Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TV Review : Speed Racer - the Next Generation (2008)

View the Speed Racer -The Next Generation trailer here.

There are three ways to sell an existing children's show premise to a new generation.  You can continue the series, adding new origin stories to bring the youngsters up to speed (which is rare).  You can completely reboot the series ignoring that the original even existed (more common).  Or you can continue the series, but with the stars being a younger generation, usually descendants of the original characters.  Speed Racer - The Next Generation falls into this last category.

Made to capitalize on the... popularity (I'm not sure that's the right word in this case)... of the 2008 live action movie Speed Racer, SR-NexGen takes place years after the original Speed Racer series of the 1960's.  Speed Racer has disappeared years ago while being chased for his designs for the Mach 6 and it's gasless engine technology.  Teenage orphan, Speed (no last name), shows up at a high tech racing high school with only a duffel bag of clothes, a mysterious key, a red bandanna that his unknown father left him, and a dream to become a great race car driver like this idol, Speed Racer (Just who is paying the bill for this orphan to attend an obviously expensive and elite private school is never made clear).  He quickly meets X Racer, the son of Speed Racer who happens to be going to the same school, and Annalise, X's girlfriend and daughter of one of the original Speed Racer's greatest enemies (also the guy who has spent a lot of money to build the school).  Then he meets his roommate Conner, the biggest Speed Racer fan of all time and diamond-in-the-rough mechanic, his robotic monkey Chim-Chim, and Lucy, a talented track strategist. Wouldn't you know, the headmaster of the school just happens to be Speed Racer's younger brother Spritle.  An odd and extremely generous series of events introduces Speed, Conner, Chim-Chim, and Lucy to the pieces of the Mach 5 (Speed Racer's car), hidden in the school's junk yard.  Speed's mysterious key just so happens to be the key to the Mach 5.  They rebuild the car (briefly) only to discover a secret hidden within it... the top secret plans for the Mach 6.  They build the Mach 6, but find that, while it runs great on gasoline, to make the engine gasless requires components that they don't have the specs for.  With use of the school's "Virtual Track" (a lame way to allow racing in Speed Racer- like environments without having the students leave the school), racing action ensues.  Oh, and Spritle spills the beans that Speed is in fact Speed Racer's youngest son, and therefore brother to X and nephew to Spritle.

Are you with me so far?  Good.  Now we are going to look at my biggest issues with the series. 

First off the characters, past and present.  Obviously, X is named after Speed Racer's older brother Rex (aka Racer X).  But why he was named "X", and not "Rex" is anyone's guess.  And speaking of Racer X, they don't... ever.  No mention is made of Racer X or Rex in the entire 26 episode first season (I didn't watch the second season, the first was painful enough).  We do see Racer X's car, the Shooting Star, as a slot car on X's toy track, and X's own car is called the Shooting Star, but those are the only references.  There is also zero mention of the Racer brothers' mother, grandmother, or grandfather.  So we have no clue if their mother is Trixie (who is also absent), and if so, where the hell she disappeared to.  Also there is no mention of what ever happened to Pops Racer.  Speed Racer's mechanic, Sparky, does appear, but only for a couple of minutes very late in the series.  Zile Zazik was once a great race car driver, and Rival to Speed Racer, yet now, he never drives, ever.  He is always driven by his henchman, even in a race.  This is never explained.

Now the technical aspects.  In the 26 episode first season, there are two "clip shows" that recap everything that has gone on in the show.  These are totally unnecessary, and seem to only serve the purpose of padding the series because the writers couldn't come up with two more stories.  The sound mix is horrible.  The special effects and music are at a louder volume than the dialog, and often drown out what the characters are saying.

Being a children's show, I didn't expect a lot, but I was disappointed with what there was.  But also being a children's show, I'm willing to give it a little slack, which makes it just barely miss my lowest possible rating.

I give Speed Racer - The Next Generation a DAGGER, placed in the hands of a robotic monkey (who, sadly, was the most interesting character in the show).  Go, Speed, Go Away.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Movie Review : The Hunger Games (2012)

View the The Hunger Games trailer here.

If you haven't heard of The Hunger Games in either it's book or movie form, you must have been hiding out from a dystopian government.  I've had people tell me how important it is that I read the book series immediately.  BUT, this is a movie review blog, not a book review blog.

