Saturday, May 28, 2016

3 Short Paragraphs: Seeing RED

R.E.D., 2010, Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) -- Netflix
RED 2, 2013, Dean Parisot (lots of TV) -- download

You could say that 2010 was the break out year for the multitudinous glut of comic book based movies, and TV, that we now live with. After the remarkable success of Iron Man, the studios felt the need to bring anything comic to the screen. This was also the post-Graphic Novel age, so there was literally tons of source material that wasn't always straight superhero. The we-don't-need-original-material was in full bloom. Out of this came a relatively unknown and small actioner piece from Warren Ellis about a reactivated CIA hitman. In 3 issues he tells rather simple but compelling tale of violence, death and skill. Guy shoots people creatively with good writing.

R.E.D. the movie pretty much tells the base tale, but transposes it into a somewhat light violence-comedy. Bruce Willis is Moses, the reactivated CIA hitman on the hunt to find out who wants him dead. He has been retired for years and crushing on his pension check handler. In the quest, he bumps into more retired hitmen, including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren, in sort of a Expendables style gathering of old, violent people. It's mostly bullets to the head interspersed by funny lines and a meet cute as Willis kidnaps his handler and is forced into a relationship by his friends. It is decently likable.

RED 2 is the entirely unnecessary sequel. Again he and his girlfriend find themselves hunted because of his CIA past,  but this time they get wrapped up in an old End the World scenario and have to play the heroes. Again, it's not done badly, in fact all things presented are quite fun, especially the adoration between KGB spy played by Brian Cox and Helen Mirren. Cox just absorbs the role. But it was all familiar and not very inspired. We already know how I hate sequel-itis and this movie is full of it, from the recreation of "so many bullets flown they knock down Frank's house" to a hot, young male nemesis, Karl Urban in the first and Lee Byung-hun. But people will always like familiar, I guess.

P.S. An even more uninspired poster for 2.

Friday, May 27, 2016

DC TV: The best and worst of the 2015/16 season

HEY! SPOILERS!

I don't remember the last time I've done a best/worst list, or, for that matter, if I've ever done one.  I don't feel like re-reviewing the shows based on DC Comics' properties, yet I still have a lot of enthusiasm (and criticism) for them.  I could have made this a best/worst of Comic Book TV but I (finally) gave up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. partway through this season, I don't watch The Walking Dead, I haven't seen Powers, I still can't figure out how to watch Vixen, I haven't seen the Preacher pilot, and I'm sure there's a half dozen or more cartoon series I don't regularly watch.  

It's almost embarrassing how dominant comics culture has become, to the point where we as nerds and fans don't need to watch and support everything that comes out anymore.  We can altogether skip movies and TV shows with impunity without worrying that it will impact the production of more.  Hollywood is all-in on comics like never before, and they're starting to trust that the stories told in that medium don't need to be wholly neutered or dumbed down in translation to screens of all sizes.

So yeah, here I'm talking about the best and worst aspects of the last season what we can effectively call the "Berlanti-verse", named after the creator and producer of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow.

BEST SURPRISE! - The Martian Manhunter revealed 
(Supergirl S1-Ep 7: "Human for a Day")

When they announced that David Harewood would be playing Hank Henshaw, the in-the-know comic book geeks were 100% sure that they knew where his story was heading.  In the comics Hank Henshaw is better known as the Cyborg Superman (the origins of which I won't get into) but the constant teasing of Henshaw's glowing red eyes in the show had us thinking he was already the superbadguy.  So when Hank pulls Alex Danvers, Kara's adopted sister aside, and reveals his true origins to her it was a complete blindside, and an utterly welcome one.  Not to mention the story J'onn tells her has such resonance for not just her character, but fans of the J'onn, that it actually brought me to tears.  I've watched that scene a half dozen times, and it's just a masterstroke.  Even the reveal, particularly the camera angles, is amazingly well done.  This is by far my favourite moment of the 2015/2016 season. 

Runner-Up: Mick is Chronos!
(DC's Legends of Tomorrow S1-Ep9)
In almost every episode of the show, a time-traveling bounty hunter named Chronos was on the tail of the Legends.  He seemed to know their every move, frustratingly so.  How could he always figure out where they were.  When the team finally get the drop on him, they're shocked to find it's Mick Rory, their old teammate, whom Leonard Snart implied he'd put down like a mad dog two episodes prior.  It was an out of left-field surprise (afterall the show killed off Hawkman early on so nobody was really safe).  Mick was saved by the Time Masters, given additional training and exceptional weaponry to take on his former teammates, with a particular thirst for vengeance.  Of course Chronos knew where they were going, he was there.


BEST TEAM-UP! - Barry and Kara, Super-pals
(Supergirl S1-Ep18: "Worlds Finest")
The Flash S1 was noted as the sunny, fun, comic-booky counterpoint to the oft-brooding, hangdog Arrow, and yet this past season of Flash had too much brooding Barry Allen.  Far too much.  The season ended with brooding Barry Allen for pete's sake.  But this much anticipated, much loved crossover episode (part stunt in order to put more eyes on the CBS series) was the Barry we always want to see and don't see enough of.  Supergirl's National City is a bright place, and as down as Kara can get at times, her surroundings cast very little shade.  So when Barry winds up in National City it's like he gets a break from being the sad, lost puppydog he is in his own show, and gets to be the bounding, playful golden retreiver instead.  The greatest moments of "Worlds Finest" are all in how the characters relate to one another.  The team up of Livewire and Silver Banshee as villains of the piece was okay, but it wasn't the draw.  The draw was watching Barry interact with Kara's world and how much almost everyone seemed to delight in each others' company.  When Barry and Kara hug at the end, it's not one of romance, but of kinship.  It was the perfect antidote to the utterly dour Clark/Bruce eyeroll of Batman v Superman (coming out the Monday after that film's release was brilliant timing).  And of course we'll always have ice cream:




Runner Up: Vixen
(Arrow S4-Ep15: "Taken")

The WB made a 6-part animated series starring Vixen for their "Seed" on-line programming.  It was built as an extension of the Berlanti-verse (with guest appearances from Cisco, Flash and Green Arrow), and fans were optimistic that the character would find her way into the live-action universe.  In the episode "Taken", Oliver called upon Mari McCabe's help to challenge Damien Darhk and help rescue his son (who seems to have been forgotten about after this episode).   Megalyn Echikunwoke is awesome in the role, looking the part of Mari (in the comics Mari is a model, and Echikunwoke is gorgeous) and moreover inhabiting the role of someone who's totally comfortable with summoning the spirit of animals and gaining their abilities.  If CW won't commit to a full series for Vixen, then give her a live action mini-series at least.  I would gladly sacrifice 2-3 episodes of both Flash and Arrow for 6 episodes of Vixen. 

BEST USE OF CGI! King Shark 

(The Flash, S2-Ep4: "The Fury of Firestorm", S2-Ep15: "King Shark")

Let's face it, sometime this universe doesn't quite nail its characters (more on that later), and they didn't quite get Firestorm right when they introduced him last season.  Due to scheduling conflicts, they killed off Robbie Amell's Ronnie Raymond in the first episode, leaving Professor Martin Stein (the show's replacement for Harrison Wells as STAR Labs' resident supergenius for the first few episodes) in dire need of finding another metahuman to merge into Firestorm with.  It was a decent story, but the show ended with a damn exciting surprise.  Teasing throughout that Joe and new partner Patti Spivot were hunting for a shark-like metahuman, fans in the know were thinking King Shark, but also thinking there's no way to pull that off on TV budget.  We're so used to the restrictions of budget and limitations of technology giving our superhero shows the short shrift, always teasing us with names and hints of superhero/villain/events that couldn't possibly be depicted.  King Shark was just another one of those...until he shows up and almost bites Barry's head off at the end of the episode!  One would suspect this would be just a quick one off tease, but then we get a Flash and Diggle crossover later in the season as King Shark escapes ARGUS custody and they have to hunt him down.  This was awesome.

Runner up: ATOM vs Leviathan
(DC's Legends of Tomorrow, S1-Ep13: "Leviathan")

 A full week before Ant-Man went Giant Man in Captain America: Civil War, DC's shrinky guy, the Atom, went in the opposite direction to battle a giant robot.  Now, obviously the Civil War sequence had a much higher budget to accomplish their sequence in the bright of day, but this day-glo mech battle with a Tron vibe just tickled me silly.  Legends of Tomorrow underused its characters' super-powers (obviously for budgetary reasons), Ray most of all (considering how many fights or situations he could have resolved by doing his shrinking thing, there were a lot of logic gaps in the show as a result).  This almost made up for it by giving Ray a massive spotlight (figurative and literal).


