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Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit



True Grit is awesome, one of the best Westerns gracing movie screens in many a moon. From a dialogue standpoint, True Grit may even be the best Western ever made. The can-do-no-wrong brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written three unforgettably loquacious primary characters, played by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld, who jabber on endlessly and intriguingly. Even better, they each continually get sore at each other because they think they each talk too much. When her father is killed by a desperado (played by Josh Brolin as a dimwit rather unlike any character Brolin has played before - and Brolin played George W. Bush in W.) young Hailee Steinfeld recruits Bridges, a boozy, gristled U.S. Marshall, to bring Brolin to justice - as long as she can come along for the satisfaction of apprehending her daddy's killer. (One of my favorite things in movies is when a character says the title of the movie - Steinfeld hired Bridges, despite his shoot first-drink second-no questions reputation, because he has "true grit.") Meanwhile, Damon, a proud and gallant Texas Ranger, is also looking to bring Brolin in to face Texas justice. The three set out in an uneasy alliance across the dangerous 19th century Arkansas territories to find their man, arguing, falling out, and reuniting repeatedly throughout. Especially arguing. There's never been a 14 year old girl in the Old West as headstrong and intelligent as Steinfeld. She's not full of foolish talk and she's crazy brave. None of the cowpokes and townfolk who come across Steinfield know quite how to handle such a creature. It's a wondrous performance by Steinfeld. Damon is in top form as LaBeouf (which everyone pronounces "La Beef" - wonder how many people will start calling Shia that?). As Rooster Cogburn (one of the great movie names), Bridges is magnificent - a one-eyed varmint with his own code of honor who's a crack shot (after a few tries) even when drunk. I've been assured the court room scene involving Bridges on trial for the number of men he has shot under questionable circumstances may be the most realistic ever in a movie, with flawless and proper use of actual Latin and legalese. I reckon True Grit's only flaws, but they're big ones, are the bookend voice over narration by Steinfeld's character 25 years later, followed by a useless coda showing us events that would have been perfectly satisfactory to have been revealed as an end titles crawl. Even then, True Grit is the real deal; violent, engrossing, with surprising and touching moments. Watching True Grit is as much fun as playing Red Dead Redemption, and vice versa.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tron Legacy in IMAX 3D



"Tron, look what's become of you!" utters Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) late in Tron Legacy. Become what? Entertaining? Inclusive? Visually awe-inspiring? Fun? Those must be what The Dude means. Freely borrowing - and I mean a lot - from Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings, among other nerdy affectations, Tron Legacy reassembles those disparate parts into a feature length Disney thrill ride, leaving audiences basking in the bright, shiny colors and warm, glowing, warming glow of The Grid.

The original Tron was something I've never gotten into, or even been able to sit through. Tron Legacy requires no previous knowledge of Tron, instead adopting the only aspects of the original that are remembered fondly - the aesthetic, weapons, vehicles, and the basic idea of creating and living in a computer-generated virtual world - and then plugging it all into a familiar action adventure about a son searching for his missing father. They become freedom fighters in an astoundingly-realized, visually sumptuous virtual world of The Grid.  There's nothing regarding Tron Legacy's story we haven't seen before, but it's a sound, easily digested story. While it's executed simply in Tron Legacy, it's also executed well. The actors also worked their magic to enliven and overcome the deficiencies in Legacy's screenplay.

The real world at the start of Tron Legacy, where Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) executes corporate espionage on his own company and gives away a billion-dollar computer code on the Internet before parachuting off a skyscraper, getting arrested, and then is free to walk the streets again that very night, felt considerably more implausible then everything that happens in The Grid.  Once his father's old friend Bruce Boxleitner gives Sam a kick in the ass to drop by the old Flynn's Arcade to discover Kevin Flynn's secret workshop (the Journey and Eurythmics songs were amusing 1980s touches) and Sam gets reconstructed into the virtual world of The Grid, Tron Legacy actually starts making a lot more sense.

Once in The Grid that he'd heard all about since he was a boy, Hedlund discovers his father's computer-generated doppelganger Clu (also Jeff Bridges, CGI making him look much younger and robust - the king of the Uncanny Valley) rules over The Grid with an iron fist. Clu has designs to take his Clone Army - sorry, his army of Programs - into the real world to conquer all of us Users.  After surviving video game-like light disc and lightcycle battles, Hedlund is whisked away to meet his father by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), Kevin Flynn's sleek and cheerful "apprentice."  Father and son reunited, Hedlund, Bridges, and Wilde set off to stop Clu's nefarious scheme and return Hedlund to the real world.

Bridges seems to be having a ball in his multiple roles as old Kevin Flynn, young Kevin Flynn in flashback, and Clu. The computer generated imagery that transformed Bridges into a virtual version of himself 25 years younger is off-putting at first but suits the creepy, villainous Clu. As old Kevin Flynn, Bridges zones in and out from wise zen master to chilled-out California hippie. Sometimes, he's just being The Dude, man.  He's gotta listen to the sky, don't harsh his zen. Kevin Flynn abides. Kevin Flynn loves his son dearly, even when Sam screws up his mojo and pisses him off, like when Sam steals his vintage original light cycle and gives it to a random Program on the street.  When Clu finally meets his maker at the conclusion, Bridges suddenly widens his eyes and turns into Gandalf.  Bridges is great when he quips with himself; Clu and Flynn have the funniest exchange in the movie:

Clu: "Flynn! The cycles have not been kind."
Flynn: "Oh, you don't look so bad."

That's harsh, man.  

As Quorra, Wilde is destined to be the cyber pin-up girl of a million nerds' office cubicles for a generation.  Quorra is as if Trinity from The Matrix wasn't so stern and actually had a sense of humor. Clad in her sleek, skin-tight, glowing catsuit, Wilde is radiant and formidable in a light disc fight, but innocent. She's well-read in classic books but thinks Sam knows Jules Verne personally. Mainly, Wilde is about as awesome a virtual girlfriend who follows Sam back into the real world as a guy could ask for.  It seemed to me like Kevin Flynn, expecting his grown son to come to The Grid one day, was saving Quorra for Sam. What a great dad he is, man.

Quorra has a big secret that's not really so groundbreaking - she is the last of the self-sentient Programs that came into being when Flynn created the Grid before her kind were wiped out by the Purge when Clu took power.  Like Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and even Aaron Ralston in 127 Hours, Quorra gets her arm cut off, but she grows hers back lickety-split thanks to Kevin Flynn's fancy coding through her life disc, or whatever, man.

Though every person Sam Flynn meets in The Grid can't wait to tell him whatever their backstory is and drone on about whatever exposition needed to be explained to get to the next action sequence, there were still a lot of unanswered questions about life in The Grid.  For one, where do the Users living in The Grid get their food?  The cyber city Clu controls and the harsh mountainous terrain Kevin Flynn built his classy hippie commune in didn't really illuminate where crops and meat grow. Where did that enormous suckling pig on the Flynns' dinner table come from, and why weren't they eating it? (Maybe it was a virtual pig.)

Pleasant surprises among the cast are Cillian Murphy, who pops up in one scene at the beginning as a smug programmer, and Michael Sheen, as Zuse, the most flamboyant Program in The Grid, prancing around his nightclub in his white glowy robe and slicked back white hair.  Sheen is a lofty actor in serious roles (Frost/Nixon and The Queen, for instance), but cast him in a sci-fi or fantasy picture like Tron and he goes balls-out, scenery-chewing, batshit ballistic.

Tron Legacy's knockout one-two punches are its eye and ear candy.  Light discs fights, light cycle chases, and light jet dogfights all thrill as they should.  Who wouldn't want to just leap into the air and have a glowing colored light vehicle instantly materialize around them?  Eye candy galore also takes place with the sexy ladies who slink around The Grid, such as Beau Garrett as Gem, a techno-dreamgirl who fills out a skin-tight white jumpsuit even better than Padme Amidala. Smallville fans could blink and miss Zatanna herself, Serinda Swann, as "Siren #2".  Meanwhile, the pulse-pounding techno score by Daft Punk is one of the best of the year, occasionally invoking the regal symphonies of Vangelis' Blade Runner, and rivaling the amazing score of The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch.

There is also a Tron in Tron Legacy. Tron was, apparently, a character in the original Tron, and was one of the three architects of Tron Legacy's Grid, along with the two Jeff Bridges. Tron gets corrupted by Clu when he conquered The Grid, which turned him into a helmeted automaton with no dialogue.  But Tron does have Legacy's most hilarious moment, a trademark Mr. Burns "unpredictable change of heart", at the end when he decides to save the Flynns and Quorra for no reason.  Oh, that Tron. I'm sure everyone in The Grid will always remember his name.

