Posts Tagged ‘movies

06
May
12

Avengers Assembled and Marvelous Marvels

This is going to be a very long post, as I review the new “Avengers” movie and as I look at the larger recent Marvel Comics movie franchise and where it might be going…
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Marvel’s The Avengers Movie Review

Superhero geeks, comic book nerds, action movie aficionados and Robert Downey Jr. groupies…

…the new Marvel Comics movie The Avengers is not, as you may have heard some say, the greatest superhero movie ever.

Oh, it’s very bad-ass; don’t get me wrong. But it’s not THE BEST of the genre by any means.

In fact, for emotional gravity, dramatic weight, geek appeal, dialogue, plotting and action chops all together as a well-mixed stew, I’d put it after Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Spider-Man 2. Then again, those movies were able to focus on a single protagonist character, so that doesn’t make them better; just more focused and weighty. The Avengers, though, beats all of them for sheer spectacle and action (though it offers more than just that).

However, while I don’t think it’s the very best superhero movie ever made, it is the best live-action superhero team movie of all time. Yes, I know there’s not a lot of competition on that front (both Fantastic Four movies stunk, The Watchmen was excellent but not epic like The Avengers, and Mystery Men, while a fantastic movie, is a parody of the superhero team genre. X-Men as a trilogy was excellent…despite the fact that many people revile the final installment…but even all three movies together don’t pack as much intricacy and density as this first Avengers movie all on its own). Frankly, I’m not sure anything can beat The Avengers as a superhero team movie any time soon except perhaps one of the two expected sequels.

Now, I’m going to tell you as much as I can here without giving away any spoilers; I’ll warn you before I get to the things that might ruin surprises for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet but plan to.

If you’re not a comic book or superhero movie person, you may or may not know that there have been several previous Marvel Comics films that led up to this film and that have direct influence on the various things that come together to make the attempted takeover of Earth in the film come about. Those would be the two Iron Man movies so far (with at least one more on the horizon), Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor and The Incredible Hulk  (which featured Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, a role played by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers and apparently in an upcoming trilogy of Hulk movies). The main villain of The Avengers is Loki, who was also the villain in Thor. In roles as protagonists along with the superheroes who had their own movies are Col. Nick Fury (who appeared in some way in most of the previous films in bit roles), Black Widow (who appeared in Iron Man 2) and Hawkeye (who had never appeared before now in any of the films).

The movie has snappy plotting and dialogue, which owes much to the vaunted skills of director and writer Joss Whedon. There is frequent and intense action while also plenty of calmer moments of conversation, exposition, drama and comedy. We manage in a little under 2.5 hours to get not only superheroes beating up on their enemies, but also beating up on each other (for very plausible reasons) and having time for characterization as each faces personal crises, self-doubt, revelation and growth. There is bonding between them as well as tension. There are moments of heroism, villainy and also many gray areas in terms of morality.

There are some of the usual “convenient moments” as in most any film like this, where things serendipitously come together to resolve an otherwise unsolvable dilemma (such as defeating the entire enemy army at the end), there is an “easy” solution to breaking mind control, and various things are left out in the narrative (like how Bruce Banner makes it to a certain location in a timely fashion or even knows where to arrive). But overall, this movie is as believable as a movie can be that involves superheroes, and the reactions of civilians caught in the crossfire, as well as attitudes by various people in authority who aren’t superpowered, make sense in the context of things.

The movie manages to convey a sense of great destruction and death, while also not making it so grim and direct as to lose its PG-13 rating and more mass appeal for youth of many ages in addition to adults.

Robert Downey Jr., as usual, does a tremendous job with the charming, brilliant and arrogant Tony Stark/Iron Man. Scarlett Johansson brings much more to the role of Natasha Romanov/Black Widow here than she was able to do in Iron Man 2 and combines professional, sympathetic and dangerous in a fantastic way while also exuding a surprisingly mellow sexiness despite her attire, which might suggest something more overt. Mark Ruffalo surprises almost all of us fans who were pissed at Edward Norton being shoved aside by the producers and turns in a great Bruce Banner/Hulk. Chris Evans does much the same for Captain America here as he did in his solo turn with the character, but adds a grim/weary undertone to the Boy Scout image, which makes sense given the man has basically missed out on the previous 70 years after being frozen accidentally in the 1940s and is a man out of his natural time. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t do anything new with Thor compared to his previous time playing the part, which left me underwhelmed the first time, but at least he does it solidly and consistently. Jeremy Renner makes for an interesting Clint Barton/Hawkeye; I don’t really have much love for the character, but he does provide an interesting coldness in his personality though somehow not heartless. Samuel L. Jackson makes for a fine Nick Fury, combining tough, sneaky, just and ruthless in an interesting balance.

At no point does the movie flag or really stumble. Any complaints are minor nits. In a year full of promise for fantasy/sci-fi and related genres (Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises; the Spider-Man rebooThe Amazing Spider-Man; the first of two movies that combined will tell the tale in the novel The Hobbit, and also possibly the remake of Total Recall, the dark-themed Snow White and the Hunstman and American history/undead menace mash-up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), this is a tough movie to follow.

What Has Come Before

Just a quick note in this section: I think Marvel Comics’ has done a great job overall with its heroes in recent years (in productions it’s overseen directly and in ones where the characters were simply licensed out), including in movies that are unrelated to The Avengers. Sure, Ghost Rider was pretty bad and the sequel’s probably worse; the Fantastic Four movies, as noted earlier, were awful; the original Spider-Man trilogy (to be “erased” historically, I guess, with the reboot this summer) ended clunkily with very, very mixed third movie but was otherwise excellent; and X-Men had a shaky finish to its trilogy as did Spider-Man (though I didn’t find the third X-Men film all that bad, myself) but remains strong overall. The most recent treatment of The Punisher wasn’t too bad, though the previous attempt sucked. The first attempt at doing the Hulk with Ang Lee’s movie was an entertaining mess that left true fans unsatisfied but wasn’t a total loss. The Blade movies were ridiculous and overwrought on many levels, but undeniably fun action flicks. The X-Men follow-ups were mixed: X-Men: First Class was very strong but X-Men Origins: Wolverine was highly uneven (but, like the Ang Lee Hulk movie, had definite entertainment value from an action standpoint at least).

