Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (Pt. B)

Pt. A can be found here.

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of stuff they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. But we can't not write cuz that would be bad, very bad.  Y'know, world ending bad.  Rewritten time bad. Monsters from another dimension bad.

This is how I stated I watch TV, to a coworker yesterday, who was somewhat surprised I had not yet watched all of Mr. Robot S2. There are good shows I cannot miss, there are bad shows I cannot miss, there are shows I don't watch and probably never will and there are shows I know I will just eventually get around to watching.

There are also dropped shows. Shows that just didn't keep me paying attention long enough, not because I thought they were bad but just because... well, yawn or meh or I fell asleep on the sofa. Here are three from overseas that unfortunately are / will be in that body of work.

The Aliens, 2016, Channel 4 -- download

The Aliens comes from Channel 4 in the UK. In this darkly comedic show, but not sitcom, aliens crashed landed in the 70s. Alien Nation or District 9 comes to mind, but that the aliens look human. They integrated into society pretty easily but the 80s and 90s saw tons of unrest, and eventually the UK government segregated the aliens behind a wall. Whoah, that is all kinds of current news culture dark. Did some sort of alternate reality Trump live in the UK ?

The shows starts with a young security guard on the wall getting mixed up in  the drug trade. Or the hair trade. Apparently alien hair is a great narcotic to humans. And then the guard learns he is probably half-alien.

This is a show about a seedy underbelly.  All of Lewis's family and friends are class chav/riff raff. And the alien girl he falls for is a cam chick. I never actually watched enough to see where the show was going, as it didn't capture my attention but for its shock value. Obviously, the racism metaphor is Mjolnir heavy in its hammering. But I wonder how long it can spin that metaphor out without any other central plot.

Cleverman, 2016, ABC (Australia) -- download

Also using the same metaphor and the same idea, but from an entirely different fantasy point of view is Cleverman from Australia. As far as I understand, in watching three episodes, the "Hairies" are other beings that came from the Aboriginal Dreamtime and migrated to our world not so long ago. They are pseudo-human, more bestial and obviously more body hair. Hairies didn't do a very good job of integrating, and are currently living in a ghetto around an abandoned train station. The human authorities fear them and are moving to fully segregate them, possibly into classic detention facilities. Many have already began to disappear.

Koen runs a bar with two friends; his brother keeps the Hairypeople camp running through free clinics and political movement. They don't like each other much but their "Uncle" tries to draw them together. He is the family Cleverman, a mix of shaman, wiseman and family leader. But this is a world where beings from mythology have appeared, so the Cleverman is more than just your local psychic, faith healer. And Koen is destined to become the next one.

But really, the focus of the bit I watched was more on the dire situation the Hairies are in. Humans don't trust them; of course. And even more than they never trusted the Aboriginals. On one level, the show is an extreme representation of the tension between the whites of Australia and the Aboriginals themselves, but its also a fantastical representation of how we always fear what we don't understand. And magic is a scary thing in a mundane world.

Something was going to happen, but I never watched enough to know. Koen is on his way, connected to the Hairies by a force he doesn't understand, by a monster that is hunting... something. The Hairies are close to having enough of the fear and abuse. And rich white folk want to take as much advantage of the situation as they can.

Hunters, 2016, SyFy -- download

This show, also about aliens from ... somewhere, may call itself an American show but its produced and shot in Australia and does a pretty bad job of pretending its in Baltimore... or is it Philadelphia? Washington DC ? The same way you can tell a show is shot in Vancouver, when they say its Seattle or Denver, boy can you see this ain't the US. But all that sort of lends itself to the weirdness of the show.

Aliens are invading, this time quietly and unknown to the populace. They are reptilian, sort of V like, covered in human skin. There is a conspiracy tieing them together and on the other side is a human task force trying to root them out and... well, kill them. This is all tired mystery, double talk and shadowy low-rent X-Files. The primary focus is on an FBI agent drawn into the task force because his wife is taken by the alien leader (in human form) played by Julian McMahon (yes, Dr Doom from the first Fantastic Four movies) who actually does a great job of a creepy, charismatic alien terrorist.

The problem is that the show doesn't seem to know how to do episode to episode. There is a core world its building, but it doesn't have a real story to tell. That wouldn't hold down many other shows, as alien intervention of the week could hold it together. But this one just fails to make anything interesting happen. They just jump from here to there, never actually capturing our attention.

I think I stopped watching it before SyFy cancelled it.

Friday, August 26, 2016

I Saw This!! What I Have Been Watching (Pt. A)

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of stuff they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. But we can't not write cuz that would be bad, very bad.

In February I ended off a 6-parter (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) of what I had been watching over the last year. In the cyclical nature that is current TV viewing, it's about time I did another round.

Stranger Things, 2016, The Duffer Bros (Hidden) -- Netflix

Might as well start at the end.

This is easily the best thing on TV at the moment. Of the moment, is probably a better term, as per the new Netflix paradigm you can watch an entire season in one shot, should you wish to. We don't, as I like to pace out my joy. No point in losing it so quickly. And yes, The Best.

The show is a throwback to 80s style, not any one particular genre or director or movie or TV series, more a collection of nostalgic memories. Think Close Encounters, think E.T., think D&D in your parent's basement, think alternative pop music from mixtapes, BMX bikes and John Carpenter movie. The series does a painfully familiar mid-80s, which is weird considering these guys would have hit the 90s during their formative years.

A group of pre-adolescent boys finish an epic D&D campaign and head home, Will via the scary road through what they call Mirkwood. A monster startles him and gives chase. And catches him. The entire town gets mixed up in the disappearance of the boy, but it centres on the three remaining boys, and the strange girl who emerges from that mysterious facility on the edge of  town. You know the one, from a dozen X-Files episodes, where the monster also emerged.

