19 December 2010

Tron: Legacy

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I went into this expecting to be disappointed. Almost every review I’ve read has been pretty disheartening, pointing derisively at the lifeless dialogue, soulless performances, and lack of a good conclusion. Still, also in almost every review there was praise for the visuals and sound. That’s all that was really being hyped to begin with so there wasn’t much surprise there. It was enough to get me into the theater. I think lowering my expectations was the best thing I could have done.

Tron: Legacy, once horribly titled TR2N, is a sequel to a movie that came out almost thirty years ago, which was a box office failure in its time. It’s become a cult-classic since, mostly among computer nerds such as myself, although I didn’t see it until six years ago and didn’t think very much of it then. The technology was revolutionary for its time but not mine. Now, for some reason Disney thought it would be a good/profitable idea to bring it back to life with state-of-the-art 3D CGI. The nerds rallied to the call. Of course they weren’t really Disney’s target audience anymore, so it couldn’t really be all that we wanted it to be. Still, getting Jeff Bridges to reprise his role was definitely a good move, and grabbing Olivia Wilde, one of the hottest hotties around, didn’t hurt at all.

I don’t remember much about the first movie aside from Flynn (Bridges) getting transported into the digital world and battling it out a little. There was a bit of a refresher in this one, but I think most of the events described occurred in the intervening years. We learn that he’s been trapped in The Grid and his digital doppelg√§nger has become Hitler. His son Sam, having not known of his father’s plight for so many years, has assumed that he was abandoned, but doesn’t really show the usual symptoms of that kind of complex, instead roguishly following in his father’s footsteps to make software free for everyone. Well, not really footsteps, more like badass motorcycle tracks and semi-parkour moves. Gotta keep the action going! So he gets beamed into the Grid, meets the evil Flynn (Clu), his dad, and Olivia (Qorra). He then figures he can save the day and goes at it. There are lots of awesome disc-battles and light-cycle chases, even a flight combat scene reminiscent of the “Don’t get cocky” scene from Star Wars. There’s also some dialogue I guess. Stuff happens. Big finish. Strangely illogical conclusion. It’s over.

As expected, it really was just an effects fest basically. It’s a very stylized movie, and with updated technology it’s just simply gorgeous (almost as much as Olivia). The Daft Punk score is extremely enjoyable, and their cameo is kinda cool too. There were a few nerdy bits here and there, like using actual UNIX commands in an old terminal (although it shouldn’t have been a touch-screen). Jeff Bridges got to be The Dude every once in a while which always got a laugh out of me. The guy in the lead was alright I guess. Olivia didn’t have much of a role aside from being incredibly beautiful, and I’m perfectly happy with that. The biggest problem was probably the digital Bridges when depicting Flynn; I can handle him as Clu, because Clu is a program, but the valley was very uncanny otherwise. All in all though it wasn’t as bad as the critics are making it out to be, and the pros outweighed the cons, I think. Good show.

14 December 2010

Black Swan

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Darren Aranofsky makes weird movies. Not always the same kind of weird, but always something abnormal. Black Swan is like The Fly crossed with American Psycho and Gia. Yeah, I said Gia. That aspect of the film was one of the big pulls for me honestly.

So it’s about Natalie Portman, the virginal, naive ballet dancer who wants really bad to dance the main part in Swan Lake, and ends up getting the part. The problem is that it’s really two parts, the White Swan and the Black Swan. She’s perfect for the white one, an outwardly spotless picture of technical beauty. The Black Swan is supposed to be more relaxed and sexualized, and she seems to have no concept of this. Her director pushes her beyond her limits, and her mother keeps holding her back in her child-world; this breeds a rather violent conflict in her mind, which is given a physical target in Mila Kunis’ character, Lilly. Lilly seems to be the embodiment of the Black Swan. Nina (Portman) processes this as any psychotically determined person would, and then crazy crap starts happening.

