Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Big Hero 6 - Making Superheros Cuddly

With Disney having purchased the entire Marvel catalog lock stock and barrel, it was only a matter of time before we saw a superhero film joining the Disney Animated Canon.  Luckily Disney's main studio resisted the temptation to animate a recognizable character for easy cash.  Imagine a big budget blood-soaked Wolverine cartoon coming out of the same workshop as "Winnie the Pooh".  Instead they picked one of the most obscure titles in the Marvel line-up.  The "Big Hero 6" comics were originally a minor team made up of various X-Men rejects, recycled scientist characters, and monsters that only appeared about eight issues.  Ignoring all of the comic canon and the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney tore apart that dull plotline to mold into their own original creation.

The animated film "Big Hero 6" is a delightful animated experience.  The comic book elements are retained mainly just to add a final action climax, though little about this movie is written or designed like a superhero film.  This is not a deconstruction of superheroes like "The Incredibles", but rather a movie which throws them at the last minute just to add flavor.  This is a movie about crimefighters with a bright world and a bright frame of mind - an old timey Golden Age of comics kind of tone in a movie set in the distant future.

Actually the main focus here is technology and robotics.  "Big Hero 6" takes place in the cyber-city of San Fransokyo, a fantasy world where the Pacific collapsed, merging San Francisco and Tokyo into one megalopolis.  Science is the prime mover of society.  The local university seems to be based entirely around young people using their minds and creating amazing inventions - and being cool while doing it.  Neo-Tokyo is a nerd paradise - one of the most positives views of the future that modern cinema will supply.  The heroes of "Big Hero 6" are not angry emotional wrecks as in a typical superhero film, but rather engineers brimming with optimism about what their creations can do for the world.  When an masked villain threatens the town, the young people gather up their respective creations to make a decidedly non-violent and protective team of superheroes, saving the world without wrecking it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Hobbit 3: The Battle of the Tone Deaf

I am certain J.R.R. Tolkien would hate "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies".  Tolkien filled his works with his interests and pursuits.  He loved poetry, so his books are filled with mini epic poems and fanciful songs.   He loved languages so he wrote several imaginary tongues from scratch.  He loved mythology so he built an entire universe all to himself, based upon Germanic legend.  But above else he loved the rural simplicity of the English middle class.  The most idyllic place in the weird fantasy world of Middle Earth is the one closest to his beloved Britain:  the Shire.  Not a great kingdom, but just a collection of small peaceful grubby farmers, that's the land of Tolkien's brightest dreams.

If there is any one thesis to Tolkien's work, it is the rejection of the ubermench.  Classical heroes before "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were all figures that fit into the mold of Aragorn:  handsome, righteous, invincible warriors, and chosen to great destinies.  A little peasant like Bilbo Baggins would have no place in the old epic hero tales such as "The Song of the Nibelungs".  Those tales were populated by dragon slayers, not short crafty fellows who just want to go home to have tea.  When war comes in "The Hobbit", Bilbo rejects the entire business as childish ridiculousness.  The great battles of "The Lord of the Rings" were nothing but distractions for little Frodo and his friend Sam's lonely journey towards Mt. Doom.  Heroism could come in any size.

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" could not miss this point more badly.  Its title character has long been marginalized in these now clearly ill-conceived Hobbit movies.  In "The Hobbit 3", Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) might as well not exist.  He is entirely irrelevant, stepping aside to allow the things Tolkien rejected take over.  No Hobbit can perform acrobatics or defeat giant monsters or slaughter indiscriminately.  Thus they are useless for a huge indulgent special effects spectacle.  Director Peter Jackson, a filmmaker who has apparently lost every vestige of restraint, creates a final film in his Hobbit trilogy which is nothing but supermen battling for nearly two hours.  J.R.R. wanted to appreciate the small beauty of the mundane world.  It seems Peter Jackson did not get the memo.  There is nothing small here, and very little that is beautiful.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview - Freedom Doesn't Mean Smart

Freedom isn't free.  Sometimes you have to watch a really stupid broad comedy, all to save our freedom to have incredibly dumb movies.  North Korea can weep, I've seen their god king shit his pants.

If the controversy surrounding "The Interview" was actually an elaborate gonzo marketing scheme, it would be one of the greatest and most successful plans of all time.  What would have been a mediocre release destined to be buried at Christmas has instead become the movie of the moment, overwhelming all the Oscarbait, musicals, and action epics of late December.  This was a huge satire of international politics and the ridiculousness of the North Korean regime.  I'm not talking about the movie, it has about all the depth of a usual bawdy bro comedy, I'm talking about real life.  As it turns out, that is infinitely more absurd.  Suddenly a movie where Seth Rogan shoves a bomb up his has become a major patriotic symbol of the greatness of Americanism against tyranny.  What a world.

Actually reviewing "The Interview" now seems trite.  The film itself is far inferior to the controversy around him.  I did not want to review "The Interview" because the trailers essentially tell the story already.  You know what you're getting, what exactly can I say that will do anything?  Seth Rogan and James Franco run a crappy celebrity entertainment talk show, and in a bid to appear like real journalists, travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-Un, the most dangerous dictator on the planet.  Lizzy Caplan, a CIA agent, recruits them to murder Kim, for some reason overlooking that James Franco's character, Dave Skylark is a dangerous idiot, and Seth Rogan is hardly better.  Hyjinks ensue, parties are had, James Franco's badly overplayed Skylark winds up befriending Kim (who ironically is the most captivating character in the movie despite his real-life counterpart's attempts to stop "The Interview" from being seen.  Then it all ends in a huge explosion of action.  It's mediocre:  loud and annoying, but manages a few laughs.  If you tolerated "This is the End", you can tolerate this.

The stupidity of US garbage pop culture has become a triumph of good against evil - both in real life and in film.  Hopefully the next time a supervillain wants to bully the world's film appetite it can be for a film that is more meaningful.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Citizenfour - The Reign of King Paranoia

This year's latest round of Oscarbation* has been focused largely upon biographies of great men performing past acts of heroism.  "Selma" is about Martin Luther King Jr's decision to march against the president's wishes, "Unbroken" is Louis Zamperini's tale of survival against the Japanese, and "The Imitation Game" is Alan Turing's fight to hide his sexuality while essentially laying the groundwork for the modern computer.  As good as these movies may be (and I have no idea, I haven't seen any of them), they are all simulations.  We cannot be in the room where history was made, rather we can only create a dramatic play imagining what these people might have been like.  There is artistry in those constructs, but they will forever be infinitely distract from the actual people and the actual events.

No film, until "Citizenfour" has managed to set itself within the real room with the real history-makers at the very time when they changed the world.  It is a film that feels immediate and dangerous.  Our emotions are not manipulated by dramatic technique injecting tension, rather the filmmaking compliments the yet-tangible crisis.  These events are still enfolding following people who are still being targeted by the most powerful state on Earth.  There is no actor playing Edward Snowden, creating the illusion of his nervousness, paranoia, and excitement.  This is Edward Snowden himself on camera, feeling those emotions.  "Citizenfour" transcends rote filmmaking, this is a pure historical source.

Most of "Citizenfour" takes place in a hotel room, with three people sharing the crampt space.  Snowden himself mostly stays sprawled on the white bed, while reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill take shifts between using the one chair and standing.  This room is a basic white zone of tasteful mild - the kind of generic slightly-above-average temporary bedroom that could be found in any city on the globe.  The first interviews have that forced awkward quality you would expect from people meeting for the very first time, but as time moves and the momentousness of their discussion grows, a bond is formed.  They nervously smile with the knowledge they are starting a battle against terrifying people of unimaginable power.  Even in this isolated room, their enemies could be listening.  Big Brother, long-awaited and long-feared, is now here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nightcrawler - The Adventures of a Humanoid Corporation

Corporatese is the language of psychopaths.  Beyond being a tribal marking - a tribe of suits, ties, briefcases, and practical black German cars - it is a twisted dialect of understatement and avoidance.  Unlike its incomprehensible cousin Legalese, Corporatese at least can mimic regular speech that a person would use.  Yet there is no individual in "business-speak", merely a conglomerate of larger interests, 'the corporation'.  A person can have emotions, they can have guilt, they can even suffer pangs of responsibility.  A business corporation does not.  A corporation is a vast omnipresent psychopath made out of fleshy, presumably moral people.  Corporatese is a dance of bullshit that lets the humans within the business machine ignore the chilling nature of the shared universe they have created.

