Saturday, September 19, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: A Walk Among the Tombstones

2014, Scott Frank (writer The Wolverine, Get Shorty) -- netflix

Will Liam Neeson ever step out from the shadow of Taken? Does he even care to? He's 63 this year, so the idea of playing as many action star type roles is probably appealing, before he is relegated to only the Old Man roles. Since becoming the guy with a specific set of skills, people accept him as the quiet, stable man capable of great violence, and that lends itself to crime fiction. This one, based on the novel by Lawrence Block, is the kind of middle of the road work, more an enhanced TV episode than striking motion picture, but it was solid and I enjoyed it.

Scudder is an ex-cop from the 90s, with the short trench and goatee back then, ex because he was involved in the shooting of three would-be armed robbers who shot the owner of his favourite bar. He was drunk at the time, angry in his retribution and careless in his response. He is now a recovering alcoholic working the unlicensed private eye job, doing jobs for people, looking much as we just plain Neeson. That day long ago haunts him, but not for the reasons we think.

The snapshot on one instant of his life, that we have as the plot of the movie, is where he is approached by a local drug lord whose wife has been kidnapped. The drug lord cannot go to the cops, of course.  Scudder rejects his request but changes his mind when the drug lord explains the full story; that his wife is already dead; the ransom paid but they killed and dismembered her anyway. What follows is a classic crime investigation of the seedy underbelly, well The Seedy Underbelly,  because that is where these stories always occur. But Neeson is give more here, more to chew on, more to present to us, more to think about, as he investigates the serial kidnappings & killings and makes decisions about who he is working for, why and who he is up against. Its an unremarkable movie but I rather recommend it. In much the way I am happy to see actors acting, in all range of movies, I am happy to see a decently movie created, for a director has to direct, even if it isn't Oscar worthy, as long as they do it with heart and concerted effort.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

DC Animated times 4

Son of Batman (2014, d. Ethan Spaulding) - netflix
Justice League: War (2014, Jay Oliva) - netflix
Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014, Jay Oliva, Ethan Spaulding) - netflix
Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts (2015, Butch Lukic) - Teletoon


DC Entertainment's direct-to-video animation wing has been steadily cranking out animated features for almost a decade now, with seemingly more and more productions being released each year.  Despite being a pretty huge DC fan (well, I was anyway) and was a fairly religious watcher of their animated output (particularly their Batman and Superman animated runs leading into Justice League in the 90's and early 2000's), it didn't take long before I not only stopped buying their new animated movies but began ignoring them altogether.

Though originally starting as original stories, or at least semi-original stories inspired loosely by existing story lines, the run of DC Animated movies quickly devolved into lazily adapting existing stories.  I had read most of the stories being adapted (or I purposely skipped them for disliking the creative team) so I had no real need to invest any more time or money into these animated features.  The features I had seen to that point, like Justice League: New Frontier, Green Lantern: First Flight or All-Star Superman just didn't feel very satisfying.  They took long form stories and compressed them into a rougly 75-minute animated feature and that compression never seemed to serve the story particularly well.  The fact that there was no continuity between features and the voice casts would change dramatically from one to the next also didn't help maintain my interest.  The biggest problem I saw at the time was they were adapting fairly recent stories, one which were already well enough told and available, when they could have gone back into DC's deep, deep repositories and found some vintage stories and updated them for modern audiences but in a new medium.

The final straw for me was when The New 52 hit (wherein DC Comics cancelled their entire line of books and relaunched their entire universe with different and in some cases radically altered versions of their characters) and the DC Animated features coming out were reflecting these so very recent stories.  I was already quite disinterested in the New 52.  Animated adaptations seemed like the furthest thing I was interested in.

So, after so long, why the recent spell of DC Animated watching?  I'm not exactly sure. Partly a burning desire to watch something with superheroes in it, and having only a shorter amount of time to spare, and even a little curiosity.

