Tuesday, December 25, 2012

DVD Review: Smallville Season 1, The Pilot

Somebody, save me. No, not really. I was in the public library the other day looking at the DVDs and saw that the Smallville season 1 collection was available. That's kind of unusual. Almost none of the Smallville DVDs are on the shelves for very long and in fact, season 1 was the only season of Smallville there. On a whim, and because I have only seen each season once, I decided to check out the first season of Smallville from the library. Figured it would be entertaining holiday fare, since I took a few days off for Christmas.

I remember the first time I saw the pilot episode. I had no idea what to expect. Well, scratch that. I had an idea of what to expect. I was just wrong. For one thing, I didn't expect a meteor shower of kryptonite. I didn't expect Lana's parents to be blown to bits. And who the heck is Aunt Nell?

I thought casting John Schneider and Annette O'Toole as Jonathan and Martha Kent was brilliant but unexpected (a young Ma and Pa Kent). I didn't realize just how much of a divergent trajectory Smallville would take from previous Superman canon. Actually, I wouldn't realize that for quite some time and eventually, it would get to be a real problem, but in the pilot episode, it worked out well.

Smallville has always been an uneven series. Some episodes just rocked while others were total dogs. So far, I'm about halfway through the first season and some of them are just ridiculous. It's amazing how kryptonite gives individual "meteor freaks" abilities that go so well with their personalities and personal problems (a fat girl who suddenly loses weight but has to eat a ton of fat to keep from starving?).

In the pilot, Clark already has powers but they're not fully developed. This was a real boon, since the audience can experience Clark's evolution toward becoming Superman along with him, which is the point of the series. He's fast, he's strong, he's durable, but that's about all he's got in the pilot. Oh, and he's very charming in a shy sort of way. Having achieved his abilities slowly and having been raised by parents who are caring and strong, Clark has been given the perfect platform for not abusing what he's got while at the same time, struggling to be popular in high school like any other 15 year old boy (I had some trouble picturing Welling and a number of the other "students" as that young, though).

Nobody knows what kryptonite is. They do know about meteor rock, but only Chloe suspects that the stuff has anything to do with the weirdness that's been happening in and around Smallville for the past twelve years or so. Meteor freaks would be the main catalyst in the first season, providing Clark with most of the foes he would battle. Most of them aren't bad people, just human beings whose bodies have been involuntarily changed and mutated by radiation exposure. The annoying thing about these freaks though is how they just disappear after Clark beats them. Sure, some die, but others are just (supposedly) taken away by the authorities. I think that's explained in subsequent seasons, but never entirely to my satisfaction.

These are super-powered metahumans, many who know that Clark is "special" himself. No one ever tells the cops, "Oh, by the way, the kid who stopped me has a punch like a crashing jet plane and can move about as fast?"

Lex Luthor.

More than any other character in the pilot and first season, he stands out as the somewhat dangerous but loyal big brother Clark never had. While driven by his own conflicts with his father Lionel (wonderfully played by John Glover), Lex is positively affected, not just by having Clark save his life, but by who Clark is. For most of Lex's life, he's been influenced by people who were primarily interested in power and manipulating others. Clark, super powers or no, is a truly transparent (except for his secrets), authentic human being (well, he looks human) who doesn't want anything from Lex except just to be friends.

Lex does everything he can do to help Clark and his family, though his methods definitely come from the "dark side" of being a Luthor, his intentions at this point are good. Lex's behavior shows us that he loves his friends (and as far as we know, Clark is his only friend) and hates his enemies. He's a great guy to have in your corner, but never, ever cross him or he'll find a way to get you.

Chloe Sullivan.

I hadn't realized just how annoying she was in the beginning. She's bitchy, and cranky, and sarcastic, and geez, would somebody shut her up. Quick to judge, slow to forgive, opinionated, and kind of full of herself. In some ways, she's like Lex in that she doesn't care who she hurts to get what she wants, which in her case, is the next "wall of weird" story. Unlike Lex, she's not calculating about it and in fact, she is rather careless, pursuing the goal without seeing the consequences. She matures as the show continues, but as I recall, by the series ending, she was still a little cold-hearted and goal driven.

In the beginning, she's a bright but unpopular person. Her hair always looks like a small explosion has scattered it at odd angles. She's the ugly duckling who is jealous of Clark's attention to Lana's beautiful swan. At one point in the first season, she calls the school paper her identity and in another episode, she refers to her laptop as her life. At age 15, Chloe is only as good and as interesting as what she writes about, which is probably why she goes after the unusual stories, rather than sticking to typical school activities. She's a proto-Lois Lane and is displaced by Lois in season four and afterward, which is why she has to develop other skill sets to stay interesting as a character. But in season 1, the writers of Smallville seemed to think Clark needed to play off of a Lois-type character from the very beginning.

Lana Lang.

Cute. Not as superficial as she seems for a cheerleader. Like most kids, she's trying to find out who she is and where she's going, which is another big point of the first season, since that's Clark's quest in spades. Having her parents die in the meteor shower when she was three mirrors Clark's own mystery, not having known his birth parents at all or even what planet they were from. Lana at least has Nell to fill in the blanks, along with pictures, diaries, and other documentation. Clark has a spaceship that, as of the middle of the first season, he's seen only once (as the series progresses, we get to see tons and tons of Kryptonian stuff and people and it finally gets rather oppressive how much we learn about a planet that blew up a long time ago). And of course, Lana has to wear that pesky little kryptonite necklace which disappears at odd times allowing her and Clark to actually have a conversation while standing closer than five feet apart. By the middle of season 1, Clark is weaning her from wearing it, which makes developing a friendship that includes more than phone calls and email easier to film.

Whitney Fordman.

He's not as big a pain as I remember him. Most of the time, he's actually a nice guy, for a jock with limited internal resources. He's authentically devoted to Lana, insecure enough to be jealous of Clark, worried about his future, and struggling with his father's heart disease (something Clark will have to deal with in his own Dad as time goes on). He's actually an OK guy and I can see why Lana likes him. On the other hand, Lana is smart enough to outgrow Whitney in a few years which is why it's a good thing he's eventually killed off. Oh, and that makes room for Clark to move in and hook up with her...until Lois shows up by season four.

Pete Ross.

Every guy needs a buddy and Pete is Clark's. Besides Lana and Clark's parents, Pete is one of the few people that comes from the silver age comic books. Of course, back in the 1960s, Pete is tall and blond and white...kind of like how Whitney looks. Of course, this is the early 21st century and in real life, even Smallville has a diverse population. I also didn't realize how well actor Sam Jones III was built. We expect the occasional beefcake shot of Clark in the boys locker room, but I noted Pete looking really buff himself.

Truth be told, Pete is really Chloe's buddy more than Clark's. In the pilot, Pete and Chloe bet whether or not Clark makes it to the bus stop in time to get his ride to school, and again whether or not Clark will stumble and act like a buffoon when he gets anywhere near Lana. Chloe and Pete are most often the two people you see actually working on stories for the Torch (Smallville High's school paper) and just as friends, they go to the homecoming dance together (neither being popular enough to score their own dates). Pete joins the football team to increase his popularity, which is natural, but you never get an impression that he's there to do much more than back up Clark and Chloe.


The whole "shipper" emphasis of Smallville wasn't in full swing in season 1 since the audience is still trying to figure out who people are supposed to be. We do see the beginnings, though. Whitney and Lana are dating, but Clark is totally pining for Lana. Somewhere inside, Lana realizes this but it doesn't come to fruition this early in the game. Lex, for his part, sees all this and repeatedly tries to set up situations where Clark and Lana are together. Chloe has a "thing" for Clark, but it's not so overpowering that she doesn't have interests in another guy (such as womanizing student Sean Kelvin, played by Michael Coristine in the episode Cool). Eventually, this will develop into a "shipper" issue of Clark/Lana vs. Clark/Chloe, but we aren't there yet.

And thankfully, that's all of the "shipper" drama we get to see in season 1. At this point, there's still a strong teenage angst thread running through the series, which I'm sure is present to satisfy the demands of its target audience, but for me, Smallville season 1 is mainly about watching Clark discover who he is as the future "Man of Steel."


I particularly like the pilot episode of Smallville and a number of developments in Clark as a person and a "superhero" in season 1. It's "good clean fun," so to speak. I'm even thinking of getting season 2 after I'm done with this set of disks.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

DVD Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I suppose it was OK. The odd thing about The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is that I neither really liked it or disliked it.

