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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens



It is the Old West, the time of cowboys. One cowboy, Daniel Craig, wakes up in the middle of nowhere, with no shoes, no memory of how he got there, and some newfangled sorta doohickey attached to his wrist. No one who meets him is particularly curious about the doohickey, and nor is Craig so much. It's just there. At some point, it'll do something, and when it does, it's not particularly interesting. This sums up Cowboys and Aliens. There's all this stuff in the movie, sit through it and things will happen like explosions and gun fights, and when it does, it's not particularly interesting or worth closer examination. There are certainly aliens, and they're considerably less interesting than the cowboys.

There's a mystery to who Craig is that isn't a mystery because half of the dusty Old West town of Absolution run by ornery cattle baron Harrison Ford knows who Craig is. Ford is an ex-Mexican War colonel who is feared by everyone in the town but it turns out his bark is worse than his bite and he isn't such a bad guy after all. When aliens strafe the cowboys in their insect-like ships and pilfer a bunch of them with their spacey version of the claw game, Craig and Ford giddy up after the aliens. James Bond and Indiana Jones together at last, and in a neat visual cue, Craig dons a white shirt and black vest as a nod to Han Solo.

Providing constant distraction is the quizzical presence of the anachronistically beautiful Olivia Wilde. Wilde flutters in and out of Craig's line of sight prodding him with lines like, "You know who you are!" Wilde seems to exist to provide wide-eyed, lovingly lit reaction shots - until we find out who and what Wilde really is (not a cowboy), at which point all the exposition she's been withholding comes pouring out as a lot of vague nonsense. Wilde does however get reborn naked in a funeral pyre like Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, but Daenerys had dragons, so advantage Daenerys. (While I'm at it, Khal Drogo dumping molten gold on Viserys Targaryen's head > James Bond dumping molten gold on random alien's head.)

Craig has to remember how the aliens captured him and his favorite prostitute Abigail Spencer in the first place (I liked how the cowboys pronounce "whore" as "hooer".) Ford is out to rescue his arrogant whelp of a son, Paul Dano. The running joke of Craig beating up Dano is the only source of humor in the picture. Ford comes to realize he cares for his son's brave and loyal Native American companion Adam Beach more than his real son, and he's the only one who seems to learn a lesson. I'm not sure what Craig got out of his tussles with alien invaders in the end. He didn't even get to keep his wrist thingy. No, Wilde took that when she set out to destroy the aliens' ship - killing herself and taking the aliens with her was her master plan all along!

The aliens are unsightly CGI grotesques, their designs apparently borrowed from the JJ Abrams house of monster ideas. And get this - the aliens are on Earth because they want gold! Gold! Thar's gold up in thar hills, says the aliens! It's a shame the aliens didn't do a giddy prospector dance when they found gold. When Wilde blows up their ship, a bunch of aliens were on the ground massacring the cowboys, but they are seemingly forgotten about when the cowboys claim victory.

Why does this movie exist? Why is there Cowboys and Aliens? I haven't the faintest idea. Regardless, Cowboys and Aliens is one hundred percent as the title advertises. There are cowboys. There are aliens. If the title were slightly tweaked to Cowboys vs. Aliens, it would be even more accurate. So here we are. Cowboys and Aliens. Yes sir. Something tells me the inevitable porn parody, Reverse Cowgirls and Aliens, will be a lot more satisfying.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Batman Year One



Batman Year One* is a faithful and extraordinary DC Animation adaptation of the seminal 1987 graphic novel by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. "Year One" is the modern day canonical origin of Batman and heavily influenced Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, primarily by shining a [batsignal] on the emotional and logistical trials and tribulations 25 year old Bruce Wayne (voiced by Benjamin McKenzie of Southland) faced in becoming the Dark Knight. Year One simultaneously gives equal heft to the character of James Gordon (voiced by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad), the only honest cop in the cesspool of Gotham City. In fact, Gordon rises as the more intriguing character; a transplant from Chicago (which coincidentally Nolan chose as the basis for his cinematic Gotham City) with a pregnant wife and a reputation as a snitch who turns in his fellow cops, Gordon  bristles under the blatant corruption in the Gotham Police department. Yet Gordon is no saint. He and fellow detective Sarah Essen (voiced by Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff) begin an affair that compromises Gordon professionally and personally. Meanwhile, after a disastrous outing in crime-fighting that nearly gets him killed, Bruce Wayne divines almost supernatural inspiration to "become a bat" (the comic book's dialogue "Yes father, I shall become a bat" is omitted). As (the) Batman, Wayne targets the most powerful crime lord and city officials in Gotham, creating enemies on all sides. Only Gordon penetrates beyond Batman's vigilante acts and sees his behavior as heroic and necessary to rid Gotham of its corruption, thus the birth of their classic alliance. To its credit and occasional detriment, Batman Year One fiercely adheres to the events in the graphic novel, adding only minute enhancements such as an extended fight scene between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (voiced by Dollhouse's Eliza Dushku). The animated film shares the weaknesses of the graphic novel, including its anti-climactic ending and the superfluousness of Catwoman to the story. Serious dramatic moments involving Gordon and Essen's affair inadvertently come off as trite and comedic, despite best intentions. The animation is superb, closely matching and even enhancing David Mazzucchelli's iconic artwork (panels from the graphic novel play over the closing credits). The voice acting by the well-chosen cast is also particularly strong all around, with none of the sleepy monotone often found in DC Animated films. Cranston in particular really sinks his teeth into the James Gordon role. Batman Year One is head and shoulders the finest DC Animation adaptation yet, whetting the appetite for the much-anticipated Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 2012.

