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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D



3D Autobots Wage Their Battle to Destroy the Evil Forces of 3D Decepticons

Transformers: Dark of the Moon opens with a joke, a rather entertaining knee-slapper the movie tells with a somber straight face: that America's space race of the 1960s which culminated with the Apollo 11 mission was a response to an Autobot ship crashing on the dark side of the moon (spare us your Pink Floyd jokes) in 1961. Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man..." was a giant leap into the mangled remains of the spacecraft ("the Ark", which was the name of the Autobot ship that brought the Transformers to Earth in the 1984 cartoon). Director Michael Bay has fun channeling Oliver Stone, matching JFK's first ten minutes nearly shot-for-shot, mixing archive footage of John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and Richard Nixon with stand-in actors, sometimes in the same frame. This revisionist history lesson turns out to be a gas, but it doesn't take long at all for Dark of the Moon to slam-bang right into its patented brand of Bayhem.

Four years have passed since the events of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. With the Decepticons dormant since the Fallen fell, the Autobots have basically become robot G-men on wheels, spearheading worldwide "secret missions" (as secret as giant robots blowing everything up can be) the government publicly denies sending them on. Though sometimes the Autobots go off reservation. As their long time liaison Josh Duhamel says, "the Autobots are like teenagers", they like to go out at night once in a while. On one of Optimus Prime's nights sneaky-sneaking around Chernobyl, he discovers something that pisses him off: a device from the Ark, long believed lost when the Ark exploded after leaving Cybertron during the war. The humans Optimus has been protecting and died once for already have been lying to him all this time. 

Soon, Optimus is moonwalking aboard the Ark and finds his predecessor as Autobot Leader, Sentinel Prime. Sentinel had left Cybertron with new technology he invented and the Decepticons wanted that would have ended the Cybertronian Wars. Optimus witnessed the Ark destroyed, but no, somehow it ended up billions of miles away, crashed on Earth's moon. Optimus revives Sentinel's spark using the fabled Autobot Matrix of Leadership (waited for "The Touch" to start playing. Didn't happen) and we discover with delight that Sentinel Prime has the familiar voice of Leonard Nimoy. (Nimoy was the voice of Galvatron in 1986's Transformers: The Movie, but Optimus and Galvatron never shared screen time so this was a nerdy treat.) Sentinel was guarding his secret new technology, a Space Bridge, which "defies [human] physics", but that's cool, since talking, transforming robots also defy physics, logic, and all kinds of other rationality.

Meanwhile, our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), college graduate and two-time savior of the world, is having troubles. Dumped in-between movies by his former girlfriend, Mikaela (Megan Fox), Sam is... doing pretty damn well. He's shacked up with Carly, another incredibly hot girl far beyond his league, played by British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Carly conveniently lives in a warehouse with ceilings high enough to accommodate Sam's other ride, Bumblebee, and she's way cool with Sam's other robot friends, though the little annoying ones are not allowed to crash indoors. But Sam can't find a job in this economy, despite being a Medal of Honor winner, with a hilarious photo taken with President Obama to prove it. What Sam really wants is to continue working with the Autobots as their, aptly described, "Decepticon bad luck magnet", but the new National Security Chief Frances McDormand has shut him out. Despite all he's done, McDormand dismisses Sam as "just a messenger". Man, did that cut Sam deep.

In a laborious series of seemingly disconnected events full to the brim with this franchise's brand of inane comedy, Sam's antics turn out to be intricately connected to what's happening with the Transformers. Sam goes to work for John Malkovich's software company while Carly finds gainful employment for a McDreamy boss, Patrick Dempsey, who mainly pays her to pour herself into the tightest dresses possible and pose for photographs with him and his prized car collection. Sam and McDreamy hate each other, and there's little doubt when it comes to McDreamy, there's more than meets the eye. One of Sam's new co-workers turns out to be Laserbeak, the coolest new Decepticon, a bird of prey who can transform into any piece of office equipment. Laserbeak is on a rampage killing humans who were keeping the Great Secret of Why NASA Shut Down The Space Program And Never Returned to the Moon (lucky for Buzz Aldrin, who cameos and meets the Autobots with wide-eyed wonder, he was spared being murdered by Laserbeak). 

What is the Great Secret? Hard to say, exactly. Dark of the Moon lost me with its confusing details. (Luckily, I never gave a shit anyway.) Mainly, McDreamy's company has been collaborating with the Decepticons for decades and they stole most (but not all - why?) of the Pillars that make the Space Bridge from the Ark. Then they were responsible for shutting down all further lunar missions. The Decepticons were doing this with the humans in a wildly forward-thinking scheme, despite their leader Megatron being frozen in stasis underneath the Hoover Dam until 2007, as we witnessed in the events of the first Transformers. And yet, Megatron, who lumbers around with obvious brain damage, which he covers up with a tattered shawl, takes full credit for this plan all along. Well, of course he would. Never mind that making sense. Soon, the Decepticons activate the Space Bridge and bring legions of ugly, interchangeable gun metal grey Decepticons to invade and hold Earth hostage. The Decepticons demand the humans renounce and banish the Autobots. Someone even says "the Autobots don't have a ship" when we just saw Optimus Prime use a ship to go to the moon like an hour before

The Decepticons also engineered events so that Optimus would find and revive Sentinel Prime. Why do they want this? Because Sentinel Prime was also a Decepticon collaborator all along! Sentinel and Megatron struck a deal before he left Cybertron. But then why did the Deceptions attack the Ark and cause it to crash land on our moon? Sentinel's heel turn was actually foreshadowed early in the movie via Wheelie and his ugly little sidekick watching an episode of Star Trek on TV, "the one where Spock went nuts". Sentinel even utters Spock's most famous words, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", but Sentinel perverted Spock's credo into a dreadful metaphor for human slavery. (Sentinel also got it backwards: there are many more humans than there are Transformers.) After reviving Sentinel, Optimus bends the knee and offers Sentinel the Matrix of Leadership, but Sentinel refused it. Why? Is Sentinel evil, misguided, or just a crazy old robot coot? Probably all of the above.

While all that's going on, McDreamy reveals his McSteamy evilness and takes Carly hostage. They hole up in that bastion of evil, Trump Tower in Chicago (excellent product placement), and watch helplessly as the Deceptions tear Chi-town a new one. (With all of those gigantic robot ships blowing up Gotham City, Batman wisely decided to stay out of it. But the League of Shadows must have been high-fiving and going apeshit.) Sentinel activates the Space Bridge to fulfill the master plan, to bring the planet Cybertron into Earth's atmosphere (defies the laws of physics, indeed)! When the titanic planet Cybertron materializes beside our tiny blue orb, in a visual startlingly similar to the series finale of Smallville, what Earth needed most wasn't Optimus Prime but Tom Welling's Superman to fly up there and push Cybertron away.

Sam leads a rescue mission into Chicago, with his old robot-killing buddies Duhamel, Tyrese (it takes almost 2 hours for him to show but man, was I glad to see Tyrese!), a slew of soldiers, and the Autobots, in tow. "I'll kill you," Sam promises McDreamy when he absconds with Carly. "We'll kill them all!" Optimus Prime declares before rolling into Chicago. And they make good on those gruesome threats. Boy, do they. Dark of the Moon's third act of all-out destruction in Chicago is the most viscerally satisfying sustained action Michael Bay has delivered in his Transformers trilogy. Bay goes for broke: Decepticons kill Autobots, Autobots kill Decepticons, Decepticons kill humans, humans kill Decepticons, humans kill humans. It's a blood and energon bath. 

