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Saturday, December 31, 2011

We Bought A Zoo



Based on a true story, Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo finds Matt Damon, a widower and father of two, so desperate to escape the memories of his late wife that he buys a run down zoo and moves his family in. The cadre of character actors like Angus MacFadyen from Braveheart and Patrick Fugit from Crowe's Almost Famous who work at the zoo, and Thomas Hayden Church as Damon's pragmatic older brother, have their doubts about the zoo's new owner. The one person who believes in Damon is Scarlett Johansson, because a movie star recognizes another movie star and instantly believes a movie star can do what he sets out to do. Despite numerous setbacks, financial and natural, they all pitch in and get that zoo open. To get there, Damon must mend fences with his surly son Colin Ford who's still mourning for his dead mother. Damon's precocious young daughter Maggie Elizabeth Jones settled into the zoo just fine. Johansson, sans makeup for the entire picture, is radiant, even when picking up snakes and shoveling bear shit, which takes Damon the length of the picture to finally pick up on.  Meanwhile, Ford picks up on all the obvious signals the pretty, giggly farm girl his age, Elle Fanning, sends out and finds a little teen romance in spite of himself. Like father, like son, macking on the zookeeper girls. Crowe, the director of Singles and Pearl Jam Twenty, couldn't resist working in some of his (and my) favorite rock tracks like Tom Petty "Don't Come Around Here No More" and Temple of the Dog "Hunger Strike", to his credit and my enjoyment. We Bought A Zoo, all about letting go and finding new adventure to heal from loss, is a sweet movie at heart but lacks teeth. Yet, the appeal of this zoo run by movie stars is undeniable. What a fun summer day it would be to visit a zoo run by Jason Bourne, The Black Widow, The Sandman, and the girl from Super 8.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo



"May I kill him?"

David Fincher's astonishing adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is, among many superlatives, the best James Bond movie in years, right down to the disturbing, eye-popping opening credits set to Academy Award-winning composer Trent Reznor and Karen O.'s cover of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song". The rocking sequence, eclipsing the fearsome opening credits of Fincher's 1995 serial killer yarn Se7en, immerses us in the oily, black thoughts of Lizbeth Salander (a revelatory Rooney Mara), the titular title character. Cutting right from the opening credits to Daniel Craig as 007 -- pardon me, as disgraced Swedish journalist Mikail Blomkvist -- only further invokes Dragon Tattoo as the Bond movie Fincher would never be hired to make, but made anyway.

The story of Dragon Tattoo is familiar to the millions who have devoured the novels by Steig Larsson and/or watched the popular Swedish film adaptations starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.  Reeling from bankruptcy and public disgrace, Blomkvist is hired by the patriarch of the Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to solve the murder of his niece ("Harriet Fucking Vanger," Lisbeth calls her) 40 years ago. Together with hacker and researcher extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander, who was hired by Vanger's lawyer to investigate Blomkvist's suitability to the task, they uncover the Vanger clan's sordid underbelly of Nazism, ritual murder, serial killing, anti-Semitism, torture porn, rape, and incest. The gruesome activities of the Vangers mirror the terrible circumstances Lisbeth herself, a ward of the state because of her own hellish past, finds herself in when she's tortured and brutally raped by her court-appointed overseer. Lisbeth's revenge takes 'an eye for an eye' to a new level. Like the novels and the Swedish films, Fincher's Dragon Tattoo delves deeply into the myriad woman-hating atrocities committed by the Swedes. One wonders if any of this has negatively affected tourism.

The blistering (sexual) chemistry between Craig and Mara is palpable. Craig is in top form, maintaining the gruff masculinity he brings to James Bond while outright eschewing 007's invincibility to violence. Mara is incredible; she emotes through the subtlest of her eyes and facial expressions, conveying not just Lisbeth's intensity and inner torment but her closely-guarded playfulness and hopefulness, especially in the final moments as she allows herself to fall for Blomkvist, the kindest, most honorable man she's ever known. (When Lisbeth enters a room, she likes to say "hey hey," like Krusty The Klown would.) Blomkvist and Salander are an unusual but well-matched pair, noted by everyone from Blomkvist's lover played by Robin Wright to Martin Vanger, the head of the Vanger Corporation, played by Stellan Skarsgard (guess who the real killer is?!).

When Blomkvist finally gets too close to the truth in his investigation, he's tortured and interrogated by Martin in a crackling twist on the Bond villain inviting 007 into his lair and trying to execute him in nearly every Bond movie. The conversation between the dominant Martin and the helpless Blomkvist manages to be simultaneously illuminating, frightening, and amusing (cue Enya). Blomkvist is placed in a terrifying death trap even worse than when James Bond had his balls whacked in Casino Royale. It's Salander who saves him and dispatches Martin in a fiery demise (which both calls back to and foreshadows the next chapter, The Girl Who Played With Fire). The iconography of Lisbeth Salander saving James Bond's life is irresistible.  