I particularly enjoyed the final scene of Legacy. Heldlund has returned from The Grid and informs Bruce Boxleitner that he's taking back his father's company. Then he jumps on his motorcycle with a very real Wilde straddled behind him and they ride off together. They ride through the cities, into the forests and mountains so Wilde can see her first sunrise, which she'd always dreamed of in The Grid. It's a pleasing moment which argues persuasively for the beauty of our real world over The Grid or anything computer-generated. Take that, Avatar freaks who want to live on Pandora!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fighter



In The Fighter, which is based on a true story, Mark Wahlberg could very well contend for an Oscar by putting on a clinic on how to suffer in silence. Wahlberg provides a solid, intriguing center in The Fighter as Micky Ward, a blue collar boxer who has spent his whole life domineered by his madhouse of a family and toiling in the shadow of his beloved older brother, Christian Bale. Bale, like the character he plays, Dicky Eklund, "the Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts", is the flashier showman and perpetually the center of attention. Dicky once fought and knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight seen on HBO (Eklund lost and Leonard may have tripped, two details that get lost as Dicky's local legend is repeated ad nauseam). Now, Dicky is a pathetic crackhead and a criminal who "trains" his brother in between bouts of getting high. Dicky is so detached from reality and enabled all his life by his harpy of a mother (Melissa Leo, Oscar worthy herself) that he believes an HBO documentary camera crew following him around is doing so to chart his nonexistent comeback to boxing instead of what they're really there for, an expose on crack addiction. Bale, scrawny, sweaty, and feral, tends to dominate The Fighter the way his character perpetually steals attention from Wahlberg. It's a blistering performance by Bale, gunning for an Oscar nod. But it's the understated Wahlberg, stoic but needy, torn between his deep love for his brother and his desire to get out from the toxic pit of his family, who truly impresses. The Fighter is steeped in the local colah of Lowell, Mass. Wahlberg and Bale have different fathers and are related to a grotesque gaggle of sisters who all look in-bred, with their matching Walmart outfits and crunchy mall-hairstyles. Their sisters despise Wahlberg's fiery girlfriend, Amy Adams. They claim she thinks she's "so superior because she went to college", never mind that Adams dropped out and works as a bartender. Adams also has bigger aspirations than being a Lowell townie; in Wahlberg, she finds a kindred spirit and the pick of a rotten litter.  The electric, fascinating family drama of The Fighter's first half gives way to a more conventional feel-good conclusion as Bale gets clean in prison and the family more or less settles their differences to support Wahlberg. The boxing The Fighter presents is rather straightforward; a simple "head-body-head-body" fighting style Bale teaches Wahlberg takes Wahlberg to his in-ring victories. A lot of strategizing happens for Wahlberg's early opponents but none is made for his opponent in the big championship fight at the end. It's also curious how these blue collar Lowell townies are all able to watch Wahlberg's fights on HBO despite the lack of cable boxes on their beat up television sets. (I get it - they all steal cable.) When Walhberg wins his championship at the end, he and his entire family start kissing each other in the ring - it's almost like that Saturday Night Live sketch about the family that makes out with each other. At its core, The Fighter is a fairly formulaic story; the strong performances by the actors lead by Wahlberg, Bale, and Adams, and the direction by David O. Russell elevate The Fighter above the basic material into a wicked crowd pleaser. But do me a favor, Mark - don't say hi to your mother for me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Smallville 10x11 - "Icarus"


Special DC Universe Guest Stars:
Special DC Universe Guest Stars Referenced on a Most Wanted Poster:
Special Smallville Guest Star in a Flashback:

Smallville's 10th and final mid-season finale set up a wedding and ended with a funeral. In between was a lot of boring slog, then a patented Smallville nerdgasm DC Superhero fight that doesn't last very long but still, whoever thought you'd see it at all?

In the midst of superheroes having their status upgraded to "terrorists" by the Vigilante Registration Act following the explosion of the government gulag on the oil rig that "killed" General Slade Wilson in "Patriot", Metropolis is on curfew and lockdown. Defying the will of the people (the people with Omega symbols tattooed on their skulls), Clark has amorous intentions for one Lois Lane, the woman he loves. Clark planned a romantic dinner at Metropolis' finest restaurant, but Lois is typically obstinate and more than a little dense. Finally, Clark resorts to his old Blur trick of calling her in a phone booth (Metropolis is the only city in America that still has those) and makes it rain white rose petals from the sky. Clark Kent, you make the rain fall. Clark gets down on one knee and more than a few fully grown men squeal like little girls from their couches as he (Super)man's up and proposes:

"Lois Lane, will you marry me?"

Word gets out fast. Chloe somehow has a note and present sent to Lois at the Daily Planet the very next morning, which triggers a flashback that I don't remember ever happened in a past episode, but may have: At the Talon, Lois asks Chloe why Lana didn't stay with Clark. Chloe answers in her typical prescient mythic speak that Lana wasn't the one Clark was fated to be with (and if you know Chloe's lifelong affection for Clark, it stings her a bit that Chloe wasn't either.) Great to see Chloe again. At this point in the series, any appearance by a beloved Smallville Original tugs at the nostalgia heartstrings.

Tess informs Lois and Clark separately that they're due at Watchtower for retina scans to update the new security protocols. And they both fell for that one. The real protocol is an engagement party for the happy couple! In attendance are Tess, Oliver, Dr. Emil Hamilton, Hawkman and Stargirl! Now, who was in charge of invitations? It's glaring who's missing. Uh, Kara, Clark's cousin? Martha Kent? Anyone try to contact her? You think she'd want to be there? What about that Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz? He's local; fighting crime with the Metropolis Police. Oliver didn't invite Speedy? Where is Speedy? And the rest of The Team? Impulse, Cyborg, Black Canary, Aquaman? Uh... MERA? Where the hell is Mera?! No one invited Mera? Was the Currys' invitation lost at sea? HOW CAN YOU NOT INVITE MERA BACK?! I WANT MERA! (Sorry, sorry, but you understand why I'm upset. Mera better be a bridesmaid at the wedding...)

Everyone puts on a celebratory face, unless you're Oliver and Hawkman, who traditionally hate each other, but now mope and wax ominously in the corner. Clark asks Oliver, the man who's beside him on his best days and worst, to be his best man. (Pete Ross is probably somewhere stretching part of his body into a noose to hang himself. And that part of his body is his enormous cock. Have you seen his sex tape with that Playboy Playmate? Good Lord. Anyway, back to Smallville...)

Meanwhile, as our heroes celebrate the pending nuptials of what Lois thinks are the "Kent-Lanes", the forces of the very much alive and one-eyed General Slade Wilson raid the many sets of Smallville: the Luthorcorp Offices, the Daily Planet, the Kent House. I'm surprised they spared the Luthor Mansion, the Kent Barn, and the Indian Caves. Slade's men steal vital bits of info about The Team, enough to warrant taking Tess, Emil, and Lois Lane into custody. They also bring in Cat Grant, who unfortunately is in this episode, but was helping the mean old soldiers in black.

Later, Public Enemy #1 Oliver Queen ("Queen without a Country", heh) is nonchalantly strolling down the streets of the Metropolis backlot set, casually glancing at all of the wanted posters of his handsome face, when he stumbles upon a mugging. Going after the mugger, it ends up looking like Oliver Queen is attacking a random citizen on the street. The gullible people of Metropolis attempt a citizen's arrest; Oliver fights them off and is overwhelmed. Luckily, Hawkman and Stargirl arrive on the scene and whisk Oliver away via Stargirl's magically appearing staff. What was missing from this scene was a bloody, broken-hearted Oliver asking, "Whatever happened to the American Dream?!" And Hawkman responds, "It came true! You're looking at it!" Then he maces some dude in the skull. (Actually, the Hawkman part would be even funnier if Stargirl did it.)

Lois and Clark get home to the Kent House, don't notice it's been broken into, and find out Oliver was attacked on the street via the news. Lois knows what to do: She hands Clark his red Blur leather jacket and says "Go get 'em, tiger." (She doesn't say that.) The very next scene, Clark appears at Watchtower and he's not wearing the red jacket. Huh? Our heroes, including Black Canary on the monitor (but she couldn't come to the engagement party?) realize their secrets have been compromised so The Team agrees to go underground (I could swear "going underground" was a call they all made at least once prior). Clark shuts down Watchtower; this is achieved by him walking to the wall and pulling one non-descript switch.

In Lois' hand in one scene is the most bizarre Most Wanted poster yet, listing The Blur, Green Arrow, Impulse, Supergirl, Stargirl, Black Canary, Aquaman, Hawkman, and Zatanna. Wait -- Supergirl? How can she be called Supergirl before Clark is Superman? She was painfully called the Maiden of Might and even Ultrawoman (before Ultraman actually showed up last week.) SUPERGIRL before SUPERMAN? And how did they get mug shots of Impulse, Stargirl and Hawkman, but only have a drawing of Black Canary and Oliver Queen? And again, where in the deep blue sea is Mera? She's not on the most wanted? She's my most wanted!