This show isn't about hiding the juicy bits from you. The cards are tossed on the table amidst the D&D figures. The girl Eleven, has powers. The monster comes from The UpsideDown, your classic dark & scary alternate dimension. Both are dangerous and the facility wants them back. They are Bad Guys. Will's mom (an INCREDIBLE Wynona Ryder) believes he's alive. So does Sheriff Hopper. But the best parts of this show come through the eyes of the kids themselves.

Go watch it; now. It is not all nostalgia, but uses enough of it to make people my age smile regularly. As for the rest, it is just incredibly well constructed.

Ash vs Evil Dead, 2015, Starz -- download

On the bedroom wall of one of the kids in Stranger Things is a movie poster for The Evil Dead. Despite the fact it hadn't reached its popularity at the time of its release, it's a nice reference. By way of the intent of the show, it establishes exactly how much nostalgia is around that Sam Raimi movie. But really, the movie didn't reach cult status until much later. And now, 35 years later the cult status is still strong. Strong enough to generate a new TV series from Starz.

The core idea of an Evil Dead series has been talked about for years, always from the point of view of picking up after the third movie, with Ashley back working in the S-Mart. And 30 odd years later, that kind of makes even more sense. He was always kind of a loser.

Ash begins the series as the 40+ guy working at a ValueStop among similarly go-nowhere 20sumthins. Cringe. And when he tries to resurrect some infamy in his life by reading from that book, the one he cannot seem to get rid of, well he just ends up calling Deadites back into the world. And while he doesn't want to be that guy anymore, he really doesn't have a choice as they start killing his customers, neighbours, etc. So, on the road he goes with two of his coworkers, to find someone who can undo the new curse he has unleashed.

It is a fun, dumb show. Shot in New Zealand pretending to be the American North-East, it has a weird vibe to it. Locales definitely contribute to a show's character and, as this is a road show, it feels left of centre already. But it works in the show's favour.

As expected, Bruce Campbell lords over the show with his aged, convinced he has wisdom Ash. The dynamic he has with his protegee Pablo is great, and who wouldn't dump dead-end retail life to hunt down Deadites. And of course, the show is as gross as hell, owing a lot to Peter Jackson's original splatterfest movies. Down there, they just know how to have fun with the gore, right down to the "perfectly clean in the next scene" trope.

Season Two will have an extended mythos including an immortal Lucy Lawless as a Deadite hunter.

11.22.63, 2016, Hulu -- download

Not dumb at all, but still a lot of tense fun, is the time travel show based on the Stephen King novel. James Franko plays Jake, a school teacher who gets dragged into a time travel plot to undo the assassination of Kennedy in 1963. If Kennedy had not been shot, America would just be better right? Without any reason, explanation or time travel pseudo science inserted, there is a portal to October 21st, 1960 in the closet of his favourite diner. Al, the owner of the diner, convinces Jake to take up the mantle of rewriting history for the sake of America, before he dies of cancer. And prepared with all of Al's notes, back Jake goes.

There are only two quirks of time travel inserted into the story, the first being the reset. If Jake comes back from the past, sees the stepped-on-butterfly changes and then goes back again through the portal, everything is reset. He always goes back to the same date, thus having another chance to make things go the way he wants to. But he continues to age along his own timeline, which is why Al just got older and older and eventually succumbed to cancer.

The second is more metaphysical. Time pushes back on any major changes Jake tries to make. Any key differences in the timeline cause a mystical, mysterious reaction from the universe. Power flickers, people act weird and things become a little more dangerous. The bigger of the impact of the change he is making, the stronger the push back. Is it a living force getting angry? Is it metaphysics trying to stabilize? Who knows, who cares. We are not given anymore explanation then Jake gets.

So, Jake has three years or so to further investigate Lee Harvey Oswald and whether the common theory fits, that he was the shooter. Or do any of the other conspiracy theories hold water? Jake has to insert himself into a world with a fake identity, gather enough information to find out what really happened and ... stop it.

The problem is that Jake falls in love. He becomes attached to a lovely (startlingly beautiful Torontonian Sarah Gadon) schoolteacher named Sadie. Does he carry through with the investigation or does he leave it alone and live happily with her? He carries on, even though the pushback leads to worse and worse consequences, for him and for their relationship. As he gets closer and closer to the day, there are more questions that when he started and then.... he stops the assassination.

I won't spoil the show's ending.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Series Run: Rambo (First Blood; Rambo: First Blood Part II; Rambo III)

First Blood -- 1982, d. Ted Kotcheff
Rambo: First Blood, Part II -- 1985, d. George P. Cosmatos
Rambo III -- 1988, Peter MacDonald

As a child of the 80's, of course I knew about Rambo.  There were toys and cartoons and videogames all devoted to Sylvester Stallone's hyper-machismo action hero, all designed to sell an R-rated character as a superhero for modern kids (they did this with Robocop and Terminator too, amongst  other inappropriate things).  Thing was, I was never much into Rambo.  I wasn't really allowed to be.  Fantasy violence like Star Wars or G.I. Joe was more than acceptable, but the oversimplification of John Rambo's reality of war wasn't something my parents were willing to condone.  I remember the stories damning the excessive violence of Rambo III on Entertainment Tonight, which, to naive eyes, made it a bad thing outright anyway.

As the 80's turned to the 90's and I became a teenager, Rambo became remarkably passe. Iconic imagery of Sly Stallone as Rambo had been mocked incessantly by Weird Al and Hot Shots Part Deux, and Stallone himself had become a bit of a joke.  I never saw the Rambo movies, nor did I have any desire to.  I felt like I had seen all that I needed to.  I felt like I knew what the Rambo movies were, and that they weren't for me.