Composing gorgeous cinema in every frame, Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian (delivering career-best work adapting a bestseller for the screen) hack and slash the excesses of the novel while still requiring nearly three hours to tell their version of Dragon Tattoo. The significant divergences include trimming Blomkvist's sexual dalliances with Cecelia Vanger, diving headlong into Lisbeth's corporate espionage to steal Blomkvist's enemy Weinnerstrom's funds and destroy him (Lisbeth asking Mikael for $50,000 for "a smart,  safe investment" and being flabbergasted when he cheerfully agrees is one of Dragon Tattoo's little delights), and their revised ending of how the true fate of Harriet Vanger is revealed, before Lisbeth finds herself heartbroken by Blomkvist's crime of being an oblivious man who lied to her face about resuming his relationship with Robin Wright. Alone again, Lisbeth rides off into the blackest night. All throughout, the pulsing score by Reznor fuels the never-ending dread of the hostile, bleak Swedish winter.

What is the Swedish word for 'sequel', David Fincher? 

Young Adult



In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays a real piece of sh-- work. A ghost writer for a failing series of young adult novels, Theron was the much-desired, much-admired queen bee of her high school but grew up to be a deeply unhappy 37 year old alcoholic who watches far too much Keeping Up With The Kardashians on E! Also, she's batshit crazy, as her long suffering nerd classmate Patton Oswalt discovers when he runs into Theron back in their hometown. She left what her high school peers believe to be her glamorous life as a writer living in a condo in the big city of Minneapolis to come home for "a land deal investment". But Theron is really back to steal her high school boyfriend Patrick Wilson from his simple, happy life with his wife Elizabeth Reaser and their newborn child, and she goes about her transparent, lunatic scheme with utterly shameless determination. Directed by Jason Reitman, Young Adult is a darker, not winningly crowd-pleasing, but disturbingly funny turnabout from his last picture Up In The Air. Diablo Cody pens her finest, boldest screenplay yet, eschewing her snarky dialogue in Juno and Jennifer's Body while delving into the disturbed mind of Theron's character and all the damage she causes in her wake. Cody and Reitman admirably refuse to let Theron off the hook and twist away from a Hollywood happy ending where Theron learns to better herself that ties everything together with a bow. They're remarkably nicer to Oswalt, who does his damnedest to be Theron's Jiminy Crickett and gets to fulfill a lifelong fantasy by bedding Theron. After which Oswalt's sister Collette Wolfe begs Theron to be her queen bee and let her accompany Theron back to Minneapolis. Startlingly beautiful even in her worst moments, her worst moments comprising the entirety of Young Adult, Theron shines as an entirely different kind of monster from the one she played in Monster

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows



In Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Dr. Watson's Insistence on Heterosexual Monogamy, re-titled (one presumes) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows for marketing suitability, the Great Detective is hot on the trail of his greatest nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The only thing distracting Holmes from uncovering Moriarty's dastardly plot to instigate a war via an assassination at a peace summit in Switzerland is his sidekick Watson's insistence on getting married and going on his honeymoon with his wife. In the first of two supercharged confrontations, Moriarty helpfully combines Holmes' two agendas by threatening the well being of Watson and his bride. This sparks Holmes' fabled powers of deduction, fighting prowess, derring-do, and propensity for cross-dressing like Bugs Bunny to go on a Europe-wide manhunt to stop Moriarty from carrying out his nefarious scheme. As Holmes, the cleverest man alive, Robert Downey Jr. once again chews his non-existent deerstalker hat, while Jude Law as Watson again attempts some reasonable form of restraint while failing to restrain Holmes. Their bromance - hold the B - continues with aplomb. In a shocking but welcome twist, the weakest aspect of the prior Sherlock Holmes, Rachel McAdams, is bumped off -- she's replaced as The Woman in the Movie by Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, who plays a wide-eyed gypsy regularly confounded by Holmes and seemingly out of her depth in a Guy Richie film. Also - ahem - cheekily along for the ride is Stephen Fry as Sherlock's fey brother Mycroft Holmes. Holmes and Watson's bludgeoningly madcap adventures eventually give way to a crackling third act where Holmes and Moriarty mentally and physically match wits in Switzerland, with a terrific conclusion invoking the demise of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel. The Holmes vs. Moriarty battle is worth the wait. Jared Harris, most famously of Mad Men, makes for a splendidly sinister Moriarty, every bit the equal of Downey's formidable Holmes. The only thing that could have improved upon Moriarty's game of shadows with Holmes would be if he'd taken Holmes to the Playboy Club to meet his chocolate bunny.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn



"Great Snakes!"