BEST GUEST STAR! Matt Ryan as John Constantine
(Arrow, S2-Ep5: "Haunted")

The Constantine TV show ran on NBC through the Fall/Winter of 2014/15, and failed to capture any of the excitement of the growing comics-to-TV fervor.  It wasn't a terrible show, and Matt Ryan legitimately made for the perfect John Constantine, but something just didn't click (probably being on NBC).  But pulling Constantine into the Berlanti-verse clicked perfectly.  Matt Ryan and Stephen Amell seemed perfectly paired, and this team-up -- while not exactly a team-up -- was aces.  The show worked Constantine seamlessly into both the show's troubled flashbacks and modern day, and connected the two sequences in a meaningful way.  Constantine's impact on the show was felt multiple times, and his absence from it was felt.  He belonged in the fight against Damien Darhk, and each subsequent attempt on Darhk without felt more and more hollow.   Apparently the Berlanti-verse's ability to use Ryan's Constantine was a one-shot deal, for which the Berlanti-verse is all the poorer.


BEST SCENERY CHEWING! Wentworth Miller as Leonard Snart, aka Captain Cold
Adopting a disaffected, James Cagney-like croak, Miller takes his time with his lines, savoring the words, making a meal out of them.  His emphasis is confidently erratic and there's a know-it-all wryness that implies a genuine sense of self.  Miller makes the transition from villain to hero a pained one for the character.  Doing good when it aligns with his own desires, is easy.  Doing good just for the sake of doing good seems to be like brain freeze.  But it's all nuance, Miller's transition into someone whose nature is to be bad, but desires to be better.  It ultimately puts him at odds with his partner, Mick Rory, and into the good graces of Sarah Lance.  Snart becomes somewhat enamored with Sarah, but doesn't make much of an issue out of it, knowing he's not her type.  Likewise his pain at having to abandon Mick, and then his pain when Mick returns, is wholly believable, even through his affected exterior.  His sacrifice in the penultimate episode is both meaningful and earned (if undercut a little by the premature announcement that Miller had signed on to a full-time role in the Berlanti-verse for next season).

Runner-up: Neal McDonough as Damien Darhk
The Damien Darhk plot wasn't a terrible one for Arrow this season, but they had too much track and not enough gas to get it all the way to the end without too much pushing.  In spite of some treading water, McDonough made every appearance from Darhk quite enjoyable to watch.  A perpetual glint in his glassy blue eyes, Darhk walked around everywhere he went like he owned the place, because generally he did.  His magic made him almost untouchable.  It made it all the more satisfying every time team Arrow found a way to get through his magic or under his skin.  McDonough made Darhk equally intense and hilarious, seemingly passionate and apathetic at the same time.  He never quite made it to scary, which I think he should have, but making him a family man was a brilliant touch that somehow made him even more dangerous.


BEST CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT! Mick Rory aka Heat Wave
One could mistake Dominic Purcell's grunting, monosyllabic meat head of a villain a one-note character, and at first that's pretty much what he was designed to be.  Pairing him up with Wentworth Miller's scenery chewing Captain Cold on The Flash last season meant Purcell had to create something on par, or at least complimentary, to make a dynamic duo that would resonate with the fans.  But graduating to series regulars, I had my concerns.  Snart had already been given a bit more depth in The Flash, but it was kind of clear that Mick was a maniac.  This season of Legends of Tomorrow seemed to take extra pains to make him so, at first.  It was all to build to that climax where Snart-as-George has to take Mick-as-Lenny out into the woods and put him out of everyone's misery.  The show had made it a point to establish Snart and Mick's long-time partnership was more than just one of convenience, they were practically family.  When Mick returned as Chronos, instead of accepting him as a villain, the team decided to reform him.  It was only Mick encountering his younger self, though, that gave him perspective on who he was and what he'd become.  And with his reformation, though their relationship still strained, Snart showed him what it meant to be a hero.  In the final episode of the season, Mick seemed lost, even uncomfortable with being a criminal.  He had forged a bond with Ray, surprisingly and reluctantly, and he turned to Snart as an example of taking ownership over his nature.  If you had told me at the start of the season that I'd be accepting Mick's transition to hero, I never would have believed it.  But I do now.

Runner-up: Laurel Lance aka Black Canary
For almost three full seasons, the team on Arrow didn't seem to know what to do with Laurel.  The comic fans all knew that Laurel was supposed to be the Black Canary, so when they bait-and-switched Sarah into being the Black Canary in season 2 she became almost completely extraneous.  Without the CW relationship triangle between Laurel, Ollie and Tommy (remember him?) she almost served no purpose.  Her desire to follow in Sarah's footsteps after Sarah's death in Season 3 gave her a new sense of purpose, but the show didn't effectively transition her into the role of Black Canary, and a character with a real sense of ownership to her own life, until Season 4.  Becoming Black Canary with only a few weeks of boxing training under her was a stupendously dumb decision in season 3, but season 4 launched with Laurel, Diggle and Thea having spent months as the guardians of Star City, and Laurel was given confidence and respect as a vigilante.  Where Sarah really spent more time being part of Oliver's story in season 2, she became a big part of Laurel's story for season 4, when Laurel decided to resurrect her.  Thrust into both her sister's world of Assassins and Oliver's world of Vigilante-ism, she found a home on the show existing between the two.  Her death had meaning to the show but still leaves a bitter taste.  Everyone's role in the show got better once they were inside the team (Laurel, Thea, Quentin, Curtis and even Malcolm) and it felt like the showrunners were finally getting a handle on her (her being DA never worked for the show as well as it did when she was using it for Team Arrow's gain) and there was certainly more that could've been done with her beyond making her a martyr.

BEST EPISODES:
Arrow Seson 4:
Ep5 "Haunted" (The one with Constantine), Ep12 "Unchained" (The Calculator, Nyssa, Roy returns), Ep20 "Genesis" (great Thea and Diggle-led storylines)

The Flash Season 2:
Ep6 "Enter Zoom" (Zoom is scary as hell), Ep7 "Gorilla Warfare" (more Grodd and an Earth 2 solution), Ep17 "Flash Back" (Barry had an idea to travel back in time and replace himself to learn from the Eobard Thawn Wells, Barry shouldn't time travel anymore)

Supergirl Season 1:
Ep7 "Human for a Day" (Kara has no powers, Hank is exposed), Ep11 "Strange Visitor from Another Planet" (J'onn's past comes calling when a White Martian attacks), Ep18 "Worlds Finest" (The Flash pays a visit),

DC's Legends of Tomorrow Season 1:
Ep2 "Pilot Part 2" (the gang hits the 1970's), Ep9 "Left Behind" (Kendra, Ray and Sara are stuck in the 50's for a year), Ep12 "Last Refuge" (meet the gang as children, as they save themselves from elimination from the timeline), Ep16 "Legendary" (in which they really stick the landing)

WORST CHARACTER! Kendra Saunders, aka Hawkgirl
 
Oh, I barely remember a time when I actually liked Kendra.  Early this season on the Flash when she was a love interest for Cisco.  Cisco seemed so self conscious about asking her out, especially after seeing visions of her as a hawk-person.  But their relationship (despite always seeming to have their dates at CC Jitters) was hella cute.  I was going to say "then Carter Hall showed up and doinked it all up" but even then it's not Carter's fault.  The Flash/Arrow crossover which introduced Vandal Savage, Carter Hall and their Egyptian/resurrection backstory established this Hawkgirl as one with absolutely no ownership over herself!  Kendra couldn't even enter the Berlanti-verse fully formed as a hawk-person, she had to be guided to jump off a damn building to do so.  And it just got worse from there, and never got better.  The whole season of Legends of Tomorrow was absolutely marred my Kendra's very presence.  It's not that Ciara Renee is a bad actress, necessarily, but her character was given no authority over herself.  At every turn she was being told what to do or how to think about her life or situation, even when characters were insisting she make her own decision, her decisions all seem made for her anyway.  There's a good arc to be had in a character rebelling against destiny, rejecting patterns of the past, and the show would say Kendra wanted to do that, but then she never could, always falling back into the same mopey discussion.  Pairing her up with Ray was a huge mistake and only served to take that character down even more.  I think pairing her up with Jackson would have been better, seeing as Jackson's younger and perhaps more inexperienced with relationships, it would have been more interesting seeing him deal with this.  And yet, it just shouldn't have happened at all.  Kendra should be strong, a fierce warrior, one who's always willing to take charge of her fate, and no man can hold her down.  By the midway point I was exhausted with her story, and by season's end I literally cheered when we found out they weren't returning for the second voyage of the Waverider.  There was a long stretch of scenes in the final episode without Kendra and she wasn't missed in the least.

Runner-up: Malcolm Merlyn aka Ra's Al Ghul aka The Dark Archer
I find John Barrowman's portrayal of Malcolm to be highly amusing and I'm never disappointed to see him on the show...what his character does, however is so fucking annoying at this point.  The showrunners seemed to include Merlyn in as an afterthought on almost every occasion.  His tour of duty as Ra's against Nyssa never really panned out into anything terribly meaningful to the show.  It was dealt with a little too quickly and how it impacted Merlyn doubly so.  He got his hand sliced off by Ollie, which was awesome, but again, dealt with too quickly.  And Merlyn's constant jumping sides between team Arrow and HIVE was beyond annoying.  Merlyn's a free agent and does what he want, which both sides should know better than to trust him as an accomplice.  And his relationship with Thea has grown tedious.  It's the same conversation.Every.Damn.Time.  Darhk's running of HIVE should have ended after his totem was destroy, and he was incarcerated.  Merlyn should have taken over.  But for Merlyn to not take the opportunity to take control and instead become subservient to Darhk was a huge mistake on the writer's part, because that didn't seem true to the character who lusts for power, and seizes it whenever he can.  At this point I hope not to see Merlyn at all next season, save maybe one or two cameos where absolutely needed.  His story is beyond done at this point.


