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.

Rewatch: Resident Evil & Resident Evil: Apocalypse

I said it when I saw the previous entry in this franchise, and I guess we are continuing the tradition, as we rewatch all the previous Resident Evil movies before watching a download of the latest. Guilty pleasure? No, not guilty at all. But with every viewing, I do see more and more how terrible they can be. But I can do some mini-coverage of them, as I watch over the next few weeks. Yeah, it takes me that long -- see previous post, so much TV to watch. P.S. And surprisingly, I don't own these for The Shelf; I guess a collected edition of Blu-ray hasn't caught my attention yet.

Resident Evil, 2002, Paul WS Anderson (Soldier) -- download

This is the intro, a video game movie, taken from a Japanese series of games from waaaaay back in the Sony PS1 days. I played a bit of the first one, just after Marmy got me a PS1, and she came home to find all the lights in the apartment on, Mukey and myself curled up on the sofa (feet tucked up, of course) eyes intent. It was The Licker, that sneaky motherfucker, that had us freaked out. Alas, the games never continued for me; I do not have the attraction to the standard type of Japanese video game.

This is also a Milla Jovovich vehicle, through and through. This takes the young hot, ex-model and turns her into a kick-ass zombie-killing machine. I admit freely -- I bought into it entirely. And she doesn't even enter the franchise based on one of the existing characters, but as an entirely new one, Alice the ex-Head of Security for Umbrella Corp. Those blue eyes are dreamy.

Locationally based, this edition of the movie series is great. This is one of the few examples of applying a video game feel to a movie, and have it work. Moving from room to room, the characters fight different examples of the enemy Umbrella has put before them. I suppose you could call it a dungeon crawl? Almost immediately half the security force sent in to quell the zombie hoard is lost to the laser grid room; one guy dying from shock? Dude, sure all your coworkers died, but you only lost fingers!!

Eventually they are picked off one by one, until only Alice and The Nice Guy are left. We end the movie with a nip-slip transition from the Escape from Research Facility into the post-zombie-apocalypse Racoon City which is where the games actually begin.

So, an entire movie as origin story.  Huh.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse, 2004, Alexander Witt (this was it, all he ever directed) -- download

From a rather fun room crawler that gives us an intro to all the fun zombie elements from the game, we jump directly into a proper zombie apocalypse story as the T Virus (blue goo that makes you a zombie) is released into Raccoon City. How will Alice, and her new friends, escape?

This is a terrible terrible movie. The acting is so unbelievably bad, I would almost say Uwe Boll was running the show. And it goes to show that a director has a great part to play in how well an actor does in a movie. The plot is all over the place, not really knowing what it wants, but to toss Alice into some cool scenes which don't make a lot of sense. I get that jumping a motor cycle through a stained glass window looks cool, but was there a ramp on the other side? So, the long dead can be infected by a virus? I am not sure that is how "animating dead cells" works, or does that also mean there are tons of shed skin cells out there acting all zombified, albeit microscopically?

The movie drags us back to a final fight scene in Nathan Phillips Square between Alice, Umbrella security and the monster that The Nice Guy morphed into after his allergic reaction to the Licker scratch. We had a momentary theory that maybe Raccoon City was actually Toronto, not just shot in Toronto. Seriously, what has Toronto become known for in the last few years? So, in an alternate world, it was named for the masked bandits that wander the streets and alleys after dark. Unfortunately, that is dashed when we hear them mention "state officials" near the end of the movie. Raccoon City is in an unnamed US state.

Again the movie ends with its own leader into the next, as the captured Alice (wait, wasn't she dead?) is resurrected by Mad Scientist 2 -- Jason Isaacs had a brief flash of a scene as MS 1; this is Iain Glen as Dr. Isaacs. Weird namey connection. Takeaway from this scene? Alice is infected with the T Virus and she is able to come back from the dead, as herself, and not a zombie. She escapes, but does she? Dr. Isaacs lets her go, but peeks through her now flashing umbrella symbol eyes. You'd think people would notice that.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I Saw This!! What I Watched Pt. i

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.

