Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gravity


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

     Alfonso Cuarón blew me away with the third Harry Potter and Children of Men. What was he going to do next? The apparent answer was nothing, as he dropped off the face of the Earth for 7 years, apparently waiting for technology to catch up with his vision for Gravity. It's easy to see that it was worth the wait.
     Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first space mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. Everything is going OK when debris from a satellite is created, destroying the Explorer and leaving Ryan floating in space. And even with Matt Kowalski's (George Clooney) help, Ryan is running out of oxygen...and it's 90 minutes until the debris comes around again.
     Gravity takes all of 10 minutes to set the story up (using one of Cuarón's signature long takes) before the debris hits, and from there, it is nothing but tense. The repeated timers of oxygen and debris keeps you on edge since the danger won't be over unless they make it back to Earth, and when things are calm for just a moment, Ryan will mention how her oxygen is going down. And naturally, if something can go wrong, it will. There are brief moments of respite, but always with hints that something is about to go wrong.
     The movie also shows so much proficiency all around, by an incredibly talented cast and crew. The score helps build up to every moment. The otherwise silent space scenes will have music that cues the audience in, but doesn't give the moment away. The visual effects are rightfully lauded, giving the feeling of zero gravity throughout, and, indeed, heightening the fear. A shot before anything had actually happened threw me off just because you see Ryan floating in space, and far, far below her, the Earth. The point is made from there: there's the Earth on one side, and on every other side, nothing. The effects are just so good that you don't even think about them most of the time, you just wonder if they actually filmed it in space. Cuarón's direction is pitch-perfect. His use of long takes is done several times throughout, but always to great effect. And because of them, Sandra Bullock has to be perfect every time. And she is, showing fear that becomes despair that has to, above all else, become hope if she's going to make it back. The transformation is genuine.

     Gravity is thrilling, with special effects that enhance the movie and great talent from every angle.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hellboy in Hell Volume 1: The Descent


Writing and art by Mike Mignola

            WARNING: The following review contains Hellboy spoilers, up to and including The Storm and the Fury.  If you wish to go unspoiled, stop now.

           
Comic book deaths tend to mean one of a few things.  The title might end for a while.  The character might be replaced or someone else will take over and make it a legacy character.  Either way, it’s not like the title can just continue with the same character, right?  Well, as you can probably guess from the title, Hellboy in Hell takes Hellboy’s death in stride as a continuation of the series.
So yes, Hellboy is dead, and naturally, being a half-demon, he’s wound up in hell.  Which has, appropriately enough, gone to hell.  And as per usual for Hellboy, he encounters monsters, hints of his past, and maybe just some hints of his future.
Normally, a character finding themselves in hell would come with some grief, but part of the enjoyment of Hellboy is the way he simply takes everything as it comes.  His reaction to winding up in hell is little more than a “Huh” as he moves on.  Encountering demons, monsters beyond demons, and the throne of Satan gives a little more of an eyebrow raise, maybe a whole “Geez”.  But Hellboy’s seen it all before.  Far from making this boring, Hellboy as the apathetic hero makes things far more interesting for Mignola’s own interpretation of hell.  Especially when he actually shows a reaction to something, showing that things have gotten serious. 
And of course, the other matter of comic book deaths is “When are they coming back to life?”  If The Descent is any indication, the answer is “In a while”.  It quickly becomes clear this is not a temporary thing, a small story stepping stone to quickly be reset.  There is plenty going on relating to the ongoing arcs, including Hellboy’s royal status.  And when those aren’t being advanced, there are plenty of adventures to be had, with the final issue here showing a standalone story that hasn’t been out of place in the past, just from a new perspective.  And the thing that will make readers most glad to go to hell is Mignola’s art.  Returning to the artwork for the first time in years, Mignola’s surreal, gothic art is well at home here, making hell his own.  Creatures pop out of the ground, Hellboy wanders from a house to a surreal landscape.  Characters recite Macbeth and Christmas Carol in good measure.  This is classic Hellboy.