I haven’t seen The Incredible Hulk yet (though plan to later this weekend), so I can’t comment on that. Captain America had its cheesy aspects, and the character has never much appealed to me in general, but was pretty well done as a movie, actually. Thor was a mixed bag, but at least mostly entertaining despite not doing a very good job of giving Thor’s personal redemption dramatic weight or true logic. And the Iron Man movies…well, while the second one was noticeable less good than the first, both were very strong indeed.

The Future

Here there will be some spoilers, as I need to reference things from The Avengers movie (including the after-the-credits surprise teaser for the next movie) and the other films that led up to it (which you may or may not have seen).

What does the future hold? Well, for one thing, apparently Mark Ruffalo has been signed not only to potentially play Bruce Banner/the Hulk for two more Avengers movies but also for a trilogy of Hulk movies. This is interesting, because in a certain sense, it almost ignores The Incredible Hulk, in which Edward Norton did such a good job (I know, I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s fucking Edward Norton; of course he must have done great). I get the sense from a reference or two in the Avengers movies that they still include The Incredible Hulk and the events therein as part of the overall movie canon and we’re just going to ignore the fact that Bruce Banner looks so different. I’m not going to stress over it; Mark Ruffalo did do a very good job in the role in The Avengers; I look forward to his future work with regard to the Hulk.

There is also a third Iron Man-related movie and a second Thor movie, both due out in 2013. Plot details for both are still under wraps and I’ve seen no truly credible leaks so far. I have heard rumors that Iron Man 3 will feature the Mandarin as the villain (one of Tony Stark’s most formidable foes in the comic books) but have also heard rumors it will use the recent “Extremis” storyline from the comic books. Of course, it’s entirely possible it could feature both, as the Mandarin might end up being more of schemer/leader in the movie rather than a directly combative villain fighting it out with Iron Man. Supposedly, Captain America 2 will come out in 2014. Almost certainly, with a third Iron Man on the way and a three-picture signing for Mark Ruffalo to do Hulk stuff solo, I imagine both Captain America and Thor will get trilogies when all is said and done. I’m fairly certain the Spider-Man reboot will also end up being a trilogy, though it has no direct relation to any of the other Marvel movies that are tied to the Avengers, just as X-Men seems to occupy a separate reality. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spider-Man in a future Avengers movie; there is a history of the character being in the team at times in the comic books and…well, let me get to wild speculation in a moment as to other reasons it feels right to have Spidey show up eventually.

Anyway, with these Avengers-related solo movies all having elements that tied directly to the movie The Avengers, from Loki to the Tesseract to the super-soldier serum (which plays a part in The Incredible Hulk in addition to being the compound that makes Steve Rogers into Captain America back in World War II…before he end up frozen and thawed out in modern day to be part of the Avengers)…plus things like the after-credit bonus scenes that show things related to “the Avengers initiative” and Nick Fury’s desire to form a superhero team…well, one can only imagine there will continue to be crossover stuff in at least some of the future solo films with relation to the future Avengers sequels.

So, what might happen?

First off, and here’s where I get into big spoiler territory…

…you did hear that, right?

I’m about to give away the bonus teaser scene after The Avengers’ credits. It shows who will likely be the next villain in that series.

You’re still here?

Just make sure you want to know before I say…

…Thanos!

Now, those who aren’t comic book geeks may not know who Thanos is. But just as Thor and Loki are “gods,” so too is Thanos, sort of. (In Thor’s movie, the Norse gods of Asgard are actually occupants of a planet in either a distant part of the galaxy connected to our world through a portal or a planet in another dimension linked to our own. Rather than being true gods, they are more accurately very strong, very resilient, long-lived “immortals” whose magic is more an expression of harnessing a specific sort of energy in a science fiction way but with a culture and style that is more mythical and in some ways archaic-seeming. They are, essentially, a very different race that looks like us rather than actual supernatural divinities.)

Where the hell was I?

Oh, yeah, Thanos.

Anyway, as the after-credit sequence shows, apparently Thanos is behind the invading extraterrestrial army in The Avengers and he looks like he’s very happy at the prospect of laying the hurt down in the next movie. Almost certainly, he will be the main villain. He’s godlike in terms of his personal power, though its source is more science-like than mystical, and he’s obsessed with death. Mastering it, avoiding it himself, and dealing it out in massive doses to other species throughout the universe. He’s essentially Marvel’s version of the DC Comics character Darkseid.

It’s possible that Thanos won’t appear until the third Avengers-related movie, but I doubt they will wait that long since they’ve already shown us his face.

So, now for wild speculation time.

I have no idea what Thor 2 holds, though I hope it doesn’t include a return visit of Loki. He’s a fine villain and all, but much like the X-Men movies, it will probably hurt if you keep bringing in the same person (Magneto in that series) as the main baddie honcho. At least with the X-Men, you can get away with it more because of his pro-mutant and anti-human agenda, but Loki will get old fast if they keep using him. Let’s not beat the half-brother conflict between him and Thor to death. I suspect that the second Thor movie will somehow involve an effort to rebuild the Bifrost, which is the bridge that linked Asgard to Earth and to several other places in the universe or extradimensionally or whatever. Perhaps we’ll see some Thanos-related baddies and maybe a hint of Thanos in an effort to prevent that from happening so that Asgard won’t be able to aid Earth in the coming battle. In any case, I’m not really familiar with Thor’s list of enemies overall, and with Loki having been used twice now and the Destroyer being used in the first Thor movie, too…well, we might be getting a bit thin on easily recognizable foes for what I would argue is the weakest series in the overall franchise. Sorry, Thor, but you’re just not that engaging overall. Marvel should have stuck to just one movie there (my hopes for the Captain America franchise aren’t much better).