The score card tallies impressively for the good guys: Sam and Duhumel personally kill Starscream, though they really should have died in the process instead of emerging unscathed. Humans and Autobots tag team the destruction of Shockwave, the Decepticon cyclops who controls the robot version of the worms from Dune. Optimus Prime is busiest of all; despite Sentinel cutting off his arm Darth Vader-style, Optimus finally unleashes his inner Clint Eastwood. Optimus executes Megatron and pops a cap in Sentinel Prime - like a boss! One shall stand, two shall fall. As for Sam, he finally experiences the joy of murder when he does what all men have wanted to do for years and crushes McDreamy with his bare hands. When Sam and the Autobots are finally done killy-kill killing, the movie just stops, with Optimus Prime's voice over putting all that carnage into perspective, or something. 

Though Dark of the Moon's visual effects are the best of the franchise, with the Transformers themselves looking the sharpest they've ever looked and fighting each other more coherently than ever, the coolest action didn't necessarily involve CGI robots colliding. The sequence where Duhamel leads his strike team to fly across Chicago wearing "wing suits", as they thrillingly soar past and between skyscrapers and evade Deception missiles and lasers, is a jaw dropper. Also amazing was the building-falling-over sequence, as our human heroes scramble not to plummet to their deaths, sliding down the sides of buildings and evading Decepticon interlopers. 

In Real D 3D, Dark of the Moon's action was astounding. People raved about Avatar (not me) and its 3D, but Dark of the Moon was the best live-action 3D movie spectacle I've ever seen. The colors were bright throughout the movie. The picture clarity was ideal. The movie looked beautiful. And the action was unreal to behold. Bay embraced 3D with stunning (and sexy) results, delivering eye-popping moments like Sam launched out of Bumblebee in mid-transformation, hanging in mid-air, and then landing back inside Bumblebee. For once, 3D really delivered above and beyond (proven low) expectations.

When it comes to physical comedy, Shia LaBeouf is the new, but much angrier and unhinged, John Ritter. In what he promised is his final outing as the star of Transformers, LaBeouf delivered a tour de force performance. He's like the Tasmanian Devil; a whirlwind of laughter, fury, fists-flying, and even gob-spitting. One can joke how Optimus Prime is irreplaceable, but it'll be an enormous challenge for whomever inherits Transformers from Michael Bay to find someone who can anchor these overblown spectacles the way LaBeouf has with his manic, what is he doing?, style of acting.

Megan Fox's departure left a Megan Fox hole in Transformers that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and her curves were game to fill. Bless her. Huntington-Whiteley easily slides into the sexy girlfriend role and acquits herself with winsome warmth and vulnerability. Most importantly, fuckability, the main virtue Michael Bay cast her for. Huntington-Whiteley seemed not to mind Bay's camera sliding on the floor behind her, aimed straight up at her sumptuous posterior, as Fox reportedly did.  In referencing her absence, Fox got off surprisingly easy; Wheelie just said "she was mean", compared to how he humped her leg and called her a "crazy bitch" in Revenge of the Fallen. Sam's mother still remembers Fox fondly as a "world-class hottie".

Still, I missed Megan Fox. The big difference between Fox and Huntington-Whiteley, besides their hair color, accents, and the length of their surnames, is that Fox's character Mikaela was never a damsel in distress. She never needed rescuing or to be dragged by the arm across an exploding battlefield. When the Decepticons were about to execute Bumblebee, Carly urged Sam to stay safe and not save him. This is in stark contrast to how in the first Transformers, Mikaela strapped a damaged Bumblebee to a tow trick and they zipped around blasting Decepticons. In Rosie's defense, she does get a piece of business where she cons Megatron into thinking his new buddy Sentinel Prime will betray him, which leads to Megatron's doom. So that's something. But in the final analysis, Rosie, you're lovely, but sorry, Megan Fox rules.

Nearly everyone else from the prior Transformers returned for Dark of the Moon, including Julie White and Kevin Dunn as Sam's goofball parents, Glenn Morshower as "General Morshower", and still the reigning world champion of Transformers scenery chewing, John Turturro as Agent Seymour Simmons. Challenging Turturro's status are newbies Malkovich, McDormand, Alan Tudyk as Turturro's bizarrely violent gay assistant, and Ken Jeong, boldly carrying any charges the movie may spark of racism and homophobia onto his shoulders as the crazy Asian guy whom Malkovich catches seemingly having gay sex with LaBeouf in a men's room stall. By the third act, Turturro and McDormand, whose characters are ex-lovers, seemingly just go into business for themselves and compete in trying to crack the other up.

Now that Michael Bay has delivered arguably his best Transformers film (for sure, it isn't his worst) and he and Shia LaBeouf are expected to walk away from the franchise, where does Transformers go from here? Can the franchise get even bigger, louder, more spectacle-laden? Should it? Perhaps the logical next step is to scale down. The Autobot and Decepticon characters have played second fiddle to the human characters for three straight films. Maybe Transformers 4 could simply be an intimate character study - Optimus Prime and Megatron sitting at a diner, talking, trading wits. Hey, is Woody Allen interested in directing Transformers? Woody, have your people call Optimus Prime's people.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Eagle



In The Eagle, Channing Tatum delivers a fantastic performance in his starring role as Sam The Eagle. Wait, what? The Eagle isn't about the Muppets? It's about Ancient Britain under control by Romans and a Roman commander who goes past Hadrian's Wall to find the missing standard lost by his father in 120 A.D.? All right. If you say so.

In The Eagle, Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a rising star of the Roman legions who chose Britain as his outpost. Tatum is indeed in merry olde Britain to find the gold standard, the eagle, lost when his father lead his legion past Hadrian's Wall into "the end of the world", populated by the dangerous blue-painted natives, the Picts. The Picts, ancestors of William Wallace, are like the N'avi of Ancient Britain. Before Tatum can do what he really wants to do, he first whips his legion into shape, and just in time as a savage attack by the Picts leaves him injured. His heroism gets him an honorable discharge and a lot of time to mope around at the villa of his uncle Donald Sutherland.

When Tatum spares the life of a native, Jamie Bell, in a gladiator pit, Bell becomes his slave and agrees to lead him past Hadrian's Wall to find the eagle and what became of his father's men. Tatum and Bell don't start off with a Roman bromance; as soon as the're through the Wall, Bell, who makes it clear via his hard stares and tight-lipped sneers he hates Tatum and all Romans, turns the tables on Tatum and has him chained up as a slave by the Picts. Beyond Hadrian's Wall, turnabout is fair play. They encounter a survivor of the original expedition, Mark Strong, who has forsaken his Roman name and lives among the natives. But mainly, Bell stands by and shrugs while Tatum gets dragged around by a horse and kicked around by the Picts.

However, it was all a ruse by Bell to keep Tatum alive while they find the eagle, which they do, followed by a final showdown with the Picts where they fight side by side with Strong and the survivors from Tatum's father's legion. In gratitude, Tatum frees Bell from indentured servitude and the movie curiously leaves the door open for further adventures between the two.

Tatum has made a career out of playing heroic square-jawed jarheads, including Duke in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and he cuts a dashing figure as a Roman commander. Bell plays an angry young slave with conviction and gritted teeth. The Eagle strives for time period authenticity and succeeds in depicting the grime and hostility of life in 2nd century, Roman-occupied Britain, but then dialogue like "I should have been consulted!" "Well... you weren't." sabotages the verisimilitude.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's Kelly Kelly's Year

On Monday night, June 20, 2011, after five years in WWE, Kelly Kelly finally became WWE Divas Champion!