WORST ROMANTIC ENTANGLEMENT! Kara and James Olsen

Given what I said above about Kendra and Ray, I bet this one surprises you.  After all, I kind of got the feels when James and Kara finally managed to express their feelings, and even though it took a couple of tries before they got it right at the finale, it was earned.  I mean, in practice, James and Lana Lang's relationship was utterly painful to watch, but then it was supposed to be a trainwreck (and their breakup was actually very well done). Then why are Kara and James "the worst"?  It's purely the subtext.  James Olsen is Superman's best friend.  Now he wants to get with Supergirl.  Think about it.  I hope the show actually deals with it (it would be a marvelous thing for Cat Grant to point out), because it's bugged me from the first moment where the show implied he had the hots for her (I thought it was more than acceptable for Kara to like James, but thought it was very, very wrong the other way around).

Runner-up: Kendra and Carter
UGH!
Yeah, not even Kendra and Ray here, for one reason, I quite liked that they got together in 1958, and then built a relationship together when they were marooned there for a year.  When they got back, I thought it was awesome that the show was insinuating that Kendra was really only with Ray for that year out of lack of options, and now that they weren't marooned anymore she was kind of done with it.  Then they prolonged it.  And that was bad, supremely mishandled.  It would have been so much better if she felt guilty over ditching him and just couldn't break up with him.  But it wasn't that clever about it.  Instead it was the constant specter of Carter Hall that kept ruining everything.  In her present life Kendra had no feelings him, yet the show kept hammering aw.ay at her until they convinced her and the audience all the feelings of her past lives meant she couldn't ignore him  If the show gave Kendra some actual agency over this romantic destiny it wouldn't have been so bad, her and Ray, yet it insisted that the Hawks have to stay together.  You know what, in the end, the Hawks are staying together off the damn show, where they belong. 


WORST ACTOR: Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers


That pose says it all
I don't think there's another show I watch where someone is so supremely miscast.  Alex Danver's is Kara's adopted sister for roughly 10 years.  They have a great relationship, they're very close, part of a loving family.  The show even delves into Alex's latent animosity and overcomes it.  Alex is a DEO agent, basically the Director's right hand in the Agency.  She should be a total badass.  Yet Chyler Leigh's Alex is crying all the damn time, perpetually out of breath (seriously is she asthmatic) and wholly unconvincing in every fight sequence in the show.  She just doesn't carry the role with the weight or toughness it needs.  She gets the softness, I'll give her that, but it's all softness.  Everything about her portrayal of Alex is soft.  There's no confidence there, and being a top DEO Agent, she should have some sense of being a great deceiver, and yet every time she's called upon to be covert, like playing love interest to Max Lord, she just looks like she trying too hard.  She's completely unbelievable.

Runner-upFalk Hentschel as Carter Hall, aka Hawkman
Blerg.  This guy.  His eyes are wide open but it's like he's asleep.  Carter Hall should be either a complete looneypants, coming at Kendra trying to convince her they've been in love for thousands of years, or he should be so utterly goddamn charming that she wants to believe him even if she really doesn't.  Falk is neither of these things.  He delivers his lines without much intonation, and there's nothing alive in his performance.  He seems overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of his character and has no real thoughts on how to play him.  Later in the Legends of Tomorrow season he's called upon to be a brainwashed drone of Vandal Savage and even then he's more asleep than mindless. When he starts to come around, when his memory starts to return, he should have a conflict between his brainwashing and his memories.  But there's absolutely no nuance to his portrayal.  One minute he's doped up, the next he's old Carter again. 

WORST GUEST STAR: Red Tornado
(Supergirl S1-Ep6, "Red Faced")
The only League Reddy is joining is the
Space Hockey League
  

Wow, did they ever get this wrong.  And by wrong, I just mean ugly.  Fugly ugly.  Just totally unappealing.  Terrible.  A hot mess.  Wholly unattractive.  The story of "Red Faced", having T.O. Morrow create a robot that can take on a Kryptonian backed with military funding is not inherently bad.   No what was bad was the atrocious costume design for Red Tornado. It's like they saw the Vision in Age of Ultron and said "cheaper. No, cheaper.  No, like Doctor Who in the 70's, but cheaper.  We want him to look like the Tin Man from the 1939 Wizard of Oz, but red...and cheaper."
In the comics, Reddy started out as a weapon and then became a good guy, and later one of the Earth elementals, if I remember correctly.  So when Tornado gains a bit of sentience at the end after Morrow is killed by Alex, there was maybe a sense they were going down the path of Reddy the robot stopping his actions.  Alas, he was programmed to kill Kryptonians, so he kept at Kara, forcing her to go all supernova (which was all kinds of awesome... it was this scene where Melissa Benouist took ownership of the character  gif:)
BAD.ASS.
Even still, Tornado's arm was given to Max Lord, and I thought there was some insinuation that Max was trying to rebuild Reddy.  I was hoping for a late in the day team up between Kara, J'onn and Red Tornado in the finale.  But no, that thread of Red Tornado seems dead.  Maybe that's for the best.  I don't think I could handle another lobster suit.

Runner-up: Parker Young as Alex Davis
Parker Young isn't a big name.  He was tremendous on the little-watched but well-loved sitcom Suburgatory as a dopey teenaged himbo, and he was equally entertaining as the dopey himbo brother on the little-watched but well-liked Enlisted.  My wife and I became quite fond of both of his characters and of him as an actor.  The differences between his two dim-witted characters was actually quite good for contrast, and showing how talented an actor he is.  So his position here as "worst guest star" isn't to do with him, but how stupidly under-utilized he was.  When Alex Davis showed up at Oliver Queen's headquarters extending an offer to run his Mayoral campaign, my wife and I were excited at the prospect of who Young could be.  He's a very handsome, likeable guy with a great physique, so he would make a superb costumed hero or villain.  Yet it became very clear by halfway through season 4 of Arrow that he was, at best, a love interest for Thea, in a season which really had no time for love interests.  Alex seemed forgotten at the best of times and was unceremoniously killed by Anarky in the series' 20th episode.  In the series' penultimate episode Thea is seen weeping over his dead body but he's laying down and shown from behind and it's obvious it's a body double at this point.  What a waste.

WORST FINALE: The Flash S2-Ep23: "The Race of His Life"
What a terrible mess this was.  Having the finale culminate with Zoom asking Flash for a race is totally on the dumb side of comic-booky.  Also, yet another superhero climax with a space laser.  Zoom went from being the scariest villain in the Berlanti-verse (particularly after he crippled the Flash on television for all to see around the Christmas break) to being so. damn. annoying.  He was so full of threats, saying he *could* kill at his leisure anyone he wants, that he could massacre the city in a matter of hours.  So why didn't he?  I don't know.  And as usual the show had to find excuses to stop Zoom from killing any of the regular cast, most of which were half-hearted.  The reveal of Jay to be Zoom was a good one, actually, and it should have led to a more propulsive, proactive, and smarter Team Flash attack on him.  But it wound up being a lot of stupid mistakes, miscalculations, and woe-is-me inferiority complexes.  The finale telegraphs how the Flash is going to beat him in the opening sequence, and then slogs along getting to the final moments.  It has its touches, but it's all over the place in terms of closing out story and emotional threads that were left to linger far too long this season.  Iris thankfully has more ownership of herself this season and isn't even annoying anymore, so hooray for progress.  The set-up of Wally and Jesse as having somehow gained some benefit from the speed force didn't play out this season.  And Earth 2 was criminally underutilized.  The reveal of Jay Garrick as John Wesley Shipp was a decent one, but it needed more time to breathe.  As happens far too often in the Berlanti-verse, they bring characters together but then separate them immediately giving no real time to establish connection or new directions.  People just keep taking off.  Both Arrow and The Flash's final moments were fill only with people taking off.  Hell, even Barry takes off at the end... and showing that he, as a character, has learned nothing, goes off and saves his mom, undoing all the drama and growth of his character last season.

WORST EPISODES
Arrow Season 4:
Ep13 "Sins of the Father" (Thea's bloodlust reaches peak annoyance, Malcolm does more dumb Malcolm Merlyn crap), Ep14 "Cone of Silence" (Where Felicity breaks up with Ollie for the most hypocritical of reasons, she also gets healed out of the wheelchair)

The Flash Season 2:
Ep2 "The Flash of Two Worlds" (Jay Garrick shows up and it's not exciting at all, it's kind of dull and annoying, in hindsight it bodes ill for the rest of the season), Ep12 "Fast Lane" (everyone gets preachy with Wally, some dumb villain named Tar Pit makes a nuisance of himself), Ep23 "The Race of His Life" (no payoff at all)

Supergirl Season 1:
Ep5 "How Does She Do It" (The requisite "stretched-too-thin" episode), Ep16 "Falling" (The requisite "hero goes bad" episode)

DC's Legends of Tomorrow Season 1:
Ep10 "Progeny" (should I kill this kid who's going to grow up into an evil guy, plus too much Ray and Kendra), Ep14 "River of Time" (the requisite "captured bad guy makes heroes do dumb things" episode, too much Kendra)

SUMMATION

Supergirl became an easy favourite because of my daughter's huge love for it.  The ending was incredibly rushed but closed out the season well enough.  Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant became the MVP of the series rather quickly, and with the show's move to the CW and Vancouver there's a chance we might lose her as series regular or altogether.  That would be a shame.  Looking forward to a hopefully decent Cadmus arc in season 2.

