Sunday, November 30, 2014


2014, David Ayer (Street Kings, End of Watch) -- cinema

I love this poster.  It is simple, pure and emotive. A weathered Brad Pitt, tank commander and leader of a crew that have been with him since Africa, carries the weight of what he has to do. A heavy burden. The sky is grey and war is grey, and both are heavy with impending doom. He leans on the barrel of the tank for support, that is painted with its pet name, the tool of the fury he has inside of him.  I saw much in that poster and hoped for much in the movie. While I got a movie I enjoyed I did not get the heaviness I hoped for.

Pitt is Don 'Wardaddy' Collier, and his crew are a bunch of gawdawful, nasty men. Shia LeBeouf is Bible, a little full of himself, constantly quoting scripture and seeking out dying men to "save". Jon Bernthal is Coon-Ass, a hillbilly who I doubt will ever be clean again, with probably engine grease blackened teeth and a foul sensibility. Michael Peña is Gordo, quietest of the bunch but just as home in the tank sharing whores with his buddies. And there is Norman (later Machine), come to replace their assistant driver and bow gunner. Their previous one is all over the inside of the tank and Norman's (who was a typist a few weeks ago) first job is to clean out the tank.

These are seasoned, hard, filthy men traumatized by the loss of one of them and resentful they are stuck with a green non-combatant. But Wardaddy feels he needs to protect them all and understands that doing so requires Norman to become one of them. Norman does not want to be here, here beyond the borders of Germany, as the Allies press deeper into enemy land. A land that is running out of proper soldiers and tossing everyone and anyone against the allies. They are pressing past front lines, through towns and villages and churning the countryside into mud with their tanks and boots and shells. Norman's tank crew doesn't want him either but nobody is arguing orders or with Wardaddy.

American tanks didn't stand a chance against Panzers. You know what they say about the life expectancy of a tank crew. That Wardaddy gets them this far is astounding, and they all know its the end of the war, but... will they survive? Based on how quickly each of the other 4 tanks are picked off, I doubt they have much confidence in it. These men are resolved to do what they have to do. Pitt never argues with commanders (Jason Isaacs as a tired Captain, wearing a battered winter jacket that looks like roadkill) who give him impossible missions, just does what he knows best. Best job they ever had, they all intone. They are probably right. None of the men strike me as the kind who ever did well, States-side. With Wardaddy leading, they have gone up against german tanks and lived.

There is a brief respite where we see a more relaxed Collier, kind to some German women who allow him to wash, shave and feed him. He is quiet, respectful (he speaks perfect German) and protective when the rest of his crew arrives, assuming they are getting ass, not fried eggs. Its a respite before the horror of war falls on their heads, again. Norman is left, no longer a typist,  a machine, cutting down German soldiers.

So, there was drama and horror and heroism and death. And there was Wardaddy escaping to parts of camp, unseen, to collapse under his burdens almost in tears and distraught to distraction. He hears a voice and straightens up again. This should have been heavier, it should have been heartwrenching. But it wasn't. The movie is not as much weighed down as the clouds are in the poster. Whether it is nuances that are lacking or just that Pitt cannot portray them, we only ever get hints of the fury that is in him. Not enough for me to say this was a great war movie, just an OK one.

Friday, November 28, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Autómata

2014, Gabe Ibáñez (Hierro) -- download

Before I get around to rewatching I, Robot again (watched it about 6 months ago when I snapped up the cheap Blu-ray) I will talk about this movie inspired by the laws of robotics. Rather than just blatantly rip off Asimov and his three laws, this movie narrows it down to two -- they must protect humans and they cannot alter themselves.  So, it just borrows. Unfortunately, the whole movie seems to be about borrowing plot points and ideas from better movies. And yet, running entirely through it, there is a fondness for the world and the core plot, of how people will deal with the emergence of robotic intelligence, i.e. AIs, when they find themselves almost at the brink of extinction.

Yeah, I have been watching a lot about AI emergence. Its in the pop culture focus right now, and that's probably why this one was greenlit. The prevalent idea is that we are scared of it. Even in this movie, where robots have been developed extensively to work in zones we can no longer (sun flares have devastated the Earth), the status quo is terrified of what will happen if they get smarter than we allow them to be. I don't subscribe to the fear that we will be wiped out by whatever child race we are responsible for; I guess I don't have the staple insecurity of our species. Or more cynically, I think we will be very good at enslaving whatever intelligence we bring into this world.

Jacq (Antonio Banderas) works as a claims investigator for the company that makes the robots. They come with insurance and he makes sure his company doesn't have to pay out. So, he knows & understands the robots well. Why a world that is completely falling apart would even have an insurance concept is beyond me, but in its best Blade Runner-ish dystopia, sometimes a boring job is the best character. Antonio Banderas is actually pretty good as the tired working man, afraid of what he is discovering but pretty sure it should emerge. So, as he is about to become a father, he also becomes the godfather of robots coming into their own.

The use of real looking robots, as in slow, clunky and plastic-y, was a mistake. If its the future and these things are our working class, you should expect more of the movie I mentioned when I started this review. They should be mobile, hardy and versatile. Instead, they are not much more than Sony's AIBO. I guess this was retained so that the robots would need to rely upon a human to protect them, being more fragile than your average man. The best parts of the movie have Jacq discussing their existences, the robot's and his own, in the halting Stephen Hawking voices. The worst parts have thugs in trenchcoats shooting at everything and Melanie Griffith looking more artificial than the sex robot she takes care of.  I felt Ibáñez needed a collaborator who was not afraid to be harsh with him as well as someone who could stand up to the money, so the movie could have been pure to the vision at its centre. In the end, the movie made a better short or trailer, than feature.

Rewatch: Minority Report

2002, Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook) -- Netflix

Almost anytime I review a movie set in a non-spaceship future, I mention my fondness for I, Robot and Minority Report.  Its about time I rewatched and blathered about them.