OK, I liked it. The film was watchable and entertaining. I enjoyed it and would watch it again, but it wasn't "amazing" or "spectacular" or anything like that. It was just another superhero movie. It had its good points and its flaws.

Warning! Warning! Major spoilers ahead. If you're like me and waited for this film to come out in DVD before watching it (and you haven't watched it yet), I will give away a ton of secrets in my review. You have been warned.

I like that there was a mystery. So many superheroes get their powers by accident and I guess Peter did in this film too, but not quite by accident. In a way, his father created him.

When Peter Parker is four-years old, his parents suffer a home break-in. Someone specifically was looking for something in his Dad's office. Fortunately, Richard Parker hid the really secret stuff in a false bottom of his desk drawer (a trick older than Stan Lee, but the thieves still didn't tumble to it). Pawning little Peter off on his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Richard and Mary Parker disappear into the night, never to be seen again. Later, Peter learns they died in a plane crash, but no one ever talks about it.

Richard Parker's work had something to do with cross-species genetics...and spiders.

It's interesting that teenage Peter Parker was interested in photography before becoming Spider-Man. In the original, silver age version, he started taking news photos as a way to support himself and Aunt May after his uncle's death. I found it particularly confusing though, when Peter webbed his camera to a wall to take shots of Spider-Man's battle with the Lizard, that the film had never established why he did it in the first place. In this movie, he is never shown to have a relationship with the Daily Bugle or making plans to sell his photos to them or anyone else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job playing the geeky, socially awkward (to put it mildly) teenage Peter Parker. Of course, the audience has to get past the fact that all of the actors depicting high school students are really twenty-somethings, but we should be used to that by now. In fact, Garfield's Parker is so awkward, I found it amazing that the beautiful and quite articulate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) ever found him attractive in the first place. Sure, Peter had just heroically tried to save some kid from being bullied by "Flash" Thompson (Chris Zylka) and gotten pounded into the pavement for his troubles, but that should have just made him look like a loser to most high school girls.

In some ways, I was more interested in Garfield's Parker than in his Spider-Man. It was very easy to see how Peter, abandoned by his parents over a decade before, was an alienated, malcontented, loner sitting on a lot of rage. He wasn't the "nice kid" that Parker was originally created to be by Lee and Ditko 50 years ago. Yeah, Garfield's Parker will stand up for the underdog, but that's because he is the underdog, not because he's intrinsically a nice guy. After all, at various points in the film, he blows off both his aunt and uncle, humiliates Flash Thompson just because he can, and even ends up on the school principle's "bad boy" list (although performing community service isn't such a "bad boy").

So you take all of that and give it "spider powers." What happens?

Oh, but wait. The mystery.

A water leak in the Parker home's basement leads Peter to discover his father's old briefcase that had been left to gather dust in some forgotten corner. Infinitely curious and desperate to know more about what happened to his parents, he examines the filthy old thing and, perhaps remembering the false bottom of his Dad's desk drawer, discovers a hidden pocket with a "secret formula." He also discovers a photo of Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his Dad's former lab partner at Oscorp, and he aims himself in that direction to try and learn more.

By amazing coincidence, the day Peter goes to visit Connors at Oscorp, Connors is supposed to be lecturing new interns who are being taken on a tour of the place by (another amazing coincidence) head intern Gwen Stacy. Peter takes another kid's pass to get in (getting that kid subsequently thrown out) and gets his first look at Connors...and impressing Connors with his knowledge of cross-species genetics. It's the first time that the audience sees Peter has a brain built for science. It's never mentioned before this, and Peter might just have been another angry high school kid for the first thirty minutes of the film.

Speaking of amazing coincidences, Peter just happens to run into (literally) Norman Osborne's top henchman Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) and sees that the folder Ratha is carrying contains the same "secret formula" symbols that Pete found in his Dad's briefcase.

Even though Peter has a stolen intern pass and has left the rest of the intern tour, no one seems to question him as he follows Ratha through the corridors of a private corporate building with lots of trade secrets and watches him manipulate a touch pad to open a door to some secret room. Two guys come out and go with Ratha but for whatever reason, Peter decides to stop following Ratha and to get into that room.

I must say that it was lousy security that let Peter gain access. No smartcard, retina scan, or voice recognition software was required to open the door, just a series of finger movements across the pad, which Peter saw briefly and remembered. And what was in that room? Just a bunch of spiders on webs inside some sort of machine. Naturally, Peter decides to touch and spiders fall all over him. He manages to get out of the room again without setting off any alarms but takes an eight-legged hitchhiker with him, which manages to "put the bite" on Peter's neck right before Gwen catches him and kicks him out of the building.

I should mention at this point that Connors later tells Peter that no animal subject of cross-species genetic experiments has survived, yet, once bitten, Peter seems to do OK. (Should I mention that Peter actually gives Connors the secret of his father's formula at their first one-on-one meeting, making the Lizard possible?) But then, Connors also tells Peter that it was his father's breakthrough with the spiders over ten years ago, that enabled the project to survive. Maybe that's why there was a special room with spiders. They were the only ones who could pass on their genetic traits to another species without killing that species. But why were Richard Parker's spiders (or more likely their descendants) still around at Oscorp and if they were such a breakthrough (even if Parker Sr. took all his research with him when he disappeared ... apart from one briefcase), why in over a decade, were no experiments done with those spiders that would have ultimately created another Spider-Man?

The spiders were there for Peter to get spider powers, then that was that. Bad writing.

The film spends a lot of time showing us how Peter develops his powers. He doesn't immediately decide to become a hero or an entertainer or anything else. The fact that he gained new abilities is cool and a terrific clue as to what his father and Connors were up to, but he didn't decide to do anything with them at all (except mercilessly tease Flash Thompson and shatter a basketball backboard) until his Uncle Ben is killed.

And yes, Peter could have stopped the killer and no he didn't and yes, it pisses him off.

But he doesn't become a hero yet, he just becomes a guy looking for revenge. Ironically, he never finds it. He busts a bunch of guys who kind of look like the murderer, but he never finds the actually guy. Maybe the shooter blows town after he blows away Uncle Ben, but we never find out.

In the process of refining his vigilante role, Peter first develops a crude mask and finally the entire costume. Smart as he is, he can't actually create a "spider web formula" as in the original comics, but he "borrows" some from Oscorp after becoming chummy with Curt Connors.

Which brings up the question of what happens when Peter runs out of his supply? The only place he can get more is Oscorp. Once Connors is put away at the end of the film, his only other way in is his girlfriend. Sure, he invents the shooters, but he has no ability to independently create more webbing.

It's little details like this that kind of bugged me (yeah, that's a bad pun).

Peter finally becomes a hero, not while fighting a bad guy, but by rescuing a bunch of people who the Lizard endangers by throwing their cars off a bridge. Peter's webbing is strong enough to suspend the cards from the bridge, but he only rescues one kid from one car. I have no idea how the kid got stuck in the car when his Dad made it out just fine. I have no idea why Peter didn't rescue anyone else from any of the other cars (and if they were all empty, why did he stop them from falling into the water in the first place?).

But in saving the little kid and seeing the father's gratitude, he gives himself a name and a more noble purpose.

Gwen's father Police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) was a jerk for most of the film but he was supposed to be. Peter's dinner with the Stacy family was a total disaster, but what teenage boy hasn't been humiliated by his girlfriend's father at one point or another. It was kind of cool to see the face of "Diego" (Ice Age films), though.

And how the heck doesn't Aunt May know Peter is Spider-Man? Her first clue is right after she and Peter watch Captain Stacy issue a warrant for Spider-Man's arrest during a TV press conference, Peter storms out of the house. May looks at him like, "what they heck is that all about." Later, when Peter comes home all banged up after his last battle with the Lizard, she looks at him, doesn't ask why he looks like he went ten rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson, and just hugs him. I tell you, that woman was smart enough to put it all together. She has to know.

By the way, I really liked Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben, especially when he's teasing Peter in front of Gwen and calls himself Peter's probation officer. Everyone needs an uncle like that. I was also pleased that Sally Field's Aunt May wasn't constantly at death's door. In the Lee/Ditko version (and later), May always has one foot in the grave and the other on ice-coated Teflon. At least this Aunt May is a fighter (although I get the impression she's a lousy cook).

