematography" and composition, these references made me love this movie.  I love in-jokes, comments to the audience drawing upon your love of cinema with a nudge nudge wink wink.  And of course, the story is tight and well told.  And with that, you can consider this as "almost" the third time Depp has played Hunter S Thompson. Cuz this movie sure is a trip.

3 Short Paragraphs: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

2011, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Iron Giant) -- cinema

(p.s. Kent reviews here)

Colons!  Dashes!  Implied sequel numbers!  I think the title to this blog post might make a grammatarian choke on the proper punctuation.  But it doesn't matter because this franchise is about explosions and amazing stunts and a grimacing Tom Cruise.  I honestly was very very excited that Brad Bird was onboard with this film.  The franchise was already a live action cartoon doing wild stuff better left for a world with not so well defined physics.  I also loved that Brad always worked with very tight scripts, very well put together stories.  I am not completely sure I got that from this movie.

True to form, the movie starts with a prologue that is tense, sprinkled with a bit of gadget magic and the thread of a spy story to come. Hey that is the guy from Lost !  Damn, that assassin is hot !  Léa Seydoux not Josh Holloway but I will leave it up to Kent to disagree with me there.  The failure in the opening leads the new team to break Ethan Hunt out of a Russian jail in order to lead the team against the international terrorist bad guy who got their team member killed in the first place. They immediately go to Moscow, sneak (masked, of course) into the Kremlin and steal something.  Their plot is interrupted by the bad guy's plot and they are framed for blowing up that lovely Kremlin building and all the lovely tourists visiting it.  It was actually my favourite segment of the movie as it set up the new team nicely and also put something tangible on the movie's map. Few movies will choose to make an actual impact on the world they play in worrying that they will have to include it into the continuity of following movies.   I guess this is the last time Russia will be the focus of the franchise.

The movie then continues with the team chasing after the bad guy to clear their name and put things to right.  And you will notice I am not capitalizing it like I normally do.  It's because the bad guy was just so boring.  He was doing a James Bond style bad guy plot of blowing up the world (Why? Because I can !!  *maniacal laugh*) but he, left to himself, was incredibly boring.  There was just nothing to him... They chase him to Dubai with a great location shot of the big building (where Ethan gets to climb something, of course) and a wonderful sand storm chase.  They chase him to Mumbai where we get a location shot at a party and a ... well, a carpark and a TV studio?!?!  We should care more about the plot, the actual reason for anything happening, than about the next location where the flawless action scenes will be shot.  But we so often don't so the producers don't so the director cannot so we get a mission I will probably not accept next time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Lethal Weapon

1987, Richard Donner (Ladyhawke, Superman, Scrooged) -- download

Every Xmas we watch Die Hard as one of our favourite Xmas movies. This... er, last year during the 31 Days of Xmas we sought out some more of those action movies that we associate with Xmas not because of their Xmas related plots but their release date and the time the movie is set.  But in the end, the plan failed and we didn't end up watching the yippy kay yay motherfucker.  Still, Lethal Weapon is a pretty good second choice for that topic.

To me Lethal Weapon is not the preeminent Buddy Cop movie but the beginning of a string of Damaged Rogue Copy movies*.  No longer is the Rogue Cop just a guy who makes his own way, breaking rules and solving crimes outside of the box.  The Damaged Rogue Cop has something in his past that is crawling to the surface; Riggs (Mel Gibson) still suffering the death of his wife.  He is unstable and not the best choice as a partner, thus being stuck with the aging Murtaugh (Danny Glover). But he is also skilled in hand to had combat and has a keen sense of taking charge, setting aside the bullshit.  Murtaugh wants to be an enlightened late 80s guy but really, he shines in how deep a family man he is.  And they are perfect for each other, with family tempering the madness behind Riggs wide eyes and action replacing Murtaugh's age-of-50 caution.

It is so very 80s. The bad guys are a scary gathering of extremely skilled ex-soldiers now mercenaries bringing in drugs from contacts during their days in Vietnam. Riggs and Murtaugh are both Vietnam vets, something that time itself is bleeding out of fiction. When will the dark days of Iraq become the replacement for damaged ex-soldiers?  While I am not surprised that two cops don't so much as solve a crime as blunder through the solution, as we still see that in cop movies focused on action, I was somewhat surprised at how not-so-scary-afterall the bad guys were. Just soldiers dealing drugs? Bad guys with automatic weapons? I guess we are now just so blase when it comes to drug dealers willing to shoot cops. They are no longer the shock they once were. But despite these stand out factors, the movie's constant movement and ballet of violence is still quite fun.

