Sunday, June 15, 2014

DVD Review of Arrow the Pilot Episode

I've heard nothing but good about the television series Arrow (2012 - ) for quite some time, but I rarely watch shows while they are current, so I have been missing out. I was considering renting the DVDs of the first season when I saw a discounted box set of season one in the store yesterday. Throwing caution and my budget to the winds, I bought it. Last night I watched episode 1 of season 1: The Pilot.

Assuming Stephen Amell, who plays Oliver Queen/Arrow, does his own stunts, I'm impressed. The episode starts out like a shot with this mad figure scrambling quickly over rough terrain, running up seemingly impossible angles, and then shooting an arrow an incredible distance down to the beach of an island to explosively ignite a wood pyre, signaling his rescuers.

The mystery begins from the very start of the show. Who is this guy? How did he get on the island? What happened to him there?

The story of Oliver Queen of five years ago is told in flashbacks, with just enough information to tell the audience this is no simple "stranded" story. There are actually multiple mysteries. Who is Oliver's father and why, after their yacht exploded in the South China Sea, was he willing to do anything, including commit murder and then suicide, to insure Oliver's survival? Why does Robert Queen (Jamey Sheridan) tell Oliver the truth only at the end, and expect his son to right all of Queen's wrongs in Starling (not "Star") City? How did he know that Oliver would not only survive, but that his spoiled, playboy son would take on the mission set before him as well as acquire the drive and the skills to do so?

As Oliver's doctor told his mother Moira (Susana Thompson), he may not be the same son she knew five years before. That's something of an understatement.

The original comic book story was very simple fare by comparison. Millionaire playboy Oliver Queen is shipwrecked on an island for some years and, in order to survive, he taught himself archery. After he is rescued, for no particular reason, Oliver takes on a ward, Roy Harper, creates identities for them as Green Arrow and Speedy, and recreates all of Batman's gimmicks and gadgets (Arrow Cave, Arrow Car, Arrow branded everything) redone in an archery motif, and then fights crime with a bunch of tricked out arrows.

Of course, this was back in the day when comic books were written primarily for children. The 1970s saw Ollie evolve after losing his fortune (Roy grew up, moved away, and became a heroin addict) into an angry maverick with a hyper-developed drive to help the underdog and massive distrust of the establishment. But that was then.

Green Arrow, prior to this series, was most recently featured in a live action show in the landmark television series Smallville, but Justin Hartley's emerald archer was no where near as dark as how he is played by Amell. He was still darker than the world's ultimate boy scout Clark Kent (Tom Welling), but in order to keep Smallville at a certain level of "goodness," Hartley's version of "Arrow" could only fall so far.

Not so this Arrow who commits cold-blooded murder because "No one can know my secret." I only know this person from one episode of the show, but I would guess that his secret isn't just that he plans to fight crime while wearing a green hood and shooting arrows.

In fact, with few exceptions, Queen's arrows have no gimmicks and they do what arrows are supposed to do: put holes in things and people, including fatal holes.

Oliver's family is just as mysterious and troubled as he is. His mother was remarried (presumably they had Robert Queen declared legally dead since there was no definitive proof -- that is "a body" -- he was deceased) to Walter Steele (Colin Salmon, formerly "Charles" in the Pierce Brosnan "James Bond" films), his teenage sister Thea ("Speedy") is into drugs, and his best friend and "wingman" Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell) has been spending time in the sheets with his ex-girlfriend Laurel Dinah Lance (Katie Cassidy).

But while re-connecting to his former life is heavily on Oliver's mind, the greater weight in contained in a small notebook of names, the first one on the list (actually, it's in the middle of the list) is Adam Hunt (Brian Markinson).

Oliver isn't after the common thug in the street. He's pursuing men formerly associated with his father, men who all had a hand in the ruin of Starling City, men who Oliver will make (literally) pay, and he'll do anything to succeed...anything.

Oliver's baptism of fire is a kidnap attempt by a group of thugs wearing skull masks. They seem to know more about Oliver than the audience does. Did Tommy wake up in time to see his best friend take these guys out with ridiculous ease or was he telling the truth when he later said he was still too drugged to see more than a blurred movement?

Five years ago, Oliver was on the yacht having an affair with Sara Lance, Laurel's sister. Laurel isn't the only one who blames Oliver for her death. The detective in charge of investigating Oliver's and Tommy's kidnapping is their father Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne). Starling City must be a small town for people to cross-connect so closely.