The last series of TV posts was mega. It started in August, and ended in December. It referenced a similar (series of) post(s) that started in January and ended in February. I watch a lot of TV, and since I don't have enough I download even more. And since I don't have enough, I go looking for more. At the very least, I can say that 2016 was very very good for TV.

As previously mentioned, we had Stranger Things, one of the best things on TV at the time. We also had West World, also the best thing on TV at the (later) time, and arguably the best of the year. While not Best Thing, Outcast and Daredevil S2 were also very good. So, what else did the season give us?

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency S1, 2016, BBC America -- Netflix

I said this to David (another David, no not Legion David, and not another of his/my personalities) that while I thought Stranger Things was the best thing on TV at the time, I did think that Dirk Gently was the bestly done thing, or something to that effect, probably with better grammar. Or not; we were at Thirsty & Miserable. The remake/relaunch/entirely new thing based on the Douglas Adams book(s) was so skillfully written, so wonderfully shot, so lovingly paced and plotted, it sometimes took my breath away. Even the music had me Googling (did you know that Willow [from Buffy] was the first popular user of Google as a verb?) who-does-that.

First thing up, is that I have to admit, I am not Douglas Adams biggest fan. I liked Hitchikers alright enough, but not in the way Marmy (J or Jacq is Marmy, but not for a long time, but since this blog connects me to that headspace, she retains the moniker here only) does. I did not like the Dirk Gently books. So, she watched the first episode or two without me. Then I wandered into the room, got enthralled, like instantly totally entirely enthralled with silly weird annoying Dirk and charming ever young damaged Todd (Elijah Wood), and the weird time bending otherworldly adventure they get wrapped up in.

I would say he was dragged into it because of Dirk, but that is not how the world works for Dirk, as things happen holistically for him. They happen because they are supposed to happen that way, because that was the way they were going to happen all along. He's a detective who detects by letting events just drag him along. For Todd the events are strange, bizarre and incredibly (like, mega) coincidental and he already has enough shit going on in his messed up life without Dirk and his colourful leather jackets and sports cars. And time travel and mind swapped thugs and murder and (so!!! much!!!) mayhem.

What makes this series so wonderful is that there are so many bits. So many interconnected, wonderful bit all cross connected by seemingly unconnected plot devices, but really they are. Some of the bits are very integral to the plot, some are just small sticky bits. Like life. FBI agents and missing persons cops and a growling van full of rowdies and a corgi and a time traveller and a rock star and a sister with a mysterious disease and a holistic assassin and a sensitive body guard and a girl who barks like a dog and ... and ...  and.

While establishing the basis for a full series, the show also did a wonderful job of just being an entire entity unto itself. If they never got renewed, then this could be just as satisfactory on its own, like Stranger Things was.

Luke Cage, 2016, Netflix -- Netflix

First there was Daredevil, the wonderful Netflix series that set the tone for another iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was followed by Jessica Jones which led almost directly into this one. They all take place in New York City after the alien invasion from The Avengers, in a world where powered beings are emerging, in all walks of life, in all neighbourhoods. We travel from Hell's Kitchen to The Bronx to reconnect with Luke Cage, after his bar was blown up in Jessica Jones, as part of the antagonist's mind fuckery. And in a few days, we will have the final series Iron Fist.

Already the Netflix shows have their own tone and intent, and I will not say gritty, but they are more down on the ground, more about real, approachable people. But Luke Cage decided to do something I in my inestimable knowledge as a Generic White Guy am completely qualified to comment on -- it chose to focus on a superhero from the Black American perspective; entirely. But seriously, you cannot deny that our privilege provides us with the majority of the superheroes on the screen. But Luke is not supporting cast; this is his story, him front and centre, in Harlem, that boogeyman of a neighbourhood from pop culture. The show does not just make the political statement, it gives us a fascinating world of current events (gentrification of Harlem), musical history (the show focuses on a revived nightclub, an analog for famous Smalls Paradise) and exactly how much the disenfranchised (the people of Harlem not benefiting from the gentrification) need a hero to call their own.