Of the four I watched in the past two weeks, Son of Batman is perhaps the most egregious example of what I dislike about these animated features. It runs at a stilted pace, the characters don't feel connected to one another at all, and the animation gets lazy (when the man-bats spew out of the ocean there seems like hundreds of them taking to skies as the same animation repeats itself, but moments later it only looks like a couple dozen actually flying out there, with what looks like the same image of Man-bat repeated over and over but at different sizes to fake out some depth).  There's a lot of animated nonsense, things happening on screen to create action or visual drama but are utterly pointless, and a lot of egregious death but with no real sense of any relevance to death.

  This film is a very loose adaptation of Grant Morrison's initial Batman run from a few years back (though he's not even given story credit) which introduces Bruce Wayne's son, Damian, into the DCU.  It was a storyline I wasn't very fond of, but this is a poorer rendition of it.  The voice casting isn't bad (Jason O'Mara makes a decent Batman) but again, it just doesn't feel like the actors are relating to one another (in all likelihood they're recording their lines separately) and there no warmth at all to it.  Plus, they didn't even have Damien do his trademark teeth-sucking "tt".

But it was watching Justice League: War and noting Jason O'Mara again as Batman that I realized that this current spate of DC Animated movies was looking to tie together as a cohesive universe, using a consistent voice team and  a small stable of directors).  The "War" story is based off the first story arc of the New 52 Justice League, by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee.  That storyline also served as a complete reintroduction to the DC Universe for the readers at the time, so there was a lot of groundwork it was trying to lay.  A lot of that ground-building spills into this feature, such that there's no sense of familiarity between the characters (Flash and Green Lantern have met prior though), everyone gets an introduction but few get an actual story (pretty much only Cyborg and Shazam have what could be described as a character arc here).

War isn't terrible, it's almost saved by a surprisingly quippy Green Lantern (a role usually reserved for the Flash), but at the same time it doesn't really fulfill the needs of a movie very well.  It feels like a pilot episode of a new program, introducing things, but unsure of itself or where it's really going to wind up.  The post-credits sequence hint at Aquaman's arrival, leading into the Justice League: Throne of Atlantis feature released this year (based off another comic-book arc from the same series).  Likewise Son Of Batman received a sequel this year in Batman vs Robin, again loosely adapting events from the Morrison run, and followed by Batman: Bad Blood to come next year, delving into Morrison's Batman and Robin run wherein Dick Grayson takes over as Batman and Damian's mentor.

Stepping aside from adaptation though, there's Batman: Assault on Arkham which actually takes place in the Batman/Arkham video game universe, something I'm largely unfamiliar with.  This film is largely a Suicide Squad movie, with Batman taking a supporting role, and what it does so brilliantly is manage to navigate all three of the DC Comics Universe, the classic DC Animated Universe and the Arkham videogame universe almost effortlessly.  Returning is the ultimate Batman voice actor, Kevin Conroy, as well as CCH Pounder returning as Amanda Waller, while Troy Baker does a mean impersonation of Mark Hamill's Joker, as does Hynden Walch of Harley Quinn pulling back the DC Animated vibe into it, while the look and feel draws completely from the video games (though it's not nearly as dark, the character designs, including Batman's weird pupils, are here), and overall it feels like a Suicide Squad story (more modern Squad than classic '80's but still not bad).

Son of Batman was a pretty bloody affair, but it was also blindly so.  As characters wound their way through piles of ninjas, cleaving them with swords, or tearing down man-bats, they were so faceless that they were the utmost of expendable, and their fights were meaningless.  In Assault on Arkham, we're watching bad people (the Suicide Squad is a team of criminals who are forced into serving the government to perform dirty tasks for which they need maximum deniability) invade a maximum security criminal asylum in order to achieve their objective (finding a particular Maguffin) but obviously things aren't clean and the bad people start killing prison guards.  Though sometimes played for laughs, each guard killed feels like a tiny punch in the gut.  We're along for the ride with Deadshot, Harley and company, and as such we're rooting for their success, in a way, but at the same time, it's almost better if they're stopped.   Which is why Batman flits around in the background.  By having a real hero partiicpate in the proceedings it continually reminds us just how bad the people at the center of the story are.

