Monday, April 30, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: The Avengers (1998)

So I was thinking a bit about what to do for my hundredth post. I wanted to do something emblematic of the site, and nothing in theaters, my recent purchases, or my latest Netflix arrivals seemed to fit. And then it came to me. The review I had written before, would have to write again, and absolutely had to write for this blog at some point. One of my most passionately held opinions ever. And a great way to inaugurate a new feature for the site; "Academy of the Underrated" will spotlight that which I believe has gotten a raw deal, something I've sort of done before and will certainly do again. (I'll also be applying the tag retroactively to a couple of pieces already in the archives.) And to kick it off, a film that may not be the most underrated ever, but is damn close. At least I think so. C'mon, give me a chance here.

THE AVENGERS was released in 1998 amidst a swarm of bad buzz, that only intensified once critics finally got a look at the film (there were no press screenings.) The film garnered not a single good review from any mainstream source, and even now only has maybe a couple counted by Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences didn't like it either, and it vanished from theaters in two weeks at most. Such was the sheer vitriol dumped on this film that, at the time, I was forced to question whether I really liked what I had seen or whether I'd just been looking forward to it and wanted it to be good. Subsequent viewings, however, have only strengthened my convictions. This is a minor jewel of a movie, capturing the whimsical surrealism of the original television series while providing a unique look and feel of its own. It's quite unlike any other film I've seen even to this day, and though studio interference led to the loss of a lot of plot-related material, what's left holds together well.

Ralph Fiennes plays the role of John Steed, dashing top agent at "The Ministry", the UK's most elite and vaguely defined counterintelligence network. For his latest assignment, the bowler-hatted superspy is assigned to meet up with Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), currently a scientist working on the Ministry's top secret Prospero weather shield, and suspected of blowing up the research lab and sabotaging the project. (In the meantime, rapid weather changes are taking place all across the British Isles, but because of studio cuts we only get a few passing references to this.) Ministry head "Mother" (Jim Broadbent, at the beginning of his "in every vaguely British film ever made" phase) suspects something else is at work, and so assigns Steed and Peel to look for the real enemy. In no time at all the two encounter a new prime suspect, former agent Sir August De Wynter (Sean Connery), a demented genius with a weather fetish and head of a private company, Wonderland Weather, which promises it can deliver weather over the phone to anyone with a radio transmitter and (presumably) gobs of money to spend. And it seems there's a second Mrs. Peel running about, under De Wynter's control. It doesn't take long for Steed and Peel to work out that something very odd is going on.

As mentioned before, the film was edited pretty heavily by its studio, following a poor test screening- Warner Bros. actually issued a denial of this once or twice, but considering that the missing scenes appeared in the trailers and composer Joel McNeely even got as far as scoring them, it's pretty clear what happened. (The screenplay was published in the UK, and it's the best source for finding out what the extra material consisted of.) Much of what was cut consisted of exposition (always what you want to go for first in the editing process), and critics declared what was left to be incomprehensible. For my part, I was able to follow what was happening without any prior knowledge of the plot, so the necessary info is definitely there, but it may take more attention than usual to pick up some of the minor details. However, the main story pretty much follows the basic "super spies vs. evil mastermind" structure, so details aside, that thread is easy to follow.

The first big point in this movie's favor is that, however odd the story may get at times, it's a treat for the eyes. Stuart Craig's production design blends Sixties modism with contemporary "Cool Britannia" culture to create not just a nice aesthetic, but what comes off as a complete and distinct world, one in which impossible things happen every day and traditional Britishness is exaggerated to picture-postcard extremes. To me, this sort of thing was always the appeal of the original series; it set itself apart from the rest of the Sixties spy wave by taking pop surrealism to a phantasmagoric level. Here, we have such treats as Steed coming across a lone phone kiosk in a sudden windstorm which turns into a blizzard that coats Sir August's grounds in white within minutes, a hidden camera in a peacock's "eye", Emma trapped in an Escheresque maze, and best of all, a magnificently loopy moment wherein Sir August and his henchmen hold a meeting dressed as giant teddy bears. (The sight of the plush teddies silently nodding and sheepishly raising their hands as their leader lectures them is downright hilarious.) Roger Pratt, the cinematographer on BRAZIL and Tim Burton's BATMAN, gives this all a necessary verisimilitude; as crazy as everything is, it feels strangely authentic.

It goes without saying that this is not a film which takes itself terribly seriously. It's not an outright comedy, but its emphasis on weird and bizarre happenings and our heroes' unflappable reaction marks this as less of an action film and more an out-and-out fantasy. There are constant allusions to Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, among other references (a chess game that Steed and Peel play is apparently the same as that in BLADE RUNNER, though I didn't compare moves myself), and both Sir August and Mother state in separate scenes that nothing is impossible. If there's a theme to this film, it's that anything can happen and the world is basically chaotic, and the best attitude is to simply be prepared for anything. Steed is introduced in a scene where he completes a training course by walking through an English village and fending off attacks by PCs, milkmen, mechanics, and old ladies pushing prams; Emma takes a little while to get used to the world she's thrown into, but learns to take things in stride as well. Meanwhile, the villain reacts to the world by attempting to control the uncontrollable, specifically the weather; Sir August tries to command nature, breeding impossible plants and sending swarms of robotic insects after our heroes (at the same time, he's a fairly chaotic fellow himself, prone to changing moods on a dime.) Of course, in many ways this is the central theme of many science fiction and fantasy action adventures- the villain seeks control, the hero seeks harmony- but it's interesting how the patterns of imagery and ideas in this one actually emphasize this theme. Maybe this was all completely unintentional, but it works out very nicely.