All Monday afternoon, building up to the "Power to the People" fans' choice episode of WWE Monday Night RAW, my timeline was bombarded with retweets from Kelly Kelly's Twitter (@RealKellyKelly) about voting for her. K2 was the only potential contender WWE Divas Champion Brie Bella and her twin sister Nikki Bella addressed (and dismissed) on their Twitter (@thebellatwins). A quick scan of their Facebook pages shows a lot of hype to vote for Kelly during RAW; no such hype for Eve or Beth Phoenix on their pages. This was the equivalent of a very well orchestrated high school voting campaign. And it worked!

I was not ready for the Reign of Bellas to end so soon, but if anyone deserved that pink butterfly, it's Kelly Kelly. Wrestling is, among many things, a popularity contest and Kelly Kelly is the most popular WWE Diva. She's been around five years, had major angles start and then get dropped (a couple of huge ones this year alone, specifically Kharma). She's been a reliable trooper, never had a scandal, never embarrassed the company, has been a loyal company-made star from day one. And the people love her. Hell, I love her.

Kelly Kelly is the Divas' version of Ricky Steamboat (not quite equal to The Dragon in technical skill). Since day one, K2 has been the epitome of a babyface. Kelly Kelly deserved the attagirl.

Kelly Kelly is also the first Diva to successfully defend the World Heavyweight Championship and then become Divas Champion.

No doubt about it. It's K2's year.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Game of Thrones 1x10 - "Fire and Blood"

The strange wave of denial from some circles of the Game of Thrones viewership got a definitive wake up call: Ned is dead. Head on a spike dead.

I would have jumped up out of my chair and freaked the fuck out in delirious joy if Sansa had shoved Joffrey off that bridge. For that split second, I thought she was going to. Even though I knew she wouldn't, I thought she was going to. But good for Sansa that she was defiant, even if she got the shit slapped out of her for it. Sansa is a Stark, after all.

I was surprised by two things: The show took it much easier on Sansa than George R.R. Martin ever does in the book. A couple of hard slaps, enough to draw blood, but TV Sansa got off easy compared to book Sansa. Book Sansa got punched in the gut and pummeled by Joffrey's goons. The other thing that surprised me is the Hound's courtesy; TV Hound (Sandor Clegane) is much more gentle than book Hound.

Arya's not the type to care about such things, in light of the horrible tragedy she and her family suffered, but that haircut Yoren gave her is also a hideous tragedy. It's supposed to be, of course, to help disguise her as a boy, but still. Tragedy on top of tragedy.

The naked guy with Cercei was Lancel Lannister, who was Robert's squire and the one who gave Robert all that wine that got him gored by the boar. Lancel is Cercei's cousin, but Cercei bangs him on the side in the absence of her twin brother since he sort of resembles Jaime.

The scene with Grand Maester Pycelle was weird; apparently it was crucial to make time in the final episode of the season to establish that the old man isn't as feeble and Grampa Simpsony with his droning stories than he makes himself out to be. And that he bangs Ros. Very important we see Ros naked again too before the season is wrapped, I suppose.

The Cercei/Lancel and the Pycelle/Ros scenes were added scenes not in the book.

More importantly, the scene with Catelyn and Jaime where Catelyn learns it was Jaime who pushed Bran out of the tower (but not why) was ported in from season two. And it's only half the scene. The full scene happens towards the end of "A Clash of Kings", where a lot of exposition and some surprising turns go down between Catelyn and Jaime. George R.R. Martin really held onto the "mystery" of Bran's fall all that time before Jaime confessed why he did it (all of the reasons why). In my opinion, the Jaime/Catelyn confrontation was the single best chapter in "A Clash of Kings".

As I said last week, the primary duty of the men of the Night's Watch was indeed to stop Jon Snow from doing something stupid. Oathbreaking is the worst thing you can do in Westeros. I loved the Old Bear Mormont calling Snow out on his "midnight ride". "Honor made you run, honor brought you back." "My friends brought me back." "I didn't say it was your honor." Jon Snow screws up a lot, but he learns. Great set up for major Beyond the Wall Action in season two, with the Night's Watch riding out in force to find out what the Wildlings are up to.

I loved the "mutual respect" scene between Varys and Littlefinger. Two unlikely men to rise to important roles to play in the game of thrones.

Tyrion got the greatest attaboy of his life from his father, even if Tywin "has always been a cunt". Tyrion is Acting Hand of the King in season 2. Big promotion for the biggest little man in Westeros. And Shae's coming with him. Oh man, so much good stuff will happen in season 2...

Robb: "I'll kill them all!" 

Will you, Robb? I wish. If only Game of Thrones were a different type of story, the kind we sometimes wish it were where good does win and evil is punished cleanly and definitively.

Sadly, this is the bitter end of Khal Drogo, whose tenuous claim to life made by death and blood magic by a bitter old crone was ended by his Khaleesi and her pillow. Daenerys' journey has been the greatest of any individual character, when you consider who and what she was when she was sold to Khal Drogo by her brother. And I wasn't sure if they'd go all the way with the crazy ass ending of the book for the show, but they sure did: Daenerys' stepping into that fire and not only emerging Unburnt, not only bare ass nekkid, but with three live dragons, one even suckling her teat.

There be dragons in Westeros!

This was a phenomenal season of television. I've grown to love and become more than mildly obsessed by "A Song of Ice and Fire", but the Game of Thrones television show has lived up to all of its potential, and even exceeded it. The show is true to the books, made alterations and additions that only enhanced the story, adding new insights and perspectives on many of the characters, and it was all just excellent, well-acted, beautifully written, and fun.

I can't wait for spring 2012 to have this story continue! Joffrey Baratheon. Stannis Baratheon. Renly Baratheon. Robb Stark. It's A Clash of Kings next year! Who do you like? Who sits the Iron Throne a year from now? Place your bets.

And remember: Winter is Coming.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Green Lantern



How Hal Jordan Learned to Stop Worrying and Love His Power Ring

Green Lantern is the story of how the first human member of the Green Lantern Corps, Hal Jordan, finally grows a set. It introduces a cosmic scope to comic book superhero movies, proudly thumping a wild concept where 3,600 super powered space aliens sporting identical jewelry defend the universe against "evil" and mete out "justice" at the behest of blue skinned, white haired dwarves styling themselves as The Guardians of the Universe. Yet instead of non-stop high-flying space adventure, the entire movie gets grounded by the craven emotional issues of handsome Ryan Reynolds. Perhaps the wise words of Stone Cold Steve Austin would have helped Hal Jordan: "Fuck Fear, Drink Beer."

The Hal Jordan I recall from my days of reading DC Comics was a macho, swaggering, fearless, alpha male. That Hal Jordan was a superheroic version of Chuck Yaeger who wore his fighter jet around his finger. In Green Lantern, Ryan Reynolds' Hal Jordan is a talented screw up of a hotshot test pilot who watched his daddy die when his fighter jet blew up in a fireball. (The villain Hector Hammond's father Tim Robbins later dies in a fireball explosion. If you're a dad in a Green Lantern movie, avoid exploding fireballs.) Watching his father's grisly death as a boy still made him want to be a test pilot like his old man, but flashbacks haunt him while he's in the air, and his derring-do fighter jet heroics forced him to crash his expensive jet plane.  

Hal Jordan is a disappointment to nearly everyone. His glamorous girlfriend/boss/fellow fighter jet pilot Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) is disappointed in him. His brothers are disappointed in him. When the craziest thing ever happens and "a dying purple alien" named Abin Sur (Temura Morrison) gives Jordan a Power Ring fueled by willpower (will color code: green) that turns him into Green Lantern and rockets him to the planet OA, his fellow Green Lanterns are also disappointed in him. Hal Jordan's also a disappointment to himself, moping around his apartment whenever he finds a spare moment. There's no reason to go against the overwhelming attitude the movie has towards Hal Jordan, so count the audience in as being disappointed in him as well.