Hellboy in Hell feels like act 2 of the plans for Hellboy.  And if this is how interesting and entertaining hell is going to be, then being in hell for a while may not be such a bad thing. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Based on characters created by Ed Brubaker, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

           Even on rewatch, I did not entirely love the first Captain America (although my opinion has improved a little, knowing what to expect), but the Avengers has marked a definite turning point for the Marvel cinematic universe.  Iron Man 3 was more surprising, Thor: The Dark World was more action-packed.  So what’s different for Cap in Phase 2?  The answer is pretty much everything.
            Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the modern world, and he’s joined up with SHIELD to get back to being a soldier.  He quickly discovers how out of place he is when even a simple mission has more going on than he knows about.  And when a member of SHIELD command is assassinated by the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are forced to dive into SHIELD’s many secrets if they want answers.
            The biggest change here is that there is a far more serious tone compared to previous Marvel movies.  Oh, there’s still the light jokes and the silly Stan Lee cameo, but the atmosphere of fun is reduced.  The action sequences are more explosive, more sudden and more violent.  There’s themes of the distrust of government organizations, especially with the villain’s plan being an extreme version of the surveillance that everybody fears.  And Cap himself is far less of the invincible hero than ever.  The point is made early on, when he easily takes out a ship of low-rank thugs without breaking a sweat.  And then along comes the Winter Solider, unstoppable and able to send Captain America flying.  The stakes have to be raised for one of Marvel’s strongest heroes, and they are raised a lot.  Everything adds up to a sense that Marvel knows they have to fight DC’s darker movies, but on their own terms, and they make something remarkable by doing so.
            There’s also a very strong supporting cast here.  Anthony Mackie joins as The Falcon.  A hero who can fly isn’t too impressive in any comic, but he provides a very welcome addition to the Marvel universe, a character that Steve is able to connect with as a soldier.  Robert Redford adds a touch of Oscar-power to the movie, and gives a great performance along the way, especially when he’s sharing scenes with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who gets some character development that has been unseen up until now.  And then there’s Scarlett Johnasson’s Black Widow.  This movie could probably have been called Captain America and Black Widow.  The strong hints to her past continue as we find out more and more about her character, and exactly how ahead of everybody she tends to be.  Not to mention that she’s truly able to hold her own in the action scenes.  That aforementioned scene where Cap takes out thugs on a ship?  It’s instantly followed up by Black Widow taking out several.  The message is clear: the power levels are different, the combat ability is not.

            The Winter Soldier is another huge step forward for Marvel.  Blockbuster action and real-world allegories mix together perfectly and create an early start to summer action movies.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick


Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky

            Matt Fraction is one of the weirdest creators out there.  From the online persona he gives off (for a while, his Twitter account was named “BUTT STUFF WEREWOLF” – seriously) to the fact that his comics repertoire consists of the incredible Invincible Iron Man and the offbeat and absolutely wonderful Hawkeye, a superhero comic with no superheroing, you don’t know what you’re going to get from him.  Sex Criminals could get by on unique concept alone, but there is a lot more here.
            Suzie is an ordinary girl with one small difference: whenever she has an orgasm, she stops time, creating an effect that she calls The Quiet.  She’s certain she’s the only one out there with that ability until she has sex with Jon, and realizes afterwards that they’re both in The Quiet.  From there, they get up to mischief and do the natural thing since they can stop time: plan to rob a bank.
            What really makes this comic is its ridiculous, high concept story that’s mixed with very down to earth characters.  They’re real people that have their own real problems, with the whole point of the bank robbery is getting the money to save Suzie’s library.  And their dialogue about their sexual discoveries is very natural, and a fascinating part of the book that takes up the early issues and you don’t mind at all.  But then there’s Matt Fraction’s own lunacy and Chip Zdarsky’s wicked art, which combine to make the world…well…special.  A memorable issue one sequence has Suzie’s friend drawing out various ridiculous sex moves, like reverse-reverse cowgirl and ET: The Sex Move, in a bathroom stall.  Another focuses on the sex shop that Jon used to raid when he learned about his powers, with tons of background gags that can easily be passed over.  The book loves to be crude on all levels, and it is wonderful, and then it brings you back down and really makes you care about Suzie and Jon.
            There’s also quite a few special features here.  There’s a list of alternate sex moves for the bathroom scene, along with various alternate lines of dialogue for a Barton Fink porn parody (I’ve never seen the movie, but I’m sure it’s hilarious if you have).  There’s a script for an erotic radio play starring Matt and Chip (seriously).  There’s a section by Chip on how a panel is created, from script to the finished product.  And finally, there’s a gallery of the variant covers for each issue, including the wonderful 1st issue 4th printing cover, along with a “making of” for it.

