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steals every scene she’s in; and the music is indisputably awesome), the seemingly girl-power plot-line is tarnished by out-of-date tropes and straw-man misogyny that serves to obscure actual male entitlement as a quirky, lovable character trait.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.