* Batman Year One exclusively screened at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love



Crazy, Stupid, Love is a very pleasant surprise - a smart, warm, engaging treatise about love and finding your "soulmate" featuring terrific performances and some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. Steve Carell is a married but downtrodden man suddenly faced with a divorce from the only woman he has ever loved (or slept with), Julianne Moore, who committed adultery with her co-worker Kevin Bacon. Their 13 year old son Jonah Bobo "is in love" with his willowy but fetching 17 year old babysitter Analeigh Tipton, who in turn has a schoolgirl crush on Carell. Meanwhile, Emma Stone is a young law student naive about her own romantic potential and initially rebuffs the smooth come-ons of slick ladykiller Ryan Gosling. Convenience of plot finds Carell in the same sexy hotspot Gosling frequents, repeatedly lamenting the end of his marriage to every woman, waitress, and bartender in sight. ("I'm a cuckold!", Carell laments, sounding an awful lot like his co-worker Ed Helms in The Office.) Gosling both takes pity on Carell and tires of his endless complaining; he takes Carell under his wing and becomes Carell's Obi-Wan Kenobi on how to be a better dresser and how to pick up women. (Though Obi-Wan never slapped Luke Skywalker in the face so often - maybe he ought to have.) Gosling's mentoring sessions with Carell do contain some valuable advice for men: "never" wear New Balance sneakers, don't own a velcro wallet, don't sip from the little straw in your drink, "be better than the GAP!", and your whole wardrobe can be redone "with like, 16 items". Gosling's methods on seducing women are more questionable since, let's face it, 90% of his "charm" is because he looks like Ryan Gosling. (100% of women would agree.) Gosling, however, is unsurprisingly a very unhappy person deep down, until Stone suddenly reciprocates his sexual interest while undergoing a relationship crisis late in the story. Stone and Gosling each find more depth and tenderness with each other than they ever suspected; their scenes together evolve from sexy verbal jousting to real sweetness and intimacy. Meanwhile, Carell finds new success with women and increases his sexual conquests ninefold, yet still pines for his soulmate and wife Moore. Plentiful comedy emerges from Bobo's teenage harrassment of Tipton, bombarding her with text messages and embarrassing her with broad declarations of love at her school.  In the end, all of the characters' paths intersect in a very funny farcical convergence that could be over the top but Crazy, Stupid, Love earns it because of the care the filmmakers take with the characters. All of the actors shine in making their characters feel honest and true. However, Carell and Moore apparently send their son to the most lenient middle school ever, especially in regards to the school allowing Carell's family drama to usurp their graduation ceremony. 

Captain America: The First Avenger 3D



"I'm just a kid from Brooklyn."

Captain America: The First Avenger excitingly re-imagines World War II as fought within the Marvel Comics Universe and accomplishes two neat tricks simultaneously: It opened up the history of the cinematic Marvel Universe, synching up with the details established in Iron Man and Thor while doing so much more seamlessly than the laboriousness that sunk the second act of Iron Man 2. More importantly, Captain America introduced moviegoers to Steve Rogers, the purest, noblest hero in the Marvel Universe.

Chris Evans, who was once the only bright spot in the Fantastic Four films, eschews his usual cocky swagger to seize the spotlight as a true leading man. Sporting a slight era-appropriate Brooklyn accent and at first Benjamin Buttoned with CGI into a scrawny twerp before physically transforming into his jacked, superheroic form, Evans truly makes you believe in Captain America. That the audience comes to believe in Captain America at the same time Steve Rogers starts to believe in himself is part of the fun.