Not knowing how Iron Man 3 is shaping up plot-wise, I’m going to go with a roll of the dice that it will indeed combine some plotting of the Mandarin and the “Extremis” storyline. I’ve heard rumors that the idea has always been to make Mandarin more of a terrorist leader than a powered bad guy (in the comics, he had ten rings on his fingers that were part of the engine of an alien starship and they granted him a wide array of powers). In the recent “Extremis” storyline for Iron Man in the comics, a guy gets a big dose of some major nanotechnology that essentially makes him a nearly invulnerable guy who can incinerate people, exhibit super-strength and more. He basically hands Iron Man his ass and Tony Stark, both to recover from his injuries and to defeat Extremis, undergoes the very same nanotechnological treatment. He ends up a cybernetically enhanced human who can interact more directly with the Iron Man armor and even basically “store” the armor under his own skin and then basically will it into existence around him as needed.

Now, I don’t see that happening in the movie. As we already see with the treatment of the Asgardian “gods,” Marvel seems to be trying to stay away from actual magic and completely ludicrous feats of science to keep things grounded as much as possible in something resembling reality. However, I could see a situation where Tony Stark is working on something nano-related and the Mandarin steals it to make an Extremis minion as a sort of overpowered crazed terrorist to take down Stark, or the United States, or whatever. Stark gets ass kicked and takes the same Extremis treatment, and perhaps ends up more attuned to his own armor and able to interact with computer systems. In such a situation, I could see the Extremis villain getting defeated or killed, but the Mandarin getting away. Enter post-credit bonus scene where Thanos contacts the Mandarin, seeing an ally on Earth, and gives him something along the lines of the rings the character wore in the comics, elevating the Mandarin to true supervillain status.

If something like this were to happen, The Avengers 2 might end up being something that starts with the Mandarin as a villain and finishes with Thanos in the final acts, or perhaps Thanos doesn’t show up at all as a direct combatant until Avengers 3 after the Mandarin’s efforts have softened up the world a bit.

Another option could be to tie into what’s happened in the comics lately, and do a “Planet Hulk” and/or “World War Hulk” treatment. So, in that scenario, perhaps we tie up the Thanos storyline in Avengers 2, but in the Hulk series, we have a lead-up to Hulk being the main villain of the third Avengers movie, adding a tragic twist as an ally becomes someone the Avengers must fight. Were that to happen, I could see the first Hulk movie being something that involves a villain along the lines of the Absorbing Man or something to give Hulk fits, and then a second movie where Bruce Banner and the Hulk personalities find a way to live together to make a “smart Hulk” and then a third where Thanos or some Thanos ally decides to fuck with the Hulk and drags him through a portal to dump him on another planet (a la “Planet Hulk”) and let him think the Avengers did it to him. So he comes back to Earth pissed, and becomes the enemy for the third Avengers film for the “World War Hulk” treatment. In this scenario, I could see Spider-Man being brought in to fill the gap in the team left by the Hulk.

Alternately, I have to admit what I’d really like to see is for the second Avengers film to deal with Thanos and dispatch him, and then the third have Ultron. Ultron is a brilliant self-aware robot made of the nearly indestructible metal adamantium (which covers Wolverine’s bones and constitute his claws in the X-Men franchise) who wants to eliminate humanity. How he might be created would be a matter of question, since there seems to be no plans to have Dr. Hank Pym (aka Ant Man, Giant Man, Yellowjacket, etc.) in the movies as yet, and he was Ultron’s “father.” But I do keep hearing rumors of an Ant Man movie, so maybe he will come into the storyline and create the robot who turns evil and tries to kill everyone.

What could also be cool, and bring in the character of Black Panther, would be to have Ultron (regardless of how he is created) be constructed of another comic book metal called vibranium, which is found only in Black Panther’s African nation of Wakanda. This would allow for bringing in a pretty cool character (and add some color to the team racially) as well as giving the movie version of Ultron a different spin. Also, I don’t recall if this is addressed in the Captain America movie, but Cap’s shield in the comics is made of vibranium, so pitting him in part against Ultron if he were made of the same metal could be interesting.

Now, if any of my wish-list or fanciful speculation where to come to pass or even come close to what will happen, it still leave a couple big questions: What would Thor 3 involve and what will the next two (presumably) Captain America movies deal with? It’s possible, of course, they could just stand alone and have little or no direct connection to the next two Avengers movies.

In any case, we’re in totally unsubstantiated territory in this entire third part of my blog post anyway. Just rambling.

We shall see, though.

We shall see.

19
Oct
11

Film: The Great Educator

I went on a Twitter rampage (compared to my usual posting rate) yesterday, beginning with rants against the extreme right-wing folks and then the extreme left-wing folks and then…as I finished watching the DVD “Priest” on my computer (so that I could get it back to library before I got fined for being late) I shifted suddenly and dramatically to sharing “movie wisdom.”

Now, after doing that, I am fully convinced (and will likely remain so for at least a few more days) that all the useful common-sense knowledge and keys to success that I need can be found in film. Especially action movies, cheesy horror and science fiction, and perhaps dark comedies, too.