The synopsis goes something like this: The people revolts against a tyrannical government that is interfering too much in their lives and censoring their internet (I'm just guessing here).  Actually, there was an "Uprising" that the government of Panem (once known as North America) wasn't pleased about.  The "Uprising" was stopped and as punishment, someone in the government (who had watched The Most Dangerous Game one too many times) decided that the nation's children would compete in a battle to the death each year.  The nation is broken into 12 districts, each district must send 1 male and 1 female child between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete.  Volunteers are accepted, but are rare.  Therefore, the combatants are usually chosen by a lottery (apparently someone in government read one too many Shirley Jackson stories in high school as well).  Being a battle to the death, there can be only one winner.  The winner not only gets to live, they get to go home, and the government will provide free food for their district for the year.  Of course, the entire event is televised (just like The Running Man).

Twelve year old Primrose Everdeen has been chosen, but her older sister Katniss volunteers to protect Primrose.  Katniss is taken from her ramshackle coal mining village to the capitol and shown the excesses of the noble classes while training for the main event.  Eventually, the games begin, as does the action.

While watching this movie, I couldn't help but feel that there was critical need-to-know information missing.  This starts right from the beginning with,"The Uprising".  There is mention of "The Uprising" a few times throughout the film, and it is explained that "The Hunger Games" is payment for "The Uprising".  Yet, there is no detail about "The Uprising", when it was, who was involved, or  WHAT THE HELL IT WAS ABOUT!  You would think that we would be given more information about an event that they put so much emphasis on.  We only learn at the end of the movie that "The Uprising" occurred roughly 75 years before.  There is so little information of how the world gets to this point that I was reminded of the movie Cloverfield (which, I was told, required viewing supplemental information on the internet). 

Meanwhile, there is also a lot of emphasis on "getting sponsors" to provide support to the combatants, which could be the only thing between them and dying (as is pointed out by a former champion that is supposed to be mentoring them but would rather get drunk).  Which accounts for next to nothing as the only things sponsors provide are small one-use items, and they only do this a couple of times throughout the event.

Speaking of things that appear during the event for the sole purpose of moving the story along, there are at least 4 combatants that come to mind.  Of course, I only remember the name of one, and to tell you would be a spoiler.

Overall, I am disappointed in Gary Ross.  Ross directed both The Hunger Games and Pleasantville, while co-writing the former and writing the latter.  While I loved every minute of Pleasantville, I expected so much more from The Hunger Games.  It's not a bad film, but it's not a great film either.  I can't help but think that I will like the movie even less after I read the book.

I will now draw the rating from a big glass bowl... and... this movie gets a RAPIER that appears to be on fire, or is it?


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Movie Review : The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

View the The Dark Knight Rises trailer here.

Christopher Nolan has done the impossible -- he's made a movie I absolutely hate.

I don't particularly feel like really setting up this review, I'm just going to jump into it. The Dark Knight Rises is a horrible, horrible movie. After the visionary noir take from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the one movie I couldn't miss this summer turns out to be one of the biggest wipeouts in modern movie history. In fact, I would even say it is worse than Batman And Robin.  At least it didn't pretend to be something it wasn't.

What's that? You doubt me? You saw it and thought it was awesome? That's great. And for your regular movie goer, I can see why it would be so great. It has a layer of polish and a sinister undercurrent missing from so many movies. In fact, I have absolutely no qualms with the movie's production. The camerawork, the score, the special effects, all that stuff is great.

The problem is the script. A script that Nolan had a heavy hand in, and also selected as producer. The blame for the whole thing going off the rails lands in his lap with a splat.

As long as you keep any ideas of what Nolan is capable of (Memento, Inception, etc.) out of your head, the movie chugs along. Taking place eight years after The Dark Knight, Batman is believed to have murdered Harvey Dent and every cop wants him dead. So Batman is now hiding, not being seen since. Bruce Wayne, his alter ego, is now a Howard Hughes recluse at Wayne Manor and likewise hasn't been seen since.

The death of Harvey Dent has resulted in The Dent Act, which makes it easier to lock up criminals and keep them locked up. Commissioner Gordon is wracked with guilt since he knows the truth. Into this mix comes Bane, a man looking to destroy Batman and Gotham City. Also thrown in is Catwoman in a "friend or foe" role.

The movie is inspirational. The movie follows Bruce's return to Batman as he literally hits rock bottom, figuritively and metaphorically. He losesall his money through fraud, Bane physically hammers him, and he's cast in a pit prison God only knows where (it's exact location is not revealed, although it has no trouble picking up American satellite programs). Bruce eventually learns the important lesson that others are more important than himself and dedicates himself to getting back in full form in time to save Gotham from a weaponized reactor core that will detonate in about 23 days.