That firmly held belief persisted until this past Friday as I read Tom Breihan's latest entry in his "A History of Violence" series over at the Onion AV Club.  The series starts with 1967's Bullitt as the speculative first entry of the modern action movie, and then each installment covers the most apropos representative of the action genre for each subsequent year.  This latest found First Blood to be the monumental action movie of 1982 (1981 was a hard fought battle between Escape From New York, Mad Max 2, and champion of all-time Raiders of the Lost Ark.  1980 had dire pickings with The Octagon).  Breihan makes a very enticing case for watching First Blood, not only in being his choice for that year's top action movie, but more to the point he actually told me what the film was about.

John Rambo, a Vietnam Vet, is run out of a small town in Oregon State by the local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who just doesn't want "his type" running around, disturbing the locals.  Rambo just wants to have a meal and gets arrested for returning, where the local PD (including a young David Caruso) manhandle and abuse him to the breaking point, triggering his PTSD.  He lashes out and escapes, and then is hunted like a dog.  Eventually, though he becomes the hunter, and, at a certain point his actions become so extreme, as the audience you're not quite certain you're rooting for him anymore.

Up until reading Breihan's article, I had just assumed all Rambo movies were dumb jungle revenge movies where big dumb ape Rambo has some mission or other where he's tasked with killing foreign faceless enemies with "rah rah 'Murrica" bluster.  To my surprise, that couldn't be further from the truth, at the very least not for first entry of the series.

First Blood is actually a remarkable film.  I mean, yeah, it's quite dated, and a lot of the richness of the character, as presented, here has since been lost to the subsequent iconography and hero baiting, but the film itself is well acted, well made, and has genuine meaning.  As I noted above, it gets very gray as to who is right or wrong.  Cops harassing someone is never cool, especially when they're doing so based on appearances alone.  I could see a modern version of this film starring an ex-Afghanistan or Iraq War veteran who is also black, and it taking on a whole other level of meaning, a veritable powderkeg of intent.  Here though, nobody seems to care that John Rambo is an Vietnam veteran, nor that his PTSD is to blame for much of his actions.  There was a lack of awareness around PTSD at that time (even today there's still a stigma around it), but also the veterans of Veitnam returned home not as heroes but as the losers in a war they never wanted to participate in to begin with, and, in many cases, as monsters who society-at-large seemed to want to forget.  Vietnam was a bullshit war, and America wanted to sweep it, and those who were forced into fighting, under the rug.  This is the subtext of First Blood.

Rambo, is chased to extreme ends up a mountain side.  He calls out to be left alone, but the cops have a blood lust.  Using his Marine training, he takes out practically the entire force, non-lethally, but painfully.  Things escalate from there, to the point that Rambo winds up in the center of the small town, shooting out store windows, blowing up transformers, just ready to kill or be killed (it should be noted, Rambo does not kill a single person, at least not directly, the entire film).  The question is laid bare, is Rambo a rabid dog that needs to be put down?  His sympathy is stretched to the breaking point, if not past it, up until it's poignant conclusion.  The film ends not with a gunfight though, but with a conversation.  John breaks down in front of Trautman, his former commanding officer, and in a seeming stream-of-consciousness explosion, relates the most horrifying visions he's had to live with from the war.  The horrors he's seen that nobody wants to hear about, that everyone wants to ignore.  John Rambo is tired of being invisible, treated like the war was his fault, that he's unwanted.  He's a broken man psychologically and spiritually.  He needs compassion and consolation, not estrangement and derision.  It's a powerful sentiment, and a powerful undercurrent to the that was completely thrown away for subsequent outings.

Rambo: First Blood, Part II as a follow-up is a filmmaking travesty.  It comes as no shock to me that it's co-written by James Cameron because it's exactly everything I detest about Cameron's films.  Cameron's script (which was rewritten in great swaths by Stallone) is so full of MOMENTS, big hacky MOMENTS where the character is put in PERIL, big cinematic PERIL (like when Rambo is jumping from the airplane only to have his strap caught on a door hinge and he has to cut himself's a meaningless MOMENT of tension that feels plugged into place for that very purpose.  It's not clever, nor really that tense, and there's never a moment's doubt that Rambo is in any real danger.

Cameron's story strips Rambo of all his nuance and poignancy from First Blood.  I would think the last thing you would want to do with a soldier who went a bit crazy and shot up a town as a result of his PTSD would be to send him right back to the place where his PTSD manifested.  But that's what this film asks of him.  A government bureaucrat is trying to discern whether there are still POWs in Vietnam, and Rambo's mission is to get evidence one way or the other.  But, it turns out, the government doesn't really want any evidence of POW's, they just want to be seen taking action.  This is all revealed when Rambo is trying to escape pirates and Vietnamese soldiers with a prisoner, only the have the mercenaries hired to airlift him out turn and leave without him.  Colonel Trautman is obviously upset but has little power in the situation.  Rambo is captured, thankfully his (painful) broken-English speaking local ladyfriend busts him out, and after they escape, they have their MOMENT, their "take me back to America, yes?" MOMENT where they kiss, and she immediately is gunned down seconds later.

Rambo, if he wasn't pissed before is now out for revenge on top of rescue.  Not to forget that the Vietnamese soldiers here are supported by the Russians, because of course they are.  Rambo takes out almost the entire station himself before commandeering a helicopter and freeing the POW boys from their cells.  A hairy helicopter chase sequence ends with Rambo firing a bazooka through his own cockpit window towards the opposing chopper.

It's a dumb movie, punctuated by an unearned moral at the end: "We love America, we just want America to love us", and further punctuated by the most inane Frank Stallone song in Frank Stallone's grand pantheon of inane songs (to be clear, none of the closing credits songs are all that great).  It's a terrible looking movie, with unbelievably fake looking sets, some terrible day-for-night shots, and for some reason it's shot with a soft focus lens (the old Vaseline smear, methinks) to give it this fuzzy, hazy, romantic look.  It's just ugly and cheap looking.  It feels like a modestly budgeted, totally '80's made for TV movie at best.  It's a hot garbage film, whose sole purpose was to take a complicated, tragic, yet likeable character and turn him into a machine-gun toting, muscle-bound, bandanna-wearing super-soldier hero.