Legends of Tomorrow would have been a much bigger success with either better Kendra characterization or no Hawkpeople altogether.  They dragged it down so much.  So much in fact it was hard to see flaws in anything else (even though there were). Season 2 looks tremendously brighter without them, plus that great tease of the JSA with Hourman showing up in the finale.  Hooray!

The Flash didn't have a bad season episode by episode.  I quite enjoyed Patty Spivot but found Barry's resistance to being honest with her damn annoying (thankfully it wasn't Iris-related), but I was still sad to see her go.  Barry has had good chemistry with a lot of female characters (see also Felicity, Kara) but his relationship with Iris is one of the least convincing.  Iris' turnabout makes it less annoying (as is having her in on Team Flash) but there's still a lot of work to be done to make it something that works on the show.  The weakness this season was it's main thread of Zoom.  As it ramped up in the second half it just didn't have staying power.  Once "Jay" was revealed as Zoom so much bite was taken out of that character, and Teddy Sears didn't pull off evil nor heroic particularly convincingly.  It by the final four episodes the story was feeling long in the tooth. 

Arrow had a solid year.  It didn't have many peaks like the prior two seasons, but it also didn't have the valleys either.  Even its worst episodes weren't unpalatable.  Unlike many episodes of The Flash or Legends where I was rolling my eyes or yelling at the TV to "get on with it", Arrow kept me fairly entertained week to week.  Again, the Darhk storyline got a little long-winded which made me realize that all of these shows main arcs (Darhk, Zoom, Genesis, Vandal Savage) all took far too much time and energy on the show for not enough payoff.  Supergirl's 20 episode season felt more satisfying than Flash and Arrow's 23, while Legend's 16 felt like a breeze (except the Hawk stuff).  Maybe truncated seasons for all are the answer, or two (or three) major arcs per season would be better. 


I Saw This!! Big Heroes, Little Heroes

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. But we can't not write about a movie cuz that would be bad, very bad. Bad bad bad.

Spectre, 2015, Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) -- download
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 2014, Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles) -- Netflix
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 & 2, 2014-2015, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) -- download
The Good Dinosaur, 2015, Peter Sohn (directorial debut but voice, animation, etc. in plenty of animations, and yes, the face of the kid in Up) -- download
The 5th Wave, 2016, J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) -- download

OK, Spectre, that opening. That pan of the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City lasts four minutes, reaching into the crowd and plucking out Bond, waxing nostalgic back to Live and Let Die. We follow him into a hotel as he trails a Bad Guy, and then casually out onto the window ledge to get a good vantage point. It's not a real continuous take, but it sure is dramatic and gripping. I just wish I could say the same about the rest of the movie.

Spectre follows up Skyfall the way Quantum of Solace followed up Casino Royale. They are bookended together in plot and focus. But Quantum was more tense, as if Bond was on edge the entire movie. I am not sure what emotion I got from Spectre, but for cold rage. I need to see it again, probably back to back with Skyfall but it fell flat for me on first viewing. It seemed more a denouement of the current Daniel Craig run than a shocking reveal of the organization for which the movie was made.

Again, need to see again. Should have seen it in the cinema.

Speaking of falling flat, this was my second attempt to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Baysplosion reboot. The first time, I fell asleep on the sofa, at least twice. And yet again, only a couple of months after seeing it again I still don't remember much about it. There was a snowboarding scene with a humvee and a cracked shell and turtle lips and Megan Fox? Oh, and Monk as Splinter?

This time I barely remember much more? I remember I really liked William Fichtner as the Bad Guy (but not the Shredder) and really didn't like Will Arnett as the annoying sidekick. This is a kid's movie through and through, where the actual plot really doesn't matter. As long as the dialogue moves it forward, gets laughs and... well, I don't know, doesn't bore kids? It was as forgettable, unremarkable and boring as my first sleepy half-viewing.

P.S. I am ok with turtle lips. They reminded me of those 90s images of the turtles that Michael Zulli did back in the 90s, but less beak and more... lip? Anywayz, if I liked anything about the movie it was the hulking nature of the turtles. It was just an impressive touch.

After the first movie and a bit, the Hunger Games movies have become more about the reluctant hero and PTSD than about anything else. The rebellion story rises to the forefront, as it must be, despite the main character's dislike for it all. Yeah yeah, metaphor about being the figurehead in one person's war only to become the same for another fanatic. I get that, but for the stretching of three books into four movies, I wanted there to be more. I wanted growth.

These final movies (from the 3rd book) take on the final push to the capital. The rebellion led by District 13 (no parkour) is going to liberate the Panem and make President Snow pay. Katniss is not a direct freedom fighter, more the on-air personality that represents the rebellion. They literally green screen in shots of her in heroic situations. They get she doesn't want to be wrapped up in this but still need her, considering her fame. She has lost much; her home, her friends and even her place as the winner of the Games. Yet, she doesn't fit in well with these soldiers.

Part 1 picks up from the last movie, Katniss being rescued and introduced to the properly post apocalyptic District 13. She's a gigantic underground bunker, all that's left when the Capital destroyed her during the last (failed) rebellion. The Capital claims District 13 was destroyed as retribution but is probably aware she's still around, albeit in a much more prepared form than they know. Everything about District 13 is eerie, from her leader Alba Coin to the drab Orwellian uniforms. But she is reunited with friends and family, so there is some levity to raise Katniss from her 3 movie lasting funk.

But Katniss never fully buys into this whole rebellion thing. Everyone wants to use her. Nobody seems to care about collateral damage. I just wished the stories would have tightened up on one focus or another. Go for a depressing movie about a damaged figurehead hero or go for an exciting action war movie. They mashed the two together and it didn't gel for me.

The funny thing is that I am not exactly sure what I wanted from this ending. Maybe a change in style and tone? Let Part 1 be the second guessing and depressing tone, while letting Part 2 shift gears entirely for a proper war movie? I guess I was just tired of the drab.

I wanted these movies to make much more of an impression on me. I love the post apocalypse genre, even this diluted YA version. But the  tone of the movies always feel like something is being held back.

Another year, another CGI from the big two studios that we didn't even notice come and go.  The Good Dinosaur comes from Pixar/Disney (as opposed to Disney Disney or Dreamworks) and much much better than it was marketed as. Was it even marketed? I don't remember; no time to rest on your laurels guys.

This movie is about an alternate timestream where that comet that killed the dinosaurs is bumped off course and slides right past the Earth. Dinosaurs are given time to evolve and us pesky little mammals are there, but still primitive. The story begins in what must be the Stone Age? Lacking hands probably impedes them from doing a lot of things, but they get the job of building and agriculture done.

This is one of those movies where the story is by the books, but the animated backgrounds are so astounding, I wonder if it was just one long expensive test of the new rendering toolset. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie and the growing up of a young dinosaur, along with his furry little human helper. But the story was very familiar, as if animated stories only have so many to draw upon.

Speaking of YA fiction (well, I did a few paragraphs ago) there are the PA ones and there are the alien invasion ones. Surprisingly, there is only one main vampire one. But I digress; how else am I exposed to much of YA fiction if but through those chosen for film production? And if the writer of the vampire one did her own alien invasion one, which required Romeo & Juliet overtones and it did well, then there need to be more. Thus we have The 5th Wave.

This movie is both apocalyptic and alien invasion, as waves 1 through 4 involve EMP elimination of electricity, devastating tsunamis, deadly plagues and aliens masquerading as humans. We breeze through all these things as main character Cassie's recollections. TL; DR is that her family have been killed but for her brother, she escaped, is trying to find her brother and gets mixed up in the alien plot to use human children against the rest of the survivors, i.e. a 5th wave. Humans are pretty much dead after the first three, and will probably die off, but sure get fancy about the final elimination, you are aliens after all.

How do they R&J it? Well of course, there must be an alien hiding in a pretty human boy who had a "i just met you but I love you" moment when he saw Cassie. She doesn't trust him but he saves her life. In the end he ends up helping her find her brother. The movie does nothing to convince us there will be something between the two, or that there are possibly more aliens who have misgivings in killing all humanity. But it blows stuff up and moves on. Not a very captivating movie that barely plays the notes of its own genre.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The One I Love

2014, d. Charlie McDowell  -- the Movie Network

It could be said of almost any movie, the less you know going in the better.  But only a few movies deal with premises that rely upon a surprising twist for the premise of their movie, especially in modern filmmaking.  The marketing of cinema in the internet age begins often before the film has even started production, where announcements on casting and creative teams, Instagram or Twitter reports from set, and teaser trailers (and even pre-teaser trailers) all begin to build up hype long before a film is ready to be seen by an audience.  As such watching a film has become more about filling in the gaps left by trailers and spoiler sites than about genuine discovery.

