Showing posts with label movie reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movie reviews. Show all posts

Monday, November 30, 2009

The League Watches: Santa Buddies

There are a few types of movies which are produced with the Yuletide Season in mind. There are true, heartfelt holiday pictures which have become classics, such as "A Christmas Story" or those with a moral underpinning, such as "It's a Wonderful Life". There are broad comedies which use the annual festivities as a backdrop to explore the foibles of the average person, with varying degrees of success ("Jingle All the Way", "Christmas with the Cranks"). Some employ high-end CGI, namebrand actors and the Santa-related Christmas mythology to bring alive the "wonder" of Christmas ("Fred Claus", "Elf"). There are even the oddly sentimental and saccharine made-for-TV Holiday movies in which 30 and 40-somethings find romance, which hit CBS each December as regularly as fruitcake arrives by mail.

And then there are the endless stream of cheerless, mirthless, low-fi, relying-on-the-tropes-of-the-holiday, pushed through the Hollywood sausage mill, "magic of Christmas" films, almost all of which feature a long-out-of-work former-star as Santa.

"Santa Buddies" is Disney's ninth installment in the lucrative "Air Bud" franchise, which was once a simple tale of a dog who could shoot free-throws (and the boy who loved him). In this day and age, an adorable thoroughbred dog with an amazing talent is as useful to your Nintendo-DS-addled hottentots as a Smith-Corona ribbon. Lest the Hollywood studios lose a dime from haggard mothers looking for fifteen minutes of peace while their rugrats glue themselves to the screen in the back of the Caravan, Disney has gleefully kept the franchise up to date. Having jettisoned the sports-playing Bud of the first five movies, "Santa Buddies" represents the fourth installment to feature several deeply CGI-ed puppies who comment and wise-crack their way through the film and have Disney-approved stereotypes assigned to each of them, with the requisite attitude-imbued slang appropriate for each "character".

In this movie (in which, clearly, nobody is even @#$%ing trying), there's "Buddha", the openly hostile take on non-Judeo-Christian concepts of spirituality. "MudBud" is... dirty. And possibly a redneck. "Budderball" is the one who is into sports, so he's also kind of slow and really into food. "RoseBud" is the only female, and thus complexly coded as being interested in fashion and who likely believes math is hard. And, the nails-on-a-chalkboard "B-Dawg", whom you can expect your kids to parrot until Easter. Voiced by peppy child-actor Skyler Gisondo, "B-Dawg" is the hip-hop-slang toting, diamond-encrusted-medallion-wearing, embodiment of America's issues with race, culture and identity. But you shall truly feel your heart soar when B-Dawg's nose glows red and he proclaims "my nose is shining! Like my bling!".

Oh, B-Dawg!

Let it be noted: the Buddies are mostly a backdrop to a the goings-on at The North Pole where the massive frozen phallus by which Santa Claus* and Santa Paws take the measure of the level of Christmas Spirit is twinkling/ melting away. Viewers may be shocked to learn that for the purposes of our story, and reasons Santa and Santa don't get into, the world's Christmas Spirit just isn't what it used to be.

Santa Paws is, of course, Dog Santa, who delivers presents to good puppies**, and rides shotgun in Santa's sleigh. Somehow, the heir of Santa Paws, Puppy Paws (yes. Puppy Paws. It's a sort of six-degrees-of-separation thing you're better off not pondering too hard) just wants to be a "normal" puppy, and can give a toss for elves, magic, and the awkward glee that is veteran Little Person actor Danny Woodburn (of Seinfeld fame) looking like he cannot believe he's been roped into the part of Eli, the Only Competent Elf.

Anyone in this image could have had a potty accident

From a technical stand-point, the North Pole, the eight reindeer, and the Fortress of Solitude-like cave hosting the ice-phallus are all the finest CGI that could be rendered on a MacBook Pro in late 2001. Its likely writer/ director/ producer Robert Vince told himself that the unforgiveably awful graphics created a "storybook" look-and-feel, in order that he could sleep at night and still call himself a "filmmaker". Consumers buying this DVD should feel comforted that its just as likely that the intended audience of kids who think you disappear when you play "peek-a-boo" and hide behind your hands, will not notice the poor CGI. But one might (vainly) hope that a company built on animation such as Disney would have maybe tried a bit harder.

If writer/ director/ producer Vince*** does deserve a tip of the hat, its that the Buddies and Puppy Paws, all real-deal and seemingly not-dead-and-taxidermized puppies, actually sit still long enough for the necessary coverage to complete scenes. Forget all else about this movie, but watch in earnest amazement as Vince's leads do not just randomly tumble past the camera and give in to chasing their own tail.

Among the group with whom this reviewer watched the film there were, of course, theories floated, including the exclusive use of extremely tired pups, drugged pups, pups glued to some sort of mat, etc... But as this is Vince's 13th or 14th film featuring animals, one has to assume the man knows exactly what he can get out of any animal in Hollywood. And that Lassie must be sending him boudoir photos trying to get work with the man.

To get our plot shaking, for reasons that make no real sense, Puppy Paws identifies "Budderball" from Santa Paws' "Naughty List" as what a "normal" pup must be like (despite his omnipresent sports jersey and eye-black). Thus, he stows away to bum a ride in a surprisingly racist magical mail truck to the Buddies' fictional hometown of Fernfield, Washington, where he plans to join forces with "Budderball" and become "normal" as well.

The plot is fairly boiler-plate kiddie-faire, and should keep your wee-ones entertained, provided their standard for an hour's worth of amusement begins and ends with bright colors and shiny objects.

There's a non-menacing Christopher Lloyd, phoning in his performance as the curmudgeonly dog catcher just trying to make a profit. There's a semi-frightening/ cute puppy who delivers the film's chance to hit fast-forward with an original Christmas tune, and a kid who just wants a puppy, but Dad can't afford Christopher Lloyd's sky-high prices (which makes one wonder what happens when the dog needs to go to the vet, but lets not pick nits).

The movie delivers no shortage of lessons for our younger viewers, such as: run away from the new kid if he doesn't immediately fit in, people in far off lands all celebrate Christmas and live in easily stereo-typed ethnic homes, and that it isn't worth it to try to make friends with someone unless they have magical powers.

This reviewer found it somewhat striking that he became genuinely lost during a crucial point in the film in which Puppy Paws has supposedly learned a lesson about what Christmas really means. Perhaps because the lesson was delivered in a shrilly delivered song, I missed something, but it seemed unclear how "Santa Buddies" decided to define the meaning of Christmas, as no character dared to utter the lesson aloud again.

Part of the interesting mix of "Santa Buddies" is that, like most Christmas movies, the film was based almost entirely in a secular and magical world of elves, talking dogs, flying sleighs, etc... But the film also makes awkward attempts to appeal to the large audience "keeping Christ in Christmas", including scenes of characters praying, etc... This would seemingly raise the stakes for defining "the spirit of Christmas" as more than a warm fuzzy and colored lights, and there is some hint regarding charity, but its somewhat fuzzy and seemingly tied to how much you like being licked by puppies.

These puppies are stupid and I hate them

Its perhaps expecting too much for a movie about Santa's canine parallel's prodigal-son to say much about the human/ canine condition, or to ask that any message about the meaning of the Holiday be put into concrete terms, but there seemed no real transition from Puppy Paws' abandonment of his destiny and giving up and going home (ie: finding the spirit of Christmas). However, if Hollywood is intent on making Christmas film after Christmas film which insists that "people have lost the true meaning of Christmas", it would be nice to have a movie which didn't resolve the problem with fictional intangibles like "if Puppy Paws can just come back, we can deliver the presents/ save Christmas!", and perhaps do a bit more in the vein of "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life" to recognize charity and giving.

This is by no means the worst Christmas movie you may see this year. That's what ABC Family and the Hallmark Channel are here to provide. Nor is it the worst Christmas movie ever made. That distinction is currently held by the 1996 feature, "Santa with Muscles". Kids may enjoy the puppies and their non-stop stream of mistaking saying-things-that-other-people-say for humor or something anybody actually wants to hear.