First Blood, Part II was so bad that I could barely feign interest in the third installment when it started, but I committed to all three films for the evening so I let it run.  The first thing I noticed was how much better Rambo III looked than First Blood, Part II.  The film opens with Rambo stick fighting for money in Thailand (Stallone looks good, like he actually trained hard for this sequence), money which he gives to the Buddhist monastery where he lives.  Col. Trautman returns to try and get Rambo's help with a mission in Afghanistan.  The Russian war there is taking its toll on the civilian population and the US has agreed to covertly supply the freedom fighters there with weapons and basic necessities.  Rambo, tired of war refuses, but when Trautman proceeds without him and is captured, Rambo volunteers as a one-man-rescue force.
Something about this poster has always
made me Rambo is 200ft tall
and, perhaps, an aerobics instructor

Rambo III has a more world-weary feel to it than the previous films.  John finds himself in unfamiliar terrain in Afghanistan (unlike Oregon or Vietnam) but finds a contact and makes friends with a local band of freedom fighters.  He learns about their plight and respects the bravery of the fighters, including the young men (barely even teeters perilously close to kid sidekick here), but is truly focused on the sole mission of rescuing his friend from the Russians.  Which, of course, he does, with an immense amount of gunplay and knifings.

I spent large swaths of Rambo III's run time reading about the Russian war in Afghanistan, so I wasn't exactly paying immensely close attentions, but overall it's an above average 80's action movie.  They spent some fair coin into the production so it looks good all around.  Director Peter McDonald has a good eye, and comes up with some pretty amazing action sequences and iconic scenes (like Rambo fixing a puncture wound with's stunning).  But as with any film overly reliant upon gunfights and gunplay, all that "rat-tat-tat" "ch-ch-ch-" "kapow" gets pretty tedious when it lags on for too long and the last 25 minutes of the film are pretty much non-stop that.  Even still, Rambo III returns the character -- at least a bit -- to the grey area from where he came.  The conflict in Afghanistan was pretty nasty, but America wasn't willing to step in directly.  This was a bit of a critique of that...but at the same time, "Russia's Vietnam" was also a war that Rambo (and by proxy, the film implies, America) didn't want to thrust themselves headlong into.

What's most astonishing is how none of these three films are meant for children, at all.  They are exceptionally violent movies with some questionable moral grounds, and in some cases some difficult questions asked.  They aren't funtime action movies, but instead (at least with the first and third) full of questions that are in most cases not forthcoming with easy answers.  That Rambo became a cartoon/toy/video game action star is taking the worst traits of the character -- his aggression and ruthless efficiency -- and building those up as his admirable qualities for young people to replicate.  It's no wonder today's American society is so gun-culture focussed, when the wrong aspects of characters like these were promoted as role models and heroes 30 years ago.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

We Agree-ish: Star Trek Beyond

2016, Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) -- cinema

I am struggling mightily to put together my thoughts on Star Trek Beyond, primarily because I was so distracted while watching it. A combination of needing new prescription glasses and the first half of the movie being so bloody dark kept me from fully enjoying. Beyond the usual complaints about the dulling down of non-3D movies because of the projector technology, the entirety of the first half of the movie seemed to choose to be constantly in shadows.

If anything stands out in memory about the first Abrams movie, it was the stand-out lighting (no, not lens flares) of the Enterprise. All that white! All that bright, clean light! For some reason, Justin Lin decided that every scene was to either be lit by a night light, or have impenetrable shadows dominating the shots. I was literally waiting for the movie to reach the planet, just so I could determine if the theatre was back to fucking with the projection. I still have to see it again, in another cinema to fully determine/enjoy. Maybe that new wrap around experience?

So, the third of the Abrams movies, this time directed by Justin Lin of the Fast/Furious franchise. Kirk and company are in year three of their five year mission, but that is just a toss away connection to the original series and completely irrelevant. Like Enterprise, they may be out there but that doesn't mean familiar space isn't just around the corner. In this instance, it's the Yorktown, a megalopolis in space. This is how space stations were meant to be envisioned, sitting at the edge of known space (or in this case, an unexplored nebula), but a centre of life & commerce, and MASSIVE.

The Enterprise is docking there for some leave and for Kirk to second guess his whole purpose in life. He's a captain, did he really ever want to be one, maybe its time to step away. Enter counter-reason. But let's stick with that premise. We know he joined on a dare, we know he didn't really respect Star Fleet. But bored?  Really, bored?  Sure, insert episodic joke but I cannot believe that flying around in the Federation's flagship would ever be boring. Alas, Kirk with his annoying big(ger) hair jumps at the chance to help a random alien seeking their assistance and heads into some dangerous nebula next door.

"It's a trap!" shouts the alien member of the crew in the wrong movie. No, not really, but my brain did. But the attack, and the inevitable destruction of the Enterprise is quite impressive / disheartening. Holes are punched by a hive-like attack of smaller ships that come out of nowhere, in a massive swarm. The Enterprise is literally torn apart and the crew, like Kirk's father's crew before him, have to abandon ship.

This is where the real movie began for me. They all fall onto a planet, captured by the Bad Guys and set to some sort of mining. Really, I had no idea why they were sent there. Krall, the reptilian leader who is definitely (and disappointingly)  not a Gorn has An Agenda, and it involves some Red Herring Kirk ended up with from the prologue. Capturing passing ships and forcing their survivors to do something is just part of it. Its bigger, Evil-ler.