Minority Report is the Steven Spielberg adaptation of a Philip K Dick novella.  Dick's story is more about the views of multiple timelines and choices made, while the movie was more about the moral implications of convicting people for something they technically have not (yet) done. Its a flashy movie of near future technical marvels and exciting action, but with a hint of thoughtful ideas. I am not all that concerned about which is better. I like both equally.

I wonder who first decided that data of the future would be stored on glass. Data crystals, as the usual science fiction nomenclature. At the Stanley Kubrick exhibit (, I was reminded of the idea, as Dave slides rectangular blocks of numbered glass into slots, or maybe out of, while HAL sings slowly. Why glass? Is crystalline structure really perfectly built to replace magnetic tape, liquid crystals in disk format or even integrated circuitry? What will be the next level of data storage?

Set in 2054, the authorities in Washington, DC have discovered a way to manipulate the precognitive abilities of three young people, to predict potential murders. They stop the murders before they happen. But they still incarcerate the potential criminal. The "investigative" magic takes place in a room with a giant, curving, clear glass monitor. Images sucked from the brains of the precogs are tossed onto the screen and investigator John Anderton (Tom Cruise) manipulates them via gloves with finger-tips of light. I guess they never imagined one's movements could be tracked merely by the movement, not requiring balls of light at reference points. He grabs images, wiggles his fingers, swings his hands, moving things about like items attached to a white board with magnets, but working in three dimensions.

The glass is clear, yet he sees clearly (ba-dump bump). I have yet to see that idea represented well in real life. I think we would be too distracted by what is on the other side of the clear screen.  This was ten years ago, when the idea of mobile & wireless technology was still young, thus they still have to use "flash drives" to move data from one workstation to another. Large, flat, slates of clear glass grab the data, represented by video clips on their surface, and allow it to be slid out from the slate onto the big, clear screen. Later (other movies & TV) representations feel more fluid, more real, as people grab data and just toss it from one screen to the other, effortlessly, wirelessly. But all this glass is pretty, and futuristic. Given the current popularity of clear glass smart phones in science fiction movies, too bad Nokia didn't use the opportunity to display a concept for a future phone, instead just dropping their latest model into the movie. And it looks really outdated now. Think Neo in The Matrix and his slider phone.

Being overdone for the sake of being overdone is the technological standpoint of the movie. Sure, the cars are typically concept-model type and auto-driven isn't too far fetched, but they slide up and down, and all over the place. Highways run up buildings, down buildings, with vast stretches that must be atop buildings. It just seemed frivolous and potentially dangerous. Want to kill hundreds of people? Kill the maglev control centre of a highway. And then there were the cops in jetpacks. Yes, I understand its the future and jetpacks are to be expected, but I didn't see the purpose they served, other than Action Sequence, which I honestly found more annoying than exciting.

The use of targeted advertising, in which the store sees you as you walk in, checks your buyer history and starts talking to you, was innovative and believable. Except for the idea that there should have been dozens of reactions to dozens of customers, all competing with each other in a cacophony of Google ads. And no chance to opt out? Maybe close your eyes just as the retinal scan happens.

Finally, there was the technology seeded into the movie to help substantiate Anderton's motivations, his utter obsession with his son's abduction. Memory enhancing drugs were combined with the lamest representation of 3D video ever depicted. Key reference objects from the video, his son, are stretched out in a horrible, bleeding aspect, sort of like a video pop up book. It looked terrible in the movie, and probably intentional to show not fully developed but possible tech. They should have stuck to holograms which felt more real because of the drug he was inhaling.

Don't get me started on the laser lathing of wooden balls just to announce Murderer.

The focus of the plot is that Anderton is framed for a murder, but doesn't believe he can possibly commit it. But his whole career has been based on believing exactly what he saw on the screens. If anything our current age has taught us, is that everything seen on the New Fangled Technology (i.e. The Internet) is not to be believed. And if Anderton can be framed, then so can anyone else. And if anyone can game the system, then it should be shut down and every single criminal released from their tubular incarceration. Whoah whoah there Nelly. I would imagine most of those criminals were going to do exactly what they precogs saw them doing. They already had the idea of red balls (crime of passion) vs blue balls (*snicker* planned murders) -- they were blue, right? So a planned crime could be substantiated after the fact, with all the details confirmed. But no, social outcry against it won out and people were freed. I wonder how many took the chance to actually murder the person they had considered earlier? Would double-jeopardy come into play? The Law & Order: Washington, DC 2054 episode would have been great.

And yes, these are the sort of things I think about when I see a movie again. I also made note that Cruise as Anderton is a very unlikable main protagonist. He is rude to his coworkers, dismissive and condescending. And it played out, because as soon as he was a suspect, his direct reports jumped into action to have him arrested. Samantha Morton was great as the traumatized Agatha, an unbalanced precog dragged out of her milk bath and into the real world by Anderton, who really only cares about himself. And there is Colin Farrel's bit part, whom was written to be disliked, but in the end, is the understandable character. In the remake, he would play Anderton.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Into the Storm

2014, Steven Quale (Final Destination 5) -- download

Back in the 90s I read a Bruce Sterling novel called Heavy Weather, sort of a cyberpunk stormchaser eco-story. I loved it. It left with me a fondness for tornado stories, which meant I saw Twister not long after the book. I was sorely disappointed, not because of all the inter-personal stuff that interfered with all the proper storm chasing, but because there just was not enough proper destruction. For its time, it was quite impressive, but the novel (p.s. they are not related, just both released around a time when tornado alley was getting nasty, by pop culture standards) was about the onset of an F6, something that has yet to be seen in reality. Later, my fascination with tornadoes became tempered by the reality of them, the late spring storms in the US constantly wiping out towns being too too real. And also, because anything else tornado related came out of the SyFy Channel / Asylum collection of terrible terrible movies.