Its tough to imagine a world in which an adult might watch this movie and derive non-ironic joy from the viewing, but people are into all sorts of things, I suppose. Let us just say that I have lived a life the way a man is supposed to, and never believed it possible to hate an adorable puppy.

But God help me, I hate B-Dawg.

Fo' shizzle.

This reviewer would suggest that, perhaps, when seeking out holiday entertainment you may wish to look elsewhere for a video which may not be the filmic equivalent of feeding your kids nothing but creme-filled doughnuts for a week.

Luckily, Robert Vince is no man to rest on his laurels. IMDB promises that a second installment in the now ever-expanding world of Air Bud/ the Buddies/ Puppy Paws will be arriving next year under the name "The Search for Santa Paws".

*It should be noted that "Cheers" alum George Wendt, who played Santa in last year's "A Colbert Christmas", in 2007's "Larry the Cable Guy's Christmas Spectacular" and in a TV movie entitled "Santa Baby" in 2006, reprises his role as Santa Claus. He, however, looks a bit pale and ghastly throughout, and several times I wondered if Mr. Claus were not fighting off a flu or suffering low blood sugar. While comforting to know Mr. Wendt and his agent have locked up "Santa" as a role for the next few years and found a role Wendt can take well into retirement, it has created an odd alternate world of entertainment where the Buddies, Stephen Colbert, and Larry the Cable Guy all share the same Santa, who is Jenny McCarthy's dad.

**I assume all cats are either Jewish or Shintoist and do not participate in the Holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus.

***A long, slow clap, then, for the career of Mr. Robert Vince. For without his talents, its' not just that we would never have had the films "Most Valuable Primate", but also "Most Vertical Primate" and the unforgettable "Most Xtreme Primate".

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Spill Movie Reviews: New Moon

Back around the time I graduated from UT, there was a local public access movie review show called "The Reel Deal" featuring a handful of 20-something guys who were actually pretty good. The show was funny, as well produced as anything you were likely to see on Access, and the reviews were usually very fair, especially as you had between 3 and 5 people giving their opinion.

Interestingly, one of the guys worked with Jamie at former Austin dotcom cautionary tale, Human Code. Jamie and Korey became chummy, and so I got to know him a bit a while back.

It seems that Martin and Korey have moved on to The Spill, an online animated movie review site. Its pretty darn good.

Here's their review of "New Moon", both before and after they'd seen the movie. And it is hilarious (but PG-13, and other reviews stray into R-rated territory).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The League Watches: Where the Wild Things Are

Is "Where the Wild Things Are" truly that strange of a movie?

The discussion, confusion and posturing over "Where the Wild Things Are" should suggest that this is a movie that, love it or hate it, is going to be remembered for a very long time. Long after some producer has decided to remake "Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs" for the Nth time, the audience of today for "Where the Wild Things Are" is going to look upon all comers looking to re-make with a crooked eye-brow, in much the same way as many of us are still not fully accepting of Burton's rendition of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".

Reviewers and social critics like to state frequently how sophisticated children are as an audience compared to when "we" were kids, but I've always found that claim debatable. Children are new. They are a transitory audience that becomes "us" in short order. The concept of children as an audience "growing" and becoming more sophisticated is a bit misleading. Instead, what we are willing to believe children can understand via our current storytelling tastes is what changes. And we all know that the stories we enjoyed as children were never as simple as the ones we think are "safe" for our own kids.

And, yes, all signs point to the fact that their malleable little noggins can adapt to whatever we throw at them, but in many ways that's "us", not "they" who are taking the narrative chances.

Is "Where the Wild Things Are" safe for kids?

I'll assume you've got an understanding and appreciation for Sendak's book upon which the movie is based. What you may not recall is that the book is razor thin, with something around 12 sentences of copy, and relying upon imagery to tell the story. So the fact that Max is a wee bit out of control should come as no surprise.

At this point you've no doubt heard that the Max of the film comes from a home with an absent father, a sister going off on her own path as a teenager, and a struggling single mother who would like to be on the dating scene again. All this is intended to contextualize Max's wild behavior. The movie presents us with these facts in an understated manner, giving us what we can understand as the turmoil in Max's life via his own perspective. The exposition is clear, but does not beat itself out in obvious dialog. And I am not sure what it says that some reviewers seem to take this slice-of-life approach as being "scary" to kids, or "not-for-kids", when we more or less know that this is exactly what a large portion of kids see in their own homes.

Eggers' and Jonze's approach to the actual Wild Things is only occasionally menacing, and there's never any doubt that a terrible fate could, in fact, await Max. Its that uneasiness and lack of comfort that parents may find worrisome. If the viewer's goal is to spend two hours watching dancing, wise cracking celebrity voices in anthropomorphic animal form scroll past the screen, then, no... this may not be the movie for you, and I'd argue that you may have wished to review the book before buying your ticket.

Max and his companions are caught in the frustrating, confusing throes of late childhood, where actions have consequences, and your own inability to express or resolve your own needs can be the basis for a perfect storm. And there's a suggestion that neither child or adult really ever moves past that. It's, of course, not so much a heart warming message that we normally count on in kiddie entertainment (being yourself here is only tangentially a moral lesson), but an acknowledgment to its younger audience and a reminder to its older audience, who may be laboring under the illusion that things change all that much when it comes to how we deal with disappointment, loneliness and quarrels within the family.

I do want to mention that I saw at least one review who took the "rumpussing" as a sign of Jonze making an anti-war stance. Had I not read that particular comment, the idea wouldn't have ever popped into mind while I watched the movie, and its my opinion that Eggers and Jonze didn't intend for that to be the case, at least directly (although you could draw out that conclusion if you stretched out the greater meaning of doing harm to one another). My comments above are how I read Eggers and Jonze's movie, but to my eyes, the movie has an open-endedness you rarely see. The movie provides an ending and closure, without a clearly stated "and here's what we learned today, kids" to wrap up the movie, and it may be the lack of such a concise message that reviewers and audiences have felt discomfort with the movie.

I'd also read reviews that seemed to, quite, literally, not understand the movie at all (I read one review in which the reviewer firmly believed the island was disintegrating around the Wild Things, I guess because the movie showed different types of terrain...?). So, yeah, this is a different one.

Technically, the movie is stunning. The Wild Things are absolutely believable, and would make Jim Henson a very happy man were he alive today. The puppeteers and CGi artists manage to achieve the result of all great FX characters: you are likely to forget that the characters are an effect and look upon them as characters, first.

There's a late-afternoon quality to the light, like maybe just before you'd get called home to dinner or homework, giving the movie a glow throughout. What sets are built seemed mostly practical, and were terrifically structured. While not always as lush as Sendak's pages, the design is stunning in virtually every shot of the movie.

The kid who plays Max feels 100% more like any actual kid you've dealt with than the usual Disney-Channel approved child actors. He's allowed to be selfish and ridiculous, silly and scared and brave, and pulls off vulnerable without being twee.

Voice actors are a surprising all-star cast, with stand outs from James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker. By not playing cartoons, the actors give depth to their characters that's never too broad and feels firmly rooted (it doesn't hurt that the Wil Things have names like Alexander and Ira).

And, of course, Catherine Keener plays Max's mother, and she is great, because that's what Keener does. (That, and continually find herself a little higher on the DITMTLOD list).

The movie is a bit harrowing, with large emotional arcs for most of the characters. And to that end, I'd like to see the movie again fairly soon to make a bit more sense of KW's relationship with "Terry and Bob", which I was just starting to feel like I could patch into some sort of analogy when the storyline went elsewhere.

Carter Burwell (Fargo, Miller's Crossing, etc...) and Karen O (The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's) put together what may become one of the best scores/ sound tracks in a long time. Enough so that you almost forget the beautifully cut trailer featuring Arcade Fire's "Wake Up".