Helping the crew, or should I say helping Scotty, is the capable, confident and beautiful white white white with a bit of black skinned alien Jayla. But damn, is she a capable supporting character. As Kent pointed out, she is not not duplicitous in any way, which is a bit of a relief considering the way most secondary characters run these days. I had to chuckle at her, as she was not a sex interest for Kirk but a counterpoint for Scotty, played by Simon Pegg who happened to have a heavy hand in writing this one. I don't begrudge him Mary Sue-ing this interaction at all.

I enjoyed the movie as much as I could. But I am not sure where this movie sits in the mythology of the Star Trek, now Franklin Timeline world. It did not contribute much to the expansion of the characters. It did not really expand the world of the Federation, beyond the insert of the Five Year Mission toss away comment. Where next?  Guys, please work on doing more than exciting spectacle!

I will end by letting Graig's comment on the whole resolution stand. I have nothing to say on it, as it barely made an impact. It looked cool and made a cool poster.

And I know I have to see it again.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Suicide Squad

2016, d. David Ayer

I think superhero fatigue has officially set in, at least among the critical community.  Suicide Squad -- which isn't as wrong-headed as Batman v. Superman, nor as unappealingly sloppy as X-Men: Apocalypse -- is getting lambasted by critics, and, as the tail end of summer blockbuster season, they're taking out all their frustration on it.

Let's get this right out, it's not a great movie, but it's also not as painful as its DC Comics Dawn of Justice predecessor.  The first act is a messy barrage of background details, overbearing soundtrack, and much unnecessary repetition.  Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is provided with two back-to-back opportunities to introduce her cast of rogues to her various superiors and overseeing committee.  The first 20 minutes introduce us to these characters as they wallow in their prison cells, facing abuse from a power-tripping guard (The Mindy Project's Ike Barinholtz), and are then reintroduced to us by Waller as she sits down to dinner with a military general and, erm, that guy (Stranger Things' David Harbour).  She sifts though the pages of her dossier and introduces each bad guy character (who get their own flashy, Guy Ritchie-style title card and corresponding pop-song) and how they got captured.  It's a totally awkward way to provide this information, and it's a massive time suck, but I have a hard time saying it's not fun seeing Batman face Deadshot and the Joker and Harley Quinn, or seeing the Flash take out Captain Boomerang... I just think this type of flashback would have been better served as a part of the third-act starting bar sequence where the characters take a time out.  It would have been nice team building for them to relate their "how did you get captured" moment.

Waller goes immediately from her dinner to the Pentagon to sell the committee on the same prospect, repeating much of the same information, only having The Enchantress (a centuries old witch whom Waller has leverage over), prove the worth of having them under control.  It's sloppy transitioning.  As is the follow-up with Waller's arrival at Belle Reve Prison where she gets the individual characters to sign on to Task Force X, whether it's under of their own volition or under duress.  The point, which can get a little lost amidst this ramshackle first act is she needs this team to do things for the government on an unofficial basis, and she has bombs implanted in their necks in case they get out of line.  It's all a bad idea, but she's a badass lady, and she certainly inspires confidence that she can keep this situation under control.

Of course it's her hubris which causes the problem that they have to solve, as the Enchantress goes rogue, frees her brother and the pair set out to burn the world...or control it... their ultimate end game is a little dicey.  Once the actual threat is in place and the team are out into action at the start of the second act, the film moves along at a decent clip, with straightforward storytelling.  The obtrusive infographics and annoyingly trite soundtrack (with it's on-the-nose music cues) from the first act give way to an actual cinematic score.

There's been enough written about Suicide Squat to know exactly what went wrong.  The studio panicked over the negative critical response to Batman v. Superman's dire grimness and that led to reshoots to add humour and re-edits to inject more Guardians of the Galaxy-style sountrack cohesiveness.  The humour was fine (not too tacked-on, actually), but the problem with the soundtrack is a film like Guardians or any of Quentin Tarantino's movies is built around the soundtrack, and not retroactively fitted with one.  As such, every song (and I mean in the film is absolutely eye-rolling.  Cutting the film to make it more sountrack-friendly was a huge mistake.  I feel like Ayer had a specific tone for the film, something more like Escape from New York, a very action-heavy, alt-reality, eccentric character/team piece that was neutered by the nervous Warner Brothers committee.  Ayer has since claimed full credit over the final piece, but I can't help but suspect he's not entirely happy with his compromised vision.

Will Smith is in fine form as Deadshot.  Though the character is white in the comic books, the essence of who he is remains, just with some of Smith's charm and swagger added in.  He nails it, he looks good, and he's both believable as a hardened professional bad guy who kills for money and as a man with a few soft spots left.  Margot Robbie delivers a believably loopy, manic Harley Quinn, who feels *mostly* in line with her comic book and cartoon portrayals, *except* for costuming, which paint her as a sex object, and the camera is all-too-willing to ogle.  It was promoted by Robbie as empowering, the characters use of her sexuality, but with a man at the helm of the lens it feels far more exploitative.  Jay Hernandez rounds out the top line of the cast as El Diablo, who is the beating heart of the team.  He's a man whose life is full of regret, wielding a power that's sometimes beyond his control.  Hernandez personifies the character's pain eloquently and has the most rewarding arc of the film.