Oliver came back from that island with not only enhanced survival skills, but the ability to speak Russian. Also, he's not only scarred and burned (which didn't happen in the yacht sinking) but tattooed front and back. He couldn't have tattooed his back by himself, so he wasn't alone on that island for those five years.

By threat and brute force, "Arrow" (his alter ego isn't given a name in the pilot) extorts $40 million from Hunt but leaves him alive. His brand of justice or revenge doesn't demand death but it does demand a lot of money, which is funneled into the bank accounts of (presumably) Hunt's victims.

After the kidnapping attempt, "Mommy Dearest" assigns a bodyguard to Oliver, an ex-military type named John Diggle (David Ramsey). How is Oliver going to sneak out at night with his own personal shadow tagging along? You can only grab and knock out a guy so many times before he starts to get suspicious.

The pilot episode is full of surprises, particularly how Oliver's mother was the one who arranged for him to be kidnapped in the first place.

Nothing is as simple as it seems. What was Robert Queen, Oliver, Sara, and four other people doing aboard a yacht in the South China Sea? Did the yacht sink because it was caught in a storm or did something more sinister happen? The last we see of Sara, she's falling into the water and disappears. Robert, Oliver, and one other person survive the initial sinking. Did Sara really die or will we see her again?

It almost seems as if Oliver's destiny to become "Arrow" and to avenge the wrongs done in Starling City was set in motion even before the yacht sank. Is there a master player or organization manipulating events behind the scenes?

Laurel Lance is named after the comic book character Black Canary. Does she have a future as a superhero? Oliver called his sister "Speedy" which is the comic book identity of Green Arrow's teenage sidekick. Would this show create a brother-sister crime fighting team? Who is Tommy? There are indications he's not just the happy-go-lucky pal he seems to be on the surface. What does his relationship with Laurel mean? Why would Sara betray her sister by sleeping with her sister's boyfriend?

The pilot episode of Arrow creates a good balance of mystery and action right from the beginning. It's as if Oliver, in trying to rediscover his life in Starling City is also rediscovering himself. We have seen only a tiny fraction of what happened after the yacht sank five years ago and Oliver was inexorably swept to the island which would become his home, prison, training ground, and I suspect so much more. What else will the series reveal about the secret of Oliver Queen and the person who will be known as "Arrow"? I'll post my impressions as I continue to review the first season of this series.

DVD Review: Non-Stop

The film was released to theatres last February and is now on DVD. I'm putting in plenty of spoilers so if you've not seen this film and you want to be surprised, don't read any further.

Liam Neeson must be basing his career on playing failed fathers who are law enforcement or ex-law enforcement officers. In the 2008 film Taken (which I didn't review here), he also played a "fallen cop" who was on the outs with his daughter but who, though the action of the film, managed to redeem himself. In Non Stop (2014), Neeson plays Bill Marks, an ex-NYPD officer fired after falling into despondency over the cancer death of his eight-year old daughter nearly ten years before. He's somehow managed to become a U.S. Air Marshall who's not doing so well as evidenced by his drinking and smoking habits.

Just another routine flight to London but of course, it doesn't stay that way.

Boarding the plane, he meets a little girl named Becca (Quinn McColgan) who is traveling alone to visit her father (no mention of her mother or other circumstances are given), which is the set up for Mark's redemption during the climax of the film.

The other most notable player is Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), the woman with a fetish for the window seat and who has something of a mysterious past.

Once airborne, Marks receives a text message from someone claiming to be one of the passengers. He (she?) wants $150 million transferred into an account or the texter will kill a person on board every twenty minutes.

Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), the other Air Marshall on the flight, thinks it's a hoax but Marks wants to notify the flight crew.

In an ironic twist, at the end of twenty minutes, Marks is the one who carries out the killing by defending himself when Hammond pulls a gun on Marks. That pushed credibility over the edge since the hijacker/terrorist had to have been able to manipulate both men with amazing precision. What if Marks had simply knocked Hammond unconscious? What if Hammond had shot Marks? No, the movie wouldn't continue with Hammond as the Marshall trying to stop the terrorist, Marks was the target all along. The account the money was supposed to be transferred into is in Marks' name.

Marks starts pulling together people he thinks he can trust (but can he?) in an effort to find who on board is texting him.

