Tuesday, April 25, 2017

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Split

2016, M Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable) -- download

If you know me, you could understand why I did a little happy dance on the sofa at the end of this movie. I am so glad I wasn't spoiled, as it was not a traditional Shyamalan twist ending but a nice movie footnote. Not necessary, but nice. The (Shyamalan)man is doing his best to divulge himself of his one-note reputation for movies with surprise endings, after interest in the idea waned. His last two, including this one, are not about that, but I am glad he is not entirely dispensing with his style, which I completely love. We are still pretending that The Last Airbender didn't happen. And I always forget that After Earth was his. So, last four?

Also, this movie definitely had a look about it; I applaud him on using Michael Gioulakis, cinematographer for It Follows. For a movie that takes place mostly in a basement, it just looked good. It had a  wonderful use of the textures, and composition, and the set dressing was impeccable. I always say to film fan friends that I like the classic cinematic ways that Shyamalan choses to shoot a scene, something that harkens back to older days of massive screens where a shot filled every corner. There is one particular shot that brought a smile to my face, a simple one, just of panning from the psychiatrist's book filled room, back to her PC into which an email has just flowed.

Split is about a man with many personalities who kidnaps a trio of girls. He has a nefarious plan for them. Of course he does. In a completely compelling juggling of different roles, James McAvoy switches from one personality to the other as the girls do their best to escape from their captor. All the while one of the personalities is emailing their psychiatrist, needing to confess to the evil being committed and the agenda ahead of them. Patricia & Dennis, as a pair of colluding personalities, have a plan to draw out The Beast, a final personality, a final transformation of both mind and body. And that is what the movie is about, about whether perception is truly reality. If these two truly, utterly believe that their ritual (requiring the young ladies) can transform them into The Beast, then so it shall be.

There is also an underlying plot about victimhood, what makes a victim and what victims do for self-empowerment. One of the kidnapped, play by the again lovely Anna Taylor-Joy, does not join the others in their desires to violently react to their captor. She seems almost... passive. But in flashbacks and intelligent reactions, we see the two have a connection, a shared history of abuse that alters the power dynamic between the two. Its a wonderful little interplay that bookends the violence of the movie.

P.S. Look closely at the movie poster, if you want a hint as to what the footnote is at the end of the movie.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Re/New-watch: Resident Evil: Retribution & The Final Chapter

As mentioned, by this point, I am fizzling out my interest in this franchise. I am wondering what the point was. But amusingly, enough not even re-reading my own words could remind me I was already done last time.

2012, Paul WS Anderson (Event Horizon, AVP, DOA) -- download

Holey Crap, I saw this one in the theatre? I think that is the only reason I tolerated it as much as I did. If it wasn't for Kevin Durand playing a kick-ass, cigar chomping tough guy, I could not have enjoyed this movie less. Sure, the resurrected characters from previous entries as clone bad guys was cute, but Oh Em Gee, the acting and directing is just so.. fucking.. bad. I was in full on I Am My Grandmother mode, yelling at the screen about my frustrations!

The movie is about a crew hired by Wesker (?!?) to invade yet another Umbrella facility to again try and End the Red Queen, that pesky AI that killed everyone in the first movie thus releasing the first zombies on the world. The Red Queen, built in the image of the daughter of the scientist who created the T Virus is doing that whole "save the world by killing the humans" thing. But folks, really, Wesker? P.S. Alice is already inside the facility, captured after getting every single survivor killed at the end of / beginning of the last / this movie. And so we can have a wake up scene. At least this time they offer her a commando suit instead of forcing her to go commando, under a slip of paper.

This time, the escape from the facility is not just the into sequence, but the entire movie. I am sure Anderson thought that was clever. A lot of this movie is clever, as each "level" of the facility is a new environment, including a Tokyo area, a Moscow area and a Toronto (*ahem* Racoon City) suburb area, so we can get that Dawn of the Dead ripoff out of system. And clones of previous characters. And lots of incredibly badly, and I mean BADLY, acted characters from the game.  All along with a well outfitted, well organized merc group, which is pretty good considering the world has already ended.

2016, Paul WS Anderson (The Three Musketeers) -- download

Aaaand the next movie is not much better. If we ended on the dumb dumb note of meeting up with Wesker at the ruins of the White House, as a horde is about to overrun it, then we have to begin there. Or wait, do we? Aren't there more facilities so she can do a wake-up scene? Nope, as this movie is called The Final Chapter we not only dispense with the wake-up-in-a-paper-shift scene but also don't bother with any facilities; in fact, we are on way back to the ORIGINAL facility, The Hive, in Racoon City!!

But wasn't that city destroyed at the end of movie 2? You are not mistaken; it was nuked, but that only ruined the city and left a big crater directly above the entrance to The Hive. And again, as if the Apocalypse hasn't been raging for years, there are survivors hanging out in the city as if things just happened yesterday.

Alice is on her way back, this time to do the dirty work for The Red Queen. As if being coerced and then (duhhhh) betrayed by Wesker wasn't enough, Alice thinks destroying what's left of Umbrella and get the cure (global cure, not personal cure, like she already had and lost) to the T-Virus from the original facility is a good idea. And there are only a few thousand humans left, who are about to be taken down by Umbrella, so Alice better hurry!

The crater sized holes in the plot are to be expected, but the most annoying thing about this movie is the retconning of series. In the second movie, we were introduced to the girl the Red Queen was based on, the daughter of the original scientist that Umbrella used to make the T-Virus. It had been created to assist his daughter to survive a debilitating disease, with the added side effect of creating zombies. When he discovered the side effect, he was ousted. He died at the end of the second movie and she..... well, she dropped of the plot cliff.

This time round, the doctor in question, was actually the head of Umbrella and was strangled by his business partner, Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen) who previously was just an obsessed scientist in the 3rd movie, trying to make Super Zombies. But he took his own drug and died at the hands of Alice, as a malformed Super Deformed Zombie. Or so we thought. No, that was just his clone. The real Dr. Isaacs is now inside the re-utilized Hive along with some other shady figures. They are ending the world before Alice can save it. And there is another clone Isaacs, inside a Battle Wagon on its way to the city.

**SPOILERS** (like you even care)

Boom boom, pew pew, lots of zombies, shooting and other things that usually make this series a lot of fun, but by now are just tiring. There is some PoAp set dressing and a new dragon monster and some too-cool-must-die supporting characters, but they are just window dressing to the return to The Hive. You see, the core to the re-working of the Red Queen's origin is to have Alice/Milla even MORE central to the plot. The little girl Red Queen, whose debilitating disease was some sort of mutated progeria has, since the original movies, grown into a 20sumthin old woman in a wheel chair. And Alice whom we all love and root for, is her clone!!! Insert dramatic music.

Battle battle, explode explode, reveal End Game. Why was Umbrella willing to kill off every last human on the planet, only to have a cure AFTER everyone is dead? Because the core board members, who seem to number in the thousands, are frozen awaiting a cleansing of the world so they can return and control it. Ignore the fact that the world is a ravaged wasteland, it will be there's !!!  Insert evil cackle.

Alice blows it all up good sacrificing her aged self and her T-Virus laden life for the good of the remaining few thousand average humans. Yeah, not so smart. I am sure that facility was full of resources these few human survivors could have used, even if you ignore the potential breeding stock frozen in ice. But no, revenge is good, kill all the bad guys, cuz you are gonna die anyway.

But are you? Alice survives the wipe-out-the-T-Virus cure and now is the really, only, truly Alice. Final Chapter?? Not likely.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I Saw This!! What I Watched Pt. iii

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

Part i, ii are here.

Dollhouse S2, 2009 -- Blu-ray

I did a Season 1 post during its days on Netflix. I didn't get around to a ReWatch post when I cracked the seal on my Blu-ray Xmas gift, but I thought it fitting to do one for Season 2.

Having powered through S1 again, I have to admit, the basic premise, the titillation with the Eliza Dushku doll was not there for me this round. This time it was all about the Bigger Picture, the one I knew was there, behind the scenes happening piece by piece. I believe Whedon wanted this series to be his Westworld, a scifi show with a big moral statement behind all the flash and action and exposition. Unfortunately, S2 was the last season he got, and with due notice, at least he got to rush to the finish line.

We come into the season with all the pieces in play. Ex-FBI Ballard is now inside the dollhouse, working alongside Echo, who has survived her Alpha (Alan Tudyk) ordeal, the 36 personalities seemingly expunged back to doll state. But she is really in there, a unique personality that is separate from her body's own, a person unto herself. The wipes don't work anymore. But she plays a good game for her puppet masters.

The conspiracy spirals, including and excluding characters, with Topher becoming more and more self aware of exactly how dangerous all this tech he has created can be. He has already let it fall into the wrong hands, but can he stop The Apocalypse before it happens? As we have already been exposed to the episode Epitaph One, we know he cannot.

Despite his obvious and myriad flaws, my heart is with Topher this season. He is an amoral man who thought he could ignore consequences and just have as much fun as his big brain could allow. But he is ill equipped to deal with guilt and realization when it comes slamming down. Despite that, he still makes the right decisions.