Of course, for fans of the classic Avengers, this film had one very basic and to many, insurmountable problem- Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman are not Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. The original Steed and Peel had an amazing chemistry in addition to turning in brilliant and memorable performances just by themselves, and though Macnee was the only actor who was with the show from beginning to end, this particular pairing more or less WAS the program for a great many fans. Neither Fiennes nor Thurman really seem to model their performances on their originators, which is probably fair enough; even if actors with similar looks or personalities had been cast, they would have fallen short. As mentioned before, this was never a problem for me- the first episodes of the show I watched were those after Rigg had left to be replaced by Linda Thorson as the more traditionally girlish Tara King, and though I appreciate the genius of the Macnee/Rigg pairing it's not what makes the show for me.

And I have to say, the new actors do a good job if you can try to put the originals out of your mind for a bit (Macnee does have a cameo as an invisible records keeper, which is fun). Fiennes' Steed is a very understated kind of gentleman, a veteran agent who has seen everything and is surprised by nothing. It's an approach that fits with the overall theme of the film, and Fiennes is good at the kind of subtle expressions such a portrayal needs. Thurman is a bit less assured, lacking the seemingly effortless grace Rigg's Peel had and sometimes coming off just a bit dour, but in the end her natural charisma wins out. The two share a rather tender chemistry underneath a stereotypical English reserve. Sean Connery throws restraint to the wind for his baddie turn, and is pretty entertaining. Eddie Izzard plays Bailey, Sir August's main henchman, and is memorable despite not speaking (except in an obviously dubbed in "oh fuck" meant to garner the film a PG-13 rating- I'm not even sure they bothered to use him and not a soundalike, but then would they bother to hire a soundalike for a man who doesn't speak the rest of the movie?) The supporting cast is unimpeachable.

The one problem I'll really concede is the film's dialogue; Don Macpherson, despite an admirable job putting together the story and characters and so on, strained a bit hard in trying to replicate the snappy banter of the series, and we're left with far too many puns, sometimes piled on top of each other in the worst Bond film tradition. (Though it's still better than DIE ANOTHER DAY in this regard.) It takes some getting used to. Also, there is, against the better judgment of everyone involved, a "red wire"/"not-red wire" sequence that works out pretty much like you expect it to. There needs to be an embargo on this sort of thing.

After almost nine years and multiple viewings, THE AVENGERS still has some intangible quality to it, a weird magicalness that I can't pin down but which keeps me coming back. And to this day, I'll never fully understand the way it was so universally rejected. Sure, it was dumped by its studio (it hasn't even played basic cable), not screened for critics, a remake of a beloved property, and just "Americanized" enough (i.e. there's a kiss and some more explosions than usual) to get the British reviewers worked up, and I understand the fans of the original just not being impressed by the new actors, but you'd figure at least a cult would form eventually around something this strange. I continue to hold out hope, because it's almost sad to look at something as lovely as this knowing how it was treated. Someday it will get its due.

In the meantime I'd settle for a Director's Cut.

Written by Don Macpherson
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik

Grade: B+

Friday, April 27, 2007

In Theaters: Hot Fuzz

Image yanked from CanMag
HOT FUZZ may just be a perfect movie for what it is. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's follow-up of sorts to the ingenious SHAUN OF THE DEAD blends the action and masculine bonding of the American buddy cop picture with a distinctly British cosiness; the resulting film isn't just funny, it actually works as a goofy kind of action thriller, with a great twisted plot and fun characters. It's easily the most fun film to come out this year so far, and as far as I can tell the best.

Simon Pegg is Nicholas Angel, a talented and ambitious Police Constable in London whose multiple commendations earn him, well, some resentment at the station, and he is given a lateral move- he is promoted to sergeant, but transferred to the quiet town of Sandford. It's the very picture of a quaint English hamlet, with rustic buildings and a big church and a small pub and so on. Angel's partner Danny (Nick Frost, also part of the comedy team) is the son of the Inspector (Jim Broadbent), and is, frankly, a bit of an idiot, but has a deep and abiding love of cop movies and wants desperately to hear about any and all gunfights and car chases Angel has been involved with. Work is pretty dull until a couple of townsfolk turn up dead in what looks like a car accident, but almost certainly isn't. And they're just the first two casualties, as Angel and Danny try to piece together a mystery involving the whole town while the rest of the police department would rather just punch out early and head to the pub.

Even though this is mostly being marketed as an action spoof, it's actually a while before we reach that portion of things. This isn't a problem, though, as the build-up takes the form of a very clever murder mystery, as well as a nice look at the mundanity of both police work and small-town life. The "whodunit" part is intricate but coherent, with lots of crimson-hued fish lying about and an ultimate solution that not only makes sense (a rare enough achievement) but is rather brilliantly perverse. A lot of comedy is wrung from minor incidents like the pursuit of a rogue swan and the police department's required presence at an utterly dreadful local performance of ROMEO & JULIET (which is obviously copying the Baz Luhrmann film version), but it turns out almost everything actually ties into the main plot. The film is one of those rare comedies that could almost work if played "straight"; the gags never come at the expense of the story, or indeed the characters. The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the partnership between Angel and Danny, and in the tradition of the best buddy pictures, the two conflicting personalities start to rub off on each other. Motivations are strong, backgrounds are present, and in the end their connection is rather touching.

The action works too. The gunfights are less bloody than those in actual action movies (though there's still gore to spare), and everything's slightly silly, but it's also visceral and well-choreographed (there's even a good in-story explanation as to where most of the guns come from.) Amusingly, Wright applies the usually annoying flash-cut montage technique present in many of these films to scenes like processing prisoners and going out for drinks. The actual shooting and kicking and whatnot is shot in a much more coherent way, and is much more satisfying as a result. The film even manages a few stylistic references to other genres, including slasher films and- no, I don't have the heart for it.