Louis Bloom, the main character of "Nightcrawler"* might be the first character to be a living corporation.  Despite a polite, positive, even friendly attitude, Bloom makes the skin crawl of everybody he meets.  There is something clearly off about this person.  A false smile lies on his unblinking face, below swepted-back hair and above a wirey frame.  His speech is full of nonsensical buzz words he is quoting verbatim from online interview guides.  Everything about him is a staged production performed just badly enough to make you wonder if there are lizard scales hiding beneath his human suit.  Bloom uses Corporatese in every line not because he's playing a role, rather this is his natural element.

If there was ever any doubt about Jake Gyllenhaal's abilities as an actor, "Nightcrawler" is the film that will silence that dissent.  This is a deeply impressive performance that could not have been done better if the master of slime himself, Eric Roberts, had played it.  Gyllenhaal does creepy very well, just see his double(?) role in the earlier "Enemy".  "Nightcrawler" exists mostly as a showcase for this disturbing character, much as "American Psycho" existed to project the horror of the yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman.  We follow Bloom's crimes, tactical advancements, and creepy gestures of friendship towards genuine people, and are made accomplices in his meteoric rise to camera greatness.  It is one of the best performances of the year in a thrilling film, showcasing just how much damage a single person with a corporate-mindset can do, while climbing upwards to his own nightmarish American Dream.

Intimidation Wins, Cowardice Wins, Film Loses

It feels bizarre for a post-Apatow bro comedy to suddenly become a major symbol of intellectual freedom.  The cast of "Pineapple Express" are not exactly pinnacles of American values and artistic expression.  But here we are.  Sony announced that after weeks of intimidation, hacks, and theater cancellations, that they are canning their release of "The Interview", a stoner comedy about two TV hosts traveling to North Korea to haplessly attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.

Critics talk a lot about bold independent movies that are ignored by "mainstream" Hollywood.  We champion movies that are small, creative, and groundbreaking, which dare to do things that stupid comedies like "The Interview" would never attempt.  Let right now we have a movie that has been crushed by what is essentially terrorism.  I'll try to hold back my patriotic rage and instead be more incensed that any cinematic release be assaulted by such aggression by a nation state, one apparently no longer content to oppress it's own people but now must oppress the entire world out of petty pride and a complete lack of a sense of humor.  We should be just as angry that "The Interview" was censored just as we were thirty years ago when crazy home-bred fundamentalists tried to shut down "Last Temptation of Christ".  Movies are an artform, they should be protected like any other.  If North Korea has a problem with that, we shouldn't care.  This is the Western world, this is America, we've dealt with worse than you.  If North Korea finds our way of life a threat, we should be all the more proud of it.

But more I'm angry at Sony, who have shown their true colors here.  Sony shouldn't be humiliated by the hacks, they should be humiliated by their actions today.  They gave in to threats.  I'm sure Sony was more than happy to have a way out of what was soon to be a major boondoggle and a film that probably was going to be a flop anyway in the crowded Christmas season.  Despite theater chains dropping the film, there were still tens of thousands of theaters ready to play "The Interview".  Sony took the easy route.  Charlie Chaplain's "The Great Dictator" was an inspiring use of film to assault the greatest evil of the time, lampooning Hitler at the height of his power.  The studio execs of Sony seem to lack the resolve of just a few generations past.  We should all be ashamed.

Film, as a medium, has lost today. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Babadook - Why can't all horror films be this scary?

"The Babadook" has been inaugurated by just about every critic out there to be "the scariest movie of 2014".  The fact they're right, and that a small independent Australian horror film made for two million dollars is the scariest movie of the year - by a wide margin - should be a damning humiliation to the modern Hollywood horror scene.  You'd think after they release dozens of scary movies every year, made for far more money by veteran directors, that we would be terrified every weekend.  But we're not.  Horror has become the dumpster of the film world.  The average found footage film or crappy slasher has only slightly more credibility than porn - and none of the visceral thrills.

The crazy thing is that "The Babadook" really does not do much differently in terms of horror craft.  I cannot say there was much in this film that I have not seen in dozens of other scary stories.  You take a naturally creepy concept, such as an evil boogie man figure, isolate your characters, and slowly increase the tension.  It's a basic formula, yet one that so many films seem incapable of grasping.  "As Above, So Below"* had a naturally terrifying plot:  trap your characters in the French catacombs and then force them to trek down into Hell itself.  However, it was lazily made, unable to reach even the basics.  "The Babdook" achieves that elementary score, and it goes far beyond.

But what makes "The Babadook" advanced is not it's capable terror or that freaky grinning bastard in a top hat.  It is a great movie because it uses horror to build up a fantastic and gripping character drama.  Too many assure that just because horror is a trashy genre that it cannot have the dramatic weight of other genres.  They are wrong, and "The Babadook" does everything any other drama does:  it has compelling characters with real flaws and an interpersonal conflict that is tearing them apart.  It even features two of the best performances from any kind of movie in 2014.  "The Babadook" is a desperately human tragedy, with the fears and loneliness of it's characters heightened by the things that go bump in the night.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Freelancin': Left Behind, the Worst Movie of 2014

I know I haven't even made my Worst Of list yet, but I already know what number one is going to be.  And it's "Left Behind".  In a year few of awful awful awful awful Conservative Christian films, this was by far the worst.


This might be the worst movie I've ever reviewed for this site.  Think about that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Interstellar - My God—It's Full of Itself

For many audiences "Interstellar" will be a movie that is far too smart and will blow over their head. For me personally, the problem is that "Interstellar" is far too dumb.  That is a severely unfair thing to say about a rare serious SciFi movie made by one of the greatest showmen in Hollywood today, Christopher Nolan.  "Interstellar" is a film built mostly of actual, honestly researched science fiction concepts:  climate change, demographic crises, and the cold brutal reality of intergalactic travel.  Nolan, ever the cinematic engineer but rarely the poet, creates a hard realistic journey across the stars, attempting to one-up last year's near-Earth disaster film, "Gravity".  Like all Nolan films, it is cool, slick, and brilliantly developed.  Nolan is a filmmaker who isn't just trying to simulate a space odyssey, he's trying to live one.

However, "Interstellar", despite clearly being one of the great tentpole releases of 2014 and an experience you would have to be anti-joy to decide to miss, is a movie that I hesitate to call completely successful.  Christopher Nolan is a reliable showman, he'll make something that will dazzle your senses for all three hours of "Interstellar"'s runtime.  Of course, being a showman, he has always felt like a deeply mechanical director to me.  His main fascination in "Interstellar" is the workings of the spaceship and his awesome monolith robots, not the people inside.

Yet this movie tries badly to be sentimental, even sappy.  There are directors who can do sappy, there are directors who can even make maudlin work.  Nolan is not one of those people.  He can strap a camera to the side of a huge spinning mechanical rig simulating precisely the rotation of a space craft, giving you the illusion of a documentary shot of a real spaceship traversing the cosmos.  He can create a CG model of a black hole so precise that his technicians accidentally made a real scientific discovery about the warping of light around a singularity.  Nothing feels more unnatural than for Nolan and for this movie to suddenly dump it's hardcore science background to suddenly declare that science is out, math be damned:  Love (capital 'L') is the true power of the universe.  "Interstellar" is a crushingly schizophrenic movie.  We aren't watching humans fighting the desolation of outer space for survival, we're watching a geeky space enthusiast director fight against the cheesy message of his own movie.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hunger Games 3: Fizzling Out

I cannot apologize enough for lack of new posts, there will be a Freelancin' next week with more apologies to come.  Until then, posts will be happening on a regular schedule, I promise.