The above paragraph illustrates why this movie is so bad. Nolan's first two movies were about the dirty underside of life, how we do not control our fates and destinies, we are at their mercy. There was nothing inspirational about it, it was all about doing the right thing even when you not only do not gain anything from it, but you stand to lose everything from it.

I have commented before that there is often a point where I will either completely fall into a movie and let it take me anywhere or I will fall out and I will not get absorbed by it at all. That moment came early in the movie, where Alfred is explaining Bane and his history to Bruce. As I'm listening to the exposition, one thought wouldn't leave my mind -- how is it that Alfred knows more about the League Of Shadows and its former member Bane than Bruce Wayne does?

This is the first hint of the movie's ultimate problem -- Batman, the master detective, is the biggest fuck moron on the planet. His finances vanish simply by his fingerprints being forged. He trusts Catwoman and is surprised when she betrays him, while I heard a few people in the audience say, "Duh!" He first confronts Bane with no plan, no contingency, no backup, and when it's clear he's not going to win, doesn't even try a strategic retreat. They don't even do like Frank Miller and have Batman rely more on his gadgets to compensate for his being out of practice and shape. The idea of a sequence where Batman, who uses fear and stealth, suddenly is on the receiving end of it, would have made for white knuckle cinema. Instead, Batman just goes full derp.

In the first two movies, Nolan weaved an intricate web for Gotham. There were other crime lords. People reacted in different ways. Events had logical consequences. In this movie, Nolan doesn't even bother. Things happen for no reason or don't make sense, an obscene blend of It's In The Script and ignoring audience expectations. In fact, there are times when Nolan seems to be showing open contempt for his audience. The ultimate plan is to destroy Gotham to complete the job Ra's Ah Guhl didn't get to do the first time around. Back to the well already? The third act fires up with Bane creating a half-baked metaphor of the Occupy Wall Street/The 99% crowds.  This would have been a perfect time for the movie to go into the awesome No Man's Land storyline. Instead, it's too short and only gives a minor bit of lip service to why so many bought into it. The people of Gotham exhibit group think -- when Bane reads Commissioner Gordon's speech telling the truth about Harvey Dent, there is no debate on whether this masked madman is just making it up, everyone buys it. There's no resistance, the people exist to be manipulated, the very thing they weren't in the first two movies. The result is the most shallow storytelling experience this side of an Adam Sandler movie.

For three...fucking...hours....

The movie isn't completely bad, it does do some things right. Bane is an excellent villain. Like Magneto in the X-Men movies, he's not some psychopath, he's intelligent and measured who has made peace with what he is about to do. Some of the banter between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle is good. There is some humor. And the chase sequence outside the stock exchange when Batman returns is great -- when the lights started going out and the cop says, "Kid, are you ever in for a treat!", I leaned forward in my seat, and when Batman streaked by on his bike, I punched the back of the seat in front of me, thinking, "Yeah! You're gonna get it now!" Too bad the sequence is better at mood than actually creating excitement.

The movie at times feels like a made-for-TV flick. Bane doesn't break Batman's back, he just dislocates a disk. Good thing the prison just happens to have a doctor there who can help cure him. Bruce must learn to fear death. Uh...isn't that the opposite of what's worked so far? When the one guy in the prison who didn't believe in him is chanting "He rises!" along with everyone else, we've gone into Lifetime movie territory, such as Bruce shaking off eight years of rust in 22 days. And the ending in Paris is so cheap and cheesy.

Nolan? I expect MUCH better of you.

The pedigree behind The Dark Knight Rises created expectations. I could have lived with the movie not being equal to Dark Knight if only the script had tried. Instead, it's just a bunch of ideas that it barrels past, hoping that the speed will keep you from noticing none of this makes sense. That technique is great for short stories, but it fails with longform storytelling (compare Trucks to Maximum Overdrive).  But with three hours and characters going in directions that not only should they not, but anyone with a brain would not, you leave the theater feeling like you've been jerked around.

Keep your B movie glasses on, and Dark Knight Rises is satisfying. Expect Nolan to do his usual job, and you're gonna be pissed.

I give this movie a DAGGER, with someone else wielding it in case Batman forgot how one works.


Monday, May 07, 2012

Movie Review : The Avengers (2012)

View a slightly different The Avengers trailer here.

While I know that most of my readers are going to be going to the nearest multiplex or IMAX theater to see The Avengers, I couldn't help but go to my favorite Drive-In movie theater.  Yes, it was an hour and a half drive to get there and the picture wasn't perfect, but I love to support this lost icon of Americana.