Actually, it starts even before Lilly shows up. Nina has a scratching problem. She has weird rashes on her shoulders and her fingernails often bleed from over-zealous clipping. There are some pretty emotionally intense scenes involving said clipping that were actually harder for me to watch than that scene in 127 Hours. It seems a lot of the affects of her self-abuse are in her head, although we the viewers never really know the true extent of it. There are times when it’s obvious that her transformations are mental, and those are some of the most beautifully disturbing scenes in the movie. My mention of The Fly shouldn’t be taken completely at face value; it never gets that brutal, and it’s anything but sci-fi.

I might throw in an Inception comparison, but I think American Psycho is still more apt. It’s just not ever entirely certain whether what you’re seeing is actually happening or not. I had actually been hoping for more of a sci-fi twist, but it works well enough. I would also probably have enjoyed it more if I cared about ballet at all, but I really don’t; I suppose I have a bit more appreciation for the work the dancers have to go through to do what they do, but stage performance arts just go right past me. Natalie’s performance could be the best I’ve seen from her though. I wouldn’t be surprised if she nabs Best Actress.

So yeah, Aranofsky’s next move is called Wolverine. I have a feeling it’s going to turn the comic-book movie scene upside-down.

12 December 2010

Boardwalk Empire – Season 1

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Steve Buscemi. Omar. Ladies. Guns. Gangs. 20s. Boardwalk Empire.

I don’t really need to write anymore, but I guess I will. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but I normally have a strange problem with gang fiction. I’m still not entirely sure why. Classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas largely bored me. The first season of The Sopranos seemed like a chore. Reservoir Dogs I’ve grown to like, but the first time I don’t think I’d yet acclimated to that level of gore. Now, Boardwalk Empire comes along with all its insane pedigree, the above mentioned people/things and Martin Scorsese, it had better well knock my socks off. Oh look, there they are lying on the floor.

This may be because the gang aspect is a bit different from those other stories; Steve Buscemi plays a so-called elected official, Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. He’s not the head of the family, he’s just the guy that runs everything. Not everyone respects him. They only really respect what they might be able to get out of him in exchange for money, so-called allegiance, or political favors. Again, I don’t really know why, but it seems I like this sort of character more than Marlon Brando’s. It may be because he’s less of an asshole than Tony Soprano. Anyway, Steve Buscemi is always great as a character actor, and here he plays the lead equally well.

Nucky is the Treasurer of Atlantic City, New Jersey. AC runs on alcohol and gambling, and now with Prohibition in effect, even more money is to be made. People will spend more on stuff if it’s illegal. As such, he who controls the liquor controls the city, and Nucky Thompson is that man, though he doesn’t appear that way to his adoring public; he gives seemingly heartfelt speeches to the temperance groups supporting Prohibition, and courts a women who admires him for his moral standing. This woman, Margaret Schroeder played by Kelly Macdonald, starts off as the faultless housewife and slowly becomes that which she hates while realizing her admiration for Nucky was ill-founded. Most of the other characters are in on it from the start, like Jimmy Darmody, the son of the previous show-runner who’s been out to war and has returned with spiritual scars. Nucky is like a father to him, but that doesn’t keep the old man from using him as a gun.

Jimmy starts out partnering with a young Al Capone. Al proves to be an unreliable jokester, which eventually drives the two apart, and Jimmy finds a new partner in Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the chilling phantom-masked war veteran who shares a sort of brotherhood with Jimmy’s battlescars, although his are both unseen and dramatically visible. He’s probably the most interesting character on the show. Shame he didn’t have a bigger role. Another actor who should have had more screen time is Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White, who only gets a couple chances to show his acting prowess; but when he does, you know Omar’s still dangerous.

Not everyone is Nucky’s friend of course. He has plenty enemies, both in the dark underground and the pious government. The most intriguing one of these, for me at least, was Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden, played by Michael Shannon. Here’s a man who takes his trade all too seriously while most of his compatriots are more likely to side with the man with the booze. The bulk of his devotion to duty is part of his almost psychotic religious intensity. He imagines himself the poster-child for Christianity while I doubt many churches would want him representing them. The guy’s got a bit of a righteous anger problem, and it’s relentlessly entertaining. His attempts to nab Nucky in the act lead to some of the most gripping scenes in the show.