Movies like The One I Love one need to cautiously withhold their central premise, and instead rely upon intrigue in the promotion, rather than any revelation.  But it's a gamble.  For my part, when I first heard of this film, I was told to "just see it, don't read anything more, or even watch the trailer", and I followed that advise to the point that I forgot the name of the film (it is kind of a generic title).  Ultimately, I knew the cast (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) so I kind of knew what to look out for, but again, avoiding the marketing push (it's a smaller film so there wasn't much of one to begin with) means there was less awareness in general.

The film is a light drama, utilizing some fantastical elements to tell its story of marital discord and a couple's weeklong retreat to try and rekindle their romance.  It's not a whimsical film, instead using its fantasy elements to help externalize the inner desires of the characters.  The drama of the film lies in one character's acceptance of this externalization and the rejection of it by the other.  I'm being cagey and vague to maintain the element of surprise, but it should be said that it's still all pretty low-key. 

I could liken the film to the Channel 4 anthlogy series Black Mirror, a modern-day Twilight Zone.  Yet, where Black Mirror tends to deal with the influence of outside pressures, presences and technologies on the modern (or, in extrapolation, a future) life, here it's less about any sort of technological infraction upon our lives, and more a straight exploration of relationship dynamics with fantastical elements. Even still, it has that kind of feel as a smaller-scale production (the film literally features only the two actors, Moss and Duplass, with Ted Danson fulfilling a tiny role at the beginning).

It's a intriguing movie, if perhaps a tad overlong for its conceit.  It's not an unrewarding film, but it will leave the viewer a little frustrated as it presents clues as to what the source of its fantastical elements may be but doesn't provide enough clarity to even hazard a guess as to what it could be.  The intentional vagueness and obfuscation of this aspect is its primary flaw.  It would actually have been more satisfying if it didn't even attempt to provide background, if it left the audience completely in the dark.

Moss and Duplass are a great match, both providing performances that can easily go unheralded but are absolutely brilliant in their subtlety.  It's the nuances they have that flesh out their characters, providing an easy tell for the audience of their state of mind.  You could say if these nuances were so easy for the audience to discern, then how could the characters not catch it?  But that's the point... the characters are either willfully blind or emotionally succumbing, either way there's meaning behind the actions and reactions.





Tuesday, May 17, 2016

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Synchronicity

2015, Jacob Gentry (The Signal) -- download

Like all good time travel movies, this story begins with a machine and a time travel experiment. That is also the first sentence of my fictional best-selling time travel novel. Of course, the machines and their technology are always superfluous. Jim Beale is obviously a genius level theoretical physicist. And at least one of his buddies must be a genius level engineer, but I am always amused how it's the physicist who gets the glory. Really, they have the idea but if the hands don't labour on the machine, all the theories in the world cannot be implemented. But we skip past that; Jim and his two buddies have built a time machine with the funding of (super ultra mega) Bad Guy Klaus (Michael Ironside). Actually Klaus isn't all that bad, but with Ironside playing him, I kept on expecting him to break out into maniacal laughter at any moment. So, yes time machine - funding - experiment.

Usually the next line in that elevator pitch is, "and something goes wrong." Well, not here. The first test trial is successful. But it's rather anti-climactic. Lights, swirls, flashes and loud noises and a ... shadow passing through the test chamber? Someone left a flower in a jar? Oh, but that is intentional. Their goal, you see, is to open THIS end of the time travel worm hole, and then convince Klaus to pay for the other end of the experiment in five days. It must have happened, right? Someone gave them the flower right? Paradox vs predestination and all that. And things just get weirder from there. Who sent the flower through? What if they decide not to? It's Klaus's flower? Then how can he say no to the funding? And who is this girl who seems to know too much?

We will skip past all of the director's fascination for Blade Runner and the Vangelis style music, and the Asian inspired mega-city, and the smoke filled rooms, and the window blinds. There is nothing Blade Runner-ish about this movie but for stylistic choices. What we have is a theory of time travel movie wrapped up in a love story. The theory at dispute is whether time travel is a wormhole to your own past, in your time stream, or whether it's to a parallel time stream. Jim gets to find out, as he is the shadow that jumps into the past to deliver the flower. And to meet himself, with catastrophic results, and to meet the girl he is ever to love and influence her to that love, without knowing it himself. And then again, to set things right. And then... and then.  And then again.

I rather liked this slow moving, rather anti-action movie. A lot happens but it happens behind low budget, closed doors, in darkly lit rooms and outside concrete buildings. The cast is minimal, the script focused on Jim and Jim and Jim^n and Abby. And John. It is kind of clunky at points and often second guesses itself, but I like the way it played out.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Comic Book Crap-pile: Lost In Translation

 Herein lies a group of superhero films, adapted to screen from the comics books, that didn't do well, or were critically maligned, or both. As a comic book nerd, I can't help but watch in amazement and/or horror.

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Punisher: War Zone - 2008, d. Lexi Alexander - blu-ray
Fantastic Four - 2015, d. Josh Trank - Netflix
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance - 2011, d. Neveldine & Taylor - Netflix
Rewatch: Man of Steel - 2013, d. Zach Snyder - Netflix

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Punisher: War Zone was both a critical and financial failure upon release.  It was the second effort by Lion's Gate to make a Punisher movie, this time hewing even closer to the spirit of the comic books.  The first film cribbed a popular Garth Ennis Punisher storyline but aimed to make it more PG-13 audience friendly by toning down the violence and inserting the over-the-top theatrics of John Travolta.  This film went for the brutal gut-punch violence, with a Grand Guinol joie de mort of another Ennis story, which should have appeased the fans even more.  So what went wrong?

Well, to be honest, it's a film that plays to those very same fans, and as a result it doesn't have the broader, more commercial appeal.  By going so over the top, with both the violence and the theatricality, it's jarring and alienating unless one has passion or appreciation for the source material it's derived from.

Were this actually a comedy, in the vein of this year's Deadpool, it probably would have done far better.  But instead, director Lexi Alexander went back to the early days of comic book adaptations -- back to Tim Burton's Batman, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracey, Alexander Proyas' The Crow, and whomever-that-was's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, -- for tone and style, but trying to parlay it into the more extreme 80's action of Commando, Robocop or Rambo.  I can see 2008's audience expecting something a little more grizzled, a little more mature.  Instead it's sort of your common 80's-style action vehicle, with exceptionally familiar beats, and bad guys performed to ridiculously broad extremes.

With the benefit of distance and time, I can see how War Zone has become a burgeoning cult film.  There's a tremendous amount to enjoy when you're in step with the spirit of the piece.  Part of getting into that spirit is accepting all the terrible New Yawk tough guy accents from Ray Stevenson, Julie Benz, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon and Dominic West (three of these leads being British).  Stevenson for his part doesn't have a line of dialogue until 26 minutes into the film, while West and Hutchison push their characters so far over the top they can't even see it anymore.  West takes the notable Punisher  nemesis Jigsaw and tries to do what Jack Nicholson did for the Joker and Al Pachino did for Big Boy and pretty much succeeds in emulating the cartoonish nature of those old school actors interpreting what a comic book villain should be (essentially something straight out of the Adam West Batman TV show).

The style of the film is great.  Alexander took pains to make it continually visually interesting, using a three colour palette every scene, which once again gives it a comic-book adaptation vibrancy that screams early-'90's.  She wasn't making a serious drama but a balls-out action movie.  There's more focus on the "gags" than there is most emotional investment (though Stevenson does get a few good turns with a little girl the Punisher is prodecting who reminds him of his daughter).  The film even manages to decently represent the failings of the concept of "killing all the bad guys" as if it's always so black and white.  And yet killing all the bad guys is what it relishes in, and Frank Castle gets all manner of creative ways of killing people.  The fight sequences are good but have been well suprassed elsewhere before and since.  There's a sense of brute force on screen, but Stevenson is so big that nobody poses a credible physical threat to him, and there's never a true moment where you believe Frank is in any real danger.  As well, the fighting isn't very clean... it looks quite noticeably staged at times, and the flow isn't always super sharp, giving it a Robert Rodriguez/Grindhouse/intentional-B-movie feel.

War Zone is actually far from terrible film, but rather a misunderstood one.  Had it been made in, say, 1992, I'd have watched it a dozen times over in the years since, but with a much more mature representation of the Punisher in Daredevil's second season, and a long list of highly enjoyable comic book movies that have a more cinematic feel, this doesn't quite merit continued rewatching.  But if you haven't seen it, it's kind of worth checking out, if extreme uber-violence gives you a chuckle.

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Now this 2015 Fantastic Four film is complete garbage, from top to bottom.  I don't hate the Tim Story Fantastic Four movies, but I recognize that they weren't great.  This version makes them look like Casablanca.  Every minute, every step forward in this film is an utter miscalculation.

I've never had much love for the Fantastic Four comic (even though the Thing is one of my favourite Marvel characters) so you'd think I'd be more than accepting of a film that diverges from the source, but writer-director Josh Trank either fundamentally doesn't understand the characters, or he didn't care in the least about preserving any sense of their source.