The show starts with Luke holed up in a neighbourhood barber shop, wisely using his super strength to sweep up hair. He is still recovering from the loss of the bar, and the knowledge that Jessica was used to kill his wife, and almost getting his brains blown out, but not really. He is hiding and suppressing all that super strength and invulnerability.

Enter Mahershala Ali, as "Cottonmouth", a gangster from the streets made good, who is doing the admirable thing of resurrecting the famed Harlem club Paradise. Luke washes dishes at the club when he is not sweeping hair. Misty Knight, an undercover cop wants to take Cottonmouth down. A kid who also works at the barbershop gets mixed up in Cottonmouth's business and brings it back to the shop. Thus the escalation begins, which draws Luke out of his hidey hole. Stand back and let bad things happen, or step up and choose to be a hero. That is Luke's dilemma.

His choice is obvious, to us.

If Daredevil was all about a relatively normal strength man (albeit with super powered "vision") fighting and getting the shit beat out of him, Luke Cage is the nigh invulnerable superhero action we want. Draped only in a hoodie, he wanders directly into the path of harm, to have bullets bounce off him in every direction. If Daredevil wanted to recreate the hallway scene from the original Old Boy, then this one takes it and twists it, bends it and throws it through the wall. There is so much good, old fashioned superpowered beat em up in this show.

The problem with writing from memory, from last Fall, from a show that we basically binge watched over a week, is that episode to episode it has faded. I remember the tone and intent, but I don't remember the particulars. So, let's not recap.

Luke Cage does an admirable job of combining social commentary, reworked superhero canon, origin story and an entirely new story telling tone (of any of the MCU pieces) all into one superhero package.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: Midnight Special

2016, Jeff Nichols (Mud) -- download

Despite its lack of love at The Oscars, Nichols also did the racially sensitive flick Loving that at the very least brought Ruth Negga to the Dolby Theatre for her Best Actress nomination. Yes, I am kind of belittling the importance of the movie (which I have not seen) but I like Ruth Negga. Before that, he did this odd nod to E.T.  and other movies where someone of alien origin must run from the authorities, and people even more dangerous. No, this is not a stretch at a Trump metaphor.

Alton is spirited away by his father Roy played again by Michael Shannon, and his father's childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), from a religious cult that make use of Alton's strange prescient powers, powers that are drawn out of him via brilliant, overwhelming beams of light from his eyes. Alton is being drawn to a location, a location the cult wishes to control and the government is fearful of. Nobody really knows where he is going. But they all give chase.

We don't quite trust Roy, but Alton does implicitly, as does Lucas, who went from being state trooper to fugitive, all on Roy's word. We never know quite why Alton is so important to the cult, but Roy just knows anything is required to keep Alton away from them. It is this tension that keeps dragging us along despite little in the way of explanation. Nichols doesn't see the need for exposition, but we get reminders of Alton's power along the way, also to remind Roy in case he is beginning to waver. I see less Spielberg and more Proyas (think Dark City or Knowing) but with precision focus on the humans involved.... until we hit the end. Of that ending, which I will not spoil, which ends the chase but leaves sooooo many questions, for not just us, but the entire world.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Emerald City

NBC, Fridays @ 9pm (10 episodes reviewed)


When last I wrote, I spoke of the darkness currently pervading life right now.  It's not just my life, but seemingly everywhere.  Darkness and dark thoughts seem overwhelming, stress and stressors are more rampant than ever.  The things that are bright and good have largely gone dark as well, particularly in our popular culture.  Superman, a symbol for truth and justice, a symbol of the American way has been popularized in two movies as having incredible waves of doubt, being counseled by his own parents to be selfish and protective, rather than altruistic.  I spoke last of Riverdale which takes the perennially sunny gang from the Archie Comics world and places them in the midst of statutory rape, murder, and slut shaming stories.  In that same vein we have this (relatively) new series from NBC and director Tarsem Singh, which turns the stories of L. Frank Baum's Oz on their head and then bashes them into the floor.