Assault on Arkham is a definite "mature audiences" picture, and not for the kids.  There's excessive violence and plenty of swearing and it feels quite natural.  It feels like an "R" rated production that isn't held back by anything, allowing the creative team to tell the story they set out to tell.  That it's an original story is also definitely in its favor as it allows for an "anything can happen" vibe.  Set loose from the constraints of any continuity it really does manage to surprise and occasionally shock, but it also entertains quite well to.  The action sequences are not only well done, but inventive, with more than a few moves that I've never seen before (Batman's facepalm to Harley was a classic).  Quite easily the best of the DC Animated features to date, one I'd more than likely revisit multiple times.

Finally, there's Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts, the first of a new line of direct-to-video movies meant to promote and sell toys, namely the awfully ugly Batman Unlimited line.  Normally a new toy line gets an accompanying Saturday morning or weekday cartoon to keep the toys fresh in kids minds, so this tactic of forcing them to buy it is kind of counter-intuitive.  It presumes buy-in on the toy line in advance, rather than promoting it.

This new Unlimited series takes place in an alternate world (well, even more alternate than usual superhero stories), one where there's flying cars and all building seem to be sky scrapers and the police aren't that keen on superheros.  It's sort of a Blade Runner/Fifth Element  kind of vibe.  This story finds Batman, Nightwing, Red Robin, Flash, Green Arrow (the latter two included more than likely because of their prominent TV series) squaring off against the Penguin and a cadre of animal-themed villains (including Cheetah and Killer Croc) and a trio of robotic animals, as they try to suss out what is their master plan.

Though the futuristic setting is kind of ho-hum, and the costume designs are largely terrible, this wasn't actually that bad of a feature.  It's pretty juvenile compared to most other DC Animated features, but that's for the best given what its purpose is.  The characters, even Batman, are pretty light on their toes, so there's a lot of fun quipping and creative fights happening on screen (plus the Flash is very much a Wally West-style Flash, so that's welcome any day), and the overall scenario is kind of silly in a big, grand, 1960's suppervillain manner, so it pretty much demands that you don't take it too seriously.  Good for the kids, for sure

Overall, beyond Assault on Arkham these DC Animated features haven't exactly inspired me to dig deeper into the back catalog, but now with such easy access as they crop up more and more on Netflix, I just might when I'm bored or short on time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Insurgent

2015, Robert Schwentke (Red, R.I.P.D) -- download

Next up we have the sequel, next in the series, of Hunger Games Light. Dystopia, teenage girl protagonist, rebellion against a more power authority. And like the second Hunger Games, the second Divergent is where things really rebel. And yet, again, I am still not sure how being divergent plays into anything other than as a DNA marker for being a rebel. Whatever, not important. It's now a DNA marker for being insurgent.

The first ended with the main character running away, after exposing the evil leaders corrupting their form of government (a society broken into like minded ideals like intelligence, strength, selflessness, etc.) through mind control, deception and eradication. The hero(ine) runs away into... well, we are not quite sure, but I assume it had to be outside that really cool wall that surrounds the post apoc ruins of Chicago. I mean, they do farm out there, at least just outside the walls. But waaaay beyond the wall, only monsters lie. But no, apparently there was a wooded area we were previously unaware of and the farmers also live there. It's green, it's rural but it's still inside the wall. And that is where the gang ran.