The boring parts of the episode are up next as the lady in the charge of interrogating Tess, Emil, and Lois, does so boringly. Lois is weirdly left alone in Tess' office and discovers Tess has a Super Fun Happy Slide built into the walls and escapes. Then Lois quickly runs into Cat in the basement (that's a long fucking slide!) where she finally talks the current Worst Character in Smallville that the heroes are people she would want her son to look up to, not the a-hole soldiers following General Slade (this is NOT in any way meant to say our brave troops aren't the REAL heroes). Cat protects Lois when the soldiers come looking. Aw, Cat's not such a bad cat after all, just a bad character.

While their friends are being held captive and being given a good talking to, Clark, Oliver and Hawkman are for some reason hanging out in the office of General Slade Wilson. (Clark is not wearing the red jacket, he's in all black. They all are. Because they're "underground".) They discover that Slade was using Oliver to get to the rest of The Team under a operation dubbed "Icarus".

Clark Superspeeds to the Daily Planet to find Lois and frees Tess and Emil, who also, I presume head "underground". Lois goes back to, I presume Tess' office, for some reason, and runs into General Slade Wilson, who's mad as hell. He's not falling for Lois' tricks anymore, smacks her up good, and means to stroke her to death (I'm sorry. Best I could come up with.) But who saves Lois by bursting through the wall but her hero... HAWKMAN! (Complete with CGI retractable wings.) Slade unleashes his magically appearing battlestaff as Hawman tries to bash his skull in with his mace. Hawkman vs. Deathstroke the Terminator! The geekout doesn't last long, and ends with Hawkman being run through with Slade's weapon. Then the office explodes, Lois is blown out of the window, and Hawkman dives out of the window to save her, a winged man on fire. WHAAAT?! HAWKMAN IS ICARUS? (Layin' it on thick, Smallville.)

On the ground, Slade is nonchalantly walking away from the Daily Planet when he runs into Clark. (So Clark was Superspeeding around the Planet but failed to find Lois or see the big Deathstroke v. Hawkman smackdown?) Slade knows Clark is the Blur, and tells him (little chuckle) that he's "beyond Death's Stroke" now. Hee hee. You get it? Clark doesn't care, and he uses his S shield thingamabob to teleport Slade... somewhere... An ice cell in the Fortress? The Phantom Zone? We'll find out eventually.

Clark then finds the smoldering corpse of Hawkman a few steps away, but enveloped in his broken wings is Lois Lane, safe and sound. Yes, Hawkman saved her, because he's a hero. In his dying words, Hawkman tells Clark, "This is what we do" (what, die?) and wishes he could be there when they fight the Darkness. Then the light in Hawkman's chest logo goes out and Carter Hall is no more.

Cut to Egypt. In the vein of how last season showed us the musical montage of what a Kryptonian funeral looks like, the Team is assembled to give Hawkman a solemn superhero Egyptian funeral. With Clark (now finally wearing the red jacket), Oliver, Lois, Stargirl, and... well, look who made it - Black Canary! - as pall bearers, Hawkman is laid to rest beside his eternal love Hawkwoman. Their helmets are ceremoniously laid on top of their tombs so they are easy to find when the Hawks show back up here all reincarnated. Our heroes, this league of justice, pay their final respects to the Icarus of our tale, and then some diamond-shaped thing emits a white light, and suddenly all of our heroes are knocked unconscious on the floor of the tomb. See you in 2011.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You've Got to "Prey" Just To Make It Today

A big rumor going around about David Goyer basing the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises on "Prey" from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight lead me to dig up my issues from my longboxes in storage.

"Prey", written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy and Terry Austin, was published back in 1991 so it's been 19 years since I read it. I vaguely remembered the story besides remembering I liked it back then and thought it was good. My memory was either a little faulty or my standards have risen since I was 15. (Both.) Either way, I wasn't too impressed with "Prey" overall.

Several elements of "Prey" lend themselves nicely to pick up where The Dark Knight left off: the alliance between Batman and Jim Gordon that now has to be kept secret from everyone, Batman being hunted by the police as a vigilante, Batman needing a new Batmobile, and Dr. Hugo Strange becoming the city's expert analrapist on Batman while secretly wishing to be him and replace him.

"Prey" is also more blatantly sexual than I remember, especially for the time. I mean, 1991 was one of the breakthrough years of in-your-face sex in comics, especially at Marvel, where Jim Lee was regularly drawing the X-Men and especially Rogue and Psylocke naked every issue. In "Prey", they go all out with the sex and nudity: Lots of big boobied naked chicks in every issue, Strange has a heavily implied sexual relationship with a Real Doll. Strange then kidnaps the Mayor's daughter and holds her handcuffed in bed in her lingerie. They didn't show Strange raping her but you can presume he did. Then there's Catwoman, who's in the story for no real reason other than as a plot device and to occasionally get naked. That sordid sort of sexy stuff hasn't been in Christopher Nolan's past repertoire and probably won't make it into Rises.

Ultimately, "Prey" isn't anywhere near as good as I remembered it; it's overly melodramatic, the story falls apart in the second half (it's never clear why Batman didn't immediately suspect Strange and why he didn't monitor Strange's penthouse until the end), and the sub-villain, "the Night-Scourge", who is the cop in command of the Batman Task Force Strange hypnotizes, really sucks. Really, really sucks. He's just a grunt in a ski mask carrying samurai swords.

In the way elements of the stories involving The Joker, Boss Thorne, and Silver St. Cloud in Batman: Strange Apparitions* (which also starred Hugo Strange) informed The Joker, Boss Carl Grissom, and Vicki Vale in Batman (1989), there's stuff in "Prey" that could definitely - if the rumors are true - be lifted and vastly improved upon by Christopher Nolan. 

Then again, all these rumors about "Prey" being a source material for The Dark Knight Rises could be a lot of Bat-hooey and this whole thing is moot.

*Strange Apparitions is a collection of 1970s Batman stories I do recommend. They're dated, yes, but really high quality stories for the era, and you can see that the wide streets and tall (but not gothic) buildings of the 1970s Gotham City informed Chris Nolan's Chicago-Gotham City. In fact, there are a ton of similarities to Batman in the 1970s and Chris Nolan's Batman movies, including Batman living in Wayne Tower with a Batcave under the city like he had in The Dark Knight.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Black Swan



"I just want to be perfect."

Black Swan is amazing - a virtuoso, alarmingly sexy, shockingly crowd pleasing art-film-meets-psychological-thriller about the world of professional ballet. Black Swan showcases director Darren Aronofsky at the apex of his powers as a filmmaker. Aronofsky directs Natalie Portman to a magnificent career-best performance that should reward her with a completely-deserved Best Actress Academy Award.  No longer will Portman be haunted by snide remarks that the best performances she ever gave in films happened before she was old enough to drive: her turn as a 12 year old assassin in Leon: The Professional and her heart-stealing role in Beautiful Girls when she was 14. There was also Closer a decade later but Black Swan blows that out of the water.

Appearing in nearly every scene, her already petite body emaciated into the frame of a ballerina, Portman shocks and awes with her heart-wrenching emotional fragility. She spends most of the film barely holding back a complete psychological breakdown, ultimately in futility. Closed off from any semblance of a normal life, Portman sleeps in a bedroom decorated like a little girl's doll's house. Indeed, she is basically a living doll, treated as such by her frightful, domineering failed artist of a mother, Barbara Hershey. The reaction of Mila Kunis, Portman's cheerfully effervescent only friend and imagined rival, upon meeting her mother was spot-on hilarious. A slimy Vincent Cassel casts Portman, against his better judgment, as the Swan Queen in his production of "Swan Lake", after Portman tearfully pleads for the role ("I just want to be perfect!") and then bites his lip when he takes advantage of her. ("That fucking hurt!" is the biggest laugh in the film.)

As Portman toils and battles against herself to perform as both the delicate White Swan and the dreadful Black Swan, the film dizzyingly explores Portman's deteriorating psyche, invoking horrific supernatural elements as she literally transforms into the Black Swan while releasing her lifelong pent-up fears and sexual frustrations. Sex and desire is matter of fact in Black Swan, embodied by Kunis as the sexually free spirit Portman envies and lusts for as much if not moreso than she does Cassel. Aronofsky and Portman drop jaws with a stunning, in-your-face masturbation scene from Portman, which is topped by a sex scene between Portman and Kunis that's in-your-face in a totally different manner. A ghastly recurring theme is Portman's constantly bleeding fingernails, which Hershey forcibly clips off in one scene, garnering squeals and grimaces from the audience.

