Wednesday, June 29, 2016

3+1 Short Paragraphs: 10 Cloverfield Lane

2016, Dan Trachtenberg (Portal: No Escape) -- download

I will not beg forgiveness for my love of Cloverfield.  It is on The Shelf. I am fond of any movie that wants to revisit kaiju. But make no mistake, this is not the sequel to that movie. "Spiritual successor," is how I believe JJ Abrams described it? It may or may not be the same world,  but there are no kaiju and no references to the first movie. This is a standalone thriller about a young woman trapped in a bunker with a madman. It is tense, focused and very well shot.

Michelle is running away from her fiance. No reason given, no explanation provided she just drops the ring and hops into her car. And in the dark of the night, the car collides with someone else. She awakes in a cold, concrete room injured and chained. Howard explains to her that she was in an accident and he saved her. Saved her? According to him, and very quickly he seems a little more than just a run of the mill bunker nut, the world has ended out there. There was an attack and everything is gone. Poisoned air, a nameless enemy and Howard saved her & Emmett, the guy who helped Howard build the bunker.


Most of you won't care that I am spoiling the twist ending. I kind of knew where they were going; not being a spoiler worrier, I had peeked at reviews. But the build up to it is incredible. Very quickly they establish something is actually happening; Howard is not just a nutjob. A woman with a melting face pounds on the door begging to be let in. So, Michelle and Emmett are now onside and inside with Howard; too bad the creepiness does not abate. Michelle still has to escape, no matter what world is out there. And she does, but into an alien invasion. The climax of the movie has Michelle trading one dangerous situation for an even more dangerous one. But the character arc is that she will now accept the tough road, no matter the danger to herself.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is incredible in this role. She is pretty great in everything she does actually; you can see her right now in the TV mini-series, Brain Dead which is full of dark comedy and exploding heads. Michelle is damaged, nervous, unsure but very capable. John Goodman as Howard is typical Goodman -- stable, solid and convincing. And fucking creepy. Emmett, played by a barely recognizable John Gallagher Jr (from The Newsroom), is befuddled and really just meant as a barrier between the two strong personalities. Literally a closed room movie, the movie is able to hinge on how these characters interact with each other AND maintain a tense, thriller style. Good movie.

In case you want to see Trachtenberg's short film set in the world of Portal.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: Spy

2015, Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) -- Netflix

Full disclosure. As a rule, I don't like Melissa McCarthy movies. I don't dislike her, but her movie roles have not been to my comedic liking. Bridesmaids, Tammy, The Heat, Identity Thief -- ick; just not my thing. But Marmy heard this was a movie not as marketed; that it had a bit more of a brain behind it. OK, so I grabbed some sofa and gave it a chance. And I was pleasantly surprised; not entirely so, but enough to give it a slight nod.

Susan Cooper is the CIA analyst assigned as support to super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She's quite in love with him. He doesn't get it. She's really bright, he's the expected dick, and then he dies at the hand of the villain played by Rose Byrne. The villain knows about all the other super spies so Susan is sent to foil her plan. You see, Susan is very capable but lacking confidence and doesn't fit the stereotype for your usual super spy. But once in the field, she impresses, as one would expect from such a movie. Or not, as Graig said, most of these movies would just have her bumble through. She might be suffering from fish out of water, but she is no dummy. When she succeeds, its not by accident.

I kept flipping between being charmed by the movie and rolling my eyes at the expected vulgarities coming out of her mouth. I get it; disarming little woman has big, angry, nasty mouth = funny; it just isn't my thing. But disarming, funny woman who is very very smart and makes use of her other smart, smart friends is immediately appealing to me. I just wish there had been more of that and less of the stupid. And more of the under budgeted intelligence agency, with weird one-liners, that could send its agents on luxury trips to Europe but not clean up a bad rodent infestation. And yet, it doesn't keep the support staff from doing their job very well. "The rats can fly!" screams some random background character, making me break into guffaws. Weird little exuberant & ridiculous lines always make me laugh.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Rewatch: The Thing

1982, John Carpenter (Christine) -- Netflix

Speaking of Kurt Russell's facial hair, here he is in an oldie with a full beard.

This movie is on our shelves in DVD format, a best example of a classic, quotable, truly scary horror movie that stands up. Seriously, this movie still creeps me out. But it was on Netflix, so that is how we watched it. But it's from The Shelf. Maybe someday I will do a series of rewatches from Top Left to Bottom right.  Have some bonus posts from the Pulled Aside.

Every rewatch, I am once again reminded it is almost a sequel to the original 30s movie. It is not about the discovery of the alien ship and the frozen creature but about the next camp infested. Which is probably why the remake was more a remake of the original, than this one was.

Anywayz, this movie begins with a husky running from a helicopter armed with a rifle. The dog looks back over his shoulder, eager to get to the American camp in the Antarctic (Marmy reminded me, no this is not the Arctic) and is eerily aware of the danger. When the helicopter lands, the Americans shoot back and the thing goes up in a grand explosion. Not the thing, just the helicopter.

Don't trust the dog !!!

But they trust the dog and into the kennel he goes.

