May 6 2012

The Avengers

Friday was opening day for Marvel Studios’ latest installment, The Avengers (2012). There’s been a great deal of talk and build-up for this movie, including five or more leading titles (e.g., Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America (2011)). As far as Hollywood was concerned, this movie was a huge gamble. Marvel took a handful of successful franchises and lumped all of them together in one movie hoping that the whole was greater (or at least equal) to the sum of its parts. If the movie tanked, it could do harm to a long list of sequels that are waiting in the queue: Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor 2 (2013), Captain America 2 (2014), Doctor Strange (TBD), and Avengers 2 (TBD), among others. Mark Ruffalo, the third actor to play the Hulk inside 10 years, already signed-up for 6 additional movies before The Avengers even premiered (internationally). To add to the gamble, hit-or-miss writer/director Joss Whedon (who had no blockbuster movies under his belt before Friday) was brought in to direct and work on the screenplay.  To his credit, Whedon did scribe a short run of Astonishing X-Men comic books a few years back (2004), but that’s hardly the same. We can only assume that Marvel was banking on Whedon’s geek credentials (i.e., Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)) and his ability to craft story-lines and enjoyable banter with lots and lots of characters. I’m not a huge fan of Whedon, but I must say that Marvel made the right choice.

The first Avengers (team) comic book was published almost 50 years ago, in 1963.  At the time, the team included Iron Man (check), Hulk (check), Thor (check), Ant-Man (missing), and the Wasp (also missing). Dr. Henry Pym (e.g., Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket) had a quasi-cameo mention in Thor; he was mentioned as being a colleague of Dr. Selvig but his name was omitted. Janet van Dyne (i.e., Wasp) appeared in Thor, but her diminutive CGI form didn’t even earn her a mention in the credits. So why were these Avengers left out of the movie? Who knows? Perhaps there was too much back-story, and not enough time to explore it? Hawkeye (who first appeared as Goliath in Avengers #63)  and Black Widow (who didn’t join the team until Avengers #111) had already been featured (somewhat) in the leading movies. But it might be as simple as: What straight male director would pass-up the opportunity to squeeze Scarlett Johannson into a leather body suit, and not ask for multiple takes, retakes, call-backs, and a private stash of IMAX quality outtakes? To Marvel’s credit, at least the villain is the same as Avengers #1, Loki. That’s where the similarities begin and end. In the movie, the Avengers are summoned together as part of a SHIELD initiative, in the comic they were inadvertently drawn together by Loki himself, who was trying to avoid the attention of the Fantastic Four. Although it’s not canon, I think Whedon (and Marvel Studios) took the better path.

So what about the movie? Well, due to my desire to see it on opening night (and a last minute scramble to coordinate plans) the only reasonably timed tickets available were for the 3D showing. I’m not a fan of 3D movies, in fact I’m surprised that the gimmick has endured as long as it has. Compound that with the fact that the theater was PACKED when we got there (20 minutes early) and we ended up seated in the obstructed view nosebleeds *sigh*, I’m surprised I enjoyed the movie as much as I did. Did it live up expectations built atop four years of leading movies? Yes and no.

Let’s start with “no”. On the one hand, I think they did about as good as they could have done with the material. On the other hand, the movie lacked much of the charm and storytelling that made the individual movies so entertaining. I felt like I’d seen the action sequences a hundred times before. Large sections of these could been been cut and spliced into movies like Cloverfield, Transformers, War of the Worlds, Godzilla, et al. without anyone noticing  the swap. I felt that Loki’s army was lacking. If you’re going to take over a world, you might want to attack more than one city?! Okay, I guess there’s limits in all things, including the Cosmic Cube (sorry, the Tesseract). I also felt the invading army (i.e., Chitauri) were poorly defined. In the Ulimate Marvel Universe (a re-imagining of the Marvel universe, launched in 2000 by Brian Michael Bendis), Chitauri = Skrull. These were Skrull? The Skrull are shapeshifters! I don’t think there was one person in that theater that realized the Avengers were fighting an army of shapeshifters! Also, lets take a moment to address the SHIELD Helicarrier. At what point do the people at SHIELD get the hint that a flying aircraft carrier kept aloft by four giant turbines is not a great idea. Let’s see… Anything else to bitch about? With the exception of Asgard, Marvel Studios’ other worlds look like sytrofoam rock landscapes. Black Widow and Captain America seemed next to useless fighting their little street-battles while the heavy hitters (e.g., Iron Man, Thor, Hulk) were tearing into the aliens above (this may be unavoidable). I could go on… Ask me sometime and I will!