Where else can you have a root beer float while watching a movie on a really big screen where you control the volume and there is an intermission at the half way point on opening weekend?  ...  Okay, now, where else can you do it legally?

Anyway, on with the review...

I went into this film knowing I was dealing with a real-life comic book with an ensemble cast of characters.  Obviously you aren't going to get a lot of time with one character or another.  I also knew that Joss Whedon was the Director/Co-writer.  Whedon is a known fan of comic books, and has created some interesting characters and situations for his own properties.  So I went in expecting a lot.  While I was disappointed by some things, I was given what I wanted on others.

The biggest disappointment was with the lack of real leadership from Captain America.  While he was shown to put on a leadership role, Tony Stark seemed to be running the show.  The Captain spent more of his time dealing with his own fame than either leading or coming to terms with a world that left him behind half a century ago.  I see the need for him to move on, but I was really looking for everyone to look to him for direction.

As for Stark... well, he was what we've come to expect of Tony Stark from the two Iron Man movies.  He is larger than life, super intelligent, and he has an ego than could go toe to toe with Zaphod Beeblebrox (Hitchhiker's Guide reference FTW!).  Robert Downey Jr. didn't disappoint.  With an ensemble cast it's easy for an actor to phone-in their role, like Halle Berry did in X-Men.  But Downey plays the role with the same zeal as he does when it's just his character.

We learn more about Black Widow, and a little (very little) about Hawkeye... I don't even recall him being referred to as such in the film.  And yes, Scarlet is hot in her Black Widow uniform.  But you knew that. 

The Hulk is just what you expect, genius geneticist/rage monster.  Although I must admit, they had a good choice of actor to play him.  Let's see if they can hold on to this one for more than one film.

Thor was better than he was in the movie Thor, but not by a lot.  Which comes to a split emotion.  There seemed to be a lot of emphasis put on the weight and heft of Mjolnir (his hammer), and I was pleased to see the Hulk try to pick it up, but I was disappointed that we didn't get to see Captain America try.  One of those situations shows the writers have heard about the comics, both would have shown that the writers are truly fans.

Sam Jackson as Nick Fury finally pulled out his RPG, but in the drive-in I couldn't see clearly enough to see if anything was written on it.

And Loki... Loki, Loki, Loki.  It's one thing to throw your ego around with Tony Stark who will only respond with his own ego, it's something else to try to talk down to the Hulk.  Stupid, stupid Loki.  Damned funny scene though.

Which brings us back to Joss Whedon.  Yes, there are a lot of stunts, and CGI, and action sequences, and they are all done very well.  But where you get a true Whedon feel is in the comedic timing.  As we've seen in Firefly, Whedon is very good at inserting just the right amount of humor at just the right time so that the viewer doesn't get too caught up in the action.

All in all, The Avengers was pretty bad, but we aren't talking about that movie.  The Avengers, which has a completely different redhead in a tight black bodysuit, was pretty bad ass.

So, I give to this movie, a KATANA (some assembly required).


For a second opinion click here.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Movie Review : The Avengers (2012)

View the The Avengers trailer here.

Reviewing The Avengers is difficult.  It's not because the movie isn't good, because it is.  It's not because the movie isn't fun, because it is.  It's because the movie accomplishes exactly what it is supposed to do, it is exactly what it is supposed to be -- a comic book in movie form, and that's it.  As a result, most criticism bounces off of it.  It's not supposed to make you think and it certainly hits dizzying heights with its spectacle, so what are you bitching about?

The problem is that the movie is constrained by its own raison d'etra.  There are little hints here and there that something more could have come of it and reflection on certain scenes and set-ups reveals missed opportunities.  The first Iron Man, for example, cleverly spun the notions of "Might makes right" and "Violence you could cheer for" into its narrative.  The Avengers?  It is what it is -- an extended action sequence with lots of movement but no fluidity.

This is the result of the first Iron Man becoming the surprise breakout hit of the year -- Marvel started trying to put as many marbles as it could back in the bag.  With talent demanding money for being in something guaranteed to be huge (rumor has it Favs was sacked from Iron Man 3 because his asking price became too high) and actors who, naturally, age, Marvel had to act fast to get everybody into an Avengers movie.  So Marvel started laying groundwork with Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America so that they would not only merge into one this summer, but they could do it again later in a few years.  So you have the very generic plot of the heroes uniting to face a common foe, an invading army of We Swear To God They Aren't Skrulls Because The Rights To Them Are Tied Up With Fox led by Loki.