Not that this movie is much better.

Seriously, it feels exactly like one of these Asylum movies sans sharks and with more of a budget. OK, that is being a little too harsh, as it actually has more of the feel of a made-for-TV movie of the normal ilk, not bad for bad sake. The characters are hollow, the interactions wooden and there are fabricated sub-plots that exist solely to put characters in harms way. And the only unique element, that it is entirely *yawn* found-footage, was left entirely out of any promotional material, which says how much the studio had faith in the gimmick being used. In this case it worked because it gave us a reason to see beyond the eye of the storm and into the heart of the destruction.

Like any movie about tornadoes, it has to be about storm chasers. Mixtures of thrill chasers and meteorologists, they pack scientific equipment and cameras into a couple of trucks and chase around the storm fronts, hoping they will turn into killer tornadoes. Partially they are there for the data, partially there for the footage that can be sold. And then there are the hillbillies on ATVs. And then there are highschool kids in the path of the "biggest tornado in history". You won't recognize any of the actors besides Laurie from The Walking Dead (Sarah Wayne Callies) and maybe chief stormchaser Pete (Matt Walsh), who has played that guy in a handful of movies and TV.  And no you won't recognize Thorin Oakenshield as the high school vice-principle. The CGI tornadoes are the real stars, damn impressive and shot waaaaay back and occasionally inside, when cameras get sucked up. They step up the destruction, not only tossing cows around (i think it was plastic) but including semi-trucks and an entire airport. In the end, the storm chasers get their footage but at great cost, with the resignation of hoping it will be worth something in future predictions.

Monday, November 17, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: The Wolf of Wall Street

2013, Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, Shutter Island) -- download

This movie, a big movie about big people starring big stars (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill), is almost a parody of Scorsese styles with the monologues, the period setting, the big personalities and the grand locations. And it is immensely enjoyable while I weirdly cannot exactly say I liked it.

Jordan Belfort is not exactly the kind of guy you can root for. He's a bit of a dick. Well, more than a bit. But he's rich and loud and exuberant and knows how to make people feel important; as long as its making him money or getting him laid. Jordan is a stockbroker, one that gets hit by Black Monday pretty much on his first day. So, he turns to penny stocks and applies his scuzzy salesmanship to them. And thus are the millions made.

If this movie is about anything, its about rooting for the downfall of a terrible person. Its from a memoir but I doubt the real Belfort liked his less than shining portrayal. DiCaprio does a brilliant job of playing both competent and charismatic while keeping that scuzbag personality intact. He's backed up by mostly unknowns but, wow, does Jonah Hill make his scale pay on this one. Maybe it was those teeth, but this didn't seem quite Jonah Hill, less stoner aesthetic and more frat boy who doesn't mind paying for his popularity. But really, what makes the movie is Scorsese's style. He is very good at making in-the-gutter BIG, of idealizing a sub-human lifestyle, making us yearn for it but cringe at everything it stands for.

Monday, November 10, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Another Earth

2011, Mike Cahill -- Netflix

As I was saying, it was this film that Kent professed his fondness for the "low-budget, dramatic science fiction" sort of movie. The science fiction of this movie is the wrap around premise of the movie, less science and entirely fictional, which involves a second planet earth appearing in the night sky on an intercept course with us. Interestingly enough, it was one of two "second planet Earth" movies that showed up that year, the second being Melancholia, with Kirsten Dunst. When I say "wrap around premise" I mean that it plays a significant part in the plot, as in it constantly plays a part in the movie, but it is not the focus of the movie. The focus of the movie is the dramatic, the interaction between the two main characters. That is what the movie is about while the second planet is the impetus of their interaction.

Rhoda was a teen with everything ahead of her on her way to MIT, when the new planet appeared in the sky. Distracted by this, the invulnerability of youth and alcohol, she slammed into John Burroughs car killing his wife and daughter. Years later she is paroled, moves in with her parents and is understandably obsessed with her accident. Everyone else is obsessed with the planet in the sky, which has proven itself to be exactly the same as our Earth, continents and all. She seeks Burroughs out, pretending to be a cleaner, and begins a rather strange relationship with him based on deception and a desire to do penance. Both are entirely damaged by the events she orchestrated. Or perhaps, the planet above orchestrated?

The TV constantly talks to people about the implications of a second, replica planet Earth. Metaphysics aside, people discuss how different it could be. Or more precisely, how similar it could not be. As the planet gets closer, this is frustratingly the only topic discussed by those pondering the planet. No one is talking about the danger it could cause as it comes into our orbit, what it could do to the moon or our own gravitational forces. These are conveniently ignored so that our planet can decide to travel to their planet, without all the complications of ... physics. The questions of shared destiny, perhaps having diverged on that fateful night when she first appeared, come into clarity for Rhoda who hopes that over there is a planet where she did not kill Burroughs' family. And she sacrifices her contest won seat on a shuttle heading there. The movie ends in a brief, mysterious, abrupt confrontation between Rhoda and ... Rhoda. And we are left to interpret.

Of late I am wondering, after relating what I saw in the movie, do I have to say what I thought about the movie. I don't often seed the movie "review" with the obvious details of how I felt about it, as that tone should become apparent in the words I use and my descriptions. Bland, toneless re-telling should impart a certain amount of blasé viewing. The more fervent my statements, the more I thought of the movie. Stated obviously, I liked this movie and how it was done but it didn't leave an entirely indelible mark on me. It was well done, composed and understated but eventually forgettable for me. And in saying something so obvious, I feel I have devalued my viewing. I should save those statements for love and hate. In between allows for more pondering, more interpretation.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: The Signal

2014, William Eubank (Love) -- download

Kent mentioned, and I recently re-read, his fondness for independent scifi, or more precisely "low-budget, dramatic science fiction." The Signal does not subscribe completely to the dramatic, but the lower budget and independent nature of the movie shines through. Think of Monsters and its almost entire run of slow travel punctuated by conversation, while monsters dot the background. Here in this movie, we have young kids, Nic, Haley and Jonah travelling to California to drop her off at university. Nic is with Haley, but she is leaving him for school. Haley loves Nic but there is a weight between them, an injury Nic sustained that leaves him with crutches. And Jonah, the best friend, obsessed with tech and this hacker NOMAD, who keeps taunting them. The opening act follows this, in gentle close shots that introduce the characters.