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn opens with a marvelous animated credits sequence that both honors the beloved (worldwide, not so much in America) comic strips by Herge while outdoing the memorable opening credits to Spielberg's own Catch Me If You Can. Jackson's WETA animation beautifully and smoothly brings the characters of Tintin (voice of Jamie Bell), Captain Haddock (voice of Andy Serkis), bumbling bobbies Thomson and Thompson (voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), and Tintin's lovable dog Snowy to CGI life, with fully believable emotions and facial expressions. Tintin's adventure-packed world of 1950s Belgium and points beyond are also splendidly and lushly rendered. In The Secret of the Unicorn boy reporter Tintin uncovers a mystery involving a model pirate ship that sends him across the sea and into the deserts of Morocco chasing after fabled pirate treasure. Along the way, Tintin meets drunken sea man Captain Haddock and runs afoul of the villainous Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig in a terrific performance where you'd never know James Bond is the villain of the story). Invoking the spirit of his Indiana Jones-anything goes adventures, Spielberg's Tintin is a wild, non-stop, roller coaster of blistering action set pieces and death-defying thrills. Despite combining three of Herge's Tintin comics to round out the story, Tintin's action is absolutely relentless and all but overloads on its manic pace by the third act. Tintin himself turns out to be a very serious boy reporter indeed, though he is understandably angry that modern day descendants of pirates keep trying to murder him. Haddock is a lovable foil for Tintin, though more apologetic about his alcoholism than he ever is in the comic strips. Snowy steals every scene he's in, as he's wont to do. Though Tintin himself would probably have appreciated his first Hollywood film slowing down the constant life-threatening predicaments he's placed in and playing up the whimsy of the comic strips, overall the combination of Steven Spielberg's direction and Peter Jackson's WETA animation do Tintin justice.

War Horse



In Steven Spielberg's splendid horse opera War Horse, everyone (who isn't an evil German) War Horse meets falls in love with him. How can you not? War Horse is a wonderful war horse. Literally born into the movie, War Horse is named "Joey" by his first owner, good-hearted farm boy Jeremy Irvine. When Irvine's alcoholic war hero father Peter Mullan sells Joey to British army leftenant Tom Hiddleston (Loki from Thor and The Avengers) in order to pay off his debt to his seedy landlord David Thewlis, Joey's relatively idyllic life as a plow horse and galloping around the verdant hills of merry olde England ends and his troubles begin. Indoctrinated as a mounted steed for service in World War I, Joey is transformed into War Horse (and even named such - Joey is actually more "War Horse" than William Wallace was "Braveheart"), surviving a disastrous charge at the German army by Hiddleston and his battalion. Soon, War Horse escapes with two doomed young German deserters and finds himself under the care of a charming but sickly young French girl, Celine Buckens, and her kindly grandfather Niels Arestrup. Alas, the Germans come calling and take ownership of War Horse once more, turning him into a beast of burden until he frantically escapes and gets himself tangled in the barbed wire of the no man's land between the British and German encampments. This Passion of the War Horse is among the very best film sequences of the year, as a compassionate British and German soldier from each side agree to a temporary, respectful detente so they can use wire cutters to free War Horse from his predicament. War Horse contains a lot of horse play, rough housing, and even horse housing. Though he indulges in a curious penchant for getting reaction shots, complete with hints of a smile, from War Horse, Spielberg is at the peak of his epic filmmaking powers. War Horse endures the brutality man heaps upon man first hand but embodies the determination of the equine spirit. And the human spirit too, one supposes. When War Horse is finally reunited with Irvine, who joined the war never dreaming he'd see Joey again, it's a touching reward for a brutal, nerve racking few years of war one wouldn't wish on any man or horse. I love you, War Horse!

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol



It seemed impossible to enjoy another Mission: Impossible movie after the miserable experience of Mission: Impossible III. Leave it to Tom Cruise and director Brad Bird to accomplish the impossible against all odds. After directing some of the finest animation of the past two decades with The Simpsons, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is Bird's doozy of a live-action coming out party. Bird injects new vitality into Mission: Impossible, delivering a rollicking, eye-popping joyride and the best sheer movie experience of the Mission: Impossible franchise. They didn't make 'em like this before!

After breaking out of a Russian prison, Cruise's unstoppable agent Ethan Hunt is once again hunted by friendly forces, as the Impossible Missions Force is dismantled, with the President instituting "Ghost Protocol" (so says Tom Wilkinson, the latest in the parade of old men in suits Ethan Hunt takes marching orders from). Hunt, Simon Pegg's comic relief hacker Benji, and new additions Paula Patton and mystery man Jeremy Renner are all that's left of the IMF. Rocketing from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai in the best 007 tradition, Ghost Protocol is thankfully devoid of the previous Missions' inane spy double talk (no mention of a rabbit's foot!), bewildering character betrayals, over-heated plots, and those stupid masks that fool everyone (to Pegg's chagrin). Ghost Protocol is leaner and meaner but so much bigger and badder.

Ethan and the Ghost Protocoled IMF must hunt down a terrorist (Michael Nyqvist, the star of the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films) who wants to launch a nuclear missile to destroy San Francisco. That's awesome: an actual, tangible threat for Ethan Hunt to stop instead of a computer disc or a deadly virus. In addition to some pleasing character work from Renner, Patton, and Pegg, and a terrific turn as a deadly assassin by Lea SeydouxGhost Protocol pays nice homage to the best aspects of its franchise predecessors: Ving Rhames cameos, not too upset that he's not risking his life this time around, while the fate of Ethan's wife Michelle Monaghan is deftly dealt with.