So is it too scary? Is uncertainty in how your child will react such a bad thing?

Final Verdict:
"Where the Wild Things Are" is a true all-ages film which pulls few punches in examining how people who should be close together, be it family or friends, can pull from one another's orbit, and refuses to give its characters neat solutions. Your mileage will certainly vary, and what you feel your kids are ready to watch is something you're going to judge better than I.

But in the end, there's no objectionable material. And if we're considering seeing kids almost get hurt in a movie as objectionable... It may be time to remove the rubber padding from underneath the playscapes and not insist on elbow pads when the kids get on a bicycle. Putting a helmet on to protect from a momentary emotional bruise from the movie may be less a good idea than talking it through with your kid.

Few will be able to dispute the technical achievement of the movie, and so love it or hate it, its got that going for it.

The movie respects the audience, perhaps giving too much credit at times, and refuses to oversimplify or gloss over the complications presented, while still returning Max to his mother, who has dinner waiting for him when he returns home.

I'd see it before it leaves theaters, if you can.

(editor's note/ update: Jason has put up his own notes on the movie, and I am interested to see that, despite the fact that we didn't talk all that much about the movie, we had very similar impressions. I'd particularly point to the metaphor/ stand-in comments, as I began to go down that road, and was unable to adequately express the idea. I think Jason does so wonderfully.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The League watches: Paranormal Activity

(editor's note: I just re-read this, and I came off rather harshly. I'm adding some content, because I really didn't think the movie was bad.)

You may or may not have heard about the movie "Paranormal Activity". It's currently in release and showing at the Alamo South in Austin.

I recommend reading about Paranormal Activity rather than viewing the trailer as the trailer probably gives away more than was wise to reveal, and certainly spoiled one or two of the film's tricks for me.

The biggest thing that this movie has going against it is that its been released about a full decade after "The Blair Witch Project", and to not draw a comparison would be sort of ridiculous. Like "Blair Witch" or the more recent "Cloverfield", "Paranormal Activity" purports to be "found footage" of a series of uncanny events, with a small, tight cast acknowledging that there is a camera on and running.*

I suppose my one miscue from the trailer was in believing the movie was about "Ghost Hunters"-style paranormal investigators, when it is really about a couple recording events in their own amazingly plush San Diego home (the most paranormal thing about the movie is how unlikely both the size of the house and "decorate with all the taste of a model home" look the place has).

Like Blair Witch, there also only about four characters in the movie, and that works in the context of the movie. In fact, I'm not really clear on who some of the people listed on IMDB are supposed to be. I suppose there are cut scenes?

I just never really got the same thrill from this movie that I got from Blair Witch. Perhaps because there's so much less geography? Perhaps because Blair Witch truly felt as if the actors were being toyed with, and here, our fiend feels like he's almost just a pest for part of the movie? Maybe because the thing really does have a "been there, done that" feel in its own way?

hope you like this shot, because you will see A LOT of it

In a lot of ways, it's kind of a low-budget "Blair Witch" meets the 1960's version of "The Haunting", and so in that way, the movie isn't half bad, all while not really bringing anything entirely new to the table. In fact, the filmmakers depend so much on their pretense of the "first person" camera shooting that they clearly were worried more about story or, in many ways, character.

There's a lot of pressure on the talent in this movie, as they're left to practical lighting, running their own camera and behaving like people caught on tape rather than actors playing out a scene. I can't really fault them for scenes that seemed like an improv class from time to time, and they certainly carried off the spookier scenes very well. By and large, they carried the enormous weight put upon them. Actor Micah Stone does a good job, but Katie Featherstone has more acting challenges, which she handles relatively well, without becoming oddly unsympathetic a la "Heather" from The Blair Witch, while bringing "production value" to the movie.

I am not a true horror fan. It's not that I dislike horror, but whatever gene sequence one needs to truly appreciate horror (like our friend, Wings) I simply lack. But there are certain things I find myself liking in horror movies. I think every Halloween I mention my love of "The Haunting", and because this movie replicates that same brand of fear, I can salute it. And I do feel the director and producers understood what makes a horror movie work without relying on a factoryline of teens getting it in a grizzly fashion.

But you do wish you had a better feel for who the characters are, and maybe that's what made "Blair Witch" work for me, but less so this movie, and not at all "Cloverfield".

The League's Verdict:
It's possibly a renter, or a great option if you're in a Halloween mood, and you're not a fan of slasher pics, the latest Saw installment, etc... It does have some genuinely creepy parts, even if the ending feels completely telegraphed from the first frame.

*It should be noted that I did have the passing thought that the immediacy of self-documentation as a trope in horror is nothing new. After all, Frankenstein and Dracula were written as journals and self-narration. Adding a video camera may be just the natural evolution of that idea.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The League Sees: Whip It

If you've been following this blog, then you know I'm unlikely to be terribly objective in regards to the new Drew Barrymore directed movie, Whip It. League-Pal Shauna C. wrote the thing, and we're just terrifically happy for Shauna this evening.

I also have some unusual insight into the thing as I read the script a long time ago, and thought it pretty darn good.

On the screen and having been developed with a particular vision, I'm happy to say, I enjoyed the final product even more than I'd expected, based on what I'd read.

I won't dwell on the changes, largely because its irrelevant, but The League gives the movie, like, 7 thumbs up.

Roller derby as a sport is a bit confusing at first, but the movie's exposition seems to cover the necessary bases so the play of the sport isn't baffling. And that's a good thing, as I know the first time Jamie and I attended a bout, there was a lot of confusion. But the storytelling of the film more or less makes it easy to follow, at any rate.

Roller Derby players will probably be able to spot irregularities and "whatever" moments, but by and large, the movie seems to capture the toughness, athleticism and fun inherent in what I've seen when I've gone.

But the movie, like all good sports movies, uses the sport as a framework for the characters and their arcs. And in this case, its a story about a girl coming into adulthood and coming into her own in a way that her parents hadn't planned on, and really aren't going to understand.

The cast is very good.

I'm going to admit something here: I didn't like "Juno", so I had no opinion in regards to whether Ellen Page would be good in the role of Bliss, the high school aged protagonist. But, indeed, Page is quite good, and has the rare quality of appearing to actually be the age of the high school character she's portraying.

Juliet Lewis and the rest of the cast are excellent, but the real stand outs are going to be Daniel Stern and especially Marcia Gay Harden as Bliss's parents, who the movie does an excellent job of making nuanced, believable characters with believable motivations when they could have been far, far less. That said, I'll also be surprised if Kristin Wiig doesn't find herself landing a new range of roles thanks to her role in this movie as well.

Anyhow, Austin audiences will get a kick out of the odd intermingling of scenes shot in what is clearly NOT Texas (the film was shot 97% in Michigan), but seeing a few bits in Austin, including the very theater I was sitting in during the screening (which was met with great applause) was a lot of fun. It was interesting to see Austin portrayed as the destination point for getting out of the lives parents would have preferred for their kids, which is a bit glossy in this movie, but there's also a certain truth to it, even as the town expands and becomes ever more homogenized.* So while I sort of cringed after a while that they made damned sure we knew the characters were in hip, hip Austin, it is useful to tell the story of one of those kids in high school who was pretty sure they were dissatisfied with the way things were going and was looking for their outlet. And I'm glad Shauna was the person to tell that story.

Angry mother of a high schooler asking for an explanation when you walk in the door? Hoo boy. Does that bring back some memories.

I'm not going to suggest that "Whip It" is experimental art-house cinema that's going to change the world of movie-making, but I do think if the audience is coming, expecting a movie aimed at tween-agers, they're going to be pleasantly surprised. As the vast majority of the characters are actually adults, the gap between adulthood and the expectations of the high schooler as they reach for adulthood, is part of the point. Unlike most media these days, the movie does not pretend the characters are already adults, as we've come to expect in the era of the ridiculous teens of "Gossip Girl", the all-new 90210, The Hills, 16 and Pregnant, and even the shiny kids of Glee (whom I love and will beat you up of you say anything bad about them, but high school is mostly just a backdrop to get these characters together).