Long called "the First Family" of the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four has almost always been about bright, four colour adventure, and, of course, family.  The comic's sense of "comic book science" was always larger than life, and, as per its name, fantastic.  Yet, with his adaptation Trank aimed for a science-gone-wrong body horror aesthetic, and I'm sure before the studio took over, trimming it down to a still dull 100 minutes, it bore out as even more of a horror, with grotesque violence and terror.  The last thing Trank was looking to make was a family film (both in the sense of it being about family or being for families).

The least important thing about the Fantastic Four is their origin, and yet the crux of this entire film is about their origin.  The first hour of the film is all about building a transport into an alternate dimension.  When the transport is finally complete, Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm and Victor Von Doom all get drunk and decide to take the trip (leaving Sue behind, of course, both because she's a girl and too smart to do something so dumb) where things go horrifically wrong.  The results turn Ben into a rock thing, Johnny into a human torch, Reed into a stretchy dude, and Sue, caught in the crossfire, becomes invisible.  Victor gets lost in the alternate dimension, believe to be dead.  Remember, this is an hour into the film.

The following ten minutes is full-on body horror as everyone reacts to their physical transformations.  But through a brutally awkward (but mercifully short) montage, they come to accept their powers and metamorphoses, and become quite adept at using them.  They reunite together when Doom returns from the alternate dimension to destroy the Earth, and they follow him back to the alternate dimension to stop him.  Did I mention that the bulk of this film takes place in two places, a remote government/military facility and the ugly, rocky, barren alternate dimension.  It's perhaps the dullest of dull settings.  The film attempts an ending with the quartet returning to Earth as triumphant heroes, and then takes them to yet another remote government facility to act as their base of operations.  A horrifyingly stilted conversation follows, which attempts to turn this disparate group into some collection of friends with something approximating rapport, and turn this brutally bleak and unforgiving film into something uplifting, inspiring and setting up a heroic franchise that thankfully will not come to pass.

The film never comes close to earning any of its conversations about family, friendship, intelligence, science or heroism, primarily because it barely tries.  Part of that could be because Trank's intention was to diverge from the source material into making a superhero horror film, but so invested in straying from the source was he that Fox realized his vision wasn't at all what they wanted, wasn't anything they could market as a contender or companion piece to Marvel Studios or their own X-Men franchise, and they so obviously edited it in the hopes of fooling someone into thinking it was.  Alas, it's a butchered nighmare of a superhero movie.  I don't doubt that Trank's edit of the film would still be an awful interpretation of the Fantastic Four but I would guess that it's a better, more consistent movie.

If there's a key commonality to Fox's failed interpretation of the Fantastic Four it's Doctor Doom.  Through two previous efforts with a supremely miscast Julian McMahan, and now a terrible interpretation thrust upon Toby Kebbel, Fox doesn't seem to get that next to the Joker, this is the premiere supervillain in comics.  He's super-intelligent, a man of science beyond anything we know, and as a result ego is beyond enormous.  But his hatred for Reed Richards is all consuming, and not because he had feelings for Sue and she chose Reed, but because he recognizes Reed's intellect is superior and he just can't handle it.  He's such a grandiose character that he's very difficult to interpret for the screen.  There's not a lot of nuance, there is only Doom, and it'll take a very special and talented script writer and studio who know and love the comics to get that right.  The relationships between Reed and Sue, Sue and Johnny, Johnny and Ben, and Ben and Reed, those are easy.  But getting Doom right (or ignoring him altogether) is the key to getting a good, if not great, Fantastic Four film made.  (Hell, we already have fantastic Fantastic Four movie in The Incredibles.)

As for the rest of the cast: Miles Teller is ok as Reed... he can give off the impression of dismissive hyper-intelligence, but the script narrows his genius to one specific topic of dimensional transportation and thus it fails him as a character.  Kate Mara is also okay as Sue... the film gives her a good intellect of her own, which was nice, but again she's the love interest for Reed and Doom and a daughter and an adopted sister and her character is at odds defining herself by her own abilities versus who she is in relation to all the men in the picture.  Michael B. Jordan was said my many to be the only bright spot of the picture, but there is no bright spot to this picture.  He's fine, but Johnny's pretty much a non-entity.  His only real relationship is with his father but it's such a nothing element to the picture that it feels shoehorned in.  Finally there's Jamie Bell, the unlikeliest of Things.  At once the film seems to try to make Ben Grimm exactly like he is in the comics while also nothing like he is in the comics and it's just a mess.  Portraying one of my favourite Marvel characters, Bell does pretty good, but the character design is godawful (yeah, he's supposed to be ugly but jesus it's just unappealing...we're supposed to like this guy, not want him to get off the screen because we can't stand to look at him).

If the Fantastic Four are going to return to the big screen, they need to do so within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in media res.  No origin story.  In fact, Reed and Sue should be married already and Franklyn and Valeria should already be born.  The whole aspect of family needs to firmly be in place.  The Fantastic Four should be revered for both their contributions as heroes, scientists and explorers, and the film should be adventurous, not reactive.  It needs to be bright, heartwarming, exciting and PG-rated, not solely for kids, but not exclusive either.  Either Fox has another reboot in the next few years paired with Marvel Studios  (ala Sony and Spider-Man), or the leave it to Marvel to get it done right.

This was just embarassing.

(David's Take)

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Like Fantastic Four and the Punisher, Ghost Rider is another character I have no real fondness or affection for.  Unlike Fantastic Four or the Punisher, I don't even know what a good interpretation of Ghost Rider would look like.  I can tell, though, that this certainly isn't it.

The film opens trailing a motorcycle along a european highway into a monastery.  The rider takes off his helmet and, holy shit, it's Idris Elba.  The monk he meets is Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  There's some talk of a chosen one/demon seed, the monastery gets raided.  Chase sequence, followed by badass Idris Elba moments and then credits.  Things immediately go downhill when Nicholas Cage's voiceover pipes in over his tongue-in-cheek retelling of his origin from the first film.

Neveldine and Taylor work in extreme angles and frenetic editing, even when it's just a talking heads conversation.  As such, any attempts at building story, character or drama are undermined by the visuals on screen.  The camera's constantly swaying to the point of distraction, it's like Neveldine and Taylor just can't settle their impulses down enough to let a story play out (many sequences work better just listening to the performances than watching what happens on screen).  Their over-the-top sensibilities that made the Crank films infamous seem tailor made for Nic Cage's penchant for bug-eyed melodrama, but it's far too much for one film to handle.  Cage loves comic books but he doesn't seem to get that comic books are already larger than life, and going big takes things too far.

For all the drawbacks of the directors and the lead actor, Ghost Rider and his bike look absolutely amazing.  The occasional chase or fight sequence really bring the comic book imagery of the Ghost Rider to life.  And it absolutely works better when Ghost Rider is all CGI than when it's Nic Cage with some CGI superimposed over.  Unfortunately there's not enough investment in actually telling a story to make it worthwhile.

Ghost Rider isn't like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, he's not even Iron Man or Ant-Man.  He's not easy to explain logically.  Why does he exist?  What are his motivations?  What can he actually do?  These aren't things that are generally known or that simply answered, but the film's efforts to do so fail, in part because of Cage's idiosyncratic performance.  He seems uninterested in making Johnny Blaze or Ghost Rider sensible beings, nevermind heroic ones.  Cage's interpretation absolutely resists the desire to paint the character as a hero, or even as likeable.  Knowing he's a comic fan, I believe he has more investment in this movie than most of his post IRS career, but even then it's like he doesn't remember how to perform with anything approaching relatable.  Johnny Blaze is a manifestation of Cage's offbeat mind, and as such isn't even close to being an understandable character, nevermind a likeable one.

With another actor (like, say, Idris Elba...this film really needed more Idris Elba, but less of his terrible French accent) bringing nuance and some sense of logic to the character, this actually could have been a good movie.  Okay, scratch that, it could have been a passable movie.  It's not unwatchable as is, but it's not the so-crazy-it's-fun picture many were hoping from Neveldine, Taylor and Cage, instead it's kind of both tedious and exhausting.

Unlike Fantastic Four or the Punisher, I don't think there's really a need for another Ghost Rider film to get it right.  He's such a niche character that doesn't fit into the cinematic superhero universe(s) that exist, there's not a whole lot of point to even trying again.  I don't know of any seminal Ghost Rider stories dying to be reinterpreted to the big screen (or even the small one).

Also, we need to seriously stop David Goyer from writing any more comic book movies.

(David's take)

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I didn't rewatch Man of Steel purposefully in advance of Batman v Superman, it was more to do with Sunday boredom and the desire to watch something big and superheroy.  In my original review of Man of Steel I said it was " a solid -- above-average even -- summer blockbuster, but a largely terrible Superman movie" and you know, I hold true to that statement.

Going into the rewatch of it knowing the events about to transpire, I found the film a lot more palatable the second time around.  Whereas I was angry with the mishandling of Superman during the first viewing, with the second viewing I was able to extract some things which they got right, or did well, such as the best interpretation of Krypton on screen so far, and some decent soul searching on Clark's part as to his place in the world.  I still have a hard time accepting the mismanagement of Superman in this film, mainly his inattention to the safety of civilians and property, but I have accepted the story's mismanagement of Jonathan and Martha Kent as explanation as to why this Superman is not as heroic as he should be.  It still sucks though, I'm just less angry about it.