You're probably thinking that I'm oversimplifying the plot.  Nope.  As has been said by a critic far wiser than me, good action movies are like good porn -- action action action BOOM!  Everyone has a cigarette.  The Avengers does what it is supposed to do, delivering a slam bang time, and that is all.  When you are dealing with otherworldly, bigger than life characters and situations, there are two approaches, which basically divide along the lines of, "What do you expect from your movies?"  There are people like me who watch movies expecting things to fit and make some sort of sense (the Dark Knight crowd), and there are people who watch movies to see things they've never seen before, where being caught up in the imagination of the creators and being wowwed is the important thing (the Transformers crowd).  The Avengers firmly and unrepentantly plants its flag in the latter camp.  And it's not like there isn't enough here to give everyone a good time regardless of their expectations about film.  Given that it's supposed to be the ultimate comic book movie, it has to pull out all the stops.

The director is comic book nut Joss Whedon.  Anyone expecting Whedon's previous experiences to act as a road map, forget it.  Because The Avengers is supposed to be completely over the top, Whedon has a budget and instructions that free him from any constraints.  Any special effect, any camera movement, is his.  This is Whedon given complete and utter free reign.  His approach combines Sam Raimi's kinetic directing, the Cohen Brothers' unique perspective, and Oliver Stone's sense of manliness.  When I talk about manliness, I'm not just referring to the guys' exploits and how they all look great while doing it (Hawkeye's costume change, for example), but there's something else.  Despite the fact that she is presented as an empowered, ass kicking female, there is still a casual wiff of chauvinism to Black Widow.  Her first appearance has her strapped to a chair in an outfit that had me thinking she'd start singing, "Life is a cabaret."  Later on, in the scene where Banner first turns into the Hulk, it's after they've fallen and Black Widow has her leg pinned.  The composition of the shot gives a great view of her ass.  Don't get me wrong, it's a very nice ass.  I prefer something curvier, so I give it an eight out of ten.  But it still makes you feel a little ungentlemanly to have noticed it.  (Further proof it was just there to carbonate guys' hormones comes when the chase begins, and despite the fall and being pinned like that, her leg appears to have
taken no damage.)

The film has some great character informed moments to it.  Whedon really knows how to combine that with Jack Benny-style silence to milk the laughs.  During the climax, when the Hulk fights Loki, it ends with Loki just lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling like, "What the fuck just happened?" (the audience was laughing so hard, I missed Hulk saying, "Puny god," as he walked away).  The Hulk sucker punching Thor is a laugh riot, too.  This also informs the stinger, the bit that plays after the end credits, a masterpiece of comic presentation that nearly brought me to tears.  The characters are very engaging, too.  Everyone gets some sort of chance to shine here, even the cypher known as Agent Caulson -- his uncontrollable hero worship is not only funny, but anyone who has ever met their most awesome idol (like me when I met The Bruce, The Man Himself, Bruce Campbell) will know EXACTLY what he is feeling.

This, however, is ultimately where the movie gets wobbly.  It's never enough to derail things, but it has you wondering.  Remember my earlier comment that the movie was at odds with its own raison d'etra?  Permit me to illustrate.  Hawkeye's quiver (I mean his arrow holder, smart ass).  Unless SHIELD's R&D department learned to make a bag of holding, there is no way Hawkeye could have carried as many arrows as he shot in the climax.  And even if it were possible, the interchangeable tips and mechanism sure as hell aren't.  There's no way the arrows have that kind of range and speed, either.  But hey!  It's a comic book movie!  Quit thinking so hard!

There are a number of elements that have you leaving the theater with question marks buzzing like mosquitoes around your head.  It's that old B movie standby, It's In The Script (IITS), where things happen because the script demands it and not because of any reasonable action from the characters or plain happening from the environment (well, IITS and The Atomic Bomb Will Save Us All).  As soon as it is mentioned that Loki needs a big energy source to kickstart the Tesseract, I immediately thought of the arc reactor that they took great pains to establish at the start of the movie.  Why did no one think of it before then?  IITS.  Why does the path to the holding cell take them past the research lab?  IITS, otherwise we would not be thinking it was part of Loki's master plan when Banner Hulks out.  How exactly does a team of mercs and a guy with some trick arrows completely take out the hellicarrier?  IITS.  There are still actions by Loki I'm not entirely clear why he did what he did or how he could even plan them in advance.  Marvel and DC super team comics were known for the heroes bickering with each other (which became so ingrained in the super team genre that everybody, including and especially Radio Comics with The Mighty Crusaders, made sure to mimic it).  Tony Stark is an asshole, yes, but the characters still seem to needlessly argue instantly instead of just eventually getting on each others' nerves.  I kept thinking they would be more initially focused and at least TRYING to keep things in check with the threat they are facing.  Some of the scenes lose their punch, in fact, because there's never really any doubt in your mind that, say, Iron Man will escape the hellicarrier's turbine eventually.  You are aware of the cliffhanger manipulation going on here, making it more stunt spectacular than witnessing fantastic events.  I say again, theyfeel like missed opportunities.  On the bright side, you don't feel like the filmmakers are jerking you around (I'm looking at you, SuckerPunch).