It should be mentioned: not just for a first effort, but in general, Drew Barrymore's direction was impressive. There were a lot of ways this movie could have gone wrong, but rather than take a script which could have easily become a dull family comedy, she managed to respect and care for all of the characters. And, some of the camera decisions were downright inspired.

Anyhoo, we recommend. Go check it out.

*I had a co-worker in who lives and works elsewhere in the state this week, and it was a reminder that some people still find Austin a bit much

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The David Lynch Adaptation of "Dune"

is not very good and makes Herbert's prose seem subtle and airy by comparison.

But, holy moley, does it look expensive. They just sort of skip over major plot points, though, don't they? While just sort of making a few bits up along the way.

Credit where credit is due. Lynch cast pre-koo-koo Sean Young, a very young Virginia Madsen, and this Francesca Annis person who plays the Lady Jessica.

Also, Patrick Stewart.

To be fair, the challenge of translating that book was never going to be easy for anyone.

I gotta say, though, the handling of Alia was surprisingly good.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The League sees: District 9

It's been a pretty lousy summer for movies.

In the wake of the superhero and teenaged wizard tentpole summers, Hollywood has once again misconstrued the obvious (people like movies that aren't stupid) and has now transmorgified the evidence to suggest that no movie should exist unless based upon an existing property, be it old movie, TV show, novel, comic book, back of a Wheaties box, etc...

I consider myself exactly the target audience for a summer movie. But perhaps now that I'm a male on the far end of the 18-35 age bracket, that's no longer so. I did not see:

Transformers 2
GI Joe: Rise of Cobra
Terminator: Salvation
Angels & Demons
Land of the Lost
Taking of Pelham 1-2-3
Public Enemies
Funny People

I also did not see: Moon, 500 Days of Summer, and a few others I'd consider seeing. I get out to the movies far less frequently, and find trips anywhere but The Alamo to be sort of nightmarish, so... Hollywood can count me as a casualty. I am not helping them.

And I do still want to see "Julie & Julia", "Zombieland", and "Inglourious Basterds". And Maybe "Ponyo", if the mood strikes me.

One movie that did not appear to be based on a toy, book, cartoon, or bar of soap had some trailer at The Alamo this spring. I'd also seen the posters for "District 9", and was pleased to see director/ producer Peter Jackson's name attached. I saw "Dead Alive" in the theater, thank you. And later, much to Jason's chagrin, "Meet the Feebles". Jackson was "presenting" District 9, and I figured even if all he was doingw as distributing the movie, it was worth a look-see.

if only this poster had existed for my bedroom in high school...

And then, not so long ago, JimD called me from his mountaintop lodge to instruct me to see the movie. So, of course, I did so.

It is not that the plot for District 9 isn't something that feels familiar from other films. Most definitely, there are elements of other sci-fi films and just other movies in general. And sort of like when I saw "The Host" a few summers back, I was anticipating that the twist of the film would have less to do with the plot than the filter of the film's country of origin. And in many way, that's true.

But where I felt that "The Host" simply didn't wind up telling a very compelling story (and there are some interesting parallels between "The Host" and "District 9" in regards to those in power, and a few other plotpoints I don't wish to spoil), I felt "District 9" told an engaging story, and absolutely did not skimp on action.

The story hinges largely upon the likely fallout if an alien species arrived in much the same manner of immigrants as we get reports of here in the US, but which is an uncommon practice as of the mid-20th Century. These are a labor class of immigrant, uneducated, inarticulate, and because they are unplanned visitors, the government of South Africa sets up a minimum standard of living and then all but abandons them to their slums. The slums, making the occupants of Johannesburg nervous, are to be leveled and the "Prawn" moved to a new location.

And here our troubles begin.

One sign of what we would have called in my college days "a foreign film", was usually that, in particular, FX were half-baked and were often more or a stage prop the audience had to use their willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy. The FX of "District 9" were absolutely phenomenal, with seamless CG and human interaction. If and when puppets were used for the film, I wouldn't have known.

Adding to the challenge is that much of the film is constructed to appear as if its part of a documentary and includes a large portion of "found footage". Shots are handheld, lighting uneven, etc... and it all still looks remarkable and seamless.

The DP, FX team and director wisely place the enormous alien mothership in many shots, simply floating over the city as something matter-of-fact, that the residents don't even look up at any more, its been there so long. Its a bizarre but necessary detail to the framing of the story.

The story movies at a rapid clip, and I give credit to both lead actor Sharlto Copley (this is, bizarrely, his only acting work to date) and the FX crew for still being able to develop the characters of Wikus and Christopher.

The world writer/ director Neill Blomkamp has created feels remarkably likely, much more so than what I'd consider to be District 9's American counter-part, "Alien Nation", which basically just boiled things down to a new, slightly unknown ethnic class living in the US. The very alienness of two cultures creates massive disturbance, and its not hard to believe that locals probably would want to resettle the "Prawn" out of their city, no matter how open minded.

Hey, Mr. Alien. You've been served!

But I did wonder, occasionally, what I might be missing allegorically from Blomkamp's perspective as a South African. Clearly the slum conditions and co-habitation of South Africans plays out in the movie, but it seems I might have missed some other elements.

From the set-up, the story does, as I mentioned, take a familiar turn, but I don't think its anything that feels overly contrived. Its well-structured. And if you're just looking for an action movie, here you go.

I should mention: The movie is rated "R" for a reason. Don't worry about seeing a boob or anything, but Blomkamp also doesn't shy away from finding new and inventive ways to demonstrate alien technology.

Anyhow, in an otherwise mostly disappointing summer (now I wait another year for Iron Man 2? Booooooooo), I recommend checking out "District 9".

If I were the producer's of NBC's new version of "V", I'd be very concerned right now.

Good call on a movie, JimD.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and The Teenagers Making The League Uncomfortable

I keed, I keed.

But, there certainly was a lot of teen romance in that movie, wasn't there? And to see it played out by humans who, despite magical powers and soft lighting, slightly resemble actual teens versus what one sees on television was sort of... I dunno. It sort of made me not really feel like I should be there.

To put things in perspective, I saw inexplicable pop phenomena "Twilight" at Doug and Kristen's in Berkeley, and that movie downright made me sad. It's like wish-fulfillment-crack for adolescent girls. Something that I have learned, no woman in my immediate circle seems to truly be immune from at any age (reportedly, The Karebear has even read the entire series). That's a movie that I certainly knew wasn't just NOT aimed at me, but openly challenged me to stand up and tell 13 year old girls that when your paramour admits to wanting to kill, that shouldn't be a huge turn on. I'm just saying.

But, yes, Harry Potter was, indeed, a Harry Potter movie. And I confess that with this 6th installment, my frustration with the limited point of view of the Harry Potter universe increased exponentially. At some point, one begins to wonder "Where the hell are the adults in this, and why do they repeatedly lean on some kid over and over?" At some point, one gets over the formula Rowling painted herself into with focusing on Hogwarts, and wishes to see what the adults, who've already SEEN Voldemort on a rampage, are doing about his attempts at a return. The hints one gets make the supposedly powerful wizarding community seem like the worst sort of surrender monkeys. That, in fact, not a one of them deserves to be saved.

The biggest issue the 6th installment has is that its also a bridging chapter between what came before, and what's going to be the big sham-wow in the 7th book/ 7th and 8th movies. Like, say, Empire Strikes Back, this movie has no real denouement, but sets things up so that, one assumes, we're seeing Harry and Co. go on the offensive (which one suspects adults should be managing, but whatever).

Many of the cuter trappings of earlier films are gone in this installment. No more endless-flavor jellybeans. No more talking paintings or moving staircases. We're much more down to brass tacks. But still find time for the required allowance of Quidditch and completely believable distraction of who is "snogging" with whom and "Butter Beer".