And then gears shift. Abduction, imprisonment and confusion. The kids find themselves in an underground facility where containment-suited Laurence Fishburne interrogates Nic. He asks lots of questions while telling him little of what happened between then and now. There are aliens mentioned and contamination and paranoia. Its all so intense, so mysterious playing on familiar tropes but with a sense of playing outside the rules. Then there is a brief reveal behind the curtain, or more accurately (*SPOILER*), under the sheet --- Nic's legs have been replaced by mechanical prostheses. Nic, who has been letting his disability define him for so long is given something. But why? For what purpose? Make your guesses. You may or may not be right, more than likely only partially correct.

I loved this movie, buying into its use of familiar plot points and alien abduction milieu. Area 57, strange desert folk and technology that is disturbing and intriguing. But its not completely cliche and its not a monster movie, as so many of these devolve into. Oh, there is the conspiracy, the explanation behind it all. But it is not a quick run to the explanation. This was partly because of Fishburne, who has learned a few things about drawing out the nervous confusion in his run on Hannibal. He is just creepy and unsettling in this movie, making a later reveal completely believable.

In the end this reminded me of Chronicle. The ending is grand and revealing, but not completely satisfying. This is, of course, because sequels are in mind and it has to leave a wide open landscape of possibilities. Young people have been enhanced by alien technology and it brings into question how human they will remain. But really, does it? I don't believe we are defined, as a species, by our limitations but by how we use of our tools to surpass them.

P.S. Don't mix this up with the other alien technology movie called The Signal which was more horror movie, but had a great three perspective story technique.

P.S.S. Kent saw Love and now I will have to go back and watch, see how a slower, more dramatic piece compare for Eubank.

Friday, November 7, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Lawless

2012, John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) -- Netflix

You can expect a couple of things from a screenplay by Nick Cave -- inexplicably badass characters and blood, lots of blood. Considering I got that all of two screenplays, I have to admit, its the tone of his song writing that influences the statement. Nick likes tough, legendary protagonists. In Lawless he gives us Forrest Bondurant, played by Tom Hardy. Ever clad in layers of (likely rarely washed) sweaters, Bondurant and his brothers are moonshiners in Prohibition period Virginia. Forrest has a reputation that he is unkillable, a rep he got in the war. They are hillbillies selling booze to hillbillies. But when the business expands, they catch the eyes of a local attorney, who wants a cut. Forrest refuses and a nemesis is introduced with Charlie Rakes, a sociopathic cop from the city, played by Guy Pearce.

This is Tom Hardy in his thick state. Hardy seems to flow between thin, stylish characters (think RocknRolla and Inception) and muscle covered thick brutes (Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises). I saw Bondurant as once the muscle bound brute, now aged and growing a layer of fat under the sweaters. He is settled in his life as a moonshiner, running the business and keeping his brothers' safety intact through his iron willed reputation, and his own personal belief in it. He shuffles about, mumbling through a beardy face thick with a mountain accent. But when violent action is called for, his eyes flash with awareness. He is the visible focus of the movie and the centre of the story.

These movies are always about plucky criminals going up against the more than despicable lawman. Yes, the Bondurant brothers are breaking the Prohibition Act but other than mild squabbles between them and their competition and more violent interactions with those that wish to take from the brothers, they are more local heroes than anything. And then there is the fool brother Jack (played by media fool Shia LaBeouf) who not only expands their business  but is responsible for  the tragic death of lame mechanical genius Cricket (Dane DeHaan, who is doing quite well for himself since Chronicle) and the broken heart of Bertha. Catalysts. Deaths. Retribution and eventually aging. The criminals become legends, high above the truth yet bound to it.

Retro One Episode: Get Smart, The Green Hornet, The Man From U.N.C.L.E,

Get Smart (1965-1970)
The Green Hornet (1966-1967)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)

I was a fan of Get Smart as a kid.  Even though the show aired 20 years before I eventually saw it, it still seemed fresh and funny to me.  The wobbly sets, retro style, and clunky technology were all part of the show's charm and atmosphere.  I'm fairly certain that I had watch some of the made-for-TV reunion  movies and the short-lived revival show, which probably made me quite the receptive seed for the repeats airing weekdays around dinner time (I'm thinking on YTV).  Not to mention being raised on Inspector Gadget, which is just Get Smart to even sillier extremes.

I've been quite keen to revisit Get Smart since I started doing the James Bond recaps, and learning that it was created by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks (which somehow I didn't know before) I was expecting some undiscovered comedy gold to match my youthful recollections.

It's unfortunate then that the pilot episode is a bit of a clunker.  Horrendously dated attributes like the opening narration, incredibly protracted comedy bits which seem to take forever to get to the joke (with the joke coming a mile off, but that's because these jokes have become staples, part of the comedy language and done much better), and, ouch, that laugh track.  Then there's the jokes at the expense of Little People (the C.H.A.O.S. boss is the ironically named "Mr. Big").  In its pilot, the show was almost trying to have a serious spy story with jokes surrounding it.  Maxwell Smart isn't a complete bumbling buffoon, but also isn't the agile super-spy that's earned his reputation.  It was a surprise when Smart actually turns out to have some competency.  Equally unsettling is 99's tendency to make googly eyes at Max.  Is part of the joke that everyone's oblivious to how incompetent Max is?