As in The Wrestler and the world of professional wrestling, Aronofsky is meticulous in detailing the rituals, physical preparation, and the ordeal ballerinas go through on a daily basis (broken, bleeding toes are just the start of it). Aranofsky also has a bit of fun when introducing two guys Portman and Kunis meet at a club who, appropriately, know nothing about ballet and scoff at the idea they should come to the ballet to see them perform. Nor does Black Swan shy away from the catty backstage jealousies between the ballerinas. Through it all, Natalie Portman heroically carries Black Swan on her tiny, milky shoulders, never compromising her powerful verisimilitude even in the the film's most fantastical moments in her doomed pursuit of her own perfection. Deliriously astounding and unforgettably bravura, Black Swan speaks thrillingly to caution anyone obsessively pursuing a creative endeavor to the point of their own destruction.

I propose the Black Swan drinking game - Take a drink whenever a character touches another's crotch. Two when Natalie touches her own. Three when Mila... you'll know it when you see it.

Smallville 10x10 - "Luthor"

Special Guest Stars:

Earth-2! Earth-effin'-2! Smallville finally tackles the parallel Mirror Universe idea in its tenth and final season with another series-best episode. "Luthor" was as tremendous an episode of Smallville as there ever was, not just for it's dizzying comic book concepts, but for the depth of emotional drama from our beloved heroes, with Tom Welling, Erica Durance, Cassidy Freeman, and John Glover (he's back!) raising their performances to the next level.

Yet another evil version of Clark appears on Smallville (it's happened so often, Lois automatically guesses it's "a red-K" attack) but this one might be the best evil Clark of all. This is Clark Luthor, who, on the color-drained world of Earth-2, was rocketed to Earth from the doomed world of Krypton and found not by a couple of loving farmers, but by Lionel Luthor, who expected "the traveler's" arrival as part of Veritas.

Lionel raised Clark (and still named him Clark? A name Martha Kent picked? Hmm.) as his own son, alongside his real son Lex and his daughter from another mother Lu(Tess)a. And raise Clark Lionel did, into a homicidal (but sharply dressed) manic who sleeps with random floozies and torments the denizens of Metropolis as Ultraman. (Hey, Clark Luthor is pretty cool! But Earth-2 Oliver Queen is right on: the name "Ultraman" sucks.) No one knows Clark Luthor is Ultraman; he terrorizes Metropolis as a murderous blur and kills anyone who sees his face. Ultraman killed Earth-2's Lex (and the Swans) and carries on a sexual affair with Lionel's red-headed stepchild Tess. (We get a taste of the sexual chemistry between Tom Welling and Cassidy Freeman, and it's pretty super.) Maybe the most awesome concept is that there's an Earth-2 Fortress of Solitude that Lionel controls, after years of work it took he and Clark to silence Clark's "progenitor" Jor-El.

On Earth-1, Tess inherits a Kryptonian artifact willed to the "heir of Lionel Luthor", which is now Tess. (It's still better than being the heir of Slytherin.) The artifact is a shiny crystal called a Mirrorbox, capable of transporting Kryptonians (and possibly anyone though only the Clarks switched places) to the parallel Earth. Clark summons Tess to Cadmus about a break in that he and Oliver tracked, and once there, Tess' jig - the jig being "I've known about the clones of Lex Luthor and I've been hiding the surviving one, Alexander, and playing mommy to him - because I'm also a Lionel Luthor's daughter" - is up! Clark was especially unnerved by Alexander's bedroom and his wall of scratched in S symbols. That little bastard and his copyright infringements! (Actually, we don't know how old Alexander is now with his rapid-aging problem.) Clark totally loses it, and Tess is about to have an emotional breakdown because she's wanted Clark to trust her for so long and now she thinks she's blown it, until Clark opens the Mirrorbox and Things Get Worse.

Clark ends up in on Earth-2, where every thing is in black and white and everyone but Lionel and Tess are terrified of him. Clark explores his Earth-2 options, trying to find out who has the Mirrorbox so he can go back home, where there's color and no one automatically soils their pants in his presence. Lois is engaged to Oliver and they both hate him/Clark Luthor. Lionel leads Clark on to suspect Oliver has the Mirrorbox, so Clark does the only thing he can do: he kidnaps Lois and holds her ransom in exchange for the Mirrorbox. But Clark's real ulterior motive is to talk to Lois, to tell her about who he really is and of this wonderful, colorful other world where he and Lois are in love and they fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way together. Lois isn't buying Clark's story until he says the following in the most impassioned speech Tom Welling has ever delivered on Smallville:

"Where I'm from, Lois Lane, you and I, we're allies. You always have my back. How else would I know you're brave and loyal? And a force of nature. Look, you misspell words, simple words, at an alarmingly frequent basis! And you never admit when I'm right, even when I call you on it. And you can always tell when I'm lying. You can see right through me, straight to my soul, to my heart. My name is Clark Kent and I promise, Lois, I will never let this world happen to us. I can't live in a world where you don't love me."

Wow. A couple of Superman: The Movie references in that speech, especially the one major character point of Lois invented by Dick Donner and Tom Mankiewicz that will be part of the character forever: Lois Lane can't spell. Clark also has snappy banter to Lois when it's all over:

"Nothing says 'Sorry my doppelganger from a parallel Earth tried to kill you' like flowers." There's also a great winking joke by Lois about how many times in the series she's had to sign medical release forms.

Meanwhile, Clark Luthor ends up on Earth-1 and goes right looking for his sister-lover. (Buster Bluth has never been so jealous. And is it me or is Earth-2 Tess looking hotter?) Tess manages to swallow down Ultraman's tongue in surprise when he kisses her, and then swallow down her abject terror at Ultraman's potential to kill her and everyone in Metropolis long enough to bluff him. Tess calls Lois, who ignores her, so Tess uses Watchtower to cut off Lois' credit, track her via security cameras and call the cell phone of the hapless dude standing behind her in the coffee line to summon Lois to Watchtower. (Maybe everyone on The Team just needs signal watches.) Once at Watchtower, there's hardly time to explain what's going on before Ultraman explodes into Watchtower and starts beating up Smallville chicks.

On Earth-2, Clark goes to Watchtower to get the Mirrorbox from Oliver but falls right into Oliver's mousetrap, a Kryptonite beam. Oliver has one in every major city, and his business is buying up farmland in Smallville, evicting the farmers, and mining for meteor rocks. Lionel saves Clark from a Queen bullet, but only because he wants to kill Clark himself. Lionel, who in a bizarre lapse of his perceptive genius, still doesn't realize this Clark isn't the one he raised, took off his belt and gave his "son" a whoopin' because he's long feared Clark betraying him. ("What were you planning, to take the Mirrorbox and go to another world with your whore sister?") Oliver de-activates the K-beam so Clark can punch Lionel across the room, rather brutally too. I guess he was mad about the whippings. Assuring Oliver that in his world they save the world together, Clark opens the Mirrorbox and finds himself back in color, staring at the barrel of Tess' gun, and Oliver and Lois' K-arrows on Earth-1. Everything, and everyone, is back to where they were.

Or are they? Clark visits Tess at the mansion, apologizes to her for his "Luthor blood is poison line", and holds her hand in a touching scene of trust and reconciliation. Tess confesses the worst part of being Lionel's daughter is that she's actually hurt that "he threw me away". (Good thing she never heard Earth-2 Lionel tell her doppelganger that she isn't "special enough"). Clark and Tess both know Alexander Luthor is out there. But what they don't know is that so is Lionel Luthor! Now, in color! Lionel Luthor buying coffee and walking the streets of Earth-1 Metropolis! Is this the Earth-2 Lionel? Did he use the Mirrorbox? Is Clark Luthor dead?

All I know is the return of John Glover at maximum diabolical evil as Lionel Luthor was a shot in the arm for Smallville. Even without the presence of Michael Rosenbaum, having an evil Luthor as the Enemy just feels right, and Earth-2 Lionel was even more dangerous and ruthless than the Lionel we knew, and he was plenty dangerous and ruthless. Plus Darkseid is still out there. And next week: The return of Slade Wilson, Deathstroke the Terminator, and a Justice League/Justice Society team up! If all that doesn't spell a Crisis on Smallville, I don't know what does.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Expendables



If ever a movie oozed machismo, it's Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables. Sweaty, leathery, tattooed, gun-toting, exploderiffic machismo. This is a movie where every vehicle Stallone rides has "The Expendables" emblazoned on it - because it matches the tattoo on his back. The Expendables is hyped up as all of the greatest action movie stars ever assembled together in one movie; it sort of is but it really isn't.