Emerald City was ordered with a 10-episode run for its first and probably only season.  It's intent was to take a known property and attempt to capitalize upon the success of Game of Thrones, by injecting sex and excesses of blood into the mix of a fantasy world.  The problem with this, of course, is that the Oz books and its characters were conceived as entertainment for younger readers (but intended to delight all members of the family).  Baum's Oz was not an idyllic fantasy land by any stretch, but it was one of wonder, mirth and whimsy.  Baum's stories were riddled with playful language, eccentric characters and vibrant fantasy, so that the darker tidings only felt like passing shadows.  Emerald City is all shadows, with nary a hint of sun.

Dorothy of this series is a mid-twenties nurse, adopted into a family with a passing knowledge of her real mother.  As expected, a tornado casts her from her small town roots in Kansas into the treacherous world of Oz.  Armed with a police officer's pistol and a German shepherd by her side, she's dubbed a witch by the local tribal village and cast out.  She meets an amnesiac man crucified on the side of the road, a wound in his side, tarred and strawed.  She helps this quasi-scarecrow and dubs him Lucas (after her hometown).  He's starry eyed and handsome, tall, rugged and cut.  The sparks fly instantly.  But the witch of the East has taken an interest in Dorothy's sudden arrival and starts to torture the two of them.  In the process Dorothy convinces a curious East to "try her magic" and she ends up shooting herself in the head.  It takes a witch to kill a witch, apparently, and a manhunt for Dorothy ensues.

Along the way they meet Mombi and Tip, the latter held prisoner by the former, convinced her entire life that she's actually a boy.  Helped by Dorothy and Lucas, Tip is freed and on the run with her friend Jack, but when Jack starts ogling a confused Tip's true form, an accident ensues and Jack is left for dead.  Except Jack is saved by a kind scientist who makes him into a tin man, and a servant of the face-changing Princess Languidere.


Dorothy eventually meets the Wizard (after first encountering West, the opiate-addled witch in the service of the Wizard, proprietor of the Emerald City brothel), who is clearly a charlatan who gained power after somehow casting out "the Beast Forever".  After taking rule, he outlawed magic, only allowing West, East and Glinda to continue their practice alone, and in his service.  We learn it was the Wizard's incursion upon Oz from Earth that brought the Beast Forever forth, and similarly, Dorothy's arrival bodes ill.

Nobody in this interpretation of the Oz stories is particularly good, and only in short, fleeting spurts can they be considered sympathetic. Even Dorothy's singular-minded search to return home betrays the logic of what she has found in Oz.  There was no sense of a real life for her back in Kansas, and it's quite clear she has a purpose here.  Yet, the show waffles between her conviction to helping and her desire to get out to the point that her motivations never feel solid or true.  As our focal character this makes the show very hard to invest in.

The Wizard is our second POV character.  While in previous interpretations he has always been a fraud, here he's very dangerous and power-mad.  Most other stories find a man who has gotten in over his head.  There's a sense that the show is trying to make a Trump-ian allegory with the Wizard's literal witch hunt, but it doesn't really stick to it with any real conviction.

Tip and Jack mark our C- and D-characters.  Tip's frustration about gender-bending is understandable, but the show misses the mark in really tackling the idea of trans issues and what kind of confusion people might actually feel.  Generally Tip is just angry all the time and it rarely manifests into any sort of meaningful insight into her character (and of course any Oz fan knows she's Ozma, the lost Princess of Oz, but it's taken 8 episodes to reveal that).  Jack meanwhile struggles with his relationship with Languidere, a clearly sociopathic young woman who has no idea what it means to have friends or feelings, really.  The purpose of Jack's story in the overall narrative isn't entirely clear beyond needing a tin man.