Another thing I liked was that Flash wasn't just a two-dimensional bully. After Uncle Ben dies (and everyone at school knows), Flash tries to make amends. Sure, Peter picks him up and slams him against some lockers, but everyone, including Flash, understands why Peter's so angry and hurt. Just a nice little bit of realism.

Another nice bit of realism was Gwen confessing to Peter how afraid she was growing up, watching her Dad leave for work as a police officer each day, and wondering if he'd ever come home that night. How could she stand being with Peter if he insisted on being Spider-Man and going after the Lizard?

This is a nice echo (though the filmmakers probably didn't intend it as such) to Betty Brant, Peter's first girlfriend in the Lee/Ditko comics. They eventually break up because Peter's job as a freelance crime photographer (Betty never finds out Peter is Spider-Man) is so dangerous. Her brother was also some sort of thrill seeker and was ultimately killed because of it (actually, he was in deep with some thugs and couldn't pay them back the money he took and they killed him). Peter finally left Betty because he knew she'd leave him if she ever found out what he really did every night.

Why did Peter put "Property of Peter Parker" on his camera? Who does that? It was a lame way for the Lizard to find out Spider-Man's secret identity.

Connors survives the film, saves Peter's life in the end (after killing George Stacy) and goes to jail. I'd love to see his defense attorney's strategy. Technically, Connors was under the influence of a mind and body altering substance when he committed his crimes, so can the court really convict Curt Connors for what he did when he was the Lizard? Well, probably, since Connors injected himself with that stuff in an attempt to regain his lost arm. If a junkie shoots up and is high when he kills someone, he's still libel for the murder after he stops being high.

Promises you can't keep are the best kind. OK, it would have been a lousy promise to try and keep, and I don't really remember Peter agreeing to stay away from Gwen as her dying father's last request, but Peter just plain blew off the seriousness of a father's genuine love for his daughter and desire to protect her.

Lots of little interesting developments. Stuff for the future. Supposedly Ratha was pressuring Connors to begin human trails on cross-species genetics because Norman Osborne (owner of Oscorp and usually the Green Goblin) is dying...but we get no details on what's killing him and how the Connors experiments are supposed to help.

Does Peter ever go after the guy who killed his uncle again?

If Aunt May knows Peter is Spider-Man, what will she do about?

It's strongly implied that the plane crash that killed Peter's parents was no accident and that it was arranged because Richard Parker refused to start human trails on his formula. Connors is alive at the end of the film and has this knowledge, but will he ever tell Peter? If Peter finds out, what will he do, go after Norman Osborne? If Osborne wanted the secret of Parker's cross-species formula, why kill him? Why not kidnap his wife and son and hold them hostage (or some other equally evil plot) and force Parker to give up the formula?

And if Osborne wants human trials to begin now because he's dying, was he dying ten years ago when Parker also refused to perform human experiments, or was there another reason (like lots and lots of money)?

I understand that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is in pre-production and scheduled for release sometime in 2014.

Maybe we'll find out some answers then, and get a look at Mary Jane Watson...and maybe Electro.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: V for Vendetta

I've never seen the film V for Vendetta (2005) starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving (though I should get around to it one of these days) but I just finished Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's graphic novel (originally a ten-issue comic book series) and thought, given the wide use of the Guy Fawkes mask by "hacktavist" group Anonymous and some protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement (which is worn in both the comic book and film versions of the story by the main character), that it was high time to look at the source material for these modern, real-life responses to what we think of as oppression in our world.

The original comic book series was developed and published in 1985 by writer Alan Moore, a self-proclaimed anarchist, and artist David Lloyd. Essentially it is one in a long series of dystopian dramas set in the near future (the late 1990s in the comic book series), this time in England. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the developed nations of the world but left England untouched, at least directly. In response to the war, a totalitarian government has come to power, styled after the Nazis, and has seized total control of the country. Much like Orwell's 1984, omnipresent government surveillance observes the public, while a propaganda campaign continually feeds the citizens the usual "the government is on your side" messages, underscored by threats for thinking otherwise. Headed by "the Leader" who uses organizations called "Nose," "Ear," and "Mouth" as detection and communication conduits, and an information system called "Fate," every aspect of an individual's life is monitored and controlled.

Anyone belonging to virtually any group one might consider oppressed, including people of color and the LGBT community, has long since been rounded up, put in camps, and ultimately eliminated. It is out of one of these camps that the anti-hero known simply as "V" has emerged. It eventually comes out that V is a brilliant but mentally disturbed person who was "created" in one of the camps; a victim of chemical and psychological experimentation (sort of a fusion between Batman and the Joker). Over a period of years, almost everyone associated with his camp (which has since been destroyed) has been eliminated. Finally, V in full mask and regalia, "goes public" with the rescue of a 15 year old girl from government police who were about to rape and murder her. As his sometimes unwilling protege, Evey descends into V's shadowy world, learning all but his greatest secrets and even unwittingly, trying to counterbalance his darkness with her drive toward the light.

The story is complex and even a little confusing at parts and I won't attempt to recount the plot in any sort of detail. At first, it seems as if V is attempting to murder those last few who could possibly identify him from the camp, but once they are gone it becomes clear that he has a much greater agenda; to disassemble all organized government control of the populace and to throw England into a state of chaos and finally anarchy. Obviously this is something of a reflection of Moore's philosophy (hopefully exaggerated given the level of violence employed by V), sort of an anti-version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (fortunately Moore isn't nearly as long-winded and boring as Rand).

Through a long series of twists and turns, V goes increasingly higher up the governmental chain of power, destroying the video and audio spy devices, empowering the population (through threat of mass murder) to take back control of their lives and holding them responsible for voting their oppressors into office and then following their orders (interestingly enough, a very libertarian perspective, speaking of Ayn Rand), with the final goal of completely destroying the governmental infrastructure, leaving only human beings to pick up the pieces.

V's tactics against not just his enemies, but the people he's supposedly freeing are equally as brutal. I was constantly reminded of just how dangerous and insane V was, and how at any moment, Evey could be his next victim. At one point, he abandons her on the street and only after she re-establishes herself with another protector (only to watch him be murdered), does V enter her life again...without her knowledge. Believing she has been imprisoned by the police for attempting to kill the man who murdered her lover, V tortures Evey in an apparent attempt to get her to betray...V. She endures it all and continues to refuse to "confess," even when she believes she will be killed. Finally, V reveals himself and tells her that he has been putting her through these trials to free her from the "prison" of her mind (I was reminded of the Matrix (1999) and how the mind creates illusion, prison, and freedom inside the machine).

But Evey has a very special purpose and there is a sort of logic to V's madness. He knows he is the destroyer, but that's only one-half of the task at hand. Once government has been reduced to ashes and rubble (literally), someone has to assume the mantle of V and rebuild (again, reminiscent of the end of Rand's novel). V (the original) allows himself to be morally wounded but remains alive long enough to give Evey her final instructions. He dies but the reader is only allowed to see different versions of how Evey imagines removing his mask. Only Evey knows for sure that V is dead. His true face is never revealed.

Then, in donning the Guy Fawkes mask and appearing as "V" to the public, do we realize that everyone has the capacity to be a "V" in some fashion. In Evey's case, it was as the rebuilder, the one who gives a future to a fragmented humanity. I suppose this is why people in the world today sometimes wear "the mask" during protests, to represent the opposition of oppressive organization and the power of the people to fight back.

I don't know if Moore meant to suggest anarchism as a sustainable social movement or if this was all allegory to (once again) expose the dangers of totalitarianism and particularly politically and socially conservative totalitarianism. In any event, after every revolution, when every oppressor has been killed or exiled, whoever is leading the revolution becomes the next dictator. Maybe that's why V had to have a more benign successor. V himself, given the lakes of blood in which his hands were soaked, would certainly have been no kinder to England than the government he obliterated.

Was it worth my time to read? Relative to the impact V for Vendetta continues to have on modern protest movements (maybe just the Guy Fawkes mask at this point), yes. However as social commentary, this story has been told, before and since, about a million different times in a million different ways. It didn't seem like anything new. Dystopian stories are like street cars. There'll be another one along in five minutes.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

I loved Brad Bird's work on The Incredibles (2004). But I hated what he did to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Yes, I actually purchased the DVD because I heard this film was so good and planned to write what I thought would be a glowing DVD review. Boy, was I surprised.