Now with Whedon knowing this was the final season, he got to go Full On Whedon inviting in all his favourite actors from Buffy and Firefly. Whedon should always indulge, not just to bring smiles to the faces of his fans, but because with the chemistry already there, the interaction becomes effortless. Alexis Denisof and Summer Glau are there briefly, enough to build great characters and further the plot (and I do mean plot) along. But they bookend nicely into the already familial interaction going on with the core cast.

The series ends on a ... well, a low note. We knew it would, as Epitaph One leads to Epitaph Two, where the penultimate episode win still collapses, and the end game of the doll tech leads to the collapse of the planet. Someone releases it into the wild creating a 80s style PoAp world full of rage zombies and a few original personality people who avoid technology while seeing sanctuary with the dollhouse gang. The world may have ended but that doesn't mean they cannot save the day.

A Series of Unfortunate Events S1, 2016 -- Netflix

The older movie was OK. Jim Carey wasn't terrible.

But the idea of Neil Patrick Harris playing Count Olaf had me rather excited. And now that I know what the word twee means, I am rather getting into the aesthetic. OK, it's true, I have always enjoyed the liberal use of mish-mashing timelines.

Plot brief. The Baudelaire children have just lost their parents, and are sent by an upwardly mobile but emotionally stunted banker, to live with their closest living relative, geographically, Count Olaf. Olaf is a terrible actor (community theatre) cum criminal who wants the Baudelaire fortune. He is not worried by the fact that he can only get it if the kids die.

As the title states and to which we are constantly reminded by the narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), things only get worse.

Set dressing, background design, minimal effects, costuming and songs -- all are absolutely brilliant. And so are so many of the performances, but it didn't all pull together for me. I am not sure why, maybe sliding into it being far too impressed by itself. I felt it almost wanted to be Brian Fuller meets Wes Anderson, both in styling and tone. But it never quite achieves.

And I am still amused that they cast Malina Weissman, to look like Emily Browning, from the Jim Carey movie.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

We Agree: Logan

2017, James Mangold (The Wolverine) -- cinema

For over five years (geez dude, we forgot to do a 5 Year Anniversary Post) I have been struggling to come to terms with how I write for this blog. Movie reviews? Blog posts about pop culture? Personal anecdote strewn stream of consciousness writing? A bit from all columns A, B and C ? I constantly waver back and forth between taking it seriously and doing some solid research & study on non-fiction writing and movie reviews, and sticking to my tenaciously amateur which is how I often identify myself in my endeavours. I am yet to find my proper voice.

I suspect Mangold felt the same way about Logan, the man and the character. He directed the bloodless and almost heartless 2013 The Wolverine, the story which draws upon one of the seminal story lines in the character's history. It was not a movie that should have had a PG rating, but on its own, it had at least a stylish feel to it.  As long as you didn't expect it to be faithful. I felt he was trying to tell his story of Logan, not really caring about previous movies or source material. In fact, I wonder now whether he even knows anything about the sources, based on some interviews I read.

This one draws, and is apparent from the get go, the current version of Wolverine in the comics, Old Man Logan. But other than an inspirational near-future story, and a grey haired, scarred version of Wolvy, the source material is dispensed with. Again, I feel Mangold comes into this project with someone else's script, someone else's story but his own idea of how to present it. In this case, I was completely onboard, because, as Kent said, "The studio gave The Wolverine director James Mangold and Jackman carte blanche to tell whatever story they wanted to tell, however they wanted to tell it." And an R-Rating.

So, this movie is both the Jackman Logan and the bloody, fully bestial Wolvy from the comics -- finally. This Wolverine kills people, blades slicing into chests and heads with abandon, jumping from kill to kill. But not without regret. He knows what he is, and it is that knowledge that has led him to where he is -- a drunken limo driver working the seedy side of town, letting the poisonous nature of his own skeleton finally take him down, while completely immersed in self-interest and self-loathing. The comic Old Man Logan had been responsible for the deaths of all the X-Men, but this Logan just seems to have survivors guilt, being the last man standing in a world he can no longer even pretend to be part of.

The movie also draws in Wolvie's successor, X-23. She is the DNA daughter of Logan, a clone made from his genetic material in a lab in Mexico City. And she was also grafted with adamantium skeleton and claws. It is his awareness of her that forces Logan back into the fray, as she escapes the confines of her creators and he has responsibility hoisted onto him. Its not familial, despite the aging, doddering Professor X calling her Logan's daughter, but soon that connection, that little bit of humanity is something Logan clings to.

But, again as Kent said, this is not a light hearted movie. There is very little levity, very few moments of reprieve from the dread and depression Logan feels. This is not a superhero movie. But it is deeply satisfying to see the Wolverine unleashed, but also handled with such sympathy. I like the Jackman Logan, I like his sincerity in playing the character and letting him age along with his own body. And, as a swan song to the character in the current timeline of movies, this was a bittersweet bit of brilliance.

Friday, April 14, 2017


10 episodes, HBO

 As Toasty said in his review show creator Jonathan Nolan "has a theme he wants to explore".  Like his series Person of Interest before it, Westworld is about artificial intelligence, their awakening, and their relationship with humanity.  While PoI looked at it from the most human perspective, championing AI as both subservient tool and omniscient God, but also as a product of how it was designed and who helped it to learn.  Westworld, on the other hand, doesn't so much have a point of view on this as toy with the idea of perspective.  We are destined to create artificial consciousness, or so the show posits, but just how conscious will these beings be?  Characters in the show ponder the idea of humanity of  the "hosts" of a sprawling western-themed theme park, but the show rarely spends time on this idea.  It presents to the audience the idea that the hosts are constructs imitating humanity almost perfectly, but also that they're capable of being so much more than human.  As such we can never look upon them as people, at least, not until "people" in the show are revealed to be them.  Ahem, *spoiler*.

Westworld is a flat-out amazing experience.  It's a sci-fi tv-show with movie-level production values.  With most genre TV shows you're often all too aware of the difference in visual quality and confidence in effects, as much slimmer budgets and production time frames cut corners in telling their stories.  Decisions about how the story is told and what happens often are affected by budget concerns.  Westworld is a rare show, outside TV animation, that seems to be doing exactly what it wants to do at all times and has a budget to support it.  Even Game of Thrones, which has an exceptionally high budget for television, still often visually feels like a mid-tier genre film than an all-out blockbuster.

Production value, however, doesn't make a show on its own (just look at Emerald City).  Westworld fires on all cylinders beyond this regard: it has a phenomenal score, a plethora of great, fearless actors (the amount of casual nudity required is astonishing on its own), and genuinely consumable hook. Like the best binge TV, this one keeps drawing you back in at the end of each episode.  It's one of the many offspring of Lost (and one of the better done ones), asking questions and only providing answers once two more questions are asked.  The first one is, quite clearly, "what is going on here?"  It takes a solid two episodes for the audience to find some grounding sense of the world and its sprawling cast, and even once that's established there a constant sense of questioning motivation as well as reality.

Westworld is a story featuring artificial intelligence, but to me it seems much more a story told about perception, and how we as an audience perceive the world of the show.  It's our perception versus how the hosts perceive things, versus how the humans of the show perceive things, all of which are different.  In the show, characters are forced to rely upon themselves for their understanding of their world, we have to rely upon the storytellers, and what the storytellers give us from practically moment one is an unsettling, ever-shifting foundation upon which reality is built.  In how these characters come to understand their world, we too come to understand it, and look upon it as we look upon ourselves.  The conceit of Westworld is it's a fantasyland, a place to escape reality and fulfill your greatest desires, which could be benign or abhorrent.  Anything goes, and it's all "okay" because these aren't real people you're inflicting your sickest, basest instincts upon.  They don't really think, feel, or remember.  But, as the show notes, what can be most hurtful is what your actions reveal about yourself.

And that whole "the don't really think, feel, or remember" is the great deception of the show, one which is still up for debate by the first season's end.  The hosts are shown thinking, reacting, emoting, remembering, caring, exhibiting fear, anger and despair, and yet it's still just programming, it's still code.  Its veracity must be called into question.  Even the concept that the hosts are capable of improvising and growing and remembering is still undermined by the fact that they have to be allowed to do so.

In ten episodes we learn some truths about Westworld as a destination, we learn some truths about its makers and its owners and its hosts.  We see behind the curtain is another curtain, and behind that curtain yet another.  Even episode ten, which draws back multiple curtains, reveals yet another curtain, with the skirts of more curtains peeking out from behind.  It's all perception.

The most important aspect is how we, the viewer, watch the show.  What the show wants to make abundantly clear to us is that divide between humans and hosts.  When the hosts are brought in for maintenance, they're stripped of their clothing, naked (but in a sense, covered, since their skin is yet another fabrication).  It's a symbolic gensture for the humans, a sign of power and dominance.  That the hosts who start to "awaken" to their reality still feel human feelings around the events that occur to them (beatings, killings, rapes and the odd moment of human kindness) still smacks of insincerity.  The unending torture of their existence only has relevance because of the programming that allows it any significance.  As they become aware, the stock in false feelings should lower, and yet it becomes even more exacerbated.  Ideas like vengeance are far too human to originate from a robot.  And yet, the actors are so good at their job.  At one point I was feeling a sense of sadness at the death of Clifton Collins Jr.'s Lawrence, only to have him turn up at the next scene in a completely different story thread.  That we know this is the show's reality, a Lazarus society of beings repeatedly brought back from the dead, still doesn't lessen the various journeys we take with them.  The genius of the hosts is that they're able to exhibit the emotions but we're the ones who project and empathize with them on a base level, logic be damned. It's the ones that don't connect in the show who seem to be the monsters.  And yet, are they.  Are they monsters for not succumbing to the belief that fake beings are human?  Yet another of the show's wonderful quesitons.