I wrote off the Arab/Muslim doctor early on as too obvious and discounted one of the terrorists (that's right, another twist, there's more than one) when Marks actually accused him of being in on the plot and taped his hands together (Marks carries a small roll of duct tape on him so he can cover the smoke detector in the plane's bathroom and have a quiet cigarette).

Next, the pilot dies by apparent poisoning leaving only the co-pilot to fly the aircraft (no engineer on board like in other "air disaster" movies).

In another twenty minutes, someone else is going to die and Marks' life and reputation unravels with each passing minute. Finally, no one trusts him except Jen, not his bosses at TSA, not the co-pilot, and not the passengers, who eventually see a news feed accusing Marks of hijacking the plane.

In the middle of all this, Marks discovers, thanks to the hijacker's texting, that Hammond was smuggling a large amount of cocaine in his brief case (Marshalls can just walk through security, no questions asked). He also finds a bomb. Apparently the hijackers never intended to leave the plane alive and it was never about the money...or so Marks believes.

Marks becomes (apparently) more unstable, announcing he's the Air Marshall on board, even after the co-pilot, under orders from TSA, takes Marks' badge and gun (Marks takes Hammond's credentials and gun shortly afterward), searching the passengers and reviewing their texts, including an off-duty NYPD officer. Unbeknownst to Marks, another passenger (not a hijacker) has been taking videos of Marks' actions and sending them back home, and they end up on the news, fueling the belief that Marks himself is hijacking the aircraft.

The co-pilot is ordered to make an emergency landing in Iceland and is escorted by two fighter jets. Marks is attacked and overcome by a number of the passengers who fear that Marks is going to kill them all by crashing the aircraft in a "9/11" type of terrorist attack.

By telling the passengers about the bomb and finally confessing his various failings as cop, father, and human being, he restores his credibility enough to regain some trust.

The video clips taken of him, once Marks finds out about them, give him the clues he needs to find out who one of the terrorists are but he neglects the other until it's too late.

Marks has placed the bomb at the rear of the aircraft and told the co-pilot to descend to 8000 feet to give the plane and passengers the maximum possibility of survival when it goes off (unlike other, similar films, no one on board can disarm the bomb). The fighter escort refuse to allow the descent into civilian airspace, but with only minutes left until the explosion, the co-pilot risks being shot out of the sky and sends the plane into a nose dive.

Speaking of 9/11 (major spoiler here), the two men who are hijacking the plane are ex-military who want to give America a lesson in how TSA anti-terrorist activities are a joke and there is no security. For one of them, it was also about surviving by parachuting (apparently, though I never saw any chutes) from the plane and collecting the money which was transferred into the designated account.

However the other terrorist is a martyr and plans for no survivors. For him, it was never about the money. It was about sending a message.

All hell breaks loose as the plane dives, the bomb explodes, and a gunfight takes place between Marks and the two hijackers.

Marks, of course, is the only one of the three who live through the shooting, but as the plane attempts to land, it starts falling apart in mid-air. A section next to Becca breaks off and Marks and Jen struggle to keep her from being pulled from the aircraft.

As expected they succeed in saving Becca from death, which redeems Marks since this is one little girl he can save. The plane lands more or less in one piece, the fighters never get the order to shoot the plane down (almost a moot point since it nearly crashes anyway), and Marks is publicly vindicated of hijacking and is announced to be the hero.

Nice action film with some interesting twists (I didn't specifically reveal the identities of the hijackers so you'll have to see the movie for that piece). I'm sure real pilots and Air Marshalls, as well as anyone familiar with networking, watching this film picked it apart over the various technical errors. However, if you put those to one side, it's a very watchable film. The ending is more or less predictable, but enough mystery, tension, and action is present to hold the audience's attention for the 106 minutes of running time.

The major plot hole I spotted was the level of information the two hijackers possessed on both Air Marshalls. I'm sure it wasn't hard to figure out Marks' past and his obvious alcohol abuse, but how the heck did they know about Hammond and his cocaine unless Hammond was in on it? That's the only explanation since the bomb was hidden in the cocaine, but Hammond was set up to be the first death on board. The film could have been about fifteen minutes longer so it could have the time to explain why any of this was happening and what would prompt Hammond and the two terrorist to commit such heinous crimes, fleshing out the characterization a bit more.

I don't think it was worth the amount of money I'd have had to spend to see this film in the theatre, but it was a good DVD selection.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

DVD Review: Thor: The Dark World

Since this film as been out for awhile, even on DVD, I'll liberally sprinkle in spoilers. You have been warned.

