Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

     In a way, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most un-Marvel movie so far. Not in a sense of tone, but in a sense of location. Earth is barely onscreen for 3 minutes, there's no familiar characters around (besides a couple minor ones, two of which appeared in credits scenes before), and the characters are aliens and rogues—decidedly not super, and barely qualifying as heroic. And all of this makes it stand out higher in Marvel's universe.
     Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a rogue-type who discovers an orb that he thinks is just a normal artifact, but it ends up attracting the attention of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his Kree army. Peter has to team up with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and the alien-tree Groot (Vin Diesel) to figure out what the orb is and stop it from getting into Ronan's hands.
     The comparisons between the Guardians themselves and the Avengers are obvious. After all, the worst the Avengers have is Tony Stark, who's deeply sarcastic but still heroic. The Guardians practically define the ragtag group of misfits, constantly at odds with each other in their goals and morally. They seem like any minute they're just going to turn and kill each other. When the Avengers fight like that, it's a tense atmosphere. When the Guardians fight, it's closer to hilarious. The focus on humor here is big, and there's plenty of bickering remarks as they butt heads, held together by some fine acting all around. Zoe Saldana is still in her niche of “no-nonsense badass”, but it works all the better when she's surrounded by nonsense. Bradley Cooper takes the role of a bitter talking raccoon as seriously as he can, cracking plenty of jokes while showing the small shades of his backstory when you least expect it. And Chris Pratt swaggers on-screen in an opening scene that defines his role better than anything: a quiet trip into a ruin that then turns into Pratt dancing and kicking space-rats to Come And Get Your Love.
     The atmosphere here ties things together. It plays to pure sci-fi. The pristine planet which holds the galactic police corps Nova, the space jail filled with tough aliens that the Guardians have to break out of. And then it plays to the Marvel universe's bigger weirdness with a planet which is actually the head of a long-dead giant alien. If you want the 101 to Marvel Cosmic, this is it: there may be a talking raccoon, but you're still getting an honest love of science fiction that's just done without boundaries. Space battles are huge and fun. An early fight over the orb is humorous while also showing off plenty of sci-fi tech. The CGI is flawless, from the spaceships to Rocket's smaller details and expressions making him actually look like a raccoon is just walking around with a giant gun.

     Guardians is another winner in Marvel's line-up (big surprise), but it's also a huge dose of sci-fi fun. It goes over the top and then some, and it never pauses and says “Should we back off?”, but instead just looks to entertain as much as possible.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rocky & Bullwinkle Volume 1

Written by Mark Evanier
Art by Roger Langridge

     IDW has done some fantastic revivals of licenses, and with the recent Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, now's a great time to bring back the Jay Ward cartoons in comic form, right? Sadly, Rocky & Bullwinkle stumbles far too quickly and never recovers.
     The four issues here are all standalone stories, with the moose & squirrel going against Boris & Natasha's various evil plans. The elements from the cartoon are here in essence. There's the omnipresent narrator and the dual “Next time” cliffhanger titles, and just a feeling like these could've been actual stories on the show. But then the comic ends up relying too much on references rather than actual humor. It's funny when Bullwinkle asks a magician “How did you do that?” after he pulls a rabbit out of his hat, it's painful when Bullwinkle starts explaining what normally happens. It gets worse when modern-day references start getting put in. They just don't work in context. You've got a 60s, Cold War style plot of Americans vs. Russian expies, and then suddenly Bullwinkle starts talking about the Kardashians and reality shows. And finally, there's a lack of the self-deprecation that made the series great. Hell, even the movie got that one right. Instead, the comic almost seems to put the show on a pedestal, and that's just not a good place for a licensed comic to be.
     There are a few good points here. The idea of cutting from the main story for a Dudley Do-Right “short” is perfectly in the style of the show, and the shorts tend to be better than the main feature. Sadly, it's nothing BUT Dudley Do-Right. No Aesop's Fables, no Fractured Fairy Tales, just Dudley Do-Right. But I'll take what I can get. Bullwinkle's awful puns throughout are perfectly in style, and they're so bad that they at least put a smile on my face. The final issue here is also fairly good, the closest to what I was hoping for when I started reading, but it was a serious case of too little, too late. And Langridge's art is in top form, a simplified style that works for a similarity to the show. My main question is why he didn't also write the comic. He did an excellent job on the Muppet Show comic, and with how stylistically similar they are, this would seem like the perfect fit for him.