I was reading a review that felt the show was too decompressed, that it didn't progress quickly enough and it belabored some of its points.  I think watching the show week-to-week versus binge watching (as I did) and getting caught up in speculation and debate draws from the show's concept of perception and reality.  Having too much time to think about the questions its posing leads to a greater desire for answers.  I felt in binging that I maybe wanted even more time, particularly in the 9th and 10th episodes which seemed to drop revelations like lead cannonballs as it barrelled towards its finishing arc, while in the background it cleverly seeded more and more and more puzzling questions.  It even managed to use some slight of hand in ignoring the disappearance of certain cast members as it provided first season denouement.  There's always more than meets the eye, despite what it wants you to think.

Westworld is an exceptionally stimulating show, especially in hindsight.  It weaves a very careful story that requires complete coordination between actors, directors, editors, and likely every other department on the show.  Going back to it a second time, I'm sure would prove even more revealing, knowing the answers that you know, and maybe even finding new questions you didn't even think to ask.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Rewatch: Resident Evil: Extinction & Resident Evil: Afterlife

Previous two here.

Resident Evil: Extinction, 2007, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) -- download

Beyond the dungeon rompy fun of the first one, this is really the only entry in the franchise I truly enjoy. Truly, as in, not cringing at bad acting or shaking my head at the weird choices. Of course, it doesn't hurt that its a PoAp wasteland romp!

Apparently zombie virus plagues don't just ravage the human population but also lead to an ecological collapse. Through Alice's expositional introduction, we learn that the world has become mostly desert with bands of surviving humans gathering together for protection. Walking Dead meets Road Warrior meets just about every best bit from other PoAp movies, including Alice rooting the ruins of an already picked clean gas station. It also gives us here best getup for the entire series, including going up against the red dress.

Of course, the movie starts with an Alice Wakeup scene. After a disoriented, (again) dungeony walk through hallways and corridors, she is killed. Woot! Twist! Not Alice but clone Alice, taken by scientists and dumped into a pit of Alice clones all wearing the same red dress. Outside the world is all desert and a massive horde of zombies bangs against the incredibly durable chain link fence outside the entrance to yet another underground Umbrella facility.

This was probably the producers saying, "How can you do a zombie series if it doesn't have some passing resemblance to The Walking Dead. But it abandons that aspect a couple of movies later, so those producers were probably eaten. But the grimy, survivalist look and feel of this movie is the best esthetic they gave the series, IMO. Carlos and LJ are back, from the last movie, but Jill Valentine is missing. There is some comment of how Alice had to hide from Umbrella once she discovered that weird Big Brother umbrella overlay to her iris, once that identified her as being controlled by Umbrella. But she's back and ready to help out the survivors with her telekinetic powers. Those are new.

This movie separates itself from the others in the franchise in that even the bit part players seem to know how to act. You cannot discount good (OK, decent) directing, that I guess will do a scene until it looks and sounds right. Even a bad movie can have decent, believable acting. At least in comparison to later entries in the franchise.

Resident Evil: Afterlife, 2010, Paul WS Anderson (Pompeii) -- download

Original director, writer is back to helm the latest entry, and it is the sign of The End. Seriously, I wish the guy had just abandoned creative control and let the movies actually evolve. Unlike his wife Milla, the series does not age with grace.

Since the last movie ended with Alice allowing the remaining humans of her convoy to escape to Alaska, to find the source of Arcadia, the Last Safe Place on Earth, Alice dove into facility to confront Dr, Isaacs and discover her clones.  Her many many clones.  And this movie begins with that Clone Army (sans white Storm Trooper outfits [replaced by faux Trinity outfits of black pleather]) attacking the Umbrella facility in Tokyo. She is going to destroy the heads of the corp head-on.

If Extinction was Walking Dead and The Post Man, then this is WS Anderson's desire to put his wife in a Matrix ripoff. Seriously, the dude doesn't seem to have one original clue about him. From slow-mo bullet time shots, to dodging down a hallway full of automatic gunfire, craters being chewed out of the cement pillars as she jumps & dives her way through the hail. Dr. Isaacs was killed, albeit mutated Isaacs, in the last movie leaving us to hate Wesker, the Agent Smith ripoff who was played hologramatically by Jason O'Mara (most recently, Director Mace on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in the last movie but is even more generic by Shawn Roberts (yes, I know you haven't heard of him). Wesker escapes from the facility, Alice Prime hides aboard his helicopter and after the ensuing fight, he injects her with Anti T-Virus formula. Alice Prime will be back to normal, tough chick Alice.

Opening Sequence Done.

The rest of the movie has Alice heading north to find the rest of the surviving humans in Safe Alaska. Alas, nobody is there, nothing is there but a bunch of empty planes and helicopters. Aaaand one leftover, wearing a weird red goo filled metallic silver bug. Ali Larter joins Alice and the fly south to LA, a ruined city overrun by the undead horde.

Really, this is the only good segment of the movie, as some surprisingly alive survivors (dressed like this all happened a few weeks ago, instead of years) hole up inside very very tall prison... in downtown LA?  Whatever. Remember, Walking Dead had a prison, so...

But the prison is not the place of interest, even if its the prime segment!

Scrrrriiiiiitch. The sound of a record player needle scratching across an anachronistic LP record.

If I am watching all of these, to enjoy them all over again, in order to watch them again for the latest, and possibly final entry in the franchise, then why are these words not .... fun ? Honestly, not having as much fun as I did the first time round. And if you see my words on the next entry, in its first viewing, by the time I got to that one, all the fun was drained out to be solely replaced by dumb.

WS Anderson can direct his wife, and that is about it. The rest is all pedestrian, repetitive, derivative drivel that I am having a hard time swallowing this time round. I think I now know why they are not on The Shelf.

This one ends on a boat, Arcadia was a crock and Wexler has coaxed everyone into the really clean interior to be subjects of even more experiments. Seriously, what is the end game of this corporation? If 90% of the planet is already a brain eating horde outside, with some small percentage mutating into even nastier things, then ... what? What is the point? What do you do when the rest are dead? Why experiment on the as bio weapons? Who is going to be the recipient of said bio weapon???

It ends on the boat with Alice freeing the survivors only to see a horde of whirly birds (Osprey helicopters) on the horizon. Key Next Movie.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Moving Comics part 3: DC's TV in 2017

Supergirl Season 2 (CW, Mondays @ 8)
DC's Legends of Tomorrow Season 2  (CW, Tuesdays @ 9)
The Flash Season 3 (CW, Tuesdays @ 8)
Arrow Season 5 (CW, Wednesdays @ 8)

While Marvel properties have been having a rather stellar run in the theatres, Legion is their first TV output to match (if not exceed) that high standard.  DC Comics properties, on the other hand have been the reverse.  Their cinematic properties have faltered, making a ton of money but getting critically and culturally lambasted.  Their television output, under the guidance of executive producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim, have managed to create a unified superhero universe that's unprecedented.  There have been shows -- comedies and dramas alike -- that have been part of a greater world, spin offs and gimmicky crossovers that speak to a connectivity (hell, Richard Belzer's Detective Munch has appeared in a half-dozen shows at least).  But never before has such a universe embraced and built upon its connectivity on TV.

With Supergirl's second season moving from CBS to the CW, it's meant greater ties to the rest of the "Berlanti-verse" despite being set in a parallel dimension from it.  The move to the CW meant some cost-cutting, which moved the show from LA to Vancouver, losing the stellar Calista Flockheart as Cat Grant in the process.  But that loss has meant forward progress for Kara Danvers and the show in general.  New sets gave the show a fresh feel (the DEO's now stationed in a high-tech high rise tower instead of a dank cave complex), and the focus of the show has shifted from being less emotionally grounded and into more high-flying superheroics.

Cat Grant was both Kara and Supergirl's mentor.  Through Cat in Season 1 there was a very strong Girl Power message, one that was both fiercely encouraging and also grounded in some very harsh realities about the world.  Those themes and messages are less strong without Cat reaffirming them, but Kara's held strong in her defiance of conventions and stereotypes.  With change afoot, Season 2 also addressed Season 1's biggest weakness, Chyler Leigh's portrayal of DEO agent Alex Danvers.  Leigh has done an about-face and toughened Alex up this season, made her a fierce fighter, and has masterfully handled a remarkable coming-out story.  The romance between Alex and police lieutenant Maggie Sawyer has had it's rough bits of fake-out break-ups but overall it's been an extremely positive, meaningful and enjoyable partnership without ever feeling scandalous or sensationalized.  Cudos on that one.

This season has seen more comic-book elements infused, starting with an unnecessary but nevertheless charming 2-part appearance by Tyler Hoechlin as Clark Kent/Superman.  There was a great side story for J'onn J'onzz where he finds another martian living on Earth, only to discover after he's bonded with her that she's a white martian. James Olson (now heading Catco in Cat's absence) works with Winn (now a DEO Agent) as the crime-fighting Guardian against Kara's wishes.  A Daxamite (a nemesis race to the Kryptonians), Mon-el, arrives on Earth and Kara has to get over her prejudices to welcome him, train him, and get courted by him.  Chris Wood has a goofy charm as Mon-el which both works for the show and for Kara.  The effects are better this season (though it's still TV so it's still not perfect) and the show feels stronger this season, more entertaining, if a little less important.