First off, Thor: The Dark World (2013) was infinitely better than the original movie Thor (2011), which was just about a total waste of film and time. I know some sort of Thor movie had to be made so this character could be included in The Avengers (2012), but translating the comic book "God of Thunder" into a live action film was always going to be a challenge. Of all the founding members of the Avengers, Thor was most likely to be voted "Should have stayed inside his own comic book."

Somehow, within the context of the Avengers, he isn't so bad, but all by himself in the otherworldly Asgardian realm, he seems ridiculous, and he even appears more silly on Earth among mortals, at least in the original movie.

I think "Dark World" took the right tack this time. It seemed a bit more "Lord of the Rings-ish," which has always played well on both the small and big screen. When you pull a total disconnect from "the real world" and keep Thor (Chris Hemsworth) a larger than life "god" in a sweeping saga of ancient legends and fables, he's more or less "OK" to take in. The tricky part is to toggle back and forth between the fantasy and reality worlds. In this case (as opposed to the previous films), that wasn't so bad either, and it had to be made to work this time, because Thor, in order to be an Avenger, must be perceived as a child of both worlds.

I'm still having trouble seeing Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) as an astrophysicist and somehow, even with her Star Wars background, she is out of place in the Thor films. I did kind of like how Thor took her to Asgard, hearkening back to the Silver Age comic book Thor when he took Jane to Asgard and asked Odin to make her an immortal (Journey into Mystery vol. 1, #125, February 1966). Also, it was inevitable that Jane and Sif should meet and Sif must be asking herself, "What does this little mortal twit have that I don't have?"

Unpaid interns having unpaid interns of their own. Comedy relief. Cute. One wonders how they live.

Erik Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) gone mad and prancing around Stonehenge naked. I guess having a "god" in your brain would do that to a fellow.

Loki (the always impressive Tom Hiddleston) in prison, pondering his fate or just plain being bored. Maybe waiting for his chance to escape (for after all, being long lived if not immortal must make one patient). Who loves Loki and is he capable of love in return? A mother's love, especially an adoptive mother, is iron clad, and Frigga (Rene Russo) is the only one to harbor affection for the villainous Loki in her heart. Fathers, once disappointed by sons, tend to hold them at arm's length and to mask love with anger as did Odin (Anthony Hopkins), yet though Odin would be within his rights, he did not totally banish Loki nor did he have him killed.

I liked the "lunch scene" between Thor and Heimdall (Idris Elba) but my understanding is that Heimdall must always stand guard at the Rainbow Bridge. He doesn't get vacations or even coffee breaks. Who's watching out for Asgard's safety?

Not that Heimdall was much help. I didn't think anything escaped his vision, but the Dark Elves had magic (technology) that defeated even him.

During "the great escape" Thor once again proved Loki is the brainier of the two brothers by far, but then Hemsworth portrays Thor as courageous, noble, heroic, but not particularly bright. I guess when you have guys like Tony Stark and Bruce Banner as part of the Avengers, you have to counterbalance all of those "smarts" with "big and dumb" (and the Hulk can't have all the fun in that department).

The battle scenes reminded me of any action film. Lots of shooting and explosions but it's shooting and explosions that would have been just at home in any movie, even one that was more real-to-life action and non-fantasy. It was actually kind of jarring. Hand-to-hand, swords, hammers, yes. Machine guns and cannons, no.

Loki's seeming betrayal (and it was believable because of who Loki is) and then reversal and then double-cross at the very end was well handled, and the Thor movies would be barely enjoyable without Hiddleston's "Prince of Mischief" gracing their frames. The ploy to get Thor to renounce his claim to the Throne of Asgard for the love of Jane Foster was smooth if not brilliant, and I didn't see Loki replacing Odin in illusion coming at all. This begs the question of what happened to Odin, and now that Frigga is dead (giving her life to heroically defend Jane Foster...hot damn!), who's to see through the mask of "Odin" to find the face of Loki beneath?

Not Thor who's too busy making out with Jane in London and waiting for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) to be filmed.

I watch the Thor movies for two reasons: because they're part of the overall continuity of the Marvel Avengers universe, and the various (two in this film) after end of credits scenes speak of other films to come, as did Sif and company meeting with The Collector as a set up for the movie Guardians of the Galaxy (August 2014).