Let’s end with “yes”. This was a team-building movie. It was never meant to delve deeply into character development, back story, exposing personal demons, &c. It was meant to tell the tale of how the most powerful people on the planet could come together to take on a force that no one of them (except maybe Thor) could have taken on alone. In the end, the conflicts and relationships between the characters became more enjoyable than the overarching plot of Loki’s Army. My favorite moments were slapstick: Thor and Hulk, Hulk and Loki. I was still laughing about those while doing yard work. My favorite character going into the movie, Iron Man, didn’t shine nearly as bright as I’d hoped. Hulk on the other hand, was much more enjoyable than I expected (a surprise given his lackluster appearances of late). Thor was Thor, no better or worse (which in his case, wasn’t a bad thing). Black Widow, the same. Hawkeye left me unimpressed (learn to hold a goddamned arrow!). Captain America seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

Looking back through this, I’m surprised that this review sounds so negative. Avengers was a good movie. I was excited to see all the superheroes on the same screen at last. The more I think about it; however, the more I wonder whether squeezing all of this into one movie was a wise idea. Should it have been a two-parter? Some of the movie seemed rushed. The first time we “meet” the Hulk he goes on a rampage, but the next time he’s in control and has a sense humor? We were never really introduced to the Chitauri/Skrull, one of the most important alien races in the Marvel Universe, which were instead relegated to shooting gallery targets. At no point did the alien invasion look like it was going to be succeed. Not that there was ever a question how things would eventually turn out, it would have been nice if there had been SOME suspense. I was also looking for more Easter Eggs, which Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios) said were “distracting” so they left them out.

I must apologize for the rambling structure of this review. Not only am I out of practice, but there are far too many elements to this movie, many of which I haven’t scratched the surface of. I guess I should summarize before this becomes a book. Whedon did a fine job. The movie was enjoyable. Character interactions were handled well. I’m looking forward to the next movies. There was little or no suspense in the final battle. The last (there’s two) post-credit scene is great.

“He’s adopted.” – Thor

4 out of 5


Jul 28 2011

Captain America

Detail of Captain America Comics 1

This past weekend we went to see Joe Johnston’s comic book adaptation, “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). Leading up to Friday’s release, I eagerly watched the reviews trickle into Rotten Tomatoes. The first reviews were disheartening, at one point dropping to 33%. As more reviews posted, the numbers clawed slowly upward, reaching a mediocre 77% at the time of this review (days later).

The character first appeared in Timely Comics’ “Captain America Comics” #1 in 1940. The cover depicted the patriotic hero punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw (see insert). Nearly a million copies sold. Compare that to Captain America #618, which sold 44,748 copies in May 2011. There’s no comparing Golden Age and Modern sales numbers. Where was I? Oh yeah, 1940… This was one year (to the month) before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. According to Wikipedia, sales of the comic book soon out-sold news magazines like “Time”. After the war, sales ebbed and the title was eventually cancelled in 1950. Despite efforts to revive Captain America, he did not return for good until 1964 in Marvel Comics’ “Avengers” #4 (nope, not an original member) when (retcon alert) he was rescued from the north Atlantic, having been entombed in ice since a plane crash during the war. *deep breath* All that being said, making Captain America appeal to the movie-going audience was not an easy task. The director had to take a 70 year old superhero with an unwavering moral compass, dress him up in red, white, and blue, put little wings on his head, and weave a story and background that would establish him as a legendary fighter and protector of the American Way in one movie… both to reintroduce him to the public, and set the stage for Marvel Studios’ next big release, “The Avengers” (2012). Not only that, but they needed an actor that could fill the Cap’s shiny red Three Musketeer boots and make it all work.