Don Adams is perfect for the role.  His unwavering tone of voice even in the face of his own ignorance is there right from the beginning.  The character evolved slightly into a more Clouseau-esque fool, but Adams had found Max's voice from the onset.  Barbara Feldon as 99 spends too much time awkwardly mooning over Max, a conscious effort to be sure.  It hampers her performance. Edward Platt as Chief of CONTROL is equally note perfect. The seeds of greatness are in the Pilot, but it's much too slow and labored compared with what follows later on. Skip the second episode too, it's quite racist. Just hitting up random episodes on youtube is probably your best bet.

I watched plenty of Batman reruns growing up too, once again, even though it was 20 years after the fact.  None of my hometown stations ever aired Batman, so I really only ever got to watch it when traveling and visiting family.  Even at a young age I didn't like it, but I was fascinated by it.  It wasn't the Batman I knew and loved, it was the highest camp, almost insulting to comic book fans with it's "BIFF" "BAM" "POW" effects and overt melodrama.

I always assumed The Green Hornet was much the same, a high-camp riff on costumed vigilantism.  I'd never seen an episode, and, quite frankly, it wasn't until I watched the Seth Rogen film that I realized I knew nothing about the character.  He's more a pulp radio hero in origins, not a comic book character, so he just never crossed my path.  The pilot blew my mind, if only a little, because it's a dead serious interpretation of the character.  It's not tongue in cheek at all.  It has no cheek.

I'm fascinated by the fact that it starts with the Green Hornet already in action.  He's the series hero but he operates as a bad guy, controlling the underworld in order to keep the underworld under control.

The theme song is insane, a classic.  Set design is pretty great.  The Black Beauty is, well, a beaut.  Bruce Lee!  It's got a lot of good things going for it, but the chief detraction, and it's a huge one, is the direly dull Van Williams as Britt Reid/Green Hornet.  He's not menacing, or charismatic.  He's not heroic or dangerous.  He's just sort of there.  With the whole show rotating around him, it's a problem.

The pilot isn't bad, but it feels like it's an hour long when it's only a half.  I read that the Hornet doesn't square off against any other costumes in the show (except during the crossover with Batman), which leads me to believe the show never reaches to be anything more than what we see in its first episode.

Interestingly enough it was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) that Get Smart was aping, complete with its complicated hallways and sliding doors entrances.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was taking its lead from Bond as well as the British spy series of the time, The Saint, The Avengers and the like.

Now unlike Get Smart which I watched, and loved, and the Green Hornet which I had preconceived notions of, I have no experience whatsoever with TMFU.  I'm not really familiar with its stars (I sort of know Robert Vaughn) and I don't really have any sense of what the show's impact on popular culture at the time (or after) was.  My guess on the latter was that it was negligible, as Bond was really the forerunner of these things at the time.

The pilot episode introduces us to Vaughn as Napoleon Solo through a complex and confusingly edited opening sequence.  Agents of T.H.R.U.S.H. infiltrate U.N.C.L.E.'s New York headquarters and in the end it's Solo who stops them.  He gets his money shot as the bad guy fires off three rounds at his silhouette only to be stopped by the bulletproof glass before him.  The light turns on to reveal our well dressed, well groomed lead.  But he's no Bond.

The pilot, excellently titled "The Vulcan Affair", has a fairly interesting story, which involves Solo enlisting a housewife to help him infiltrate a millionaire industrialist's ball.  This industrialist, Vulcan, is suspected of being a THRUSH supporter, and is going to murder a visiting President from a young African nation.  The housewife used to be a lover of Vulcan, and they set her up with a false background to make her much more posh.  The actress Pat Crowley, is eminently watchable, and I think they missed a true opportunity to have an awesome espionage show about a stay-at-home mom who is a part-time spy.  She's quite the looker too.  She's like Betty Draper on Mad Men but with personality.

In the pilot Vaughn doesn't seem to have full awareness of who Napoleon Solo is yet, so he seems softer around the edges than he should.  A hardened spy like him probably wouldn't smile so much.

While there's nothing fancy to the visual aspect of the show, the tone is quite perfect.  It takes its material serious and it earns itself some nice character moments.  The action is quite stilted (as 60's TV action generally is) with bad guys going down with one punch to the back.  These are things easily overlooked.  I hear the later seasons start to devolve into camp, succumbing to some of the more ridiculous tendencies of the spy genre.  I'm definitely going to carry on at least to that point.  It's good stuff .  (Caught the first few minutes of the second episode and it's a terribly clunky opening sequence with a voice over introducing U.N.C.L.E. and then the three main characters introducing themselves to the camera...woof).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nerdfall: Gotham, The Flash, Constantine, Star Wars: Rebels

Gotham, Mondays @ 8 on Fox/CTV
The Flash, Tuesdays @ 8 on CW/CTV
Constantine: Fridays @ 10 on NBC/Global
Star Wars: Rebels: Sundays @ 8 on Disney XD

Nerds may not be ruling the world (the world still belongs to the rich), but we're certainly dominating pop culture as of late.  Cinema and Television are both under the sway of what has traditionally been considered "geekstuffs", like sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, horror and anachronistic period pieces.  They may not be the most popular shows, but they certainly cater to more than just a niche audience at this point.  I don't want to complain about this, as this is what I've dreamed of for a very long time, but at the same time, it's completely overwhelming the abundance of it.  I've gotten over the hump of feeling obliged to watch it all.  I've long since abandoned The Walking Dead, I have an on-again/off-again relationship with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and light fantasy like Grimm, Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow,and Once Upon A Time (among others) I don't feel compelled to watch, nor do I feel guilty not watching since I know they have found their audiences that are pefectly happy with them.

Perhaps it's a safe bet taking up with primarily known quantities like Flash and Star Wars: Rebels, and it could be limiting my exposure to other, potentially enriching programming because of my lack of available time, but I'm not to concerned.  I will support outright the shows I like, and pick up upon buzzed about or intriguing-in-hindsight shows later on when the interweb sites I trust start convincing me to invest my time.