I suppose I'm not a fan of Thor in film for the same reason I never got into reading Thor in the comic books. He just seems too odd. He doesn't really "do it" for me as a standalone character. Like I said, he's OK in the Avengers where he doesn't have to be the center of attention, at least for very long, but all by himself, carrying a full length motion picture (or long lasting comic book series), he's not for me.

I'm glad I watched Thor: The Dark World but I wouldn't pay to watch it again, nor would I add it to my film collection. It was good, basic entertainment and it completed my view of the Marvel Universe related to the Avengers, but now that I've seen it and filled in the knowledge gaps, it's time to move on.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

DVD Review: The Expendables 2

I wrote my original DVD Review of the first The Expendables (2010) film on the eve of the theatrical release of The Expendables 2 (2012). Obviously, the second film has been available on DVD for quite some time and The Expendables 3 won't be released in the theaters until next August. The opportunity to rent The Expendables 2 at my local public library presented itself and so I took advantage of it, hoping I wouldn't regret my decision.

Actually, I almost passed up this DVD. I've avoided similar opportunities in the past simply because I wasn't all that enthralled with the first film. I figured, like most sequels, that the second film would be a downgraded version of the first with lots of violence and gore, but little else, capitalizing on what its targeted fan-base loves most.

I wasn't wrong, but that's why I think this movie is better than its predecessor. It doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

The first film was trying to find a soul for itself, something beyond the sheer gratuitous violence that is characterized in most of its frames. It almost succeeded but that "almost" painfully accentuated that what was attempted had ultimately failed. In this sequel, Stallone stuck to what works for this franchise. Don't deal too much with the characters as human beings or try to examine their histories or motives. Just stick to the mission and watch the body count climb.

There's one exception of course, "Billy the Kid" (Liam Hemsworth) a young ex-Army sniper who joined the team because of the promise of quick and abundant cash which he needed to marry his French girlfriend. He was given a sympathetic back story and a likable personality because his brutal death at the hands of the main bad guy Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), is what motivates most of the action in the film.

If you've already seen this movie (and I'll tell you even if you haven't), you know after the opening sequence where the team rescues a Chinese millionaire as well as Barney Ross's (Sylvester Stallone) mercenary rival Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzennegger) in Nepal, CIA Agent Church (Bruce Willis) "convinces" Ross to undertake what was supposed to be a "milk run" mission in Albania to retrieve a piece of undescribed tech from an downed aircraft. Church sends along agent Maggie Chan (Yu Nan) as the expert who will retrieve the tech for return to the CIA.

Ross, as always, is unhappy with having a female involved, probably because of his history of getting all the women around him killed due to his violent occupation, but he acts more hurt than angry. It's always interesting watching Stallone attempt to act as if his characters have a "sensitive side." It's usually the part in his films where I want to scream, "Just kill somebody, already!"

One flight to Albania later, the tech is retrieved but Billy's captured by Vilain and his gang of mercs. The Expendables have no choice but to hand over the computer (more on that in a minute) to save Billy's life. Here, Vilain establishes himself as a villain by killing Billy anyway and then he and his gang of thugs quickly escape in a helicopter (too bad Trench wasn't there to yell, "To the choppah!"

Maggie belatedly reveals to Ross that the device Vilain has reveals the location of five tons of refined plutonium hidden by the former Soviet Union. The Expendables manage to follow the signal of the device but only get so far on their own.

Ambushed after spending the night in an abandoned Soviet military base across the border in Bulgaria, the third "special guest" after Schwarzenegger and Willis appears. Ross's mysterious friend Booker (Chuck Norris) appears out of nowhere to annihilate the gang attacking the Expendables, including their tank, in just a matter of seconds. Then, after a few cute quips, this "Lone Wolf" disappears again, but not before giving Ross and company the location of a village of allies to help them find and stop Vilain's gang known as "the Sangs."

The Sangs have been raiding the village to use all of the men and boys as slave labor to dig up the plutonium. The Expendables make quick and violent work of the Sangs who again raid the village for more slaves, and then find Vilain and the rest of his crew at the cave, just in time for the bad guys to all escape with the plutonium and to trap the Expendables and the former slaves in a cave-in triggered by explosions.