Bird utilizes IMAX to the nth degree, showcasing astounding action set pieces, such as the centerpiece nail-biter of Cruise climbing the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai with just magnetic gloves. The noticeably older, weathered Hunt, who never met a building he didn't want to jump off of in the three prior films, was actually terrified at the prospect of this latest insane stunt. Ethan Hunt must be growing as a person. Finally. Ghost Protocol indeed proves nothing is impossible.




With Hugo, Martin Scorsese tackles 3D, an adaptation of a beloved children's book by Brian Selznick, and his own deep love of and desire to preserve cinema, and weaves them together to create pure movie magic. Set in a wintry 1930s Paris of dreams, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield as the title character, Hugo Cabret. Orphaned by the death of his father Jude Law, Hugo lives illegally in the Paris train station, keeping the clocks running while avoiding being caught and sent to the orphanage by the Station Inspector, played with a cunning blend of humor and pathos by Sacha Baron Cohen. Hugo's father left behind a curious invention, an automaton which writes but needs a key to activate it. In order to unlock the automaton's secrets, Hugo befriends Isabelle, (Chloe Grace Moretz, neither a vampire nor a foul-mouthed, homicidal superhero this time around), the niece of the tragic George Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. Though one becomes trained by years of Ben Kingsley as the villain in his films to expect Kingsley to be the villain of Hugo, Kingsley's gruff, haunted George Méliès is actually the great filmmaker, who directed hundreds of films at the turn of the century, most of which were lost or destroyed during World War I. His most famous work, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, was homaged in the 1990s by the Smashing Pumpkins for their music video "Tonight, Tonight". Scorsese's real message in Hugo is how important it is to honor and preserve the important cinema of the past for posterity, but he simultaneously directs a moving friendship between Hugo and Isabelle while even giving Cohen's Station Agent a sweet subplot of unrequited love with the station's flower girl Emily Mortimer.  As a master of cinema honoring another master of cinema, Scorsese gives Méliès his just due while delivering a wondrous, timeless classic, utilizing the power of 3D better than most of his contemporaries. In Tracy Jordan's vernacular, I want to take Hugo behind the Paris train station and get it pregnant.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

You Can Feel Good About Red Hood and the Outlaws

Red Hood and the Outlaws sneaked up on me in the last 4 months to become one of my favorite titles of DC Comics' The New 52. I dig it. The uproar about hyper-sexualizing Starfire didn't bother me. Actually, that only made her more appealing. But seriously, the best way I can describe Red Hood and the Outlaws is that it feels like the rollicking comic book version of 2006 Rated R Superstar Edge. Like his shirt: Sex and Violence.

In 4 issues, Red Hood quickly turned into a fun series. For one thing, I think the characterizations are very strong. For the first time ever, I like Jason Todd. He's actually interesting and formidable. To illustrate how much I loathed Jason Todd: I am one of his executioners. I was one of the people who called DC Comics in 1988 and voted: Robin Must Die. Joker beating him with the crowbar and exploding him was something I asked for, and enjoyed. I hated Jason Todd. I hated the story of his comeback by Judd Winick (though I liked the movie of it.) 
But now, I like Jason. I get Jason. He's become more interesting to me than any other ex-Robin. The series has also done a very good job, better than lots of the other New 52 series, in quickly building a mythology and giving a ton of backstory to Jason Todd.

Roy Harper still hasn't grown on me, but Starfire is much more than meets the eye. Especially in issue 4 where she faces a new enemy and we get to see half the issue from her point of view. She has surprising depth of character to go with the gratuitous blow up sex doll eye candy.

As a reader projecting himself into the comics he reads, I wouldn't want to hang out with the simpletons in Justice League or Suicide Squad, for instance, but I would certainly hang out with Red Hood, Arsenal, and Starfire. Blaze around the world, get into trouble, have some sex, fight some evil. They're a swell bunch, those three. They're a couple of bad ass skilled humans hanging out with the single hottest woman in the universe who flies and has superpowers, and she's both an alien princess and a former slave girl, and they fight evil together. What a concept! What's not to like?

Sunday, November 13, 2011




Today Is The Day Gods Die

A sweaty abs and pecs decathelon of gods and killing and killing gods, Immortals stars future Superman Henry Cavill as Theseus, a peasant man better at killing than just about everyone else in Ancient Greece. Theseus' awesome killing skills were honed all his life by a crotchety old man (John Hurt), but this old man is in fact Zeus himself (Luke Evans) in disguise. Zeus spends most of his time hanging out with mortal men (and banging mortal women, it's presumed but never shown) yet Zeus makes a big stink of yelling at and forbidding his fellow sexy young gods of Olympus to do the same, even his favorite, the exquisitely blonde Athena (exquisitely blonde Isabel Lucas), under penalty of death. And Zeus means it. Gods like Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), however, seem bored of their eternal lives of posing for the Mount Olympus edition of Men's Fitness and decide to meddle in the affairs of Man when they see fit, to their surprising peril.

Meanwhile, mad king Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, lording it over everyone) hates the gods fiercely and concocts a mad scheme to steal a godly weapon called the Epicrus Bow and use it to release the Titans from their prison in Mount Tartarus. The Titans will, Hyperion presumes, kill the gods he hates so much. More interesting than his god killing plan is Hyperion's intention to spread his seed into every woman in Greece. But first, kill the gods. Theseus is no fan of the gods himself, but is nowhere near as belligerent about it as Perseus was in last year's Clash of the Titans. Theseus finds his faith with all sorts of help from the beauteous and exotic Virgin Oracle (Frieda Pinto), who's the only one who knows where the Epicurus Bow is.