I like Amy Adams as Lois, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and I even like Russel Crowe (an actor I'm not terribly fond of) as Jor-El.  Michael Shannon makes a decidedly dangerous and complex Zod while Antje Traue is kick-ass as Faora, even if she has no real character.  Henry Cavill should be the definitive Superman, he's a likeable actor and undoubtedly pleasing to look at, impressively powerful and filling out the costume nicely.  Yet, he's not given a character worth liking all that much, which lies the problem in both films in which he's starred.

Once more, as I watched Man of Steel, I found it somewhat enjoyable and likeable, but time and distance and rumination and context tend to diminish my appreciation for it, especially in the wake of Batman v. Superman.   Once more Zack Snyder completely mishandled and misinterpreted the character, and instead of Man of Steel being a early misstep, it becomes the start of a pattern, a pattern of abuse put upon this character.  Snyder plays the abusive stepfather to the Superman legacy, forced to love it because he married into the Warner Brothers family, but he doesn't see in Superman a reflection of himself, and so he mistreats it, trying to force it to be more like him even though it resists, just trying to be itself.  Superman isn't his baby, and it's obvious he has trouble accepting the character for who he is.

Also, we really, really need to stop David Goyer from writing any more comic book movies.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

TV Caught Up, Summed Up: Black Sails, X-Files and Hap and Leonard

Black Sails, 2014-2016, Starz

I never read Treasure Island; I only saw Treasure Planet. I know there is a Long John Silver and a long lost missing treasure. I think I knew the name Billy Bones. So, when Marmy pointed out to me that this show was a prequel to the classic novel, I was rather surprised. That peaked my interest more than just a generic pirate show. We had seen the first episode back in 2014 but, for some reason I don't remember, chose not to watch it. Maybe oversaturated on grim, violent melodramas? Anywayz, we were enjoying the gravelly voiced Zack McGowan in The 100, who embodies my generic D&D character, so she grabbed the first season.

Pirating a show about pirates. Snort. I am easily amused.

This is the crew of the ship that eventually buries a treasure somewhere that old Long John eventually goes after. This is the pirate ship Walrus (sorry, doesn't inspire fear in me) and the feared Captain Flint. Flint is ruthless, fearless and rules his crew with an iron fist. Not a literal one, but in these shows it's possible so I had to clarify. He has his looking glass set on the Spanish gold ship Urca de Lima, a legendary ship so full of gold that every pirate on his ship would become a wealthy man - forever. He will let no man stop him from finding that ship. No one.

When not on sea, the story takes place in the port of Nassau, a mostly lawless town ruled by Eleanor Guthrie, the fence who re-trades the pirate booty and keeps the town running. In town is Flint's greatest rival, Charles Vane played by Zack, who looks even more like a D&D character in this role. His partners are real life pirates Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. Vane used to sleep with Guthrie but she has taken to bed with the wiley courtesan Max. Max is smart, beautiful and has her own agenda. Just outside of Nassau, Flint has the kept lady Mrs. Barlow. There is some dark, hidden past there. There always is.

That is how the show begins, a soap opera on the high seas (is it really the high seas if it takes place in the waters that eventually become the Caribbean?) full of violence and intrigue. It was consider the boaty version of Game of Thrones. That's disingenuous. There may be as much blood and boobs as the former, but this show is much more contained. I wish it had stayed so contained, as it did with first season, being all about finding the spanish gold ship. Like most shows of this ilk, once they impetus to plot is captured, things begin to meandre. But eventually, we know the show has to lead to the book, so things have to fall apart.

Flint is a challenging character. You are not supposed to like him. He does things to and with his crew you are not supposed to like. But he is admirable in many ways, it just always seems to lead to him only taking care of himself. In many ways, Vane is more admirable as he has a path and he always follows it. Too bad he's the whipping boy of the show being constantly betrayed by those closest to him. As the seasons progressed, I actually found myself more attuned to the effete Jack Rackham, also known as Calico Jack in history. He has a very very real goal and sense of honour. He has loyalty to Vane, even when he betrays him, and to Anne, even when she throws Jack out of bed for Max's wiles. But he keeps on moving forward, eager to do right by his friends and keep to his path.

There was this point when I thought the show would embrace a very fascinating character element of Flint, that the man was gay. He had been forced to leave England due to his love affair with a Lord. The betrayals around that affair had Flint on a violent path to avenge his lover; England would suffer his wrath. But no sooner than this is revealed, then it seemed tossed to the side. By season three, we are more focused on once again connecting the story to the book. The treasure island has been identified, the spanish gold keeps slipping from everyone's grasps (becoming a very red herring) and Flint has other focuses.

That he is gay is barely ever mentioned again. Should it be? Is it bold just to have the character be so and then move on? I just feel they are hiding from the revelation fearing too many viewers will be soured by it, if it was embraced. The bisexuality of other characters, the ones with breasts, is embraced fully and at every opportunity. So, I am broken about this which I see as a plotting weakness, but truly, I am becoming bored with the less directed story.

X-Files, 2016, Fox.

Getting bored with a show is in my personality. Even before the golden age of TV, where there is literally too much to watch, I would see the attention span of the writing room fade and with it, mine.  I remember those first few seasons of the X-Files, that I was dropped into late because I didn't own a TV. In fact, when the first episode aired, I was sleeping behind the sofa at a friends and struggling to jury rig an antenna on his rarely used TV. I remember being excited that a show was recreating the premise of Project UFO that I loved as a kid. But is was its own show with two great leads and mysterious, engaging premise that flitted between an alien conspiracy and a monster of the week.

Press fast forward on the VCR remote control and I had become frustrated with the show's core mythology. Yes, there are aliens, no there are not aliens, it's a hoax, it's all real. As often as they revealed the real agenda behind Cancer Man (I always refused to call him Cigarette Smoking Man) and his alien hybrids and the shadow government, they unwound it with double blind conspiracies and doubts. But people lapped it up. By the time a terminator had taken over for Duchovny, I was out. I barely saw any of those seasons, but I did come back for the movies.

And I was always always always in love with the stand alone episodes, the "monsters of the week", especially the genre bending comedic ones that played with the characters as much as they moved the series forward.

The show continued and ended in 2002 with the definitive statement that the world would end/change on that date in 2012. It gave us a good decade of life before everything would be gone, as we knew it. Kind of bleak but in tone with Mulder & Scully.

Again, pick up that remote, but this time to a Bluray player. Much faster, a clearer picture. Pictures flicker by and we get the new series. Again, like in I Want to Believe, we find Mulder hidden away from society but invent a reason to put him and Scully into the basement with their posters.

That first episode is both fascinating and infuriating, dragging the show into the current age of conspiracy theories as entertainment, social media and a ubiquitous internet. But it all but jettisons the entire mythology built before it. It literally has Mulder dropping the entire confirmed alien conspiracy for another via the barest threads of truth. Dude, you SAW the aliens in Antarctica, you SAW a spacecraft lift off. And not a little one that could have been high tech helicopter, but a MASSIVE one. Whatever.

So, once we ignore the fact that the core element of the new series is absolute bullshit, it is kind of a fun reunion. And it has the best... episode... ever. Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster is a meta episode that references SO many of the best previous episodes. Written by Darin Morgan, known for his comedic episodes, it has continuity to the series (ala easter eggs), once again gives Mulder a verifiable addition to his cryptozoological menagerie. And it's hilarious. And sweet.

But the rest was very meh, fun to watch but not very.... good. It just confirmed, even to die hard fans, that Chris Carter should just leave the show alone these days.

Hap and Leonard, 2016, SundanceTV

Back in the 90s Charles de Lint, an author and book reviewer (aka ravenous reader like Marmy), was always happy when he could recommend non-genre fiction to us. Andrew Vachss and Joe R Lansdale were two suggestions we fell in love with.  Vachss wrote crime fiction from the point of view of righteous criminals and Lansdale wrote many things, but Hap and Leonard stood out. Set in the 80s in east Texas, the books were about a pair of good old boys, one a disillusioned ex-hippie, the other a gay black man capable of great violence. The best thing about the books, which were again crime stories but not stock mystery, was the relationship between the two good friends. They were just so bloody foul mouthed, I often found myself giggling with embarrassment at their interactions. Yes, words that could make you blush. Lansdale is a wonderful wordsmith.

Sundance adapted the first book Savage Season for their TV series starring James Purefoy and Michael K Williams. James Purefoy was an interesting choice, considering he's English, but actually carries off the ragged good old boy quite well. Williams was a perfect choice, even if you had not yet seen him as Omar in The Wire. The story is the introduction to the pair, where Hap's ex-wife shows up with a plan to make some easy money. Some bank robbers lost their money, decades ago, in a river Hap grew up near. Her new beau learned of it and wants Hap to help find it. He brings Leonard in on the deal, despite Trudy's hatred for Leonard, which is mutual. Trudy's new friends are revolutionaries who want the money to reinvigorate the 60s. Save the Whales or something or other, as Hap would put it. Of course, things don't go as planned. Things get violent and tragic.