One of the questions was how Whedon was going to balance so many characters in the movie.  Whedon said he was going to make Captain America the viewpoint character to help drive the ensemble piece.  Well, that didn't come out.  Granted, it couldn't work like that, because Captain America is simply a super soldier.  The plot requires someone to drive it along, and Tony Stark with his constant needling and prodding is the best to keep the momentum going.  Once again, the feeling of missed opportunities.  Loki is the ultimate Ayn Rand Objectivist, and each character has some sort of contrast that could really amp up the conflict and get the audience feeling the determination of the characters to stop the nightmare that is coming.  Captain America against Loki, for example, is Complete Altruism versus Complete Objectivism.  Nick Fury shows he is a master manipulator himself, with goals as questionable as Loki's.  This is also the thing that ultimately makes Caulson's death less tragic.  When Bucky died in Captain America, it was horrible luck for a character we saw and knew over the course of the film.  Here, Caulson has very little to define him other than being a spook and his death is literally what kickstarts the team to act like a team.  It's a plot motivation, part of the machinery.  The contrasts, however, don't really make it to the surface because the best one gets the screentime, and that's Tony Stark's.

The delineation between Stark and Loki is sharp and telling.  Both are Objectivists bordering on being Randroids.  The difference is their focus.  Loki wants to be worshiped by everyone.  Stark wants to be worshiped by himself.  Stark will leave alone anyone not impressed with him because he doesn't need them.  Loki needs every bit of validation he can get.  It's actually very easy to see Stark becoming someone like Loki if his ego changes
priorities.  But the result of this is the movie is not exactly The Avengers so much as Tony And The Starkettes.  It feels very much like an Iron Man movie with the extra characters thrown in instead of an ensemble piece.

Alan Silvestri, who did such an awesome job scoring the Captain America movie, has fallen back on more generic music and cues here, although it's not his fault.  With so many voices, giving each one distinction is tough.  It can be done (My Little Pony--Friendship Is Magic does it every episode), but without giving it a chance to shine, it's not worth the effort.  Once again, we have a movie to barrel through here, so anything that detracts from that has to go to the background.  It's not that the score is bad, it's just rather workmanlike.  Once again, missed opportunities.

(Side note:  thank you for keeping Stan Lee's attention whoring cameo to the end of the film where his "Where's Waldo?"ing couldn't interrupt the movie.  Although I did start wondering if I'd see him during the attack on NYC, so not quite perfect, but high marks nonetheless.)

Ultimately, The Avengers is what it is, an adolescent male power fantasy where heroes are always heroes, evil doesn't win, and no one really gets hurt.  It's like eating a bag of Oreos -- it's great and immediate fun, but afterwards, you really would rather have something with some heft to it in your stomach.

I give The Avengers a KATANA.

~Peter G

For a second opinion click here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Movie Review : Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

View the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls  trailer here. (NSFW)

Where do I start?  Growing up in a small Illinois town, I lived in the shadow of Chicago.  When it came to movies in Chicago, there were two authorities : Siskel and Ebert.  I first learned of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert from their PBS show, "Sneak Previews".  Which would later move to WGN and be renamed "At the Movies".  I found that I more often agreed with Siskel, and rarely agreed with Ebert.  Siskel's death was a bad thing in and off itself, but it was made worse by allowing Ebert's ego to become unleashed.  Though Richard Roeper took Siskel's seat, Ebert never seemed to really treat him as an equal.  While I was liking Ebert less and less, Chicago was making him out to be the greatest movie knowledge of all time.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that Roger Ebert had written a movie.

In the 1960's Ebert had written a lot of favorable reviews for director Russ Meyer's sexploitation films, which led to their friendship.  Together they came up with a story, and Ebert wrote the screenplay, for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (capitalizing on the success of the 1967 film, Valley of the Dolls, while not being a sequel).  This movie would become the catalyst for the website you are reading today.