The second string of the cast is also quite solid.  Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang is under-utilized, where he should have been the self-serving, somewhat inept, thorn-in-the-side-of-everyone comic relief, he's pretty much a background character.  Joel Kinneman is Rick Flag, the military leader of the Squad, running things directly under Waller's control.  Flag is in love with June Moon/The Enchantress, so when she becomes the evil they have to defeat, he's at a conflict.  The film could have done a better job at establishing his rapport with the team (it's very possible the raw material is there and it just wasn't edited properly).  Cara Delevigne gets put in similar skimpy attire territory as the Enchantress, but the camera doesn't ogle her in the same way as it does Harley Quinn.  Karen Fukuhara's Katana gets a tube top that her comic book counterpart doesn't wear, which again insinuates unrequired sexuality on the character, but Fukuhara's role is largely physical (most of her dialogue is in Japanese) and she's exceptionally badass.  Finally, there's Killer Croc, played by Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.  He's got an insanely impressive make-up job and gets a couple of choice lines of comedic dialogue, but he's likewise underserved in the film.  It's a big, big cast, so obviously some characters have to take a back seat.  (If you've read the 80's Squad comic you already know what's up with Adam Beach's Slipknot, but even if you haven't the film totally bungles that character's arc).

I think this film has more posters than
any other film in existence

Jared Leto's Joker falls between the first and second strings.  By sheer proxy of being the Joker, he's an A-list character, but he's relegated to the background, to backstory and side interloping (he really should have been more of a presence)  Leto's Joker overall is...well...not great.  He has the voice down pat, but his wardrobe and make-up (tattoos and silver teeth) make it impossible to take him seriously.  Is he a clown to us? Does he make us laugh?  No, and that's the problem.  He's not scary, and he's not creepy.  He's slimy and gross and not at all charming.  He looks his best/most like the Joker completely covered up in a tuxedo.  I don't have a problem with Leto as the Joker, or really even his performance, but the aesthetic ruins it 100%.  El Diablo is already covered head-to-toe with tattoos which seems spot on for the character, which makes the Joker's (Mexican mafia-inspired) tats wholly redundant.  As well, Captain Boomerang sports a gold front tooth, which make's the Joker's full-metal grill excessive, and again, redundant.  The Joker can be reinvented, even with Leto still in the role, for wherever he appears next.  He needs to be more than what he is here though (and stylistically much, much less).  Also, to nerd out a bit, it's interesting that the film takes the tact that the Joker is fully in love and lost without his Harley, since in the comics and cartoons it's long been established that the relationship is abusive towards her and that he sees her merely as accessory or possession, only really caring when someone else is interested in her.  It's actually an interesting and kind of positive change, which is shocking.

As usual, I'm getting deeper and nerdier with this film review because this is a comic book property.  So some of my gripes about the film stem from being a long time reader and having been intensely invested in the characters and world for decades.  Yet, most of my complaints aren't about the characters, or how they're portrayed, or who portrays them, but falls back on film-by-committee decisions that made what seemed like it was a good, fun, retro-80's action film so much less.  The whole first act needed to be restructured, Amanda Waller needs more direct interaction with each and every character.  The sense that Waller is running the team is lost at points, where in (comic book) reality it is never, ever in doubt that she's the one in charge and has everyone by the balls.  She gets a great couple moments with Deadshot and Flag (perhaps her most important relationships in the 80's comics) but she needed more back and forth with the entire team.  Even her fateful meeting with Batman (in the closing credit sequence) was more tossed off and less cool than it really should have been.  The main threat (Enchantress and her brother), and her sky-lazer seem like they would have made better villains for the recent Ghostbusters reboot.

Just like that Ghostbusters reboot (and, somewhat, the latest Star Trek endeavor), what we have here is a very good team of actors playing largely enjoyable characters in a messy, messy movie, but showing a lot of promise for another go-around.  We've actually hit a point where sequels aren't just retreads of the first film, but vehicles to build and improve upon the launch, so there's actually reason to believe things can and will be better. The critics' hate towards this movie is misguided, but a lot of the criticisms are directed at the means by which these films get made are valid.  Entertainment like this is supposed to be escapism, and being a critic more often than not pulls you out of the escapist, passive viewing and into objective, active viewing.  Once you start seeing the seams, you start looking for flaws, and picking things apart... and although Suicide Squad has enough to pick at, there's also plenty to settle in and get down with.  The reality is, it's fine, but it could have, and should have (and probably was) better than the end result.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

2016, d. Justin Lin

I like Star Trek.  I'm not an uber-nerd for it like I am for superheroes and Star Wars but I've put in more than a few hundred hours of my life watching and reading and playing and discussing things Trekkie.  I'm not precious about it.  Star Trek can be fairly precious on its own.  I get why the Trekkers don't like what JJ Abrams did with the universe (the Franklin Timeline as it's officially called), because he scrubbed out a lot of the science and almost all of the cultural/social metaphor out of Trek, two things which have been the property's lifeblood for fifty years.  Abrams made a pair of entertaining films, and pulled together a great cast that can adeptly stand in for the original Enterprise crew, but at the end of the day they were popcorn movies which more than satiated the casual moviegoer and Star Trek dabbler, and left the core fans at best underwhelmed and at worst angry.

Sitting on the bottom edge of the "core fan" label, just above the dabbler label, the latest cinematic Trek foray, Star Trek Beyond is to me a perfectly acceptable happy medium between the big blockbuster shenanigans of Abrams' previous two pictures, and of the crew-centric, mission-based Trek we grew to love through multiple generations.

There's spectacle aplenty here, but also character focus.  In a way, this one feels episodic, not stand-alone.  This builds upon aspects of the two films prior as a launch point for some of the characters to move forward.  As is expected it's primarily focused on Kirk and Spock, but Bones, Scotty and Checkov get a couple nudges forward as well.  Uhura and Sulu are underserved by the script, though both get a couple of fine moments (John Cho as Sulu looks great in the Captain's chair).  In fact, all the major players get fine moments, just some get fine moments that have some actual meaning to them.

Kick-ass women are now a trendy thing
(hooray!) so Jaylah gets a lot of focus in
the marketing of the film.  She's so neat
As seen in the trailer, the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of ships, and is virtually destroyed, much of the crew along the way is killed.  It's a fairly brutal movie in this regard, and it doesn't confront death too much directly, but doesn't just wash it away sunnily either.  Kirk's general point is "we have a mission and we don't stop until it's done"...they have time for remorse and sorrow later.