Yes, I’ve been waiting for this movie for years, but also dreading it. Marvel’s plan to tie their franchises together, also means that any serious misstep could bring down the whole project. If Captain America turned out to be a joke, then the Avengers were screwed. The first glimmer of hope was signing on Joe Johnston, director of “The Rocketeer” (1991). If anyone could make a superhero period piece, it would be him. The next announcement (as I recall) was the casting of Chris Evans, of “Fantastic Four” (2005) infamy. *ugh!* In all fairness, he was enjoyable in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) as Evil Boyfriend #2; I just couldn’t see him as Steve Rogers (aka Cap). So after all of this preamble, I entered the theater with low expectations (the second best way to see any movie, ranked close after “primed with margaritas”), found a seat, fidgeted my way into the most comfortable slouch I could manage, and watched the movie unfold.

Nobody expects a superhero movie to be the next “Citizen Kane” (1941).  Science fiction (especially comic fiction) requires a temporary suspension of critical thinking. The ideas and characters presented in comics were originally designed to entertain children, so if you have some capacity to recapture that sense of wonder and awe, they become much easier to appreciate. If you can’t suspend your disbelief (sometimes it’s just not possible), perhaps you can use it as a window to remember how you used to see the world. Or, just enjoy the action; there’s plenty of it. After skipping through the impossible (or unlikely):

  • A super-soldier serum that can’t be reproduced
  • Vibranium, a metal that absorbs vibration
  • A round shield that returns like a boomerang (how does an object that absorbs kinetic energy ricochet?)
  • A 1940s invention that simulates anti-gravity (still bitter that it’s 2011, and there’s no flying cars)
  • A man that lives without skin on his head (insert skinhead joke here)
  • A man that can survive after being frozen for 60+ years (spoiler?)
  • A relic with limitless energy (you saw “Thor” didn’t you?)

You’re left with a movie about a little guy who is given powers and uses them to do the right thing, repeatedly. Sound boring? Yeah, it does. Which is another reason why Johnston and his scriptwriters deserve a lot of credit. Despite being bound to the source material, they managed to make an enjoyable story. Unlike numerous other movies that I can think of, where you just couldn’t give a shit about the main character, Chris Evans manages to make Steve Rogers a likeable guy. Even when he’s kicking Nazi ass left-and-right, you still get the sense that he’s the little guy, given an opportunity to make a difference. At their core, that’s what all traditional comics were about, reversing the balance of power (“Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1941), anyone?). It’s an enduring theme that will always have appeal. Johnston and company retold the story again in this movie, and they did a good job.

So why only 4 out of 5? The movie jumped around, a lot. It spanned all of World War II and then jumped to the present. While this was necessary because of the impending Avengers movie, it still seemed rushed. That, and I didn’t care for the make-up job on Red Skull. While Hugo Weaving was adequate, I think his head needed to be more craggy. I don’t know, it just bugged me! Also, as others have pointed out, the motorcycle chase might as well have taken place on Endor. Despite everything, I loved the movie’s ending; the Captain’s last words brought home just how down-to-earth this hero is, and left me with a lump in my throat. Anyway… a good movie, worth seeing, especially if you intend to see the Avengers next Summer.

“Whatever happens, stay who you are. Not just a soldier, but a good man. ” – Dr. Abraham Erskine, prior to the super-soldier experiment

4 out of 5


Aug 13 2010

Inception

Nope, no new book reviews yet! I haven’t found / made much time to read lately so I’m still mired somewhere in the last half (third?) of the same book I was reading in June. I realize that this means there will forever be a missing July 2010 archive on this site (i.e., no posts) and for that I am very, very sorry. I apologize to my all my completist readers. *moment of silence* But August is a new month and as the Summer trips and stumbles into Fall, there are movies to see. Movies are much easier than books. You pay your $20, let the story flow over (and deafen) you for two hours, and you’re done. Most of the movies I’ve seen this Summer have been conveniently forgettable, so I don’t even have to be bothered with thinking about them ten steps outside the cineplex (other than that nagging sound in the background of someone complaining that we just wasted $20 on a movie). This weekend was different however. This weekend we went to see Christopher Nolan’s dream-scape tragic thriller “Inception” (2010). Leonardo diCaprio (I’m still warmed by the thought of Jack Dawson disappearing into the depths of the North Atlantic) stars as Cobb, a veteran dream-runner tasked with planting an idea into the head of Cillian Murphy (the Scarecrow from Batman Begins). Seems pretty straight-forward, right? Well, not so much…