Where Supergirl falters the most is in its stunt casting.  In theory it's delightful to see ex-Superman Dean Cain as Kara and Alex's dad, and ex-Supergirl Helen Slater as their Mom, and ex-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the POTUS, and ex-Lois Lane and ex-Hercules Teri Hatcher and Kevin Sorbo (respectively) as Mon-El's parents... but to be honest most of these people aren't great actors.  Hatcher acquits herself the best, but the rest verge on hammy, with Cain getting a fairly front-and-center arc which was painful at times.  But stunt casting has been a bit of a staple in the Berlanti-verse, fairly egregious in Flash as well, and I doubt it will stop.

Also in its second season and also feeling an upswing in quality due to some casting changes is DC's Legends of Tomorrow.  Season One was a goofy, fun, superhero-filled spectacle that would have been far better were it not perpetually bogged down with tedious Hawk-people stuff.  The ongoing threat of Season 1, Vandal Savage, proved less and less compelling as the season wore on since the Hawkman and Hawkwoman story became so dire.  Thankfully, the season ended with Savage's eradication, and the Hawk-people flying off into the sunset.  It also featured the death of Captain Cold, and it's really Wentworth Miller's absence that is most sorely missed this season.

As season 2 of Legends opens, Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) has scattered the Legends throughout the timeline in order to save them, seemingly sacrificing himself in the process.  For the first half of the season, as the team collects itself, Hunter is absent, meaning a bit of a power struggle as the team searches for a new captain of the Waverider.  It reasonably falls into Caity Lotz's able and convincing hands as Sarah Lance/White Canary.  She's a no-nonsense captain with a great love for her crew.  It works perfectly.  They're joined by two new crew members.  Vixen (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), a member of the 1940's Justice Society of America comes aboard after her lover and teammate Hourman is killed by Reverse-Flash, and Nate Heywood (Nick Zano), a historian who discovers the presence of time aberrations and manages to become a crew member and gain powers of steel hard skin in the process (becoming Citizen Steel).

Vixen and Nate are vast improvements over Hawkman and Hawkwoman as cast members.  Vixen is a personal favourite superhero of mine, and while it's unfortunate that scheduling with the actress playing the modern-day Vixen (last seen in Season 4 of Arrow) didn't work out, Richardson-Sellers' Vixen sells both the 1940's conservative attitude and fierceness of the character.  Zano has found excellent chemistry with Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer, as a pair creating a humorous duo of goofy, nerdy boys with toys that subs in for the lost duo of Captain Cold and Heat Wave.

This season's key adversaries are also vastly more interesting than last season's Vandal Savage.  Pulling villains from Arrow and The Flash and teaming them up as "the Legion of Doom", we get tremendous scenery chewing from John Barrowman reprising Malcolm Merlyn, Neal McDonough resurrecting Damien Darhk and Matt Letscher as Eobard Thawn (the Reverse-Flash).  One episode this season puts the spotlight on them as a dysfunctional team, and it's rather glorious watching them play off each other.  Their narrative thrust is finding the parts of the Spear of Destiny.  Scattered across the timeline by Rip Hunter, Thawn needs the spear in order to re-write history so that he can still exist at all.  The other two are just in it for the power.  It's such a wonderful comic book-like set-up, the show, for its limited budget really tries to embrace the goofy fun of particularly 1970's-era team-up books.

The shows plots find it traipsing through some very nerdy scenery or interacting with some very nerdy pop culture icons.  One episode has the team interfering with George Lucas' film school education then having to ensure he creates Star Wars, or else Nate and Ray won't be the nerds they are today.   Another finds them in Camelot (much to the woe of my Arthurian-loving wife), while a third ties them to J.R.R. Tolkien during the first World War.  As fan-service, there are definite worse ways to go about it, and these plots all tend to have a very self-aware aspect to them.

If there's a weak point, it's in the show's inability to use its heroes powers correctly.  Firestorm rarely emerges, probably because it's expensive to set Franz Drameh's head on fire for too long, but given how powerful that character is, and how useful he could be in almost every situation, they need to at least come up with some reason why Jackson and Stein aren't transforming all the time.  The Atom's shrinking power, likewise, has been used sparingly, and when it should really be more effectively used it isn't.  That's the problem when a show could use a big budget, but doesn't have it, it makes far too many out-of-character and irrational decisions for them in order to compensate.

Overall though, the cast is extremely well integrated.  They are a charming lot and they connect well together so even if this were a different time-travel show without any superpowers or comics-connectivity it would still be highly enjoyable to watch.  Sure, it's goofy, but it knows it, and it knows how to have fun.

Which is more than I can say for The Flash in its third season.  I call this the "mopey Barry" season, which is disingenuous because every season seems to be "mopey Barry" season.  But this one has been even more so.  The show ended last season with Flash having learned no lessons at all and messing with the timeline yet again by saving his mother.  This season starts with "Flashpoint", a messed up reality where Wally is the Flash and Barry's losing both his memories and powers, and bad things are happening.  Only Eobard Thawn, a time aberration himself, knows what's going on, and Barry has to plead for Thawn to go back in time and kill his mother to set things right.

So when things resume in episode 2, they aren't as they should be.  Flashpoint has fractured time, and as a result some things are the same as the were, but with slight differences all across the Berlanti-verse.  Even the show's most delightful character, Cisco Ramon, is brought to the depths of mopey-land when he learns that Flashpoint, in some respect, caused the death of his brother.  Gah.

Flashpoint has also unleashed the "speed god" Savitar who has a particular thirst for vengeance against Barry Allen.   Savitar, through his emissary Dr. Alchemy, has been returning superpowers to all the people who had them in Flashpoint but lost them in this timeline.  We learn who Alchemy is rather quickly, but there's a mystery as to who Savitar is which the show teases for far too long with not enough conviction.  Yes, another speedster nemesis with a mysterious alter-ego, and unknown motivations with a hate-on for the Flash.  That's three seasons in a row.  It's not necessarily badly written but it is direly repetitive.  Plus Barry's trying to change time, again, this time the future since he's trying to prevent Iris death at Savitar's hands.  This has led to some immensely annoying side stories about Barry and Iris's relationship as they try and work through feelings only people in TV shows have when they're badly written and in need of some kind of conflict.

Flashpoint has also give Caitlen Killer Frost's powers, and the psychotic alternate personality to go with it.  New cast member (and former Draco Malfoy) Tom Felton brings a great disdain for seemingly everything he encounters and is actually a good addition to the team.  Tom Cavanagh shows his range as the new Wells from Earth 19, who has none of the smarts of prior Wells' but 10 times the caffeinated energy and gusto.

This season of Flash has made plenty of mis-steps but having Barry, who's supposed to be the bright center of this TV DC Universe be brooding and mopey and a genuine dick to both Wally and Jesse Quick on a regular basis has soured me on the character.  The show has underwhelmed at almost every turn (a two-part Grodd episode promised a grand goofy story but budget concerns led to something direly lacking in imagination).  That Flash has gone from bright spot to lowlight of the Berlanti-verse is very unfortunate.  It's not for quality of acting, but just poor decisions made for the characters in the writers' room at almost every turn.   Only the Supergirl crossover, Duet, in which Grant Gustin, Melissa Benoist and a host of willing Berlanti-verse participants are caught up in a 1940's romantic gangster musical, showed any true sense of sustained fun (the fact that awkward Iris/Barry relationship drama had to dominate the preceding weeks as set-up was much, much less fun).

Compare this to season 5 of Arrow which has hands down been its best season to date.  Propulsive storytelling has made it a must watch every week, not the sometimes chore it had been in previous season.  While past years have seen a lot of holding patterns and filler episodes, every episode of Arrow this season drives the story and characters forward into the next one.  Not all sub-plots have been outstanding, but the cast, their chemistry and some genuine emotional arcs have all more than made up for it.

What season 5 has done for Arrow, though, is admitted that it started out entirely on the wrong foot.  Arrow in season 1 was an anti-hero, a Punisher-style dark vigilante who was out killing people in the name of justice.  The show managed to be successful and popular, and since its development comic book heroes became more mainstream and accepted so dark turns and cheesy drama are not as necessary in creating a new show.  As such, Arrow has for three more seasons been trying to back-track on it's portrayal of Oliver Queen: murderer, and create a genuine, hopeful hero.

This season though, the showrunners have decided to tackle that troubled past head-on.  The villain of the season, Prometheus, knows Oliver's secret identity and is out to ruin his life.  The team learn that Prometheus is the son of one of Oliver's victims from season 1, and Prometheus is set on making Oliver suffer for his sins.

Oliver also has been elected mayor of Star City, and negotiating that role with his other activities has become exceptionally difficult, especially as one bleeds quite literally into the other.  On top of this, Oliver and Quentin Lance are still reeling from Laurel's death at the end of Season 4.  Thea has quit the life and Diggle has returned to the army.  Green Arrow has inspired others to fight on the streets, which leads Oliver to recruiting a new team Arrow, with Artemis, Wild Dog, Mr. Terrific and Ragman becoming a surprisingly endearing and unique crew.   On top of these new recruits, there's another crime fighter, dubbed Vigilante, cruising the streets, doling out justice the same way Oliver used to.