On OA, Hal Jordan is introduced to his fellow Green Lanterns. These include comic book fanboy favorites like the fish man Tomar-Re (voice of Geoffrey Rush), the Green Lantern of Exposition, and a massive warthog man named Kilowog (voice of Michael Clarke Duncan), the drill sergeant of the Green Lantern Corps who says the word "poozer" a lot. Foremost among Green Lanterns is Sinestro (Mark Strong, letting the pink make up, Spock ears and contact lenses color his foul mood), hailed as "The Greatest of the Green Lanterns". Sinestro is the de facto leader of the Corps by virtue of his having a British accent, the most intimidating stare, and for giving the most speeches to the assembled masses of motley aliens in green. 

Kilowog and Sinestro take ample liberties to beat up on their newest recruit. Kilowog calls this "training". Jordan is so disheartened by his first visit to OA and every Green Lantern telling him he sucks that he "quits" the Corps. What does quitting the Green Lantern Corps mean? Absolutely nothing, because Hal Jordan still kept the ring, Power Battery, and the skintight uniform pulsing with tendrils of emerald energy. What did we learn on OA? That Hal Jordan can't take a little hazing.

So none of the Green Lanterns are impressed with Hal Jordan, despite seeing him naked (the dude's eight pack has an eight pack). Speaking of naked Green Lanterns, Sinestro mourns Jordan's predecessor Abin Sur, who was his mentor and friend. (Heartwarming solidarity between pink and purple Green Lanterns.) Abin Sur's body was captured by the US Government and held in a private lab. Why the Government chose to build a lab right in front of the Stargate is beyond explanation. Sleaze ball scientist Hector Hammond (a well-cast Peter Saarsgard) is recruited by G-Men to examine Abin Sur's naked Green Lantern corpse and provide an autopsy.

Hammond's first discovery of note: Abin Sur apparently has no genitals. Second discovery of note: a second alien entity, a piece of Parallax, was inside this alien eunuch and soon Hector Hammond is possessed, granted psionic powers, and is mutated into a deformed, yellow-eyed freak by Parallax. Check out the big brain on Hector! (We never find out what happens to Abin Sur's corpse. It just disappears from the movie, like JFK's brain. You'd think the Green Lantern Corps would want to honor Abin Sur by burial in the graveyard of Green Lanterns Hal Jordan flies past on OA, but apparently not.)

What is Parallax? Green Lantern's space mythology posits that it's an alien smoke and ash cloud which preys on the fear of living beings (fear color code: yellow). Parallax has been loosed from its space imprisonment and is coming to destroy OA. I'm not clear on space geography but apparently the planet Earth is in the way of Parallax's trajectory to OA, so it'll destroy Earth first. Parallax eats your fear and kills you, whether you're a Green Lantern or not. Sinestro tries to rally the Guardians to stop Parallax, but the Guardians refuse to even admit they are too scared shitless to do anything. Later, when Sinestro leads an assault on Parallax and watches it suck his best and brightest green buddies to yellow pieces, Sinestro figuratively craps his green pants. No one was more frightened at that moment than Sinestro - why didn't Parallax attack him then? Instead, Sinestro loses all faith in the Green Lantern Corps and pleads with the Guardians to create a yellow Power Ring to "fight fear with fear." The Guardians, billions of years immortal which equals billions of years of being idiots, acquiesce. 

In a way, Green Lantern is a movie about horrible bosses who don't tell their employees how to do their jobs. The Guardians absolutely suck. They're worse than the Jedi Council, who had no idea for ten years that the Emperor of the Sith was living in the building across the street from their Jedi Temple. Sinestro has a couple of private meetings with the Guardians urging them to take action - any action - against Parallax. It turns out Parallax is - surprise! - a former Guardian who got seduced by the yellow light of fear. (What a shock considering how often we were shown the missing pillar in the Guardians' circle of very tall pillars.)

Of course, the stupid Guardians make completely the wrong call: despite knowing what can happen if subjected to the yellow light of fear, the Guardians make a yellow Power Ring anyway. What could possibly go wrong?* Late in the movie, Hal Jordan pleads with the Guardians for help to save Earth from Parallax. They flat out tell him no, but Jordan still asks for permission to let him save Earth alone. Wait, didn't he quit? Apparently, no one took his "quitting" seriously. But why does Jordan need the Guardians' permission to do his job as a Green Lantern?

Parallax is no better a boss than the Guardians. Why would it be? It used to be one of them. When Parallax  gets to Earth, it attacks its flunky Hector Hammond, screaming, "You've failed me!" How? Parallax never even told Hammond what its plan was! How did Hammond fail Parallax? Hammond didn't even have time to ask before Parallax sucked him yellow and dry. Billions of years immortal, Parallax is also billions of years stupid like its former blue buddies. When Hal Jordan finally mans up, overcomes his fears, and takes on Parallax in the too-brief third act showdown, the swirling cloud of black ash dreadlocks follows Jordan into space and falls for the oldest space trick in the book: the ol' getting sucked into the sun's gravitational pull gambit. Parallax: What a dummy. (By the way, Hal Jordan is also a dick for destroying a satellite as it lured Parallax into space. Now millions of people won't be able to use their cell phones or watch TV!)

The good news of Green Lantern is that the abilities of the Power Rings are fully explored. The rings are powered by the wearer's will but are dependent on his imagination to make constructs. Jordan's first construct (and last, the neat-o KO punch to Parallax) is his ever-popular trademark giant green boxing glove. Jordan evolves from basic creations like brick walls and swords (Sinestro chastises him for his lack of creativity) to bad ass weapons like gatling guns and... even bigger gatling guns. Sinestro conjured up a ringed shield that looked suspiciously like the one hefted by a certain star-spangled Avenger who also has a movie due out later this summer. That slick ladies' man Jordan even manifested an emerald necklace for Carol Ferris. She was probably less impressed when it inevitably de-materialized.

And yet, there isn't enough ring-slinging, cosmic derring-do in Green Lantern. Two thirds of the movie is spent on Earth treading water as Hal Jordan mopes around and sorts out his new dual identity as a superhero. Green Lantern makes his first public appearance saving the employees of Ferris Aircraft from a helicopter disaster, sort of like Superman did in Superman: The Movie. And like Superman, Green Lantern takes his best girl out at night and explains his powers and his green-itude to her, only Carol leaves disappointed by his admission as a craven quitter. Credit Carol Ferris for having the common sense to immediately realize Hal Jordan is the Green Lantern; she knows that face and his rippled physique well enough so that no painted-on domino mask or coalescing green energy can fool her. 

Jordan also has time to bond with his sidekick Tom "Pieface" Kalmaku (Taika Waititi). In - how does one put this? - the least heterosexual movie scene between two dudes since Paul Walker and Vin Diesel ate peel and eat shrimp together in The Fast and the Furious, Tom shows up at Jordan's apartment and begs Jordan, fresh out of bed wearing PJ pants and a wifebeater, to "Show it to me!" "Show it to me! Show it to me, Hal! Whoa! Green!" Yes yes, Tom meant he wanted to see the ring and the Green Lantern costume, but any Power Ring could suss out the subtext. Ring-a-ding-ding!

It's no mystery as to why Ryan Reynolds was cast as Hal Jordan. He's a good looking guy, the chicks dig him, the guy's a stud! Reynolds is actually ideal for this uncertain, frightened letdown of a Hal Jordan. Hal could be great but he constantly needs motivational talks or an asskicking to get him to do anything worthwhile. As a hotshot fighter pilot-slash-high-powered corporate executive, Blake Lively sure is pretty. She's so pretty, isn't she? So pretty. Even when Lively's not on screen, the movie makes sure to regularly remind us how pretty she is by showing us newspaper clippings with pictures of her looking so pretty.