Dream stories always risk being cliché. Blurring the boundaries of reality and dream is one of the oldest tropes: “The Wizard of Oz” (1939),  “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Brazil” (1985), “Newhart” (1990), and many antecedents, e.g. “A Christmas Carol” (1843). What sets “Inception” apart from the crowd is that from the outset, it defines the mechanics of dreaming and then goes nuts within the parameters of that sandbox. Not satisfied with the trope of a character that wakes from dreaming uncertain whether he’s still asleep, “Inception” involves dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams (within dreams?).  While this might sound silly (and to a large extent, it is) the rules set forth at the beginning of the movie are followed throughout. Complicating things further, each subsequent layer / depth of dreaming allows for an exponential dilation of the passage of time.  In other words, in the time it takes for a van to fall off a bridge, a dreamer could live a lifetime embedded within a handful of nested dreams. Despite a dizzying amount of action, the events remained internally consistent. Even the soundtrack to the movie (based on “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien“) can be used as a metronome to determine what level of dreaming the action is taking place. Kudos for that! As usual, I got wrapped-up in the story and after a while stopped looking for problems. Which isn’t to say there weren’t problems, just that I didn’t see them (admit to them) until they were pointed out to me… *sigh*

In summary, “Inception” was an enjoyable movie that left me thinking, not about anything particularly deep but about the effort and execution of a well-planned, complex story. I think if other fantasy movie-makers took the effort to plan-out and clean-up their stories from the beginning, we wouldn’t leave theaters disappointed quite so often. A movie worth seeing.

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung

4 out of 5


Jun 7 2010

Splice

This weekend we went to see Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi horror hybrid, “Splice” (2010).  The movie was produced by Guillermo del Toro and stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as geneticists and Delphine Chanéac as Dren, the monster. The movie is yet another remake of Frankenstein (maybe with a little Left Hand of Darkness thrown in)… and not a very good one at that. There are two scientists instead of one. The scientists use genetics instead of alchemy. The monster is female instead of male. But beneath it all, the story is about researchers who decide to make a human-like hybrid using multiple genomic sequences, the amazing result of their haphazard efforts, and their inability to cope with the resulting sentient creature. As Frankenstein’s monster was rejected by Victor, Dren is treated like an abomination and shielded from the world.

Not everything about the movie sucked. It actually started pretty good. The acting was good (given what they had to work with). The resulting “monster” looked like it had stepped out of the video-game Half-Life or possibly the Skyrealms of Jorune. The animation was good (not fantastic, but good… no real CGI innovations here). Dren’s early reactions were interesting (observing things monocularly always looks odd). It looked like all the elements were there for an enjoyable, if not good movie. Then, things, changed.

Maybe things changed before I realized it. Maybe I “accepted” too many leaps (logic, story, believability) before realizing that the whole story was silly. It could have been the ability to knit together the DNA of several animals into a viable chimera without first amassing a bloody pile of horrific miscarriages… It could have the strange morphological changes (eyes migrated from the side of her head) in Dren as she grew to accommodate the actress that played the final creature… It could have been the anatomical “surprises” evident in Dren (and her slug precursors Fred & Ginger) despite being subject to x-rays, MRIs, &c… There were a number of problems and most were evident DURING the movie… not as “way-homers“. Perhaps my biggest complaint was the ending. How does a movie with a good amount of promise turn into a B horror movie? The movie should have ended with the vat… As the scientists shut the barn door, believing the monster to be vanquished, the camera should have panned down through the murky liquid and found eggs. I know that sounds a little “Species” (1995), but it would have been better than the Bat Boy ending that we got. In summary, the slugs were best part of the movie.