Immortals is no quest movie like Clash of the Titans, however - Theseus doesn't so much go searching for the Epicurus Bow as randomly stumble onto it while burying his dead mother. And he sure has a trouble holding onto it. Until the big kill-a-thon finale, most of Immortals has the characters standing around explaining things to each other, with frequent bursts of viscera-spilling slaughter to keep things wet. The paper-thin plot seems to grind the middle act to a halt just to belabor working in its version of the myth of Theseus killing the Minotaur into the movie. Tarsem directs Immortals with an abundance of eye-popping bombast and go-for-broke hysteria. The movie only seems to come alive when depicting frenzied orgies of blood and death.

As Theseus, Henry Cavill snarls and seethes and slaughters with style. His climactic mano-e-mano slugfest with Hyperion, who slit the throat of Theseus' mother to earn his righteous ire, is actually much more interesting and physical in contrast to the epic battle between the gods and the Titans. The gods vs. Titans melee is entertainingly slo-mo hyper-stylized in the Zack Snyder 300 mode, but the gods disappointingly don't utilize their trademark powers. Zeus never uses his Thunderbolt, Poseidon never calls forth the power of water, etc. The Titans themselves are a letdown; portrayed as blue-painted pigmy-looking man-monsters and not whatever you'd expect the mighty immortal beings who sired the gods would look or act like. Immortality is the foremost concern of both man and god in Immortals, but killing with blood and lust seems to be all anyone is really good at.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Green Lantern: The Animated Series 1x1, 1x2 - "Beware My Power, Parts 1 and 2"

The Guardians of the Universe are the fucking worst. Worse than the Jedi Council, worse than the Council in Zion in The Matrix sequels. They're so shitty; they never know anything for ancient beings supposedly so wise, they constantly impede their Green Lanterns, and they're arrogant little dipshit space midgets. They absolutely suck.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series is worlds better than the Ryan Reynolds movie. This sounds like faint praise, but it's true. This Hal Jordan is the headstrong hotshot alpha male Hal Jordan is supposed to be. (Which also makes him kind of infuriating as a lead.) Thankfully, The Animated Series spares us another rehashing of the origin story; it assumes we know how Hal Jordan got his ring and presents him established and experienced as a Green Lantern.

The design of OA in this show as a sleek, future city world is also a lot better than the rocky cave world version of OA in the live action movie. The design of Atrocitus' headquarters as a fortress on top of an asteroid, which is the remains of his homeworld the Guardians destroyed, is also pretty cool.

The main action involves Hal Jordan and Kilowog absconding with the Guardians' new Interceptor space craft with "ultra warp" to rescue Green Lanterns being killed in frontier space by Red Lanterns lead by Atrocitus. This is the discovery and first meeting of the Red Lanterns by the Green Lanterns.

Kilowog: "I make hammers." And he means it. He spent the whole fight with the Red Lanterns swinging a construct that looked a lot like Thor's Mjolnir.

My eternal pet peeve with Green Lantern: Ring-slinging combat remains incredibly unimaginative. Basic shields, basic shapes, and plain old energy blasts is 95% of what the Lanterns use on each other. It's pretty boring. And this is a cartoon - budget isn't an issue here. Except for Jordan, these are all alien creatures - is any thought ever given to what unique objects and weapons might exist in the cultures on their worlds? No.

The best part of the episode was Kilowog making fun of Hal Jordan for wearing a mask. "He wears it in case some Earthling sneaks onto the Interceptor - while we're in space! - and says "Aha! The Green Lantern on my world is Hal Jordan! I'm telling everyone!"

Also, I don't think Kilowog said "poozer" once. A precedent has been set! Appreciated.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Muppets



I Hope That Something Better Comes Along

Anyone who knows me knows I love the Justice League of America. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman... even Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter. What if I had the clout to actually get a long awaited Justice League movie made? It'd be a dream come true. What if I made that Justice League movie and got it into theaters, with the goal of ostensibly restoring the grandeur of those JLA characters to a nostalgic older audience while introducing them to a new, younger audience who might not be familiar with them? And what if, in the screenplay I write for this Justice League movie, the story is actually about... me, and how much I love the JLA?

In my movie, a character played by me, which is essentially a stand in for the real me, plus a brand new superhero I created, learn that the evil Lex Luthor has plans to destroy the Hall of Justice. So we go to tell Superman, but we find him moping around the Fortress of Solitude, and we discover he doesn't want to reassemble the League to stop Luthor. But I egg him on to finally get the team back together, and we go with him until we find Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and the rest. But once the League is all together, they still can't beat Lex Luthor despite all of their combined powers. Until I, or rather, the new superhero I created, swoop in to save the day so that in the end, the Justice League emerges triumphant. The movie ends with Superman, Batman, and the rest of the heroes hoisting my new character on their shoulders and proclaiming to the cheering throngs that they couldn't have done it without me. Wouldn't that be great?