* As usual, once I make a statement like that I cannot remember a single other example of such movies.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

2011, Stephen Spielberg & Peter Jackson -- theatre

For all my many, many, many years of reading many, many, many comic books, I've honestly never read a Tintin book before, and, in fact, his signature redheaded cowlick and tiny white Scottie were about all I knew of the character beyond the name.  But, as any comics fan -- even an ignorant one -- should be able to tell you, that name carries weight... internationally recognize, legendary even.  But what Tintin is all about, well, you have to read it to understand, and I certainly didn't.

Coming into this mo-cap animated feature from blockbuster filmmakers Spielberg and Jackson I had little idea of what to expect.  I long made up my mind that Tintin was just some kid, who, Johnny Quest-style, was dragged around the world on adventure after adventure in the early 1900's.  Moments into the film I learned he wasn't a kid, but an independent teen, an adventure journalist of some repute, and that age difference between what I thought and actuality makes for all the difference.  Instead of being a kids movie it's actually a straight-up adventure movie.

You'd think I'd know better, given the horribly stereotyped reputation comics get as "kids stuff", but I still consider most animated pictures to be kids movies.  I suspect it's because the Hollywood studio system has largely only delivered family-friendly animated pictures, and far too frequently cloying or juvenile ones at that.  The cost of a fully CGI-animated picture is not altogether cheap and these days it seems only blockbusters and kids movies (and films based on popular teen book series) make money, so it's a risky gambit to make a fully animated film that isn't meant for a younger audience (it's doubtful we'll ever see a high-quality hard-R fully-CGI movie).  Given that, naturally it would take two of the biggest names in film making and one of the most popular characters in the world, and now here's an animated movie that's not only not family friendly (not in the traditional, politically correct sense anyway) but, in fact, one that made me feel a little uncomfortable watching it with my ten year old (and he'd already seen it).

Within the first ten minutes of the picture, a man is gunned down on Tintin's doorstep, and a few minutes later Tintin is clubbed on the head and taken prisoner.  It's really quite shocking when you're expecting kid gloves.  These incidents all revolve around Tintin's acquisition of a model replica of the Unicorn, a forgotten pirate ship that was said to have sank after a fierce battle with untold fortunes in its bellows.  The replica, one of three passed on to descendants of the pirate captain, contains a secret message within, and that's what the bad guys are after, but through dumb luck it eludes them so they take Tintin instead.  In escaping his captors, proving himself a rather ingenious little fellow, Tintin encounters Captain Haddock, a serious drunkard who may be the last descendant of the Unicorn's captain, and the key to discovering the wreckage's whereabouts.  So naturally the bad guys are willing to chase Haddock and Tintin (and his little dog too) around the globe, with seemingly endless gunplay, and it's all rather glorious.

Tintin is the product of another time, when seeing the other side of the world wasn't just a mouse click away and when high adventure was part of the entertainment lexicon.  These days, adventure gets lost under big budget action, science-fiction, fantasy and superhero genres, to the point that the audience (and too often the filmmakers) doesn't understand its rhythms, and either the films are unsuccessful or messy hybrids.

Tintin succeeds where others fail because of the obvious passion its filmmakers for the source material and the genre in which it plays (this from a co-creator of Indiana Jones, after all).  As well, the animated format allows for just enough detachment from reality that the more absurd action doesn't play so, well, absurdly.  The film is expertly paced, which is something not enough big-budget films are, building into action set pieces rather than relentlessly piling them one atop the other.

The script from Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish is fantastic, with a full understanding of what it means to build a fun story and characters (from the guys behind The Office, Extras, Spaced, Scott Pilgrim and Attack the Block, you know they do), not getting too steeped into melodrama or overly slapstick or corny about the humour (given their repertoire, it better not be corny).  It doesn't play dumb for the audience, for instance Haddock's drinking is right out there on the table, played for laughs much of the time, but also addressed without getting too maudlin about it.

The motion capture technique is used effectively with the animation style... it approaches the uncanny valley line but never quite crosses it, sticking with the Herge-inspired stylization and while there's the occasional feeling of surreality, it's more likely to do with the 3-D integration than the animation.