The rest of the movie is a choppy bunch of terrible editing (terrible editing? probably technically fine but story wise, it blew) and an entirely forgettable plot about the evil leaders pretending they hadn't been exposed and carrying on with their previous nefarious, albeit derailed plans. Previously, being divergent meant you couldn't be mind controlled but that is no longer relevant, so now, being divergent means you potentially can open a bright battery powered box. This box supposedly has the original society designer's plans. Why the society designer would leave that hidden away inside of a poorly hidden analogy for Pandora's Box, I am not sure. But you need ____gent people to open it. So, scene scene scene after irrelevant scene leads to opening the box and finding out that divergent people were the plan all along. Society designers just like to fuck with people, so it seems. Just look at The Maze Runner if you doubt me.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Getaway

2013, Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) -- Netflix

In 13 years, this poor guy has directed 3 movies including the reviled D&D movie. But he has a ton of producer credits, so I guess he sticks to his strengths. Dungeons & Dragons was not Asylum level bad but it was not a very good movie and, well, neither is this one. Honestly, the only reason I was attracted to it was Ethan Hawke, and the plot kind of reminded me of Drive, the short lived series starring Nathan Fillion, i.e. guy's wife is kidnapped and he is forced to drive fast or never get her back.

So, yeah, a guy's wife is kidnapped so he has to drive fast fast fast in order to get her back. But here's the twist, the car is stolen, modded with webcams and The Internet (!!!) and the car's original owner, spoiled brat Selena Gomez still looking no more than 14 but all streeted up in ballcap and hoodie, finds the car and jumps in to steal it back. The Voice, John Voight with bad teeth and an even worse Eastern European accent, is the bad guy forcing Ethan (and Selena once she jumps in) to do the driving, watching & controlling events through the car's mods. This all takes place in a nameless (or I plain forgot) European city, so the real demographic is the same audience that Uwe Boll made use of, the resell market over there.

Not only does the movie not make much sense, not convince us Selena is a tech wiz who can hackety hack her car and the city, but it has some unbelievably glaring errors. Almost immediately after Selena gets stuck in the car, Ethan tosses her cell phone out the window so she won't call the cops, another appears in her hands. It reappears and becomes integral to the plot. She didn't have a second and they could have just edited that scene out, but no, and Solomon probably just didn't care enough. The rest of the movie is supposed to be fast driving but the city is so crowded and cobblestone streeted, he spends most of the time shifting. It wanted to be Bourne Meets Furious Vin Diesel but ended up kind of boring and frustrating.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

3 Short Paragraphs: Inherent Vice

2014, Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Master) -- download

No, not Paul WS Anderson of Resident Evil "fame".

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those directors I expect is on the "needs to be watched" lists created by film aficionados. I still remember the buzz when Magnolia came out, with all the intertwining stories and extended cast. All of his movies get a lot of critical acclaim but I still wonder if they are popular with audiences. Not that it matters; I respect a creator that sticks to their ideal without all the bullshit we get when trying to make a movie popular & box office generating.

At its heart, the movie is a noir detective mystery. We get Doc, a hippy pothead in the 70s who runs a private eye business out of a medical clinic in Gordita Beach. His ex Shasta, the ex that he never got over, visits him and tells him of a conspiracy involving her new boyfriend, a local land magnate. And thus begins a twisted, convoluted tale that may or may not be exacerbated by paranoid drug delusions on Doc's part. Murder, conspiracy and politics all interweave, as they do in all the best noir, with the weird hint of humor from wacked out hippy culture.

There are a lot of characters in this movie, a LOT. From Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the abusive cop with self image issues, to the dentist cum crime lord Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short) to land baron Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) to police informant / musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) to... it goes on. There's even a noirish narrator who doesn't actually seem to be part of the story, so maybe just a voice in Doc's head. It's a fun ride, all 1970s LA style where we focus on the flat, laid our architecture and geography as we do the clothing and cars. The paranoia of state vs hippy is as much a theme in the movie as a bad trip. I was just never quite sure the plot was as convoluted as Doc made it out to be.

P.S. The posters are a real treat, so I broke my unwritten rule and posted the best one.