In reality, The Expendables bands together many of the greatest B-movie action movie stars of the past decade-or-so: international action gods Jason Statham and Jet Li are the main stars besides Stallone himself. (It's funny how the three headlining action heroes are largely incomprehensible when they speak) Li is on board to chop socky fight and to earn more money for the family he claims to have. Statham is probably the most interesting Expendable, especially when he beats up the entire basketball team of the asshole who hit the woman he loves, Charisma Carpenter. Mickey Rourke, as the Expendables' grisled tattoo artist and mission liaison, provides gravitas (no, really) with a heartfelt speech about his missing soul. A brief scene with Sly, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the biggest action junkie geek out moment, but it really only makes one wish The Expendables happened with these three together 20 years ago.

Nevertheless, holy shit, The Expendables is hilariously action-packed and action-packed with hilarity. The ultra-violence is completely over the top with bodies regularly exploding into pieces, all sorts of  gruesome dismemberments (the best is Sly chopping off an enemy's head with a bowie knife in one swipe), and explosions. Lots and lots of fiery explosions. The Expendables don't know how to exit a fight without detonating absolutely everything - and everyone - in sight into a fireball you could see from outer space. Explosions solve everything! I also really liked when instead of just escaping in their sea plane, since they'd already gotten away scot free, Stallone and Statham turned the plane around specifically to light the enemy soldiers on fire.

In-jokes galore for those in the know include Dolph Lundgren as the rouge junkie Expendable who betrays them and tries to kill Sly and Li. Of course, Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago can't get along. Except that, no, they can and Dolph's back in the fold drinking with his buddies at the end, even after it looked like Sly shot him dead. Stone Cold Steve Austin as the villainous Eric Roberts' top ass kicker wins a dream match with Stallone, but then loses an Inferno Match against Randy Couture.

But my favorite thing of all in The Expendables is how neither Stallone, nor any of the Expendables, nor I, fully understood the reasons why Sly had to go back to that island nation and rescue that woman. Or even why Eric Roberts had to take her hostage and didn't just kill her. I guess I'm also confused as to why, in a movie called The Expendables, none of the Expendables died. You know, because they're expendable. But why anything? When half the island blows the fuck up to kingdom come just because, there's no need to be asking why. The Expendables 2 next, please, thank you.

Wish list for The Expendables 2: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Carl Weathers, Mr. T., Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, and my number one request: Ralph Macchio! (Think about it.) How about female Expendables? Gina Carano, Milla Jovovich, and Charisma Carpenter promoted to female Expendable. Or Sarah Michelle Gellar! Sky's the limit, Sly.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1



Harry Pitches A Tent

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 begins the final chapter of the world's most beloved wizarding saga and aims to deliver the grandest Harry Potter movie adventure of all. It's certainly the longest. At two and a half stately-paced hours, this Hagrid-sized film epic is full to the Sorting Hat's brim with beloved and not-so-beloved characters making (in some cases their final) appearances, deepening mysteries, and debuting characters previously mentioned in the prior chapters. There are new revelations, tragic deaths, and there is camping.  Lots and lots of camping. 

Following the tragic events of the previous entry, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Professor Dumbledore has died at the hands of Severus Snape, who was working for Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters (or so it seems). Before his demise, Dumbledore charged Harry with the task for finding and destroying the missing Horcruxes, the keys to the ultimate defeat of Lord Voldemort.  Harry doesn't quite get around to his quest until after the first thirty minutes or so. To his credit, he tries to get going with his job sooner, but Ron talks Harry back to hang around and watch his brother Bill get married to Fleur Delacour. 

Up until the Death Eaters attack the Weasleys' wedding reception, The Death Hallows, Part 1 is basically one giant cameo-a-thon. So many recurring characters pop up, you'd need a Ph.D in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter just to keep everyone straight. The first welcome cameo is by Bill Nighy as the new Minister of Magic. He gets a couple of scenes before dying off screen. Then let's see, all of the Weasleys appear, Mad-Eye Moody, Fleur Delacour, Professor Lupin, What's Her Name, the black guy with the fez hat, and maybe there were others... it was actually easier to keep track of them all when most of them drank Poly Juice Potion and all ended up looking identical to Harry. They're all present to provide callbacks to the previous films (interrupting Harry's private bittersweet callbacks of watching the Dursleys hit the bricks and then remembering all the good times when he lived in the cupboard under the stairs) and then protect Harry from an aerial attack by the Death Eaters. 

Before they burst from the clouds on their broomsticks like a bunch of screaming banshees, the Death Eaters held an exclusive pow wow at Lucius Malfoy's house.  Lord Voldemort is (always) the guest of honor. Also in attendance were all of the Malfoys, Snape, Wormtail, Bellatrix Lestrange, Count Chocula, Mr. Burns, Rainier Wolfcastle, Sideshow Bob, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. A Death Eater corporate retreat is actually far, far worse than the ones held by SPECTRE in the old James Bond movies. They kill someone at both meetings, but at least at the SPECTRE meetings no one has to sit around and watch Nagiri the python eat the corpse on the boardroom table. Even though the forces of evil are winning, morale in the Death Eaters is low, and one can easily see why. Their boss is a snake-faced psychopath - what exactly do they have to look forward to if Voldemort conquers the world?

When the Weasley-Delacour wedding reception is attacked by the Black Smoke (Death Eaters always like to burst from the clouds like the Smoke Monster on Lost, only without the clanking sound effects), Harry, Ron and Hermione escape to downtown London and are pretty much on their own for the whole rest of the movie. It's clear immediately that they have no idea what to do. This is a bummer and surprising. After all, Dumbledore died at the end of the prior school year. They had all summer to come up with a plan of action to locate and destroy the Horcruxes, but no, they've got nothing. At least Hermione thought ahead: she came prepared with a magical bottomless bag containing the equivalent of three of Batman's utility belts. Dumbledore also bequeathed Harry, Ron, and Hermione each something from his Will, but the most important item, the Sword of Godric Griffyndor, is missing. Why not go look for that?  No, the three young Wizards don't have any idea where to look for the Sword anymore than they do the Horcruxes.

It was delightful, however, to see Harry, Ron and Hermione roaming the streets of London. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the movie that established that the Harry Potter saga takes place in the modern world and that all of the kids are modern kids. Although unlike modern Muggle kids, Harry, Ron and Hermione don't have laptops, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and aren't texting each other every damn second.  Modern kids also don't have to constantly duck, run and hide from ugly blokes on broomsticks blasting them with wands. 

After a couple of ugly blokes try to blast them with wands, the Wizarding firm of H, R & H hide out in the dusty old house of the late, lamented Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. Re-introduced into the Harry Potter movies are Kreacher and Dobby the House Elves, both reminders of the more innocent years of when Harry Potter was whimsical and aimed for fanciful children, instead of how bleak, grim and killy-kill-kill the Harry Potter saga has now become. Kreacher and Dobby are awkward presences now, with the kids much older and the world about to end, but on the other hand the CGI for the House Elves is far more convincing than in the prior films.

Probably the most entertaining sequence in Deathly Hallows, Part 1 involves Harry, Ron, and Hermione using Poly Juice Potion (again with the Poly Juice Potion!) to impersonate three employees of the Ministry of Magic so they can steal the locket, which is a Horcrux, of their evil former Headmaster Delores Umbridge. (Umbridge was last seen being carried away by a bunch of centaurs in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but I guess she's fine. One wonders what, er, favors, got her out of being stampeded by the centaurs she insulted as being inferior creatures.)  The size and scope of the Ministry of Magic set is awe-inspiring, and the sequence thrillingly invoked Luke Skywalker and Han Solo bungling into the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia.

There's a frightful excursion to Godric's Hollow, both the birthplace of Dumbledore and where Harry's parents James and Lily Potter died to save their son, wherein Harry and Hermione have a thrilling battle with Nagiri the snake.  Our Wizarding Super Friends also get attacked at the home of Luna Lovegood, and later are trapped in the home of Lucius Malfoy, where Bellatrix Lestrange slices and dices the word "Mudblood" into poor Hermione. Hermione isn't a cutter, but Bellatrix sure is. 

But mainly, Harry, Ron and Hermione go camping. For months on end, they pitch a tent and go camping, in the woods, by a lake, in the mountains. They don't do any of the fun things one does while camping like sing songs or go fishing; they just sit around morosely and complain about how they don't know what to do and why they can't destroy the one Horcrux they found.  Inexplicably, they each take turns wearing the Horcrux locket, which contains some ill-defined power like the One Ring in Lord of the Rings that drives the wearer mad. Harry yells at Ron, Ron yells at Hermione, Hermione yells at Harry - Hey dummies!  Stop wearing the stupid Horcrux locket!  Put it in your pockets, or better yet, in Hermione's bottomless bag and stay away from it! 