I first saw the film a couple decades ago.  At the time, it was the worst movie I had ever seen.  Blood Sucking Freaks has that honor today (I feel like less of a human being for having seen it).  Anyway, I thought to myself, "How can Ebert be the ultimate authority on film, and had anything to do with the writing of this piece of crap?".  I would go from that thought to ignoring Ebert from that day forward.  Eventually, deciding on creating a place that I (and eventually PeterG) could give reviews from the perspective of the common man. 

But enough about me and Review from the Edge.  Let's get back to the movie...

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls follows the sexploits of a three piece, all girl, rock band and the lead singer's boyfriend their manager when they move from small town America to Hollywood, California and become an instant success (because that's what happens to bands from small towns when they move to big cities).  In Hollywood, they are introduced to record producer Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell.  Who goes through life talking like a beatnik version of William Shakespeare, and being overly impressed with himself.  He immediately introduces the cast of characters that will be the downfall of the band (and this movie), including short personality bios.  Z-Man then signs them to a record deal, and makes them famous, just before their lives go completely down the toilet.

First, let's look at the direction of the film.  Seriously, the MTV generation directors have nothing on Russ Meyer when it comes to quick cuts that serve only to confuse the scene.  And the music video-like acid rock performances seem to be a lot more like padding than anything related to story progression.  Which, at 105 minutes the movie certainly didn't need.  But wait!  There's also The Strawberry Alarm Clock... and only 3 years after their one big hit.  Groovy, man.

As for cast, I don't deny that Meyer could pack a film with very attractive talent that was willing to take it's clothes off, but that often serves as a distraction from the film (which may have been the intent), man.  Regardless, the acting had a tendency to be way over the top, man, and I do mean WAY, man.  I was hoping that William Shatner would make an appearance, just to bring it down a bit, man.  The extreme emotional moods would swing almost as fast as one of the quick cuts, man.  And the narrator picking up the William Shakespeare-like speak of Z-Man while doing outro-ductions was just annoying... man.

Which brings me to the screen writing.  With the vast scope this film was attempting, and the poor attempts at Shakespeare, I would normally say that the writer was an egotistical hack.  Seeing as how the writer was Roger Ebert, that goes without saying.  While watching the movie, I noticed that Z-man's ego was not unlike Ebert's.  Not unlike how Tarantino speaks through characters in his films.  By the end of the film, I was frighteningly wondering how much of himself Ebert wrote into the Z-Man character.  As for the rest of the writing...  With all the backstabbing, drug and alcohol use, random acts of sex, and really crappy and annoying dialog, it's hard to nail down what the actual plot is.  Did I say it was hard?  I meant that it's like nailing runny Jello to a wall.  Figuring out the plot is so impossible, that I had to break the movie into a handful of "takeaway" plots.

You can whore around all you like and only your friends and loved ones will be hurt by it, but that's okay, they will forgive you completely.
After abortions, women become lesbians.
Drugs will make you do homosexual things. 
Fame and fortune make you delusional.
Women don't like being called "broads", and take it VERY personally when you call them a "goddamned ugly broad". 
If you do anything vaguely homosexual you will die a gruesome death.
Love can conquer all, including paralysis, and will make you forget the dead body you are kneeling over.
Lawyers left without love or money will become stalkers.

In the end, between the first viewing (oh so long ago) and this one (taking the bullet for my readers), I have officially wasted 210 minutes of my life on this film.  I suggest that you don't do the same.  If you really feel the need to watch a movie about a rockin' trio of good looking women who fall victim to the music industry, go rent Josie and the Pussycats.

No Z-Man, that is not Excalibur as you doth claim.  Truly it be a SOULSTEALER taken from beneath a pile of manure.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Movie Review ; Captain America - The First Avenger (2001)

View the Captain America - The First Avenger trailer here.

When I talk with people about the Captain America movie, I explain one simple fact -- Captain America is not about America.  He's about the American Dream.  He's about courage.  He's about standing up for others.  It's about giving your all so other people can be free.  In the Marvel Comics, Hercules once said, "We measure speed against Hermes.  We measure wisdom against Athena.  We measure courage against Captain America."  As long as they got that aspect of the character right, I said, I know I'll enjoy the movie.

They did it.
Captain America -- The First Avenger is so far the best movie of the summer movie season.  It truly is about courage and giving your all.  I know some people complain about jingoism in movies (only in American films, productions from other countries that show national pride NEVER get that criticism), but this doesn't really have any of that.  It is an epic story that works because of the dichotomy of the hero -- his powers are limited, but his heart is limitless.