Green Lantern's underwritten characters slog through the movie playing through their rote one-dimensional relationships. Lively has nothing to do except scold Hal Jordan and then support him with "you can do it, you can overcome all your fears" cheerleading while crying over what a loser he is when he flies off in a wisp of green. (She does, however, come up with the novel idea of launching missiles at Parallax, the swirling black cloud of fear. And the missiles worked!) Saarsgard preens and mugs as Hammond, but even with his big head, Hammond is no brainiac in the villainy department. Hammond just wants to do Carol Ferris and is jealous of Hal Jordan for looking like Ryan Reynolds. Tim Robbins and Angela Bassett play their generic Senator and Government Agent roles forgettably. The dialogue is trite. No one says anything interesting. Every character is locked in rigidly to the movie's generic, color-by-numbers origin plotline. 

The fun of Green Lantern was somehow lost in that wormhole between Earth and OA. Despite the finest in computer generated wizardry at their disposal to bring the aliens and dazzling powers and emerald constructs of Green Lantern to cinematic life, four credited screenwriters and director Martin Campbell manage what the most evil cosmic forces in DC Comics couldn't: snuff the gee-whiz enjoyment out of Green Lantern's light. Like Parallax does with yellow fear, Green Lantern sucked the joy out of being green.

* The epilogue: During the closing credits, we see Sinestro place the yellow Power Ring on his finger and become... well, Sinestro, but wearing the yellow uniform of the yet-unnamed Sinestro Corps. While obviously setting up the hoped-for sequel, it makes no sense why Sinestro would wear the yellow ring at this point. When Hal Jordan destroyed Parallax all by himself, Sinestro (who showed up at the end of the fight with Tomar-Re and Kilowog to save Jordan's life but too late to actually help Jordan fight Parallax) was so impressed and gung ho with Jordan, he lead the pro-Green Lantern Corps rally on OA. Jordan, the greenest (ahem) recruit, killing the Greatest Threat OA Ever Faced, just validated the awesomeness of willpower and the bad assery of the Green Lanterns! Why would Sinestro suddenly get curious yellow? Doesn't make sense.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Art of Getting By



The Art of Getting By stars Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Emma Roberts (Nancy Drew), and Michael Anagrano (Sky High). There is the palpable sense of young actors grasping for (slightly) "edgier, indy" material to break from their prior high-profile Hollywood roles. The appeal of shooting The Art of Getting By almost-verite style in New York City must have been appealing. Taller and older than he was when he and Willy Wonka were candy-coated buds, Highmore plays a bright but fatalistic slacker enrolled in an Upper West Side charter school. A "sensitive artiste", one of his classmates calls him. His dilemma is that he's lazy; in all things, from his schoolwork to following through on his growing infatuation with the prettiest girl in school, Emma Roberts (who was also the prettiest girl in the mental ward in It's Kind of a Funny Story). "I'm allergic to my hormones," Highmore tells Roberts. Uh huh. Half the cast practically nudges Highmore with their elbows towards Roberts. In one of the film's multitude of uncertain, lurching moments, when Roberts asks Highmore to have sex, his response is no response, and hers in kind is flippant cruelty. This is followed by Roberts, out of her depth but trying so hard to play complicated and conflicted, "seducing" Anagrano for a pairing that has even less heat than Roberts has with Highmore. Adult actors like Blair Underwood as his principal and Alicia Silverstone as his English teacher try to inject some life and motivation into Highmore, to no avail until the final moments, when Highmore's entire high school career is in jeopardy. Highmore being a slacker is the point of the story, yet Highmore and The Art of Getting By only draw enervation from each other.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011




In Mike Mills' Beginners, Ewan McGregor learns two things from his elderly father Christopher Plummer that no man wants to hear: that he's dying of terminal cancer and that he's gay, and has always been gay, even when married to his mother. McGregor tells the story in flashback of really meeting his father's true self for the first time during Plummer's dying days, trying to be his primary caregiver as Plummer hides his illness from his new boyfriend Goran Visnjic. In the "present day" (Beginners is set in 2003), McGregor struggles to make sense of his lonely life as a commercial graphic designer. It's McGregor's good fortune he meets radiant Melanie Laurent at a party. Laurent is an actress with her own daddy issues. They are both lonely, damaged souls, both reaching for the ineffable, and together they are charming. Beginners alternates between melancholy and gallows humor, with some sweetness mixed in for good measure. Beginners is also surprisingly instructive about exactly what one does, which papers to file, how much obituaries cost, etc. if your parent dies. But Plummer did leave McGregor his beloved Jack Russell terrier Arthur for company; their "conversations", with Arthur's thoughts subtitled for the audience to read ("Though I can understand 150 words, I can't talk."), provide much-appreciated doses of whimsy.

Midnight in Paris



A dollop of froth from Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is a love letter not just to the City of Lights, but to the idea of Paris, of whatever era or time Paris best epitomizes for you. For successful hack screenwriter-turned-struggling novelist Owen Wilson, his perfect vision of Paris ("in the rain", of course) is during the 1920s, when literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald made Paris their home. Wilson, basically playing a wide-eyed, okeydoke spin on Woody Allen himself, is engaged to pampered, dismissive heiress Rachel McAdams. (McAdams is rather voluptuous, as if Allen somehow got her to switch bodies with his absent muse Scarlett Johansson.) Rather than endure dinners with her wealthy, right-wing parents or listen to McAdam's "just a friend" Michael Sheen blather on pretentiously while sightseeing, Wilson drunkenly walks the streets of Paris at night and encounters a magical car, like a Parisian version of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, that transports him to the 1920s Paris of his dreams. Wilson is agog to be able to hang out with his idols Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gloria Steinhem, and Salvadore Dali. Dali is played by Adrien Brody and his scenes with Wilson are an amusing nose-off between the two. Wilson also meets his dream woman Marion Cotillard, who has her own ideal vision of Paris, La Belle Epoche, which they visit together. The temptation to stay in your "perfect era "of Paris, and whether nostalgia is just the inability to cope with the messiness of real life, is the bluntly stated theme of Midnight in Paris. What happens if you stay in your dream era and that becomes your reality? Won't you then need a new ideal? The presence of First Lady of France Carla Bruni and Lea Seydoux as a comely street vendor help Wilson see that present-day Paris in the rain is as magical as it would be in any era.

The Tree of Life



Watching The Tree of Life was the equivalent of being pinned under the trunk of a tree, unable to move. Thus you are forced to stare at the stars and the sky and ponder the wonder, majesty, and unfairness of Creation, all the while wishing you could break free to resume your normal, happy day. Or you just think, Dear God, please just let it all end! In The Tree of Life, writer-director Terrence Malick tells the story of a young boy torn between the themes of "nature", his well-meaning but overbearing father Brad Pitt, and "grace", his saintly, effervescent mother Jessica Chastain. Malick eventually accesses the human story after juxtaposing their lives against the Creation of the Universe, the Earth, and all life, utilizing breathtakingly beautiful photography, editing, and his trademark  ponderous voice overs. After a while, staring at asteroids, the stars, and galaxies, one is reminded of Bart Simpson looking through his telescope in "Bart's Comet": "Wow. The universe is so boring!" When The Tree of Life becomes Earthbound, we spend the remainder of the film with Brad Pitt's family in 1950s Waco, Texas. Pitt was an aspiring musician who regrets abandoning his dreams to become a struggling businessman. His sons chafe under his stern, sometimes abusive parenting. His eldest son, played as a boy by Hunter McCracken and by Sean Penn as an adult, both hates and loves his father, as he starts turning into a little sociopath. The boys' idyllic lives of carefree play is routinely interrupted by violence at the dinner table, spousal abuse seen through the windows of neighbors, and the cruelty adults are capable of passed down via learned behavior to their children. Then it's back to outer space, the stars, the galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and Malick's vision of the Afterlife, which is a deserted beach where everyone you ever knew wanders about the surf in a state of confusion. This is how the audience feels when ambling out of the theatre after seeing The Tree of Life.