Without further ado, let me share that wisdom, some of which is leftovers from yesterday’s tweeting (slightly reheated or freshened up with some new ingredients) and some new gems…or polished rocks…or just hunks of asphalt that broke off from the edge of the parking lot:

  • You know that you are entering into an area full of monsters and/or humans who are hostile to you. While I realize you need to search the area quickly, find supplies, look for clues and/or locate someone, I humbly suggest to you that this would NOT be a good time to split up and all go individually into different directions.
  • If a mysterious someone kidnaps your beloved, or a close relative or friend, and leaves a note, obvious clue or survivor to tip you off where to go hunting for them and your loved one…well, it’s a trap!
  • There are only four populations that you are allowed to completely exterminate without fear of retaliation by society or guilt to yourself: Nazis, vampires, zombies & invading extraterrestrials
  • In a dystopian future and/or apocalyptic wasteland, black clothing made of leather, latex and/or vinyl will always be in fashion. (Women are allowed to wear white versions for special occasions before Labor Day.)
  • The most evil and dangerous creatures will always grow inside and eventually spring out from really disgusting, slimy pods that are either all over the floor of the room/cave/whatever you must pass through, or are hanging from the ceiling above you, and probably all around you like sides of beef in a butcher’s freezer. You should avoid them. To be safe, avoid Brussels sprouts and other disgusting and potentially slimy ovoid vegetables, too.
  • Addendum to the above point: Evil creatures freshly hatched from slimy pods always—even though it makes no sense based on how things normally work in nature—come out with full strength, agility and awareness of their surroundings. (Bring along a person you don’t like and can shove in the way to buy yourself time.)
  • If the bullet has passed all the way through your body, it is considered the same as a flesh wound and you are required to keep on going. The only exceptions are if it passed through your heart and/or lungs—and even then you’re expected to try to keep going for the next five to 10 minutes.
  • When working with explosives, always bring a second detonator, as someone will always end up accidentally shooting or crushing the one you’re counting on
  • Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Exception is if you are a samurai. Or ninja. Or Vin Diesel’s “Riddick” character or someone like the warrior priests of “Priest.” In those cases, you are pretty much required to ONLY bring a knife (or a larger melee weapon bearing blades and/or spikes).
  • If you are supernaturally fast, agile and accurate, it is considered socially unacceptable to use firearms. Unless you’re in the Matrix.
  • Once you’ve knocked down your adversary (who is armed with a gun, while you are not), please remember to take his or her gun away afterward—before you get caught up in emotional bonding or witty repartee with your friends nearby. Also, it might be a good idea to use that gun to shoot said entity in head, whether human or not. Thank can me later…or the grandkids my advice made it possible for you to have can thank me.
  • Always keep a watch with you. Entirely too many protagonists lately have not been planning their attacks well and have allowed themselves to be caught in creature-infested areas just as the sun is going down.
  • It’s quite acceptable for drama queen to be kept alive through end of your quest, especially if he or she provides good comic relief. However, do NOT apply same standard to alien queen or vampire queen.
  • Always pay attention to your grooming. After all, as the movies teach us, it’s the attractive ones who will be rescued/survive/prosper…
22
Nov
09

Deacon’s DVDs: Spoiling It For You

If you haven’t seen the 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and for some reason you still want to, leave now. I’m going to ruin this sonofabitch for you if you continue.

Of course, it deserves to be ruined. Spoiling the ending is all too necessary for the good of movie-renting humankind, because this movie had no ending.

OK, technically, it has an ending. But it’s such a jaw-droppingly stupid one. Such a “what the hell just happened?” one. A complete, “That’s it?” kind of experience.

We spend a couple hours seeing special effects that are, to be honest, pretty damn good.

We see Keanu Reeves in his usual, expressionless mode, but it works perfect here, because he’s an alien in a body constructed to be human…so he is not used to being a human or feeling like a human. So, Keanu’s typical acting weakness, his lack of ability to emote, is actually a strength here.

Jennifer Connelly does a fantastic job of emoting just perfectly and being expressive in all the right ways.

John Cleese is fantastic in his cameo.

Kathy Bates isn’t given nearly enough to do with her role, but she does it well.

But what we end up with is a movie about a collection of alien races who send Klaatu (played by Reeves) to Earth to make the final decision about us. And that decision is…

…remember, I’m going to spoil this for you…

…last chance…

…I mean it…

OK, you’re still here. He is here to push the button on the human race. To save Earth, the aliens figure humans have to go, so that the planet can heal and other life can go on. The notion is that only a tiny fraction of planets in the universe can support complex life, and so they are not willing to spare one species…that is, us…and lose the planet. Essentially, we are seen as a cancer that needs to be removed so that the patient, the Earth, can live.

Actually, as far as concepts go, that ain’t bad. It’s a decent update for our time, since the original version of the film dealt with aliens being mad that we were pursuing nuclear science, and were too immature for it. That’s probably true, but it would be  a little late for them to complain about that now, so the environmental theme works better now.

Predictably, after making it clear that he thinks we’re unredeemable as a species, and must be wiped out, he decides after starting a nanotech “plague of high tech locusts” end of the world that hey, because one little kid cries and his stepmom hugs him, we must be OK. So then the rush to reverse Armageddon so that we won’t be wiped out, with some queer comment about, “It will come at a cost. You will have to change” or something like that.

And what changes?

Klaatu turns off our power.

Yeah. That’s the end of the movie. Klaatu returns to his vessel, turns of the nanotech bug swarm, and shuts off every powered device in the world, including wristwatches.

And leaves without a single word.

That’s right. Everything’s shut off (including, presumably, life support machines for patients, heat in places where people will die of hypothermia without it, and so on).

Nobody tells the world why. Nobody says, “OK, this is your last chance. Start from scratch.” Nobody tells the people of the world one damn word about why the power was shut off and what step we need to take…or goals we need to meet…to prevent a return to destroy us.

All that work with the special effects, some pretty good acting overall, an interesting take on the robot Gort this time around, a story that had promise for maybe most of the first 2/3 or 3/4 of the affair…all to get a contrived “I understand you humans now” change of personality from Klaatu, and a head-scratching ending that just left me pissed off more than any other crappy movie ending I’ve ever seen.