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

2.5 out of 5


May 11 2010

Iron Man 2

On Saturday, we went to see the latest Marvel Comics superhero movie. “Iron Man 2“, directed by Jon Favreau and starring the usual cast of characters (sans Terrence Howard as Rhodey, for whatever reason), should have been as good as the original but sadly (and not unexpectedly) it wasn’t. While there was plenty of armored combat, repulsor beams, explosions (there MUST ALWAYS be explosions!), humorous dialogue, pseudo-science gizmos, Marvel universe cross-referencing, and Scarlett Johansson (who looks like a dwarf next to Gwyneth Paltrow)… the movie became bogged down by shortcomings more than it was buoyed by its flash, action, and volume (I can’t remember a movie being this loud since hearing thundering bass of “Earthquake” (1974) in the next cinema over from where I was watching some drowned-out kid’s movie… which escape me). Anyway, the movie was enjoyable but not great. Why wasn’t it great? Well, read on… but be warned, the details are SPOILER HEAVY.

Now, before I go too much further, I should point out that Iron Man has always been one of my favorite (if not THE favorite of my) comic books. I write about a lot of things on this blog that I’m not an expert on (not even close!) but I’m very familiar with the Iron Man canon (post-Tales of Suspense, pre-Bendis retcon). I have an Iron Man #1 (1968) which I cherish above all my other comics (which is to say: it is rarely touched by photons); I also have read nearly every Iron Man issue from 1968 through 2009 (even though many were reprints). That being said, there was no chance in Hell that I was going to miss seeing the movie on opening weekend, especially after the great job they did with the first one. We found seats toward the back of the theater (the place was packed) and waited for the lights to go down. After some forgettable trailers, the movie started, and my excitement died soon after.

Where to begin? The Iron Man Dancers (you probably saw them in the movie trailer) were ridiculous. I understand they were meant to be evidence of Tony’s inflated ego, but they looked more like the cheerleaders from “BASEketball” (1998). Why would Tony build a suit (the War Machine prototype stolen by Rhodes) with a self-contained power-source when just a few scenes before he was claiming that the armor was more of a prosthesis (powered by his arc reactor heart)? The use of a prototype of Captain America’s shield to align a particle accelerator? *sigh* The creation of a new element: Unobtanium was lame, why go that route again (too soon!)? It would have been so much more believable if the City of Tomorrow infrastructure showed Tony a way to properly shield his body from the palladium (Pd) (that was poisoning him), rather than give him a blueprint for a new element (that could be synthesized in his basement). And finally (though there were more) his deus ex machina laser lance that ended the movie’s penultimate battle in a decidedly un-Iron Man way (pre-Secret Wars); I guess the uni-beam isn’t flashy enough anymore? Also appearing was Mickey Rourke (enjoying a Hollywood resurgence in a series of brutish roles) as a Russian version of the villain Whiplash (not canon, but no problems there). Scarlett also put in a commendable performance as super-spy assassin Black Widow. I’m sure much of her acrobatics were computer generated but it was still nice seeing her wrap her thighs around the heads of half a dozen men (even if she did proceed to snap their necks). Sometimes you just need to thankful for what you get get!

All told, “Iron Man 2” is an action packed movie and plenty of fun. Lower your expectations a bit before you find a seat and make sure to stay through the credits for a tiny preview of what’s coming next…

“If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.” – Ivan Vanko

3.5 out of 5


Apr 19 2010

Kick-Ass

On Friday night, we went to see Matthew Vaughn’s movie adaptation of Mark Millar’s 2008 comic book “Kick-Ass” (2010). The movie follows a number of “real-life” (i.e., no super powers) people who decide to don superhero costumes and fight crime. Although the movie is ostensibly about high school nerd Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) and the creation of his crime-fighting alter-ego Kick-Ass, his part is completely eclipsed by 11-year old commando/assassin Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and batman wannabe Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). The movie feels like the retarded (*sigh* so soon after reading “Flowers for Algernon” too…) but lovable crotch-fruit of “Spider-Man” (2002) and “Wanted” (2008), which unsurprisingly is another Mark Millar creation. So, what about the story…