     Overall, Rocky & Bullwinkle is just disappointing. IDW has done plenty of quality licensed work, so to see something that uses the license so poorly just seems out of place for them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley
Based on the book by Solomon Northup

     Some movies take the easy way out on hard topics, implying the harder parts or making soft messages like “slavery was bad”. 12 Years a Slave does not go easy. 12 Years a Slave lets you know from the opening that there is going to be nothing held back.
     Solomon Northup (Academy Award-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living a decent life in New York. When two men give him a job offer and take him out drinking afterwards, he wakes up in slavery, with nobody willing to listen to him. And over his 12 years in slavery, he has to do what he can both to survive and to become free again.
     This is undoubtedly a brutal and intense movie. The fact that there's violence as soon as Solmon gets put in slavery sets the tone for how things will go. And things get worse from there. The shock factor is there in a sense, seeing what Solomon had to be put through, but it goes beyond simple shock to show the kinds of cruel people that were involved. The early slavers seem cruel for having slaves, beating them, and simply treating them as property. This is not a movie that gives a pass to white people or tries to say “But that's what happened back then”, it shows in full that there was simply nobody who cared. But they just barely qualify as generous compared to the eventual slavers of Solomon for the movie's latter half. The Epps (Academy Award-nominated Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson) aren't just cruel, they're vicious. Edwin is an alcoholic who will whip his slaves for no reason, while Mistress Epps verbally abuses Patsey (Academy Award-winning Lupita N'yongo). While Patsey only has a handful of scenes, the Oscar for N'yongo becomes obvious in a heartbreaking scene where Patsey begs Solomon to mercy-kill her.
     Everything gets held together by the incredible cinematography. The lush green of Louisiana is directly contrasted with the horrors that happen on-screen. And several silent long takes throughout show more than dialogue ever could. When Solomon barely survives being hanged at one point, it would have been easy to have the aftermath scene last a few seconds. Instead, it's a full minute as Solomon simply stands on his tiptoes while behind him, all the other slaves continue on with their work. And when McQueen does nothing but focus on Ejiofor, his acting ability shines through. A scene of him simply running through emotions at the mere chance of being free is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.

     Visually striking and incredibly acted, 12 Years a Slave takes the issue and the story on in full and doesn't falter for a second in showing what happened.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Pitch Perfect (Guest Review by Aria!)

Directed by Jason Moore
Written by Kay Cannon
Based on the novel by Mickey Rapkin

     I had such high hopes for Pitch Perfect, but it let me down with more of the same.
     We have here the story of a special snowflake hipster chick with an intense passion for music and a father who doesn’t understand her.. She has her own dreams, but her father doesn’t approve and makes her go to college. The message is clear: she needs to stop being so cool and join a defunct, all-girl a capella group that doesn’t know when to quit.
     That’s great and everything, but the main plot is soon engulfed by the unnecessary and contrived romantic subplot. The story of a guy who just kinda forces himself into a girl’s space and is *sob* so heartbroken when she doesn’t take too kindly to that. Oh, well. The important thing is how self-aware they are, predicting and bashing the ending to their own movie.
     The main problem seems to be that the movie doesn't understand its own strengths, choosing to focus on the least interesting characters and turning everyone else into offensive caricatures and mere props for a cause that their depiction betrays. The whole movie seems so ready to subvert all of this and by the end reinforces that everything is exactly as it appears. Look at us subverting subversiveness! We're so original you guys!
     *spoilers* The girls’ victory at the end is undermined by the fact that the main villain leaves before the final battle. Yeah, they were awesome and stuff, but without the sweet, succulent tears of the bad guy, how am I supposed to balance my breakfast? *end spoilers*
     While it has its moments (Rebel Wilson gets a couple of good lines; Elizabeth Banks steals every scene she’s in; and the music is indisputably awesome), the seemingly girl-power plot-line is tarnished by out-of-date tropes and straw-man misogyny that serves to obscure actual male entitlement as a quirky, lovable character trait.
     Also, vader is Dutch, not German.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