I mean, I said to my computer screen: “What kind of useless shitting ending is that?”

I never talk to the screen when I watch a movie.

The 1951 movie shouldn’t have been remade to begin with. But if you’re going to remake it, can’t you at least give us an ending that makes at least some small fraction of sense?

(If there are typos galore in this, I’m not surprised. It’s almost 2 a.m. and I’m headed to bed, and I have no plans to go back and edit this.)

06
Apr
09

Deacon’s DVDs: First-Person View

Not feeling deep today. So, time for another edition of “Deacon’s DVDs.” This time around, we’ll be talking about a few selections from the sometimes praised and often reviled genre of “shaky camera cinema” as I sometimes like to call it.

These would be movies in which all (or the vast majority) of the film is as seen through a camera wielded by a character in the movie. Now, I don’t know how many flicks there are out there using this style, but it’s grown in popularity over the years, and I’m sure it existed before what I consider the “grandmama” of shaky camera films—The Blair Witch Project—but regardless, I can only recall having seen three such movies so those are the ones I’ll talk about, and all three are pretty much thriller-style movies (horror and/or action).

The reasons many people hate these kinds of movies run the gamut. Some hate when the camera is shaky, as realistic as that might be, because it makes the film jumpy. Some think it is simply contrived. Some think it limits the creative power of the movie by limiting the point of view. Some think it’s just a lazy way to avoid complex editing of scenes (though I suspect this kind of movie is every bit as hard to plan and edit).

So, here they are, my three picks for shaky camera movies worth seeing: The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Quarantine. Since I saw them in that order over the years, that’s the order in which I’ll tackle them. If any one y’all have any shaky camera movies you want to share thoughts on, post in the comments, please.

The Blair Witch Project

Done on a shoestring budget with, if I recall, a cast of three complete no-names, this movie had a plot and outline, but with most (if not all) of the dialogue movie-poster_blair-witchimprovised by the actors. This is perhaps the visibly “shakiest” of all shaky camera movies, as the actors portray three film students out to shoot a documentary about the Blair Witch, some old scary story about some witch in the woods, using a fairly basic camera. The basic plot, summarized in a quick bit of on-screen text before the movie even begins, is that all three were lost in the woods and their bodies never found, though their film equipment was. The idea is that the amateur footage was put together to form the movie.

Because of the raw nature of the camera work and the realistically “low-quality” nature of the recordings themselves, this movie was very effective at establishing the idea that it all really happened. In fact, for quite some time early on after the film’s release, a fairly large number of people thought the events really did happen and the filmmakers did all they could to encourage this notion.

This is without a doubt a horror movie. But what is interesting is that you never see a monster or witch or villain of any kind. What you get are strange events and sounds and the increasingly terror-struck reactions of the three student filmmaker characters. That, along with the mythology of the Blair Witch that the characters recount and the spooky nature of the woods, makes for a very tense atmosphere.

This is a movie that creeped me out for some time, and I respect it for that, particularly because it did so without resorting to the kinds of formulas that most horror movies trot out (gore, people or monsters appearing suddenly from nowhere, special effects razzle-dazzle, etc.).

You really feel a growing sense of doom, and the final scene of the movie is a chill inducer indeed.

Cloverfield

To start with, I have three major complaints about this movie, though in the end, none of them really diminished my enjoyment of it. First, the movie is film-quality, much better than probably any hand-held camera owned by a character could ever hope to achieve, even a top-end movie-poster_cloverfieldone, so that right there rings false (especially when compared to Blair Witch). Also, it’s way too convenient how both the battery and the tape lasted as long as they did. Theoretically, I suppose, the length of the movie (at least after the monster appears) is the length of their experience, but it still rings false somehow. Finally, why the hell would they be filming all this while they are trying to survive? I mean, really, the characters in Blair Witch had an excuse. For most of the movie, they are filming a documentary and they expect to go home in one piece. And even toward the end, they are filmmaking students and one can expect a certain degree of filmmaking ego or their desire to film the world driving them to record everything. In Cloverfield, none of that applies.

Now, those nits aside, I liked Cloverfield a lot for many reasons. First, it is perhaps the best American giant-rampaging-monster film of modern memory. The remake of Godzilla pretty much stank to high heaven. Cloverfield doesn’t have the feel of trying to copy or translate Japanese giant monster movies to an American audience but feels distinctly American throughout.

The film begins at a going-away party, where one member of a group of friends is filming things. At various points, the camera gets handed off to others, and we get a sense for the characters. Then all hell breaks loose when suddenly something attacks New York City and, at one point, the head of the fucking Statue of Liberty lands in the street, God only knows how many miles away from the Liberty Island.

Some kind of giant monster, which we see only in bits and pieces (appropriately for someone with a handheld camera), has inexplicably appeared and is waging mayhem. No reason is given for the monster’s existence or appearance, and that is appropriate, again, given the point of view of the people filming it. In addition to the giant monster, there are parasites of some sort on the monster that drop off at various points in the movie and given how big the host is, you can imagine that the parasites ain’t no little tiny buggers either. Nor are they benevolent.

The friends race through the city, doing little more than trying to escape with their lives before the military bombs the hell out of everything or something, or they get eaten or worse. The energy level is high, and the sense of panic is maintained pretty well overall. There are characters here I didn’t like, but all the same, I was concerned for them because no one deserved the kind of shit they were being faced with.

For such an excellent mix of the grandiose (with a huge monster knocking down buildings and tossing pieces of New York around) to the small (character foibles, interpersonal conflicts, acts of quiet heroism and just the personal survival aspect), I give this movie a lot of credit. And the monster was both freaky and, somehow, very believable. Definitely no rubber-suit Godzilla here.