I had an opportunity, as a young man, to take a posting in Alert, the most northerly point in Canada. I didn't take it because I had a new relationship and some university to finish. But I knew I could survive it; with a massive box of BFFs (big fat fantasies) and all my D&D supplies I knew I would be OK. How does Russell's McReady survive? 80s computer chess and booze. Well, until he pours the boozes into the chess computer. I would have also had the fledgling Internet, which was why I was offered the posting. And yes, I suppose I would have booze.

The arrival of the dog and the death of the helicopter crew leads the Americans back to the Norwegian camp, to find it burned out, frozen solid and full of some gruesome finds. Something deadly went on here. And they bring that something back to the camp.

Seriously, WTF. Haven't ANY of them seen a horror movie before? Or a scifi movie? Or read a book? You don't bring back the fucked up body of the something to your own camp and let it thaw out, let alone stick your hands into. Sure sure, autopsies are gross to begin with but that pile of melting flesh is obviously Not Of This World. And thus the thing, yes the thing is released.

The movie does a very good job of having us wonder who the thing has taken control of, right from the beginning. Apparently it can take control of you, from inside, as well as just duplicate you completely. There might be a brief period where you are still you, just feeling a bit off, but sooner or later IT is you and you are no longer. Then it gets icky.

The special effects in this movie are still shocking, gross and make an impact. Sure, you can see the rubbery bits and the sloppy bits, but when you can see that in the CGI of Captain America, you can accepted this from 30 years ago. When the dog explodes, when the head drips off and spider walks away, when the chest opens up and eats the doctor's arms.  Ick.

Eventually the thing has enough run of the camp and enough people have been killed / taken over, that we are man vs man, leading to the ending. The ending that leads many to debate. I think its the perfect ending. McReady has already been established as the not entirely well thought out responsive person --- he just reacts. And he has been reacting all night. He's had enough. Back to the booze, sit and chat and slowly die. Is Childs a thing? Maybe. Is it going to kill him? Maybe. Does it matter? Not at all. Both are going to freeze solid before morning. And the thing will be again locked away.

Until the rescue crew shows up.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rewatch: Tombstone

1993, George P. Cosmatos (Leviathan) -- download

Speaking of Kurt Russell's moustache, it inspired a rewatch of Tombstone, otherwise known as The Other Wyatt Earp movie. Sometimes two movies are produced at roughly the same time with the same basic plot, which I recently learned are called Twin Films.  The other one, Wyatt Earp, is a Costner epic and surprisingly, considering my fondness for Costner epics, not my favourite of the two.  This one, with its cast full of Hey It's That Guy supporting actors, and great one liners ("I'm your huckleberry...") really spoke to me at the time. It doesn't exactly stand up to time, but it is still a nice, solid, summer blockbuster style movie.

Wyatt and his brothers arrive in Tombstone hoping to leave behind his lawman days. He has had enough of violence and just wants to settle down with his family and make some money. And yet violence is what they walk into, as they move into the territory of The Cowboys, a rather oddly common name for a wide ranging band of outlaws who control the territory. Of course, Wyatt cannot hang up his guns and it is here, in this town, he makes his even greater name in the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Wyatt is setup as the nice, calm and moral man with a talent for violence. He doesn't want to hurt or kill people, but he doesn't shy away from it. And ever by his side is wise cracking, sickly Doc Holiday, played by Val Kilmer is one of his most recognizable roles. Seriously, he is just a ray of bright light in an otherwise grim movie. Not that I am complaining, for the grim works here. As Wyatt is forced into the path to eliminate The Cowboys, the calm becomes cold rage with the  Earp Vendetta Ride. That ride is shared with Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Michael Rooker, Jason Priestly, Thomas Haden Church and many others; it was seminal ensemble cast of the 90s.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

We Agree-ish: Captain America: Civil War

2016, Russo Brothers (Community) -- cinema

I finally got to sorting through the boxes of comics I had pulled out of the closet, a year ago, with intention of dividing them into Keep and Go. Wow, I didn't know I bought so many Civil War issues, especially since it crossed over almost every Marvel title. And no, I didn't even have an inkling to start re-reading them, for I remember distinctly not enjoying them at all. But comic collecting always had a momentum to it, whether you were getting a good read or not. But, finally I stopped (probably no money) and before they did the whole Skrull reveal thing.

That knowledge of the comic story led me to wonder whether they would weave two key elements into the movie -- the aforementioned Skrull part, and the death of Captain America. I was OK with the lack of the former (Skrull analog was already used for the first Avengers movie), but I was sorely disappointed they didn't go with the latter. It would have been a great ending for the current age of Marvel movies. But, yes, I realize they have a vision (no, not him) for the coming movies and that does not fit into it. Alas, it would have been a great controversy. Better than Hydra Cap.

In case you don't know, the civil war is between half the Avengers and the other half of the Avengers. One half, led by a still traumatized Tony Stark supports oversight of all enhanced beings. The other side, led by the ever optimistic Captain America believes the Avengers will only be able to do what they do without any sort of control; self-oversight is how he sees it. But the world keeps on seeing them mixed up in very bad things.

This is the classic Doctor Who dillema -- are the bad things happening because the heroes are around (quoting Vision, "Our Very Strength Incites Challenge. Challenge Incites Conflict. And Conflict Breeds Catastrophe.") or would things be much much worse if the heroes were not. As has been the theme of a season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the world is afraid of all the emerging powers. And the world has to blame someone. Add new laws into this mix, and suddenly Tony has to arrest Cap.