It's not necessarily a bad movie. The acting is very good from most of the young cast. Its beautifully shot, has nifty FX and the pacing is mostly good, considering there's no overarching plot that isn't dragged in from a prior movie. And, in fact, one suspects the movie's structure is entirely necessary, but something about the whole thing just felt oddly perfunctory. One is left with questions that don't need to be left, such as "now, what... Half-Blood Prince... what?" And "now... why weren't Malfoy and Harry both bounced out of school after their altercation?" It can be a bit maddening, and I can only guess what wound up on the cutting room floor to keep the running time at 2.5 hours. But without that information...

I guess at installment 6, I sort of was hoping for a bit more. Such as "The Half-Blood Prince" to mean a damn thing in the context of the film.

On the other hand, it was light-years less creepy and dumb than "Twilight". Which has a sequel coming soon, whose trailer was met with howls of laughter in our theater.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The League Sees: The Hangover

In many ways, I am glad that "The Hangover" was not released prior to my own wedding, and therefore, bachelor party. I fell in a sweet spot between the Tom Hanks starring "The Bachelor Party" and 9 years before "The Hangover". My own bachelor party was a small and timid affair, to be honest, but it still was not something I was about to discuss with the in-laws, for example.

"The Hangover" is a genuinely funny movie, and a well conceived, well-directed one, too. Writer/ Director Todd Phillips is also a producer on the movie, and so the movie had an opportunity to be made without the usual watering down of ideas that would result in a fairly by-the-numbers comedy that didn't live up to much more than the trailer.

The movie remembers that the downfall of a good comedy can be when the plot takes precedence over why people showed up for your movie and the third act can easily get bogged down in wrapping up various plot threads instead of comedy. Its an odd thing to defy expectations of the audience by keeping it simple in order to focus on characters when that's where the humor starts. What could have been a riff on "Dude, Where's My Car" (yes, I've seen it), is most likely going to find its way into many a DVD collection and certainly become a staple of bachelor parties for years to come.

There's certainly the fantasy aspect of modern America, regarding both the bachelor party AND the with what seems like the limitless possibilities of an adult playground like Vegas. And, of course, the amping up of the common experience of waking up and attempting to piece an evening back together. And if that's not your cup of tea (finding tigers in bathrooms = funny), then I cannot help you.

Anyhow, I think to linger too long on a successful comedy is to do it a disservice. But I can say that all of the talent in the movie knocked themselves out (and, for once, I wasn't cringing at Heather Graham). We've come to know Ed Helms from The Daily Show and The Office. Bradley Cooper is good as the guy trying to stay cool, but I think the audience will be happy to take notice of comedian Zack Galifiniakis, who some may know from Comedians of Comedy. And, after "Knocked Up" and "Role Models", it was great to see Ken Jeong create another memorable character.

I enjoyed it. Depending on your tolerance for this sort of stuff and whether you think bachelor parties are despicable behavior or not, I give it a salute.

If I say I'm glad it didn't come out prior to my own nuptials, its that in some way, we expect (or maybe have an unspoken hope) that our bachelor parties will be a surreal experience, but, you know, not so surreal that we have to call off the wedding. In taking the bachelor party to absurd extremes, the movie opens the door for the "well, you wouldn't want that, right?" question from their very special lady, that anyone with a bachelor party would dread.

Of course not, baby, we say. I'm just going to have some drinks with the pals. And if we find a tiger in the bathroom, at least we'll have some good stories.

Also, I kept thinking that this whole movie could happen to Randy.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Golden Hornet Project

When I was 15, Jason talked me into renting Fritz Lang's 1927 science fiction opus, "Metropolis". I was, of course, immediately disappointed to learn that Madonna's "Express Yourself" video was not a concept baked entirely new for The Material Girl. Instead, the creative team had told a sort of parallel (and sexier) story to the happenings of "Metropolis", in the same landscape.

Madonna's "Express Yourself"*

At any rate, I doubt I'd ever watched an entire feature silent film prior to that cut, but as I recall, it had some pop songs on it, and, of course, even on VHS the movie was brilliantly stunning and the story moving.

I don't really want to get into a whole conversation here on German Expressionist film of the pre-Nazi era, and how one of the seldom-mentioned casualties of Hitler's regime was the crippling of an entire media and art form. But there you have it. While I do enjoy some American and British silent film (like all good former film students, I appreciate me some good Buster Keaton and Chaplin), I'd argue that anyone watching Metropolis will be awed at how far ahead of Hollywood and London that the German's were in using the medium.


It's also impossible to separate Germany's post-WW1 conditions with the output of their cinema, and not wonder a bit about what Lang saw in his countrymen in the years prior to the rise of Hitler. Or his refusal to allow the film's resolution to make a solid case completely on the side of beleaguered labor (what with the Reds running around Mother Russia).

The dimensions of the movie are huge, even by today's standards. And while sets are necessarily re-used for the story, they're unbelievable in scale and practical effects, number of sets, etc... The models of exteriors are phenomenal, some scenes that I assume are matte prints continue to astonish, and the cast is enormous. It's tough to believe such efforts used to go into moviemaking, but clearly Lang wasn't cutting corners.

Sort of makes "New Detroit" in Robocop seem kind of silly, 1980's Dallas.

The imagery has, of course, become iconic and endlessly emulated in sci-fi films, in comics and elsewhere. Lang's Metropolis would come to define the massive super cities seen in everything from "The Fifth Element" to "Blade Runner", acknowledging that these cities will grow on the backs of a labor class who will most likely always have the short end of the stick. The glories of the towers and the miseries of the folks below would become a perennial theme in science fiction, and, one can see how the first quarter of the 20th Century would be enough to tell you where this was headed. The predictions for technology aren't as important to the film as the homily shared using the backdrop and extremes of the future presented in the film.

The effects are mostly practical and hold up because Lang's grasp didn't overextend his reach. The Man-Machine's metal body looks exactly like what its meant to look like, the flying machines and cars don't take bizarre shapes.

why is evil always more fun and noticeably hotter?

But what's just as striking are the hallucinatory visions experienced by Freder, including the approach of "death". These scenes are a fairly straightforward moment when Lang's involvement with Expressionism crosses over into the Metropolis.

And, curiously, its funny how different the same actress is as Brigitte Helm as "good" Maria and "evil" Maria.** While acting styles have definitely changed for film in teh ensuing 80 years, the actors are still committed and engrossing.

We lost a few things when they added sound to film, but nothing so much as the possibilities for a film to easily cross borders, simply applying new title cards.

My hat is off to the Golden Hornet Project. A friend at dinner asked if they're an offshoot of Austin's "Golden Arm Trio", and I really don't. But the band/ orchestra/ whatever was made up of about 8 musicians, featuring keyboards, two percussionists (phenomenal percussionists), and several strings and guitar players. I am actually very interested in seeing their other work in town this summer.

seriously, when was the last time you got this excited about one of your ideas?

The score was terrific, going above and beyond the call of duty to execute upon their task: helping to tell the story without getting in the way. Its unfair to try to categorize the work, so I won't try too hard here to do so. But what would you be if you didn't try? I kinda/ sorta would compare it in spirit to... oh, David Byrne's score for "The Forest". Only totally different.

Anyway, the movie is a favorite. It was a huge treat not just to see it on the big screen, but with such a huge amount of love put into the music.

I like to point out that for all the snooty, looking down the nose critics like to do with sci-fi, this 80 year old movie had three sold out shows and inspired musicians, who could be doing plenty of other things with their time, to create new works of art just to support it. And not just here. Nathan mentioned a similar effort in San Antonio, and when I described the screening to League-Pal Robb at dinner, he told me about a screening at Seattle's Gasworks Park about a decade back that attracted thousands. THOUSANDS.

Its not the genre that attracted the audiences, but there's something to the mix of story, homily and visuals that sci-fi makes possible. And while few have done it anywhere near as well as Metropolis in those years, I don't see "Wings" (best picture, 1928, and a really good movie in its own right) drawing three sold out nights and a new score.

