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 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.