The Marvel-fied version of the 1940s is a joy to behold - a wonderland of era-appropriate costume and production design jumbled with outrageous technology courtesy of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the father of Tony Stark, the future Iron Man. Tony would be aghast to see his father in this age; a smooth-talking playboy with all the best wonderful toys, including hover cars and even the original android Human Torch sealed in an airless chamber on display at his World's Fair. Turns out Tony is chip off Howard Stark's block after all.

Stark's counterpart in technology is Hydra, a secret society within the Third Reich devoted to the scientific, mystical, and world conquering pursuits of their leader the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). The Red Skull is a warped Nazi attempt at creating a super soldier, and he is in possession of the Tesseract (the Cosmic Cube to comics readers), stolen from Odin's trophy case in Thor. The Red Skull schemes to use the Tesseract's otherworldly power to conquer everyone and everything on Earth. ("And he can do it!", believes his frightened underling Dr. Zola, played by Toby Jones.) 

Thrust into all this, unsuspectingly at first, is Steve Rogers, a stereotypical 90 lb weakling who wants nothing more than to fight for his country and make a difference. Rogers' insistence on joining the Army despite five rejections gets him noticed by the kindly Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) as a guinea pig for a top secret Super Soldier project that transforms Rogers into a perfect human specimen. From there, the newly promoted Rogers, dubbed "Captain America", is sent - where else? - to tour across America in musical stage shows clad in a garish costume (his classic comic book threads) to stump for war bonds ("The Star Spangled Man with a plan").

Despite "knocking out Hitler over 200 times" in propaganda films (even The Red Skull tells Cap he's a fan of his films), a rotten tomatoes reception from actual soldiers in the front lines to the Star Spangled Man in tights forces Rogers to re-evaluate what he should really be doing with his abilities. Captain America formally joins the fight and becomes the super soldier he was always meant to be, smashing Hydra's plans with the help of his very own group of Inglorious Basterds, the Howling Commandos (who are without Nick Fury, who is black and the leader of SHIELD in the future).

The first half of Captain America is the most interesting, with the focus squarely on Steve Rogers' character and everyone doubting he has the right stuff to be a (super) soldier, especially Colonel Tommy Lee Jones, who headed the wartime precursor of SHIELD. (My favorite scene in the the movie was Tommy Lee Jones interrogating Toby Jones while eating a steak.) By the time Rogers becomes Captain America, the movie begins dutifully tearing through a checklist of Events That Must Occur: Cap has to get his circular "vibranium" shield, Cap has to watch his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) die, Cap has to end up frozen in ice at the end so he can reawaken in the 21st century just in time to be in The Avengers.

As if realizing 2/3rds of the movie has passed and they've barely scratched the surface of what needs to happen to enable the Marvel Movie Master Plan, Captain America suddenly accelerates, blazing through Cap's wartime adventures in a dizzying montage of action and explosions while setting up all the pieces at breakneck pace so that Cap can be frozen in ice for the coda set in our time that assembles The Avengers. Rogers' sweet romance with the beauteous and bountiful Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) ends sadly in perfunctory fashion ("I had a date."). It's kind of a shame; more fun Captain America movies could have been set in the terrific Marvel World War II era, but Marvel killed that golden goose for what they hope will be The Avengers' golden egg. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop



On The Road Again, I Can't Wait To Have My Own Show Again

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is a fantastic, honest, and gut-bustingly hilarious time machine back to the spring and summer of 2010 - When No Coco Was Allowed On TV. Picking up a few weeks after the debacle with NBC that lead Conan to vacate his dream job hosting The Tonight Show, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop follows the bearded ex-talk show host as he sorts through the festering anger from his treatment by NBC, hits the road to connect with his fans (often to his exhausted chagrin), and fills that void within himself that constantly demands to perform and receive approval from an audience.

"I might be a fucking genius, or I might be the biggest dick who ever lived," Conan assesses himself at one point, and there's ample evidence for both sides of the argument. He is kind of a dick to his loyal staff who stood by him post-Tonight Show and hit the road with him on his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" live tour. But Conan is a good-natured sort of a dick, demanding excellence from himself and the people who surround him - mostly by punching them. "Why am I always punching everyone?" Conan asks randomly. Perhaps it's because he's a dick, but also because Conan was still so very angry at the way NBC treated him in the final weeks of his tenure. Gallows humor, biting observations laced with sadness and bits of barely contained fury, comprise the jokes that blaze out of Conan's brain. 