The beginning of the film was confusing, but that's not a problem because it's OK to start out with a mystery and have it reveal itself as the story progresses. I was surprised to see Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) in the field at the very beginning of the action. I had envisioned this "inside man" being forced outside with Hunt's (Tom Cruise) IMF team after some dire emergency resulted in all of the IMFs being disavowed. That particular surprise was not a pleasant one.

No, I like Simon Pegg's work a lot but let's face it, he's a comedian. He's supposed to be funny. He was used for comic relief, but he was too comic. His quips, babbling, and fubars would have gotten Hunt and the rest of the rogue IMF group killed if all this was a real-life op. In fact, when Dunn was distracted while guarding assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), he very nearly did get himself, Carter (Paula Patton) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) killed. I would have been fine with Dunn having an active role throughout the film if Bird would have directed him to be just a little more competent (Dunn did redeem himself by saving Brandt's life late in the film, however).

But that wasn't the only problem.

At first, I couldn't put my finger on it. I knew there was something wrong with the film, but I didn't know what. It had all of the right elements, but I just wasn't as engaged with the action as I should have been. My first clue was the pay phone Hunt used after he was rescued from prison. He's in the middle of Moscow and there just happens to be a pay phone that, when you punch in the right code, turns into an IMF mission assigning device. Don't Russians ever service pay phones? If that was a permanent device, sooner or later, some telephone repair guy was going to come along and find out that the U.S. had at least one secret dispensing machine in Moscow. Of course, it did "self destruct," but only after Hunt had to bang on it like an old radio with a bad connection.

What finally clued me in was the fake freight train car. OK, you've just escaped from Russian security after they think you've blown up the Kremlin. The "Secretary" (Tom Wilkinson in an uncredited role, who I recognized as "Carmine Falcone" from Batman Begins, 2005) has just been murdered and you're on the run with a know-nothing (or so you think) analyst, trying to find some resources that the Secretary said (right before dying) that he would "overlook" so you could "re-avow" yourself after the President has disavowed all IMF teams everywhere.

So the U.S. Government just happens to put a secret, high-tech train car in the middle of a Russian train yard, hooked up to a Russian freight train, and it just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Doesn't anyone inspect trains in Russia? Isn't there some kind of inventory of how many cars a train is supposed to be transporting, what they look like, what they are supposed to contain? This one just happens to get overlooked all of the time?

That was bad enough, but the retina scanner was an insane security addition, as evidenced by how difficult it was to use in order to get in the car while the train was moving.
That's when I figured it out. I was watching a cartoon!

It's OK for The Incredibles to have ridiculous people, devices, and circumstances and still be suspenseful and exciting because it is a cartoon, but Mission: Impossible, although it does have its improbable elements, is supposed to be a tad more realistic and even gritty.

I kept thinking back to the original Mission: Impossible (1996) film. It was gritty, and bloody, and action packed without being ridiculous. It had its little "comedy" moments to lighten the mood, but they didn't distract from what was going on and I never got the impression (well, almost never) that any key member of the IMF team didn't know what he or she was doing.

Oh, and I didn't care that Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway) got killed. I know it really broke up Agent Carter, but there was no time for any character development of Hanaway, so the audience (including me) had no time to become attached to him in any way, shape, or form. There was also so little development of Moreau, that I didn't really find her all that interesting, let alone dangerous. She didn't creep me out the way she should have. And even though there was a little bit of development of the "bad guy," Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nygvist), I didn't really hate him. I mean in Mission: Impossible III (2006), I really hated Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and would have put a bullet in him myself if I had the chance (the character, not the actor). But I just didn't care what happened to Hendricks. It didn't matter to me whether he lived or died.

I have to say, I liked the character of William Brandt early on in the film. It was nice to see Jeremy Renner play someone not superbly confident, super-skilled, and totally bad ass. However, all that (most of it) was a cover for an agent who thought he'd blown his mission to protect Hunt's wife. He was just pretending not to be super-skilled and bad ass (he was still not confident, but that will no doubt change). I also read that Brandt's role was specifically included so that the character would be available at whatever point Cruise decides to leave the Mission: Impossible franchise. As crummy as I thought Ghost Protocol was, Hunt is the IMF in the franchise. Not sure how Brandt (or Renner) is going to carry it or if I even care (now that Renner is associated not only with the MI franchise, but "Bourne" and "The Avengers" as well, he seems to be the "flavor of the month," so I guess he's not crying about all the attention).

Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). I love the character and the actor, but what's the deal with the cameo? I mean, what's the point? You could have filmed the entire scene without him and it would have worked. There was no reason whatsoever to include him except that you could.

And Hunt's wife is alive, the ultimate "Mission: Impossible" ending, the ultimate illusion, the ultimate result of misdirection, but I didn't care about that, either. By the end of the film, I was tired and disappointed. Please don't make anymore Mission: Impossible films, Hollywood. I'm done with making movies out of old TV shows. Try something new for a change. Please?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight Descends. The Dark Knight Trilogy is over.

No, it wasn't the best of the three films by far and indeed, it may have been the worst. That's not to say that it was "bad," just that it didn't amaze and enthrall me like the first two films.

Batman Begins (2005) amazed me just because I've always been disappointed with all of the live-action Batman films prior to this one. Up until "Begins," I thought the best screen version of Batman was the WB animated series from the 1990s. After seeing Bale's Batman, the animated series (still quite good) seemed like just a cartoon.

"Batman Begins" showed everyone that superheroes could be "adult fiction" and reminded us all that Batman was supposed to be "dark".

The Dark Knight (2008) totally blew away "Begins." Part of it was the more realistic cityscapes. Chicago was used instead of a fictionalized Gotham and I absolutely loved the Hong Kong sequence. Nolan totally expanded Batman's universe from his first film and the Dark Knight became infinitely more "real." Of course, Heath Ledger's "Joker" completely stole the show, making his performance and this film a legend in fantasy film making.

That's quite a build up to "Rises" and there's always the danger that when you fly so high, there's a big fall is coming.

I wouldn't say "Rises" crashed and burned, but it had really big boots to fill after "TDK" and it didn't fill those boots.

I was worried that in trying to include Catwoman, Bane, Talia al Ghul and (briefly) Ras al Ghul, the film would suffer from too many villains and not enough development. That really wasn't the problem here and except for how Ras was handled, I thought the balance between all of the main "bad guys" was handled fairly well. It was just that all of the little puzzle pieces didn't quite fit together.

In TDK, all of the story elements, the characters, every little detail, fit hand and glove. Everything was in place. Nothing was wasted. The film was very "organized." That's not another way of saying "predictable" or "boring" but "efficient" and "seamless". I didn't spend any time analyzing the film while watching it, I just watched and enjoyed.

Not so with "TDKR".

All of the jumping around from place to place to place, and from flashback to flashback to flashback was distracting, distracting, distracting. I think I managed to keep up, but it was an effort and watching a story shouldn't be about trying to figure out what the filmmaker is saying, but allowing the narrative to flow over you like a dream.

The film is watchable. It's good. It just could have been better and maybe even a little shorter.

Stuff I liked (warning: Spoilers): 

Anne Hathaway nailed it as Catwoman/Selina Kyle. Smart, agile, sexy, edgy, and even just a bit vulnerable.

Marion Cotillard played Talia al Ghul after all. Good. She needed to be part of the trilogy, though I'm sorry she and Bruce couldn't have forged more of a history before the end.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake. He's the obvious heir apparent to the "Mantle of the Bat" and even if I hadn't read other accounts of the film before finally seeing it, this would have been obvious from the start. I think we all knew that Batman wasn't going to survive the end of this film, but the hope of a "Dark Knight" type character had to be kept alive. There is no Gotham City with out a protector in black.

The Bane/Talia connection. I more or less liked this because I didn't see it coming. I also didn't like it because the explanation of Bane, Talia, Ras, League of Shadows, and why Gotham was brought to the edge of total destruction was not only rushed and forced, but it didn't really make a terrific amount of sense.
And yet, the weirdness of this "love affair" between two cold-blooded killers abruptly made them both less than monsters and almost human.