But that's what the fall is all about, as a TV watcher isn't it?  "What's worth your time?"  The harsh thing is pilot episodes are so rarely indicative of what the series will wind up being.  They're just a hook, but it almost always takes a few episodes, if not the bulk of a season for a show to find its true legs and the actors to find their characters.  One of my current favourite shows, Person of Interest,I skipped over a half dozen episodes in the middle of its first season because it wasn't going anywhere, at least that's what I thought.  Same with Fringe, where I watched only an episode or two of the first season before coming to the opinion it was another X-Files rip-off, only to step in partway through the second season to find it dealing with parallel dimensions and hooking me right in.  Revisiting Fringe's first season revealed a planned roadmap for the rest of the series.

This year's TV crop sees an unprecedented number of comic book-base programming coming to TV. Even after the success of Arrow and Marvel's AoS, it was surprising.  Arrow still feels like a cult hit, but with a stellar second season that abandoned most of the usual hoary CW romantic drama tropes, it was already seeded as a launching pad for the Flash, introducing Grant Gustin's Barry Allen midway through the season with the intention of turning a later episode of Arrow into a backdoor pilot for a Flash TV show (executives were so confident, however they just went to full pilot instead).  But the CW, despite providing some really solid entertainment over the years, still isn't the same as the major networks, so Gotham winding up on Fox and Constantine arriving on NBC are still rather surprising.

Gotham was first out the gate, and of the three DC Comics related shows, easily the one I was least excited about.  The advertising hit hard the "l'il Batman" and "l'il rogues" angle of the show, something I was thoroughly disinterested in.  I don't need to see Catwoman or Riddler or Poison Ivy or any other bat-villain before they are a bat-villain, nor do I really need to watch in painfully slow detail a 12-year-old Bruce Wayne already exhibit defining signs of Batman.

The show does actually center on the corruption-laden Gotham City Police Department and the crime families which run the city, and through them it does manage to build something unique, but unique here doesn't exactly equal good.  Ben McKenzie plays Detective Jim Gordon, the new transfer to the PD who prides himself on being clean as a whistle by-the-book.  His partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is halfway to hell already and none-to-pleased that his partner isn't willing to play ball with the bad guys.  The crime families are two fold, the Falcones and the Maronis, currently at a stalemate in their turf war, but the flames are getting reignited as Boss Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) wants to climb over Falcone, and her underling, Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) wants to climb over everyone.

The show has it's intriguing points, particularly the colorful underworld, with Pinkett Smith chewing up scenery with an Ertha Kitt joi de vivre, and Lord Taylor masterfully navigating his unevenly written it's always fun to see Dexter's David Zayas, and he seems to be having tremendous fun with Boss Maroni.  Where the show falters is in its presentation of Gordon and the Gotham City PD. Logue can do no wrong but McKenzie is so self-serious, clenching his jaw thorugh every scene that he comes off as posturing and cliche, less as a future leader.  There's internal affairs drama, and the most useless of characters in Gordon's girlfriend Barbara Kean (made even worse with Erin Richard's soulless performance) but it all feels stuffed in and unnecessary.  More effective is that each episode throws the GCPD into some weirdo murder plot that underlies the strange nature of Gotham City crime, and its oddball criminals.  It's actually one of its better touches.

Just as unnecessary is the "young Batman" storyline.  Having an ever-present young Bruce Wayne denies the show its ability to escape beyond the shadow of the bat.  I can understand why they tread so heavily to start, introducing so many young bat-villains but when you realize that Wayne is at least a decade away from putting on a cape and cowl it seems excessive and forced.  Not to mention it hinders the showrunners in developing characters like the Riddler and Catwoman at earlier stages knowing where they must wind up.  Edward Nygma, particularly, is a purposefully annoying character who does little else but exposit and annoy.

Six episodes have aired so far and I've caught at least 30 minutes of most of them.  It's not an altogether unwatchable show, but it hasn't yet justified its existence.  I like it's late-'90's setting, perhaps the show's best and subtlest touch.

As essentially a spin-off of Arrow, I knew The Flash was in good hands.  As I said we'd already met the lead character in season 2 of Arrow and Grant Gustin was absolutely charming...likeable, smart, nerdy, awkward, excitable.  Barry Allen from the comics of yore was kind of stuffy and a bit of a bore, but his sidekick, Wally West, was much more personable and energetic (as viewers of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon could attest), and Gustin sort of merges the two into the perfect TV Flash.  He even starts off each show with a voice over monologue as he races through the streets on patrol or on a mission, something that happened with each issue of Wally West's tenure as The Flash.  It's a delightful touch.

It was predetermined that I would like this show.  I flat out love the 1990 The Flash TV show (even still) and it took pains to try to separate itself from being a "comic book show".  It was direly serious at times, a result of Tim Burton's Batman's negative influence, but just to have a b-level character like the Flash on TV was a treat in itself and I liked the cast.  This iteration of the character, which featured comic book and former Flash writer Geoff Johns as producer and writer, promised to keep more in line with the comic book representation of the character and not shy away from it's more colourful aspects.  And it has succeeded to an utterly charming degree.

While many a comic book show in the past has teased their comic book origins through background easter eggs or tongue-in-cheek dialogue referencing something, The Flash does these things as seeds for the future. It's the first comic-book derived TV show that isn't embarassed by its roots, instead embracing the character and his world whole hog.