You find out a few things about Gunner Jensen and the actor who plays him, Dolph Lundgren. To quote Wikipedia:
Volatile member of the team, undone by years of combat stress and alcohol abuse. Lundgren's personal history (including his chemical engineering degree) were incorporated into the character's story by Stallone.
Jensen tries to make a bomb to free the Expendables but predictably, it's a dud. Fortunately, Trench and Church arrive with a digging machine at this point in the story, and the gang chase the Sangs to a local airport. Joined again by Booker, there's an all out battle where the Sangs are wiped out, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) is given the honor of dispatching Hector (Scott Adkins), Vilain's right-hand man who you learn to hate almost as much as Vilain, and Ross goes up against Vilain himself mano-a-mano to get revenge for Billy's death (and who cares about stopping an international terrorist from getting out of the country with five tons of weapons-grade plutonium?).

The film is watchable, surprisingly so since it's also really predictable. It's fun because of the appearances by Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris, each mugging for the camera and saying each other's "tag lines" from their other movies. Besides the kick ass violence, it's why anyone would watch this film. It's like one long gag or series of punch lines. If you like a lot of blood, gunfire, and explosions, this is your kind of entertainment.

The Expendables franchise is also sort of a "good guy Stallone" project which I have to admire:
Sylvester Stallone explained that his casting was looking particularly for actors who had not experienced recent hits: "I like using people that had a moment and then maybe have fallen on some hard times and give them another shot. I like those kinds of guys. Someone did it for me and I like to see if I can do it for them." -from imdb.com
Ross tries to be the best "good guy" as leader of the Expendables, given the fact that the team is made up primarily of dysfunctional mercs who would never be able to live "normal lives" like most of their movie audience. Stallone is the mirror image in terms of being a "good guy" by opening opportunities to actors who otherwise might not have the ability to advance or even sustain their careers.

Don't look for too much reality in this movie or any others like it. Watching the huge battle at the airport, I caught myself wondering where airport security, the police, or even the Army were hiding. In real life, a major gun battle between a team of mercs and terrorists with a cargo of plutonium hanging in the balance would have gotten someone's attention. At least the passengers and other civilians in the terminal had the good sense to run rather than just stand there and get shot down.

Norris's character appears, disappears, and reappears like a ghost. He has no back story, there is no explanation for his presence, and his ability to take on and defeat impossible odds is very much in line with what has become known as Chuck Norris facts.

At the beginning of the film when the Expendables rescue Trench, it is presumed that Trench was there in a failed attempt to rescue the Chinese hostage. Trench even mentions that his own team were hanging back, but when the Expendables, Trench, and the hostage all escape in a rain of bombs and bullets, we see no evidence that any of Trench's force is around or ever had been.

At one point in the film, Maggie tries to get close to Ross, and this is Ross's cue to explain why he keeps women at a distance. It's an attempt to introduce some of Ross's humanity into the narrative (and I guess you can only blow up so much stuff in an 103 minute film) but the scene just fills space until the next battle begins. As I said, the movie works precisely because it has no soul or depth. It's just what you want and expect: action and gags.

Near the beginning of the film, Yin Yang (Jet Li) has to bail out of Ross's plane with the former hostage to return him to his home (Li had a scheduling conflict and could only be present for the filming of the opening sequence). At one point, he and Jensen trade barbs and Yang says that if Jensen misses him, he can find some other minority to torment. Apparently, this doesn't translate into Chinese women, because later in the movie, Jensen clumsily attempts to flirt with Maggie (unless you count that as torment, too).

At the climax of the film, Ross confronts Vilain to get his revenge for Billy's death. Vilain is unarmed except for the huge and ugly knife he previously took from Ross. Ross has firearms, but he lets Vilain's "fight like men or sheep" speech get to him. In real life, tossing your guns aside to fight a homicidal maniac hand to hand as a matter of pride is dumb. Even though this is good guy (anti-hero) vs. bad guy, there's no guarantee that you are going to win. If Ross wanted to humiliate Vilain as well as kill him, he could have just said "Bullshit" to the "men or sheep" business, and started out by blowing off both of Vilain's kneecaps. Then, until you run low on ammo, keep shooting this jerk in various non-lethal areas of the body to maximize pain and then, when done, put one between his eyes to make sure he'll never come back for the third film.

Sadly, in attacking the cave, Ross chooses to sacrifice his Grumman HU-16 Albatross. Such a beautiful and classic aircraft. It was probably the thing I liked the most in the first two films. To make up for being such a shmuck during most of the film, Church gives Ross a replacement: an Antonov An-2 biplane. Not as classic to be sure, but I'm interested to see how it'll figure into the third movie. Yeah, I'll probably watch it...but not until it comes out on DVD...cheap.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Update: 2013

I can't believe I haven't written here since last August.