Every character in the show feels like a botched attempt at making them "for mature audiences".  Glinda is the most palpable example.  She's historically known as "the good witch" but in this show's efforts to subvert all we know about Oz, she's as nasty, conniving and manipulative as everyone else.  Oz isn't a magical place here, there's no wonder, and absolutely no joy.  It's oppressive and bleak.

Every time a character is given motivation, it's altered or disrupted by something else.  There's no clear through line for them or the show, no sense of purpose, no real justification for existing, beyond the Game of Thrones/Oz mashup.  It feels like a "we better do it before someone else does" conceit.  The stories and characters feel rushed and not well thought through, which is odd given the rather exquisite production values it has.

Tarsem Singh is known for his rather lavish visuals in films like The Cell, The Fall and Immortals.  He knows how to compose a picture to be sure.  He and his location scouts are beyond compare when it comes to finding unique and arresting environments to situate his stories in.  His wardrobe department here is top-tier movie quality, Languidere's masks alone each a work of art. But as with all of Singh's films, the stories and characters fall flat against such astonishing visual design.  Singh decided to direct every episode of Emerald City and it has an intangible visual consistency that almost no other TV show can match as a result, but at the same time, the stories and characters don't feel appropriately guided.  It's not unwatchable by any means, but it's certainly lacking in real gravitas or emotion.

Even the casting -- which was done on an international scale, bringing an easy multicultural feel to the production -- is admirable.  The players here are mostly new or new-to-America faces, but some are recognizable like Joely Richardson as Glinda and Vincent D'Onofrio as the Wizard.  Everyone seems to be invested in the production, nobody seems bored or doing it for the paycheck, but at the same time, motivation seems to be as lost on the actors as it is on the audience, leaving a lot of puzzling acting decisions.

Throughout the show's run, as my enjoyment of it ebbed and flowed, I could never shake the feeling that this show is an aberration against everything Oz should be.  There should be playfulness and joy, there should be awe and wonder.  There should be brightness and goodness at every turn, keeping any darkness at bay.  Instead it's a beautiful nightmare version of a familiar land and story. 



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016, d. Gareth Edwards -- in cinema


I can't believe it's taken me this long to write about a Star Wars movie.  It just goes to show how burnt out I was that I couldn't find the time over a two-month span to write about the latest installment of a franchise that has dominated my brainspace more than any other piece of entertainment.  But after a fourth viewing this week (and seeing that Toasty has posted his review), I figured it was high time I lay down some thoughts.

First, with each subsequent viewing, I love it more and more.  I said this to many people (Toasty included) this was the Star Wars movie I have wanted since I was a kid.  This is the Star Wars movie that skirts around the outsides of what we see in the original trilogy.  This is the side story of the side characters doing their side things.  This is a deeper peek inside the operations of the Empire and the Rebellion.  This is a look at the societies that get caught in their crossfire.  This is a look at the grey area that Rebellions must operate in, breaking laws and making sacrifices.  These aren't the big-hearted heroes with toothy-white smiles, these are the gutter-trenches, heavy-hearted heroes doing what must be done.

When I was a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to just explore the halls of the Death Star, to take in visually every square inch.  I would try to map out in my brain where corridors went based on what we see in A New Hope and the toys that came out, but it never made enough sense.  I would watch Star Wars (practically every Sunday, like it was church, for a time) and just marvel at the backgrounds, wondering where that hallway leads, or what would it look like if Luke and Leia ran the other way?