It's been a few years since "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" introduced Hollywood to the innovative concept of fractional adaptations.  Why make one movie when you can make two out of the same book?  Thus opening the door to such incomplete half films like the "Twilight: Breaking Dawn duology", and the incomplete third of films as the "Hobbit franchise".  One thing you might recognize amongst this crowd is that almost none of them actually constitute a  good movie*.  On the one hand, it works out for the fans, who get another trip to the movies to see their favorite books on the big screen.  On the other hand, it works out for the studios, who get to horde another obscene pile of bullion for their bank vaults.  However on the mutant freakish third hand of this rhetorical organism, everybody else has to suffer through awkward plodding films trying their best to justify their half-formed existence, such as "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1".

"Mockingjay Part 1" does at least attempt a new bold direction for this franchise.  There are no Hunger Games in "The Hunger Games 3".  Rather the class warfare subtext of this dystopia has finally boiled over into a full-fledged civil war.  Our beautiful heroine, Katniss Everdeen (played by the future ex-Mrs. Highwind, Jennifer Lawrence) has been locked away within the secret underground fortress of the secret District 13, where the rebels plan to use her in a propaganda war against the Capitol.  Her partner in the Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark (played by the perpetually underwhelming Josh Hutcherson) is a prisoner of the Evil Empire, and is being used as their television talk show puppet.

The idea was for "Part 1" of this Mockingjay duet to be a slower more character-driven experience, with Catnip developing into a hero.  And discovering which of the two handsome angles of the mandatory young adult love triangle to fall in love with.  Unfortunately, while they got the "slow" part down, you will not get much in terms of character.  Catnip Everclear has never been a very exciting lead, and she is at her worst when she has to spend an entire movie in a gray bunker with seemingly nothing to do but watch events go by around her.  The rest of the Hunger Games cast hangs story equally ignored by an aimless script.  Catnip seems disconnected to everybody around her, as the script can neither build her relationship with hunky Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) or with her little sister or with anybody at all.  "Hunger Games 3" is a movie that not only doesn't have action, it really doesn't have anything.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let's Play the Final Fantasy VII "Remake"

Sorry there haven't been many updates.  Unfortunately I have been having a pretty hideous couple of weeks.  I sort of blew what remained of my money on the New York Film Festival, essentially dropping my funds to a perfect zero.  In the past few weeks I have only seen a single movie and I'm on the fence even reviewing it, and no video games at all.  I also did a beautiful number on my car, killing it for good, and dropping me further into oblivion.  Don't worry, I'm feeling a lot better, and my inactive period is coming to an end.

But I do have one thing to share, and that's a project I just finished with the Final Fantasy Wiki.  And that's a short let's play of the first dungeon of a glorious remake of one of the greatest JRPGs of all time, "Final Fantasy VII".  (It's a bonus episode in an ongoing Let's Play of the game that I am a part of.)  Joining me is ScatheMote and Drake Clawfang, two FFWiki Admins.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Listen Up Philip

We have all met Philip Friedman at some point during our lives.  Imagine that one insufferable narcissist you know or knew, the kind of person who will tear your soul apart with a few unimaginably brutal words.  If you're lucky you only had a single unforgettably awful conversation at a party with him, then simply took a swig of beer and moved on to another more pleasant social experience.  However, some of us have had to live with toxic people like Philip.  They were either our friends from middle school, roommates in college, or worst of all, we dated the son of a bitch.  And once you've broken ties with this caustic human being, you never quite forget the pain he caused you.

"Listen Up Philip" is about one of those vampiric souls who suck the life out of everybody around them, Philip Friedman (Jason Swartzman).  He is a young writer living in New York City, having just finished his second novel.  Friedman begins the movie discovering just how wonderful it feels to verbally abuse his ex-girlfriend and former roommate, then never becomes more charming.  He ignores and alienates his current lover, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), he systemically destroys his writing career in Manhattan, and continues to validate himself on his own greatness as compared to the mediocrity of the world around him.  Philip is an unlikable protagonist, yet "Listen Up Philip" is a sympathetic and fascinating character study within a black comedy.

Much of "Listen Up Philip" is a tale of loneliness in its three main characters thanks to Philip's clumsy destructiveness.  Ashley and Philip never have a formal break up, because Philip is too much of a swine to allow the final conversation to take place.  Yet Ashley spends her summer in miserable torment thanks to this man she loved.  Philip's mentor, the great author, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) allows Philip to live with him upstate.  Ike then sees Philip repeat the same antisocial behavior as he did in his prime, and suddenly comes to realize how terribly alone he has become.  Philip himself spends his autumn banished away to an upstate college teaching Creative Writing, where he ruins yet another relationship, and in his quiet isolation, unable to understand the people from he is estranging himself.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Superhero Movies)

The arthouse scene seems to be having a small crisis of identity over the rise of superhero films.  Hollywood is riddled with movies ending in "-man":  "Spider-Man", "Iron Man", "Batman v. Superman".  To cinephiles who believe that the superhero fad is an invasion of "low media" (comic books), the future must look worse and worse.  Just one ridiculous costumed hero kicking absurd quantities of ass after another.  If you've built your career on small, quiet movies about simple human emotions, all of this crimefighting must be an unstoppable nightmare.

Earlier this week I saw "Clouds of Sils Maria", an otherwise good movie about an aging French actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche) struggling with the next phase of her career.  Much of the film is a back and forth between Maria and her young assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart*), as they prepare for a new role, while the shadow of the superhero machine looms over them.  Maria and Val go to see a new alien hero future starring a young rival actress.  "Sils Maria" presents this movie as a hideous gaudy chrome-filled nightmare:  lurid sex, bad wigs, and CG violence.  It goes past parody to real hatred for the modern blockbuster, and everything it represents.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" tries for a more meaningful discussion between drama and action.  It stars Michael Keaton as Riggin Thompson an actor who has bet everything - his career, his ego, and his daughter's house - on a grand comeback as a Broadway star/director in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.  Riggin Thompson once played a superhero back in the 90s called "Birdman", and is looking for a comeback.  Michael Keaton once played a superhero back in the 90s called "Batman" and has been using 2014 as a launch pad for his flagging career, what with roles in awful crap like "RoboCop", surprisingly fun crap like "Need for Speed", and now this.  "Birdman" is a war between artistic credibility and popcorn movies, about working out those sides of your ego and developing a final clear statement of yourself.  And it is a gonzo madhouse of psychic powers, lesbian kisses, and hallucinations.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NYFF Press Screenings Week 3: INHERENT VICE and some other movies (I guess) Red Army, Mr. Turner

Pictured in this post is the Walter Reed Theater at Lincoln Center.  This is the room where I have been visiting for the past few weeks watching the selection of Indie films that have been collected for the 52nd New York Film Festival.  So I've been in this very room sitting next to real critics, bloggers who make money, and professional cameramen.  It's been incredible.  These are people who have either worked in the film journalism industry for years, or newcomers like myself.  It really is overwhelming at times.  I'm the guy who reviewed "Legends of Oz" mostly for perverse irony.  And now I get to see some of the biggest and best movies of the year in the same room as great critics.  I sat behind John Waters during "Maps to the Stars".  That's an honor.

At this point it has been three straight weeks of traveling to Manhattan to view movies, so I have forgotten what my normal life was like before all of this.  At some point (next week actually) I will have to stop doing this, the Critics Academy will end, and life will go back to normal.  That will be a depressing moment indeed.   Jesus, I'm going to have to look for a job... again.  [Insert extremely sarcastic expression of joy here.]  But before that misery, let me talk about the three movies I saw last week at the Festival:

First off is a sports documentary, "Red Army", directed by Gabe Polsky.  This is an account of the Red Army Hockey Team, a Soviet institution in the last few decades of the Evil Empire, which dominated the ice throughout the 80s.  The main figure in the documentary is Viacheslav Fetisov, or "Slava", the captain of the Red Army team.  Polsky differentiates his movie from being a simple ESPN sports feature by including Slava in a very unscripted light.  You get the usual interview stuff, but then the fourth wall will be broken with Slava answering his phone or having some banter with Gabe, who is always referred to as "a good boy".