The new cast members this season have almost all been fantastic additions.  Rick Gonzalez as Rene/Wild Dog is phenomenal, having instant rapport with every cast member, and Josh Segarra has been fascinating to watch as D.A. Adrian Chase, and while Juliana Harkavy as Dinah Drake/Black Canary (the fourth one now) hasn't been given much of a spotlight, she's proven an appealing supporting character and a more convincing Black Canary than Katie Cassidy did last season.

With Oliver's chickens coming home to roost, the flashback thread (usually the least appealing part of the show) takes on more meaning.  This being season 5, the flashbacks need to lead directly into Oliver's return to Starling City as a murderous vigilante, and it has.  Just like the main plot, which deals with Oliver's past actions, so to does the flashback plot.  Oliver goes to Russia, joining his Russian mobster friend from Lian Yu (season 2 flashbacks) to help with a promise he made to another Russian in the Season 4 flashback.  This has led to Oliver's initiation into the Bratva (occasionally referenced throughout the show's run, but particularity in Season 1, again the showrunners really dealing with some spurious decisions from the past) and facing the fabled Kovar (played by Dolph Lundgren in the best stunt casting possible).  An encounter with Talia Al Ghul becomes inspiration for Oliver's fractured persona, originating the Man in the Hood, and, late in the season, delving deep into Oliver's ruthlessness and the toll (or lack thereof) that it takes.

It's a superbly executed and incredibly well acted season.  Even some questionable choices turn out to have real purpose in the show.  It's been incredibly smart, it's portraying Oliver in the best possible light (facing up to his past), and Stephen Amell has been absolutely phenomenal working through Oliver's twisted emotions.  I wish the series had started this strong.  Whereas I feel little to no desire to go back to previous Arrow seasons (despite generally enjoying them), I would rewatch this season again.  It's a tour-de-force, all around, with action choreography that has few rivals on TV.  My only hope is that they stick the landing of this one, but given that the season finales of Arrow have always been strong, I don't have too much concern.

Before I go, I have to talk about the 3-part Supergirl-Flash-Arrow-Legends crossover.  While Supergirl is a starring player in the crossover there's only brief moment at the end of her episode that leads into it, with the whole thing really launching with the Flash's episode.  When I heard they were basing this off of the 1989 event comic Invasion, I was very excited.  Invasion remains one of the best superhero event books ever made.  My disappointment came quickly, however, when I realized that the Dominators of the comic were ugly snarling beast and not the devious intellectual society of the comics.  We really spend no time with them as adversaries and as a result the who "Invasion!" story kind of falls flat.  Their whole objective and the reasoning behind it somewhat adheres to the comic that inspired it, but without establishing them as actual characters it's hard to see them as much other than fight fodder.  On top of that the threat seemed too small scale, and fights in the usual Vancouver warehouses and rooftops were well choreographed but altogether repetitive given what we've seen.

On top of that, the crossover wasn't as cohesive as I would have liked.  I had hoped that since all these shows are overseen by the same producers, that they would be able to make it one big event.  Alas, each show sort of did their own turn at bat, with few supporting cast members crossing over from episode to episode.  It would have been far more delightful to really engage all the cast members with one another throughout the three episodes and build some unique dynamics between characters.  It has been done on more contained crossovers (Joe West and Quentin Lance, Cisco and Felicity), but it would have served all the shows well to truly cross over.  It's the difference between reading an event comic and reading the tie-in issues of regular series.  This felt like a trio of tie-ins, not the event.  That said, Arrow's 100th episode which coincided with the crossover was a fantastic episode of Arrow, but probably somewhat frustrating to Flash or Supergirl viewers who don't watch the show as, like the entire season 5, it really drew on the past and the demons Oliver has to face.

Finally, at the end of Invasion, the comic, the Dominators unleashed a meta-gene bomb which killed a few heroes, mutated a few others and created a bunch more.  Something similar would have really benefitted the Berlanti-verse as a means of explaining the appearance of even more superheroes as the shows run on.  Missed opportunities.

Kong: Skull Island

2017, Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) -- cinema

Now that is how you do empty spectacle !!

King Kong has always been one of my favourite monsters. I remember the terror, titillation and marvel I approached the 1976 one with -- I was 9 when in cinema, so it must have been VHS tapes a few years later. From the Burt Reynolds wannabe (Charles Grodin with a moustache; years later, I realized it wasn't Reynolds) to me sharing the curiosity with the ape as to what was under all those beads to how they would get him off the island. And that poster, with feet a-straddle both of the World Trade Centres as he crushes a jet fighter. All my adolescent fascination with kaiju grew from that movie, as all I knew of the 30s flick was his fight with a t-rex. I own the Peter Jackson flick.

It's easy to say that this movie was meant to be Apocalypse Now with Giant Monkeys, but you cannot deny that Vogt-Roberts drew upon some 70s stylistic choices to depict his Vietnam era helicopter attack squad. Insert three Vietnam era war movies here. Sam Jackson plays their cannot-stop-fighting Colonel on the last day of the war, and when offered the chance to escort some scientist types to The Last Uncharted Island, he jumps at the chance. He knows something is up; you don't bring that many soldiers to a peaceful tropical paradise. You may wonder why they are setting a current King Kong movie in the 70s, but like John Goodman's Bill Randa dropping bombs to map geology, there are methods to the madness.

Once they fly the helicopters past the pink storm (seriously, can lightning even be pink?) we are given briefly over to a Marvel at the Majesty of Untouched Nature chopper flight before Kong tosses a tree through the lead helicopter. I get being distracted by all the pretty, but how do you miss an ape who is able to snatch helicopters out of the air? Where could he hide? That first battle, in which Jackson loses most of his soldier mooks and all his helicopters, is incredible, terrifying and filled with WTF. Dudes, stop flying within reach of those arms!! But it leaves our heroes separated and stranded on the island, Goodman feeling vindicated and Jackson happy he has another enemy to obsess over.

This movie is all, really well done setup. Not a lot makes sense, but this is not the movie of great import. The next few will be. Once we do the wink wink nod nod connection to Godzilla we get why they and we are here. Oh, you didn't know that by now? Puh-leeze; it only took three clips for that the be confirmed, and loudly. Randa was there on that first ship that Godzilla shredded; he was the last survivor. And he is a member of Monarch, that company from the first movie, but in the 70s they are failing, having no confirmed sightings since the military A-bombed Gojira in the 40s. This trip is his, his to confirm his life long obsession. The setting of the movie gives time for young Kong to grow, grow big enough to take on Godzilla. Right now he is Hold a Girl in the Palm of His Hand size, but in the future...

So, obviously, this is not the Capture Kong movies of previous plot fame. This is Get the Hell Out of Dodge movie, as the scientists and soldiers are no longer mapping the island, they are just trying to reach the exfil point before they are stranded. And between here and that point are monsters monsters monsters. And a bit of wonder. This island is chock full of nutzoid creatures, from the giant spider with bamboo legs to the titular Skull Crawlers. We never get to see the ants that sing like birds; maybe in the extended Blu-ray.

And Kong, lovingly CGIed (and mo-cap-ed by Toby Kebbell, who also plays a helicopter mook who doesn't last long) and very quickly our sympathetic beast. He is King after all, and you don't get to be King without subjects. The humans on the island, as explained by wacky Soldier Left Over from WWII John C Reilly, see Kong as their protector from all the other nasties. So yeah, Sam Jackson has to be stopped.

The thing is that for all the spectacular depictions of the island and Kong, the humans are rather a side note to the entire movie. When they are not monkey or monster snacks, they have very little personality and contribute almost nothing to the movie. And don't get me started on the inserted Chinese actor. I get it, China contributes a lot to the funding of movies these days, but for gawds sake Hollywood, work with them. At least the nameless jumpsuit scientists get to be stepped on or taken by flying Sawsharks, but she does nothing in the movie but emote badly and stick around till the very end.

All in all, I can actually say I liked it. But remember, I am the guy who loves disaster flicks.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Underworld: Blood Wars

2016, Anna Forster (TV including Criminal Minds, Outlander) -- download

OK, this is one of those prime examples of where a movie is so bloody (pun intended) lack luster, I barely remember anything about it. It is not that its entirely a bad movie but that it is just completely, undeniably forgettable. If I remember anything, it was that it surprisingly had an in-depth plot, not that I exactly remember that plot. The movie just ends up being a jumble in my brain of bits-familiar-from-previous-movies and a few visual elements. Maybe the movie would have paid off more, in theatre, with no distractions, but I doubt it.

When Last We Left Selene, she had a daughter. A clone daughter? Cannot recall. Underworld: Awakening was also so forgettable/boring that I never even posted about it. It was set 12 Years Into The Future where vampires and werewolves (ok, Lycans) have been hunted into extinction. Yet this movie seems to have forgotten that altogether, but for a off handed comment about there being very few vampires left. But all through this movie, the humans wander around seemingly oblivious to the gothy Vampire The Masquerade rejects in their midst.