The cast is superb, though seriously Y-chromosome-centric.  Jamie Bell is note perfect for Tintin, with Andy Serkis providing yet another dynamite behind-the-veil performance as Haddock.  Daniel Craig makes for a surprisingly effective villain, and the supporting cast all come out ready to play.  Spielberg is, without a doubt, a great director, and he's able to elicit some exceptionally solid performances out of his actors in this most unusual form of cinematography.  The score from legendary Spielberg accomplice John Williams is hands down his best in over a decade.  Williams sheds much of his tell-tale style, opting for a bit more of a restrained yet playful feel and it both stands out and perfectly compliments the tone of the film.

To be perfectly frank, as I was saying about modern audiences not appreciating the adventure genre, I freely admit to being guilty of that (hell, I've never really cared all that much for Indiana Jones).  I'm much fonder of action and sci fi, but this was downright impressive.  It may not have converted me, but it's sticking with me in a way few other of its kind have.  Who knows, I may even pick up a Tintin comic one of these days.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Fright Night

2011, Craig Gillespie (United States of Tara) -- download

You saw the original, right?  Kid notices that the house next door (a big scary house, of course) has a vampire in it.  He's a horror movie buff who loves a horror movie weekly TV show, called Fright Night.  It is hosted by Peter Vincent, an Elvira analog that was a Van Helsing instead of a slutty vampire.  Personally, it would have been funnier if a sexy faux-vampire was conned into hunting a real vampire. The vampire turns the kid's best friend when he cannot be convinced to just forget what he knows and thus the kid is forced to become a real Van Helsing, along the now convinced TV show host.  It was classic 80s, somewhat funny, somewhat tense and fully entertaining.

This time we are in the suburbs and instead of a big scary house, we have a scarier cookie cutter bunch of houses.  Big empty cloned suburban houses may not be as soulless as the massive renovated McMansions of Toronto but they are a close second, third, fourth...  And really, who knows their neighbours let alone notices when some go missing?  And all the dissatisfied house wives and single moms are more than willing to ignore the creepiness of Colin Farrell if he flatters them a little.  But what kid next door is not going to be suspicious of him?  The best and most enjoyable update is (Doctor Who) David Tennant as a Criss Angel analog, a Las Vegas magician who has a vampire hunter background, not as  fabricated as he lets on.

The movie does a good job of keeping up the humor mixed with tense situations.  Farrell is a truly frightening vampire, dangerous and not at all sparkly.  The scene where he allows Charley (the kid) to attempt to help one of Jerry's (Farrell) victims is completely chilling.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the new Evil Ed is just perfect, the nerdy kid given vampire strength and vampire morals or lack thereof.  But really, I have to go back to how much fun I had watching David Tennant as Vincent, in his faux beard and faux leather and faux attitude, almost always drunk but armed by real knowledge of real vampires, for all the good it has done him.  He hides behind his own fabricated history doing terrible (but obviously successful) magic tricks with... well, slutty vampires.  So, there WERE fake slutty vampires afterall.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Young Adult

2011, Jason Reitman (Juno, Thankyou For Smoking) -- download

So, in high school were you in the Popular Crowd or the Geeks? Or perhaps a Jock or a Metal Head? Did it leave such an impression on your life that everything since has been a shadow?  No, me neither.  I was less a geek and more just invisible.  Once high school was done, high school was done.  I rarely look back and I have never been to a reunion. The funny thing is that I cannot even imagine there were a few so popular, so unpopular that they are ever wrapped up in the past.  But it does make for good drama.

Young Adult is a Diablo Cody story so expected to have quick dialog and a current feel to it. But surprisingly, it was just unadorned and well written. It is straight forward and not shirking in what it wants to say.  The past is the past and the past is ... done?  You see, Mavis was the high school sweetheart, the beautiful girl who all the guys wanted and many of the girls hated. She wanted nothing but to be out of her small Minneapolis suburb  and in the big city.  And she got that, a successful writer for a popular series of high school based young adult novels. Alas, life isn't so perfect --- divorced, constantly drunk and (like all writers in movies) behind on her latest book.  There is also a bit more heaviness to her life, given the way she reacts to an email from her high school beau announcing the birth of his son. So, into her mini she goes, with her mini dog and mega attitude, to return home and ... well, we aren't quite sure what but it won't be pretty.