Pegg and Frost have as much chemistry as before, with Pegg as even more the straight man than usual. They're supported by a truly veteran cast, most notably Timothy Dalton as a sinister supermarket owner and Adam Buxton as a weaselly reporter. Some of the smaller parts are also noteworthy, such as PC Doris (Olivia Colman), a policewoman who uses most every line as an opportunity for cheeky innuendo. The police service's actual detectives, the "Andys" (Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall) have notable mustaches and an annoying refusal to see anything remarkable in the fact that the town has no murders but a surprisingly high accident rate.

This is sort of a hard review to write, mainly because I'm getting caught in a pattern of saying "this is great" over and over again. There's really nothing negative I have to say; there's not a false note in the entire production as far as I can tell. It is exactly what it needs to be. It pays effective tribute to a genre I've never been a fan of, and manages just a wee bit of social commentary on the side. At this point all I can do is give the film my highest recommendation, and eagerly await whatever Wright and Pegg decide to do next. (Here's a suggestion: DON'T!)

Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
Directed by Edgar Wright

Grade: A

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Random Movie Report #25: Idiocracy

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Mike Judge's IDIOCRACY was rather famously buried by 20th Century Fox, who showed it in random theaters across the country over a two year period, never actually telling people and occasionally surprising janitors who were cleaning up after the last show of X3. Finally it was dumped on DVD, where you can now actually see it. In fairness, it was a hard movie to sell, but it's rare for a studio to completely give up like this. Strangely enough, though, the buzz about the film's non-release guaranteed it a small cult audience of sorts. Maybe that was the idea (although it seems like a lot of trouble to go through.) In any case, IDIOCRACY is a clever dark future comedy, which represents quite a bit of progress for Judge as a filmmaker. It's flawed, and I suspect there may have been some interference even during production, but it deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and has a few points to make even if its subject is fairly obvious.

Luke Wilson stars as Joe Bauers, a military library worker selected for a government experiment on the basis of his extreme averageness. He, and Rita (Maya Rudolph), a prostitute bought from a local pimp, are placed in hibernation; the plan is to revive them a year later, but in the interim the project's boss is arrested, the base closed down, and the experiment forgotten. As centuries pass, human evolution takes a downward turn; smart people are having few (if any) children, and the dumber couples breed at a rapid rate. When a garbage avalanche knocks Joe out of his hibernation chamber, he awakens to find himself the smartest man on Earth. Society is dumbed-down and run-down, with the citizenry vegging out in reclining toilets watching shows like "Ow! My Balls!" Joe is arrested for not having a required barcode on his arm, but easily escapes from the poorly guarded prison. He enlists the help of typical future citizen Frito (Dax Shepard), his court-appointed attorney who was of no help whatsoever, but who now promises to help him find a time machine to go back to his era. After rounding up Rita (who has been making a lot of money off of horny idiots), he sets out in search of a machine that he feels sure must exist, but in the meantime, word that he's the smartest guy on Earth has gone all the way to the pro-wrestler-esque President Camacho (Terry Alan Crews), who needs someone to work on the agriculture problem. Seems that ever since the Brawndo company got its high-electrolyte sports drink to replace water everywhere except the toilet, crops just haven't been growing...

Because this is a dystopia of sorts and because I am a sci-fi geek, my first inclination is to pick at the details. It's somewhat hard to imagine a society of idiots functioning even to the degree it does here- how can there be TV networks without technicians, or electricity without people running the power plants?- but it's conceivable that in the interim, things like this were made to run close to automatically (we see a hospital worker pushing buttons with pictures of symptoms on them), and we do effectively see that the world is just sort of hanging together. In fact, it's not clear whether the world or just America is like this, though if we were to be dull and realistic the latter would be somewhat more plausible as different cultures place different values on education and intelligence. (It wouldn't really affect the story either way, though- the future US could simply be a third world country surrounded by smarter nations.) None of this is hugely important, as the movie is a fairly broad comedy, but the film does have just enough detail to raise these kinds of questions.

The film has a much stronger plotline than Judge's OFFICE SPACE, which, funny as it was, was dragged down a bit by the story in the final act. IDIOCRACY doesn't have as many laugh-out-loud moments, but keeps up an amusing and genial tone throughout. As much as the premise of the film may be more than a tad elitist, it takes some jabs at the smart crowd early on, showing a typical educated affluent couple putting off children until it's too late, and explaining that scientists failed to notice the lowering IQ of society because they were busy tackling the problems of hair loss and erectile dysfunction. A lot of minor details are dead on, particularly relating to the increased "machoness" of the dumb new world- Joe is continually referred to with a homophobic slur because he speaks eloquently, a fast food restaurant has the slogan "Fuck you, I'm eating", and Starbucks has become a chain of strip joints. As Joe sleeps, the decline of society is represented by Fuddrucker's slow yet inevitable transformation to "Buttfucker's". (The film's R rating comes completely from language.)

There's one big problem with the movie, though. The film is narrated by Earl Mann, and it's the kind of narration that kind of oversteps its boundaries and starts describing (and talking over) things we could simply see and hear instead, at times summing up the dialogue of scenes that we're already watching. It feels very clumsy and intrusive, and I wonder if this wasn't a last-ditch attempt by Fox to make this film somehow more appealing to audiences after poor test screenings. Parts of the narration are actually important, mind you, but the explanations of what we can see happening on screen or could work out from what people were saying if we were allowed to hear it come across as downright condescending, which is not the kind of effect a movie like this wants to generate.