Bruce's secret isn't invulnerable. Blake figures it out just by seeing Bruce's face and knowing there's a Batman. Of course it was also because Blake's history parallels Bruce's, so one lost, hurt, and angry child recognizes another. Bane also figures it out which is terrifying. It's one thing that Blake knows because the guy just oozes "trust me" and "I'm a good guy," but Bane! It's a horrible thing when your worst enemy knows your every secret, turns you into a cripple, and then tosses you into the pit of hell.

Stuff I didn't like: 

Ras al Ghul was a hallucination that lasted a couple of minutes tops. So what?

It is true that Bruce's initial return as Batman was supposed to be a failure. Alfred even pointed out that he wasn't actually Batman anymore, just Bruce in a costume. Bane proved this by beating Batman to a pulp and breaking his back (which was demanded because that's what Bane is supposed to do to Bruce). But it's like I didn't believe it. The tragedy of Batman's defeat would have been much greater if he had regained more of his "Batman-ness"; if we could have believed he had a chance against Bane before being destroyed by him.

Heck, the theme of the film is even hope before disaster. There was no hope when Batman first faced Bane. We all knew he didn't have a chance.

Fusion reactor can be turned into a bomb. Yawn. OK, convenient plot device (literally) so Bane could have access to an atomic bomb without having to sneak it in, but first of all, to me, nuclear fusion reactors were just too fantastic for this movie and there was no build up...just Wayne blowing half his fortune to build one, then mothballing it because it maybe could be turned into a bomb (like nuclear fusion wouldn't be dangerous enough anyway). It was just too odd. It didn't fit.

Hardly anyone seemed like themselves. Bruce, Alfred, Fox, Gordon all seemed like they were sleepwalking through their roles. All of the personality, the humor, the "themness" of these characters was missing. It was as if they couldn't wait to finish filming their scenes so they could go off and do something else. The heart of the Batman films was just plain missing.

Robin. Oh for Chrissake, Robin? Blake's "real" name had to be Robin? Yuk.

Change "Blake" to "Drake" and you already have a Robin connection without having to be obvious or dumb.

Occupy Wall Street on steroids was another obvious element that was shoved down the audience's throat. What would happen if the "occupy" movement turned violent? Get all the 1%ers, try them, and kill them. Kill the police or otherwise get rid of them. Return the "power to the people." Really? If it actually worked out the way the film predicts, then we have some idea of why every revolution ends with the radicals becoming "the man."

Bruce has a medical exam before returning as Batman the first time. His body is shot. Given the description of his injuries, there's no way in hell he could have come back as the Dark Knight, especially after his back injury. No amount of "prison workouts" fixes no cartilage in the knees, elbows, and shoulders. Replacement surgery fixes that but he'd still never be Batman again. A Lazarus Pit fixes that too, but I'll get to that in a minute.

I sort of loved and hated the "happy ending." I guess I always wanted Bruce to survive because it creates the vain hope that if "Robin" or "Nightwing" or whoever really needs a hand, Batman would be there to back him up. I also like a happy ending just because the part of me that believes in justice thinks good guys should win in the end and "live happily ever after". On the other hand, it was also kind of sappy and given the knowledge of Alfred's annual vacation plan we are given earlier in the film, we all knew it was going to happen.

Stuff I wished for: 

Ras al Ghul really coming back. Given the plot and direction of the story, the film would have become quite a bit more complicated had Ras shown up alive, but competing with his daughter and the man he hated more than Bruce for control of the League of Shadows would have been an incredible showdown.

The Lazarus Pit. Part of me thought that Bane would actually kill Batman, that it would happen further into the film, and that a lovesick Talia (yeah, the film would have to be a lot different) would take Bruce's body to a Lazarus Pit to resurrect him. It would have been absolutely cool. The movie would have to be completely rewritten but it would have been totally awesome!

I could go on and on about the film. It's a flawed work of art. I'll be bitching for weeks about it. I'm sorry it ended this way. But for better or for worse. it ended. The ride is over.

Nolan used TKDR to try and pull together all of the perceived "loose threads" created in the first two films but particularly in "Begins." He tried too hard.

But if DC plans to make a Justice League film, the Dark Knight must not rise again, but be reinvented. What will he be like then?

Monday, August 13, 2012

DVD Review: The Expendables

I suppose with the theatrical release of The Expendables 2 just days away, it's about time I got around to seeing the original Expendables film (2010). I had always wanted to see it and heard that it was a good action film, but just never got around to it.

I rented the DVD without doing any sort of research on the film. I didn't talk to anyone about it and whatever "buzz" had been going on two years ago about this movie, didn't stick in my memory so I really had no idea what to expect.

I was disappointed. Yes, of course there was a lot of action. Lots and lots of shooting, explosions, throats being cut, dropping F-bombs, but somehow it just lacked something. I don't know what exactly.

Maybe a direction beyond an extremely high body count.

The film starts out right in the thick of things with Ross's (Stallone) team of mercenaries setting out to rescue some hostages from Somali pirates. The character Gunnar Jensen (played by Dolph Lundgren) is established as a dangerous rogue (even for a member of a team of hyper-violent mercs) right from the start, so I expected bad things from him and he certainly delivered.

The film seemed like standard action fare at this point, but the problem happened when the movie dared to develop some actual characterization for Ross's number two man Lee Christmas (played by Jason Statham). There wasn't any. After the film's first mission, Christmas (yeah, the ridiculous names for many of the characters was a distraction, too) rides off to find his girlfriend, who he hasn't seen in over a month, and he's shocked...shocked to find she's with another man. He avoids beating her or the other guy up (on this occasion) and rides off, wounded but proud. But I found I really didn't care. It was a cosmic "so what."

I know it's tough to pull off character development in an ensemble piece because you've got a lot of people to cover, plus you have to actually insert some action in the movie, but in this case, why bother? Of course, Statham's strength never was actually the ability to act as much as it is to create (or simulate) mayhem. This problem trickled down to the other principle actors.

I stopped looking for real acting ability from Stallone a long time ago, though many of his action films are watchable and even fun, but it seemed like it was impossible to make a real emotional connection with anyone associated with the Expendables...

...except Tool (played by Mickey Rourke). Stallone gave Rourke the job of defining the film's purpose and (literally) soul. There's a sequence (sadly not quoted at IMDB.com) where Tool is recounting to Ross a mission they were on many years before. At one point during the op, Tool says he was watching a woman on a bridge. They made eye contact and Tool knows that she's going to commit suicide. His response was to turn and walk the other way leaving her to die. Tool says that if he had saved her instead of walking off, not only would he have saved her life, but he'd have saved his soul. This is the only real emotion and sense of poignancy the film managed to convey and it only lasted about five minutes.

Beyond being the best acted scene in the entire film, you don't actually realize that it is the scene of the film until the climax, when Ross is rescuing the film's female lead Sandra (played by Giselle Itié) from the villain Munroe (played by Eric Roberts). At the point where Munroe either escapes with his hostage Sandra or dies, he screams at Ross that they're both alike, that they both have dead souls (supposedly a requirement for being a long-term merc or a drug dealing ex-CIA scumbag). Munroe is subsequently blown away and stabbed simultaneously, Sandra is saved, and Ross establishes for the audience that his soul remains intact.

But it was a stupid conversation and in real life, it never would have happened. Munroe wouldn't have given a damn about anyone's soul and even if he did, it was a dumb time to wax philosophical. I know that it was important for the film to actually say this stuff and it's how we can apply Tool's lament to Ross, but I just didn't "feel it." Sorry, Sly. Frankly, I think it was the worst part of the film...the attempt to say something more than "I'm a mindless action film...have fun." Stallone tried to imbue his movie with something beyond blowing up buildings and turning people into chunky salsa and failed. More than anything, that's why I was disappointed with The Expendables. Stallone took the one good scene in in the whole film and wasted it.

The cameos. This film marked the first time movie tough guys Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in the same film and in the same scene (although Willis and Schwarzenegger never appeared in the same frame). Yeah, it was bitchin' just to see them together, but it was an obvious set up for the sequel, since Schwarzenegger's character Trench wasn't necessary for the scene.

After Gunner (Lundgren) tries to kill Yin Yang (Jet Li, and would they please get rid of these stupid code names) in a really nasty way and is shot by Ross for his troubles, I was disappointed to see Gunner alive and with the gang at the end of the film. OK, keep him alive for the sequel as an antagonist or as the lost soul who redeems himself by heroically saving the team before he dies, but don't just reinsert him into the group after he betrayed them and tried to kill one of their own.

