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


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.