There are a few more notable characters and lots of plot, but this post is getting too long and I don’t think I can make it entertaining. It’s a good show. The first episode, directed by Scorsese, was a bit hard to follow but it set the bar for quality quite high. After that every episode was a bit slower but just as gripping, and almost always featured some sort of violence or skin (Paz de la Huerta has an aversion to clothes). It never got boring. It really was like watching a twelve-hour movie. I’m a very character-oriented kinda guy, and every character on the screen was made either likable or despicable to a level not too far from The Wire. I’m definitely looking forward to season 2.

06 December 2010

The Walking Dead – Season 1

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This show was by far my most anticipated show this year. Pretty much every star aligned to make this the best thing I could imagine. Frank Darabont, director of The mother-flippin’ Shawshank Redemption, took my beloved Robert Kirkman graphic novel and decided to make it into a TV show. All of the publicity that came out before the premiere had me giddy; all of the actors were basically ripped straight from the black and white pages, one or a few of the episodes were to be directed by someone who had a hand in Breaking Bad, and Robert Kirkman was writing a script for an episode as well. It seemed that this would be a realization of something I had previously thought impossible.

The great thing about The Walking Dead is that although it is a zombie story, it also isn’t. It’s primarily about a group of people and how their lives and minds are effected in a world where everything is dead and hope is so very rarely seen. Each character becomes a different person, some more than others; the trauma of a post-apocalypse is wonderfully examined in a supposedly endless story of survival, breakdown and perseverance of the human spirit. Frank Darabont understands this very well. That doesn’t mean the zombie element is left by the wayside, far from it; their gruesome faces are seen in every episode, and AMC doesn’t seem to shy away from dismemberment at all.

The plan is to use the comic as a sort of basic outline for the series instead of a rote history. There’s plenty room for expansion of the cast and storylines, and no doubt things will be omitted as well. I’m fine with this as long as it fits, and they keep the more pivotal moments intact. So far they’ve done a pretty good job doing just that, except maybe for the addition of a location and character that just didn’t work out very well for the last episode. There were some other characters added to get right into some more varied social issues right off the bat instead of waiting until later, as there was of course no guarantee that the show would continue after the first six episodes. These new guys did seem a bit too stereotypical for Kirkman’s style, but I don’t think it was a particularly bad move to include them.

The bits that didn’t change are perfect. Every member of the core cast from the comic is dead-on, both visually and characteristically. Glenn (the asian guy) is particularly amazing in this aspect. Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, is perhaps a little too melodramatic at times but pulls off the character very well. He’s of course the most important element, as he goes through the most visible changes, both physically and mentally. I have confidence that he’ll keep the quality high.

This first season did a fantastic job of introducing the story to the small screen. The ratings were near the highest of any cable drama ever. This is probably due to the fantastic marketing it got. AMC is awesome. It was not without issues, some more glaring than others, but overall it was just a joy to see the pages brought to life so well. There were a few knots left untied which are pretty easy to figure out if you’ve read the comic. Not sure how I feel about those. Perhaps Darabont will surprise us. The writing staff is going to change a little for the next season, so anything could happen really. I just wish we could get the season 2 premier before next October.

05 December 2010

The Warrior’s Way

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I haven’t seen a whole lot of kung-fu/ninja movies, nor is my knowledge of westerns very extensive. As far as I know though this is the first movie to combine the two genres (correct me if I’m wrong). The last American-made ninja movie I saw was Ninja Assassin, so I had no reason to expect this to be any good, especially from the previews. The one thing that caught my attention was the genius line, “Ninjas. Damn.” which unfortunately was omitted from the theatrical release. Strangely though, this movie was almost entirely different from what I expected; it wasn’t a mindless action fest, but instead a stylistic, charming action-comedy.