Luke Wilson gives one of his better performances here, but it may just be that his natural screen persona is ideal for the character of Joe (dubbed "Not Sure" by the future society due to a mix-up at the barcode implantation center.) The funniest turn is probably by Dax Shepard, who portrays the average citizen of the future in a way that's very childlike and instinct driven. Maya Rudolph is strong as well, and Terry Crews has excellent screen presence. (I'm actually surprised that I never saw Judge himself in this movie, though OFFICE SPACE's Stephen Root has a good cameo.)

IDIOCRACY doesn't quite live up to the potential of its premise, mostly because there isn't time in an 84-minute comedy to explore all that. (I haven't yet had a look at the deleted scenes on the DVD, though I'm told they don't add up to a lot.) But it deserved better than to be abandoned by its studio, and maybe now it will at least get seen by somebody. I'm not sure if Mike Judge is doing anything but preaching to the choir on this issue (or even how much of it actually holds- intelligence is not just about genetics, as far as we know), but he's created something thought-provoking and entertaining. Satire may be what closes on Saturday night, but hopefully he and others will keep trying to at least open on Friday.

Story by Mike Judge
Screenplay by Mike Judge & Etan Coen
Directed by Mike Judge

Grade: B+

Monday, April 23, 2007

In Theaters: Grindhouse

Image courtesy of LAist.comI'm writing about GRINDHOUSE now, though it's already coming to the end of its unexpectedly brief theatrical run (another triumph for the Weinstein Company; I feel comfortable mocking them because I know Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez aren't in any trouble.) It's a shame, not just because the film deserves to be seen by more people, but because it's specifically meant to be a theatrical experience, a recreation of a grimy, sticky part of American moviegoing that has long since passed into memory. Recreating the atmosphere at home will be difficult. Maybe TWC could try to revive it as a Midnight Movie.

As a time machine, GRINDHOUSE is imperfect but as good as we're probably going to get. As a double feature, it's great fun. Both films- Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR and Tarantino's DEATH PROOF- exhibit the kind of sense of fun necessary to enjoy sleaze (for sleaze without humor becomes merely unpleasant), some sophistication but not too much, and enough visceral punch to give you a bruised forearm if you see the film with a date.

PLANET TERROR is a zombie film of sorts, in which a mysterious nerve gas developed for the military gets loose in a small town, turning people into ugly cannibal mutants with gross pus-filled boils. Among the people seemingly immune to the plague are stripper Cherry Delight (Rose McGowan), who loses a leg to the creatures, her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), an increasingly disturbed anaesthesiologist (Marley Shelton), the sheriff (Michael Biehn), his brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), and a pair of twin babysitters (Electra and Elise Avellan). The inveitable standoff occurs at J.T.'s barbecue joint outside of town, and things get interesting when the survivors run into a military unit (led by Bruce Willis) addicted to the gas and starting to suffer from the unpleasant effects of withdrawal.

This is the campier of the two films, and Rodriguez piles on the kind of trashy spectacle that real grindhouse movies aimed for but rarely could achieve for lack of money. There's gore and fiery carnage everywhere in this one, and it keeps moving at a fairly insane pace. But there's the faint hint of substance and character development at the edges, and as clichéd as it is sometimes, there's a certain sincerity to it that I admire. It has just enough depth to it (alongside a very modern bit of political subversion) that you can't feel too guilty for enjoying it. Despite the veritable flood of zombie films we've had in the past few years, this one is creative enough and lurid enough to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

Tarantino's DEATH PROOF is the less-liked of the two films; it's slower, and talkier, more so than it needs to be, I'll concede. But it's also kind of brilliant. Playing as an ingenious subversion of the genres it indulges in, while not really rejecting them, it turns very suddenly from a slow and chatty thriller to a pure white-knuckle experience that goes from terrifying to exhilirating to exuberant. I really, really don't want to give away too much about the story structure, because there's a shift midway through that is wonderfully mind-blowing. It's the sort of thing you really don't want to talk about, and I'm not sure we've had one of those since PSYCHO. Suffice it to say, Kurt Russell, as good as he has ever been, plays Stuntman Mike, an embittered and twisted former stuntperson who kills women in his stunted-up "death proof" automobile. There's another stunter in the movie, real-life Kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell, more or less playing herself, and suffice it to say she can hold her own. It takes a while for this film to get where it's going, but it's a worthwhile journey, and one gets the feeling that Tarantino started to make an exploitation pastiche but got sidetracked by some of his own ideas, resulting in something altogether unique. Even though there's a lot of talk, it's good stuff; a long scene in a bar on a rainy night captures a sense of pathetic desolation and people wanting to be elsewhere, and becomes strangely vividly real. DEATH PROOF may defy what one expects from a grindhouse movie (though, of course, many grindhouse films were incredibly talky as a means of reaching feature length), but occasionally an artsy one slipped through the cracks, and I'm willing to let it slide. The car action is masterfully shot and cut, with a real sense that no character is safe. There is a moment that I won't describe in detail but everyone will know when they see it, that is the most wonderful single moment that will be in any movie this year. Bell is hugely charismatic, outshining Rosario Dawson (though she's no slouch), and making me hope she'll do more acting in the future.