The thing is, I kind of agree with Tony. In fact, it goes to show a lot of thought in the writing that we are torn between believing in either of the two. Super powered vigilantes or the only people with the power to protect us? I want to side wholeheartedly with Captain America but the problem is that not everyone has such a well stamped moral code like he does. The problem with the other side, and we see it escalate very quickly, is that people with less than stellar moral agendas will enforce that oversight. It's a lose lose situation.

I found myself deeply entrenched in this moral debate, the first third of the movie, but once the overly cartoony super heroics started onscreen, I fell out of it. The battle in Nigeria is incredibly vibrant full of the expected crunches enhanced strength allows. There was a bit wriggly, too-fast scene editing but you could feel the weight of the fight. Then that car chase scene. There is nothing I hate more than a running scene where the body is moving quicker than the movement of the feet. It looks like they are hanging from wires and being swooped along.  And those few scenes when a completely rubbery Black Panther jumps onto the screen. It is supposed to depict how lithe he is, but ends up feeling like a scene from Toy Story. They are supposed to be living action figures, but not literal ones. Still, once the battle at the airport happened, I forgave the FX crew.

In the end we have another decent spy story mixed in with a ensemble super hero action movie. So many characters, but one focused plot. The only real side plots are Tony setting up Spider-Man as his ace in the hole, and the entry of Wakanda and Black Panther into the Marvel cinematic universe.  The civil war may fade out by the end of the movie, but the Sokovia Accords are still in place, which should have interesting play out in which ever movie comes next, not including anything Thor/offworld based. If anything disappointed me, it was the whole Zemo reveal which was very anti-climactic considering how much effect it will have on the world.

Graig's take....

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: In the Heart of the Sea

2015, Ron Howard (Rush) -- download

Whaling. I admit, it's a historical industry I know very little about. Besides the sea shanties I love. Without putting too much thought into it, I always assumed Moby Dick was a British story. Yeah yeah, Herman Melville, great American author who wrote about his homeland and his own life at sea.  Melville based his story on previous accounts of a legendary white whale known as Mocha Dick, and the movie fictionalizes the finding of this inspiration. It opens with Melville convincing an old sailor to recount his time on the sunken whaler Essex, a ship said to have been sunk by an albino whale.

Ron Howard brings back Chris Hemsworth, who previously played Formula One racer James Hunt. Hemsworth is extremely popular as Thor, but surprisingly is well known for little else. Chris plays Owen Chase, the new first mate on the Essex, and is the revered center of the story as accounted by the old sailor. Tom Holland, our unknown new Spider-Man, plays Nickerson as a young man. Hemsworth plays the charismatic, knowledgeable sailor easily but the movie turns too quickly into mirroring the other well known period sailing movie, The Bounty, as first mate goes up against an inexperienced and overly proud captain. But surprisingly, it takes back this focus by having Chase become the man obsessed with catching the white whale. And losing everything because of the obsession.

Howard always directs a rock solid movie. He's got the skill of directing nailed down; even if his movies are not always financial or critical success, you cannot take his ability away from him. But skill doesn't always mean a story is the right one, nor the genre right for the time. This felt like a movie out of its own era, and no not because it's a period movie -- it just felt like it would have done better a decade or two ago. Big, noisy, boisterous period movies full of grand performances and amazing fabricated footage seem out of place in the era of the superhero effects.  I love sailing movies so I fell easily into it, but in the end it didn't stay with me.

Monday, June 13, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: The Hateful Eight

2015, Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown) -- download

I wonder if Kurt Russell was growing the mutton chops for this movie or for Bone Tomahawk and the other movie just reaped the benefits. Either way, the face fuzz is most impressive and period appropriate.  Kurt's muttonchops play "The Hangman" John Ruth, a bounty hunter bringing in Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and interrupted by a nasty snowstorm, and another bounty hunter -- Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson). And then a new sheriff. This whole opening meet-on-the-road sequence perfectly sets the scene and tone of Tarantino's latest verbose epic. From the cold cold real snow (which actually collects on their hats) to the wide 70mm lovely shots of the desolate & beautiful land they are travelling through to the three men explaining to each other how they found themselves on the same road. Damn, I thought, I really should have made the effort to see this in epic widescreen cinema.

The stagecoach the above were riding in takes refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery. It's not a haberdashery, more a pit stop on a road serving coffee, food and a dry place to stay. When the coach arrives, there are already some guests, including Bruce Dern,  Michael Madsen and Tim Roth -- but no Minnie & Sweet Dave. Instantly there is suspicion and distrust.  Everyone is holed up together to wait out the storm. And nobody much likes the other. Of course, that distrust leads to violence and a Sam Peckinpah level of blood & death. Tarantino does love his source material.

I loved this movie, but not for its whole, but for its component performances. As a whole, it is violent people being violent to each other, and doesn't tell much of a story. But the performances just soar. I especially like Demián Bichir as Bob. It's classic western, so a deep, coherent story is not required. It has an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, so again, period appropriate. I love closed room stories but they always have a tight mystery to unwind. There is something to unwind, which generates the majority of the tension, but it's not much of a mystery. And it just runs long in the tooth, leading to the usual wonderful dialogue running willy nilly into masturbation territory.  But if anything could be said, I did not notice an almost three hour movie had just passed me by. Still wish I had seen it in the theatre though.