Pretty.  Well, for gawd's sake it's Charlize Theron so even at her worst she is just gorgeous.  Even in sweats and Ugs, she shines.  But as the story progresses, my does that shine show tarnish.  You see, Mavis is pretty messed up.  Sure, she believes she can drag her old beau away from his wife and child.  That's not it.  Sure, she gets drunk every evening with the high school geek who was gay-bashed, even though he was not gay.  That's not it.  Sure she pulls at her hair creating an ugly bald spot. But what makes her completely broken is that she doesn't understand an iota that this is not how people act.  She is so strong in her belief of being entitled to Buddy Slade that she doesn't care what others think, not even what he thinks. She thinks it is her right.  Will she ever learn?  Will she every get it ?  I sorely doubt it. We spend the entire movie just feeling sorry for her and me, for one, not so enamoured of her good looks once we get to know her. Despite good council from her only friend (??) Matt and the truth being tossed in her face, she just soldiers on with ill conceived plan until it implodes.

3 Short Paragraphs: Conan the Barbarian

2011, Marcus Nispel (Pathfinder) -- download

Up front; I am a Conan fan.  I read all the RE Howard books, plenty of the followup books by later authors, most of the comics, loved the movies and even watched the terrible terrible TV series.  I know the character well but really, I am not that bothered by reinterpretations.  New is new and old is old but when I heard Jason Momoa (Stargate Atlantis) was going to be the new Conan, I was somewhat intrigued.  Rather than a muscle bound meathead like Arnie, he could be a lean tight warrior with the growl down pat.  Then the pre-reviews came out (terrible terrible; unneeded changes from the sources) and the post-reviews came out (TERRIBLE TERRIBLE bad acting, confusing story and just plain too bloody) and I was only ready to see it as a so-bad-it-is-good movie.  Alas, life interfered and I didn't make it to the theatre.

Now, I have to also say that I just watched it for the second time.  Was the first time fuzzy because of a fever (probably) or fuzzy because of a typical sleepy friday night combined with beer (most likely) ? Either way, another viewing was required.  I remember I liked it, was curious as to what people disliked about it so much but not much else, let alone enough to tell a story of my viewing. So, second time through and guess what?  I liked it even more.  I wouldn't go so far as saying it's a GOOD movie but really, was the Arnie one?  Is ANY swords & sandals movie good ?  No, but they can be fun and exciting and thrilling.  I just wish the director was that much better to string together the revenge story with the mythos that was Conan, instead of a string of barely connected battles.  The battles are well fought and pump the heart of this D&D player and while I will own this movie, I will not consider it good by any means.

The story is a reworking of a familiar Conan origin story -- born on a battlefield and raised by his father in a northern barbarian tribe where swords and blood are life.  If you don't know pulp swords & sorcery, would you know what fantastic barbarians are or would you just imagine them as vikings or mongols? So, Conan's youth is interrupted by a raiding band of soldiers seeking the last remaining shard of a magic mask, a mask that give godlike powers to the (invader) K'Lar Zim. But strangely, the Big Bad has more depth -- his wife, a sorcerous bent on her own path of domination, was killed at the hands of leaders who opposed her. K'lar's goal is not only godhood but to resurrect his wife. By his side is his daughter who also has her own path to power, a little creepier in her witch powers and her desire to be her dad's ... main focus in life. Conan is brought back into the story when he learns K'Lar is the man who killed his father and tribe. By not only cutting down each of K'Lar's henchmen (each unique; disappointed we never see the death of the female archer) but also stealing away the Pure Blood (not virgin, just pureblood line from ancient necromancers) he catches K'Lar's attention. It all ends up leading to a final battle inside a ruined city lining a volcano. Not the best place for a city, but as Marmy said, maybe the necromancers were into geothermal energy.  Of course, bad guy killed, witch killed and mask destroyed again. And Conan gets the girl. But I still wonder, why was K'Lar dragging a boat from place to place?