Really, I expect better logic from Hermione, who got the biggest laugh in the movie when she proudly explains to Harry why her logic makes her so damn smart. (Also, loveable.) Second biggest laugh in the movie - and this is a movie where there is precious little laughter to be had - was the awkward shout out to Twilight when Ron interrupted Hermione telling the story of the Three Brothers (excellently animated) from The Tales of Beedle the Bard: "Midnight. My mum always says midnight. But Twilight's just as good!" What an olive branch to the Stephanie Meyer and her legion of Twi-hards. Let the two tween fandoms join as one in Harry's tent under the stars!

Eventually, Ron gets sick of all the camping and bolts in a fit of imagined jealousy over the closeness of Harry and Hermione. With Ron out of the way, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 toys a bit with the sexual tension between Harry and Hermione. For a minute, Harry stops pouting and it occurs to him he's stuck in a tent with the most beautiful Mudblood in Britain. The film introduces a brand new moment where Harry and Hermione dance together sweetly to break the tension and sorrow in their tent. But they don't kiss, no, no. Their hearts are both promised to Weasleys and the movie wouldn't dare violate what JK Rowling has laid down as inviolate law in her books. However, when Ron does return and helps Harry find the Sword of Griffyndor, the Horcrux locket conjures a thoroughly questionable illusion of Harry and Hermione naked and embracing. Wait, showing Ron a vision of the girl he loves about to hump his best friend was supposed to stop Ron from attacking the Horcrux how? (Maybe the Horcrux thought Ron would stab Harry with the sword instead. Seems to me the Horcrux was making a lot of assumptions.)

Very late in the movie, the Horcruxes, which are the main things that concern H, R & H for the entire movie, take a back seat when Luna Lovegood's father introduces the existence of the Deathly Hallows, three legendary magical objects that combined together can kill Voldemort, I think. The Deathly Hallows are the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand ever made, which was buried with Dumbledore but Voldemort recovers after he exhumes his ex-headmaster's rather well-preserved corpse in the final scene, a stone that could be the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone (depending on which side of the Pond you're from), and the Invisibility Cloak that's been in Harry's possession since the first movie. Wait, do they need the Horcruxes at all now? Will the Deathly Hallows be enough to kill Voldemort? (I only read the book once the weekend it came out so I've honestly forgotten.)

There is no traditional three act movie structure to speak of in The Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Screenwriter Steve Kloves essentially ripped JK Rowling's novel in half and wrote the script for Part 1, choosing the death of Dobby the House Elf as the end point.  The movie doesn't build to Dobby's death, the movie just stops there.  Maddeningly, the demise of Dobby is given more weight and impact than the death of Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince! Dumbledore just falls to his death and is met with silence from a school-full of shocked zombies barely emoting. (What an infuriating cheat of the audience that the movies never show us the magnificent funeral for Dumbledore as described in the novel.)  Dobby the fucking House Elf dies with famous last words in a tearful Harry's arms, compete with Harry personally digging his grave and burying him. (If I wrote the script, Dobby dies, followed by Harry suddenly blurting out, "Well, who wants House Elf for dinner?")

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is carried entirely by the considerable charm of its three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Many of the venerable adult actors such as Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and John Hurt make their usual welcome contributions, but they're completely background players in Deathly Hallows, Part 1.  Even their Hogwarts classmates are mere walk-ons; this is the first Harry Potter movie where we spend no time whatsoever at the beloved Hogwarts school. We do find out via radio broadcast Snape is suddenly Headmaster. This movie is all about Hermione, Ron, and Harry, and even moreso about Harry and Hermione, who are in nearly every scene together. Any deficiencies they may still have as actors are nullified by how Radcliffe, Watson and Grint inhabit these characters inside and out. They live these characters, they are Harry, Ron, and Hermione. 

The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is the most ambitiously filmed Harry Potter movie, featuring stunning location shooting all over the United Kingdom. But what the movie lacks is ebb and flow. Speaking in the Queen's English, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 lacks zip, zazz, zowie. Every now and then there's a kapow!, but not nearly often enough. The memorable sequences of action and interest are welcome interruptions to the constant, interminable stretches where not a lot happens besides good looking, dour young Brits camping.

Director David Yates was chosen by the producers as the steward of the final four Harry Potter films and, as with his previous efforts, Yates has continued to deliver an enjoyable but underwhelming live action rendering of Rowling's story. (Not to say Rowling's seventh book doesn't have inherent problems, like, say, the first 400+ pages.) Yates benefits from attractive, appealing young leads, magnificent supporting actors, wondrous locations, and the finest visual effects money can buy. And yet, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is the latest of his Harry Potter films to revel in the gathering storm of darkness while simultaneously lacking the wonder and joie de vivre of the novels. If we didn't already like the three lead actors, if we didn't already have an investment of boundless good will towards the Harry Potter saga, would anyone sit through this grim marathon of drudgery?

At this point, it's a no-brainer audiences who have spent the last decade loving Harry Potter will return for the second half of The Deathly Hallows. Much like the magical Room of Requirement in Hogwarts, the movie theaters showing The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 will be in and of themselves rooms of requirement.  It is my fondest wish that in the action-packed ultimate confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, with the lives of the entire Wizarding world at stake, director Yates has saved his grandest trick for last and gives the Harry Potter movie saga the truly magical ending it and we deserve.

Smallville 10x9 - "Patriot"


Special DC Universe Guest Stars:
Plus referenced via their photographs:

All four members of the primary cast were present and accounted for this week. The main business dealt with the Vigilante Registration Act spearheaded by Lois' father General Lane and enforced by his colleague, General Slade Wilson (Michael Hogan from Battlestar Galactica-fame. Not quite the Deathstroke from the comics, but really good for Smallville's version of the character). Slade doesn't just want the superheroes of the Smallville Universe registered, he wants them imprisoned, and he's building the facilities to hold them. (One of them is a BP-like oil rig destroyed by Aquaman and Mera.) As "Kingdom Come" references go, all that was missing was Batman, or in this case Aquaman, saying, "They're building a gulag. You know this."

The Team, Clark, Tess, and Oliver, converge at Watchtower to hash out how to handle the VRA. (We also learn that Clark has been having clandestine meetings with Kara around the world.) The rest of the Team, the ones not in the opening credits of the show, have gone off grid; they're not communicating with each other and Aquaman, or AC as he's called in Smallville, has taken matters into his own hands and blew up the government oil rig. Clark decides he should lead by example, reveal himself as the Blur, and register with the VRA. After all, he revealed himself to Lois and that's been going real well, what with getting regular sex at the farm, so maybe signing up with the VRA will yield some positives.

Oliver, already the public face of superheroes, volunteers to register instead, and see what the government is actually up to. It can't be any good if  the government's own strike force The Suicide Squad splintered off and is attacking people like General Lane. This leads to a moment where I had to step back for a second to take in: The Green Arrow shaking hands with Deathstroke The Terminator at a press conference. Of course, it was all a ruse. After testing out Oliver's skill level ("Off the charts!") Slade promptly knocks Oliver out and has him waterboarded so he gives up his super friends.

Meanwhile, Clark takes a run to an aquarium in Miami to visit with AC and finds out AC got married to a hot - I say again, hot! - aqua girl named Mera (Elena Satine. What a sweet babe.). Mera talks funny - that is to say with a sexy ethereal quality - and she doesn't mind getting naked in front of strangers. Also, she controls water, calls AC by his Atlantean name "Orin", and hypes him up as the "future King of the Seven Seas". Not hard to see why AC is so hot for his hot wife. Clark and AC compare whose jaw is squarer as Clark argues his vague ideas about being a hero and leading by example vs. AC's reactionary "terrorist" tactics creating fear and mistrust with the public, proving the government right about superheroes.

While all that's going on, Lois is two steps behind chasing Clark around while trying to unravel the secrets of the VRA on her own. Lois gets a meeting with General Slade based on who her father is where she manages to take digital pics of his gulag and pulls a neat bluff where he thinks he's caught her red handed but in her hand is a lighter for his cigar. Lois is bad ass; she proves it to Professor Emil Hamilton when she pretended she'd kill him if he didn't give up where Clark is. Even Mera sized up how bad ass Lois is when they meet at the Miami aquarium. Lois finds Clark there "Skyping" with Tess and now she knows Tess and Clark are on The Team together. Meanwhile, Mera hangs back and doles out a lot of relationship advice in the episode. She's like the superhero love line.