Graig states....

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Rewatch/Newatch: X2: X-Men United + X-Men:Apocalypse

2003 + 2016, d. Bryan Singer

X-Men: Apocalypse is a bloody mess of a movie.  It's an unruly behemoth of disparate ideas barely coming together to make a underwhelming whole.  Like all the X-Men movies since the very first, it's an assembly of disparate stories taken from the comics, mashed with the rampant introduction of too many fan-favourite and B-list characters without enough time or effort to explore them, built around a series of set pieces rather than actual important plot progressions.

Apocalypse isn't nearly as bad as X-Men Origins: Wolverine nor X-Men: The Last Stand because, at the very least, director Bryan Singer is fully invested in these characters and this world they inhabit.    But even as the shepherd of the cinematic X-Men for the past 17+ years, he still doesn't quite know how to get them on the screen in their full glory.  The final moments, where Mystique (of all people) lead a quintet of young, in-costume X-Men in a Danger Room simulation against a group of Sentinels *finally* hints at putting the X-Men we've always wanted to see on screen.

But that's then end, let's go back.

Even prior to seeing the film, I wasn't very psyched for it.  Unlike Days of Future Past -- which has a similar tone and marketing campaign, but also the added benefit of bringing two generations of X-Men together the big screen -- Apocalypse's promotion was dull.  The posters were dull, the costume design looked dull, the action looked dull.  At this stage the threat should be all that's needed to sell an audience on the next X-Men movie, but the ads couldn't even tackle Apocalypse with any grand vigor.  In the comics he's monstrous.  Set photos and commercials showed him as something far less imposing.  The film would have to work at building him up...which it didn't quite succeed at (almost, but not quite).
The collected covers of Empire Magazine presented a better vision of X-Men Apocalypse
than anything else used to sell the film.  Look at that monster of a bad guy that never actually
showed up in reality in the film.

Apocalypse starts well enough, though, with a quite interesting Egyptian sequence spotlighting some of the backstory for the titular villain.  I honestly don't know anything about Apocalypse as a character so this filled in things nicely (whether comic accurate or not, don't know, don't care).  He gets stronger by transferring his consciousness into new mutants, thus gaining their power.  There's some hinky Egyptian/Kirby-esque technology thrust in the mix as part of the process of transference, but it's actually part of the charm.  He also has four key agents amidst his legion of worshippers, wearing elaborate headgear to single them out.  They're his four horsemen of this era, and one can tell they're powerful and feared.  In this sequence you get the sense that a long reign has come to an end (Apocalypse looks old), thus the transference.  There's a logic to much of what we see (and a comic-booky forgiveness to some of the larger-than-life bits). 

After the prologue, we're transported to 1983, and introduced to Scott Summers in high school, just as his mutant powers of optical force blasts are manifesting.  I thought mutant powers came alongside puberty, but I'm not an expert.  Scott's brother Alex (returning from First Class) takes him to see the Professor, where he meets Jean Grey (an outcast among outcasts, because her psi powers are all kinds of freaky haywire).  Jean gets a bit of an extended focus compared to the other kids in this film, primarily because they're setting up the Phoenix Force, totally calling a do-over from the botched Last Stand interpretation, which they can do now since Days of Future Past has radically altered the X-Men cinematic timeline.

Raven/Mystique, now a legendary mutant folk hero, is out tracking down mutants who are being abused, in this case an illegal German fighting ring where they force mutants to fight one another.  Reigning champ is Angel (he's just defeated the Blob as we cut to him), and Nightcrawler is his latest opponent.  Forced to defend himself, Nightcrawler proves capable and singes off Angel's wings on the electric fence mistakenly, for the sole purpose of making him sullen and angry later, and thus suitable to becoming one of Apocalypse's acolytes.

Raven takes a shining to Nightcrawler (I don't remember if she knew Azazel in First Class, but in the comics, Mystique and Azazel are Nightcrawler's parents...I don't think they're following suit here) and takes him back to Charles' school, returning for the first time in a decade.  Hank McCoy greets her, still clearly infatuated with her even after all this time.  Charles, meanwhile, is out researching a tremor felt round the world.  He finds out that his old flame, Moira McTaggart, was in the vicinity of the tremor's epicenter so he and Alex (why Alex? Who knows) go to greet her, noting that Charles had erased her mind of her entire First Class encounter.  Moira fills them in on her research into Apocalypse and for some reason becomes a tag-along part of the entire story, even though she's 100% meaningless to the plot after this.

Magneto, meanwhile, works and lives in a remote eastern block village where he's seemingly happy, living a quiet, trouble free life with a wife and daughter whom you know from the first second you see them exist only to die and fuel Eric with rage.  And so it goes.  Apocalypse recruits Storm, leader of a gang of petty child thieves on the streets of Cairo, and follows it up with recruiting Psylocke, who then takes him to Angel, and finally he finds Eric.  His four horsemen are set and then...whatever.  There's really no purpose to his horsemen.  He enhances all their powers, giving Angel deadlier metallic wings, enhancing Psylocke's psy-weapons, giving Storm greater elemental control, and boosting Eric's magnetic sensitivity.  But beyond having Eric slowly destroy the world, the rest of them aren't really serving him.