Again, the vampires and were lycans are at war, and yet again, another mysterious & skilled leader of the lycans has emerged and the vampires are fearful of him, but not fearful enough to make use of Selene. Remember, since the first movie, she has not been very popular. I guess she became even less popular in the last? Anywayz, they have to trust her, enough to find the Arctic Vampires (snow elves?) who will help them... uh... help them, something. Find Selene's daughter? Selene dies, comes back, gets some sexy white locks in her hair and defeats the lycan's new leader, who has been using the blood of Michael (her beau from the first movie) to make himself Super Lycan.

I don't get it. This is a franchise of middling success, yet they seem to make less sense than even the Transformers movies. There are plenty of incredibly stylish and creative action sequences, wonderful costuming (albeit 90s RPG) and Kate Beckinsale always sells Selene. So, why leave them so bland? Maybe its time for a reboot, with a new, young hot thing to don the leather bustiere over rubber jumpsuit? But maybe we can applaud Kate hanging onto the pistols? Maybe they are waiting for Eve to come of age...

Friday, March 31, 2017

3+1 Short Paragraphs: The Girl with All the Gifts

2016, Colm McCarthy (TV including Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street) -- download

Zombie genre, all played out, some say. Screw em. Thanks to my cousin Tara, I found this incredible book that plays with the idea, once again, to show us we can be the real monsters. And from the book we get a rather decent, if somewhat rushed film adaptation. OK, it's not really the core truth of the book / story that makes it such a fun romp, but how it is executed, which is why the movie was well done, but not entirely successful.

I am going to SPOIL the shit out of this.

The story begins in a classroom, kids tied to chairs, a tired looking woman in casual military clothing teaching them. She is kind to them, and Melanie, more than all the other kids, just adores Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). But don't touch the kids, which military guy (Paddy Considine) shows exactly how dangerous it can be -- he wipes off the pheromone blocker and the nice little kid is instantly converted into a snapping, snarling hungry little fast-zombie. But Miss Justineau believes they are more than just that, and so does Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), which is why every so often, one of the kids disappears, to go under her scientist knife. Until things go terribly wrong.

Remember your zombie sub-genre kiddies, this is infected, more precisely with a fungus that makes them killing, eating machines. Taking a page from The Last of Us, the cordyceps fungus has jumped to humans, and turned us into murderous eating machines. Again, not dead, but no longer really human, the zombies quickly destroyed the world. Dr Caldwell wants to understand how they work and is close, when the lab falls. Thus the opening act (rushed in the movie) of experimentation turns into a PoAp road story.

The notes and beats of the original song are there, but they were played too fast, in my mind. If anything excelled it was Sennia Nanua as Melanie, who really conveys the intelligent child, very aware of what she is underneath. Melanie understands love can overrule the gnawing desire in her gut, but as she watches all the humans around her dispense with any sense of humanity, what example is she left with? And when eventually exposed to (fungal) evolutionary jumps, what side will she choose? Are the humans played out, or is she with her intertwined cordyceps and human mind, the next step in what the planet needs?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I Saw This!! What I Watched Pt. ii

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

Part i here.

Stan Lee's Lucky Man S1, 2016, Sky 1 -- download

I didn't have enough to watch (hah hah) so I went fishing for more. The other side of the pond provided me with a crime procedural cum fantasy come superhero (Stan Lee's....). But no, not a superhero story in the least; they should have paid the man to strip his name off the top. Basically a London cop ends up with a bracelet letting him manipulate chance in his favour. But with consequences.

I loved  this show, but I admit having more than a passing fondness for British procedurals, while also needing a break from the abundance of really dark ones. Given this has a genre element, it was a that much above the rest. James Nesbitt (who we most recently saw as a hobbit with a funny hat) is DI Harry Clayton, a gambling addict cop but a good man at heart -- that's a key point. Sienna Guillory, doing a much much better acting job than in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, slaps a magic bracelet on him, in a bid to have it go to someone who won't ruin other people's lives for their own good fortune. And Harry gets dragged into a conspiracy that wants to own and control fate.

Con Man S1, 2015, Vimeo -- download

OK, Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk in a web comedy about a star of a short lived scifi TV series (*ahem*) who has fallen so far, as to only do the con(vention) circuit. Yeah, its a thinly veiled reference, semi-autobiographical of the guy who didn't do anything after his cult TV show was cancelled. Not Alan Tudyk, of course, as he has kept on acting and acting, most recently the voice of K-2SO in Rogue One. But really, its him. But is not.

These are web bits, 15 minutes or so for each episode with a TON of cameos and appearances by his friends and fellow genre actors. Most of it is odd ball and gimmicky, but there is a "season arc" there, as he tries to reconnect with the fantabulously successful star of the series (Nathan Fillion), and find real work.

What makes this series work is that it is both a mockery of fans and actors in cult scifi, and also a very real ode to them. Personally, I never had much patience for the con crowd, the great unwashed of obsessed fandom. Yeah yeah, a little bit of over-generalizing but you know what I mean. Felicia Day stars as an extreme example of them, a seriously deranged fan (has an ability to always be dressed exactly like Wray Nerely [Tudyk]) full of poop jokes. But really, the worst of the worst are the talent, from Nerely's weird agent Bobbie, Sean Astin (as himself) who has no issue taking his fans for all their worth, Nolan North (video game voice actor) as The MoCap King, and so on...

The season works for the most part, though a few bits strain to escape from sketch copy realms. Of course, Tudyk, as a not completely likeable but at least understandable Hollywood actor, is great.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Moving Comics part 2: once and future X-Men

Logan - 2017, d. James Mangold (in theatre)
Legion - 2017 (Wednesdays @ 10 on FX)
Rewatch: X-Men - 2000, d. Bryan Singer (DVD)

(continued from Moving Comics part 1)

While bland Iron Fist looks bad against a stylish Luke Cage, it has double the misfortune of debuting at the same time that Fox has its two biggest creative and critical successes with its Marvel licensed properties: Logan and Legion.

Logan is the feather in the cap for Hugh Jackman's run as Wolverine.  This, his 9th appearance as the character (and 7th starring vehicle), actually has another Fox-licensed Marvel property to thank for its success: Deadpool.  Last year's surprisingly fun and outrageous R-rated vehicle proved to Fox that adults-oriented superhero pictures actually can be ridiculously successful.  The studio gave The Wolverine director James Mangold and Jackman carte blanche to tell whatever story they wanted to tell, however they wanted to tell it.  Logan, if its successful at anything, it's staying true to its vision (if to a fault).

Using its R-rating to the maximum, the film is set in the not-too-distant 2029, where an ailing and struggling Logan does jobs as a limo driver to keep himself and a mentally degrading Professor Charles Xavier (the impeccable Patrick Stewart returning to the role for a fifth time) safe in their later days.  Their current fates alone is a sorry and depressing state of affairs.  Logan's adamantium skeleton is toxic, and as he ages his healing factor is degrading, unable to fight the poison effectively.  Charles has dementia which means he loses control of his powers when he has his spells and homeland security has labeled him a weapon of mass destruction.  Mutantkind lost their fight for recognition and to be treated as equals, and are all but eradicated on the planet at this point.  But there's a new, young mutant Charles implores Logan to help, a young girl created as an experiment from Logan's DNA.  Logan is saddled with her safety, and ultimately the future of mutantkind.  Lots of claws in the face and through the back of the head ensue.  It's both great and uneasy (particularly when Laura [Dafne Keen] enters the violent melee).

It's a dark, grisly affair, with few (if any) moment of levity, but it's loaded with stellar performances and an unleashed-by-the-ratings-board Wolverine, which I think is what we've all wanted from the character since his 2000 debut in Bryan Singer's game-changing X-Men.  I won't get into spoilers but I will say the ending was not as I preferred, and the general lack of heroes in this film means it's not the greatest superhero movie ever, but it's a damn good film all on its own.

Being set a dozen years in the future allows for a few moments of inspiration and prognostication.  A scene featuring driverless transport trucks and some errant horses is perhaps my favourite moment in the film.  But the film is loaded with great moments, and features an unwavering tone and captivating momentum.  Despite being an utterly bleak coda to the X-Men franchise as we know it, Logan is a triumph on its own merits, a great character study from creators and performers who had an unflinching desire to get something truly inspired out before they left the characters behind.

Legion is an out-of-continuity X-Men story currently airing on FX.  It's the brainchild of showrunner Noah Hawley, the creator of the formidable Fargo TV show, based off a largely unknown and underutilized character from the comics.  There, Legion is the codename for Charles Xavier's son, a mutant with multiple personality disorder, and each one has its own superpower.  Here, Legion is David, who we meet in a mental hospital where he's medicated and unsure of his own reality.

Within five minutes of the first episode of Legion, I was sucked in.  Hawley used music and design to instantly establish a world that was definitely not our own, and editing to highlight the chaos David faces in his own mind.  That asylum set and the wardrobe of the people inhabiting it recall all manner of 70's landmark cinema, from The Shining, to Logan's Run, to One Flew Over The Cuckoos' Nest.  Retro-futurism and surrealism reign, and the sense the we as an audience don't quite know which end is up allows us to sink into David's garbled mind.  At the same time Hawley and company (a terrific team of writers, directors and editors, among other talented crew) cobble David's story together in a most erratic fashion, constructing a narrative like a puzzle, piecing elements of David's past from different times with his present, and then stitching them together with David's memories of the events which could be faulty.