Somehow AC gets captured off camera and is held in Slade's gulag with Oliver. (Another moment I paused to enjoy: Aquaman and Green Arrow captured by Deathstroke The Terminator.) Mera arrives for the rescue and the three of them together save... each other... while Slade books it. Then Slade runs into Clark, who promptly gets himself trapped in a Kryptonite cage. While caged and trying to reason with Slade, Clark uses his X-ray vision to find the Omega symbol on Slade's skull. He's being controlled by "the Darkness". Clark tries to talk Slade into not committing suicide by detonating his base, but Slade does it anyway. KA-BLOOEY!

But it doesn't matter because everything's fine. After commercial we're right back in the warm glowing warming glow of the Kent Farm, where AC and Clark patch up their differences, AC tells Clark he'll do things Clark's way now and lead by example, and AC concedes he trusts Clark even though AC's jaw is technically squarer. Then the two best looking couples in Kansas get together in the Kent kitchen and talk about coupley shit; about how Lois is the only one for Clark, and how Clark is just so awesome. Clark and Lois also have a conversation where Clark realizes for the 17,357th time how awesome Lois is.

Finally, Clark takes Lois to Watchtower where Tess warmly welcomes her as part of The Team. (The best was Oliver's entrance and reaction to seeing Lois there.) Lois is all-in. All four main castmembers are on The Team now. There's a lot of dialogue wrapping up What Just Happened and setting up What's Coming Next where Clark explains what he knows about "the Darkness", the Omega on Slade's skull, and deduces how Darkseid (he does say "Dark Side" offhandedly) operates by preying on the darkness in humanity with the end goal of possessing the entire planet. Also, Slade is alive and he only has one eye now. And he's a Cylon. Wait, wrong show.

Sunday, November 14, 2010




Megamind is a wonderfully inventive homage to Superman, flip flopping everything through the point of view of Lex Luthor. Honoring all of the classic tropes of the rivalry between Superman and Lex Luthor (with a nod to Brainiac), Megamind opens with the fiendish Megamind (voiced heroically by Will Farrell) and his lifelong arch rival, handsome champion of do-goodery Metroman (Brad Pitt), both rocketed to Earth from dying worlds as infants. They spent their lives locked in an eternal struggle between Good and Evil - until Megamind accidentally wins.  Now the overlord of Metro City (Megamind gets laughs by constantly mispronouncing words - Metro City becomes "Metrocity" and he pronounces school as "shoole"), Megamind takes slightly longer to get bored with having no one to do battle with than General Zod did when he conquered the White House in Superman II.  Looking for a new rival, he empowers the worst person imaginable, a worthless, slovenly camera operator named Hal Stewart (an amusing in-joke mashup of Green Lantern secret identities), with all of Metroman's powers. Stewart becomes Titan (voiced by Jonah Hill), and quickly becomes an even greater menace than Megamind ever was.  In further references to Superman, Megamind poses as Titan's "space dad" to unsuccessfully train him as a hero, doing a savvy impersonation of Marlon Brando as Jor-El crossed with Don Corleone. Megamind even romances girl reporter Roxy Ritchi (Tina Fey). In Megamind, even the bad guy can get the girl in the end, but only after pretending to be someone else and lying to her constantly.  The voice over work by all the of actors is tremendous, but David Cross was a standout as Megamind's loyal talking fish Minion. (How odd that this year's other excellent animated film about a super villain, Despicable Me, also had minions named Minion.) Chock-full of self-aware, hilarious dialogue, genuine surprises in the story, and a welcome amount of heart, Megamind is the best Superman movie we'll never get to see in live-action. Especially with how Megamind features two characters as stand-ins for the Man of Steel, both of whom are disappointments. When Megamind's end credits rolled, I half-expected to see the writing credit go to Lex Luthor. Megamind would be Lex Luthor's favorite movie. He'd probably even be in tears from sheer joy at the end

Saturday, November 13, 2010




Runaway Train, Never Comin' Back. Runaway Train On A One Way Track.

Unstoppable is Thomas The Tank Engine on steroids. It's like Speed 2 except with a train instead of a boat. Unstoppable is also an immensely entertaining, careening joyride.

If there's any justice in this world, runaway freight train 777 would take its place alongside the shark in Jaws as one of the great movie villains of all time.  At the very least 777 deserves to win Best Villain in next year's MTV Movie Awards.  Because bumbling boob Ethan Suplee didn't properly set its air brakes and exited the cab, 777 became the most dangerous vehicle in southern Pennsylvania. Traveling at speeds in excess of 70 MPH, 777 is "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building"; it has over thirty cars attached and sports not only three cars worth of Diesel fuel but several tons of toxic chemicals.  If it derails, it could destroy a town and kill thousands.  Left unchecked it can "vaporize everything in its path."

The only two men who can stop 777 are a couple of down on their luck working men who also happen to look like movie stars: Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. They don't like or trust each other at first but nothing bonds two men like risking their lives to stop a runaway train. Pine, a rookie conductor four months out of training, is estranged from his wife and trying to have a restraining order rescinded so he can see his young son. Denzel is a 28 year engineer facing forced retirement and is himself estranged from his college-age daughters, who are both Hooters waitresses. (Pine with a big grin: "I'm a fan." My man!)  Someone else who could work at Hooters is Rosario Dawson, who runs the rail operations and believes Denzel and Pine are the only ones who can stop 777, despite corporate interference from Kevin Dunn, the Incompetent Executive Who Is Wrong About Everything.  

An action picture about a runaway train doesn't necessarily require a great deal of depth or complexity, but the actors bring a convincing urgency and believability to Unstoppable, which is "based on true events".  When Captain Kirk finally, injured foot and all, leaps into the cab of 777 and stops that train cold while Malcolm X cheers from the roof of the rear cab, the blue collar heroism on display is rousing and fun. Denzel even hilariously scores a kiss from Dawson at the end while his Hooters Girls daughters hoot, holler, and applaud.

My pitch for Unstoppable 2: 777 is again a runaway freight train, this time stalking Denzel, Pine, and their families while they vacation in the Caribbean.




"I hate LA."

Upon reflection, Skyline's greatest achievement is making one appreciate everything Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds did right.  Skyline is War of the Worlds for Dummies. The dummies in question are a gaggle of some of the most tedious-to-be-around characters ever to be trapped in a luxurious high-rise penthouse in Los Angeles during an alien invasion.  Eric Balfour is a Brooklyn artist reunited with his childhood friend Donald Faison.  Faison is a big success now, driving a Ferrari and banging skanks (and I mean skanks) like Brittany Daniel and Crystal Reed in said luxurious high-rise penthouse.  Of course, one assumes he's a rapper, but no, apparently he runs a visual effects house or something and wants to bring a reticent Balfour on board.  The character drama revolving around Balfour's pregnant girlfriend Scottie Thompson not wanting to move to LA while Daniel is shocked to learn Faison is sleeping with Reed is excruciating, but we endure to see the aliens.  How is it possible when the aliens arrive, the movie actually gets worse? The unnamed aliens unleash blue lights that vacuum up humans into their motherships.  For some reason, the blue lights also decay people - but they also somehow made Balfour more-than human (in a riff taken from District 9) because he stared at the blue light for too long, or something.  When they're done lighting up LA, the aliens send out tentacled probe thingies and giant monster thingies to grab people, suck off their heads, and smash things, stealing concepts and moments wholesale from War of the Worlds and the also-superior Cloverfield. The aliens have no stated purpose, nor is anyone even remotely curious what they are and why they're here.  I was curious about why the aliens spent so much time hanging around the apartment building Faison lived in.  Seriously, they sent wave after wave of creatures into that one apartment complex to hunt down like six people. The aliens are pretty inefficient, unlike the aliens in Independence Day, which Skyline also rips off when presenting aerial battles between human fighter jets and alien fighter pods. The one amusing moment was how Faison was dispatched, driving in his open-topped Ferrari while knowing aliens were afoot, literally.  The characters are complete idiots.  Balfour kept insisting they escape in a boat because as far as he could see from the penthouse windows, the alien ships weren't docked over the water. I'm sorry, are these the M. Night Shyamalan aliens who are afraid of water? Then the Apartment Building Manager enters their lives; first he seems heroic but then he turns out to be a bug-eyed, bullying lunatic. Finally, after a morbid but at least conclusive sci-fi moment where Balfour and Thompson are sucked into an alien ship, instead of ending and cutting their losses, Skyline makes matters even worse by showing the interior of the alien ship.  Balfour is decapitated and the aliens eat his brain but his brain is "special" for some reason (it glows red instead of blue) and he becomes a rebellious alien ready to fight all the other aliens in a sequel. Holy. Shit. No.