I'd be lynched the very next time I set foot in a Comic Con. And yet, this is essentially the experience of watching The Muppets.

There is no doubt co-writer, executive producer and star Jason Segel loves the Muppets and has all his life. This evident throughout The Muppets. It was his clout and perseverance that finally got a new, big budget, theatrical Muppets feature film made. Segel loves and reveres the Muppets. The Muppets is a 90 minute treatise that you can love and revere something all your life and yet fundamentally misunderstand it. But Segel does understand himself, so he made The Muppets about himself.

The Muppets opens not with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo or any of the classic characters, but with a flashback sequence starring Segel and his "brother", the new Muppet character he created named Walter. It's all about how they both grew up worshiping the Muppets in a strange, live action-cartoon small town USA called "Smalltown". Segel's character, a dim-witted but good natured man-child version of himself,  is engaged to good natured schoolteacher Amy Adams, and they are off to Los Angeles to celebrate their anniversary, with Walter in tow. We learn all of this through a prolonged, unmemorable musical number with a dancing human cast of dozens. About midway through the singing and dancing, I was forced to turn to my friend beside me and sincerely ask, "Are there any Muppets in this Muppet movie?"

While in Los Angeles, Segel, Adams, and Walter visit the dilapidated old Muppet Studios and learn that evil oil baron Chris Cooper plots to buy the Studio land so he can drill for oil. Or maybe he already owned the land, it wasn't clear. What was clear thanks to a plot point delivered by Statler and Waldorf themselves, was that the Muppets need to raise $10-million to buy back the land by a Friday midnight deadline or else Cooper would indeed own the land, as well as the rights to the Muppets' names and likenesses.

Segel, Adams and Walter travel to Kermit's mansion and meet the Frog himself. Kermit is tired and sad, presented as an old washed up showbiz relic lamenting the dissolution of the Muppets and the abandonment of public interest in them over the years. Think old Charles Foster Kane all alone in Xanadu with his ghosts and memories -- this isn't the Kermit the Frog I know. But of course, Kermit must get the gang back together. The Muppets brightens up considerably as favorites like Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Scooter, Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Animal, Rowlf, and of course, Miss Piggy join the action. A bit of good luck gets the Muppets two hours of television time on Friday night to put on a show and raise the ten million dollars they need, but keeping the Muppet Telethon on the air is another matter, with Cooper conspiring to literally shut them down.

When the spotlight is on the Muppets we know, love and came to see, The Muppets does deliver the zany, hilarious chaos that is their trademark. Piggy and Kermit's "marriage" from The Muppets Take Manhattan is dealt with, as the screenplay milks holding off their emotional reunion until the last possible moment. It's delightful to see Scooter clean up the Muppet Studio and work backstage to keep the show moving. Animal has an amusing subplot where anger management classes have calmed him from thrashing on the drums. Fozzie, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Rowlf, the Swedish Chef, Gonzo and Camilla the Chicken, Statler and Waldorf, all have their moments, but not enough of them, just token bits where they do a little something before the movie whisks by them. More than a few callbacks to The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan occur, often funny and welcome, yet they only serve to underscore how lacking the new material and songs in the movie are.

Whopping chunks of the movie are taken up by cloying subplots involving Segel and Adams. Adams stifles from Segel's lack of attention to her and focus on Walter, as he of course forgets their anniversary dinner. Segel also shanghais The Muppets and uses the movie as a vehicle to explore his personal, real-life Muppet obsession, via a musical number where he questions whether he's a Man or a Muppet, with Segel debuting a Muppet version of himself. Walter joins him in his existential moaning, his "human" side portrayed by Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory. This, the subplot of Walter trying to find his special talent so that he can swoop in to save The Muppet Telethon at the very last minute, and the fact that Walter is the most important Muppet character in the story, by whom the rest of the Muppets get their careers back, reduces Kermit and the actual Muppets into supporting players in the movie bearing their name. The more accurate movie title would have been The Jason Segel Experience Featuring WALTER!!! Guest Starring The Muppets.

Frank Oz reportedly declined participation in The Muppets because of issues he had with the script and the way the Muppets are portrayed. Kermit himself, the very soul of Muppet optimism, who left the swamp for Hollywood in The Muppet Movie not to become rich and famous but because he wanted "make people happy", turns down the initial plea to reunite the Muppets! He doesn't seem to really believe in himself or the Muppets anymore, often arbitrarily doing things just so the plot is movin' right along. The idea that the Muppets are obsolete, "not funny", and "not relevant" to today's culture is mentioned over and over, to the point where the audience is bludgeoned with the idea. And despite the Muppet Telethon and Walter saving the day, a bizarre plot point has it that the Muppets end up "nowhere near" the $10,000,000 they needed to save Muppet Studios. A throwaway line over the credits indicates the Muppets got to keep the Studio anyway; making it so the Muppets didn't actually earn their victory. A downright offensive edit occurs when Kermit and the Muppets gather together to sing "The Rainbow Connection", the most pivotal callback to classic Muppet magic, and the movie cuts away from the song (to a backstage payoff for Animal getting to drum again, but still)! You don't cut away from "The Rainbow Connection!" Perhaps someone should have seriously listened to Frank Oz's objections.