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Freelancin': A Simpsons Guy, An Hour of Tragedy

Apologies about the audio quality this time.  Nothing ever does go exactly right, does it?  It's fine at the beginning and the end, then slowly it builds during the middle.  There must be some static in my mic that I didn't notice in testing, and now it's too late.  Anyway, speaking of incredible laziness, the Simpsons x Family Guy crossover:


Even I do not know how "Family Guy" remains on television.  I don't want to know.  It's bad enough that I'm forced to talk about it once a year as it is.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gone Girl

A few years ago, I came across a news show run a woman by the name of "Nancy Grace".  I found myself captivated by this woman immediately.  There was a magnetism to her that can only be found in the greatest of geniuses or the most dangerous of psychotics.  She was fascinating in all of the worst ways:  the self-assured crusading, the unceasing fiery anger, the clear insanity in her eyes, so obviously marking her as deeply deranged.  I was certain something had gone wrong.  There had been a mix-up, some mistake.  The anchor of this program was wearing a straight-jacket in a cell somewhere while a madwoman off her meds was being allowed to rant unhinged on national television.  The movie "Network" had come true.  Instead of Howard Beale we had Nancy Grace.  Still just as mad as Hell.

I remember grinning ear to ear.  This was all the validation I needed.  Nancy Grace did her wild song and dance against Scott Peterson or Casey Anthony or any of the other poor people she had set her sights upon.  Furious in her unproven certainty, she simply would throw out ridiculous claims.  Logic or evidence were not required.  I don't know what she used to get her "facts" - gut instinct, woman's intuition, coded crossword messages written by the aliens of Planet Zeta-9?  It did not matter.  She was abuse and rail against whatever creature she had in your paws.  She delighted in destroying people.

And the legal system shuddered before this woman and her army of self-righteous fans.  She had reinvented the media circus.  Grace stared boldly through the television set, triumphantly screaming whatever whim came into her mind.  People listened and nodded slowly in agreement.  If I ever needed proof that American society was rotten from top to bottom, I could not have asked for more.  Nancy Grace is on television, and she is allowed - nay, encouraged - to profit off of tragedy.  We love her because she tortures people both innocent and guilty for everybody's amusement.  You don't need to be without sin to throw the first stone anymore, you just need a Southern accent and a worldwide audience.

"Gone Girl", both in book and film form, is an examination on the effect Nancy Grace and her kind have on real people.  The hero of this story is the typical "bad guy" in the narrative that Grace uses so often to sell her moralizing diatribes to her legions of hungry fans.  This is the usual story of a rich White woman, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappearing without a trace.  Slowly everybody begins to suspect her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck) as the killer.  And all the ersatz Nancy Grace in the movie needs to call him a killer is a single selfie taken by a random woman, and a misplaced smile at a press conference.  Forget the actual truth or the real people involved, the Lifetime Original Movie template has very specific tropes.  Everybody has to play their part.

NYFF Press Screenings Week 2: The Princess of France, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Maps to the Stars, Time Out of Mind, Jauja

The 52nd New York Film Festival has opened to the public.  Every film media outlet is out there reporting about the movies, the celebrities, and the movies for the entire world.  The doors opened on Friday night, so now Lincoln Center is awash with celebrity, arthouse, and if you have a VIP card, really terrible white wine (get the champagne instead).

The biggest news so far has been the premiere of "Gone Girl", the new Oscar-buzzing thriller starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.  Being a starstruck fool, I will report that I was in the same room as those super stars.  Affleck couldn't find a comfortable way to sit on his silly chair - so glamorous!  Rosamund Pike was so terrified she did not move a muscle for several minutes.  But who am I to criticize when she just put together the best performances of 2014, and I could not think of a question to ask?  Or could bring myself to even attempt to talk with anybody famous at the premiere party?  (Still got to hang with other Critics Academy peoples, who make for some of the best company I've had at a party.  And great goddamn rum.)  Even so, I have been breathing the same air as celebrities, the 21st century aristocracy, and that has to look good on a resume.  However, not nearly as awesome as "Gone Girl", already one of my favorite movies of 2014.  That's more of a privilege than anything else.

But this post is not about "Gone Girl".  Instead I will talk about the movies that may get washed away in David Fincher's wake, both the good and the bad.

I'll start with the good this time and begin with "Maps to the Stars", the new film from my favorite director of all time, David Cronenberg.  It is his second collaboration with former vampire, Robert Pattinson, after the truly awful "Cosmopolis".  This time luckily, it is not entirely a film about Pattinson in the back of a limousine.  He's instead of a limousine driver, and has a much smaller better-cast role.  Cronenberg moves from a movie about the disconnect of Wall Street Masters of the Universe to the disconnect of Hollywood celebrities and the phoniness of it all.  And somewhere while moving across the North American continent, Cronenberg also remembered how to be clever, funny, and extremely disturbing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Poll: New Blog Title Needed

Okay, let us face facts here.  I am the world's worst brand marketer.  The name "Planet Blue" is terrible.  It was pretty much just a place holder from the beginning, because it was either that or just "BlueHighwind's Blog".  (And as for "Tales From the Q?", there are some things best left forgotten.)  Ultimately there are simple goals that a title must achieve.  #1 Be memorable - this isn't.  Nobody can remember the name of my blog.  #2 Be easily reached at the top of a Google searches - and I have failed even more miserably at that.  I mean, look at these jerks, stealing my title!  And calling it "Official" too.

We are nearing five years now at this blog.  There have been successes, but clearly improvements need to be made.  Some of those improvements have been embarrassingly basic, like actually re-reading and editing my text, to aesthetic such as the addition of screenshots and the new BH avatar.  Clearly though one of the worst problems this blog has is its title, and that needs to change.

Unfortunately, I am the world's worst namer for things.  I wrote up a list of fifty titles, nearly all of them terrible, and I'm down to about six ideas, none of which I'm hugely in love with, but they could be worse:

1. The Blog from 20,000 Fathoms
2. It Conquered the Internet
3. A Clockwork Blue
4. Blue Highwind's Lonely Hearts Club Blog
5. The Highwind Empire
6. The World Ends With Blue
7. EDIT:  Blog Highwind (suggested by Technobliterator)

Anyway, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can have a conversation with everybody instead of carrying the burden alone.  Instead of making the decision myself, you all can!  (I am psychologically unable to make a decision, actually.  I cannot pick paper or plastic, let alone a name.)  So leave in the comments below which title you like most, or if you can come up with something even better than my attempts here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

It has been five years since "Taken".  At this point I need to accept the novelty of Liam's Neeson's career recreation, a former Oscar contender turned pulp action movie star, is no longer an elaborate gag, but a permanent state of being.  Oscar Schindler and Qui-Gon Jinn have become a grizzled angry man punching people in the face, and any level of irony ran out around the time Neeson was racing cars through Berlin in "Unknown".  So as long as he's become a crowd-pleasing gruff voice with sharp features and a gun, Liam Neeson is going to do crowd-pleasing genre films.  We have had the shooting wars in European cities ("Taken"), the nonsensical thrillers ("Non-Stop"), the survival adventures ("The Grey"), seems that we are overdue for a pulpy hardboiled detective noir, right?

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is everything you would come to expect from a basic pulp fiction crime thriller, the kind that authors spend entire careers cultivating franchises around.  You know the drill:  a tortured detective, a city, and their battles against maniac serial killers, selling volumes after volumes.  Be it Alex Cross, Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Kinsey Millhone, etc, it is a genre made with obvious tropes, repetitive storylines, and read by a half-interested public who just want something saucy to read while at jury duty or the waiting room of a dentist's office.  Specifically this film comes from the Matthew Scudder novels, written by Lawrence Block, whose star is a divorced alcoholic private eye with a dark past.  Standard stuff.  This makes for the second attempt to adapt Scudder to the big screen, following the very poorly received 1986 Hal Ashby effort, "8 Million Ways to Die" starring Jeff Bridges and written by Oliver Stone*.  Will thirty years be enough time for a true franchise to begin?