Quarantine

This movie follows a popular trend nowadays to reimagine the zombie mythology as a viral infection rather than something supernatural. Bascially, a small group of firefighters and two-person news crew are trapped in a small apartment building during an outbreak of some disease that turns people violent, and they are quarantined inside.

movie-poster_quarantineThe film-quality scenes are not a source of annoyance to me in this film (unlike Cloverfield) because the person holding the camera is using a television news-quality camera so I expect the footage to be sharp and for the person to be able to handle the camera well even in a crisis. Also, the fact they keep filming is very much in keeping with what a nosy, stubborn and ratings-aware couple of news people would do.

Sidenote: This movie is, if I recall,  remake of a Spanish movie called REC that came out not too long ago in Europe. As I understand it, this American version is almost a precise copy, scene-for-scene, of the original, so if you already saw that one, pass on this version I guess.

In many ways, this movie is standard-issue fare for a virus-infected-zombie-style movie. People get attacked, with some being killed and some being infected, leading to fewer and fewer actual people, and more and more monsters to bedevil the few people left alive. But the energy is maintained and even if I found some characters irritating or even too stereotypical and one-dimensional at times, the movie kept my attention at least, and offered its share of dread and chills.

The scenes toward the end were confusing and, to me, trite, because they seem to be trying to “explain” the source of the contagion in some mysterious way. It just struck me as trying too hard and didn’t add anything, and I think the movie would have been stronger leaving the mystery in place.

I think 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later were much stronger examples of this viral zombie genre. Hell, I think the first Resident Evil movie was probably more fun than Quarantine. But that said, Quarantine is entertaining enough, and better than the two sequels to Resident Evil.

03
Mar
09

Deacon’s DVDs: Contrast Killers

So, recently, I saw the movie War Inc. with John Cusack. For a while after first hearing about the movie, which didn’t really have any box office success I guess, I thought it was a sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank. Having loved that movie and generally being a John (and Joan) Cusack fan, I was psyched to see War Inc.

But you see, it’s not a sequel, despite having John Cusack starring as a burned-out hitman and supporting roles by Dan Aykroyd and Cusack’s sister, Joan. And in a strange way, it is a sequel, at least in a thematic and maybe even spiritual sense. Looking at the movies is kind of like looking at two lifelong friends side-by-side who are so very similar in so many ways you’d swear they might be twin siblings, but are in fact two largely unrelated people.

First, for the unitiated:

movie-poster_grosse-pointe-blankGrosse Point Blank is an utterly fantastic 1997 film in which John Cusack plays a dry-witted killer for hire who seems to be at a point when he’s not sure he wants to be doing assassinations anymore. He is hired to do a job in his old home town of Grosse Pointe, Mich., around the same time his high school reunion is being held. He goes to do the job, reunites with an old flame and tries to dodge a rival hitman (played by Aykroyd) who wants to kill Cusack’s character, Martin Blank—not so much because of their rivalry but because Aykroyd’s character wants to form a labor union for hitmen and Martin’s stubborn loner/independent streak makes him chafe at the idea and refuse to join. By the end of the movie, Martin’s personal life intersects intimately with his work and he has a choice to make about whether he really should do this final job or hang up his guns.

It is a perfect showcase for Cusack’s signature character: A likable guy who is dry, witty, erudite, by equal turns taciturn much of the time and then frenetically verbose, and in some ways emotionally stilted while wanting to tap deeper emotional reserves. Cusack is brilliant at doing that character, and it informs some of his best work. Aykroyd is fantastic as his adversary and Joan Cusack makes a very amusing turn as the office assistant for Martin Blank’s hitman work.

It’s both a fish-out-of-water comedy and a romantic comedy, and with enough action thrown in with the fast-paced and funny dialogue  to make things even more engaging and exciting.

movie-poster_war-incWar Inc., from 2008, on the surface sounds a lot like Grosse Point Blank, which is why I initially thought it might be a movie that picks up on Martin Blank’s life a decade later, when he’s somehow been pulled back into the hitman line of work. It isn’t. Here, Cusack is Brand Hauser, a former black ops (maybe CIA, maybe not) assassin turned independent hitman who forces down his emotions but is having a sort of midlife crisis around the whole assassination thing, especially after taking a romantic shine to a liberal political reporter he runs into on his current assignment. And that assignment is to kill a foreign corporate big wig named Omar Sharif, who is a rival to the CEO of a company called Tamerlane, played by Aykroyd. The Tamerlane CEO is the former vice president of the United States, clearly a Dick Cheney type, and is embroiled both in waging war in and rebuilding a nation called Turaqistan, which is clearly a stand-in for Iraq. It is never quite clear who is waging war in this country, the United States or Tamerlane, and the overall point is that war is becoming a corporate thing, with armies really supporting corporate interests and ultimately answering to the monetary powers that be, and not so much the U.S. government. Tanks and Humvees drive around with advertisments on them for consumer products and such, and the cover for Hauser’s assignment is that he is running an industry seminar in the war-torn nation. Brand Hauser is paired with a Tamerlane employee played by Joan Cusack, a terribly shrill and unpleasant character who chafes at having to play Hauser’s assistant.

War Inc. is a political satire, so that already puts it in a whole different category than Grosse Pointe Blank. And although there is a romantic element—and a strange paternal/romantic dynamic between Hauser and another female character, an oversexed, brash, shallow Turaqi pop singer played marvelously by Hillary Duff of all people—this is no romantic comedy. And the action in here seems out of place at times, more an intrusion than the delicious seasoning provided in Grosse Pointe Blank.

The problem, I think, with War Inc. is that John Cusack tried too hard. Inspired in part by the Naomi Klein article “Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia”, which was published in the September 2004 issue of The Harper’s Magazine, Cusack is trying for social commentary here. It’s sort of his personal Dr. Strangelove while also being an informal follow-on to Gross Pointe Blank. He was, I think, trying to step up what he did with the story and character of Martin Blank and make it relevant to our changing and ever-more-unsettled world. In both movies, Cusack’s character has a former government/military background, and then turns it into paying work in the private sector by killing important people that other important people see as impediments. It’s not hard to see how Cusack might see the character template playing well to both stories.