When Apocalypse discovers Charles, he knows his mutant power to control others would come in handy, so by about the halfway point the film reveals its plot of "Charles is kidnapped, and Apocalypse is going to transfer his consciousness into him and thus destroy/take over the world".

As you can see it took me four paragraphs to just introduce the cast of this film (and that's not counting the cameos like Jubilee).  It's too much and most serve little to no purpose in the grand scheme of the story.  We all like seeing characters we love represented on the big screen but if you have no time for them, no time to give them character or personality, then what's the point?

And I even forgot about Quicksilver, who's one of the most appealing characters to appear in any of the X-Men films, but again doesn't get much growth beyond where he was 10 years ago (in-movie time) in Days of Future Past.  He arrives in time to save everyone from an exploding School for Gifted Children, well, everyone except Alex (a death that provides no real meaning or inspiration for Scott).  Then Stryker shows up for some reason and knocks everyone out. But he only takes Quicksilver, Moira, Raven and Hank (Jean, Scott and Nightcrawler stow away, hidden by Jean).  They're taken to Stryker's dam/base up north for some reason, experiments I guess (why Moira then?) but we never really find out what for, because the kids let Weapon X loose for an obligatory Wolverine cameo and he wrecks the place.  Those kids aren't nearly as horrified by Logan's berzerker massacre as they should be.

By the time we get to the finale, where they face Apocalypse, it's a completely unearned climax.  Apocalypse is certainly a threat, but it's Magneto doing most of the bad stuff at the moment.  Raven and Quicksilver try to talk him down from his world-ending ways, while the others try to save Charles.  It's not a bad sequence overall, but it doesn't feel properly set up.  Apocalypse and his horsemen should have been raising an army of mutants to survive the world's end and to go to war with any who try to stop them. The fighting also wasn't very smart.  There's not much of a team effort here.  Apocalypse threat level should have meant the end for everyone opposing him almost immediately but it's not quite the case.  He toys with them.  How much better would it have been if the team coordinated an attack while Quicksilver and Nightcrawler were basically helping keep their teammates out of harm's way as Apocalypse retaliates.  How about the characters use their powers intelligently, and as a team?  There's a lot of pointless leaping about and once again a whole "let's all blast him" kind of ending (which was pretty much the end of every Fantastic Four movie so far).

Mystique gets a defining characteristic for the first time in being a Che-like idol and inspiration to mutants. It's perhaps the most earned moment for any of the characters in any of these X-Men movies.  Mystique was never much of a major player in the comics, but simply by being attached to one of the biggest celebrities in Hollywood, she gets some gravitas and purpose, and becomes the leader of the X-Men.  Seriously.  It doesn't follow the comics at all, but it does feel 100% justified.  This movie, if nothing else, did right by her.

The same can't really be said for most of the rest of the cast.  Wasted potential, in almost every case.  The exceptions are Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is utterly charming, the relationship between Scott (Tye Sheridan) and Jean (Sophie Turner) is swiftly established (but works, mostly...when they meet, Scott is the boy who can see nothing, and Jean is the girl who sees everything, it's a nice contrast), and Jean really gets to cut loose and show off.  But Psylocke, Storm, Angel, Moira, Weapon X, Apocalypse, Hank McCoy, Quicksilver, even Charles...they don't really get much of anything to do here here.

If this franchise moves forward, which no doubt it will, it needs to drop Charles strictly into the mentor role, it needs to ditch Magneto for a little bit (or give Fassbender a solo film as anti-hero), and it needs to focus on a core cast.  If that is Storm, Quicksilver, Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler, led by Mystique and Beast, then so be it.  But focus.

The nadir of this film finds a defeated Psylocke (a totally game Olivia Munn in some ace cosplay) sneering at the triumphant X-Men and skulking off...probably never to be seen again...unless she's responsible for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the next movie or something.

Speaking of useless/pointless, 1983 only made sense as a setting because the previous two films were period pieces.  First Class made perfect use of the Cold War, particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Cold War paranoia in the 1970's seemed to only be exacerbated by the idea of mutants as weapons destabilizing global power.  The 1980's here is barely even a style choice.  Beyond some wardrobe or hairstyle touches, there's no impact to the film at all as a result of its timing.  It didn't even go for an 80's aesthetic or pastiche which could have made a huge difference in how the film played out (by going pastiche it could really overplay 80's-style coincidence-driven storytelling).

The film was written by Simon Kinberg, who also wrote the latest Fantastic Four movie, Days of Future Past and The Last Stand.  He seems to be one of those go-to superhero script writers studios seem to stick with, like Fox's version of David Goyer.  They really need to cut that guy loose from writing duties.

But going back to 2003's X-2: X-Men United, the picture is only marginally rosier.  Oh who am I kidding, it's like Casablanca comparatively.  There's so much restraint in X-2, primarily due to budget.  As a pre-show message and end-credits message reminded us on Apocalypse, it took 150,000 people to make the movie, and it's these kind of overblown budgets that lead to exhausting overblown, disconnected spectacles.  In X-2, the smaller budget leads to more innovative and necessary uses of effects.  Fight sequences are more tightly controlled, more intimate, less grandiose, and more exciting as a result.  Despite being over a dozen years old, it's a more impressive film in most ways.