Smallville 10x8 - "Abandoned"


Special DC Universe Guest Stars:
Extra Special Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman Guest Star:

With a combination of forward story movement, revelatory flashbacks, and copious amounts of DC Universe guest stars, "Abandoned" righted the Smallville ship after "Ambush" last week. I didn't like "Ambush". As much as I enjoy the visual delights of Lois and Lucy Lane reunited, "Ambush" was nonsensical; it was structured and felt like a season three or four episode, back when I didn't like Smallville (but still watched every week). On the plus side, Rick Flagg blew up the Talon set (with a missile, no less), ridding Smallville of that tie to its early seasons. AND Clark asked General Lane for permission to marry Lois! Will we see Lois in a wedding dress before Clark wears the red and blue suit?

This week, Smallville touted Teri Hatcher's guest appearance as Lois Lane's mother, who has been dead of cancer for years but recorded a series of videos for her daughter (not terribly unlike what Jor-El did for Kal-El). Teri Hatcher's scene was really, really good. Not just well-written, but her performance was moving and poignant. Just the way she started the video by saying, "Lois...", passing the Lois Lane torch to Erica Durance was... wow. Durance, for the entire episode as usual but specifically in this scene, brought her A game, with Lois reacting to her mother's advice with pitch perfect facial reactions.

Lois resolved her lingering abandonment issues with her mother and decided to help Clark do the same with Jor-El. Even Shelby the dog was skeptical (it's always fun to see Clark's one-time Superdog), or maybe Shelby just thought it was as much fun as I did to see Lois pouring over Clark's Kryptonian journals and maps of the old Indian caves from the early seasons. The jig really is up: All of this stuff was kept secret from Lois for years but now she's all in. She finds the key Clark poorly hid behind a bookcase and marched right into the Fortress of Solitude (in a black winter ensemble from The Lois Lane Collection) and read Jor-El the riot act, name dropping "Kal-El".

Jor-El had enough of this human woman yelling at him and held Lois in stasis until Clark showed up, but maybe Jor-El really just did that so Lois wouldn't freeze to death. Once Lois and Clark are together, the Fortress showed a hologram re-enactment of Jor-El and Lara's words to baby Kal-El in his starship as Krypton was about to explode. (With the un-hyped re-appearances of Julian Sands as Jor-El and the original Supergirl Helen Slater as Lara!) Clark found out his Kryptonian parents really did love him, and I guess the ice between him and Jor-El has been melted. And Lois being all up in his Kryptonian area further convinced Clark that Lois is The One for him. He's even got the ring now to prove it. Not a Legion flight ring. Not a Green Lantern Power Ring. But a diamond engagement ring! (Did Clark crush a piece of coal to create that huge diamond himself? I like to think yes! A perk of being Superman means never having to overpay at Tiffany's.)

Meanwhile, Tess is having nightmares of herself as a little girl being tortured and abused in a terrifying orphanage. They feel like more than dreams but Tess has no memories of being in that orphanage, or of her parents, or of anything before she was five years old. Using Watchtower, she gets on the trail of "the Mother Theresa of abandoned children", a silver haired old fox (not really) named Granny Goodness! Clark offers to help her investigate. After all, Tess is part of his team now. I must say Cassidy Freeman is favorably competing with Erica Durance in the acting department; without saying a word Freeman communicates myriad emotions via facial expressions. And I think Tess is a much tougher character to play and make believable.

Tess and Clark arrive at Granny Goodness' orphanage and Clark immediately hears a cry for help, excusing himself with the lamest reason he could think of ("I left my notebook in the car.") Clark finds a little girl being tortured in the basement and frees her, then locks her in a room for safety before he's attacked by The Female Furies! (And WE NEVER CHECK IN WITH THAT LITTLE GIRL AGAIN! IS SHE STILL IN THE CLOSET? CLARK FORGOT ALL ABOUT HER!)

The Female Furies have some sort of Kryptonite fire pit, which weakens Clark so they can have their way with him. Of course, they waste no time rendering Clark shirtless and tied up. For a bunch of women raised by an insane (alien?) grandmother since they were little girls and turned into superpowered assassins, they're pretty kinky. The main two Furies are Mad Harrett, with Freddy Krueger Kryptonite claws, and Lashina, who whips it good.

Tess is reunited with Granny Goodness, who reveals Tess was under her care as a little girl, dropped off by her birth parents ("who were powerful"), but then taken away from the orphanage when her birth parents found her a foster home. While she was there, Tess was subject to Granny's methods but Granny also said Tess was her favorite charge. Granny's girls all have gone on to great things, and so did Tess, what with now having Luthorcorp, The Daily Planet and Watchtower (shh!) under her control.
Granny was also the one, as suspected, who brought Tess to Cadmus and healed all the injuries she got in last season's finale. Granny reveals all of this to Tess while chasing her around the orphanage and locking her in her old room. (Tess broke out the same way she did when she was a girl.) Biggest in joke of the episode was that little Tess scrawled "SOMEBODY SAVE ME!" on the wall. I guess Granny wouldn't allow her to listen to Remy Zero either.

Now, was Tess supposed to be a Female Fury? She beat up Mad Harriett all by her lonesome, but was almost hanged by Lashina. Luckily, Clark used his Super Breath to seal the Kryptonite fire pit, free himself, and save Tess. Clark also took out Lashina before he and Tess booked it from the world's worst orphanage. Did Superman hit a woman? We don't know. We don't know what he did because he did it in Superspeed. One second Lashina was just standing there, the next, she was out cold.

That's not all, though: Tess' repressed childhood memories came flooding back in the form of more flashbacks: She remembers getting dropped off at the orphanage by her daddy, a man in a limousine, and the license plate reads: LUTHOR! And she found her birth certificate with her real name: LUTESSA LENA LUTHOR! (I laughed.)

As a Dead Like Me fan (seasons one and two only please, the reunion movie was terrible), I loved the casting of Christine Willes (Delores Herbig) as Granny Goodness. Willes is a prolific Canadian character actor who has appeared in just about every television series ever shot in Vancouver; it took ten years but she finally got cast in Smallville. In a major role too. As far as I recall, the Granny Goodness in the comics was just a physically powerful old battleaxe with a Mega-Rod. Smallville's Granny has telekinesis and the ability to erase memories. We were also treated to an Apokolips reunion when DeSaad shows up expectedly. Also unexpected is Smallville's DeSaad depicted as a swarthy blonde Euro-trash nightclub owner. And Gordon Godfrey showed up too! Godfrey no longer seems to be possessed by the spirit of Darkseid, which begs the question where Darkseid is now. Granny, DeSaad, and Godfrey all agree - "HE'S COMING!" All Hail Lord Darkseid! (I'm just preparing for the inevitable.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)



The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest brings the sordid, lurid saga of hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander to its inevitable conclusion. Picking up directly where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, Lisbeth has been hospitalized from her near-death experience of being shot several times and buried alive before exacting vengeance on her evil crimelord father.  Unlike the more propulsive, almost Bourne-like Girl Who Played With Fire, which was driven by Lisbeth's actions to find out who framed her for murder and why, Hornet's Nest is a sprawling, endlessly-talky game of Keep Away - Keep Lisbeth Away From These Evil Scumbag Swedes Who Want Her Dead. As Lisbeth recovers from her wounds, even more shady forces - a secret cabal of sinister, old and frail scumbag Swedish men dubbed The Section - rally to finish her off once and for all. The Section even enlist the sinister old scumbag psychiatrist who had 12 year old Lisbeth committed, abused her while she was in his care, and then had her declared legally incompetent. Plus Lisbeth's hulking, mute, and murderous half brother continues to skulk around Stockholm. Fortunately, Lisbeth is again aided by her knight in journalistic armor, Mikail Blomkvist.  Although the Berlin Wall of Silence Lisbeth imposed in the previous film had fallen by its end, Blomkvist still spends most of Hornet's Nest away from her; he assigns his pregnant attorney sister Annika as her legal counsel while he moves into Lisbeth's apartment, sleeps in her bed, and uses her wifi. Meanwhile, as Blomkvist engages his magazine Millennium to publicly reveal the massive conspiracy aimed against this one girl with the dragon tattoo, he and his co-workers are besieged by death threats. This leads to one of the few and welcome bursts of action in the film as Blomkvist and a would-be assassin brawl in a restaurant. While hospitalized, Lisbeth composes her autobiography - No doubt if she published it in three volumes, they would become international best sellers and would have both Swedish and Hollywood films made of them. The performances are again very fine from leads Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyquist, though they've got these characters down to a T. His performance almost skirts the edge of perfunctory. It's unfortunate also that Rapace, who cleaned up so nicely in the previous film, reverts back to her offputting 1980's goth look, complete with mohawk and combat boots by the end. The DVD of the rape of Lisbeth in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - the most important and pivotal rape ever committed in Sweden - once again is referenced, as if any of us who saw it could ever forget it.