Rogue One takes us to the ground level of the Rebellion versus the Empire.  Director Gareth Edwards did such an amazing job with Godzilla in establishing scale in that film that had such hope he would do the same here, and he delivers in epic proportions.  We see how ships scale against each other, and against the Death Star.  We see troop on the ground looking up at AT-ACTs in a way Empire couldn't manage.  We see epic disasters loom large.  It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

One of the things I admire most about Rogue One is how it delivers big spectacle but with purpose.  Outside of mainly Christopher Nolan pictures, most films build stories around set pieces.  "Here's a cool action sequence we thought of, now how do we get the characters there?"  Here, every "set piece" emerges organically out of the story, and there are plentiful set pieces.  Characters never feel like they're in arbitrary danger for the sake of audience manipulation, this film flows smoothly -- perhaps too smoothly --  such that the characters always feel like they belong in a scene.


The main complaint about the film is the characters, however, about being too thinly cut without much definition.  It is true, there's not much here for most of the characters. But there is subtext.  The performances here are rather incredible all around, from Riz Ahmed's Bodhi Rook to Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso to Alan Tudyk's K-2SO, everyone is invested in their character, they know what motivates them and they know who they are.  After four viewings, I draw more and more out of their interactions with each other, their relationships get more and more defined, and their characters reveal themselves.  This is an utterly rewatchable movie, partly because it's so damn awesome looking, but also because the subtext of the characters and their relationships leaves much of their interpretation to the audience to draw out.  There are certainly worse ways to handle characterization than "less is more".

As a lifelong Star Wars nerd, I am somehow in awe of this film.  The prequels disappointed in story and character (the spectacle was quite good in many cases) and Episode 7 was like a clean break from all the heavy, depressing debate over whether the prequels irreparably destroyed Star Wars.  It had spectacle, but not like this.  Episode 7 was what we expected.  Rogue One provided so much more.  Planet-hopping, the Death Star, so many different space ships, gun fights, espionage, all out war on the ground and in space.  The space battle leaves me drooling every time.  It's just so phenomenally well-conceived and intense.  Even during the fourth viewing I was still saying "wow" out loud.

Rogue One also serves to fill in one of the life-long major plot holes in the original Star Wars, ie. howcome the Empire didn't know about the flaw in the Death Star?  And this movie is built around that very question and it provides a thoroughly satisfying answer.  What I love is this is its own movie.  It's got its own beginning, middle and end.  It feels heavyweight and important on its own. Rogue One is not a "prequel" to Star Wars, nor is Star Wars a sequel to Rogue One.  They're complimentary sides of the same coin.  In a weird way one completes the other and vice versa, yet neither absolutely need the other.  Had this been the first Star Wars movie in 1977, I would have be just as all-in as I was with George Lucas' original vision.

It's a darker movie than any Star Wars we've seen before, far more intense in its violence (but it's still just bloodless laser blasters).  Even still, it's not necessarily only for older audiences.  It's exploration of the grey side of war, and the casualties it brings can be important for kids to see and talk about afterwards.  My seven year old loved it (she's seen it 3 times now).  But it's really up to a parent to know their kid's tolerance levels for cinematic violence.

This one is in my top 3 Star Wars films already, and could very well edge its way into #1, sentimentality for the originals be damned.  It's such a fantastic, well realized production that it sucks me into the world like I was 10 years old again.  I want to watch this every Sunday for a good long while.

Monday, March 6, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: The Monster

2016, Bryan Bertino (Mockingbird) -- download

David, stop downloading movies that would be a great choice for Days of Halloween 2017 !! Too late, but I also have Pet but maybe I can distract myself for another 7 months before viewing it? Anywayz, The Monster and no, not Trump. I realized this morning that I didn't have enough current events references in my blog-posts-not-movie-reviews and that would require constant connections to The Orange One, Ctrumphlu.  Maybe not.

Anywayz!! The Monster is a small pic, an isolated horror movie that takes place on a rainy night, on the side of a road, mostly in a broken down car. Kathy and her daughter Lizzy are on their way to Lizzy's father's place, to basically dump Lizzy on the guy. Kathy is a drunk who probably should never have had a child, and she struggles with that every day. And Lizzy is blatantly aware, but as all lost little girls do, she still loves her mom. When the car breaks down, instead of rescue by tow truck or cop, they get a monster whom Kathy has to do everything in her power to keep from killing the two, or at the very least, her daughter.