But the story of X-2 is also more personal.  I wasn't a huge fan of it when it first came out (I thought it unfairly focussed on Wolverine yet again, to the detriment of all the other characters more...and I still think that, but it doesn't make it bad outright), but it's a much tighter film, story wise, and it juggles it characters and its cameos so much better.  A screen display gives an easter egg list of mutant names to giggle over, while quick cameos from Colossus and Shadowcat are all that's needed (if just to let us know they're there).

But Rogue, Iceman and Pyro all get a nice junior X-Men position in the film and a meaningful journey.  Rogue's fearful of her powers and what they'll do if Bobby gets close, Bobby's a little less fearful, but frustrated by the situation (plus we meet his mutant-phobic family) and Pyro just can't help but let the fire rage inside and out.  Jean's having difficulty fighting what's inside her, while having to question her attraction to Logan and her commitment to Scott.  Charles has to face his greatest failure as a teacher, and Logan is still digging into his past.  Even Eric gets his moments, where he tows the good/bad line so perfectly well (Sir Ian McKellen is awesome, but we all know that).  And Mystique, while not given the same amount of weight as with Jennifer Lawrence in the role (Magneto provides a bunch of exposition which should be hers, unfortunately) she's a major player throughout this film.  She doesn't get a journey though, but she does get a lot of cool moments.  She's the Quicksilver of the piece.

X-2 is a fascinating watch following Apocalypse, because it's the truly the precursor to it.  It's a film that perfectly highlights why Raven was so important to the different causes Eric and Charles were fighting for in Days of Future Past.  Raven in the current run falls on Charles' side, where she becomes the team's leader, and a hero of their people.  In the old trilogy, she was beside Eric, his lover and chief weapon.  He calls her "my dear" but you never get the sense there's any true love there.  He certainly appreciates her talents but he's got her in his thrall and uses and relies upon her as a right hand, lesser so as a partner.  One doesn't get the sense she has a lot of say in their schemes.

Likewise, it's interesting in X-2 how Jean is treated.  In Apocalypse, Charles needs her to control herself, and promises she will learn how to,  so that she won't be so afraid herself and others won't be so fearful of her.  But Famke Janssen's Jean is older and still afraid of what's inside her, of what she's capable of.  She's not learned to control it, nor has she learned to escape her fear.  But in Apocalypse, set some 20 years earlier, Charles urges a teenage Jean to let go, and the Phoenix force erupts from her.  She challenges and helps defeat Apocalypse, and becomes a changed character as a result.

This aspect of synergy I like more than the actual story of Apocalypse, or X-2, the intentional differences in choices made and actions performed, and how they shape a character.  It's a very X-Men thing to do.

Even Logan, his memories of escaping the Weapon X program in X-2 are different than how it plays out here.  And it's Jean who helps him.  Jean unlocks his cage, setting him free, and then unlocks his mind, giving a piece of himself back that he wouldn't get in the original trilogy until 17 years hence.  I'm curious to see how the next Wolverine movie reconciles the multiple paths Logan has taken thanks to Days of Future Past, but equally interested to finally have that character retired from the screen, allowing the focus to shift elsewhere.

Kelly Hu is featured here as Lady Deathstrike, a badass mutant with extendable adamantium fingernails.  She's a lady Wolverine with a mutant healing factor as well.  Stryker controls her with a serum extracted from his son, so she's completely brainwashed and doesn't speak.  She just stands around looking mean and cool, but has little to do but fight.  See also Psylocke.  The fact that Jubilee also gets excised from both X-2 and Apocalypse (she's referred to by name in the former, but not at all in-costume like she is in the latter) means these X-films have a real problem with their female Asian characters (not to mention not a single non-caucasian male mutant...although Apocalypse does make a joke about how many blue characters there are, which makes it all the more embarrassing for their lack of diversity).

It's time for the cinematic X-universe to let go of it's caretakers, Singer and Kinberg, and let go of some of its regurgitated opposing forces (Stryker, Wolverine, Magneto), and really embrace some of its more wild, comic book inspirations.  Costumes, Danger Room simulations, aliens... hell I'll even take a New Mutants vs. Arcade film if they want to do that.  Let's have some fun, and not be so serious all the time.  I look over the 7 X-Men films to date (I will include Deadpool, because Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are so awesome in that), and the first one from 2000 is still my favourite because it's so full of promise.  They've had 16 years and a half dozen additional films, and they're only now just scratching at fulfilling that promise.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

3+1 Short Paragraphs: The VVitch

2015, Robert Eggers -- download

Meanwhile, we get another scary forest and another first feature director with The Witch. Note, I changed the in-paragraph title to the proper spelling but in the above, the spelling from the movie, noting the era. THIS movie is set in New England during pioneer days, circa the 1600s. An even more fanatical religious family is turned out by the village elders and are forced to relocate to the edge of the forest, to make due on their own. But beyond having to clear the land, build home & barn and plant a crop they also have to deal with a witch in the wood.