A number of tricks are used to make the feature resemble a true grindhouse double bill; both films are artifically but convincingly scratched, with not-perfect sound, and DEATH PROOF has its title card rather blatantly spliced in at the last minute, with the "real" title ("Thunder Bolt") briefly visible. Both films have a "missing reel", a gag that is mostly done for humor in the first movie and really just cuts through an already long scene in the second. There are short "Restricted" animations before each feature, authentic "coming soon" spots, an ad for the Acuña Bros. Barbecue located "next to the theater", and of course, trailers, all hugely entertaining and incredibly convincing, directed by folks like Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright and Eli Roth (while Rodriguez put together the trailer for MACHETE, which may actually see life as a direct-to-video feature.) Interestingly enough, despite the retro format, both features are very explicitly set in the modern day, with cell phones and PDAs and modern cars and so on.

It's a damn shame this experiment failed, though it was perhaps also inevitable. Catch this feature while you can, which may not be for long (there are rumors of TWC going ahead and releasing both films separately, though the "missing reels" and such make me think this would be difficult- and really, at this point they would just be spending more money.) In the end, I should just be glad that the films were made at all, and that two highly influential directors are interested in recapturing the vibe of this weird and sordid little era. It gives me a kind of hope. I'm not sure why either.

Written by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (and Jeff Rendell and Eli Roth)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (and Eli Roth and Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie)

Grade: A-


It's my One Year Bloggiversary! I can't quite recall when I joined Blogger, but this was the day last year that I wrote my very first post for Club Parnassus. At the time I didn't expect to do much with it, so I'm pleased that I've been able to expand the purview of the Club, get a small but dependable audience, and even comments now and again.

If you've been here in the last couple of days, you probably noticed a change already. I'm now an Amazon Associate, which means that while previously I just used their images and linked to their product pages so that they wouldn't sue, I now can theoretically make money if you buy the products I review by clicking on the big pictures that headline most every post. I'm trying to get something called "Context Links" to work, and may experiment with other kinds of links that they offer, but I'll try not to make it too intrusive.

I'm not sure where this blog will go in the next year. My dream of moving to the UK is something I'm going to have to deal with this year, whether it involves library work or my creative writing or some third way I don't yet know about. Immigration is much too tricky, but serves me right for wanting to go to an island nation. Anyway, I plan to keep doing reviews and related commentary and miscellany when I can, and have ideas for pieces I want to do and features I should inaugurate.

Thanks to everyone who's been reading. Most of you are kind of quiet, but you're reading, and that's encouraging. The club has had some great guests, from giant city-wrecking monsters to great songwriters to Julia Sawalha (ever in a class by herself), and rest assured they always appreciate it when you stop by their respective tables. The place is always free, of course, but doing some of your Amazon shopping via us would be appreciated. In the meantime, enjoy yourselves, and keep reading.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Comics Page #12: Blue Beetle: Shellshocked

The new BLUE BEETLE series is the kind of comic that's fun and clever and offbeat, and thus not being read by anyone. Though the tastes of the public are forever inscrutable, comics readers seem at this point to be deliberately steering away from anything that might be described as "fun". (It doesn't help that sales charts are based on retailer orders, not actual sales, so the most hyped titles are always on top.) In this case, I share some of the blame; though I was a huge fan of Ted Kord as the Blue Beetle, without that character the title didn't mean much of anything. If you pick up a given issue of THE FLASH, whoever's in the role of the Flash, you can bet it will be a story that involves him running very fast; grab a random GREEN LANTERN and you can bet that rings and glowing green energy will be involved. The Blue Beetle has no such consistent hook, and so I saw no reason to pick up the series based on the name and what little information there was, and to be sure, some resentment over it not being Ted Kord played a role. Eventually, though, I got word that this was a weird and wacky kind of superhero book, the kind I would like, and so I got started on it with issue #11. I enjoyed it and picked up the first trade to catch up. BLUE BEETLE: SHELLSHOCKED collects the first 6 issues of the series, telling the bizarre, confusing, and compelling story of young Jaime Reyes, a normal kid from El Paso who one day finds an ancient artifact which embeds itself in his spine.

The artifact is the Scarab, the one common thread linking all the Beetles; it gave Dan Garret, the original Beetle, his powers, and though Ted Kord never had any superhuman abilities (he was a gadget hero), he kept the blue statue thingy around anyway, and when he died, the Scarab went hunting for a new master. In this trade, the exact nature of the Scarab is still unclear, but it creates for Jaime a suit of strange blue armor that itself can manifest all sorts of weapons and doo-dads, in a way that's similar to Green Lantern's ring. But since Jaime is new to the game and since the Scarab speaks to him in some kind of crazy moon language, it's an awkward partnership. In the meantime, Jaime has to deal with his strained relationships with his family and friends, said straining being the fact that, while fighting a giant evil satellite in the INFINITE CRISIS event, he was somehow away from home for an entire year without realizing.

You'll note that my plot summary is a bit patchier than usual. It's been a while since I read through the trade, which doesn't help, but the book's plotting is pretty loopy, often jumping back and forth to before and after Jaime's disappearance. The distinction between the two time periods isn't always clear, mainly because the revelation that it's One Year Later was meant as a surprise. The opening arc, such as it is, has the Beetle caught between the interests of a superpowered street gang and a woman collecting mystic metahumans off the street, and things get messy very quickly. But it's an entertaining kind of messy, I'll give them that.

Giffen and Rogers have a strong grip on the characters from fairly early on; Jaime's family is written believably, and his scenes with friends Paco and Brenda are full of snappy patter (Rogers is credited as one of the screenwriters for CATWOMAN, but we won't hold that against him.) It really feels like the writers had a solid grip on the book's supporting cast before they started writing, and the series finds its proper vibe pretty early on. This is aided by a very modern art approach, with Cully Hamner doing art duties for three of the six issues, the rest filled out by Cynthia Martin, Duncan Rouleau, Phil Moy, Kevin West, and Jack Purcell. It's a jarring style, reminiscent of manga but with a harder southwest American edge, and it won't please those comic fans who insist on photorealism. But then, I never understood those people. The art contributes to the book's unusual atmosphere, and is often just plain good design (I've got to say I like the new costume.)