David meets Syd in the hospital, a pretty blonde who keeps her hands inside her sleeves and pulls her track suit zipper all the way up to her chin.  She doesn't like to be touched.  Bad things happen.  It could be trauma (well, it definitely is) but it also recalls Rogue from Singer's X-Men.  We do learn why she doesn't want to be touched and it's not quite like Rogue at all, but it is fantastic.  David and Syd manage to escape their institute, thanks to the help of a mutant liberation group who are fighting a nefarious governmental organization who want to study and control, if not use and abuse mutants and their abilities.

The liberation group, led by Jean Smart's Melanie Bird seeks to free David from the misconceptions he has about himself and his ability.  They assure him it's not multiple personality disorder, but his mutant powers trying to manifest under the cloud of medication.  Unfortunately it never occurs to them it might be both.  They poke around inside David's mind, a form of therapy service thanks to another mutant with the ability to enter into memories, however they discover something nefarious and foreign leeching off David, not just holding him back but clearly traumatizing him.

Stylistic and crazy, playful and dangerous, horrifying and delightful, Legion is the most audacious superhero story yet told on TV or Film.  It's not an exercise in editing, but an actual puzzle story that the audience is presented with, entrusting them to piece it together.  It's intense and trippy, psychologically curious and confounding, and manipulative but never to the point of trickery.   The series opens feeling disconnected entirely from the X-Men source material, but as it progresses it bridges the gap and becomes part of that universe (if not exactly the cinematic X-Men universe). There's dance sequences and body horror, jump scares and trippy astral plain sequences.  Episode 7 is a marvel (no pun intended) in its execution, poetic, dreamy and fiercely intense containing one of the most inspired and harrowing action-but-not-action sequences that the whole show was building towards.  There's a clear "anything goes" direction to the series, but it has a strange internal consistency that grounds it.

It's a short, eight-episode season, but it has a focused drive and no excess.  Given Hawley's massive success with Fargo, FX has allowed each chapter to breath its own breath, most taking a few minutes longer than the traditional 42 minute "hour" slot.  That Legion exists is a gift, but that it seems to be reaching an appreciative audience is even more so (it was announced this week Legion was picked up for a second season).

It's been a long road to get to Logan and Legion from 2000's X-Men, but we've arrived.  The preconceived notion of what a superhero story had to be, whether on TV or in theatres, was pretty much established by Bryan Singer's landmark entry into the genre.  I rewatched X-Men for at least a dozenth time recently and it holds up.  The practical effect and scant amount of CGI have allowed the film to visually age well, and the story is more about character than action which is how it still stands above most of the superhero films that would follow it.

It seemed studios took the wrong lessons from X-Men (including Fox for its sequels) when they just saw leather outfits, shows of superpowers and set pieces.  Far too many movies just stole the surface elements and don't focus enough on the characters or having a meaningful conflict.  X-Men as both a comic and a film, has a double-edged analogy of the awkwardness of puberty (with dealing with sudden onset of supernatural abilities subbing in for hormonal and other bodily changes) and as an anti-prejudice fable.  Singer leaned more into the latter than the former, opening his film with a gut-wrenching scene of young Erik Lehnsherr being separated from his family in a Nazi-run concentration camp during World War II, and his powers suddenly setting in (of which he obviously has no control).  So it makes sense that 55 years later, an elder Erik, now Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) has only the worst taste in his mouth when a US Senator starts sparking outrage and fear in the public over mutants, and looks to register them and their abilities like they were criminals.   Magneto's stance is militant.  His estranged friend, Charles Xavier is more hopeful in humanity's ability to see all people as equals.  The divide between these two men and their approach to this oncoming crisis is where the film gains its conflict.

What's most surprising is how X-Men resonates as a parable even more today than it did 17 years ago.  Still pre-9-11, it didn't quite have the foresight to predict the dire Islamaphobia propaganda war the far right conservative media and politicians have been serving.  At its time, X-Men was just warning off this kind of prejudiced behaviour in general.  Today it's mirroring Trumps America to a frightening degree.  Bruce Greenwood's sole voice decrying mutants is replicated dozens-fold of anti-Muslim advocates in Trump's cabinet and the Republican-led congress and senate with.  Trump has called for registration lists of Muslims and immigrants in America during his Presidential campaign, and his policies are dividing the left into "hopefuls" and "militants".  If Magneto wasn't already a sympathetic villain, he's certainly become even more of one in today's context.

The fact is, the world of X-Men isn't confined enough, isn't dire enough to treat Magneto and his Brotherhood as rebels.  Instead they're terrorists.  It seems that one just has to wait for the situation to get bad enough to become a hero rather than a villain.

The B- and C- story of X-Men are both equally compelling.  Jackman's Wolverine makes his debut, a loner renegade who has to learn to become part of a team, and to accept that he's found a place where he's accepted for who he is.  Anna Paquin's Rogue is our teenage focal. When her life-energy-stealing powers manifest during a kiss with a boy, she runs away from home.  Wether people know she's a mutant or if they just think she's bad news, life obviously became harsh enough for her that she had to leave.  She winds up in Laughlan City (which is, apparently just a trucker bar) where she meets Wolverine, who's cage fighting for money.  Seeing a fellow mutant for the first time, she befriends him, just as they're attacked by Magneto's Brotherhood.  They're save by Storm and Cyclops and brought back to Xavier's School for Gifted Children, and so the story goes.  Few superhero movies since (Marvel's Avengers and Captain America: Civil War the notable standouts) have managed an ensemble cast so effectively.

It's a truly wonderful film, with great performances, and a fairly firm translation of the comics.  Some prefer X-2 which features more action and puts even more focus on Wolverine, but I find it's less focused and somewhat repetitive.  In fact, that each film in the series has in one form or another been about the conflict between Professor X and Magneto and how they view their struggle, it's a series in dire need of a refresh.  Which is what both Legion and Logan bring to the table.  The struggle mutants face is still a key facet to these stories, but they are character studies in their heart, which certainly helps in investing in them.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Moving Comics Part 1: Power Men and Iron Fists

Iron Fist - 2017 (Netflix)
Luke Cage - 2016 (Netflix)

The Marvel Netflix shows to date have been generally quite good, though not flawless.  They are built for binge watching, featuring storylines that propel you through the series, instilling a desire to consume the story as fast as possible.  As I've noted with Daredevil seasons 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones there tends to be lag periods late in each run as the showrunners have to draw out their ongoing plots over 13 episodes leading to a few draggy episodes along the way.  It seemed that the Netflix crew had been slowly solving this as they go, with season 2 of Daredevil and Luke Cage both featuring enough engaging diversions and side-tracks that there were less holding patterns and more character movement (if not always story movement).  But Iron Fist, sadly, feels like it's almost completely comprised of holding patterns.  Where the other Netflix shows felt like ten episodes of story drawn out over thirteen parts, Iron Fist feels like a movie's worth of story painfully stretched over it's 12 and a half hour run time.

Iron Fist makes too painfully aware the fact that these Netflix series don't have much sense of fun in them.  They're self-serious to a fault, as a result, the flaws become more pronounced, and tend to linger in the mind more than the positive aspects.  Iron Fist doesn't need time to let the flaws float to the forefront, they're glaringly obvious from the beginning.  Blase acting, wildly erratic characterization, tragically predictable (and direly boring) story threads, sub-par martial arts choreography, lazy production values, and a total lack of defining aesthetic.  Where Iron Fist fails most of all though is in a completely uncompelling and unconvincing lead.

Finn Jones (late of Game of Thrones) took a lot of shit when the casting for the show came out.  There was pre-casting hope that Iron Fist would deviate from its "white savior" origins to feature an actor of Asian descent in the lead, a direction they obviously didn't go with.  There would have been many great reasons for this type of proactive switch, chief of which would be putting an Asian character as the leading man of a high-profile series where he's the hero and also the romantic lead, something actors of Asian descent rarely get to do in American entertainment.  There's really only two reasons not to do it, one being that Iron Fist is traditionally white (a poor excuse in any book) and the other being that his being a white guy is necessary for the story.

To be painfully honest (and I stress the painfully here), having a white actor play Danny Rand -- a whiny, mopey, petulant, spoiled rich kid who managed to steal a great power from a true champion and then abscond with it for his own petty reasons (it's white entitlement to the Nth degree) -- was kind of necessary for the story being told here.  It would be less convincing if an Asian actor were in the role...not that such an actor couldn't pull off spoiled, rich and entitled, but I would go as far as to say, for the story they're telling here, it's rather crucial that Danny is white.  At the end of the season, it becomes clear that Danny's outsider status in K'un Lun and his selfish nature, his personal crusade and his lack of responsibility aren't positive character traits, and despite being sage and wise, the leaders of K'un Lun almost certainly made a mistake in choosing Danny as Iron Fist.  In the show, Danny said he wanted the role of Iron Fist simply to take it, which just screams white entitlement from the mountaintops.  He earned it, but he also literally took it.  The role of Iron Fist is meant to be protector of K'un Lun and Danny abandoned his post almost immediately, like Indiana Jones stealing the ingot at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark and running like mad to escape with it to the "civilized world". 