Neeson is definitely the right actor for this material, carrying with him a dry air of veteran menace and bitterness in every scene.  Director and writer Scott Frank designs his film with an older era of noir in mind, with much of the cinematography resembling angular crime films from decades past.  Set in New York of 1999, the film returns to a traditional kind of investigation.  Scudder walks the streets and travels step by step from conversations with witnesses, with the case evolving like an episode of a police procedural from the pre-CSI technocrat era.  However, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" never reaches beyond it's generic origins.  A standard crime novel becomes a standard crime film, as disposable in this medium as it was in the pages of a five dollar paperback.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

New York Film Festival Press Screenings Week 1: '71, La Sapienza, Heaven Knows What, The Look of Silence, Seymour: An Introduction

This Friday the 52nd New York Film Festival is opening, bringing a wide selection of movies from around the world to Lincoln Center, Manhattan.  Usually this sort of event would not get covered on this blog, but I have some news.  This year I will be attending the press screenings of the NYFF - with a press pass - as part of their Critics Academy Program.   Check the list of names there in that posting, me, "Eric Fuchs" is one of them.  So for the past week I have been attending the press screenings of the Festival, previewing the films that will be shown very soon to the attendees, and much later released to the general public.  Even better, I get to attend the press conferences that the directors and stars of the films give.  Just this Friday I was sitting in the same room as Ethan Hawke (if you'll forgive my youthful starstruck mood).  I'm sitting right next to real critics, and eventually will be producing writings along with my fellows.

However, before I start doing the work for them, I need to do the work for me.  I have never been to a film festival before, so this is already an incredible honor and a unique taste of very different kinds of filmmaking than I usually find at the local cinema.  Last week I managed to five movies, meaning that a full review of them all is impractical.  Every week I'll quickly review the most impressive releases NYFF52 has to offer for you here at Planet Blue.  So let us begin, unfortunately, with the worst movie:

"La Sapienza" is a French drama film featuring a middle aged couple's journey to Italy to reignite their passion and their art.  Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione) is a successful architect celebrating the highpoint of his career, but also a zombie of a man, walking through life half asleep and cold to all those around him.  While he obsesses over his hero, a 17th century Baroque architect, Francesco Borromini, Alexandre has left his poor wife, Aliénor (Christelle Prot) to live a life of quiet desperation.  They eat silent tense dinners together unable to make a connection.  Eventually the couple runs into a pair of budding young Italian siblings, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro).  Splitting by gender, the Frenchmen inspire and are inspired by their Italian wards.  After a lovely vacation across Italy, everybody has learned more about their craft, their lives, and rediscovered their passion in life.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Freelancin': Atlas Shrugged Trilogy

A new video thingy-ma-bob! The grand ridiculous Ayn Rand trilogy of Objectivism finally concludes.  Three terrible cheaply made movies with all the quality of a mid-90s made-for-TV movie or worse, an Asylum creature feature.  And this is supposed to be the political epic that will make Barack Obama weep.  This hilariously bad franchise, one so cheap it had to change casts every movie, makes for the longest and most ridiculous Freelancin' yet.


(Apologies for the bad audio and video quality, like the movies themselves, everything went wrong with production on this one.)

The Zero Theorem

In 1985 a former member of Monty Python turned-director, Terry Gilliam gave to the world a film.  That film was, "Brazil", a twisted reimagination of the Orwellian super state, where Big Brother might be watching, but Big Brother is also incredibly stupid.  It was a land of endless bureaucratic clogs, ridiculous reams of corporate paperwork, and pneumatic tubes and ducts floating across every inch of the rotting cityscape.  The only escape from the constant madness on every inch was into your own fantasy, defeating your enemies only in your dreams.  This was Gilliam's masterpiece, a movie full of imagination.  Every piece and detail - be it the disgustingly cheery theme song, or the choking swarm of tentacle ducts - all added up to an entirely brilliant experience.

Of course, I could gush on and on about "Brazil", but only because I would much rather be talking about that movie than Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to make lightning strike twice, the new film, "The Zero Theorem".  Once again Gilliam is conjuring for us a fantastic but entirely unreal vision of the future, where all people are controlled by lunatic powers beyond their comprehension.  "Zero Theorem" is very consciously a "Brazil" successor, with every element of the world design specifically made to be as unique as possible, and starring a protagonist who is losing his grip on reality while trapped in a hopeless future.  However, just because you're are trying to make a movie with the same impact and themes as "Brazil" does not mean you are actually going to succeed.

While "Brazil" and earlier Gilliam productions could proudly let their freak-flag fly with playful bizarrities and grotesqueries around every corner, "The Zero Theorem" seems to be going out of its way to be strange for no reason other than weirdness's own sake.  It comes off as oddly desperate and even pretentious with its world design, which is a nauseating combination of bright colors, hipster clothing, and the obligatory gangster dwarf.  This does not feel like a real world where people actually live and suffer within but rather a false front trying far too hard to be whimsical, like a Nickelodeon game show set or a ghastly children's museum.  "The Zero Theorem" is a lot of loud images, trying their hardest to impress, but failing to cover up the real problem here:  behind all the hipster quirks and weirdness, there is really nothing going on behind the scenes.  It is the 2014 answer to the Richard Kelly pseudo-political catastrophe, "Southland Tales", only made by a far more competent director who should have known better.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Editorial: On GamerGate

Originally I was simply going to post this discussion on the newest Freelancin', but I was never happy with how my tone came out.  Actually in the very last Freelancin' episode I took up the issue briefly.  That was just before the phrase "GamerGate" was coined, got a Twitter hashtag, and even received its own Wikipedia article.  Generally I dismissed the entire thing as silly rabble rousing.  Usually these kinds of gamer "controversies" such as the slacktavist fury over "Assassin's Creed Unity" lacking female playable character or anger over Dorito product-placement in GameTrailers videos all blow over in a matter of days.  GamerGate is not blowing over, this cannot be simply dismissed, it is going nowhere.  And that requires a more serious response than what I gave, and more measured analysis.

Luckily nobody reads me, or those who do are happy enough with what I post that I usually do not get death threats*.  This is a small-time operation, I am not a games journalist.  I suppose technically I might possibly fit in the broadest of definitions, but I am not getting paid for this, nobody wants me to shill Mountain Dew, and nobody is going to invite me to an industry party (E3 aside).  My reviews are usually years late, I'm ignoring "Destiny" right now to play "Persona 4".  I would love to get paid for this work, I would love more if I was as well-known and read as people like Geoff Keighley, Leigh Alexander, or Jim Sterling, but that is not the case.  There is a negative side though to being prominent, and that's the gaming community.  We are not a very happy crowd, and we are not very pleasant to people who try to write for us.  This GamerGate situation is showing off some of our worst behavior, and we are doing nothing but cannibalizing ourselves here.

Trying to dig through the strands that led to GamerGate is a difficult process, and at this point, I do not think a single person on either side of the battlefield actually knows entirely what is going on.  This is a protest movement without very many protests, a revolution with no clear goals, other than "more transparency" and "less lecturing" and "stop sleeping with the enemy [read: games companies]".  An excellent article that actually summarizes the entire hurricane of controversy was posted on Forbes, written by Erik Kain.  I recommend you read that.  Everybody is involved, from Indie developers, reddit moderators, 4chan, and a wave of journalists quixotically declaring that "gamers are dead".  There's a lot going on, and this is going to take a long while to meander through.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei IV

The Shin Megami Tensei series has been for decades one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting Japanese franchises.   While most JRPGs were still aping Dungeons & Dragons with medieval settings, "Shin Megami Tensei 1" exploded on the SNES with a surreal cyberpunk plot.  In the first game, Tokyo is destroyed by an American nuclear attack, setting the stage for a sequel where the entire party is made up of cyborg messiahs in the wasteland.  This is the series that infamously featured such final bosses as Hitler and God (the God).  The ranks of monsters you control in these games are made up of exhaustively researched mythological figures and demons.  There is definitely more thought and originality in an SMT game than most gaming settings.  You will not find many Jungian archetypes or comparative religion in a Final Fantasy game, will you?