For the record, there's no known direct connection between this movie and the naming of Superman's adopted hometown. Nor does there seem to be any direct connection between the film, its themes, its portrayal in the comic, etc... and the movie. I think teen-age comic developers, Siegel and Shuster, picked it out of the zeitgeist in the years after the movie appeared in the US. Superman would appear roughly 10 years after Metropolis, by the way. So, yeah, the Germans were ahead of us on this crazy sci-fi thing.

*Dang, yo, Circa 1990 Madonna... you are a bad, bad girl.

**Or "boring" Maria and "hot" Maria, as I declared when we left the theater.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The League Watches "Up"

I had today off, and so Jamie and I took the afternoon to go see Pixar's latest, "Up".

This post is going to be short as there is not a laundry list of gripes and complaints that I'd spend paragraph after paragraph cataloging. In fact, this was my favorite movie since last year's "Dark Knight". All though... this movie has less punching and fire. And its probably my favorite Pixar movie since Incredibles (and, Leaguers, I loved Wall-E. This one just pushed all the right buttons).

Pixar's focus on story and character is generally much better than most movies in general, and is light years better than most all-ages entertainment. And the impetus for the story here is not what you'd normally sell as a kid's movie, just as I'm not sure kids would really get their heads around the existential dilemma of Bob Parr in "The Incredibles" that leads him to re-don the spandex.

The characters are very well defined, and the script features none of the relentless mugging that's mistaken for jokes in the average Dreamworks project that's the legacy of Robin Williams' "Genie" and trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the first Shrek movie. Instead, the humor (and tears) come straight from the story and characters.

Our protagonists. I really liked that bird.

The animation is fantastic, and I guess you can see this thing in 3D in the right theaters (we didn't miss it). But the character design, etc... all feels spot on, as do the various set pieces.

I would forewarn parents of kids under 7 or 8 that we had a scared kiddo sitting behind us. There's nothing too threatening popping out at the heroes, but I sort of think that because the movie does a good job of wrapping you up in the proceedings that when danger does occur, the kids may get a little more spooked than normal. There is a little more "life and limb" sort of danger than in Wall-E.

Two of our protagonists are not human. There's a huge bird whose name is actually a punchline, so I don't want to give it away.

And, of course, there's Doug the Dog.

I have just met you, and I love you!

For all the tear-jerking and hilarious moments in the movie, the parts with Doug were my favorite. (If you like dogs, this is really a good movie for you.) But it was also a little sad, given our year, only because Doug was, more or less, Melbotis.

I was surprised by developed Karl's storyline was, and how gently Russell's storyline was conveyed, when both could have been standard kid's faire, heavy-handed stuff.

There are some great action sequences, and I know I was never bored, and neither did the kids ever seem like they were growing impatient (just wait for the little planes to show up).

Anyhow, I don't have much else to say, other than that I hope you Leaguers see it, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Its also great to know that Pixar's collection of talent is so deep. While I love Brad Bird and the rest, these guys really knocked it out of the park.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The League Watches "The Spirit" So You Don't Have To

I just finished watching the 2008 film "The Spirit" on OnDemand, and I think its safe to say... it's not very good.

Written and directed by comic superstar Frank Miller, its curious to consider how the movie wound up the way it did in the first place.

Eisner first launched The Spirit as a roughly 8 page weekly newspaper insert pre-World War II, trying to find a way to get away from the superhero fads and other things he didn't like about the conditions at many comic publishers. The strip ran for years, and attained great popularity, retaining cult status among a certain breed of comic aficionado, seeing occasional revivals and reprints.

Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City) became friends with Will Eisner at some point, and the two put out a book of interviews and discussions, which I actually bothered to read a few years back. While Miller may idolize Eisner, the two have very different approaches to character and storytelling.

from some Spirit reprints

Following the groundbreaking success of Dark Knight Returns, Miller did some work in Hollywood, including screenplays for Robocops 2 and 3. However, the adaptation of Sin City by Robert Rodriguez, which maintained the look and panel-by-panel pacing of Miller's work, and cited Miller as a co-director, opened new doors for Miller on a much bigger scale than what modern comics affords. Paired with Zack Snyder's adaptation of Miller's original graphic novel, "300", someone in Hollywood felt that Miller could handle his own film project. And Miller, it seems, received the approval of the Eisner's to let him handle Will Eisner's most popular character for a big screen adaptation.

would have been totally cutting edge if he hadn't done this already

It should be mentioned... there was a 1987 television movie of "The Spirit". I missed it. I had a basketball game or band concert or something.

Oddly, Miller more or less abandoned the look, feel, story and everything about the comics that makes them interesting, and inserted a sort of sci-fi/ fantasy take on the events from the comics. Miller's worldview permeates the movie, with the Sin City look overwhelming Eisner's gritty but still friendly cartoonish feel to a stand-in for a North Eastern City, circa 1940ish that The Spirit seemed to perpetually inhabit.

Further, Miller doesn't bother to ever even make a nod to the kind of groundbreaking work Eisner did in page layout and as a master of his craft in managing the comic page.

The Spirit comics became often much more about the crooks and the stories around the people in the comics other than The Spirit, something in the manner of a lot of cop procedurals. The Spirit was cool, two-fisted and had a peculiar relationship with luck, but that was more or less a wink and a nod as a storytelling device. Tracking the past of Sand Serif, Wild Rice, or even a toy machine gun was much more likely to fill the pages of a Spirit story than following Denny Colt around.

The Spirit is a Peeping Tom

I do think its kind of a neat idea to include a handful of the femme fatales of the Spirit comics into the movie. After all, Eisner loved drawing women and found many-a-way to set them up as the equal to The Spirit (not entirely common in strips of the time). While I felt that the movie could have used P'Gell, I didn't get hung up on it. It would have been worth exploring, however, how and/ or why The Spirit of the movie engaged all women as sexual objects when the back story suggested the opposite.

I find it puzzling that Miller would have been such a fan of Eisner's work, routinely complained about how Batman is portrayed on the screen, and then saw fit to take Eisner's creation and manhandle it. That doesn't begin to get into the problems with pacing and story telling that Miller runs into (let alone technical issues such as camera placement and that every shot in the movie looks as if Kevin Smith were DP, selecting mid-range, static shots that don't ever seem to move). One has to assume pride or ego are the culprits here, but I have no idea. I'd have to hear more from Miller.

a good reason to watch the movie, but not good enough

Miller's sense of humor may also not jive with that of his own movie. The Looney Tunes-like fight sequence at the beginning seems less funny and more like a dip back into the post-Adam West-era of comic movie making where nobody seemed to be able to keep a straight face if they knew the source material were a comic.

Scarlett Johansson seems just happy to be there, even if she is rightfully lost as to what is actually going on. Eva Mendes is a lovely woman, but there are places where even in this mess, she seems a bit out of her depth. I do give credit to Gabriel Macht for probably being as solid a portrayal of Denny Colt as you're likely to get. And I can only hope that the set makers could keep up with all the scenery chewing Samuel L. Jackson was responsible for as The Octopus.

All in all, I'm not even sure its a renter. The look is no longer experimental, as we've seen it elsewhere to better effect. The pacing is grueling and the whole thing just feels like maybe someone should have stepped in and stopped this mess before they ever rolled video.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Supergirl the Movie

It's been a long while since I tried to watch "Supergirl: The Movie". I've not actually ever made it all the way through the movie, at least in one shot. Except for the last time, when I had the flu, was running a 102 fever and was drifting in and out, and wasn't sure what might have been an hallucination.