The funny thing is that we never read Savage Season. We were reading his books back in the days when you hunted second hand stores for new authors. We never found that book. And in just reading it after watching the series (the wonders of pirating books), it is actually the tamest of the books, both in tone and action. But Sundance did a wonderful job of playing faithful. Of course, not all details are exact but they carry through on the tone and intent, startlingly so in some points. But the series needed to stretch in order to fill a season, so extra bits are added here and there, some connecting us to forthcoming seasons should it succeed in getting them.

The show does a very good job of establishing the fondness between the two men. This is not attraction and Leonard is very clear that he is not attracted to Hap. They conflict, they are polar opposites in many ways but there are ties that cannot be broken, not even by ex-wives or bullets. And Purefoy does sadsack so very well, though I have no idea how well the east Texas accent is pulled off.

Looking forward to next season.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

2016, d. Joe and Anthony Russo

Normally when I write a review of a comic book movie, much of it is spent talking about what the film got wrong compared to the comics, or addressing oversensitive fan complaints.  With Captain America: Civil War those two main talking points are taken out of the picture.  It is -- he says without putting too much mental effort into this statement -- the best superhero movie to date.

True, any comics purist who wants to see comics literally translated to screen may not be so thrilled with the film, as beyond the title and the schism between team Captain America and team Iron Man, it doesn't owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the comics event that inspired it...but then the Civil War comic is all kinds of crappy and it's doubtful even the purists would want to see it replicated verbatim. 

No, what makes Captain America: Civil War such a great comic book movie is that it doesn't owe much at all to comic book history.  It instead owes thanks primarily to the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that laid the groundwork before it.  This is an event movie bigger than either two of the Avengers films, one that expertly juggles a massive cast and 13-ish films of Marvel back story to create a wildly entertaining and, what's more, emotionally challenging movie experience.  It does what an "event" comic is supposed to do, which is bring a wealth of disparate characters together into a conflict challenges all of their might.  In this case, it's each other.

I'm not going to go heavy into details.  The film opens with a set up that allows it to be somewhat self-contained, finding the Avengers engaging a team of mercenaries in Nigeria only for Scarlet Witch to miscalculate a save, causing tragedy instead.  As a cumulative result of all of the Avengers (and other super human) encounters in the past, the United Nations call for oversight of the Avengers.  Immediately the team is at odds with this decision, but when Captain America's best friend-turned-Russian assassin is implicated in an attack on the UN, the groups are even more at odds, eventually coming to blows.

The film has purpose in showing the differing philosophies around what these heroes do, and how they feel they should be able to do it.  It's a film about responsibility, accountability, trust, loyalty, and friendship.  The fight sequences are just the rather dazzling eye candy to physically embody these differences in opinion.

For the first time, really, we have a superhero movie that trusts that its audiences know the language, that the story can move forward at a blazing clip without stopping to explain the players, their powers, or any sort of technology that comes along.  It's a superhero movie that trusts in its story, without second guessing who its audience is (or could be), and so lets the story and characters drive it.  As such, virtually every primary, secondary and tertiary character gets a shining, (and, more often than not) meaningful moment.  Not only that, but the film manages to introduce two new heroes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and makes their appearances meaningful to this story, not as set-up for the forthcoming Black Panther or Spider-Man movies.  In fact, Black Panther gets a pretty amazing arc in this story in a small amount of screen time.

This isn't an Avengers movie in name, even though it really is.  Since it's under the Captain America banner so it does center its focus on Steve Rogers, picking up many of the threads where Winter Soldier left off.  But here it is Cap's character who is the driving motivator of the movie.  It's his actions, his personality, his sense of honor and justice which cause the schism within the Avengers.  I would say Chris Evans edges out Robert Downey Jr. in screen time, but Downey's got a heavy part to play here as well. It really is their differences that causes the "Civil War".  The script does an excellent job justifying why people align as they do, and the motivations aren't always simple.  Sometimes it's belief, sometimes it's loyalty, sometimes guilt, and in some cases it's for status.

What directors Joe and Anthony Russo, with writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely are doing is fielding new ground, creating a film unlike any before.  They're producing a movie that is the second sequel in a series (Captain America) but not necessarily the third act of a trilogy.  At the same time they're acting as the third sequel to another series (Iron Man) and the second sequel to yet another series (The Avengers) as well as epilogue to another film (Ant-Man) and prologue to two more (Black Panther and Spider-Man).  It's got all this to juggle and yet it remains its own story.  It's truly the first ever cinematic version of an "event comic", one that carries on the stories of a universe of characters, but also acts outside of their own ongoing arcs.  The promise here is of a new form of storytelling for future movies, of films that don't need to follow formula, and of finding new ways of raising stakes.  It's about taking the idea of a superhero universe and using it to tell any kind of tale they wish to, of utilizing a vast pantheon of character and character types and both meeting and subverting expectations. 

All the lessons here are positive, as opposed to the resoundingly negative lessons learned in Batman v Superman.  Trusting the characters to lead the story and to move it forward is the key.  It's not that story-driven can't work, but character driven is so much more satisfying.  Balancing humour and action with purpose, giving each scene meaning to someone, there's very little waste here.  Likewise there's very little confusion, there's clear motivations and pretty clear action.  There's clear direction (the Russos come from ensemble comedy so it's no wonder they're so good at juggling the vast cast) with no sense of self-serving.  There's no "cool shots just for cool shots sake" here.  The cool shots are all in service of the film. 

It's not a flawless movie (there's a bit of shakey cam in the opening sequence that I didn't care for, and the foot chase with Cap, Winter Soldier and Black Panther had them lapping cars on a German roadway which I found stretched the credibility of the limits of their powers) but it's as close to perfect as a superhero film has gotten to replicating the experience of comics.  Civil War is so jam packed with amazing moments one doesn't even have time to process it all.  There's cool in-film moments like Falcon's suit upgrades (Redbird, wing shield) and Ant-Man going to "try something" to just cool moments in cinema history like there being three black superheroes on screen at the same time (and all being fantastic) or the greater sense of global scale and impact. 

Beyond that, Civil War carries forward the idea of Iron Man 3, that there need not be a status quo.  What comics have the luxury of is time standing still, but actors age, therefore so must characters.  Getting a superhero in their prime from mid-20's to mid-40's (give or take ten years) means about a half dozen films with those actors in their roles.  You're not going to see most of the major story arcs for any of these characters on screen, nor should we.  The better option is to do stories that make sense for these incarnations, and feature the growth of these characters from the start of their hero career to whatever end game makes sense (we haven't reached that particular crossroad yet).  There's really been nothing like this in cinema, and Civil War makes a good case for keeping it going as long as it keeps working and growing.

GEEK THOUGHTS

- My favourite character in the mix was Ant-Man, which surprised me as much as anyone, but really I quite loved everyone in this film, even Wanda and Vision.

- I think it's fantastic that William Hurt is back as General Ross (last seen in Universal's Incredible Hulk which starred Ed Norton as Bruce Banner.  No Mark Ruffalo in this one tho. I wonder if we'll see Liv Tyler in Thor: Ragnarok (described as a Thor/Hulk buddy road movie)?  Actually, I know we won't.  Bruce doesn't seem to think all that much about Betty Ross.

- The opening, pre-credits sequence of Black Panther has to be General Ross' Thunderbolts invading Wakanda and having their ass handed to them by T'challa, doesn't it? 

- This film version of Thunderbolt mountain was really frickin' cool.  I want a 20 minute "One shot" for the Blu-Ray showing how Cap breaks in there.

- I loved Tom Holland within 30 seconds of him being on screen.  I'm not much of a Spider-Man fan but they've finally nailed this character. Hopefully Sony let Marvel call the shots for Homecoming, because we can't trust them to make a good Spidey film on their own.

- Wanda and Black Widow both get some great moments here, but we need more female superheroes kicking ass.  I loved the scene of T'challa's Dora Milaje facing off with Black Widow - "Move or be moved", and T'challa's reaction - "As amusing as it would be...".  We need a great Bond-style Black Widow movie, and we need it now. 

- I didn't even mention Zemo.  He's the villain of the piece and he plays his part perfectly.  Akin to how Iron Man 3 skewed the character of the Mandarin, Zemo is skewed here.  Those same purists who complain about the Mandarin will probably have the same complaint but I like how it played out tremendously.

- It's truly hard watching these heroes fight, and there really isn't a "wrong" side. 

- There's a scene of a de-aged Robert Downey Jr. with his parents (John Slattery and Hope Davis) and it's the best it's been so far.  It looks *almost* flawless.

- I also thought Hope Davis was Julie Delpy who played the trainer of the Black Widows in the Age of Ultron flashback, and I wondered how exactly Howard and her met...but yeah, it's just two actresses who look like each other.

 - I'm super excited for everything Marvel has coming up, except Dr. Strange.  There's a character who has never done anything for me.  But then again, none of the MCU characters to this point are long-time favourites of mine, and I've come to like them all.  I kind of wish Tilda Swinton was playing Dr. Strange tho.