The story is pretty straight forward. Teenage boy decides to make a costume and fight crime. He has no training and gets the shit beat out of him, repeatedly. Through a particularly bad mishap, he gains the “super power” of not being able to feel pain as much as he should… which basically means he can fight longer and get beaten-up even more! Not the super power I would wish for, but if you’re going to get beaten up on a regular basis, a high pain threshold isn’t such a bad thing! During the course of his patrols, he crosses paths with a father-daughter duo who actually have training and weapons, and is shamed by how well the “pros” handle themselves. His superhero misadventures continue, eventually culminating in a grand mêlée with the army of a crime boss. A great deal of blood, broken bones, maiming, and death later… and it’s a wrap! But, is it any good…

The movie is filled with mildly funny scenes and memorable (short-term memory) fights. I wouldn’t expect more than that from a movie titled “Kick-Ass”. While the hand-to-hand fight scenes are brutal, most of the gore is candy red. Having been desensitized to movie violence (like most of us) the fights didn’t bother me a bit. The only thing that was disturbing was when the tables were turned on Hit-Girl. Here’s an 11-year old girl that can purée a roomful of armed opponents like Rambo on crack, but when she’s finally forced to suffer a few blows from her adult adversaries your brain inevitably takes a mental back-step and protests “Hey, that big guy is beating-up on a little girl!” Then you remember that the hallways are littered with the shattered bodies of her foes and you try to convince yourself that she deserves this… but… but… kind of disturbing. Overall, the movie is enjoyable but never rises to the level of other superhero success stories, e.g., “Spider-Man”, “Iron Man” (2008), “The Dark Knight” (2008). In summary, Kick-Ass is worth seeing but paying for the big screen experience is debatable.

“With no power comes no responsibility.”

3.5 out of 5


Mar 30 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

Last night, a friend and I went to see Steve Pink’s sci-kitsch comedy, “Hot Tub Time Machine“. I’m not exactly sure why I wanted to see this movie; my expectations weren’t exactly high. I’ve liked time-travel comedies in the past (e.g., “Back to the Future” (1985), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), “Blast from the Past“), so maybe I was looking for more of the same? Maybe I just liked the name, reminds me of “Snakes on a Plane” (2006). I also like a number of the actors: John Cusack, Rob Corddry (of “The Daily Show” fame), Crispin Glover, and of course Chevy Chase. The preceding list are just the actors I was familiar with going into the movie, Clark Duke (soon to appear in “Kick-Ass” (2010)) and Craig Robinson (from the American version of “The Office”) more than held their own.

The movie follows a group of middle-aged friends whose lives haven’t turned-out quite the way they expected. When one of their number tries to commit suicide they are drawn together and decide to spend a weekend catching-up at an old ski resort that they frequented when they were younger. An accident with a Russian energy-drink short-circuits the hot tub and they are catapulted back to 1986 (makes perfect sense!) to relive a pivotal night of their young lives. Thankfully, the movie does not try to explain how or why this happens. The closest we get to an explanation is via random appearances of Chevy Chase as a hot tub repairman who may or may not know what’s going-on. During the movie, I thought the older men (Clark Duke’s character wasn’t alive in 1986) had been astrally-projected into their younger bodies, but the ending pretty much destroyed that theory. Again, the mechanics don’t matter because  time-travel (short of time-dilation) is probably not possible anyway.

So, did I like it? Yes, I did. As an aside, hot tubs inevitably remind me of the slow-motion opening of “Change of Seasons” (1980) with Bo Derek (horrible movie BTW, but that section of the VHS tape had tracking problems by the time we returned it… just saying) . Back to HTTM. Sure, the movie dragged here and there. Sure, I never knew whether to laugh or cringe at Chevy Chase’s deadpan performance. Sure, John Cusack played the same character he ALWAYS plays (though curiously, his sister was no where to be seen). Sure, the sole purpose of the script may have been to put doughy middle-aged men together with beautiful young ski-bunnies…. but it was still funny. Maybe that had to do with my pre-movie ritual margarita preparations (which are a requirement before seeing any comedy) but I kind of doubt it since they were pretty weak! The movie is packed with 80s pop and music references. Warning: if you don’t remember the 80s, you won’t get half of the jokes. The catheter scene had me laughing like I haven’t laughed (in a movie) in years. Low-brow, sure. Funny, yes! Glover’s bellboy character was awesome. But more than anything else, this will be Corddry’s ticket to bigger movies, much like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” was for Steve Carell. I only hope that enough people see it (it ranked #3 in it’s opening weekend) to make that happen. So… If bodily fluids can still make you snicker, if foul language doesn’t make you all uppity, if you can laugh at uncomfortable sexual humor, and you won’t be running off afterward to see if “A Brief History of Time” has any mention of Chernobyl soft-drinks… you have a good chance of liking this movie too.