Roger Ebert had the exact opposite reaction.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Game of Thrones 1x9 - "Baelor"

Wherein Lord Eddard Stark met the pointy end.

It's been a couple of months since I read Ned's execution in the book and I was plenty shocked then. Ned Stark is the Hero of this story and has been since the beginning. With exceptions like Braveheart and Gladiator, movies and TV conditions one to expect a last second rescue or something to happen that would have saved Ned's life so he could then somehow turn the tables on the Lannisters, but that's not the kind of story Game of Thrones is.

I thought the show at least made a couple of key dramatic concessions that gave some small amount of solace and satisfaction compared to how George R.R. Martin wrote Ned's demise in the book, from what I recall:

I liked that Arya and Ned saw each other as she was sitting at the foot of the statue of Baelor, and that Ned passed Yorin from the Night's Watch and pointed him towards Arya. "Baelor." One word was all that was needed. Good TV/cinema writing. In the book, Yorin came out of nowhere and recognized Arya and took her away, all the while calling her "boy". Also, in the book, Varys and the rest of the Small Council looked on more passively when Joffrey swerved everyone. I liked how Cercei was shocked, tried to argue with her son, and Varys made a move to do... something... even though there was no stopping the beheading. It was all dramatized very, very well.

Joffrey is a scumbag. He was already a heel, but can a heel pull off an even bigger heel turn? Yes. Because that's exactly what Joffrey did. And he gets even worse.

Incidentally, the actor who plays Joffrey, Jack Gleeson, is the little blond boy Batman meets in the Narrows in Batman Begins. And I kept seeing the name Julian Glover in the credits: Grandmaester Pycelle, the old man in Joffrey's court, is the villain in Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, the one the Grail Knight tricked. "He chose poorly."

Another example of George RR Martin zigging when you expect him to zag is the fate of Khal Drogo. It was only a couple of episodes ago when Drogo made his declaration that he'd invade and conquer Westeros to win the Iron Throne for his Khaleesi and their unborn son Rhaego, and now via a cut on his chest, he's all but a dead man. Will the Dothraki ever cross the Narrow Sea and kill the usurpers to the Iron Throne? Things aren't looking too good for that. The decisions Daenerys made to have the witch save Drogo's life also introduces forbidden black magic into the story, which has been relatively straightforward and "realistic" prior to now.

I think Game of Thrones is now the unchallenged record holder in depicting horses beheaded or throats slit on television.

Wonderful scene with Tyrion, Bron and Shae(!) playing the drinking game, with the reveal of Tyrion's previous marriage to a whore and how Jaime set up the entire thing. And how about Tyrion's first time "leading" his wildling friends into battle? Bron: "You're a shit warrior." HALFMAN! HALFMAN!

The drinking game was an added scene. Shae becomes very important to Tyrion, who falls in love with her. Also different was that in the book, Tyrion isn't comically knocked out by one of his own wildling's hammers conking him in the head. In the book, Tyrion leads the assault, gets pinned by his horse, and fights and kills, though a lot of luck plays into the success of the battle.

I liked the scene in The Twins where Catelyn met with Lord Frey, that creepy old dirtbag. First, Lysa in the Eyrie and now Lord Frey... it seems like the vast lands in between Winterfell in the North and King's Landing in the South is filled with some real ghastly weirdos.

On one hand, Robb Stark defeated and captured Jaime Lannister in battle. That's pretty impressive for a teenager. On the other, boy, does Robb give a downer of victory speech. Way to bolster morale there, Robb. Plus where is Robb's direwolf Grey Wind? Grey Wind should be running beside Robb in battle all the time.

Jon Snow receives Longclaw for his efforts in saving Mormont from the Other last week, then gets a good talking to from the blind old man, who it turns out is Daenerys' uncle and a Targaryen, but with no claim to the throne since he took the black and joined the Night's Watch. I feel like the primary duty of a man of the Night's Watch seems to be Talking Jon Snow Out of Doing Something Stupid.

There was a lot of debate in "Baelor" about how far one would place duty vs. the well being of someone you love.

Which brings us right back to Ned. He foreswore his honor and called himself a traitor, all to save his daughters' lives, and he got royally screwed. Boy, was Ned's face red. From his own blood. When his head hit the floor*. Sigh.

This gem from Damon Lindelof had to be shared:

No matter how bad LeBron feels tonight, Sansa feels worse.

*Oh, I neglected to mention that it's Ned's own greatsword Ice that was used to lop off his head. Fitting.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Super 8




What fun it is to make a movie! The most exhilirating moments of JJ Abrams' Super 8 involve the film's main characters, a group of middle school-age friends, banding together in the summer of 1979 to shoot a zombie movie in their Ohio small town. Invoking what must be vivid memories from his own youth, Super 8 projects a childhood filled with wonder, tragedy, adventure, young love, and discovery most of us didn't have but those of us who were weened on Steven Spielberg films feel like we had in our collective imaginations.

I love Steven Spielberg's movies more than the next guy, unless that next guy is JJ Abrams. Super 8 is a loving homage to all things classic-Spielbergian. Familiar elements and even whole action sequences from Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and The Goonies are cheerfully and meticulously woven by Abrams into his film. The trouble with Super 8 comes when its confident, nostalgic Steven Spielberg-ness yields to disruptive, uncertain JJ Abrams-ness

When the young filmmakers, including The Girl They Like, shoot late at night in a train depot outside of their town, their worlds are suddenly upended by a violent train explosion that releases... something... into their midst. The train disaster is Explosion Porn. It might well be the most horrific, graphic, action sequence in a movie this year. The sequence is relentless, goes on for what feels like forever, and Abrams presents the fiery devastation with almost maniacal intensity. (That the five children survive such a catatastrophe completely unharmed is the first of many conceits we are asked to accept.)

Soon, strange happenings pile up in their little corner of (white) Americana. (There is one black person in the whole movie. He is a scientist but guess what? He dies - but not before he pulls a gun on a bunch of white kids.) Townspeople go missing, dogs scatter out of town in all directions, power outages become increasingly commonplace, and electronic devices mysteriously vanish. The investigation by the local deputy, Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights, is stonewalled by the US Air Force, which has all but commandeered the town and soon evacuates it and turns it into a war zone.

What is the Super 8 Secret?  It's an alien, and like E.T., it wants to go home. But unlike the cuddly E.T., the alien is a big, gruesome, multi-limbed CGI creature that looks like re-purposed concept art from Abrams' previous hits Cloverfield and Star Trek. The alien, its reveal, and the circumstances surrounding its existence let all the air out of the Super 8 balloon. The alien creates more questions than Super 8 is willing to answer: Why did it kidnap townspeople? Why did it smash up parts of the town when it wanted to stay hidden so it could rebuild its spaceship? What did the Air Force learn from it after holding it in captivity for 20 years? Why am I not actually interested in any of the answers?