3 Short Paragraphs: Ashes of Time Redux

2009, Kar Wai Wong

At the risk of sounding racist, the biggest problem I had with the film was my inability to tell the characters apart early on.  The fact of the matter is, in period pieces like this (and I don't just mean Asian period films, I have the same problem with British period dramas too), people dress in a similar fashion and have unfamiliar faces and names, the nuances of which my eyes and ears aren't acutely attuned to at first, so there is a period of the running time where I'm focused more on trying to figure out who they're referring to in a scene then what the actual scene is about or the meaning of their words.  With Ashes of Time Redux, it was almost fatal, as I was about ready to give up on the film, until suddenly it started to click around a half hour in once the third story started, and I began to discern who was Ou-yang and who was Huang and how a seemingly disconnected opening scene may actual related to the story at hand.

The film is sprawling, and yet very intimate.  It's an interconnected series of stories centered around Ou-yang Feng, a mercenary swordsman who also acts as intermediary, a contractor for the desperate on both the buying and selling side of vigilante justice.  I won't go into the nuance of each of the tales as much of the film's pleasure is the slow reveal of the connective threads (as well it's difficult to clearly recall the details accurately a month after viewing), but it the film's rewards only increase as it progresses.

At the end of the film (and one of the delights of watching it on Netflix) I immediately went back to the beginning of the picture to get a clearer understanding of how the opening non-sequitur fit in, and then jumped quickly to key points in the film to get greater clarity and understanding of all the connections.  This is a film worth watching numerous times, and not just for it's intriguing narrative structure.  As is typical from a Kar-Wai film, it's a beautiful film, though no where near as lavish or clean as, say, In The Mood For Love, but then it's a film reconstructed from his longer 1994 version.  Here Kar-Wai is more interested in mood and emotion instead of action and direct storytelling despite adapting the character from the Condor Heroes wuxia trilogy, and he builds every scene around feeling, relying on characters emoting, more than any actions or words.  There's not necessarily a central theme -- loyalty, love and honor all play a role -- but there's definitely a consistency to the tone of the picture, making it unmistakably a Kar-Wai film.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

3 short paragraphs: Black Panther, The Animated Series


While DC and their parent company Warner Brothers are invested in original direct-to-video animated movies based on stories from their comics, Marvel has instead been investing in the next level of motion comics, where the actual art is taken from the page and animated. While the visuals retain the authenticity of the original illustrative style (whereas the DC animation approximates and simplifies the style) and equally maintains more of the nuance, story and serialized feel of the source (where the DC animated projects are a more compressed storytelling) the main advantage the DC movies have had is their much higher profile voice talent... not to get into a debate about working voice actors and the on-screen talent overtaking their profession... The point is there's a level of investment and perceived quality when named actors take on these niche projects, playing superheroes for an audience consisting mostly of fanboys (and girls), a sense that the people behind the scenes care more about quality more than economy.

Black Panther: The Animated Series is a hybrid between the DC and Marvel way of doing things. Co-produced by BET, it's still motion comic-styled, but BET arranged for a high level of voice talent to be involved. Djimon Hounsou, Carl Lumbly, Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard, Phil Morris and Jill Scott star in this 12-part series based on the first story arc from writer (and BET president) Reginald Hudlin's Black Panther run from about a half-decade back (each episode clocks in around 10 - 12 minutes). The story is loaded with plenty of exposition and flashbacks alike, but it never lacks in forward momentum. Hudlin's script is dense with caracter, backstory, and setting details, establishing the nation of Wakanda, it's culture, history, hierarchies and rituals and how it defines the character of Black Panther himself. The Panther isn't so much an individual as it is a role held by a member of the nation's royal family, he who is the Panther is the King, but available for anyone to contest on an annual basis. The story opens with a change in power as T'challa defeats his uncle T'chaka and becomes the new monarch. The precious resources of Wakanda are notorious and in a post-9-11 world the US government makes a play to align themselves with the fiercely independent nation.

The politics are a bit oversimplified, but it's kind of delightful to see an American-created series that portrays America and it's foreign policy as serious and dangerously self-indulgent (and, in a slight miscalculation, racist). Throughout the series Hudlin injects thought provoking commentary on the nature of American society, race relations, culture, all while telling an action-packed, entertaining adventure set in the Marvel universe (Captain America, the X-Men, and numerous Marvel U villains make appearances). The animation is stiff and clunky as all motion comics are, but seeing John Romita Jr.'s art animated is actually quite a treat, and really highlights how dynamic it is in a manner which I've never really appreciated in the comics. I remember enjoying reading the story in the comics and, despite my general dislike of motion comics, enjoyed it equally in the translation.