“It looks like Gary Coleman’s forearm.”

4 out of 5


Mar 6 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Last night, we went to see Tim Burton’s newest creation “Alice in Wonderland” in 3-D. There was a 2-D version available at the theater for the “No glasses for me, thanks!” crowd, otherwise known as the “$10 dollars a ticket is more than enough, thanks!” crowd. I have been a long-time fan of Tim Burton movies, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) being one of my all-time favorites. Which is why I’m sad to report, that I have also watched the overall decline of his movies over the years (exceptions: “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)  and a number of films that he produced). I’m not entirely sure why that is. Burton still fills his movies with twisted and leafless Hallowe’en forests populated with strange and melancholy characters, all picking their ways through gloomy sets, and seasoned with generous dashes (gashes?) of dark humor… but somewhere between “Vincent” (1982) and today, all of these wonderfully imaginative dream-scapes became monotonous. That’s a really painful admission for me to make, because I love Burton’s artistic vision. He has a style that no one else in Hollywood can even come close to… (except perhaps Terry Gilliam) but maybe that’s because no one else needs to, because Burton has done it to death?

The movie is based on the book of (nearly) the same name by Lewis Carroll in addition to his 1872 poem “The Jabberwocky” (originally appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There“). Thirteen years after her first adventure down the rabbit hole, Alice’s only memories of Wonderland are strange recurrent dreams that have persisted into adulthood. During her second visit, she finds a blighted landscape occupied by familiar but Burton-ized characters, all living under the tyrannical rule of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hydrocephalitic Red Queen (every time I saw her I started thinking of the old Steve Madden advertisements). It is soon revealed that on Frabjous Day, Alice is destined to confront the catching claws of the Red Queen’s champion, Jabberwocky. Helping Alice along the way are a number of computer generated characters  led by Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. I must admit that I walked past the poster for this movie for several months without realizing that the iridescent eyed Hatter was Depp. When you finally hear and see him on the screen however, you realize that even five pounds of make-up, mismatched contact lenses, and a fright wig cannot disguise him. I wonder where Depp’s career would be without Tim Burton?

So, is the movie any good? It’s okay… I would rather Tim Burton had made a movie based on “Lost Girls” (1995 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie) about the erotic adventures of Alice, Dorothy (of Wizard of Oz fame), and Wendy (of Peter Pan renown). Not sure what Burton porn would be like but at least it would be different. Extra credit: If Mia Wasikowska (the Alice from this movie) agreed to star, I’d be in line for the sneak preview… Well, maybe not. Not sure I’d want to sit in the skeevy kind of places that show those movies. You never know when you might be sitting next to a Paul Reubens wanna-be with bad aim.

“What a regrettably large head you have. I would very much like to hat it. I use to hat The White Queen, you know. Her head was so small.” “It’s tiny. It’s a pimple of a head.” – Mad Hatter to the Red Queen with rejoinder

3.5 out of 5


Jan 12 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Last night (at the request of a friend), I went to see Terry Gilliam‘s new movie, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2010). This movie will be long remembered as the last project that the late Heath Ledger worked on before his death by “accidental” prescription drug overdose. He actually died during the making of the movie, so some of his parts had to be completed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law (who I enjoyed in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004)), and Colin Farrel (who I liked in “In Bruges” (2008), and that’s about it). If it wasn’t for the tragedy and collaboration that followed, I think the movie would be shortly forgotten. As it is, it will probably be remembered only on Trivial Pursuit cards as: “What was Heath Ledger’s last movie?” to which everyone will answer, “Didn’t he play the Joker in The Dark Knight?” Do you see how I’m using my review to talk about other movies? Yeah, I just noticed that too…