That all said, he's not a very likeable character, and the direction the showrunners chose to go with him, at almost every turn, seemed a misstep.  The colonialism analogy they perhaps sought to exploit is never adequately dealt with.  On top of that, Finn Jones clearly doesn't have much of  a sense of who this character should be or what his motivations are scene to scene.  He speaks most of the time in a whispery growl that conceals any real acting skill or emotion.  He pouts, he whines, he gets angry, and mostly just looks confused, but Jones portrays these with only surface level acting.  There's no sense of conflict, no sense of awareness of a man who has had fifteen years of training in meditative and martial arts.  Jones and the scriptwriters' portrayal of Danny Rand is almost child-like, as if he were still the 11-year-old who crashed in the Himalayas and were frozen in time, then came back to reality with a certain set of skills but no emotional growth or wisdom.  Naive and juvenile, particularly in Jones' hands .  Somehow the badass Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) falls in love with him.  Deep into the show's run, Jones started to remind me of Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels.  He was a young actor who likewise didn't have a sense of who his character was beyond the surface level emotions and wasn't given much guidance in delivering his lines convincingly. On top of that, Jones' physical performance certainly doesn't smack of someone who's really trying to give it their all. 

What the other Netflix shows had that Iron Fist does not is a solid supporting cast.  Here, beyond Colleen Wing, our main supporting cast is the Meachum family.  Ward (Tom Pelphrey, channeling Eric Roberts like no man should) and Joy (Jessica Stroup, given the most inconsistent character in the show) were Danny's best friends as a child, while their father, Harold (Lord of the Rings' David Wenham attempting - but failing - at scenery chewing), was Danny's father's partner and best friend.  Ward and Joy now run the Rand business and are threatened by Danny's return.  Harold died from cancer shortly after Danny and his family "died" in a plane crash, but was resurrected by the Hand (sworn enemy of K'un Lun) and has been in hiding for 15 years, manipulating Ward and Rand Industries from the shadows.  These threads do all fold together, and would be satisfying in a more compressed format. Dragged out as they are they feel inessential, to the point that Ward and Joy seem to have their own story operating independently from Danny's which just feels like filler.  Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Ann Moss) both return from other shows, and their characters, having been previously defined by better showrunners, breathe some life into this staid cast (Clare has a particularly good rapport with Colleen).  But still Jones tends to suck the air completely out of most of the scenes around him (though he has the odd moment where it seems like he accidentally gets something across effectively, mostly when partnered with Henwick).  It seems clear well before the halfway point of the series that Danny Rand  a supporting character neither charming nor compelling enough to hold the lead (he's the Joey of the Defenders group of Friends).

The show features dueling clashing soundtracks, with an 80's-inspired synth score and title sequence that seem stolen almost directly from Tron Legacy, and a hip hop soundtrack mix from 2002 that I find hard to believe 11-year-old Danny would actually have listened to.  It takes on some dumb relevance between Danny and Colleen, but I think is hamfistedly meant to presuppose a kinship with Luke Cage, you know... because rap.  Both soundtracks are actually highlights of the show, but neither fit the story or its themes or characters well.

The fight choreography is an uneven mix.  Jones evidently didn't learn martial arts to any great degree (the fact that I long for a Keanu Reeves caliber performance here is painful to me) and it shows even to the untrained eye.  His movements scream "poseur", inauthentic and flawed.  His fighting is slow and sloppy and the camerawork fails to make up for it with lots of distance shots, quick cuts and inserts, and bad body doubling.  Henwick is a lot more adept at fighting, and her fight sequences easily outshine any others on the show.  Episode 12 features Colleen in a duel in the rain that is one of few highlights in the show.  While Episode 8 features another, with Danny in a fight (hood-up for stuntperson) against a "drunken master" (played by a thoroughly charming Lewis Tan -- who could have made a great Danny in a much different iteration of this show [and I just learned he was close to actually being such] -- shows he has some impressive action chops, but when your comparison in drunken mastering is always going to be Jackie Chan, you're always going to come up short).

Iron Fist isn't necessarily unwatchable, but it's vastly substandard compared to what's come before in Marvel's Netflix offerings.  That it visually makes actual New York City look like Vancouver standing in for New York City is telling.  It doesn't take advantage of its setting in any meaningful way and never doesn't feel like a 90's syndicated, made-in-Canada genre program.

Compare Iron Fist to Luke Cage, Marvel/Netflix's previous entry in their Defenders set-up.  Luke was introduced in Jessica Jones as a love interest with a haunted past.  He was an ace supporting character who, like Danny Rand, has some difficulty being the lead of his own show.  However where Iron Fist fails in support cast and style, Luke Cage delivers.

Luke Cage is rife with supporting players, from Simone Missick's defining role as police detective Misty Knight, to Mahershala Ali's breakout performance as mob boss Cottonmouth (which alone deserved an acclaim, his later Moonlight Oscar-win a just reward for the nerds in the crowd), to Alfre Woodard's Black Mariah, to Theo Rossi's Shades, to Ron Cephas Jones's ever lurking performance as Bobby Fish, to Frank Whaley as Misty's corrupt partner Scarfe (erm, spoiler) and Erik LaRay Harvey just chewing scenery as Diamondback (and lest we forget Frankie Faison as the inspirational Pop and the requisite Claire Temple intervention with Rosario Dawson).  While Luke Cage feels a little neutered compared to his comic book counterpart (in the comics Cage is much more aggro while Mike Coulter's Cage is more hesitant and reflective) and perhaps too conservative and even a little dull, the supporting cast brighten everything up around him.

The show has style in spades, a vibrant neon palette with yellow, blue and pink washes that hearken to a four-colour world while stepping outside of any comic book confines.  Of all the Marvel Netflix shows, Luke Cage is its most playful, going bigger and broader in its storytelling, as a reflection of it's big and broad title character.

Another stylish aspect -- one which practically makes the series --  is its soundtrack.  There's an impeccable score by the team-up of composer Adrian Younge and hip-hop producer extraordinaire Ali Shaheed Muhammad but that's not even what I'm referring to.  Luke Cage incorporates a host of amazing live performances from Raphael Siddiq, Jidenna, Charles Bradley, Faith Evans, Method Man (who also acts as himself against Luke Cage in a cameo) and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings all to an utterly compelling effect.  It sets a scene, provides mood and atmosphere, and formidably entertains.  Cottonmouth's club in the show gets used (and abused) an awful lot, but few shows have so effectively used a single set to such an extent.

Unlike the other Netflix Marvel shows, which try to tell one large arc with a few small diversions, Luke Cage as a season is practically cut in half as a result of the two distinct key opponents Luke faces in Cottonmouth and Diamondback (Black Mariah rounds out this iteration of Marvel's Serpent Society and is a constant fixture of more subtle manipulation) and is better off for it.  Luke Cage more than any of these series embraces his comic book origins, most specifically in the episode detailing the origin of Luke's powers.  It's gaudy and goofy and silly in a way these Netflix shows otherwise direly try to avoid or temper, as such it feels drastically out of place, but at the same time it's just so unabashedly wonderful and, dare I say it, fun.  Likewise the flashbacks for Mariah and Cottonmouth embrace a Blaxploitation aesthetic, while still providing real gravitas and meaning for the characters. Luke is a massive, super-strong, virtually indestructible hero, so it makes sense some of his opponents would use external factors (like friends, family, loved ones, Luke's secrets) in combating him, while others would find technological ways of fighting him.  Even still, Luke's own worst enemy in his show is his reticence to fight, to expose himself, to commit to his cause.  The self doubt angle isn't a bad one for a show about a man who can't be hurt, but it's something Luke Cage in the comics doesn't seem to face, and therefore feels antithetical to eat up so much real estate in the show.

Beyond being the most lively Marvel Netflix product, Luke Cage also arrived at a very important time.  During a rash of young black men being needlessly shot an killed by police across the United States and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, a powerful, proactive, bulletproof black man became instantly iconic.  The show seemed to have some trepidation in having Cage face off against police, and when they did do it, they didn't go too overtly topical with it.  But within the show, they acknowledge the symbolism of Luke Cage (Method Man does a live rap about it), and it feels good, it feels hopeful and inspiring.  Again, it's only slightly disappointing that Luke is so hesitant a hero and so congenial compared to his comic book counterpart.

As I noted, these Netflix shows aren't flawless.  Luke Cage's worst folly is actually the fight sequences, which are almost all clumsy and clunky.  Luke is a bull tearing through a china shop, and that gracelessness shows in almost every fight.  Where the show's talented directors excel in virtual every facet, the way they shoot fight sequences is almost universally poor.  One particular moment keeps sticking in my mind, a shot of Mike Coulter early in the series fumbling to find his grip on the sweater of a bad guy extra firing a gun on a staircase above him.  That this moment, part of a longer sequence in the fight, remained in tact speaks to the limitations of the budget of the show.  The strive for longer, uncut fight scenes was a good idea in theory, but without clever choreography, it tends to get tedious and uninteresting fast.  Cage's strength and invulnerability could have been used much more creatively.

Of all the Netflix Marvel shows, Luke Cage is the one I want to revisit the most, primarily because of the live performances but characters like Misty and Cottonmouth became instant favourites.  I still think Jessica Jones has had the strongest season as a whole, but Cage has so much more style.