"Shin Megami Tensei IV" for the Nintendo 3DS* is the newest of the SMT main series, though that's mostly a question of naming versus actual plot significance.  Like most Japanese series, the games take place mostly in their own alternate realities, featuring only cameos from previous characters.  You could either be a veteran who learned Japanese to play "Shin Megami Tensei II" back in the 90s, or you could be somebody who has never played a video game in your life, and you will have roughly the same idea as to what is going on, which is none at all.  Beginning in a medieval kingdom, your journey in this game will take to several post-apocalyptic Tokyos overrun by demons, to trippy monochrome forests inhabited by destructive avatars of nihilism, and into battle with gods from every pantheon and religion.

"Sin Megumi Tensay IV" is not here to reinvent the wheel, it will follow the same conventions and use the same character sprites as older games without a care.  The plotline continues to follow the series traditions of your character getting roped into a chaotic world of good and evil warfare, and being forced to choose between the two.  Combat is the usual turn-based affair following old series traditions.  It is a rough, difficult affair where smart moves are rewarded with extra turns, and where mistakes are brutally punished.  You collect demons through conversation, building a party of mythological Pokemon which can be used to fight your way through the bizarre universe Atlus has laid out for you.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Snowpiercer

One can always be impressed by how the dumbest possible ideas can sometimes make for the best movies.  Execution is everything.  You can have a brilliant concept for a movie:  let's say a time traveling tragedy where the hero continues to mess with his own past trying to save his loved ones, only to ruin his life and the universe more and more with each change.  And then unfortunately end up derailed with "The Butterfly Effect".  How about a horror movie set in the Parisian catacombs where the heroes wind up borrowing down into Hell?  You get "As Above, So Below", a movie so utterly bland I physically was unable to write a review longer than three sentences*.  Yet then you take a preposterous premise, the kind of nonsense that would have passed for a season-filling "Doctor Who" episode during the Stephen Moffat era, and you make the grade with one of the best movies of the year.  Amazing, isn't it?

"Snowpiercer" is a Korean movie filled with an international cast of actors from Britain, America, and South Korea.  It is directed by Bong Joon-ho - best known for the giant monster movie, "The Host"** - in what is essentially his English-language debut.  90% of this movie is in English, and stars English-speaking actors such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell.  Joining the cast is South Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Go-An Sung, for that native touch.  "Snowpiercer" is also the most expensive Korean movie ever made, costing forty million dollars.  Thanks to its Anglo cast and general awesomeness, it has finally reached North America with a fairly large release a year after its debut on the Korean peninsula.  But thanks to my laziness, I am only getting around to reviewing it now.  Apologies.

The aforementioned awful concept is this:  the human race's attempts to stop global warming have been a brilliant success.  Unfortunately it worked far too well, because rather than suffering Al Gore's nightmares of dying polar bears, the entire world have been frozen, and most likely Al Gore himself is a block of ice.  The last bastion of humanity now lives on board a mile-long train which circles the planet every year on an endless track.  The seating arrangements have become much more literal, with the first class passengers living in a 1920s wonderland, while the steerage folk suffer in grimy darkness, eating nothing but blocks of ground-up cockaroaches.  Tired of the cruel abuse and torture from the 1%, Curtiss Everett (Chris Evans) leads a revolt amongst the oppressed to capture the train, seize the engine, and discover the mysteries of its master, the unseen godlike figure, Wilford.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Freelancin': Enter Twelfth Doctor

Saturday night had the premiere of Doctor Who season 8, and it was the first appearance of John Frobisher/Lobus Caecilius/Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who #12.  Let us discuss this.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

"Frank Miller's Sin City" was one of the most original and exciting developments in computer-generated filmmaking.  Robert Rodriguez's used digital soundstages to recreate the exaggerated noir of Frank Miller's sleazy black and white world, making a movie that was part live-action and part invented hyper-stylized imagery.  The writing might was little more than a poser's facade basing its tortured similes upon cliches of old Hollywood crime films and pulp fiction.  It was no more true to the genre than the "Calvin and Hobbes"' Tracer Bullet stories.  However, despite its flaws, I'd say "Sin City" is one of the rare example of a movie that benefited from style over substance.

It took nine years, but finally Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have teamed up again to create a sequel to their 2005 hit*.  They've used the same blueprints to build a structure just like the first one.  Once again "Sin City" is a  compendium of three interlinked stories set in the dark crime-soaked alleys of Basin City, all translated directly from the comics.  The pieces occur either before or a few months after the events of the original, each event taking place at random throughout the timetime.   The faces are the same, Mickey Rourke's massive skull-crusher, Marv, Powers Booth's monstrous devil, Senator Roark, and the stories have the same dreary tone.  Yet on its second helping this hardboiled meal clearly has lost some of its flavor.

"A Dame to Kill For" is a sequel through-and-through, attempting the very same idea as the original to weaker effect.  Yeah, the black and white are still starkly contrasted, but the stories feel rehashed and inferior.   Only one of the new chapters properly feels like it is worthy of "Sin City 1", and one of the yarns is so bad as to embarrass even the long-dead corpse of Humphrey Bogart.  (Unsurprisingly it is a new work created by Miller specifically for this movie, so it is strewn with his latter day dementia.)  Rodriguez and Miller's obsession with stupid violence leads the movie is repeat virtually the same action scene - a raid upon a rich villain's heavily-armed mansion - three times, twice with Marv as a sidekick.  There is a lacking in imagery, as the only item in the movie that seems to inspire Rodriguez's camera is Eva Green's white naked body in black water.  Despite nine years to prepare for this repeat, there seems to just not have been enough sleaze in the Sin City universe to justify a second outing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Once the Transformers were a cornerstone of 80s childhoods, and at some point, they became Michael Bay's behemoths of destruction, piles of metallic shards vaguely taking human shape while Industrial Light & Magic slammed them into each other for the glee of the movie-watching public.  With "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)" scuttling yet another childhood memory of aging nerds, I felt a trip through time needed to be made.

I needed to come back to the beginning of this story before the masturbation jokes, before the minstrel show droids, to 1986.  This was "The Transformers: The Movie" an animated feature created by the original studio behind the 1980s cartoon, the first chance children had to see Optimus Prime and their other mighty morphing friends on the big screen.  Tranformers purists view this film as the alternative to the Bay era, an electric-guitar filled spectacle of robot violence and major turning points for the transforming characters.  However, what they would not like to admit is just how similar this movie is to its three-hour cousins.  I can see elements of this movie inspiring Bay's new tetrology of automaton action.

Much like the Ninja Turtles, the Transformers were not born of pious intentions.  The 1980s were an innovative time in children's entertainment, when drooling toy companies watched greedily at the extraordinary profits George Lucas was raking in with his "Star Wars" products.  Suddenly movies did not have to just be movies, they could be entire brands, coming with scores of T-shirts and dolls and the odd flamethrower.*  It was only a matter of time before Saturday morning cartoons stopped being merely cartoons, and became half hour long commercials for the toys based on the characters within.  The old Transformers line (later renamed by a crafty Hasbro ad man "Generation 1") was an elaborate scheme to reach into your heart and wallet.  What would make a better vehicle to sell toys than a show about steel heroes that transformed into vehicles?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

A few years ago, it was announced that Michael Bay's production company, Platinum Dunes would break out of its usual forte of trampling over classic horror films with mindless remakes, and would instead jump into a new original project of:  trampling over an 80s cartoon with a mindless blockbuster reboot.  It was not long until this truly creative project had its original spec script leaked out to the public.  That was a bold new document proudly... copycatting the plot of the Michael Bay Transformers movies, essentially word for word.  Just cross out "robot" and put "turtles".  The Turtles were aliens, April O'Neil and Casey Jones were in highschool, and to accommodate Bay's military fetish, Shredder was a Colonel in the US Army involved in a dark evil conspiracy.