Super 8 is "mint" when the young filmmakers - chubby writer/director/tyrant-in-training Charles (Riley Griffith), pyrotechnics enthusiast Cary (Ryan Lee), future Method actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), and our charismatic hero, model-builder/makeup artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) - are simply immersed trying to make their zombie movie, having loud, passionate arguements about "character motivations" and "production values". The budding relationship between Joe Lamb and the troubled Alice, played etherially by Elle Fanning, is handled gently and sweetly. The young cast is honest and excellent. An almost-unrecognizable David Gallagher from 7th Heaven provides welcome comic relief as the stoner dude who works at the local camera store ("No one develops film overnight, asshole.") and has the hots for Charles' sister AJ Michalka.

At its best moments, Super 8 is a wonderful film about youth, love of movies, friendship, and hard-earned understanding between father and son and father and daughter. Except it has a rotten CGI alien monster in it. Stay through the closing credits to watch the terrific, utterly hilarious super 8 zombie movie the kids made. It's worlds better than Super 8's bewildering third act.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights



Green Lantern: Emerald Knights deepens the mythology of the Green Lanterns in the DC Animated Universe via a bunch of Green Lanterns deciding a galactic crisis that could mean the end of existence as we know it is the perfect time to tell the newest recruit, Arisia, a bunch of stories about past exploits of Green Lanterns. Arisia learns she wields the most powerful weapon in the universe on her finger but it's never easy being green.

There's plenty of continuity to keep DC Universe nerds happy. The main villain is Krona, the mad Guardian of the Universe, and his Anti-Matter Universe shadow demons. To help illustrate how Krona is the opposite of the Guardians who give the Lanterns their marching orders, when he turned evil, Krona grew to become as big as a planet as opposed to as little as a Muppet.

The tales are generally well done: We learn ("according to Scripture") of the origin of the Rings of Power and the first Green Lantern who realized he could shape the emerald light into constructs. (Wait, the Guardians who built the rings didn't know the rings can do that? Or did they withhold that vital info from their first Lanterns? Either they're not very smart or they're dicks.) Kilowog informs us how he became the Green Lantern drill sergeant - more importantly, we learn the secret origin of the word "poozer". A female Green Lantern returns to her home world to confront her daddy issues, which has some pretty well-conceived combat between father and daughter. (It also showcases the most hilarious-looking Green Lantern ever, basically a giant head with wee little arms and legs who gets beaten to death by the Khunds).

More recent Green Lantern villain Atrocitus gets to be in the movie for a story about Abin Sur and Sinestro's friendship. Atrocitus even previews what's likely to be the next Green Lantern DVD by telling Abin Sur Sinestro will turn evil and form the Sinestro Corps. (No way! You can't trust a guy named Sinestro?) The most fun story is an adaptation of the classic tale penned by Alan Moore about the alien killer who encountered the Green Lantern planet Mogo. Finally, it all comes together when Krona attacks the universe. Even Mogo joins the fight as the Green Lantern Corps uses the planet OA itself as a weapon against Krona.

The voice acting is the usual straightforward fare, with recognizable voices (Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men as Arisia, Jason Isaacs as Sinestro, Arnold Vosloo as Abin Sur, and Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan) reading typically stilted comic booky dialogue. It's weird hearing the whispery drawl of Captain Mal Reynolds coming out of Hal Jordan's mouth.

As in the previous Green Lantern: First Flight, once again, imagination seems to be in short supply: the challenge of Green Lantern is in depicting what the Power Rings can do, which is anything. And once again, Green Lanterns, no matter what shape or race, only seem to be capable of imagining basic shapes, swords, axes, and blasting lasers from their rings. Let those who worship evil's might, beware their power, Green Lantern's swords and axes! But no giant green boxing gloves.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Defense of Sansa Stark

Sansa Stark is taking a beating, on the show Game of Thrones, in the novel "A Game of Thrones", and on the Internet. Sansa is probably the most misunderstood character in the series and I'm sympathetic towards her. She's probably in the toughest spot of all the Stark kids.

The thing with Sansa is she's a Disney princess; she's consciously designed by George R.R. Martin, I think, as a commentary on a fairy tale princess in these types of stories. Unfortunately for Sansa, Game of Thrones is the opposite of a Disney movie. 

Sansa's whole life has been a fairy tale; a highborn girl born to one of the most powerful Lords of the Seven Kingdoms, and she was fed tales of knights and chivalry since the day she popped out of Catelyn's womb. Her life got even more fairy-tale-ier when she got engaged to Joffrey, the crown prince of Westeros, who is now King. This should be awesome for her: she's one wedding away from being Queen.

Except it's a horrible nightmare. Her father's imprisoned and condemned to die as a traitor, everyone in her household is dead, her sister is missing, and her family is now at war with her future family, whom she is now a hostage to. You can say she brought it on herself, like when she chose to lie for Joffrey and it got Arya's wolf banished and her own wolf killed. But she's going to marry Joffrey and be Queen so she thought she was doing the right thing. Her family wants her to marry Joffrey, right? Isn't she one wedding away from the Lannisters being her family too? 

Remember, Sansa is a kid. She's thirteen. Maybe she should know right from wrong, but this is a world where what seems right can do an incredible amount of wrong. Ask Ned about that. Sansa is  Tween age and couldn't yet comprehend, or wanted to comprehend, what we're privy to: how incredibly dangerous, backstabbing, and fucked up the politics are in King's Landing, which her father was trying to shelter her from. 

Sansa's great sin is placing her future family the Lannisters ahead of her own. She is just really beginning realize, too late, that the Lannisters are a nest of vipers. But she's still bound by oath to be one of them. It's a terrible position to be in, especially as a young girl now alone with no family or family friends, all of whom are dead, on the run, or imprisoned.

And look, Ned Stark is smart, courageous, noble, and well-aware of what he was getting into and he made a royal mess of things, so how can one reasonably expect better from Sansa? Unlike her brothers or even Arya, Sansa's not physically and emotionally equipped for the hell that's happened and is about to come. I can't help but feel bad for her.

Also, Sophie Turner is great as Sansa Stark.

Here's a very good piece on The Sins of Ned Stark and how they've affected his children.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Game of Thrones 1x8 - "The Pointy End"

George R.R. Martin wrote "The Pointy End" himself and is the sole credited writer of the episode. This is fitting, I think, because "The Pointy End" marks the beginning of something I've been noting as I read the books (I'm in the midst of A Storm of Swords now): that A Song of Ice and Fire could be renamed "Sansa and Arya Stark Can't Catch a Break". The way the Stark girls are treated, well, it makes me think maybe Martin should have gone on a few more dates in high school. He really has it in for those girls. The worst, and worser, and even worstest is yet to come for Sansa and Arya.

Quite a lot of plot got condensed in this hour, specifically regarding the war now raging between Robb Stark and the Lannisters. There's a good amount of Robb in this episode, which there had to be. Robb has been the least developed of the Stark sons (besides Rickon, and on the show, it's easy to forget there's a Stark son younger than Bran). I think even Theon Greyjoy has had more screen time in the series than Robb. Robb only becomes more and more important as he leads the North to war.

I liked the shot of all of the ravens carrying the call to arms to the Stark bannermen leaving Winterfell.

How lucky are Ned and Catelyn Stark there's no such thing as child protection services in Westeros? And how unlucky are the Stark children of that same fact? Talk about negligent parents; leaving Bran and Rickon alone in Winterfell for months on end. Robb too, as their older brother and legal guardian. Poor kids. Bran should watch Home Alone and boobytrap Winterfell against robbers.

Geography of Westeros becomes important during the war; much of the fighting revolves around the Riverlands area of the Seven Kingdoms in between Winterfell and King's Landing. It gets a little confusing where Riverrun, the Fingers, the Trident, Harrenhall, Casterly Rock, Lannisport, etc. are.