Spoiler? No, not really. Almost immediately the movie reveals there is a true to form evil hag witch in the wood. She steals the infant child of the family and does nasty things with him, really evil what witches do to babies in the bedtime tales kind of stuff. But the movie more focuses on the reaction the family has to the loss of the baby. They don't actually see the baby stolen and assume it had to be wolves. But the daughter on the cusp of womanhood was caring for the baby when the witch snuck in, is being blamed by all but father. All the tension in this movie comes from the family themself, as they collapse under the weight of this witch's presence.

Unlike The Forest the wood in this movie is actually rather chilling to behold. Even if you ignore the discordant choral voices used to denote fear, the wood has that creepy Do Not enter vibe. These pioneers are shipped from England, a land almost entirely cleared by the 1600s. The wide, dense forests of North America must have held no end of terrors, yet in this movie it is a transplanted evil from their home. Yet even so, even though we know there is a witch and she did do evil, the real evil comes in how the family ends up treating each other. Isolated, without support, they turn on each other.

The Witch is a good movie, a really good movie. But not from the horror genre point of the view, as the scares, the setting are rather cerebral. The quality comes from the script and the style chosen to present this unsettling tale. The family speaks only in an archaic form of English, rather difficult to comprehend until you get used to it. The tension in the movie comes from the interplay between the family -- the father's fervent belief, the mother's grief, the boy's icky attraction to his sister, the daughter's emerging womanhood and those creepy, annoying twins. Their lives, twisted by a strict religious view, are easily manipulated by very real evil presences. That which should be their shield is more their undoing. The ending, while unsatisfying, is a natural progression of the movie and sums up things well. But ignore the Internet fervour / complaints, because if you were looking for a terrifying movie full of scares, this is not what they wanted to give us.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: The Forest

2016, Jason Zada (Take This Lollipop) -- download

In Japan, there is the Aokigahara Forest or, the "Suicide Forest". The forest lies at the foot of Fujiyama, a dense, overgrown area rife with deep caves, commonly used as a place for the distraught to go and die. This is no urban myth; since the 1970s, hundreds have wandered into the forest to take their own lives. This gives rise to the idea that the forest is filled with yūrei, or "angry ghosts". Sounds pretty likely to me. The Japanese have not made a movie set there, very likely out of respect for what really happens. Buy David Goyer had no issue with milking it for a story treatment.

Natalie Dormer is Sara, a young woman who has a strong bond with her twin sister. Before the police contact her, to say her sister has gone missing in the forest, she feels something is wrong. She is on the first flight to Japan to find out what happened, as no body has been found. She is sure her sister is alive, but ... for how long? With some help from a fellow American, a journalist writing about the forest, and a guide who volunteers to locate the unfortunates in the wood, she ventures in. And lo, ghosts abound.

This is brilliant, albeit sensitive, source material, but... We are already post-Japanese horror movie craze and this is original material that just wastes all it is given. Dormer is more than competent but is given little to do other than be nervous & obsessed with finding her sister. The scares are mundane and the chance to invest in great mythological world building is lost in boring "dark woods are scary" terrain. There is just so little of anything to really get attached to, other than the lovely forest with the tragic history. So, will Zada in first feature, join the ranks of the "do enough to get a box office positive" or will he embrace the money he made, to make something more tangible next time round?

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Lobster

2015, d. Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth)

Critics are buzzing about The Lobster, but sometimes you need to be wary of critical buzz, because they have a tendency swarm around films that dare to be different, and even more films that dare to be abstract.  This critical praise doesn't necessarily translate to a wider audience because too often different and abstract are too much.  Critics watch hundreds of films per year and are paid to think about them, to process their story and meaning and construction.  The average filmgoer pays to be entertained, and, on occasion, challenged.  Either way, it's meant to be a bit of an escape, but if you're forced into thinking about the film as you watch it, you're not really escaping.  The reviewer sees so many cookie-cutter, carbon-copy movies with rehashed, wanna-be stories and gags (whether violent or comedic) that they become numb to much of the experience.  A film like The Lobster, by being different, will shock them out of that numbness, and therein lies appreciation.  The question for a film like this is does it earn its buzz merely by being different, or is there more to it?

Much of The Lobster takes place in a hotel where single individuals go to find a partner, but they only have 45 days to do so.  If they don't make it, they're transformed into the animal of their choice.  The film doesn't make it entirely clear that this is a mandatory procedure.  It seems elective at first, but as the first act wears on, it becomes clear that there's a sense of fatality here.  The rules of the hotel are very, very restrictive, designed to promote a desire for coupling and rejection of the individual.  There's punishment for masturbation and mini one-act plays that highlight the dangers of being alone (choking on one's meal, getting assaulted walking alone).  One guest of the hotel desperately searches for a partner, declaring her intention to kill herself soon if unsuccessful.

Our protagonist (if you can call him that, he's the central figure for sure, but I'm not clear if we're supposed to genuinely like or relate to him, so alien is his world) is David, played by a mustachioed, bespectacled, paunch-bellied Colin Farrell, every trace of the swarthy leading man sucked out of him as he transforms completely into a monotonal schlub (his rarely heard Irish accent makes him sound almost exactly like Ardal O'Hanlon, which makes me wonder if it's a put-on as well).  He arrives at the hotel, and like all guests, is stripped of almost every trace of his individuality, and told that he needs to declare a preferential sex (bisexuality was fazed out last year due to persistent confusion).  Men are issued a standard blue suit while the women are provided a uniform floral dress.  David has brought his brother Bob with him (Bob was transformed into a dog after his stay at the hotel) but Bob is confined to David's room.