In classic Muppet movie fashion, The Muppets is chock full of celebrity cameos, some having a lot more fun than others. Jack Black, as Animal's anger management sponsor whom the Muppets kidnap to be the host of the Muppet Telethon, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters playing the drummer of Fozzie's new Reno band and dressed in Animal's fur, Rashida Jones from Parks and Recreation as the television executive who reluctantly gives the Muppets airtime on her network, and Alan Arkin as the tourguide to the old Muppet Studios seem to enjoy themselves the most. Other cameos include Donald Glover and Ken Jeong from Community, John Krasinki from The Office and his wife Emily Blunt as a secretary to Miss Piggy (who no doubt wears Prada), Neil Patrick Harris, Selena Gomez, and Zach Galifianakis as a homeless man. Most of them get rewarded for showing up by getting to sing "Mahna Mahna" with the Muppets over the closing credits. While all of the live action actors behave like normal people, it's grating how Segel and Adams' characters exist in a strange, half-cartoon state.

In the end, The Muppets sadly falls short of what it could have been, a classic Muppet movie to shepherd a new generation into loving the Muppets. The agenda of the filmmakers was hellbent on establishing Walter as Your Favorite New Muppet, but my reaction to Walter is very similar to how audiences reacted to Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. (And at least Jar Jar has a memorable voice and persona you can use to mock him as well as being eventually portrayed as the gullible idiot who ushered in the fall of the Republic.) We are supposed to love Walter walking out of The Muppets and I cannot express enough how much I do not and instead careen headlong screaming in the polar opposite direction. Segel and the filmmakers were half asleep, and they heard voices, and regretfully, they heard them calling Walter's name.

But the Muppets will endure, as they always do. Someday, there'll be another, better Muppet movie. Someday, we'll find it...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Rum Diary



The appeal of The Rum Diary is threefold: to see Hunter S. Thompson's "lost" novel translated to the big screen, to see Puerto Rico circa 1960 recreated for the film, and to watch Johnny Depp portray an actual human being and not some sort of fantasy cartoon character in a garish costume with a goofy accent. All of this is entertaining for about an hour or so. Depp plays Paul Kemp, an alcoholic failed novelist transplanted to San Juan to write horoscopes for a failing newspaper. As The Rum Diary limps along, alcohol-fueled madcap adventures ensue for Depp, who finds himself embroiled in American corporate interests in developing beachfront resorts on the island. Richard Jenkins is Depp's bewigged, beleaguered editor, Giovanni Ribisi is Depp's swarthy, Hitler-loving, junkie roommate, Aaron Eckhart is the slimy American corporate raider who woos Depp to write copy for his planned resort's "travel brochures", and Amber Heard is Eckhart's mistress and the object of Depp's lust. Strangely, they each disappear from the picture without fanfare by the third act, except for Ribisi, whom we're all stuck with until the bitter end. The Rum Diary fizzles out gradually in its second hour as the realization set in: Essentially, this is Pirates of the Caribbean 5. An island-hopping Depp and his loyal fat trouble-bound sidekick Michael Rispoli are regularly drunk on rum and get into all sorts of trouble which sees them running for their lives from furious island natives. Heard is the sexy blonde Keira Knightley stand in, Eckhart and his group of monopolistic business men take the place of the East India Trading Company, and The Rum Diary even concludes as the Pirates movies do with Depp sailing away into the sunset on a small boat. Savvy?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Like Crazy



In Like Crazy, Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin meet as young college students in Los Angeles. She is an idiosyncratic British national studying to be a writer. He is a laconic designer of furniture. They quickly and passionately fall in love and are happily a couple until the end of college, when she has to return to London for the summer. In a fit of ill-considered madness - because young love is both blindness and madness - Jones decides to remain in LA for the summer with Yelchin before returning home. When she tries to re-enter the United States, she is red-flagged for violating her student visa and sent back to London straightaway. They are both heartbroken, forced apart by time zones, an ocean and the entire land mass of the United States. Like Crazy delves into the myriad difficulties and circumstances Jones and Yelchin face in trying to maintain their long distance relationship. Most compellingly, Like Crazy carefully and genuinely examines the emotional cost of their relationship, spent mostly apart over seven years, always in longing. Yelchin occasionally visits Jones in the UK but is incapable of transplanting his life there. They agree to marry but even then, US immigration continues the red flag on Jones, preventing her from returning to LA. The pressures and guilt of starting and stopping, waiting, and trying to start again, begin to mount. For a while, they try life with other partners. Jones' next door neighbor Charley Bewley falls madly for her. Yelchin finds the love of Jennifer Lawrence. Both Bewley and Lawrence are refreshingly wonderful people as well, worthy of Jones and Yelchin. Perhaps better than Jones and Yelchin deserve the way they are ultimately (unfairly?) cast aside, with regrets, for Jones and Yelchin's belief in their true love. Like Crazy's ending is particularly ballsy, leaving it up to the audience to determine whether Jones and Yelchin can truly be happy together or whether the ideal of their youthful love they fought so long for has passed them by. Shot for a miniscule $250,000 with no screenplay, working only from a 50 page outline, Like Crazy is based on the real life experiences of director Drake Doremus. All of the dialogue is completely improvised by the extraordinarily talented actors. As the leads, Yelchin and Jones are immensely appealing, their chemistry palpable. Like Crazy is a remarkable achievement; charming, sometimes devastating, and truly heartfelt.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Thing



"You don't want to be stuck here with a bunch of Norwegians."