Conan Can't Stop takes us from the germ of the idea to create a variety musical road show to the maturation of the sold out show as Conan tours around the country with his staffers and the erstwhile Tonight Show Band (now Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band). Conan's tour hits big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston, and even tiny podunk towns like Eugene, Oregon ("Nobody lives here!" Conan fears). I'm glad to say I attended Conan's Boston homecoming show at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, but a personal blow-away highlight of Conan Can't Stop is from the Seattle show where special guest Eddie Vedder sang The Who's "Baba O'Riley". We meet Conan's many big time showbiz friends, like Jack White, Jon Hamm, and Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock - whom Conan is absolutely, hilariously savage to when mocking him as a hillbilly. We also meet a bunch of people who are well-wishing strangers to Conan. When they gather in his backstage areas before the shows, an exhausted and irritated Conan still compulsively feels the need to perform and entertain them. Conan's pure talent, which is on display in its rawest form in the documentary, is undeniable, both as a comedian and as a surprisingly talented musician with a deep love of bluegrass and rockabilly music.

It's touching to see how devoted Conan's talented writers, staff members, band members, and his ever-ready sidekick Andy Richter are to him. In fact, we learn Conan really has a second sidekick besides Andy; his "long-suffering" assistant Sona Movsesian. Sona dutifully absorbs Conan's constant ribbing and threats to fire her; she is always by his side whether her boss is on top of his game or sprawled like a dead eyed zombie on a couch too-small for his lanky 6'4" frame. A big laugh comes at the Bonnaroo Festival, when Conan on stage holds 40,000 sweaty concert goers in the palm of his hand and Sona assures him, "You were like Hitler up there!" Later, when the drained, ready-for-this-tour-to-end Conan is assured it's almost over, he quips, "That's what they told Anne Frank." While Sona takes Conan's lickings and keeps on ticking, Andy Richter proves once more to be Conan's secret comedy weapon, his personal WMD always blasting the perfect scathing quips and japes at just the perfect moments. ("Oh good! It's miserable again!")

Looking back now at that grueling, joyful, electric summer on the road and knowing that Conan does have his own show again - on TBS, which he hilariously scoffed at when first approached with the idea - it's reassuring that Conan's own words to his fans at the end of his Tonight Show proved true: "If you work really hard and you're kind, good things will happen." Good things do happen to good people. There is such a thing as a happy ending - and a new beginning - for Conan O'Brien. And now he can talk to Megan Fox again, because Conan has his own show again.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics


90 minutes just isn't nearly enough time to encapsulate the 75+ year history of DC Comics and its iconic characters, but Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics gives it a heroic effort. Secret Origin is the expected Greatest Hits overview of many of DC's great publishing achievements, along with touching on some of DC's blunders and failures. Narrated by Green Lantern Ryan Reynolds, half of the documentary focuses on the founding of the company, the inception of the "Trinity" of icons: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, with focuses on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, and William Moulton Marston, and the trials and tribulations of those initial decades, including World War II, the decline of comics during the 1950s and the persecution of the medium which lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority. The latter half of Secret Origin picks up both interest and momentum as it Flashes though the Silver Age and Modern Ages of comics: how daring new writers and artists like Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman brought realism, grit, and a brand new audience to DC Comics. The socially relevant comic series "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" and Denny O'Neil's failure to reinvent Wonder Woman in the 1970s (history is repeating itself today) are given special focus. The most recent two decades of publishing are lightly touched on, with no mention of DC's major publishing events like 1985's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" and its sequels. Hilarious how legendary DC editor Julius Schwartz takes partial credit for the success of Marvel Comics via his "Justice League of America" "inspiring" Stan Lee to create the "Fantastic Four". Otherwise, Marvel's prominence is ignored; Jim Lee apparently sprung out of nowhere as the creator of WildStorm Comics with no mention of his making his name with "X-Men" and co-founding Image Comics. An appropriate amount of reverence is given to DC's properties translated successfully to television and feature films: the groundbreaking Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, the George Reeves Superman program of the 1950s, the 1960s Batman TV show, Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, Superman: The Movie, Tim Burton's Batman, Lois and Clark, Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Smallville. It's enjoyable to listen to creators like O'Neil, Adams, Len Wein, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Vertigo editor Karen Berger enthusiastically share their love of DC Comics. Perhaps the most fascinating moment was former DC Publisher Jenette Khan bursting into tears when discussing the 1992 "The Death of Superman" storyline. It's still real to them, dammit!

For a much more thorough and impressive overview of the history of DC Comics, I highly recommend DC Comics Year By Year: A Visual Chronicle. It's super.