This is definitely one film I'm glad I didn't spend money on to see in the theatre. I'm convinced more than ever that I won't see The Expendables 2 until it's released to DVD and then I might wait a couple of years before I get around to viewing it. Yeah, I like a good action film and the action parts were really good if mindless mayhem, murder, and torture (at one point Sandra is "waterboarded" by Toll Road, played by Randy Couture), but in spite of Stallone's best intentions, The Expendables just didn't have a soul.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Save Me, Supergirl!

Please, please, please save me!!!

Sorry. Just saw the image and had to say that. Thanks.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Rising of the Knight in Everyone

I really wanted to find an image of Batman being the living crap out of someone. I really wanted to give my rage and heartache a representative graphic illustrating the 12 people killed and over 50 people hurt by a gunman at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado last night.

But I couldn't find something that captured my "imagination."

Instead, I found what you see posted at the top of this blog post. Maybe it's more fitting. Yeah, in "real life," Batman (if he existed in real life), would pound the bastard that shot up the movie audience into something that looks like chunky salsa, but afterward, rage would turn to grief. After all, it was the death of two innocent people, his parents, who were shot by a criminal, that created the Dark Knight in the first place. Every time some hood or madman guns down people just because they're there, it diminishes all of us. It creates, temporarily for most people, a collective drive toward justice, the need to protect the victims, the desire to punish the guilty.

But, news items being what they are and people being who we are, most of us tend to forget. We remember for weeks, months, years, what our favorite scenes are and lines of dialog from films such as TDKR, but we'll forget about the shootings in Aurora, Colorado in a few days. Something else will come along and drive it out of our memories and fractured attention spans.

For most of us, that is.

Bruce Wayne didn't forget. He never forgot. Of course, he was a kid and the people murdered right before his eyes were his parents, so you'd figure he'd never forget. But he did something more than remember. He took his anger, his guilt, and his fear, and turned it into a weapon; and incredibly powerful weapon. He turned it into Batman.

That doesn't do the rest of us much good. Batman is a fictional character. He only exists in the world of imagination. He is a symbol of our desire for dark justice and the need to not only punish the predators, but to brutalize them. He is the shadow to our light, the power to our powerlessness, the avenger to our victimhood.

He is the Dark Knight to our oppression.

We can't put on a costume and roam the night. We can't summon the heroes of fantasy into the real world of blood, and tear gas, and torn flesh, and dead bodies. But we can do something; we should do something.

All I can do is write, so that's what I'm doing. Probably a lot of people will have something to say about all this in the hours and days to come. This is me saying what I need to say right now.

As much as I'd like to take a baseball bat and beat the shooter's head like an overripe melon, that's not what needs to be done the most (I still think I'd like to do it, though, because I'm really angry right now).

No, what needs to be done more than pulling revenge and this guy's bloody colon out of his ass, is to remember the victims, to have compassion. To not give in to anger and rage, but to instead, nurture kindness and if you believe in that sort of thing, to pray for the wounded and the dying.

Anger, violence, and revenge may make us feel better in the short run, but it's justice, mercy, and compassion that heals the world in the long run. Don your metaphorical "Dark Knight" armor if you must and scream how much you'd like to hurt the guy that did all the hurting, but remember. Remember that afterward, you have to take the mask off and be who you are, to help, to rebuild broken lives.

That's the part about being a hero you don't see at the end of the movie. That's the hero in real life and I hope...I hope it's the hero you can find in yourself. I hope I can find him in me, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Virtual Reality, Virtual Hatsune

Technophile shut-ins, rejoice. The era of shimmery, for-your-eyes-only virtual girlfriends has arrived, says this video, uploaded to You Tube by user Alsionesvx. The film showcases an augmented reality system that allows users to project the pixilated Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku into their day-to-day lives. Using video goggles and an Xtion Pro motion sensor, Alsionesvx can take Hatsune, a wide-eyed, pigtail-wearing wraith who, significantly, has no mouth (and somewhat less significantly, has no nose), to the park. It’s sort of romantic. Then he, um, plunks her in his kitchen and paws at her tie: less romantic.
So begins the article at slate.com panning what actually turns out to be a really cool piece of technology. OK, so maybe virtual girlfriends aren't your thing (unless you're into porn...then admit it, they're virtual and they're girls), but suspend judgment for a minute and consider.

Let's say you can wear a device over your eyes that allows you (but only you) see a simulated image of anime character Hatsune Miku accompanying you wherever you go. This isn't a static image and in fact, looking at the video demo, it's really impressive. You can see "her" walking toward you making eye contact. When you look away, the image doesn't suddenly move keeping her in your line of sight. If you "saw" her walking toward you on a sidewalk, you can look away and not see her, then look back and she's still walking on the sidewalk getting closer to you, just as if she were an actual moving object in the world around you.

If you can see her at a distance and a real object gets in the way, she is hidden from view by that object (lets say a passerby or a tree) and then comes into view again when the object is no longer blocking your line of sight...just as if she were a real part of your environment. It's kind of impressive.

Even though she's virtual and you can't actually touch her (you can't even see her without the hardware), when you reach out and pat her on the head for example, she will "react" by showing signs of pleasure (no, not that kind of pleasure). She wears a tie and you can touch and move the tie (the demo doesn't involve touching or doing anything to any other part of her clothing). You can actually smack her on the head (as shown in the video) and she reacts as if she's afraid or in pain (which is the creepy part).

Why would you want this?

I don't think I would. I'd have to live in my head a lot more than I actually do and really, what's the point? I suppose if the software were developed to its logical conclusion, then it would make an incredible masturbation aid, but do guys really need that much help? There's already a plethora of porn on the web including Japanese hentai, so a cute, vaguely interactive anime girl isn't as necessary as you might imagine.

It does move the concept of virtual reality and the Star Trek holodeck one step closer to actuality (if the words "actuality" and "virtual" can be used together like this). If you combined the digital Hatsune Miku with something like Google's Project Glass, the possibilities are mind boggling. Toss the iPhone into the mix and then imagine Siri is "real". What about being able to see and interact with Tony Stark's "Jarvis"? How would 3D gaming be enhanced if the virtual person were an opponent?

You may not want a virtual anime girlfriend, but projecting the technology forward, there are a lot of applications besides the obvious "porn star" aspects.

What do you think? Is this creepy or cool?

Oh, here's the video:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Finally, The Avengers!

Warning. This film has been out long enough for me to not worry about revealing spoilers, which I do freely in my review. If you are one of the few people who haven't seen it yet, just keep in mind, I hold nothing back.

I'm probably one of the last people on the planet to see The Avengers (2012). Usually even a very popular film and especially one so "hyped" as this one has been contains a few flaws, but frankly, I couldn't find any. The Avengers just rocked.

I actually wasn't worried about the action sequences because the Marvel films know how to do action. I was worried about continuity, plot holes, and an imbalance in characterization. It's tough to get that many different lead characters into one film and not favor just one or two. The various Star Trek: The Next Generation films such as Star Trek: First Contact (1996) carry this flaw. Typically Picard and Data take the lead and all of the other characters play second fiddle.

I was worried that, in the case of the Avengers, Tony Stark/Iron Man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) would dominate the screen since he seems to be the strongest personality. Fortunately, I was wrong. I was wrong, happily wrong, about a lot of things.

Of all of the Marvel films about each of these individual heroes, I'd have to say the Avengers was the strongest of them all.

I only saw the film a few hours ago, so I'm still trying to put the experience back together again in my head. The film is long (official running time 143 minutes) and there's almost no let up in the action. Even when a scene involves more dialog, there's usually a lot going on with various verbal gags and it's tough to keep up with all of the changes.

I was worried about teamwork between the actors and having their roles "compete" with one another, but at only happened within the context of their characters. It stands to reason that as strong individualists, it would be difficult to get Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye to merge as a unified fighting team and this is exactly how it was played. They fought more among each other during the first half of the film than they did against their primary antagonist Loki. Of course Hawkeye was off the hero list for the first half of the film, having been compromised by Loki, but Jeremy Renner still played him as a brilliant tactician in addition to his role as archer/assassin. He very nearly brings down SHIELD's flying headquarters (literally).