Written and directed by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger

     Let's face it, the older a movie is, the less that's expected out of its special effects. You may see the zipper on the monster, but if the costume's good, you'll give it a pass. You may be able to tell that the sweeping city is a matte painting, but the sheer scope of it can still impress. While A Matter of Life and Death has a little more going for it than just its special effects, they shine out over the rest of the movie.
     Peter Carter (David Niven) is a pilot in World War II whose plane gets shot down. He's meant to die and go to heaven. However, the angel who's supposed to take him there, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), can't find him in the English fog. And by the time he actually finds Peter, Peter has fallen in love with June (Kim Hunter), and now that love may be the only thing that can keep him from going to heaven.
     In an interesting stylistic choice, real life is portrayed in Technicolor, while heaven is in black-and-white. You'd think the majesty of heaven would've been portrayed as more colorful than real life, but then, this is a film about wanting to stay alive, making real life look far more appealing (71 even snarks when he goes to Earth for the first time, “I missed Technicolor”). Instead, heaven is dream-like, almost surreal, seeming to stretch on forever. It's done with simple and obvious matte paintings (in one scene panning down a building, you can even see the seam), and yet it works. The zoom-outs to endless environments are impressive. The climactic courtroom scene seems to have a cast of thousands watching over it. Even simpler special effects on Earth are incredible for 1946. When everybody walks through a door while time is stopped, the effect not only works, but makes you wonder how they did it.
     Of course, this should not be mistaken for simply a pretty movie. The plot here is fascinating. The ticking clock as Peter has to prepare for the trial for his life works well, especially as he desperately looks for the lawyer who can defend him, being able to choose from anybody from all of history. And the trial scene itself is suspenseful, although it starts to veer a bit into a battle between the English and the English-hating Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first American who got killed in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. It makes sense as the movie was meant as propaganda to show how the English and Americans should work together, but it makes the movie's main plot get pushed aside for a while. The scene is interesting to watch, but you can't help but wonder what happened to Peter in the middle of it.
     And then there's the movie's big problem: the romance is too sudden. This may easily be values dissonance, a case of something that would've been acceptable in the 40s but not in 2014. Regardless, it's a little ridiculous to watch Peter come up to the woman he talked to on the radio before he died, say he loves her and kiss her, and...they're in love now! And their romance never becomes more convincing than that, you just have to go with it. This can easily be a deal-breaker for people who want their romance plots to make sense. If you're willing to ignore it and just imagine there's a bunch of off-screen stuff that happened, the movie will probably work better.

     Even with that significant misstep, A Matter of Life and Death has great visuals and a tense story, with fine performances by Niven, Hunter and Goring that keep it all together.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt
Based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