It's a nice little collection, and an excellent starting point for a series that needs more exposure. The Blue Beetle is apparently going to play a major role in DC's upcoming COUNTDOWN event, and though I generally don't like big crossover events, anything that helps boost the sales of good comics is something I can live with. The new BLUE BEETLE series is, in a word, funky; though it doesn't really reach outside the boundaries of the superhero genre, it presents the old tropes in a way that makes them seem fresh and unusual.

I patiently await the inevitable return of Ted Kord from the comic book afterlife, where people walk in and out like it's a cocktail party that lasts for eternity. (At least that's how I like to envision it.) But the new kid? He can stay.

Grade: B+

Monday, April 09, 2007

Random Movie Report #24: The Transformers: The Movie

The live-action TRANSFORMERS movie comes out in July, and I'm honestly torn. On the one hand, it's directed by Michael Bay, he of the 3-second-per-shot maximum, beer commercial aesthetics and thinly veiled contempt for the un-macho. I don't like to outright bash any artist/entertainer/etc.- they've all got one good work in 'em, at least- but there's that. On the other hand, it will have giant transforming robots. I've been weighing these elements on imaginary scales for weeks. I'll probably give in; that's how cool giant transforming robots are. So before I begin this review, I have to reiterate that this is totally my kind of movie. I didn't follow the Transformers that closely in their heyday, but I had a few and saw an episode or two; regardless, it was a part of the great morass of sci-fi-fantasy-shininess that was kids' entertainment back in the day. The look, the feel, the sound of it triggers something primal in me. It's pure brain candy, so I'm going to factor that in to my evaluation. (Plus I've been fighting a vicious cold and this sort of bright, brainless movie is exactly what I needed to see.)

Like the TV show, TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE was made to sell toys. And not in the indirect cynical way that all the big summer blockbusters are supposed to be about pushing merchandise (or were- when was the last really big movie-inspired toy line that wasn't STAR WARS?)- the film is basically built around shuffling off the older characters and introducing new ones to put on store shelves. The line and the show had been going for longer than these things usually last, so Hasbro needed to jump-start interest, and so a theatrical film was made. Despite the limitations of being a feature length commercial, it's not a bad movie; it has great visuals, a reasonably coherent plot, and a few good songs. I'm not sure I'd really call it a good movie either, but it's at the very least a guilty pleasure. I still haven't decided.

The movie actually assumes some familiarity with the premise, so I'll break it down. The Transformers are robots from the planet Cybertron who have the ability to turn into other things- most of them turn into vehicles, but some of them are guns and cameras and boomboxes and so on (I think they originally did this to disguise themselves on Earth, but that didn't last very long, especially since some of them changed into metallic dinosaurs and giant insects.) They are divided into two sets, the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons. As the movie starts, the Autobots are planning to retake Cybertron, but the Decepticons hijack a shuttle headed for Earth and begin a full-scale assault on the good guys' terrestrial home base of Autobot City. A massive battle ensues, and the Decepticons are driven off only when Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) faces off with Decepticon chief Megatron (Frank Welker) in a conflict which leaves Megatron battered and Prime dying. The Decepticons retreat, and Prime, in a surprisingly touching scene, passes the near-mystical Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a strange glowy device, to warhorse Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack.) Just before dying (robots can in fact die, it seems), he prophecies that the strange device will one day be opened by a worthy Autobot to "light our darkest hour."

As it turns out, that may have something to do with Unicron, a giant metal planetoid with an appetite for other planets, and the voice of Orson Welles. (This was Welles' last role, and his voice was heavily synthesized. This was also the final film for Scatman Crothers, who provided the voice of "Jazz".) Unicron is on a direct course for Cybertron, and on the way, comes across the beaten husks of Megatron and some of his comrades, who were dumped off the Decepticon ship when they needed to lighten their load. Unicron enlists Megatron's help, ordering him to find and destroy the Matrix, which is apparently the only thing that can stand in the planet-devourer's way. In exchange, Unicron reshapes the Decepticon leader and the others, turning Megatron into the new and fully-functional Galvatron (a process which changes his voice into that of Leonard Nimoy.) Later, Unicron attacks two of the Autobots' bases on the moons of Cybertron, and the Autobots on Earth rush to stop him/it(/her?), while also being pursued by the new-and-improved Decepticons. And though Ultra Magnus manages not to completely screw things up in his role as leader, it becomes obvious based on screen time that the destiny of the Autobots lies not with him, but the young maverick Autobot Hot Shot (Judd Nelson.) There's a human kid and his father, but they don't really do much.

The plot takes a couple of detours here, mainly to pad out the running time. The Autobots get separated, one batch taking refuge on a planetary landfill inhabited by the TV-talking Junkions (Eric Idle provides the voice for their leader), while Hot Shot, grizzled veteran Kup (Lionel Stander), and the lovable Dinobots are stranded on a bizarre metallic world full of carnivorous Sharkticons and ruled a five-faced judge who pronounces people "innocent" before feeding them to the robot-fish. (In one of the funnier bits, the bailiff, a creature with tentacle arms and the head of Giger's Alien, asks the Autobots if they want to plead for mercy; "It sometimes works but not often.") The film plays out mostly as a set of visual and action setpieces- the central plot makes about as much sense as it needs to, but there's a lot of dithering.