The film also showcased Natasha Romanoff's (played by the beautiful and talented Scarlett Johansson) vulnerable side, which never meant that any part of her was weak. However she got to be human in this film. The relationship between her and Barton/Hawkeye was explained with relative brevity but enough that it was satisfying. I'm glad that the Black Widow and Hawkeye were played as both strong, skilled, and highly intelligent. The original relationship between them in the early 1960s Tales of Suspense comic books (which first featured Iron Man before he got his own title) was highly unbalanced, with her as the femme fatale Soviet spy and him as the angry, misguided, not particularly bright, but still heroic archer. It really didn't work as a romance. The only thing here that I wasn't convinced about was that Johansson's Black Widow was actually Russian. She's like an American spy who happened to know Russian but who was best as kicking ass.

In spite of or maybe even because of his role as the classic "good guy" hero, Captain America emerged as the leader of the Avengers. No mean feat given the dominance Downey brings to the role of Stark/Iron Man. By the time the main battle with the "army from hell" begins in New York City, you can believe it when Cap starts giving orders and everyone lets him take the lead. I was afraid the film makers wouldn't "get it" and ignore this very vital part of Cap's involvement with the Avengers in the comic books, but amazingly, Hollywood got it right.

Thor's appearance caught me a little by surprise at first since, with Bifrost having been destroyed at the climax of the Thor (2011) film, he was effectively trapped in Asgard. However, a short bit of dialog between Thor and Loki and the problem was solved and without seeming too quick and cheap. From that point on, the God of Thunder was present and accounted for as part of the "Avengers initiative." However, if there was a single hero in the film who I didn't connect to quite as well as the others, I'd have to say it was Thor. I don't know exactly way. His whole "this planet is under my protection" role didn't quite "make it" with me for some reason.

Speaking of gods, I rather liked that the film makers allowed Captain America to retain a faith in God. It was only expressed in a single line of dialog, but it's completely consistent with who Steve Rogers would be given that he is an American raised in the 1920s and 30s. Being flash frozen for 70 years and reanimated in the 21st century wouldn't automatically turn him into a politically correct, culturally consistent icon of our morally relativistic world. The conversation between Cap and Phil Coulson confirmed that now, more than ever, we need a basic, foundational hero like Captain America. We may think we've gained a lot since the middle of the 20th century, but we've lost a lot, too.

The Hulk. Mark Ruffalo played both Bruce Banner and (wearing a motion capture suit) the Incredible Hulk. Of the three versions of the Hulk in film, Ang Lee's miserable failure (2003), the subsequent Incredible Hulk (2008), and his current incarnation in the Avengers' film, Ruffalo's Banner/Hulk is the best. That's saying a lot since Edward Norton is a brilliant actor who throws just about everything into not only his characters, but the films they appear in (to the point of continually rewriting/reinventing the films), but Ruffalo brought his vision of both Banner and the Hulk into the Avengers.

I remember reading that during the filming of the "Hulk" scenes in the Incredible Hulk TV series (1978-1982), Bixby refused to watch those sequences because he wanted to be able to react as Banner with true surprise and shock at the aftermath of the destruction caused by the Hulk. Obviously, Ruffalo chose a different path and it really works. Even the Hulk's face resembles Ruffalo's and you can see the personality that is shared between Banner and the Hulk. This is especially important when the Hulk is expected to act as part of the team since otherwise, he's just a mindless engine of destruction. However, Ruffalo plays the Hulk as both exceptionally dangerous to his allies while also somehow accepting them as his allies (although the Black Widow didn't fare so well in her first encounter with the Hulk and even Thor didn't escape the Hulk's "grudge" during the battle in New York).

It was just slightly overly sentimental when Agent Phil Coulson ended up playing the part of "the gipper." I understood that his death was to be the final inspiration that brings the Avengers together as a team (although only Tony, Steve, and Natasha would have been aware of it), but it did represent a small weakness in how the film was developed. It's only just a little schmaltzy though and was only a tiny blip of an issue in an otherwise overwhelmingly brilliant film.

I do have to give actor Clark Gregg (Coulson) his due. Often overlooked as a bit of comedy relief in the other Marvel films, he was truly "badass" when facing down Loki single-handedly, with only an experimental weapon he had no idea would even work. It was almost unfair that he had to die, but once he's gone, you suddenly realize how much you loved him.

Tom Hiddleston continues to be amazing in the role of Loki. He is wonderfully evil but with an apparent "monkey on his back" which is particularly noticeable in the beginning of the film. Who did give him his army anywhere and what sort of deal did he make in exchange for the technology of the tesseract and rule over Earth? We don't find out until the end of the film (past the credits) and if you weren't a Marvel comic book fan from the 1970s or later, you'd have no idea of what the scene really meant or why that big, ugly guy smiled at the mention of "death."

Loki lives on to fight another day, but it took the Hulk to bring him down in a scene that had the audience cheering.

So much happened in The Avengers so fast that I know I missed a great deal. This is one of those films that you have to see again and again, not only to keep the adrenaline rush going, but to try and catch all of the subtle details that you couldn't possibly have picked up on during a single viewing.

If by some miracle, you haven't seen this movie yet, I can't recommend it highly enough. Most films are never quite as good as the previews and trailers make them seem, but The Avengers was even better. It's a super hero classic.

Addendum: I know I didn't mention Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, but this review is long enough. If you want to find out more, see the movie.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

DVD Review: Thor, or How Sibling Rivalry Can Really Go Bad

Finally got around to viewing Thor (2011) which is the last film I needed to see before seeing The Avengers (2012). What can I say. It's OK. Not great. Not horrible. Just OK. Kind of like a bowl of lukewarm porridge. I felt almost exactly the same way after viewing Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Oh well. Ho-hum.

By the way, this review contains a ton of spoilers. I figured it can't hurt that much, since the film's been out awhile and anyone interested in The Avengers movie must have seen it a bunch of times by now. Just warning you. Proceed at your own risk.

I know the film makers tried to successfully merge the doings in Asgard with those on Midgard (Earth) but it was always very jarring to go from one universe to another. Of course, you could say that was on purpose, since the Asgardian realm is so much different than plain ol' planet Earth, but after reading some of the film's trivia at IMDB, I saw that the film's look and feel were supposed to successfully merge the two worlds. Oh well.

I know Natalie Portman wanted to be in this film, and it's not exactly like her appearances in the various Star Wars movies were so high brow, but I felt her talent was rather wasted here. On the other hand, Anthony Hopkins played Odin and he's practically the nexus of all wonderful and classical acting experience in the universe embodied as a man. Marlon Brando played Jor-El in the first Superman film (1978) starring Christopher Reeve, so I guess I don't really have much of a point here. Just sayin'.

I know there had to be some way of explaining Thor, Asgard, Bifrost, and everything else without saying it's out and out magic, but it was a little hard to buy that the "Rainbow Bridge" that leads from Asgard to Earth was really something called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, AKA a "wormhole." I guess you can call the Asgardians, Frost Giants and the like all super-dimensional beings who exist in domains outside of normal time-space...except Thor said you could see them all using the Hubble telescope. So Asgard is just something that exists in normal space, out there somewhere.

I think I like "super-dimensional" better.

I know everyone tried really hard, but the characterization wasn't all that great. Natalie Portman as astrophysicist Jane Foster was played like a dippy school girl with a crush on the high school football quarterback. I liked Chris Hemsworth. I think he looked the part. I just wasn't amazingly impressed with his performance, and I really wanted to be.

Clint Barton (played by Jeremy Renner). He has a brief appearance in the film as a SHIELD sniper who prefers a bow to a high-powered rifle and scope. It explains (sort of) how he'll end up in the Avengers but Barton was always a bad boy in the comic books, right on the edge of being a criminal and heading toward prison (he first appeared as a pawn of the communist agent the Black Widow in the early 1960s, manipulated into attacking Iron Man). Hard to believe he starts out as a government agent rather than a well-meaning but easily conned rogue.

Sif (played by Jaimie Alexander). Nada. She didn't even look like a goddess. Heck, she didn't even look convincingly like a mortal female warrior. I just didn't get the feeling she could kick anyone's ass. She wasn't regal. She wasn't a goddess.

I know Thor is supposed to be the most bad ass god of them all, but it seemed as if he was about a thousand times more powerful than any other Asgardian around him. In the initial fight sequence in Jotunheim, the other gods including Loki seemed no more powerful than some really tough human martial arts/sword and sorcery types, while Thor flew around like Superman, smashing everything in sight. You'd think if everyone in Asgard was considered a "god" and was nearly immortal (Odin seems to age so they can't *really* be immortal), the "warriors three," Loki, and Sif would have been closer to Thor's own abilities (especially Loki, since he fights Thor to a stand still in the film's climax).