Everyone at the hotel speaks in a forthright manner that is inherently comedic.  There's still some small worry of offense as we see David's reservation in making certain statements, but at the same time, people generally speak their mind.  But it's not an honest society by any means, as David's new friend (Ben Whishaw) fakes nosebleeds in order to get paired with the girl who gets a lot of nosebleeds (Jessica Barden).  Pairing in this society seems almost entirely based on single, obvious characteristics... a proper couple will both have nosebleeds, or be myopic, or both have a limp.  There seems no consideration of actual emotional investment or thought to common interests.  David himself takes the challenge of coupling with the "heartless woman" (Dogtooth's Aggeliki Papoulia), surmising that it's easier to fake not having emotions than it is to fake liking some.  It turns out to be a bad plan and forces David to flee the hotel into the woods, where the Loners live.

The Loners are the outcasts of this dystopian society of forced relationships.  Loners are not accepted by society, and the Loners are only accepting of each other if they follow the rules of staying true to being alone.  No flirting, no kissing or sex, no relying upon each other, with some pretty dire punishments if caught.  As a Loner you dig your own grave in preparation of dying alone, and you listen to your own electronic music on your own discman so you can dance alone even when everyone is dancing.   The Loners pretend to pair up as they visit the city, where we witness individuals standing around at the mall getting harassed by police for their partnership papers. 

David and another Loner (Rachel Weisz) find themselves drawn to one another they conduct themselves very discreetly, only daring to declare actual affection for each other once they discover they're both short-sighted.  The rules of coupling in society still hold sway over them, just as the rules of being a Loner do.  Ultimately they're discovered and forced to face the consequences, until they escape.  But stuck at a highway restaurant, between the city of couples and the country of Loners, the film ends unsure of where they fit, or where they sit.

The Lobster (named after the animal David chooses to become) does provide escape, it provides the different, and also the abstract.  But it also provides it all in a way that throws you into your own mind as it plays out.  You have to puzzle out the characters and their motivations at least until snippets of the overall weirdo alt-society are dispensed.  I was in a mid-day, practically empty theatre (only two other viewers) but even still I was looking around to see if I could catch someone's eye, wondering if we were all having the same puzzling experience.  Yet I wasn't not entertained.  The affected seemingly uncensored thoughts-turned-dialogue and monotone delivery is inherently funny.  It's basically a Wes Anderson interpretation of Gattaca, wry yet sternly serious.  There's a darkly comedic bent to all the horrifying tragedies of the film (including a botched suicide which serves as the backdrop to David's courtship of the heartless woman, which is easily top 5 of the most uncomfortable scenes in a movie I've ever seen), and even some terrific action (watching the hotel guests hunt the Loners with dart guns in slow motion action is incredibly, incredibly cool... the guests get an additional day's stay for each Loner they tranq).

I enjoyed The Lobster, but I can't for the life of me pinpoint what it's trying to say.  It's a film that seems to desperately be conveying a message through a satirical alternate reality, and yet that message seem painfully obtuse.  Something about relationships and the pressures society put upon individuals, whether they want to be a couple or an individual.  Is the point that we're almost better off just being an animal?  Again, there's no real clarity.  It'll be worth the journey for some, but the be-puzzlement that persists afterwards is frustrating.

ReWatch: Conan the Barbarian

1982, John Milius (Red Dawn) -- Netflix

I was introduced to Conan (barbarian, not talk show host -- i ain't that young) when I was a kid, by family friend / cousin by marriage. He and his brother knew I was into The Lord of the Rings and presented something more primordially sword & sorcery to me. I engulfed them hungrily. These pulp fantasy stories, that I already knew existed as comic books, were so raw & meaty, I loved them. And then a movie was coming out, one that needed adult accompaniment. Oh shit, mom & dad hated anything fantasy and would never indulge me. So I went through the list of Cool Uncles and Ray said yes. He didn't seem to mind he knew nothing about the subject matter, but was happy to be dragged to the cinema by a bunch of adolescent boys.

Boy was I embarrassed when there were boobs.

In these days, any movie with swords was fodder for our D&D games. Not long after seeing this, the swords of epitome in any D&D game became the one forged by his father and the one found with the King under the hill. Everyone loved the helmets and multiple attempts at Snakes to Arrows were made; even officially, if I do recall. Everyone had to fight a giant snake.

It's not a very good movie, but it spoke to a generation, not only of Conan fans but of pulp adventure fans of eras past. And adolescent D&D players. The acting is terrible, the script rather pedestrian and some of the props look plastic. But it connected with people, not just adolescents. It spawned a sequel and even a TV series.

These days I can only look upon it with nostalgic fondness. Arnie has long since been tainted by all his other iconic roles, but in this one he got to punch a camel. He had the size and muscles of a Conan but I was always disappointed by his lack of coal black hair. Arnie also had a certain lack of melancholy and none of the rapier intelligence the character had. Still, he was better than Ralf Möller in the 90s TV show adaptation of the movies.