Well, yes I can. I've been busy in other areas of my life, so the "Missing Man," by necessity, had to stay missing, apart from twitter.

I had wanted to write a DVD review of Skyfall (2012) but then time passed and I didn't have the film in the forefront of my thoughts to be able to write a credible article. I've seen The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) again, but what would I say about these films that I haven't said before. The same is true of my recent viewing of Man of Steel (2013).

On the other hand, I've avoided viewing Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 (both 2013) on DVD because although they were entertaining films, I didn't feel like spending even a little of my cold, hard cash on reviewing lukewarm experiences.

On recommendation of a friend, I did watch and thoroughly enjoy Red (2010). It was a fun romp with a bunch of aging badasses and on that theme, a better viewing than The Expendables (2010). Not enough new, young action heroes so we have to keep recycling the old ones.

And then, just the other night, I watched Taken (2008) for the first time. The young woman at the rental place said she watched it with her Dad all the time as the "perfect father-daughter movie." All I knew was the famous line parodied in all the memes:
Brian: I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
And kill them he does. I don't know about the "perfect father-daughter movie," but it was a watchable action film. Bunch of plot holes such as how he and his daughter make it out of France without being arrested since Brian kills something like 35 people through the course of the film. Or what about his daughter's traveling companion? After Brian finds her dead of an overdose, that's the end of it. No one cares about her. No one worries about telling her parents she won't be coming home. Who takes care of the body count?

I'm finally in the 10th season of my Smallville (2001-2011) reviewing. I have to say that at this point, I'm getting ready for it to end again. On the other hand, I find that I've gotten very used to Clark and Lois together, now that Clark's secret is out. But the story arcs are uneven, Ollie's whining about Chloe is getting on my nerves, and I just don't buy that Tess, who has murdered more than a few people in cold blood, just gets a pass and is now one of the good guys.

I'm considering watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) tonight (never seen it before) even though I have to get up early tomorrow. I watched Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) last night because it was the shorter of the two films and I was tired. Not bad on the subsequent viewing, but I kept thinking how much Angelina Jolie looks like her Dad Jon Voight when she makes certain facial expressions.

I did have a lot of fun watching the first two seasons of Batman Beyond (1999-2001) as well as the first season of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). They were more a trip down nostalgia lane, but Kevin Conroy still is the voice of Bruce Wayne and Batman. In a way, I like Conroy's old Bruce in "Batman Beyond" better. He's more vulnerable since he's an old man, but his emotions are much less transparent, which makes him more like Batman than ever psychologically.

That's about it for now. Just a few weeks left until 2014 and a whole new year of films to look forward to, though I'll watch only a small number on the big screen.

Friday, August 2, 2013

DVD Review: Marvel Knights, Astonishing X-Men

From Joss Whedon, the Mastermind Behind the Acclaimed TV Series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and Award-Winning Artist John Cassaday Comes the Ultimate Story of Mutant Survival!
 
When Dr. Kavita Rao develops a controversial mutant cure, Professor Charles Xavier's X-Men, the aggressive Wolverine, conflicted Beast and newly returned Kitty Pryde, led by Cyclops and Emma Frost, once again find themselves battling against science, prejudice and a mysterious new foe named Ord! Can the X-Men protect the mutants of the world against this powerful new alien menace and the concoction that threatens to rid them of their unique abilities?
 
With smart storytelling, incredible action, startling revelations and the reemergence of old friends, this Will Eisner Award winner for Best Continuing Series will have you on the edge of your seat like never before with truly astonishing animated motion co-directed by artist John Cassaday and the legendary Neal Adams himself! 
 
Editorial Review for Astonishing X-Men - Gifted (Marvel Knights) (2009)
 
Sometimes your local public library can have some interesting videos. Last week, I discovered mine had the Astonishing X-Men Gifted, Dangerous, and Torn motion comics (at least, that's what they're called. The videos are taken from the graphic novels of the same name. Having never read the graphic novels, I can only assume the story lines are the same or markedly similar.

However, I had to read up on the Marvel Knights imprint to find out that these stories were taking place in one of a collection of Marvel Universes (comic books are becoming way to complicated, in my opinion).

In brief, this trio of videos forms an entire, unbroken sequence of stories starting with Kitty Pryde's (Sprite, Shadowcat) return to Charles Xavier's school as an adult after an absence of some time. Although Cyclops (Scott Summers) is currently running the school and is the leader of the X-Men, the story is largely Kitty's story. She's the heroine on more than one occasion and the person who seems to be seeing with the clearest eyes.