The movie not only follows the traditional origin of Captain America, but also incorporates real world facts about the character.  Set in the early 1940's, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who was in The Losers, TMNT, Scott Pilgrim, and the Fox Fantastic Four movies.  Is there some sort of competition between him, Sam Jackson,and  Michael Clark Duncan to see who can be in the most comic book movies?!?) was a 98 pound weakling from New Jersey Brooklyn who wants to fight in World War II.  It's not that he loves war.  He wants to protect others.  He wants to stop bullies and defeat evil.  But he can't.  He's rejected 4F each of the five times he's tried to enlist.  He gets a chance to become a super soldier by an escaped German scientist.  But not everyone is on board with this, and Rogers has to prove his worth to allies as well as another version of the doc's experiments, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving.  Has this guy EVER turned in a bad performance?).

Evans does a hell of a job acting.  Little movements and subtly keep the character grounded, a little fixing of his hair here, setting his jaw when he's about to undergo the super soldier process there.  Cap would be a very easy character to camp up, but the script and Evans make him determined, as opposed to the cocky swagger of Thor or Tony Stark.  It is up to him to sell Cap as a man who refuses to fail instead of some superdude who just can't be stopped, more like Jackie Chan and less like Arnold Shwartzenegger, and he does it with aplomb.  Part of this ties into Cap himself.  Cap is a super soldier, but he's not Superman.  He's just an enhanced human, and can be taken out if you do it right.  He's very vulnerable for a superhero.  This makes him closer to the viewer, and easier to identify with.

The director, Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), keeps things moving.  The set pieces have frequent long takes enabling you to follow the action and be thrilled by it instead of the fast cuts that disguise and confuse (anyone who's seen the Bourne trilogy knows what I'm talking about).  But the real star behind the scenes is his frequent cinematographer, Shelly Johnson.  Thanks to sepia-toned scenery and great angles, Johnson creates a truly immersive environment for the movie.  You feel you are watching events unfold instead of a series of chapter stops on the DVD.  Also, props to Robert Dalva and Jeffrey Ford for their editing.  They keep the timing and pacing brisk, and the comic moments like the capture the flag bit from basic training, even if you know what's coming, feel natural and not overlong.  Even as the set pieces escalate and become more comic booky, they never lose their grounding.  At first, I was having occasional flashbacks to Metal Gear Awesome ("Oh, gee whiz, I hope a giant tank doesn't totally come out of nowhere and own me!"), but they got left behind by the time the second act started.

The supporting cast is awesome.  There's a bit of a war going on to see who can steal the most scenes, Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips or Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark.  Cooper in particular had me thinking, Like father, like son.  Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a woman who is actually a woman -- she doesn't take shit from the boys, but she isn't just a man with tits, either.  Although whenever Stan Lee wants to stop whoring himself out for cameo appearances, fine by me.  Really.  It's starting to get distracting because people notice you and it takes them out of the movie.  Stop that shit.

Speaking of "stop that shit," please, for the love of God, no more motorcycles with guns mounted on the handlebars!  That means you can only shoot at things you are driving towards and they will be impossible to aim.  It was stupid in Megaforce, it was stupid in Delta Force, and it's stupid during the third act of Captain America.  I know the Nazis had some whacked out ideas for weapons, but they weren't THAT fucking dumb.

The script incorporates pieces of Captain America's actual history, like how he was created for an ad campaign to sell war bonds and balances it against what the characters find themselves in, such as Phillips slowly but surely coming around to admiring Steve Rogers instead of just dismissing him.  You can see the change happening, it really is amazing to watch.

After losing ground over the years to John Powell as my favorite movie score composer, Alan Silvestri is back with a vengeance.  Using military music and period pieces as his launching point, Silvestri's score is amazing to listen to, particularly during the truly amazing train raid.  I'm grabbing this one first chance I get.

Incidentally, the stinger on this one?  It's shit.  All you see is Rogers working out when Fury approaches him, then a preview of a few bits from next year's Avengers movie.  Despite the footage on YouTube of Agent Caulson giving Rogers his shield in Times Square, that doesn't appear anywhere in the film, so I'm guessing it will be a flashback in Avengers.  Whatever.  It just ends the movie too abruptly, and the stinger is just a promo, not a hint of what's to come.  But that's pretty much my only real bitch about the movie.

Captain America -- The First Avenger would be an awesome movie during any summer, but with the competition this year, it stands out proudly.  It's the first time in a long time I actually felt a movie was worth the time AND money I spent on it.

 I give this film an EXCALIBUR.