The Internet reacted probably in the most appropriate way, by rioting furiously from the safety of their deskchairs.  Thanks to production issues and negative public reaction, that old version of this movie was thrown exactly where it belonged, in the trash.  What has our victory gotten us?  Well, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" looks nothing like a Transformers movie, or even a Michael Bay movie.  The Turtles are mutants again, as the trailers were all to proud to point out, mocking the idea of alien ninjas*.  Instead of ripping off Transformers "Ninja Turtles" is exploring new ground by ripping off "The Amazing Spider-Man".

"Ninja Turtles" is the kind of bad movie so lazy that you cannot even find a way to laugh at its incompetence.  It is a passionless project that makes even the whorish merchandising and toyetic elements of the 80s cartoon seem principled and sincere.  Nobody cared one bit about the movie they making, nobody wanted to tell a compelling story, nobody wanted to make exciting action scenes, nobody even wanted to make a tone-appropriate movie for the children.  It is a movie that nobody actually wanted to make, but made anyway because there were hundreds of millions of dollars on the table to be horded.  The only positive I can give "TMNT" is that it is not actively the worst movie of 2014 as I feared it would be.

There's a quote to put on your DVD box art:  "Not quite the worst movie of the year. -Blue Highwind".

Friday, August 15, 2014

Boyhood

The sad fact is that ultimately 99% of movies will ultimately make almost no impressions on the world.  Yeah, somebody put a lot of time and work into a movie such as "Hercules".  But it will never be anything more than a silly movie about a man with huge muscles doing nothing that a million other silly movies about men with muscles have not done before.  Hours of entertainment have passed, leaving you with a lighter wallet, a belly full of popcorn, and absolutely no thoughts or enlightenment of any kind.

When you do have a movie that actually does succeed in expanding your view of your life, the universe, and everything else, it makes all those other movies so much harder to sit through.  So goddamn you, Richard Linklater, for making a friggin' fantastic movie, "Boyhood", which has left me staring down at my own life and measuring every small moment of day.  This means that the moments I'll waste watching the Michael Bay produced "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reboot are going to be so much harder.  Yeah, it is hard enough to watch a bad movie, but to know there are true works of art playing just in the other auditorium, that is the absolute definition of torture.  Somebody lock up Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman for Crimes Against Humanity.

"Boyhood" is at once both the most critically-lauded movie of 2014 and a hidden gem from 2012.  Richard Linklater created the movie over the course of twelve years, beginning production when his star, Ellar Cotraine (who is currently unknown but will not remain so for long) was six-years-old and over a massive production cycle, finished when the boy had grown to age eighteen.  Many dramas feature coming of age stories, but must simulate the character's growth by switching actors.  Linklater instead waited every few years for Cotraine to reach the age necessary to play the character of Mason Jr. for the movie.  Cotraine grows with his character, and the movie develops along with its star.  It makes for a fascinating experiment in real time filmmaking, creating a movie that travels across time itself to document life itself.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Freelancin': Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods

I saw this movie.  Let's discuss it.


Honestly, it was a lot of fun. Vegeta was there, Goku was there, Bulma was there. It was a proper Dragon Ball Z movie, something that the world has been desperately missing.  Glad to see these guys back in action.  Good time at the movies.

Spec Ops: The Line

Let us check in on the status of the War on Terror, shall we?  In ten years we've gone from merrily dropping ordinance on Iraq with a proud patriotic bounce in our step while whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy, to now bombing Mesopotamia all over again - but this time we really feel awful about it.  The high we got from crusading against terrorism has long worn off and now we're left with this awful national hangover and a ruined Middle East.  Today President Obama looks less like the leader of the free world than a sad little man trying to plug up every leaking hole before the dam finally collapses.  We killed Bin Laden, we liberated Iraq from tyranny, we destroyed Al Qaeada's networks, and yet terror reigns more free than ever before.  Every strike of our mighty red white and blue hammer of freedom only shattered the Middle East more and more.

I do not know how the War on Terror will finally be judged in the history books, whether students of the future will see the early 21st century as more a tragedy or a farce, but this will be a frightening time of introspection.  The United States did not like when it was shown its own conqueror nature after Vietnam*, I doubt it will like what it learns from Iraq either.  It is easy to live with simple illusions - they're friendly roommates always accommodating to one's ego.   It is much harder to live with the truth who isn't going to coddle you and will get your goddamn share of the electric bill, one way or another.

If there is any one piece of media that most appropriately sums up the current state of the world, it would a little video game called "Spec Ops: The Line".  "The Line" belongs to a series of very boring squad-based modern military shooters, each one as generic and artistically meaningless as the last.  That is, until the final game, a huge release timed to compete with such brilliant commentaries on modern warfare as "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare", perhaps the dumbest series of video games of our time (yet fantastic popular).  Adolescent and adolescent-minded gamers just wanted to release their pent up masculinity into some Terrorists, they did not want a long sermon about the failure of American foreign policy as represented by an "Apolcalypse Now" homage set in the ruins of Dubai.  "Spec Ops: The Line" essentially killed its own franchise by doing something new and incredible.  But forgetting mere sales, "The Line" represents a new frontier in gaming storytelling, and a dark warning for those yearning for another jaunt through the Fertile Crescent.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Making a space opera film is never an easy task.  When the dominant force in that genre happens to be a film series no less monumental than "Star Wars", the cornerstone of modern Western Nerd Civilization, finding success is probably only a fraction easier than actually going up into space and staging real star battles.  Many have tried, many have failed.  Dare we remember such titles as "Wing Commander", "Lost in Space", "The Chronicles of Riddick", "John Carter", the Star Trek reboot, and perhaps the greatest disaster of all modern space opera, the Prequels.  Over-ambition, incompetence, lazy scripting, and Jar Jar Binks have left the genre a wreck of ruin and very bad Rotten Tomatoes scores.  Marvel's own attempt at a space opera film seems to be nothing more than hubris, an attempt to prove that they can succeed where "Green Lantern" so legendarily failed, they can make a superhero blockbuster out of anything, even space.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is an especially ambitious film, attempting to sell millions of tickets to a show about a comic book that most people have never heard of.  This is not merely a movie about a relatively obscure superhero like Ghost Rider, who is not well-known by the general public but still beloved by comic book fans, this is a movie about a comic book series that even the nerds do not really know.  The comic book series, "Guardians of the Galaxy" only dates back to 2008*, which means it is only as old as the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.  It has been reasonably popular, but that didn't stop Marvel from ending the new series in 2010.  So this was a difficult, expensive genre full of high expectations, using a mediocre series that nobody remembers.  Perfect recipe for Marvel's first flop, right?

Well, unfortunately for Warner Bros executives but fortunately for everybody else, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a good movie.  It's a sillier more sarcastic take on the space opera formula than we've seen already, featuring a universe full of Han Solos, some being small talking raccoon cyborgs, with nary a Luke Skywalker in sight.  More importantly for Marvel, this has been a masterpiece of marketing, taking an obscure title being directed by Troma alum, James Gunn, and making it into a major nerd tentpole release - essentially this year's "Pacific Rim".  This is the 21st century:  "nerd" now basically mean"everybody under forty".  That means this was going to be a huge release.  It was a strategy that played up the cheesy weirdness, played up the comedy, and really focused on the rocking Seventies soundtrack.  Now "Guardians" has broken August records for most asses in the seats for one weekend.  However, ignoring that the Internet Collective Hivemind has decided this is the Best Movie Ever, just how well does "Guardians of the Galaxy" add up as a movie?

Tomb Raider (2013)

Would you judge me too harshly if I told you that I have never played a Tomb Raider game?  My home was a Nintendo home, and Lara Croft was a PlayStation girl.  Whatever romance we could have had would have been star-crossed and forbidden, almost certain to end in tragedy.  Years passed, Kingdom Hearts finally broke my PlayStation taboo and forced me to get a PS2, Lara Croft appeared in two fairly generic Angelina Jolie movies* that nobody remembers, and yet she never migrated into my controller.  The franchise was scuttled by its original studio, Core Design, then taken up again by the Eidos-owned Crystal Dynamics.  They rebooted the franchise once, but that didn't quite take, so here we are again, with a second reboot, starting with a game simply called "Tomb Raider".