The story focuses mainly on that ninja guy in the picture. He’s got the pretty generic ninja backstory, dedicating his life to become the very best ninja in the world, ever. This is rather hilariously pointed out with a dumb-looking text overlay near the end of the beautiful intro scene. That and the cowboy-narration pretty much set the tone for the rest of the movie. So anyway, this guy decides not to kill the baby princess, daughter of his enemy, after slaughtering their entire clan as a test of his awesomeness. This won’t sit at all well with his own clan so he flees to the American West to meet an old friend and go into hiding. Here he meets a ragtag bunch of down-on-their-luck westerners, many of which are circus performers. This adds to the weirdness ever more. He soon befriends a spunky redhead girl and teaches her the art of swordplay so she can have revenge on the evil bad-guy who murdered her family. Eventually he and his gang show up, and so does our hero’s past. An epic battle of old-timey machine guns, katanas, dynamite, and devilish clowns ensues, afterwards proceeding to an ending not so happy ever after.

As usual the previews make it out to be nonstop action. Surprisingly though the action makes up maybe 10% of the movie. The rest is nicely paced romantic comedy with the occasional midget humor. I can’t say the acting is that great, and almost every scene is obviously green-screened, but the characters are likable and it’s not pretentious in any sense of the word. The action itself is very entertaining, and sometimes gorgeous. The main antagonist is wonderfully slimy and easy to hate. As far as the whole genre-mashing goes, I think it was done well enough, but it could definitely be improved. I’m expecting next summer’s Cowboys and Aliens to put this movie to shame ten times over. Still, I enjoyed The Warrior’s Way much more than I thought I would, and I hope it doesn’t do too poorly at the box office.

04 December 2010

Dogma

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This is one of those movies that I’ve seen playing on TV at various places, but never sat down to watch the whole thing. I think there are still a bunch of those. I finally got around to Dogma though, mostly because of the new Jay and Silent Bob Get Old podcast, which has been pretty hilarious and sometimes moving so far. It’s renewed my interest in Kevin Smith stuff anyway, so I figured I’d hit this one up before Chasing Amy and his other less-lauded works. Probably never going to watch Cop Out though.

The film starts with a disclaimer about its sacrilegious content, which has done nothing to keep it from being derided by critics of the more religious sort. It’s not really surprising, as it really shows how little Smith respects Catholicism specifically. He doesn’t go around calling all Christians idiots or anything, but he does use very satirical and often blatantly juvenile humor to point out some of the more easily mocked aspects of human-forged religious tradition. The key point in all of his arguments is the most inflammatory; in argument between two Earth-shackled angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), one of them reminds the other of a rule I don’t think I’ve ever heard: “If the church says it's so, God must adhere.“ There was a more official sounding line saying basically the same thing but I can’t find it. I’m pretty sure it’s just something Kevin made up, but it definitely seems to justify the whole Papal system.

So the problem brought about by said rule is that the two angels have figured out a way to re-enter Heaven due to George Carlin the priest reinstating indulgences, which means that anyone who enters his church would become absolved of all sins. This would contradict God’s decision to throw them out of the Holies. Such a contradiction cannot exist because God is infallible, so if they were to succeed in their venture, then the universe would cease to be. In order to prevent this God sets up an interception with the last Scion (Linda Fiorentino), which  means she’s the last living relative of Jesus Christ. She is of course reluctant, and becomes even more so after finding she has to be accompanied by our old friends Jay and Bob. Also joining the group are Rufus the 13th Apostle played by Chris Rock, and Salma Hayek as the Muse of Serendipity. Alan Rickman stops in once in a while as Metatron, the voice of God (God’s actual voice makes your head explode).

It’s definitely a Kevin Smith movie. Most of the jokes are about how angels don’t have penises or how Jesus was actually black, and I’m pretty sure there’s at least one Star Wars reference. There’s even a poop demon. It was funny. The inclusion of Jay and Bob seemed unnecessary but it wasn’t bad; it’s always fun to hear Jason Mewes spouting off about his genitals and drugs. I have to say I enjoyed Salma Hayek’s introduction scene.

As an anti-religious satire, it doesn’t hold a whole lot of water. As a comedy, I think it’s something that mostly just Kevin Smith fans will really enjoy, but it’s got capable dialogue and enough shock moments to keep the average viewer happy. Not my favorite of his by a long shot though.