            Sex Criminals is unique, funny, and surprisingly touching at times.  A home run with a perfect creative team that turns a crude concept into something very memorable.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hinterkind Volume 1: The Waking World


Written by Ian Edginton
Art by Francesco Trifogli

            Apocalypse fiction seems to be big right now.  The zombie outbreak is the most popular, but hell, turn off the power, kill everybody with a plague, launch some nukes, whatever you want, people are into the destruction of humanity.  Hinterkind takes a twist on it by ending humanity and marking the start of fantasy, but there’s not much past that.
            Prosper Monday is one of the citizens of one of the last surviving colonies after a mysterious disease wiped out most of the world.  When her grandfather goes off to find out why another colony in Albany isn’t responding, she goes on a journey of her own when it turns out her friend Marcus has grown a tail.  And the two groups both end up finding out new information about the new world: as Mother Nature has taken over, trolls, goblins, elves, and every other fantasy creature have come out of hiding.
            The concept is definitely interesting.  It’s always nice to have a real threat in the post-apocalyptic world, and this is a serious threat as it quickly becomes apparent that humankind is not prepared to fight monsters.  There’s only one problem with it: the monsters end up outshining the human characters.  This is a threat in anything with more exotic characters (see: the Transformers franchise), and whenever it hits, it hits hard.  At the end of the book, not only did I not really care about the humans, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them.  Who is Prosper?  I couldn’t really tell you much besides “she’s the main character”.  Meanwhile, shifts over to California, where the elf queen and her daughter are, end up much more interesting.  The monsters who look to capture the humans for money are good antagonists.  Hell, even a secret military base full of people who have become monsters unto themselves are more interesting than the main characters.
            The plot here also just kind of meanders along, bringing up interesting details and then dropping them.  I want to know why Angus has a tail, but at some point, the comic just pushes it to the side.  I want to know how the monsters hid before the apocalypse, but the book just details a little before moving on.  I want to know Prosper, but she’s basically just along for the ride.  There were times when I was able to go along too, to just enjoy things as they were going, but even then, I felt like the book could be more and it wasn’t.

            Hinterkind is a classic case of an interesting concept that’s done in by a less than great execution. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron


Developed by High Moon Studios
Published by Activision
Played on Xbox 360

            Some people have an incredible nostalgia for Transformers.  They grew up on the 80s cartoon, they had the toys, they probably read the comics.  I didn’t.  I watched Beast Wars a bit as a kid, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it now.  I had a Transformer toy.  I’ve seen the live-action movies, which doesn’t count for much.  But the video games I can get behind instantly.  War for Cybertron was a fun, if unremarkable, third-person shooter, and I was interested in Fall of Cybertron.  I hoped it would be good, but from early on, this exceeded expectations.
            Cybertron is almost out of Energon, the life-giving resource for the Autobots and Decepticons.  Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is preparing to leave the planet with the few resources they have left, while Megatron (Fred Tatasciore) is willing to let the planet die with everybody left on it.  And as always, the two sides are going to war if either of them are going to win.  Storywise, this game isn’t going to win any awards, and it knows it.  You can even see the (sometimes spoilery) level names before you even start the game, and if you’re even vaguely familiar with Transformers, you’ll be able to figure out where the twists lead.  It’s a nice reason to play, and hardcore fans may get more out of it, but I found it mainly just there.
            But it excels in gameplay.  WFC used a co-op friendly system where you were able to choose between three different Transformers in each level…which meant the levels tended to be more standard, run-and-gun affairs.  FOC instead locks you into one character in each level, and this is where it instantly improves on everything.  While any Transformer can use any weapon, their special abilities start to change everything.  Playing as Jazz or Swindle gives you a grapple beam, making the levels more dynamic as you grapple around.  Megatron can hover above the battlefield and rain down destruction.  Cliffjumper can cloak himself, leading to one of the best-done stealth levels in a non-stealth game.  And this is before you get to the giant Transformers that tower over the normal ones.  Each bot’s abilities change the game in their own ways, making the levels constantly feel unique.
            And the level design turns up the wow factor.  All I remember of WFC is constant, endless corridors.  That’s not the case here.  There’s cities, there’s warships, there’s an underground cavern that ups the creepy factor until you suddenly have to outrun flooding acid.  They’re beautifully rendered, with some of the prettiest graphics on the 360 that doesn’t rely on the “real is brown and gritty” philosophy.  They feel big, and when they add in setpieces, they just get bigger and better.  Nothing compares to shooting Decepticons as a skyscraped-sized Autobot (appropriately named Metroplex) stomps through the landscape.  And even small details just make the experience more exciting.  Playing as Megatron and having Autobots freak out at your mere presence is immensely satisfying.  There’s quick-time style events that are integrated without punishment, leading to moments where you struggle while in chains or deliver huge blows.  Fall of Cybertron is like experiencing a big action movie, and it does it well.

            Whether you’re a hardcore Transformers fan, or you can’t tell the difference between Bumblebee and Starscream, Fall of Cybertron is going to satisfy.  It’s exciting, a blast to play, and has plenty of variety to keep you interested.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted


Directed by James Bobin
Written by James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller
Based on characters created by Jim Henson

            2011’s The Muppets was the perfect return to form for the Muppets.  It was funny, it was smart, and it was clearly made with a lot of love.  With the loss of Jason Segel and the downright-awful Lady Gaga special, I was rather wary about Most Wanted.  But the second the opening song, “We’re Doing a Sequel” starts, I knew that everything I love about the Muppets is here.
            With the gang back together and the studio looking for a sequel, Kermit (Steve Whitmire) just has to figure out what the plot is.  When Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) suggests a world tour, it’s the perfect venue for the Muppets—but it’s really just a plot to replace Kermit with the world’s #1 criminal, Constantine (Matt Vogel), in a plot for him and Dominic to steal London’s crown jewels.
            So yes, things are definitely more towards the older Muppet movies than the “Let’s put on a show” plot of The Muppets.  Fortunately, it doesn’t veer off too far.  The Muppets are still a travelling troupe, they’re still putting on shows, and, most importantly, they’re still the focus.  Arguably, the biggest problems with the 2011 movie were the unnecessary focus on the human romance and Walter’s almost star-stealing role in the plot.  Here, the humans are rightfully relegated to secondary characters, and Walter…still feels a bit like a star-stealing character.  He’s a nice enough character, but when the plot hinges on him in a spot where it seems a more notable Muppet like Gonzo could’ve had a great role, there’s a problem.
           Fortunately, the movie also has one of the other important parts of any Muppet movie: a great sense of humor.  From self-referential winking to the rapid-fire silliness, Muppets’ sense of humor is well and truly in the right place.  Constantine’s hilarious attempt at impersonating Kermit, which nobody figures out, is perfect.  Sam the Eagle, working for the CIA, clashing with the Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) is perfect satire of American perception of Europeans, with Jean constantly taking 6 hour lunch breaks and ending his work day at 2.  And the songs are rather rightfully hilarious, though sadly, not as catchy as the previous movie.  There’s no Life’s a Happy Song here.  The musical highlight is definitely I Hope I Get It from A Chorus Line being performed by a group of tough criminals (including Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta) in a gulag.  It’s the kind of cover you’d expect to have seen on the show.

            That previously mentioned opening number knowingly contains the line “The sequel’s never quite as good”.  And yes, it doesn’t quite match the pure love of the franchise put into the previous one.  But it more than makes up for that by being constantly hilarious and well-focused.  The Muppets revival continues on the right track.