About the movie. Ummm… What does it mean if I’m not sure what the movie is about? Let’s recap. Doctor Parnassus is an old man (like, Methuselah old) and rides around modern-day London with a small troupe of misfits putting on a sideshow. The sideshow isn’t particularly compelling, so most people just blow them off as kooks. Anyone who does accept an invite onto the stage is directed through a flimsy stage mirror and deposited into a fantastical world stemming from their imagination. The portal only works while Doctor Parnassus (an ancient monk) is on stage (or nearby) in a trance. Once in the fantasy world, the visitors are somehow “reborn” by this experience, exit the mirror on a giant swing, and happily give all their possessions to the traveling troupe. While all this is going on, Doctor Parnassus is trying to make good on a bargain he made with the Devil (played wonderfully by Tom Waits), who wants to claim his Betty Boop look-alike daughter Valentina upon her 16th birthday. That’s the set-up and we haven’t even got to Heath Ledger’s part… *deep breath* Heath’s character is initially an amnesiac that the troupe rescues from a hanging who (come to find out) is a great salesman, and is fine with being hanged so long as he’s swallowed a fife beforehand. He helps lure unsuspecting women onto stage to help Parnassus claim five souls per the bargain with the Devil. I think the only thing that Imaginarium and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988) offer are evidence that Terry Gilliam has far better drugs than the rest of us. Did I mention that the movie includes dwarf-actor Verne Troyer dressed in a monkey outfit, talking smack about midgets?!

The Imaginarium is in many ways like the freak show it portrays. You’re drawn in by beautifully painted panels and tapestries, promises of mystery and magic (or a friend who really, really wants to see the movie), and you leave feeling like you’re $10.50 poorer with nothing to show for it.

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”  – Edgar Allan Poe, because the movie wasn’t particularly quote-worthy

2 out of 5


Jan 1 2010

Avatar

AvatarWhen I was a kid, my father took us to see a movie called “Star Wars” (1977).  This was before it was renamed “…A New Hope” and re-imagined (Han shot first!) as part of a larger work. I remember being awestruck by the movie’s effects, everything from the light-sabers to the first time the rebel fighters opened their wings. Great movie. Years later, I had a similar experience with “Toy Story” (1995) and was amazed at what could be done with computer animation. Another great movie. Last Saturday, we went to see James Cameron’s new 3D movie “Avatar” (it’s funny how I can’t find time to write this stuff while on vacation). Here again is another benchmark movie. While Avatar does not deliver on the 3D holographic immersion long dreamed-of by movie-goers (it has always been just 10 years away), it is a definite step in the right direction.

Equipped with clunky polarized glasses, the audience is treated to the Roger Dean-esque 3D bioluminescent world of Pandora and its New Age eco-sensitive Blue Man Group aboriginals, the Na’vi. The parallels between the Na’vi and American Indians cannot be a mistake. Here we have a 10-foot extraterrestrial race that embodies everything that modern-day Indians tell us about themselves: one with the land, peaceful co-existence between tribes, etc. None of which is true, but it makes for good storytelling. The movie opens with a human corporation preparing to open Pandora’s Box by mining Na’vi sacred sites for a material dubbed Unobtanium (lame, lame, lame). The stone-age natives know something is up, but don’t realize the full breadth of their troubles until the Na’vi avatar of Sam Worthington (i.e., Jake Sully) shows them the light, wins the heart of Pocahontas (i.e., Neytiri), and leads the rebellion against the evil Earthers (all of which can be gleaned from the trailers). Comparisons of Avatar to “Dances With Wolves” (1990) are not off-the-mark. Despite its damning thematic proximity to the spirit of Kevin Costner, the movie is actually worth seeing (if only for the effects).

“Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn’t be too hard for you.” – Dr. Grace Augustine to Jake Sully

4 out of 5