It helps that the film is really, really pretty. The animation on display here isn't the smoothest, but it's quite detailed and colorful. The various alien environments, including the interior of Unicron, are imaginatively twisted, at times evoking HEAVY METAL (both movie and magazine). The robots themselves look awesome, in a very 80s way, and of course they make up almost the entire cast of the film. The music, is, well, also very 80s. Much of it is campy but enjoyable power ballads, epitomized by the band "Lion"'s remarkably enthusiastic cover of the Transformers theme, and "The Touch", an inspirational number that somehow found its way into Paul Thomas Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS. But the musical highlight has to be "Weird" Al Yankovic's Devo pastiche "Dare to Be Stupid", which is used as the Junkions' theme tune. The incidental music by Vince DiCola blends well with all the songs and is fairly memorable in itself.

The filmmakers actually tried for a story with some emotional impact, not only with the death of Optimus Prime, but several of the original cast members. Of course, the point of this was mostly to clear the way for the newer characters like Ultra Magnus, Kup, etc. After all, Hasbro had already sold millions of Optimus Prime and Megatron toys. But it's interesting to see how the writers actually used the commercial mandate to drive the story, setting up an epic final combat between the old leads and passing the torch in a scene that somehow manages to recast Prime as Uther Pendragon. All this eventually takes a backseat to Unicron and the Junk planet and the five-headed judges and so on, but it helps the story hang together better.

Of course, in the end, it's all still incredibly goofy. The dialogue goes from random wittiness to clunky exposition to bad robot puns usually in less than 30 seconds, there are way too many characters to keep track of (one disappearing for no good reason), and the end is surprisingly abrupt. I will not dwell on Wheelie, for the sake of any transfans reading. It's not what one traditionally classifies as a good film. And yet, I can't help but feel it has something to offer.

Here's where I explain my grading system. Like many critics and grad schools, I count a B- as a passing grade, and a C+ as a near miss. C+ is also usually a "guilty pleasure" grade, for movies I can't recommend to the broad spectrum of anyone who might read the review, but enjoy for very personal and specific reasons (such as, say, the presence of giant transforming robots.) By putting a film at a B- or higher, I'm saying it has some universal aesthetic value that should be appreciated by other viewers of taste. So, with TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE, I have to ask myself, does this have any value beyond the innate coolness of giant transforming robots?

And I'm in a good mood, and I am going to say yes. The movie is fun to look at, bouncy, unpretentious (WAR IN SPACE, are you paying attention?), and unusually powerful for a toy commercial. Orson Welles isn't completely humiliated (he even gets off a couple of good quips), somebody swears, and somebody stuck in a reference to OF MICE AND MEN. Whenever the dramatic momentum lags, you can sit back and watch the pretty colors as robots and spaceships zoom about. TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE is about as good as you could expect a film made purely for merchandising purposes to be, and maybe just a little better.

Michael Bay, you've got your work cut out for you.

Written by Ron Friedman
Directed by Nelson Shin

Grade: B-

Saturday, April 07, 2007

In Theaters: Blades of Glory

BLADES OF GLORY is the latest in what seems like an unbroken tradition of stupid comedies; thinking on it, there probably has never been a point in the history of film when movies like this WEREN'T being produced. But the genre's been on a roll lately, and BLADES OF GLORY more or less lives up to the standard we've come to expect. It's funny, vaguely forgettable, but well-made enough that it'll probably hold up to a second viewing anyway.

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE's Jon Heder plays Jimmy MacElroy, a champion figure skater raised by a, shall we say, controlling billionaire (William Fichtner) and living a life of extremely hygienic glory when he ties for gold in the legally-distinct-from-the-Olympics Stockholm games with oversexed street maverick Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell). Forced to share a podium, the two get into a vicious battle that leads to their being banned from the sport, their gold medals stripped from them. Jimmy is disowned, and years later, he's working at a sporting goods store while Chazz plays the evil wizard in a kids' ice show (a job that doesn't last after a drunken collapse on stage.) Jimmy is approached by a stalker fan (Nick Swardson- I think) who has been going over the rules, and points out that his expulsion doesn't apply to pairs skating. Jimmy searches for a partner at the ice show, where he runs into a vengeful Chazz, and another fight ensues, this one surprisingly graceful. Jimmy's old coach (Craig T. Nelson) witnesses the melee and convinces the two to become the first male-male pair in figure skating. Their major competition is the overly close brother and sister pairing of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT's Will Arnett and SNL and the UCB's Amy Poehler), and the coach decides that to triumph over these darlings, Jimmy and Chazz will have to do something never seen before: the fabled Iron Lotus maneuver, a past attempt at which decapitated one of the skaters. Meanwhile, put upon sister Katie Van Waldenberg (THE OFFICE's Jenna Fisher) is guilted by her elder siblings into spying on the competing pair, but begins to strike up a genuine romance with Jimmy. This is not entirely to her brother and sister's disadvantage.

It's interesting how elaborate the plots of these comedies get when you write them out.

Movies like this come to depend on their casts, and it's here that BLADES succeeds the most. Heder and Ferrell have an almost instinctive- well, the formal word is "rapport" but I'm going to go with "ability to endlessly insult each other in entertaining ways." Like all good comic actors, they're willing to let themselves look ridiculous but not be too self-aware about it- Ferrell in particular always seems like he's taking his role seriously, investing even the biggest clown with dignity. That Poehler and Arnett are also funny is no big revelation, and though Fisher's role doesn't give her a lot to do that's terribly funny, she is a welcome presence. Nelson brings an entertaining mania to his role, and I hope this actually leads to more work for him.

The skating itself, of course, is done mostly by doubles with some computer enhancement, and it provides much of the amusement with its excessive spectacle and hilarious costumes. The music is usually pretty well-used; this movie single-handedly redeemed the song "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" for me, and the final choice of music for the climactic performance is just too good to spoil.