Since I've never played an older Tomb Raider, this meant I had to do some research, which is an irritating process that requires real work.  Older Tomb Raider games were a mixture of a third-person shooter and 3D platforming with puzzle solving, which is essentially what the 2013 "Tomb Raider" happens to be.  The biggest development of this franchise is a change in tone.  Where the older Tomb Raider games were careless fanservice nonsense - this is a franchise whose fame was built on being the first video game series to star a pair of enormous tits stapled to a polygon humanoid - this new "Tomb Raider" wants to move away from that.  Old Lara was like a female James Bond doing Indiana Jones' job, fighting monsters and doing elaborate acrobatics and gunplay in absolutely shameless swimsuits, New Lara wears pants the entire game, never once winks to the camera, and digs through dirt for twenty or so hours.

The word on the mind of the developers and the thing clinging to Lara Croft's skin is "grit".  This is supposed to be a game of realism, realistically surviving dangerous situations, and realistically getting those situations impaled through your throat.  The adventure this time is no fun brawl through mindless levels, this is supposed to be a horrifying survival experience, as a first-time adventurer, Lara, battles her way through a ruined island which is not quite deserted.  It's actually the home to about 10,000 rapist cult members who want to murder any human being who makes the mistake of stepping foot on their miserable stretch of the planet.  Croft has to step up, brush the dust off her trousers, and slaughter every one of them to go home.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Freelancin': The Movies I Saw Last Friday that Weren't Lucy

It's a review of "Hercules" and "The Purge: Anarchy".  Only I had almost nothing to say about either, so let's just ramble about them in front of the microphone:


Friday, July 25, 2014

Lucy

The concept of "Lucy", the new Luc Besson film starring Scarlett Johansson, is absolute nonsense.  It bases itself upon the myth that human beings only use 10% of their brains, leading people to imagine what incredible potential we might have if we were able to use the full hundred.  Unfortunately no, you did not fail your sixth grade math test just because of some cruel twist of evolution forcing you to use only a fraction of your potential, you just did not work hard enough.  Your brain currently is eating up 20% of the energy in your body, a massively disproportionate amount consider its size.  Within that organ, you are unconsciously commanding yourself to breath, determining body temperature, directing heartbeat, remembering your identity and opinions of this blog, imagining Scarlett Johansson naked and moaning, decoding the words of this sentence, and ignoring half of those because your brain is lazy and wants to skip forward down the paragraph.  All that takes 100% of your mass, which is all doing something right now, keeping you alive and making you you.

So therefore, one's brain would imagine, since its files on identity have given you the belief that movies that are based on bullshit pseudoscience are bad, that "Lucy" is a stupid movie that should be avoided.  However, your brain is wrong.  Pulp SciFi for decades has been dissatisfied with the incredible cognitive abilities of the mind and used the 10% myth to imagine all sorts of fantastic magic you could summon with a better brain.  Besson has trumped them all, saying, "no, just being really smart and motivated like that Bradley Cooper movie, 'Limitless' is not enough, I'm going to go seven billion light years further with it".  "Lucy" passes beyond the point of stupid absurdity to reach over-the-top parody, then keeps going to the point that it becomes absolutely brilliant, a wonderfully weird work of true 100% genius.

I fear that a lot of audiences are actually going to be disappointed by "Lucy", since the trailers have been proudly wearing its stupid premise on its sleeve.  They wanted a dumb superhero movie where Scarlett Johansson beats up Taiwanese gangsters with telekinesis but will instead get what is basically a big budget Phillip K. Dick novel.  We a movie that is part French punk action movie, part navel gazing philosophy on the nature of life and discovery, and part "Akira".  This movie is completely insane and in the very best ways.  It is the kind of movie that will instantly weird out audiences who were very comfortable using as little of their cranial potential as possible, and most terrifyingly, might even give the most dangerous thing of all:  new ideas.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Freelancin': America the Movie

I've dusted off my old Youtube channel, now with a brand new editor and a new microphone.  So hopefully this will solve that idiotic problem of black borders around all my videos.  Here is a review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her" by Dinesh D'Souza, a right-wing pundit reinterpreting all of history to prove we are indeed the best country ever... and that Hilary is the Antichrist.  Yeah, it's a very messy movie, and I had a lot to say:


Anyway, this movie is pretty much trash.  As a historian, or at least somebody with a history degree, it is offensively bad, D'Souza completely misinterprets the craft with a lot of very weak arguments.  But you know, as long as Obama looks bad, it should be fine.

More videos to come.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review of the Rise of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes of the Living Dead

Back in 2011, the Planet of the Apes rose.  Now that same planet is dawning.  I cannot keep track of these titles, they both sound exactly the same, and have far too many articles.  Either way, seems like the Ape Planet is constantly getting started, but not really making much ground.  And if this Planet of the Apes prequel/reboot* franchise is hoping to continue, they're going to have to accept the fact this isn't the beginning anymore.  Is it not time to reach "Act 2 of the Planet of the Apes"?

The main point though is that this reboot or whatever of the Planet of the Apes series has been very successful.  I had a dim view of the first film, considering it to be very uneven thanks to James Franco and a few odd story decisions, but mostly James Franco.  Really though the new-ish franchise was just beginning, it didn't quite know what it was going to be yet.  The tone was off.  The things that worked, such as Andy Serkis as Caesar, were matched by things that didn't work, such as twerpy Tom Felton sacrilegiously stealing Charlton Heston's iconic lines from the 1968 original.  Importantly though, and I admit, I didn't give the movie enough credit for this back in the original review, it did have its own story to tell entirely unique to itself.  It is remake/reboot/whatever that is justifiable in its existence.  And it opened the door for sequels to expand upon that narrative.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is probably the most perfectly improved sequel that has ever come along.  It recognized the faults of the (kinda) first one, and logically moving forward in the story, fixed them, making for one of the best movies of 2014 so far.  James Franco's character is out, having been wiped out by the 'Simian Flu', a super virus he himself created while trying to create a cure for Alzheimer's in the first movie**.  In his place the hero has been made none other than Caesar himself.  The once lonely hyper-intelligent Ape now is the ruler of an Ape civilization in the redwood forests north of San Francisco.  The conflict this time comes from the first contact between this rising race of Apes and the last remnants of human kind, desperately holding onto what remains of the world they once ruled.  The new story is an intense study on a clash of cultures, nearly perfect in its tone and completing its aims flawlessly.  "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a film so well-made it retroactively changes my opinion on the first one - go watch that, if only to be set up properly for this installment.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Final Fantasy Explorers First Look

At E3 this year Square Enix had nothing at all to show.  Its booth was more barren than Betty White's womb.  And though that was really depressing and unfortunate, luckily SE did have things to announce... just not at E3.  One of those games was "Final Fantasy Explorers", a brand new multiplayer action RPG for the 3DS.  Now, a month later, they're finally showing some gameplay:


First of all, I have no idea why there was "Final Fantasy V" footage before the trailer.  But I will admit, I am about 100 times more nostalgic for that old game than I've ever been before.  Here I thought FFV was just a forgettable nothing title, but when you hear that old battle theme rocking, you just want to get Bartz back on Boco and start beating up dungeons with as a Mystic Knight.

Anyway, "Explorers".  I looks like fun.  Basically the combat looks like a multiplayer version of "Final Fantasy Type-0", only with a fixed slightly overhead view, solving that game's crippling camera errors.  It is also much more cartoony and kid-friendly, so instead of building mountains of bodies, you're just fighting big silly monsters with your friends.  And that is something I'm looking forward to doing when this game comes out.  Nobody is sure when that will be, but since it at least has a window of next year, it will probably be a few decades before "Final Fantasy XV".