     The first Amazing Spider-Man movie looked like a step in the right direction for the reboot. Its decompression of the origin events, addition of wit and humor that had always been missing from the original trilogy, and great use of a villain all made it a winner. And that all makes it so disappointing to see it all fall apart so quickly in the sequel.
     Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is reeling from the events of the previous film, but has also quickly become the people's hero as Spider-Man. But things go bad as he has to deal with his fractured relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the emerging supervillain and Spider-Man fanboy Electro (Jamie Foxx), and mysteries about his parents connected with Oscorp.
     There's a lot of weak points here, but praise is deserved here for several points. The action sequences are very well done, tightly filmed and with excellent special effects. They're the easy high point of the movie as a whole. There's also Jamie Foxx's performance as Electro/Max Dillon. While there's problems with the writing that I'll get to, early on, we see him as someone pathetically sympathetic, even as he gets transformed. His scene of “attacking” Times Square shortly after being transformed isn't this big first fight against the villain, it's a sad moment of a normal guy who really doesn't want the power he's suddenly stuck with. And finally, the score here is excellent. The character's leitmotifs are done well, and the dynamic nature means that triumphant Spider-Man swinging music gets suddenly turned into heavy electronic beats when the villains come in.
     But sadly, nothing can fix the narrative problems here. The film doesn't really move, it lurches around randomly. The first half of the movie even feels completely different from the second half. None of the Oscorp plotlines become relevant until later, and they just don't spark any interest. Electro's interesting nature as a sympathetic villain definitely seems like it could work, but his sympathies are lost by the end. There's no “redemption equals death” or anything, he just becomes a standard villain. The same goes for Dane Dehaan's Harry Osborn, whose transformation from diseased boy with a father he hates to outright villain is almost ridiculous. It even hinges on Peter and Spider-Man being a jerk to him for no reason—not really something you want out of him. And then there's the Gwen Stacy subplot. You can literally hear the movie grinding to a halt any time it stops to focus on Peter and Gwen's romance, which is uninteresting, creepy (at one point Peter admits to stalking Gwen while they were broken up, and Gwen just laughs at it) and poorly written (this is a movie that actually contains the line “It says I love you because I love you” with no irony). And as if that wasn't bad enough, the chemistry never really hits between the two. Which is weird when Andrew and Emma are dating in real life. Instead, Peter and Harry have more sparks flying between them (and in all honesty, would've explored a much more interesting dynamic that comic fans haven't seen before).

     ASM2's exciting action scenes can't gloss over a story that's just plain badly written. And when you compare this against the Marvel Studios output, it gets obvious that Spider-Man already needs another reboot.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever

Written by Rick Remender
Art by Matteo Scalera

     While I've only read bits and pieces of Remender's work, I think his run on Secret Avengers (which I have read) defines him well: lots of big, high-concept stuff going on. He turned the espionage team of Avengers into a team that had to take down an evil empire of robots. And it was wonderful. Black Science takes the path of excitement right off the bat, and doesn't really let up.
     Grant McKay and his team of scientists have successfully made a device called The Pillar, which lets them reach into other dimensions. Food? A cure for cancer? If it's out in some dimension, then they can bring it to our Earth. Unfortunately, it gets sabotaged before they're able to do more testing, and now the team, along with Grant's kids and an executive, are stuck hopping between dimensions filled with stuff trying to kill them.
     And there is a definite fear that things will kill them. It's established in the first issue that anyone can die, and Remender does not let things feel safe, bringing the axe down several more times in this first volume. It could feel cheap, but it works. It leaves you on edge, not knowing when or if someone is going to die, and effectively making every danger feel like it could be a character's end. And this is kept up with a generally frenetic pace. There is always something going on, and even the one breather spot is just a gasp of air before it kicks right back into action.
     If that wasn't enough, there's always the ticking timer until The Pillar warps again. It's similar to Sliders in a way, except instead of alternate Earths, there's worlds of frog men and wars involving technologically advanced Native Americans. Scalera's art brings it all to life, with plenty of big panels to give the full view of the environment. And while the effort to fix The Pillar is there, and get back to their Earth, you obviously don't really want them to. When each dimension is something new and exciting, you just want to see what else Remender and Scalera have cooked up. The one problem being that between the focus on the worlds and the anyone can die attitude, character development is a bit light and sometimes feels pointless. But then, a lot is also said just by how the characters react to each new situation they're thrown into.

     How to Fall Forever is a solid first volume that has plenty to keep you reading. Even if the overall story is clearly developing, you want to get on now just to see where things go.