Jean Grey (Marvel Girl, Phoenix, Dark Phoenix) is dead and the Professor is on a sabbatical at some initially unknown location. The other X-Men are Hank McCoy (the furry blue version of the Beast), Logan (the recently returned Wolverine), Emma Frost (the White Queen) and eventually Peter Rasputin (Colossus). Since the audience is thrust into the sequence of events mid-stream, we pick up details as the action moves along.

The videos seem geared to an older audience, as evidenced most clearly by the sexual scenes involving Scott and Emma. Nothing pornographic, but you see them in bed together in fairly little clothing and leaving almost nothing to the imagination. Also, at one point, Wolverine starts swearing. No, you don't hear the words, but you hear a lot of bleeping, during one sequence for about ten seconds solid, so you know he's unhappy.

The X-Men are apparently trying to recover as a team both in terms of public image and motivation at the beginning of the story. The school is like how Xavier's school is treated in the live action X-Men film series with the X-Men being the core team and the school's instructors but with a large number of young mutant students who play supporting roles in both the film series and this motion comic series.

The series ties directly into the larger world of Marvel characters with a cameo appearance by the Fantastic Four and an ongoing presence by SHIELD.

There are a number of subplots including the aftermath of a genocidal event which claimed the life of Kitty's father among millions of others, and which seems to have involved both the Sentinels and the X-Men. This is where the Professor has chosen to go, leaving the X-Men behind (he never rejoins them at the Mansion during the three-disc series.

The story arc that crosses all three discs is the prediction that one X-Man will be responsible for the destruction of an alien world. Someone from that world was sent to Earth to kill all the X-Men, since it's unsure which one will be "the destroyer of worlds." SHIELD is charged with stopping the alien but also finding the "guilty" X-Men, and it's unsure if one rogue agent and her team may not try to take the X-Men out themselves to prevent an interstellar war.

Within this context, other subplots occur, including the Danger Room becoming sentient and reforming itself as a feminized, humanized robot and trying to destroy the X-Men (and all of the students) by exploiting their weaknesses which "Danger" (the humanoid version of the Danger Room) knows all too well.

Emma Frost is something of an "X" factor within the team since she originally was a member of the Hellfire Club. It's revealed at the end of "Dangerous" that she is still in league with her former partners for some insidious purpose, but she's conflicted (of course) because she really does love Scott (even though she takes away his powers and reduces him to a drooling idiot in "Torn."

The stories are all reasonably compelling and the "acting" isn't bad. Each disc is made up of about six "chapters" running around fifteen minutes each (sometimes it seems that the opening and ending credits of each chapter go longer than the actual story). The animation seems choppy and especially in the opening sequence, the X-Men move more like robots than people, but I think that's an effect of this series being "motion comics" as opposed to straight up animation.

In addition to how the school and students are presented, other similarities to the films include a cure for mutation, the death of Jean Grey, and sinister Government forces threatening to destroy the X-Men. SHIELD even has a mole inside the school (I won't give the identity away and its only revealed late in "Torn".
 
Oh, one more similarity is that Scott is pretty much a stooge and an ineffectual jerk in both the films and the motion comic series. He's a tad more heroic in these videos, but not by much. Emma even confronts him about how Xavier only made Scott the leader because he felt sorry for Scott. Scott doesn't deny it.

Apparently Jean's death breaks him completely and he never emerges as the hero and leader he was (though still admittedly conflicted) in the original comic book incarnation.

The series is definitely watchable but if there is a back story that explains what's going on and what lead up to this sequence of events, I don't know about it (which is no surprise because I don't really keep up on the comic book universes...who has the time or the disposable income?). I was disappointed when I saw that "Torn" ends on a cliff hanger. We discover who the "destroyer" is and that destruction of the alien world is coming soon, but with the launch into space of a SHIELD spaceship trying to head off the disaster, that's all she wrote...literally.

Both the graphic novel set and the series of videos include only "Gifted," "Dangerous," and "Torn" without any subsequent products, so either the story was continued in some older series which was eventually collected as graphic novels, or (hopefully) the cliffhanger will be resolved at some future date.

The creation date for the videos runs 2009-2012, so they're recent. My interest and curiosity is piqued. I want to see what happens next. I think you will, too.