The problem is that Hauser, while he shares many of Blank’s traits, seems more tired, worn out and ultimately impotent, despite his skills in killing, than Blank ever did. Blank was trying to find a new purpose in life. Hauser seems simply lost. Blank was, as befits his name, trying to write a new future for himself and be a fresh canvas; that made him someone to relate to. Hauser’s first name, Brand, seems to speak to the fact that he’s not a person, but a commodity, and that ultimately dehumanizes him too much for me to care what happens to him.

Also, the comedic pace of War Inc. is terribly uneven. It’s not played earnest enough and straight enough to be a dark comedy on the order of Dr. Strangelove, it’s not absurd enough to be like a modern-day Brazil, and it’s not warm enough to be another Grosse Pointe Blank. Instead, it’s a little of all three, plus some other stuff tossed into the mix, and it just doesn’t bake together well.

In the end, I don’t think War Inc. is an awful film by any means. I did appreciate many aspects of it. But I think I only did so because I had seen and loved Grosse Point Blank. Having seen that first film and knowing what it was about and what Cusack is trying to do this time, I could enjoy War Inc. even as I was woefully diappointed in how far it fell short of the mark it could have hit.

My recommendation? See Grosse Pointe Blank first, if you haven’t already, then view War Inc. I think it will be much more enjoyable that way.

Though it will also help to be a John Cusack fan. If you’re not, you might want to skip War Inc. entirely.

13
Feb
09

Deacon’s DVDs: Flicks I Never Tire of Watching

There are certain videos in my possession that I can watch over and over. Maybe not every week, but I could easily whip them out every month or two and never, ever tire of watching them. So, which ones? Let’s go…

Aliens

I think the predecessor to this sequel, Alien, is perhaps a technically superior movie. In terms of atmopshere, cultural impact, direction and acting, it is a better movie. But it aliens-moviedoesn’t bear watching more than once every year or so. That movie is, essentially, a haunted house/monster in the basement kind of movie set in space. As such, without the thrill of mystery, and slow revelations of the creature, the mounting terror loses something on multiple viewings.

But the sequel, Aliens? Totally different story. One of the best action films ever made (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Terminator 2 are also among that pantheon; I would include many of the modern Chinese martial arts epics, but I consider them a whole other class of movie), Aliens is a roller coaster ride that keeps your interest without overwhelming you with unnecessary over-the-top action. There is emotional depth and characterization in the midst of the mayhem, and a wide array of diverse personalities, even among the colonial space marines, who could have easily been turned into a bunch of same-minded jarheads.

There’s even a motherhood/child angle that is played out both for the humans and the aliens, commentary on corporate ruthlessness, and how one can always find a way to be honorable and brave, no matter how long you’ve been a dipshit or a coward previously.

And Sigourney Weaver kicks total ass in this movie, without being some invincible person. She can be hurt, emotionally and physically, and you see that (This is also what makes Die Hard so watchable for me; for all the testosterone and manly trash-talk, Bruce Willis’ character get the shit knocked out of him and pays for every bit of progress he makes against the bad guys)

 

The Princess Bride

move-poster_princess-brideI love fantasy/swords-and-sorcery fiction and movies. Good ones, anyway. I love me a good comedy. But rarely, I think, do the two genres mix well. The Princess Bride is the exception to that “rule.”

It is one of the funniest movies ever, because the jokes rely more on presentation and the characterization the actors bring to their roles than they do on punchlines. It is a great swashbuckling fantasy with blades flashing and a little bit of magic and epic betrayals.

And behind it all, the premise that this story is being read to a sick child by his grandfather, and that in itself, as the child occasionally interrupts the story, brings such emotional wallops of the love and wisdom that a grandparent can bring that the grandfather’s final words to his grandson still move me to tears.

 

Pulp Fiction

Hands down, in my opinion (and that of Mrs. Blue and Son of Blue) the most re-watchable movie of all time. This flick manages to have pop culture references that movie-poster_pulp_fiction1seem to bear the test of time, and such colorful, sometimes insane scenes and characters that it never fails to entertain.

I seriously think I could watch this once a week and probably never burn out on it, though I try to respect the film by not risking that I might turn it into mere background noise, and make it just an every-few-months thing.

For those who don’t know about this movie, I don’t know how to begin to describe it adequately. For those of you who’ve seen it and hated it, I don’t know what to tell you or how to explain how wrong you are.

This movie is a genius piece of non-linear storytelling. Of intersecting lives. Of violence for good reason and violence for the sake of violence. Of eloquent yet foul-mouthed hit men. Of honor among thieves. Of love. Of choosing the right path in life. Of losers who make good. Of the difference between a Whopper and a Royale with cheese. Of bad people who sometimes get what they deserve. Quentin Tarantino pulled out all the stops on this movie while still keeping an interally coherent tale (Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a strong and good movie for his first effort, and Jackie Brown was a good post-Pulp Fiction film that I really enjoy too, but Quentin will never top his sophomore effort.)

With dialogue that almost never, ever slacks; a killer soundtrack with such eclectic music and songs that it make my ears celebrate; and with top-notch acting and direction, this movie is a pure joy. Violent, yes. Bad language, oh yeah. Sex and drugs, you betcha. But one of the best…movies…EVER.

02
Feb
09

Deacon’s DVDs: Bring Out the Heroes

Yep, in my never-ending quest to make sure I do (mostly) daily posts and don’t harp solely on the biblical and spiritual stuff (because I am more than just a religion), I’m going to go ahead and make the “Deacon’s DVDs” feature a weekly thing, more or less.

Today, a double feature: Iron Man and The Dark Knight.