The important thing to know about Supergirl is that it was produced by the same Salkinds who produced the first three Superman movies, and largely reflects what would happen if they were left to their own devices. The movie faired poorly enough that it is rumored that its part of why DC more or less retired Kara Zor-El/ Linda Lee from the DC Comics Universe for about two decades. I don't know if I buy that story, but it didn't mean that comic dorks didn't actually TELL Supergirl star Helen Slater that somehow she was responsible for the death of Supergirl in the comics (that's not cool, ya'll).*

The movie has some curious sponsorships, such as Popeye's Chicken, A&W Rootbeer and maybe Schlitz Malt Liquor. It also features several celebrities slumming it for the fun of being in a corny superhero movie, one would assume. Peter O'Toole plays some sort of wizard of a lost Kryptonian city (Argo) that retreated to "Innerspace" when Krypton exploded. Or something. Mia Farrow appears as Allura, Supergirl's mother. And Faye Dunaway headlines as "Selena", the villainness.

Supergirl declares that she is going to find out why the chicken bucket dinner crossed the road.

None of the stars of the original movies are in Supergirl, except for Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. There's some very Bronze Age-ish reason cooked up as to where Superman is during the duration of the film (he's off planet working out an alien peace treaty). Most likely Lois wasn't going to appear as Kidder wasn't getting along with the Salkinds at the time of the shooting. And... a pre-Max Headroom Matt Frewer appears as one of the first two people Supergirl meets on Earth. Who promptly attempt to rape her (it's a fun movie for kids!).

Like Superman III and IV, the writers, director and producers of the movie envisioned none of the same sense of scale or American myth-building or representation that the first two Superman films attempted to embody. The whole thing feels vaguely under-thought out and not taken very seriously for a major motion picture, but in the wake of the success of the recent era of comic movies, its easy to forget that until Tim Burton produced Batman in the late 80's, most people felt their comic book movie job was to make an episode of the old Batman TV show.

Supergirl ponders a future in which she will star in no sequels.

The people in the movie are all oddly plain looking, in an after-school special sort of way that would never happen in a movie these days.

The big-scale heroic acts of the movie include Supergirl putting out a tire fire and stopping runaway construction equipment. Which all occurs far further into the movie than you'd probably guess.

By the time the movie hit the screen (I wouldn't see it until years later, possibly on VHS... I have no real recollection), Supergirl had moved well past the demure sweet-16 year old that had first appeared in Action Comics 252. She was, by the 1970's, a sort of kick-ass undergrad who frequently got wound up about social issues of the day. The movie plays up a bit more of the "I'm a good girl" take on Supergirl, without quite the same creepy factor that a lot of the earliest Supergirl stories contained.

As the demure and reserved Kara Zor-El, Helen Slater is fine, I guess. She looks exactly right in the suit, she seems to be the only one taking things seriously, and if you were going to have that brand of Supergirl, then you could do a lot worse.**

I'm going to go ahead and say it: This is a really dumb movie. It features whole scenes in which they seemed to neglect to actually put in the big budget movie monster, a comparative scene to the "can you read my mind" sequence in which Supergirl first knocks out her paramour, then carries him around the world in a bumper car. And the central conflict seems to stem from Supergirl and Faye Dunaway both wanting the sexy lawn-guy.

In many, many ways, it makes just no sense, and fits in with the Superman mythology in only the slimmest of ways.

While normally I'd really appreciate how some folks persevere no matter what obstacles are in their path, one sort of feels that once the producers couldn't land Christopher Reeve for the movie, that should have been a sign to call the the whole thing off.

The movie has a weird, kind of goofy fantasy movie ending that makes not a lick of sense and features a detailed puppet of something that may be THE DEVIL. Ya'll, I do not understand what I just watched.

*Supergirl would become one of the internet's most fetishized objects. Her return to DC Comics circa 2005 would be marred by a costume redesign and storytelling that seemed to reflect that fetish far more than celebrating the history of the character. In the past year, writer Sterling Gates managed to rehabilitate the character, but the costume is in deep need of a redesign.

**Slater went on to feature in other movies such as "The Secret of My Success", "The Legend of Billie Jean" and much more. She recently appeared on Smallville as Lara-El, Clark's birth mother. Let us just say that she has aged rather well since she wore the cape. And, these days, I think most comic fans agree that Slater is probably the best thing about the movie and celebrate her as part of the whole weird, mixed-up world of Super-fandom. She appears at signings, etc...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The League sees the All-New Star Trek

Vroooom! Vrooom! Vroooooooooom!

Spoilers Ahoy. Be forewarned.

So, okay. I really liked the new Trek.

There's a lot of plot and story issues with the movie, I'm not going to fib. Characters' motivations don't make sense (especially our villain, the catalyst for the plot), and its sort of derivative. And, if what they did is what I think they did, it would give longtime Trek fans a long, long moment of pause.


If you're like me and felt the past ten years or so of Trek has taken a turn for the not-so-great, and you never quite got over the original series, then this is a welcome change.

Prior to the new movie, I watched "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", the Alan Dean Foster penned, post "2001: A Space Odyssey", post "Star Wars" relaunch of the Star Trek franchise. And the differences between the two movies really couldn't be more pronounced in structure, pacing, philosophy, etc... The new movie is much, much more in the vein of the high-octane action movies of the past few years that had left the Trek franchise limping pretty far behind.

The movie does do a great job of introducing the characters and distilling down a lot of character bits developed over the decades into one cohesive narrative. There may be new actors in the Starfleet uniforms, but the writers were pretty intent on making sure that the characters that they'd loved for so many years are still intact, even if its coming from a slightly different angle. This most likely won't throw off too many viewers, what with the relaunch of other popular franchises of late, from Batman to James Bond (and us comic fans are very, very used to the whole "Earth 1, Earth 2" concept. As Trek fans should be, from "Mirror, Mirror".)

My all-new imaginary friends

The story moves at Warp 10, so its possible to miss the plotholes and/ or not care too much about them. And... this should give you an idea regarding how pleased I was with the movie, it really doesn't matter a whole lot whether the plot adds up or not. The movie isn't here to spin a crazy new plot for the Star Trek franchise, its here to get a new generation of viewers hooked on the antics of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu and the rest.

One of the things I'd loved about Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the scale of the thing. From the interior of the Enterprise (something rarely explored, and - oddly- not emphasized much in any other incarnation), to the vastness of space and the possibilities for craft size, etc...

While the FX of ST:TMP still hold up, the new film takes advantage of the power of CG in a way that the past fifteen years of Trek have struggled. Its a really great looking movie, even if the battle scenes do become a bit unnecessarily chaotic at times (but less so than the average Michael bay travesty).

The interior of the Enterprise, etc... actually makes some sort of sense and the designers must have considered what actual engine rooms on battleships, etc... look like, rather than just imagining a living room with glowy things. And the bridge is representative enough of the classic bridge, with what seems like a reasonable update in technology, etc...

I was genuinely pleased with the performances of everyone, even when a few scenes may have gone a little slapsticky for the Trek franchise. But it also generated humor in a film that wasn't going to count on laughs just from a fawning fanbase laughing at some insider joke.

It's a fast-paced popcorn flick that does its job admirably. And, after having paid the same amount to see "Wolverine" last week, I can verify that you could do a lot, lot worse.

Whether or not they dug themselves into all kinds of complications for a sequel remains to be seen. They certain had enough issues with the plot, how they handled... ahem... different versions of characters, etc... could be incredibly problematic. But I don't want to assume the worst until we get another installment.

For more, I recommend reading Jason's spoiler-rific review. Also, my rundown of my moderate Trek fandom.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

X-Men Origins Colon Wolverine Colon Isn't Very Colon Good

Surprise, right?

Long, long ago, I got into superhero comics in no small part because of Claremont's "Uncanny X-Men", a team book which was, as is now well known, all about mutants and the prejudice they faced on the streets of New York. The first issue I recall reading was issue 210. It would be a year or so later before I would discover back-issues and be able to find out what led up to that issue, but the clear social message, which reflected very much what I was taught at home, in theory at school, at church, etc... matched up pretty darn well with the "Mutants are People, Too!" message of the issue.

No fights in the comic, but the X-Men regrouping after a big fight (almost unheard of for such continuity in comics today), and Kitty Pryde and Colossus having a run in with some anti-mutant bigots, while Rogue's heroism won over some tough guy New York construction guys.