The pilot episode introduced the world of the Flash well enough, providing an origin story for his superpowers,  costume, and raison d'etre, as well as his super-powered villain.  The same accident that gave Barry his superpowers have also granted other people theirs, and he's taken it upon himself (and his support team of STAR Lab technicians) to police them.  Along with this general premise, there's the ongoing background thread of Barry's mother's murder from his childhood (by a man inside the lightning) and his father (played by 1990's Flash and Dawson's Creek dad, John Wesley Shipp) taking the fall for it.  Beyond that is Tom Cavanaugh (of the awesome "Mike and Tom Eat Snacks" podcast, among his many television an film credits) as Dr. Harrison Wells, who a) caused the accident that gave him his powers and b) somehow has access to news from 10 years in the future reporting the Flash's death.  Wells seems to be out to protect Barry, but we aren't altogether sure what his motivations.

Less interesting is Barry's crush on Iris Allen (Candice Patton), the daughter of Police Detective Joe Allen (the great Jesse L. Martin from Law and Order).  Barry lived next to Iris as a kid until his mom died and dad went to jail at which point Joe wound up raising him.  So Barry's crush is all kinds of weird considering that Iris is essentially his foster-sister.  On top of that, episode 4 of this season brings Felicity (from Arrow) to Central City and the chemistry between Barry and Felicity (even more than it was in Arrow Season 2) is note perfect.  These two characters are perfect for each other and the only reason the producers don't thrust them together is because Barry and Iris are a couple in the comics.  It seems ironic to say this, but at some point they need to understand that these shows can live their own life an not have to adhere to what their source material.  When you can run 200 miles per second, having a long-distance relationship isn't much of a challenge (but I guess sharing a character between two shows is).

If the first episode of The Flash didn't wow me as I'd hoped, it was because the visualization of the character's powers wasn't really what I was hoping for (see X-Men: Days of Future Past for the perfect super-speedster action sequence), but by the shows 4th episode, they seem to be getting a much better handle on how it can work and be exciting and fresh.  Plus the 4th episode introduces Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) as Captain Cold and he nails the character with absolute delight.  This set up the first real key player in Flash's Rogues Gallery (and the end of the episode teases Heat Wave, who I've learned is played by Miller's Prison Break brother, Dominic Purcell ,..this show knows how to have fun).  It is quite literally the most comic-book-feeling TV show we've ever had, and I love it.  I can't say it's the greatest show ever made, and that it's in any way flawless, but damn if it isn't tremendous amounts of fun.

John Constantine was created about 30 years ago for DC Comics and has had his own series for almost that entire time (first Hellblazer, and more recently, Constantine).  If he's widely known it's primarily from the 2005 supernatural thriller feature film wherein the character -- whose four main traits are being blond, British, a chain smoker and being quite an asshole -- was turned into Keanu Reeves.  It was a decent film, despite the miscasting, but it would have be exception were it, say, Guy Pierce (I know, he's Australian) or Daniel Craig or  Jason Statham, or, well, anyone who could fake an accent and look the part.

The new Constantine TV show has cast an actor that indeed looks the part with relative unknown Matt Ryan donning the tan trenchcoat, unkempt red tie, and rocking the scruffy blond hair and stubble.  Ryan's not a natural blond though, and because of the general attitude towards smoking in America, he doesn't smoke on screen, but his cigarettes and lighter are quite present.  He's also a bit of a prat, knowingly keeping people at a distance, and rousing others to punch him.  In the case of the former, he's seen far too many of his associates die because of him, and the latter, probably accepting it as some form of penance... if you want to read into these things.  Even though, I'm not well versed on Constantine, in my opinion showrunners Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer have nailed the character quite well.

The pilot was an exceptionally well directed mini-movie that looked utterly expensive and fantastic.  It got mired in a lot of nonsensical magic mumbo-jumbo a few times, but overall was an enjoyable experience, with at least one hella creepy moment (when that dead body that had crashed through the SUV's windshield, neck at 150 degree angle, comes back to life and starts nasty). The second episode really gathers the tone for the series to follow.  Constantine has a map of America with blood drops showing where evil may erupt.  Whenever a droplet turns wet, John must jump into action.  There's an X-Files meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe, which in every sense is a positive thing.  It allows there to be these weird of-the-week mysteries that are entertaining on their own, while seeding in a larger seed of evil that will span the season.

Constantine has a supporting cast -- Chas Kramer (Charles Halford) who can't seem to be killed, Zed (Angelica Celaya) who has second sight abilities, and Manny (Harold Perrineau) an angel warning Constantine of dire things to come -- but one gets the sense they're incidental and disposable, which is not a bad thing.  Creating a varied roster of associates, as well as having the ability to kill of cast members almost expectedly (but in unexpected ways) gives Constantine a bit of a Doctor Who-gone-horror vibe, which we know can work.

I like the show.  It's fun and easy to get into, with the potential for some really interesting things to happen (being Fridays at 10pm, and given what NBC has permitted Hannibal to show on network TV, they could really amp up the gruesome and terror factor on the show).  The potential for DC Comics guest stars is high, but almost  unnecessary given the show's template.  Even after two episodes I've lost my craving for easter eggs (like Dr. Fate's helmet in the pilot).  All we really need is for enough people to buy into an asshole-as-hero to make it last.

And finally this Nerdfall, we have Star Wars: Rebels.  This takes place about 15 years after Revenge of the Sith, and is set to showcase the rise of the rebellion against the galactic empire.  They kicked off the series with a 1-hour (well, 40-something minutes) mini-movie introducing the cast, and bringing street-rat Ezra into the Rebel fold.  It was a choppy, oversimplified story, with obvious set-ups for future plot lines, and it has so many faltering points it could be easily dismissed.

But then, I thought the same of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it's taken me 7 years to discover that it actually turned into a great show worth watching.  Rebels has a few saving graces.  To start, the characters are actually quite likeable.  They may not be given the right things to do episode to episode, but they're nonetheless charismatic in a way the prequels never quit got.  Secondly, the show is starting to transition from the designs of Episode 3 into the designs of Episode 4 (aka Star Wars), and easter egg in visual teases of things that we know are coming up.  This could get too cutesy if it persists too long, but as an early hook it helps.  Thirdly, the show utilizes a lot of Ralph McQuarrie's early production designs for the original film.  The old stormtrooper helmets, some of the wardrobes, Zeb (one of the last surviving Lasat, and the original template for Chewbacca...the show makes a crack about this when they go on a Wookee rescue mission).  It`s a fun touch for the die hards.