Let me begin by saying these were among the two best movies in 2008. Not the best, necessarily, though arguments could be make for that, but certainly among the best.

Not that you’d know that from the Oscar nominations, of course, since mostly, these two films got relegated to the special effects, makeup, cinematography, sound, etc. categories. Just like every other action-oriented or adventure film. As if action and adventure and fantasy aren’t worthy (with the occasional exception of Lord of the Rings or The Wizard of Oz). Too often, just like great comedies that might have some important things to offer than just laughs, or stellar animated fare like Wall-E, fantasy and action are generally shunned and denied a spot in the Best Picture category. Instead, we get a couple truly great dramas, maybe, and then a couple overblown boring dramas that we all assume we should like but most of us really don’t, and the whole cycle repeats the next year.

Basically, I think The Dark Knight got robbed, and I’d argue that Iron Man did, too. They should have been better contenders than they were. They were both acclaimed by audiences and by and large by critics, and they also were succesful films. By such standards, I think they should be rated better than they were by the Academy. But enough about that.

I saw one person in the blogosphere sneer that the fact these were very good comic book-based movies is like making a five-course gourmet dinner out of Skittles. Fuck you! A lot of the dramas you’re so fond of are like making a five-course gourmet dinner out of Valium. Narrow-minded, high-and-mighty twits!

Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. certainly owned the role of Tony Stark, the billionaire behind the high-tech armor, and he did most of the heavy lifting in this movie. But it was still a movie-poster_iron-mangreat ride, with a script that took things seriously and touched on some real issues, fantastic special effects, and solid direction to keep it all together. Downey was much of the magic (and his role in Tropic Thunder, for which he was nominated, is every bit worthy of consideration as well), but he wasn’t the movie itself. And even if he had been, many Best Picture nominated films have ridden mostly on the strength of the lead actor(s) and/or director rather than on truly good material.

This is a film that shows an narcissistic, egotistical, arrogant jerk can still learn to do the right thing after a lifetime of not doing so. It even shows how such a guy can also be likable and even become a hero. It shows how the military-industrial complex often goes wrong in today’s world. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

 

The Dark Knight

As much as I liked Iron Man, this film, The Dark Knight, was even more a drama while also being every bit the action movie at the same time. When well-handled, Batman  is a character who speaks deeply to dualities and conflicts: justice vs. vigilanteism, good vs. movie-poster_dark-knightevil, dedication vs. obsession, duty vs. desire.

Some have argued that the movie was overlong. Well, it never dragged, and that’s saying something. So what if your bladder was a bit full by the end of it? Some have said they hate Christian Bale’s gravely Batman voice, but hey, he still acted the hell out of Bruce Wayne and Batman. And some have said we’re only saying Heath Ledger’s role as The Joker was great because he’s dead and we want to pat him on the back posthomously. No, he created an indelible, disturbing, wicked and even sometimes sadistically funny character. Something at least as good, and perhaps better, than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs.

The Dark Knight gave us a look at how effectively evil people can step up their game when good people strike some blows for justice and start to turn the tide. It showed us how citizens we think are respectable can do or consider heinous things and sometimes the criminals and the people on the fringe of society realize better when to do right. It shows how wealth and power can be used for positive purposes, and how close it can bring you to the temptation to overstep yourself.

The movie never bores, as far as I’m concerned, and it put a lot of issues about class, terrorism and human nature up on the screen. Just because some of it was wrapped in costumes and gadgets doesn’t make the message hiding there any less important.

 And yes, great acting by most of the cast, too.

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That’s the thing about both these movies. They took the material seriously and didn’t go for camp. They aren’t just really entertaining comic book movies. They showed us the humanity of superheroes. They provided gravity and emotional weight to a medium that is largely scorned by those who don’t realize that, like with novels, comic books can be great literature too. Most of what’s out there is just fluff or entertainment, but so are the bookshelves in the stores. There’s great stuff there, and issues to mine and minds to blow, even with superhero movies.

In the right hands, at least.

28
Jan
09

Deacon’s DVDs: Something Devilish

It was a day of rushing to get work done, and then a snowstorm necessitated springing Little Girl Blue from daycare several hours early. So, just a short post today, and with virtually no religious connection, except for the title.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

before-the-devil-posterI’m a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’d probably watch him recite a grocery list. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do a bad performance, even when he’s in a mediocre movie. But I highly recommend this film. I’ve never done a movie review, on this blog or elsewhere, but what the hell, right? Maybe I’ll do this weekly

This is a typical crime-gone-wrong movie, except that it isn’t so typical. The perpetrators aren’t typical criminals and the victims aren’t someone you would normally expect them to go after.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, but not in a particularly confusing way. What happens is that you keep flashing back to various events and seeing the scene from either a different perspective, or see the conclusion or consequence of that scene well after you saw the original part of it.

Interestingly, even though the scenes aren’t all in perfect chronological or contiguous order, the tension steadily ramps up in the film.

And boy, is it tense. And grim. It speaks of errors in judgment, people doing bad while trying to do right, people doing bad to cover their wrongs, and family and marital relationships in turmoil.

This isn’t a happy film, but it’s a powerful one, and I highly recommend it.

And hey, Marisa Tomei gets naked in it several times, and she looks glorious doing it, so if that’s enough to hook you, I’ll consider my job done.




Deacon Blue is the blogging persona of editor and writer Jeffrey Bouley. The opinions of Jeff himself on this blog, and those expressed as Deacon Blue, in NO WAY should be construed as the opinions of anyone with whom he has worked, currently works, or will work with in the future. They are personal opinions and views, and are sometimes, frankly, expressed in more outrageous terms than I truly feel most days.

Jeff Bouley

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Jeff Bouley

To find out more about me professionally, click here. To find out more about me generally, click here.

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You can reach Deacon Blue/Jeff Bouley at deaconbluemail@gmail.com.

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