Wolverine stabbed nobody.

At that time, Wolverine had been through quite a bit. His past was shrouded in mystery to both he, the X-Men and the reader. He had already had some adventures in Japan, and so by the time I reached the character, he had studied to become a samurai (not a ninja), and had a fallen-out romance with a woman of Japanese nobility.

Still, he was a gruff, stocky, hairy guy prone to drinking cases of beer, smoking cigars, and using what passed for profanity under the Comics Code Authority (he said "blazes" a lot, in place of "hell" or "damn"). He came across as Kitty Pryde's tough uncle, who was all bluster. For goodness sake, he occasionally hung out with Power Pack.

Wolverine had had a successful 4-issue mini-series in 1982, but never starred in his own title. He was a utility player that I think, wisely, Marvel knew was popular, but feared over exposure and the audience's realization that the character might not be much more than the word "Bub" and a set of claws.

At some point, the letters coming in and successful solo stories in Marvel Presents convinced Marvel that they should try a Wolverine solo-series. I wasn't convinced Wolverine needed a solo series. I preferred him as a member of the X-Men, but I think I started trying to pick up the series to go along with X-Men around issue 3 or 4 when I realized that Wolverine in his own series might just be the way of the world. Part of this (and this will stun younger readers) was that back then, if a character had a solo mini-series, they would actually demonstrate this in continuity by removing the character from their usual book for the duration. That's how seriously fans and the editors took continuity and would try not to put the same hero in two places at once. Ie: a successful Wolverine series should mean that Wolverine might not be in the X-Men anymore.

I didn't care for the series.

I don't know who was writing, but I'll guess it was Claremont. There was a lot of business about some stand-in island for Singapore called Madripoor, and a ridiculous secret ID for Wolverine in which he wore an eye-patch (like a pirate) and called himself "Patch".

Some character can take glomming on to certain parts of their past, and others... not so much. The Madripoor stuff opened the gate to pretty much any cockamamie notion anyone wanted to throw at Wolverine (who was ageless due to his "healing factor"), becoming a part of his background, whether it was a good idea or not.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, etc... and an increasing wave of acceptance of rougher material in comics, it became the comic language du jour to come up with a berserker character who was at least potentially deadly, and dub that character the "Wolverine of the group" for team books, in everything from X-Factor to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I don't know exactly when or why I quit reading Uncanny X-Men, but I threw in the towel on Wolverine's solo title almost immediately, years before I gave up on X-Men. And at some point, something about Wolverine as a "superhero" didn't really work for me. Under Morrison, the X-Men would abandon any premise of being a comic about "superheroes", but aside from that, I just wasn't too keen on a superhero (a) stabbed people as his primary function, and (b) killed lots and lots of people. None of that sounded much like a "hero" to me. Add in what became what continues as some serious over-exposure, and I mostly lost interest in Wolverine.

The casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine was an accident, originally. Dougray Scott went for the surefire hit of Mission Impossible: II, featuring John Woo as a director and Tom Cruise as a co-star, bowing out of this silly little superhero movie nobody would go see. I recall seeing the first pictures of this Jackman fellow and being confused.

He was tall, lanky, and handsome. The opposite of how I pictured the guy. Fortunately, both director Bryan Singer and Jackman were on the same page with the comic version in personality (he's gruff and rough around the edges, but he's got a noble warrior's heart). And I never complained.

Wolverine was already overshadowing the rest of the X-Men (my personal favorites as a kid were Colossus, Rogue and Cyclops, and Psylocke until they made her into a ninja). Today's Marvel comics have become so Wolvie-centric that, I am not making this up, this month Wolverine is on the cover of almost every Marvel comic, whether he appears in the comic or not. The character has a rabid fan base as deep and loyal as Spidey, Superman and Batman.

And I know virtually nothing about the character as he's been presented since about 1995. I did read the "Origin" limited series in 2001 or so, which is covered in its entirety by a sequence which occurs before the credits roll in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". It was written specifically so that the studios wouldn't just make up an origin without any input from Marvel, and it works well enough. But everything I've heard over the past ten years leads me to believe that Marvel really doesn't have a "good idea/ bad idea" policy for Wolverine's past, anyway, and that much of it seems to pop out of what I'd suggest sounds, from the outside, like bad fan-fiction (he now has a son named "Daken" or some such, who has tattoos and whatnot.).

I wasn't particularly enamored by the mini of "Origin", even if I felt the basic idea was solid. But since then, there have been numerous Wolverine origin series. And the movie is based on a lot of comics I never read and don't know much about.

The basic problem with "Wolverine" is that it feels a bit like a 90's action movie in that there's a lot of attention to superheroics, improbably stunts, etc... and absolutely no attention paid to whether the story makes sense. Unlike Transformers, which seemed to hold both the property of Transformers and the audience in disdain as not worth bothering to put together a respectable movie, Wolverine feels much more like everyone but Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber (as Victor Creed) are out of their depth, including screenwriters, director, 3D specialists and whomever had to cut the darn thing together.

It's a movie where several times the characters mournfully shout their anger to the sky, and the camera pulls back to an aerial shot (this shot should have been retired when Rainier Wolfcastle first shouted "Mendoooozzaaaaaa!) and dying people say things like "I'm so cold...". Especially in the last forty minutes or so, people seem to just be doing stuff because it moves the plot forward, not because it makes sense (why, on God's green Earth did gambit attack Sabretooth and Wolverine at that moment? and why didn't Wolverine pursue Sabretooth?).

Nothing about Stryker's plan makes any sense, aside from his end goal. The secret base in the Canadian Rockies from X2 and X3 is in the movie, but why its there, and why they use that, and what the hell Stryker bothers to imbue Wolverine's skeleton with adamantium doesn't, honestly, make much sense. Nor does the final explanation of Wolvie's memory loss. One gets the feeling all of this did make sense but... Wolverine was plagued with re-shoots.

While I am glad they didn't bother with the Madripoor stuff or try to tackle Wolverine's years in Japan, as that would have extended the movie (with five endings or so already) even further, the story they do tell is sort of... just not all that interesting. Oddly, like Watchmen, what seems far more interesting as a movie than what unfolds on screen is the stuff in the opening credits. Jason and I agreed that all THAT seemed far more interesting than the paint-by-numbers plot of the movie.

And, seriously, how many "women in refrigerators" does Logan have under his belt at this point?

The writers were aiming for fanboy acceptance, and try to cram 10 pounds of mutants into a five pound bag. Characters come and go, and its hard to care about any of them. Any thrill fans of the X-books might have been getting from seeing, say, Gambit flit briefly across the screen, was lost in the morass of 20 other mutants, many of whom I suspect debuted well after I quit the X-books.

The special FX are mostly OK. There are a few scenes in which, oddly, Wolverine's claws don't look quite right, which I found mind-boggling. How do you mess up solid metal in CG? But it just didn't look quite right. And, occasionally, when Sabretooth is hopping about, it looks a little wonky.

Nobody is all that bad in delivering the clunky lines they've got. Jackman, typically, throws himself into the Wolverine role, and there's no doubt that the replacement of Tyler Mane as Sabretooth (as seen in X-Men 1) was a very good idea.

The movie has some neat action sequences, but that's pretty much what you'd expect. If that's all you're looking for, you should do well, I suppose. But that's mostly what the movie hangs on rather than stuff like plot or character.

And, no, after 40 years of Wolverine in comics and the past few years of comic movies, I don't think fans of the material should lower their sites just because someone deigned to see fit to make a movie about their favorite character.

I'll be the first to say that Wolverine is taking 21st Century superheroics from the comic to the big screen. He's a character more fit for modern movie tastes than Superman or even Batman, in many ways. With any luck, a second Wolverine movie will take things up a notch and not be the narrative mess of this film.

But I'd probably still prefer just getting an X-Men movie over another installment in the solo missions of someone who is much more interesting as the wild-card on a team of straight arrows.