This is an ambitious movie, that constantly tries to have us relate to the parentally challenged Kathy via regular flashbacks, interspersed with the alien-bear-like creature lurking in the rain on the side of the road. We are being led to understand the protagonists, not the antagonist, as Kathy is being led to understand her own capabilities. The monster is just that, a monster. There is no mythology, just a mom tenaciously defending her daughter. Skipping most of the cliches, but never reaching the maternal instincts height it wants, this was a mostly successfully small horror flick.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: Hacksaw Ridge

2016, Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ) -- download

I might as well get some more Oscar fodder into these posts, since the only cinema viewing I did for them was Arrival. This movie is the unexpected honour to a man that has not been very popular in Hollywood these days, after  alcohol abuse, anti-semitism and domestic violence. It's not like he hasn't been around, with acting in The Beaver and Blood Father but he hasn't been the most popular guy of late. Now he is back with a solid war movie and a lovely girlfriend on his arm, whose relationship, I have to admit, weirds me out. I am the first guy to admire a 50+ guy dating an under thirty woman, but when you see them together, there is .... no warmth, no connection, despite his statements about such. It reminds me of the look you see on the 5th wife of a polygamist cultist in a movie of the week.

Anywayz, I am able to separate art from artists, and I like war movies. And I also like the idea of highlighting a good man, as Hacksaw Ridge is about a war hero who didn't pick up a gun nor kill anyone. He spent his entire war (in this movie, a single battle) acting as field medic, running into the fire to drag back the wounded bodies of his comrades. And slap a grenade or two away, for the money shot in the trailer. I commend the movie for making this more about man of conviction, than about a man of God, despite the clear fact he is. The baggage of its director comes into play as we show a man beset by violence in his life, his own internal struggles, and the demons of his father who fought in the Great War. We are made to feel for these damaged men and commend them for overcoming their internal wars.

As a war movie, its pretty formulaic. Training scenes, self doubt, conflicts with squad mates and a later begrudging admiration, blood & guts and pirouetting bodies, unexpected heroism, tragic loss, etc. And every so often there is a scene, so lovingly shot, so beautiful in its choreography, it felt entirely out of place. Dude, decide what you want here -- parable story, tortured men or the beauty of horrible war. In the end, I came away satisfied by a good story about a good man, but bothered by Gibson's ... pieces. But why shouldn't a movie be by and about a trouble man seeking to be better? I am just not sure I believe Gibson.

Friday, March 3, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: The Last King

2016, Nils Gaup (Shipwrecked) -- Netflix

Vikings on skis ! Well, that would be your tagline if you assumed all the Norwegian peoples were vikings. Technically vikings were the sea faring raiders from the Nordic countries, meanwhile at the end of the "Viking Age" there came the civil wars in Norway. Here endeth the history lesson.

Haakon is the illegitimate infant son of the just murdered King. His Birkebeinar loyalists are hard pressed to keep him protected from the assassin Baglers. Skjervald, who only recently retired to become a farmer, is driven to re-join the protective ranks with his best friend Torstein, played by Game of Thrones Kristofer Hivju (Tormind Giantsbane; the only real reason most people are watching the movie), and save the child king.

We've all seen medieval action flicks with chase scenes on horse and with carriage, but have you seen it on skis?  Seriously, the medieval Norse used skis to get around their country, with only a handy spear as a single pole, gliding down serene mountain-scapes, cross-countrying through the pines, and crab walking up the hills. Eventually, the Birkebeinars, made up mostly of farmers and peasant folks, have to stand up against the Baglers, who are backed by the Church & foreign nobility, in order to save their rightful king. Big battle, sacrifices, tragedy, king saved. But I am sure the skis bit will make it into a few adolescents D&D games, if adolescents still even play D&D these days.