I have to ask how well certain scenes played to non-book readers. For instance, when Sansa was called to meet Cercei, Littlefinger, Varys, and the Meester and told to write the letter to Robb - she was being completely played and manipulated by Cercei.

A major detail missing from the episode: It was Sansa to went to Cercei and told him Ned planned to take her and Arya back to Winterfell, tipping her off that Ned was making his play to install Stannis as King and discredit Joffrey. Sansa's begging for Ned's life at the end was her trying to save her father's life after realizing her role in his being declared a traitor.

Probably the most fun thing in the episode was Tyrion's negotiating skills. Allow the Imp to talk and he can get himself out of just about any kind of trouble.

"How would you like to die?"
"In my own bed, at the age of 80, with a belly full of wine and a woman's mouth around my cock."

I like the way that Imp thinks.

Poor Ned rotting in the dungeon had to account for the very logical question from Varys: "What madness lead you to tell the Queen" about his learning of her children's true parentage? Yeah, really, Ned.

One of the great disappointments of the series is that this is the end of Arya's "dancing" teacher Syrio. What a great character he was, and we didn't get nearly enough of him. Arya gets her first kill with Needle's "pointy end".

I liked how Jon was confined to quarters but it was a voluntary confinement. Apparently, he could and did let himself out at any time. And good that he did since he figured out how to kill that undead Other.

We finally got to see Drogo actually fight and kill like a bad ass, complete with Mortal Kombat-style "finish him!" throat ripping. I wonder if that was Jason Momoa's audition to become the new Conan?

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class



 Groovy, Baby

Set in 1962 during the turbulent days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, X-Men: First Class daringly and thrillingly melds colorful comic book superhero action with the panache of Sean Connery's James Bond movies along with the wink-wink political incorrectness of Mad Men. The result of this jazzy Marvelous mashup is the coolest, swingingest, grooviest superhero movie of all-time.

At its core, First Class is about the bromance gone tragically wrong between telepath Charles Xavier and master of magnetism Erik Lensherr, the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of mutantkind. Portrayed in the December of their years by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan, Charles and Erik are energically embodied as studly young chaps by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Together, Charles and Erik lead the first team of mutants to save the world from the Cuban Missile Crisis (a fact seemingly omitted from our history books). A long time ago, they used to be friends.

McAvoy charms as Xavier, a brilliant, cocksure youth with a lustrous head of hair, the full use of his legs, and driven by eternal optimism. McAvoy's desire in taking the role was to depict old Professor X as the opposite of the sexless, wheelchair-confined saint in the previous X-Men movies. What fun to watch Charles trading on his smarts and wit to pick up girls at Oxford, beguiling them with his theories on genetic mutation of all things. (Charles may have been the man who coined the word "groovy".) As the future Magneto, Fassbender is properly conflicted, equally driven by his desire for revenge from the tragedy of his childhood in a Polish concentration camp while forming his greater world view about the role of mutants in the world. Xavier believes in acceptance and co-existence between human and mutant. Magneto, separation and domination. When the pivotal moment that paralyzes Xavier for the rest of his life occurs, it's truly a devastating shock.

And yet, First Class' heart beats just as strongly for the friendship between Xavier and Mystique, who were inseparable confidants since childhood, and how their lifelong friendship shattered over their increasingly opposing worldviews. In a mainstream movie star-making turn, Jennifer Lawrence is a knockout as a sexy and volatile Mystique. Lawrence finally shows us what makes Mystique tick; how she's driven by her lifelong insecurities as a mutant who can look like anyone but will never be accepted for her true blue, scaly appearance. (A brief moment when Mystique shapeshifts into the body of Rebecca Romijn brought the house down.) When Erik successfully seduces her and Mystique rejects her oldest friend Charles, choosing to stand beside Magneto in the end, it colors the entire X-Men saga as we know it with genuine loss and a grand sense of personal tragedy.

Among First Class' geeky revelations: it's Mystique who came up with the idea of codenames, and she personally names "Professor X" and "Magneto". We discover the secret of Mystique's genetics that allow her to age so slowly, she may well be immortal. Her genes are so potent, Dr. Hank McCoy injecting himself with a "cure" gleaned from her blood cells turns him into a furry blue Beast. Hey, what is it with blue people in X-Men, anyway? Mystique, Beast, Nightcrawler. They're basically their own Blue Man Group. All that's missing is Tobias Funke from Arrested Development saying "I just blue myself".

First Class positively revels in the flower power of youth, as Charles and Erik go on an entertaining worldwide recruitment drive to find the inaugural crop of what will become known as the X-Men (and the Brotherhood of Mutants). In one of the greatest cameos in movie history, one muttonchop-sporting, cigar-chomping potential X-Man tells Charles and Erik to "go fuck yourselves". Along with Mystique as their ring leader, the first class of X-Men are: Nicholas Hoult as the Beast, Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Lucas Till as Havok, Zoe Kravitz as Angel (a different one), Edi Gathegi as Darwin (who?). They're thinly but sufficiently sketched characters, and we bond with them as they bond with each other, getting drunk at the CIA compound they demolish while showing off their mutant powers. Even better is a breakneck training montage at the X-Mansion showcasing the hilarious methods by which Xavier trains his X-Men, like defenestrating Banshee to get him to fly.

For villains, First Class offers us the Hellfire Club led by Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the best Bond villain who was never in a Bond movie. Bacon is an odious scream as the evil Shaw, a long-lived mutant who used to be the Nazis' happiest concentration camp kommendant and is responsible for Erik Lensherr becoming Magneto. Now living in the lap of sleek 1960s luxury, Shaw is busy manipulating the Superpowers into the Cuban Missile Crisis and certain worldwide Armageddon. January Jones from Mad Men is right at home in the 1960s as Shaw's telepathic and diamond-skinned White Queen, the lingerie-clad Emma Frost. Frost boasts two mutant powers, as if trying to compensate for Jones lacking the ability to convey basic human emotion in her acting. Their henchmen are Azazel, basically an evil red version of the teleporting Nightcrawler from X2: X-Men United, and Riptide, an evil Asian guy who breaks wind. Whatever, at least neither of them are Toad.

X-Men: First Class joyfully recreates the early 1960s with gorgeous costumes, stunning production design, and even stylishly throwback closing credits. First Class also raises eyebrows as with its unabashed political incorrectness. Buxom women, including Lawrence, Jones and Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggert, flaunt their charms in lingerie, miniskirts, and go-go boots. (The camera lovingly lingers more than once on Frost's milky curves and Mystique's blue moon.) There's a moment that's stunning in its rude audacity when Bacon attempts to woo the young X-Men to his side, asks them if they'd choose to live as "slaves" and the camera whooshes over to Darwin, the black guy in the group. Moments later, who joins Bacon's evil Hellfire Club? Angel and Darwin, the two minorities, leaving the Caucasian X-Men on side of right. The first X-Man to die? Darwin.

At well over two hours, X-Men: First Class hurtles along with confidence and boundless energy. Like the best Bond movies, it's a globe-spanning lark, pure escapist entertainment. Even with the personal drama between its core characters and the grander themes of the price of tolerance and acceptance ("mutant and proud" becomes Mystique's mantra) which are the hallmark of X-Men, First Class never lags on the X-Factor: Fun. It's a bona fide success for the Marvel team up of director Matthew Vaughn (fresh off his superhero gangbusters Kick-Ass) and producer Bryan Singer (director of X-Men and X2: X-Men United). Singer and Vaughn prove themselves the dynamic duo of X-Men. Here's hoping when it comes time to churn out welcome sequels, their collaboration doesn't go the way of their cinematic counterparts Xavier and Magneto.