The crew is mostly captured by the attacking enemy, save a few members stranded on a mostly lifeless planet.  Scotty (co-writer Simon Pegg naturally bolstered Scotty's role here) meets Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a survivor from a previous attack who is not only a really cool-looking alien, but super competent at everything, and not duplicitous in any way.  She's an utter highlight of a film that actually has a great many.  She gives Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty and Checkov (sour note: all the white men of the bridge escaped the low down on their enemy, the villainous Krall (Idris Elba, yay!), whose motivations are slowly revealed as the film plays out.

There's some convolutedness to Krall's plan, which can be forgiven amidst all the entertainment, and even Krall's motivation is a little light for Star Trek territory (I was hoping for more of a "the Federation taught us to fight, now we fight the Federation" type of US/Afghanistan or US/Iraq kind of parable), he is a good villain, because, well Idris Elba.  For all the nitpicking that could be done (and unfortunately, for as fun as the film is, there's still a lot of nits to pick), the one major standout for me is who is Krall's crew?  Maybe it's actually explained and I missed it, but there's seemingly some inconsistency there.

Kralls swarm is taken out by science, and done so in the way that every swarm is taken out in movies... with ease.  Find the magic thing and the entirety is out of commission.  Sabotage was actually kind of fun (for me, but I can see the die hard Trekkers abhorring it).  In reality their plan to take out the swarm should have left the ships active but far less effective.  Again, so many nits to pick.
Playing this sequence against the Beastie Boys'

I feel like Chris Pine has developed his own Kirk, who bears a resemblance to Shatner but only passingly.  He's on a different path in this Kelvin Timeline so of course he will be different.  Spock on the other hand, feels like a familiar glove, with the scripts giving Zachary Quinto some little twists to sink into.  Karl Urban just nails Doctor McCoy... he's the MVP of each of these movies and is given some real meaty scenes with Spock to flesh out their friendship of respect.  It looks like they were building Checkov into a bit of a silver-tongued ladies man instead of Kirk, which makes Anton Yelchin's passing all the sadder.

We're treated to a star base in this film called Yorktown.  The place is marvelous.  I want to live there. 
What I like about Star Trek Beyond  is that it advances the characters and the Kelvin Timeline mythology.  It moves things forward and really solidifies the crew.  The film's perhaps too rapid-paced/quick-cut for conventional Star Trek and could serve to have more breathing room at times (particularly in the action scenes)  but overall it looks great and is quite an exciting ride.

Of all the Trek films... this ranks probably third.

Love this retro poster recalling the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture design

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

2006, d. Richard Donner (Shomi)

For the better part of a decade (the 1980's specifically) there were no other choices for best comic book movie.  It was always a toss-up between Superman and Superman II because there was literally nothing else that could compete.

Condorman? Swamp Thing? Howard the Duck? Superman III or IV?

Prior to 1979's Superman, there was the Adam West-starring Batman:The Movie and the engaging-but-dated superhero serials of the 1940's. Then in 1989 Batman came along and created a whole surge of comic-related movies throughout the 1990's, most of which were not great.

Dick Tracy? The Shadow? The Phantom? Steel? Spawn? Barb Wire? Judge Dredd? Batman Forever? Batman and Robin??

There seemed to be a refusal to take comic properties seriously, so the results were a corny hash of 90's-style over-the-top actioneering with a sneering sense of superiority to the source material.  Costume designs, plot lines and characterizations were all changed by writers, directors and designers without much (if any) respect for the property and it's fans.  Hollywood had a "we know better" attitude about comic book properties that proved mildly successful with the masses and largely unsuccessful with fans.

Superman II, this whole time (from 1980 to the year 2000), was the gold standard of superhero movies (if not all comic book movies) primarily because it was the only film where a super-powered being fought other super-powered beings until 2000's X-Men effectively reinvented the superhero movie into something both fan and mass audience friendly.

But even during this 20 year period, Superman II wasn't in any way considered flawless.  It was clunky in parts, and featured more than its share of ridiculousness (the cellophane wrap "S" shield anyone)

The long-lived story about the film was that director Richard Donner was working on Superman and Superman II concurrently (from scripts by Mario Puzo) but was told to focus on the first film solely and inevitably replaced by Richard Lester as director, with script updates from David and Leslie Newman.  Lester wound up reshooting much of Donner's footage in order to receive director credit, fracturing what was to be a tight film duology.

Fans had long held out hope to see Donner and Puzo's vision for the film, eventually Donner and Warner Brothers came to an agreement.  The result is less campy than Lester's final product and certainly feels like a direct continuation of Superman, but it remains a painful movie to watch.  We've been treated to a wealth of comic book and superhero movies since 2000's X-Men, the best of which make Superman II look clumsy and silly in comparison, and the worst of which seem like its equal.

It's not just the effects of Superman II, or the goofy and awkwardly inserted stub footage created for the Donner Cut special edition, or the minimal-effort, terrible-even-by-2005-standards CGI added in...the film itself is fundamentally flawed.  Part of it has to do with being so dated, taking 1950's and 60's Superman comics as reference, the kind where Lois would put herself in mortal danger with the expectation that Superman would save her.  It makes her a reckless, stupid and unlikable character.  Here she figures out Clark is Superman by drawing a suit, hat and glasses over the Man of Steel's photo in the paper, and when Clark denies it, she jumps out a window, certain he's going to have to save her as Clark Kent.  Clark races to the street, super-breaths her from splatting on the ground (she bounces off an awning and onto a fruit cart), and races back up to the top floor of the Daily Planet.  This cartoon act of fate seems to be enough to quell her suspicion.