It's far from hitting its stride already, and in advance we know there are limits to what the show can actually accomplish in the scope of the Rebellion vs the Empire, but if Clone Wars can make a half-dozen mostly compelling seasons out of a conflict with a predetermined outcome there's no reason that Rebels can't work either.  It`s unfortunate that they had to trot out Artoo and Threepeeoh in the second episode already, but it does catch us up on Bail Organa (not Jimmy Smits`voice, sadly) and his part in the Rebellion.

Two of the characters, Ezra and scruffy-looking pilot Kanan, have force powers, which is kind of mind blowing.  After consuming the original trilogy so many times as a child and being so immersed in that world, the thought that there might`ve still been other Jedi still alive around the galaxy never even entered my mind.  Kanan survived the Order 66, and he senses the talent in Ezra (Ezra, meanwhile, discovers Kanan`s lightsaber and holocron), so it will be interesting to see how they explore Jedi-like things a decade and a half after the Jedi should be extinct.

I also quite like Tiya off the bat, the Mandalorian, and look forward to learning more about her.  Chopper is a ramshackle astromech droid who looks like he will fall apart if you sneeze on him too hard.  He`s full of even more personality than Artoo, which seems like a stretch.  He also seems too much like BOB from Disney`s The Black Hole, so while I am amused by him, I don`t like him on principal.  But I guess it makes sense that if Artoo can develop a personality then why not any other droids.

The animation on Rebels is at once an improvement and a step back from Clone Wars.  Gone are the wooden beards and hair, but also gone seems to be a lot of the refined detail that the Clone Wars had.  Rebels seems to be on a bit more of a budget.

Somewhere in the past year I've turned the corner on Star Wars apathy and have come back around to "fan" again.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Rewatch: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

2010, Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Donnie Brasco) -- Blu-ray

It was my birthday and I was still having coughing fits from the remaindered lung infection, so no guilting myself about rewatching something; I just needed some fun. Prince of Persia sits in my collection of fantasy movies that I enjoy again and again. The collection evolves with technology, with many of the VHS tapes of years past yet to be replaced. They are rarely considered good movies but they are ones I enjoy.

This is of the swords & sandals sub-genre but like most, is more straight fantasy movie than historically accurate. That said, in my mind, ancient Arabia and ancient Persia have always been merged. They all include the cliches of minarets, carpets, djinn and world conquering empires. It is possible I don't have any real pop culture references for Persia. Sinbad? Maybe. But it matters not because a Disney movie based on a video game, starring entirely western actors is not going to even try for accuracy.

I never played the game it is based on (The Sands of Time), the platformer from the PS2 era of gaming. OK, I might have started it, but in my core memory, its the original side-scroller game from the 90s that stands out. The running, jumping and pre-parkour of the game was astounding for its age. So, its not surprising that the recent games and movie make use of the running, jumping, swinging and dodging that so often dominate parkour centered action scenes. Personally, not enough was used in the movie but that would have required an entirely city based movie instead of one with sweeping desert travel scenes, as anyone would expect in swords & sandals.

Its a dumb, standard movie, in the style of many Disney adaptations. That the Pirates.... movies rose above that standard is amazing, while this one keeps to the low expectations. As I already said, we have western (i.e. white) actors playing Persians: Ronald Pickup as the Persian king, Ben Kingsley as his brother, Richard Coyle & Toby Kebbell as his sons and Jake Gyllenhaal as his adopted son, the Prince of Persia in question. And of course, Gemma Arterton as Princess Tamina. The amusing thing is that Gyllenhaal, as the street rabble kid who is adopted by the kind king, affects a London street accent to offset the BBC English of the other actors. I always wonder when British English became the de facto representation of people speaking "another language".

Ahh Gemma Arterton. In a world where "the list" actually applies, she would be on My List. She has an unearthly beauty in this movie, smooth skinned and perfectly toned, that fits the role she is playing as the fabled beauty of Alamut. Amusingly though, I often mix up her role in this movie with her role as Io in Clash of the Titans. So, not so defining a role. She is to be beautiful and antagonistic towards the Hero, and she does that well enough. I wonder if a movie, where the hero and heroine bicker like old crones for most of the running time, has ever ended with them just disliking each other, instead of eventually falling in love/lust?

If there is one thing I actively dislike about this movie, it is the whole comedic addition of Alfred Molina as Sheik Amar. With his complaints about taxes and his love for his racing ostriches, the whole addition annoyed me. Still does. But he provides some additional supporting characters for our hero to draw upon when needed, a trope commonly used in fantasy movies. I feel I should trace that one back to find an origin, and suspect it starts entirely outside the fantasy genre.

You would think that if I state that there is one thing I actively dislike, I would have at least one example I actively love, as I rewatch these movies over and over again. But no, nothing of note reaches out from this movie. Its more an overall collection of magic and swordplay, visual notes and costuming, that catches me. The background shots of Alamut are fantastic, so broad and sweeping and carrying actual distance. You can see the money in this movie, in large sets like the celebration after the fall of Alamut, which even in the worst of movies, always lends a bit of a thrill for me. I just like BIG scenes, full of details and background notes.

With this movie rewatched, I almost feel I have to rewatch Clash of the Titans if not because Gemma is in it, but also because these sit side by side in my mind, very similar in structure to me, if not a bit more serious toned.

One last comment. I believe, that if there was ever to be a movie adaptation of the Uncharted series of video games, Newell could do a good job. The humor of the games as well as the big action pieces are familiar to him.