The Thing is a prequel to and a remake of John Carpenter's The Thing, which was a remake of a different The Thing, and is about humans encountering an alien monster that can replicate itself. So. Yes. In 1982, comely young paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead is recruited by a thin-lipped Norwegian John Hammond to join him on a secret scientific expedition. Not to a theme park full of dinosaurs, but to Antarctica, where a spacecraft has been buried underneath the glaciers for "100,000 years", give or take. (Apparently, it isn't the same spacecraft Mulder and Scully found in the first X-Files movie. How many alien spacecraft are buried in Antarctica, anyway?)  Also frozen in the ice is... a Thing: an alien creature that looks like an enormous tentacled bug. Soon, The Thing awakens, busts out of the block of ice and begins killing and replicating members of the scientific community in Antarctica, comprised of a lot of Norwegians plus American pilots Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko from Lost) and Joel Edgerton (from Warrior). Paranoia and mistrust settles in among the group ("The Americans are the enemy!" one of the Norwegians yells out) as The Thing murders them one by one and bonds with each human on a cellular level, quickly turning them into all manners of off-putting, grotesque CGI monstrosities. The Thing cheats a bit with the abilities of The Thing, as the rules for whatever sort of tentacled gruesome it can become are never explained. It just turns into whatever the screenplay needs it to be for maximum splattered viscera on the screen, usually with teeth coming out of chests like Venus fly traps. Eventually, The Thing settles into a CGI bug-like creature made of two combined humans to stalk Winstead and Edgerton. The Thing grows compelling when Winstead, the smartest character in the movie, figures out a means to identify whether her fellow humans are infected (The Thing can't absorb metal so whoever has metal fillings in their teeth is safe). She frightfully but doggedly confronts each survivor in a gripping scene. Since fire is the only thing that can kill The Thing, pretty much everything and everyone goes up in flames. Through it all, Winstead, her wide bright eyes betraying her terror as she find the determination to do what she knows must be done to keep The Thing isolated from humanity, emerges as a real movie star. Winstead evokes Signourney Weaver as Ripley in the best possible way, with Edgerton as her Michael Biehn. Their climactic scene together and Winstead's reaction to it are the best moments of The Thing. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is really quite something.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Terra Nova 1x4 - "What Remains"

Ah, Terra Nova. How glad am I Terra Nova exists? Not very, except for Terra Nova now replacing V as the eye roll-inducing sci-fi show I can live Tweet and goof on. And here we go:

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
This week's #TerraNova starts with a retard chasing a CGI ptero-beetle. WHY ARE THERE RETARDS IN TERRA NOVA?! Who chose him to time travel?

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
The retard chases the beetle out of #TerraNova and walks right up to a GIANT T-REX. Again: No one ever knows when dinosaurs are around!

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
The T-rex eats the retard. If a T-rex eats a human retard does it gain the retardation of a human retard? Ask a scientician. #TerraNova

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
Ah, I see. He wasn't a retard. I apologize to retards. FOUR people in #TerraNova have come down with amnesia. What? That's retarded.

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
"Unless we find out what this pathogen that causes amnesia is, we're not going home." But you'll call #TerraNova and tell them, right? No?

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
Oh shit! The youngest daughter has a cold, the cop dad has a cold, and the mother has AMNESIA! Anyone on #TerraNova have health insurance?

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
This #TerraNova plot is stolen from either @StarTrek or All My Circuits. Where's Calculon screaming NOOOO! while a pirate BBQs behind him?

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
So now dickweed teen son is plotting to get his girlfriend from the future to #TerraNova. What an excellent use of time travel resources.

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
"85 million years B.C.? You people couldn't time travel to AFTER the Ice Age?" Now even the writers are poking fun at #TerraNova's concept.

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
Time traveling to a distant past with a hostile environment? Design open air cars with no protection from the elements. #TerraNova

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
#TerraNova amnesiac Stephen Lang thinks he's in Somalia. He should be so lucky to be in that lush paradise Pierce described on #Community.

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
It would be funnier if amnesiac Stephen Lang thinks he's on Pandora. "I'm gonna kill those blue bastards and their heart tree!" #TerraNova

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
All right, I quit. I don't need to see the rest to know everyone is cured of amnesia and dinosaurs are the stealthiest beasts in #TerraNova.

BackoftheHead John Orquiola 
#TerraNova created the cure for the common cold! And the cure is amnesia! And vice versa! #Science

By the way, did they ever discover what happened to the original scientist who invented the amnesia pathogen and was eaten by the T-rex? Did they care? Does anyone care?