Barely five minutes later (in real viewing time), posing as a married couple in Niagara Falls (to get the big scoop on all those hotels scamming newlyweds across the border), Superman has to rescue a stupid kid from falling into the Falls.  Lois' suspicions return, and she pulls out a gun and shoots at Clark, who must admit defeat and reveals himself (the gun was loaded with blanks, she tells him after).  From there they go to his Fortress of Solitude and do it, after which Clark tells Jor-El (restoring scenes Marlon Brando had filmed for the sequel that were excised from Lester's movie) that he doesn't wanna be Superman anymore, that he's in love and he just wants to be a man.  It's a plot line that makes no sense at all.  Jor-El admonishes him for his selfishness but then shows him a red-sun chamber which will take his powers away.  Lois stands on, watching, and says nothing.  This film postulates here, and later on at its incredibly ridiculous finale, that Superman can only exist as protector of the people and cannot have love or a life of his own...ignoring the fact that Clark has already been effectively living a double life for some time.

In the end, powers restored, he acquiesces to his father and tells Lois they can't date anymore, and somehow she understands that their relationship is the sacrifice they both must make so that Superman can better the world.  Ridiculous.  But then Superman reverses the planet's spin and turns back time (again), to erase everyone's memories and also to effectively undo the entire film's story.  It makes no sense from either a scientific or storytelling standpoint.  (The reversing of time was also used in Donner's Superman,  but was originally intended for the sequel.  It's why we get a brief en media res bit at the beginning which is an aweful lot like the conclusion to Superman)

Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor is pointless in this film, mostly in place for comic relief.  I'm not sure if Puzo's script had more for Luthor to do that Donner just didn't get to shoot, or if there were more story elements from the script missing from Donner's footage, thus not represented in this cut of the film.  His trip to the Fortress of Solitude with Miss Tessmacher seems to be an abrupt aside, that has little point to the overall plot of the film.  It's like there's some further of purpose for Luthor's visit beyond just telling the Phantom Zone villains about its existence, and mentioning Jor-El.  But perhaps not.  Miss Tessmacher is not seen again.

Christopher Reeve made for an astounding, tonally perfect Superman.  Physically he's just the epitome of what Superman should look like; tall, broad shouldered, fit and charmingly handsome.  The vibrant, comics-accurate costume and the slicked-back, spit-curled hair are so spot on, but it's upon Reeve's frame and physicality that he brings the character to life off the page.  His Clark, however, borders so closely to buffoonery that the character is merely a mask.  In the comics of the 80's and 90's, Clark is who the character is, and Superman is the ideal Clark can manifest into.  The film here postulates that Clark is sort of a whim of Superman's, a way to relate to the human world, but still something he has to pretend at.  When he's depowered, Clark has the script flipped and has to pretend to be the hero, and gets the ever-loving crap beaten out of him by a bully trucker.  Clark's whimpering and sobbing, followed by his pathetic, lonely walk back to the Fortress of Solitude (why is nobody dressed for winter weather in this Rao-damn film?!?) where he pleads and begs the last remaining vestige of Jor-El to make him Superman again is just the most unflattering take on the character ever.  I'll take even the modern, brooding, pensive Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman Clark over this wimpy husk of a man any day.

There's story reversals here that occur so quickly they cause whiplash.  Like Clark's depowering, then repowering, and like Lois' belief that Clark is Superman, then loss in belief, then belief again.  They happen so fast that they become pointless asides that distract from having any real action or movement in the film.

Lois is an annoyance in the film.  She's a character whose sole purpose is as a foil for Clark as well as a love interest. This is very much in holding with the character in the comics for a very long time.  There's a cat and mouse game between Clark's secret identity and Lois' discovery of it to the point where it seems like she's the only one who seems interested in finding out and also that she's the only one who he needs to keep it secret from.  It was a comic trope right up until the 1990s, a superhero's secret identity was their most valuable commodity, to be kept safe and secret from everyone at all costs.  Given the prevalence of surveillance as well as the proliferation of social media and tabloid journalism, it's almost an impossibility that a superhero would be able to keep their identity secret for too long without help.  As such, alter egos are a relaxed secret, having a team to help make excuses or cover up helps keep a hero safe.

Margot Kidder's Lois is, controversially, a chain smoker, which is wholly unflattering for the character.  The actress looks healthy and radiant in the Donner footage, though, compared to the Lester reshoots which happened over a year and a half later Kidder looked noticeably different, her face hollow, further exacerbated by an oversized wig.  There seemed to be a noticeable difference in Kidder's performance as well, where her Donner footage she's softer and more playful, her Lester footage she seems more severe.

The Phantom Zone criminals are indeed the highlight of the film.  Terence Stamp's Zod has become iconic for a reason, even in spite of his disco outfit and poor wirework flight scenes, he commands the screen every time he speaks.  Likewise Sarah Douglas' Ursa is probably the most powerful feminist character put to screen up until that time.  She physically reduces men to puddles with ease and steals their badges as trophies, a metaphorical co-opting of their power and status symbols.  Though she serves Zod in a military hierarchy, she is his equal otherwise, perhaps even more intimidating.  Non, as played by the mammoth Jack O'Halloran is a mute brute whom Zod uses as a blunt force object.  In the flying sequences O'Halloran seemed to have the most difficulty with conforming his body and so it looks most painfully obvious that he's in a harness being yanked around.  Though some of these flying sequences are still Lester's in this cut, most are Donner's and they do not look good overall.  Where the first one truly made people believe a man could fly, this one has a much harder time with that suspension of disbelief.

There was a time where we had to be happy with what we got, and in that time Superman II  was what we had to be happy with.  The Donner Cut of Superman II is an improvement, removing so much of the campy slapstick Lester inserted, but still, compared to today's superhero epics, it's almost unbearable viewing.