Agent Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) was an asshole. In the first two Iron Man films, he was sort of likable if not entirely competent, but in Thor, he was an absolute jerk, especially when taking away all of Jane Foster's (and her fellow scientists) toys. Also, I always had the impression that SHIELD knew exactly who they were recruiting for the Avengers, but Coulson had no idea how Thor was connected to the hammer and he thought Thor was some sort of "Soldier of Fortune" merc. Coulson got on my nerves fairly early and stayed there throughout the film. At least he evoked an emotion in me. Most of the other characters didn't.

I know that in the 21st century, it would be considered poor form to create an entire race of white people, but I was a little surprised to see Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano playing Hogun and African-British actor Idris Elba playing Heimdall. The Asgardian legends are Nordic legends, so I thought I'd see a lot more blonds in Asgard. Of course, if we reverse causality (which we have to here) and say the Nordic people observing the Asgardians fighting the Frost Giants on Earth mistook these super-dimensional beings for gods, then it makes sense that they'd recreate the gods of Asgard in their own image, depicting them in their legends as racially unmixed (blond hair, blue eyes, all white). That means in real (movie) life, Asgardians could look like just about anyone, as long as the men were buff and the women were beautiful.

The one thing I didn't really anticipate and did like in the film was Loki's motivation. In the beginning, he wasn't such a bad guy. Sure, he was jealous of Thor, but I can see why he'd believe Odin favored Thor at Loki's expense. Loki liked to get into a bit of mischief every now and then (and he is the god of mischief after all) but nothing serious. He really did love his parents and wanted to be a good king of Asgard (as opposed to Thor who started out as an arrogant prick). Discovering that he was "adopted" and a Frost Giant to boot, really reset his clock. Adopted kids, especially those who are adults before they are told they're adopted (or find out by accident as in Loki's case) almost always are shocked and sometimes pissed off that mommy and daddy didn't tell them the truth. It just added to Loki's complexity and his desire to take Thor down a peg...actually a lot of pegs, since he tried to kill his older brother.

In the end, Thor has to destroy Bifrost to keep Loki from committing genocide, shattering the link between him and Jane. Loki is lost when he deliberately lets himself fall into space. No apparent connection to Thor's return to Earth or Loki's return as the villain in The Avengers is apparent (save for the "real" ending after the credits when we get a brief glimpse of Loki in some SHIELD labyrinth).

I'm glad I saw the movie if only because it's a set up for The Avengers film and to fill in any gaps in my knowledge base. That said, there are better films out there I could wasted a couple of hours on. I just hope The Avengers movie doesn't leave me feeling as "blah."

Oh well.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Loki's Next Battle!

In the Marvel movies, the villain from Asgard, Thor's half-brother Loki has appeared in Thor (2011) and will be appearing this coming May in The Avengers (2012). But before all that, he battled another, startling hero.

Dr. Strange?

That's right comic book fans. A little known battle between the god of mischief and the Master of the Mystic Arts, circa 1963.

Monday, March 26, 2012

DVD Review of X-Men First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011) is the classic example of how Hollywood gets its greedy little hands on a vast body of work and canon and completely screws it up. Really, the film wasn't totally horrible, but it was so muddled and overworked that I couldn't like it, and I really, really, wanted to like it.

No, I'm not bitching about how the film makers took excessive liberties with canon. I expect that films aren't going to stick lockstep with how the comic books portray a hero or group and that's to be expected. What works in a comic book almost never works the same way on TV or in film. But the X-Men have been around since Lee and Kirby introduced the original team (Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Marvel Girl, Iceman, and Professor X) to the world in 1963 and a lot of material has been accumulating.

The film's writers, director, and producers tried to cram damn near almost 50 years of history in to 132 minutes of running time. It's like they felt they have to jam pack the movie with all of the back story on the Professor and Magneto, plus many of the team members, starting with childhood and, even though set in 1962 (a year before the comic book team came together), also had to drag in material from the 1970s (the human-looking Hank McCoy turning into a real, furry Beast) and 1980s (the Hellfire club including Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost).

They needed to scale back. If this is to be the first of many X-Men films based on the prequel/reboot, then they could have saved some story for later.

I have to admit, I liked the way McAvoy portrayed Charles Xavier (in real life, the "X" in "Xavier" is pronounced like the "X" in "Xylophone"). You just know that a young, male telepath would probably act like an asshole if he knew every thought of every mind around him. He certainly f*cked up "outing" McCoy as a mutant right in front of his CIA boss. Also, his telepathy sense must have stunted his common sense if he couldn't tell that Raven was head over heels for him right from jump street. He payed for that one dearly in the end.

I also liked the Xavier/Lehnsherr chemistry (I think everyone did). Erik (Magneto) Lehnsherr isn't power hungry and evil. He's a holocaust survivor who can see the world treating mutants the way they treated the Jews. This time, he plans to strike first and not wait for the humans to build the death camps. I don't blame him.

That's the part about Erik that Charles could never understand. As far as the movie presents, Charles was raised (although we never see his parents) in a safe and secure environment. Nothing ever threatened his world so he can afford to see the possibilities of a human/mutant friendship. Erik, on the other hand, learned from Shaw in the camps that anyone who claims to be your friend just wants to use your mutant powers for their own gain, and they'll even blow your mother away right in front of you if that's what it takes (I can't imagine why Erik killed the soldiers who murdered his mother, but didn't drive every sharp metal object in that chamber of horrors right through Shaw's black heart).

It's the billion inconsistencies in the film like the one I just cited that makes "First Class" feel like "low class" to me.

Other stuff.

They could have let Hank McCoy be like the Beast in the 1960s comic books. He didn't tragically cause his metamorphosis into the furry Beast for over a decade, after he joined the team, graduated, and left to pursue his own career (he eventually joined the Avengers).

OK, no Cyke, Angel, Iceman, or Marvel Girl. The original team is out. So we have Sean (Banshee) Cassidy, who in the comic books, was more Xavier's age and an ex-cop. Raven (Mystique) Darkholme, who really didn't make the scene until the early 1980s (same time frame as the Hellfire Club) as opposed to growing up with Charles in his huge Westchester mansion.

Um, wait!

Charles doesn't have any other X-Men by the end of the film except Sean, Alex (Havok) Summers, and Hank. Everybody else either dies (Darwin) or deserts him (Erik, Raven, Angel Salvador). Oh, and never mind that Alex is supposed to be Scott Summers' (Cyclops) younger brother.

Now that I read what I'm writing, maybe I am complaining about lack of adherence to at least some canon.

However, I do think it's more "realistic" for Charles to end up in a wheelchair due to a bullet (a la "Ironside") rather than having his legs crushed by a giant block of concrete by an alien being called Lucifer (see X-Men #20). But Charles lost his hair before he even got into high school as part of his mutation (see X-Men #12). I'm not even sure James McAvoy will look good with a shaved head (Patrick Stewart nailed it, however).

One interesting thing that I don't find in any of the other reviews of this film is the subtle comparison between mutants and the LGBT community. At least twice in the film, one of the mutants (Raven says it for the last time in the movie) says "mutant and proud." It referred to the struggle (especially in Raven's case) of feeling that you always had to hide who you really were because the world wouldn't accept you (blue, scaly skin and all) as you really were. That, coupled with the inadvertent "outting" of McCoy by Charles which I mentioned earlier, gave a whole new meaning to Lady Gaga's Born This Way sentiment.

What could have saved this film? A much less "everything and the kitchen sink" philosophy as far as details were concerned. I know that films go through a lot of rewrites, often while being actively filmed, but this movie really showed it. It was like a patchwork quilt of this bit of X-Men history or that. It's as if no one could make the hard decisions necessary to keep the movie on track, internally consistent, and able to tell a "clean" story that the audience doesn't need a scorecard to follow.

I've read every one of the original 1960s through 1980s X-Men comic books and there was a great deal of good history to draw from. Rather than carefully picking and choosing what to put in and leaving the rest for another day, someone randomly loaded a bunch of X-Men comic books into a cannon and blasted them at a movie screen.

The early X-Men stories are among my favorites. X-Men: First Class pretty much crapped on them.