The film is fairly short, and it actually feels a bit too short. It's never really clear how Jimmy and Chazz initially overcome their distaste for each other to be able to compete. I also get the weird feeling that a subplot is missing; at one of the press conferences for the duo, you can see at least one or two people holding up gay rights placards, while Stranz and Fairchild initially express revulsion at the idea of two men competing together- there seem to be the remains of a parallel here, but whether it was ever longer, and whether it was cut for politics or just for length, I dunno. I await the inevitable unrated DVD. In any case, the cutting makes the pacing just a little choppy- while a movie like this isn't about the plot, generally these things are better when they actually make the story work in its own twisted way.

There's not a whole lot to say about BLADES OF GLORY, but it does what it sets out to do for the most part. If you don't like dumb comedies, you probably won't like this, but that doesn't mean much. If you do like dumb comedies, this'll do just fine.

Story by Busy Philipps
Screenplay by Jeff Cox & Craig Cox and John Altshuer and David Krinsky
Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck

Grade: B

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Comics Page #11: Showcase Presents Aquaman

Aquaman may best be known as a punchline for jokes by hipster comedians and websites, a poor reputation stemming from his days on the old SUPERFRIENDS cartoon wherein writers had a hard time coming up with plots that required somebody to command the loyalty of sea creatures. (This was a problem in the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA comics for many a year as well.) But DC's been taking steps to try and make the character cool again, and in the meantime, have bestowed on us a Showcase volume collecting his early Silver Age adventures, including the first five issues of his own Sixties title. It's a fun collection, with neat visuals and the kind of imagination that DC was known for in that era, although it suffers from that period's stodginess as well.

Aquaman is Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper and a woman exiled from the underwater city of Atlantis- he inherited his mother's ability to breathe water and withstand the pressures of the deep, as well as command the creatures of the sea to do his bidding. Unfortunately, this also means that he can't spend more than an hour out of the water, or he'll die. So he sticks to the seas, and uses his army of underwater allies to fight pirates and smugglers and aliens and the like. Eventually he's joined by Aqualad, yet another Atlantean expatriate. (Apparently Aquaman's the only "King of the Seas"- that is, the others can't control octopi and the like- but I'm not clear on why that's so, and I don't think it's explained in this volume.)

At this point most of Aquaman's adventures appeared, appropriately enough, in ADVENTURE COMICS, also home to Superboy and eventually the Legion of Super Heroes. He also made a few appearances in DETECTIVE COMICS, and had guest shots in JIMMY OLSEN and LOIS LANE to boot. What this means, beyond the geekery, is that most of the stories in this collection are fairly short "back-up" adventures rarely taking more than seven pages. The perils are rarely that perilous (though the bad guys do cotton to Aquaman and Aqualad's shared weakness and strand them on land frequently), and frequently the King of the Seas will be engaged in relatively low-action escapades like running an undersea hospital for sick fishes and helping Lois Lane through her difficult time spent as a mermaid. At times the whimsical fantasy approach is actually fairly endearing; there's a consistent sense of fun to these stories, as when the residents of a flooded town decide to convert the whole thing to a modern Venice and Aquaman has to become sheriff of its abused waterways. There are a few "book-length" stories in here- Aquaman's appearances in SHOWCASE followed by his own magazine- and these generally revolve around more serious threats like prehistoric fish monsters, invaders from other worlds and dimensions, evil magicians and the like. (There's also Quisp, a tiny sea sprite with no apparent relation to the cereal mascot, who has an array of vaguely defined magic powers.)

It's always been the "talks to fish" angle that has given Aquaman so much grief from the aforementioned Gen-X snarkers, and I can see why it's dumb summed up like that. In practice, though, it's actually cool. Because DC Comics had yet to introduce personality conflicts into their superhero stories, much of their Silver Age storytelling had an almost puzzle-like quality as the hero or heroes worked to find the solution to the dilemma. So, for Aquaman, part of the fun was seeing the varied uses to which he'd put his undersea subjects. Whales line up to form a landing strip for a crashing plane, octopi (including Topo, another of Aquaman's faithful friends) divert torpedoes and form raiding parties, an anglerfish serves as a nightlight, etc. At some- well, okay, MANY- points the use of sealife defies credibility (I don't think sawfish can actually saw through rock, and the less said about the extensive use of swordfish the better), but then one doesn't read these stories for scientific rigor. The writers occasionally indulge in the classic Silver Age "hero pulls an elaborate ruse to catch criminals he probably could have fought directly anyway" trick, but fortunately not that often.

There is no writing credit for the majority of these stories- comics had yet to get in the habit of crediting writers and artists. Most of the art is by Nick Cardy and Ramona Fradon, and the visuals are consistently clear and polished. Part of the fun of a character like Aquaman is that his stories, naturally, tend to take place underwater, which is to us a weird and fantastic environment even without the fire-trolls or sea serpents. With all that stuff added, Aquaman's adventures become uniquely exotic among superhero romps.

I was personally hoping to get a bit farther into Aquaman's more surreal sixties adventures- just about everything DC put out in the early Silver Age was marked by a certain restraint in levels of weirdness and levels of drama; they were still testing the limits of the renascent superhero genre, not to mention the limits of the Comics Code. But there's still fun and adventure to be had, and the lighter, less consequential stories are usually entertaining enough to hold one's interest for seven pages. The AQUAMAN Showcase doesn't contain any real classics of the era, but it proves the character is a lot more interesting than he's given credit for. I look forward to subsequent volumes.

Grade: B