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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Arrow 1x12 - "Vertigo"


Hello, hello. Ola. A little show called "Vertigo". "Vertigo" features the debut of Arrow's version of DC third tier supervillain Count Vertigo, known here simply as the Count (because he killed people by testing his Vertigo drug via their necks like bite marks, but also maybe because he kept count of all those people he killed). But we'll get to that because "Vertigo" dropped a bomb of crazy on us that needs to be addressed straight away: Apparently, Oliver Queen is a captain in the Russian mafia. At some point in Oliver's unaccounted for five years on and off the Island, he saved the life of a Bravta leader and thus, Oliver can just call upon the Bravta to set up meetings with mysterious Starling City drug lords like the Count of Vertigo. The best line of the episode belongs yet again to Diggle: "I'm looking forward to my new career as a drug dealer."

The other crazy thing: Oliver can "kill" people with the Million Dollar Dream and then "resurrect" them with an Asiatic Spike, moves he learned not from Ted DiBiase or the Monster Meng but from Yao Fei. Yao Fei, who is in fact not working for the evil folks on the Island in an about face from last week's shocking reveal, used those same moves to "kill" Oliver and throw him off a cliff in as a way to save his life. Otherwise, he'd have been murderized  for real by Deathstroke or something.

Oliver's mission this week is twofold: nail the Count for selling the illegal designer drug Vertigo in Starling City and save his sister Thea Dearden(!) Queen from prison for her Vertigo-induced car accident, which occurred not on her birthday as we assumed last week since it happened during her 18th birthday party, but two days before her birthday. Now, Thea actually is 18 and she can go to prison because the judge wants to make an example out of her.

Helena Bertinelli called Oliver "the Lindsay Lohan of Starling City" a few weeks back, but Thea actually fits that bill. It's weird when Arrow asks us to sympathize with the Queens' efforts to keep Thea out of prison when A) she's guilty B) she's a rich, entitled, arrogant albeit confused kid and C) she's willing to go to prison just to spite her mom, whom she hates. Oliver's meddling included breaking it to Thea that their dead daddy Robert Queen was the philanderer of the parents and then asking Laurel to talk to her father Detective Lance to help cut a deal to keep Thea out of the hoosegow. Thea seemed amazingly unappreciative of all this effort on her behalf. In the end, Laurel gets to watch out for Thea personally, as Thea reminds her of her dead sister Sarah, and Laurel's law office gets Thea Queen as an office intern, which sounds like a bad deal for the office. But maybe Thea will learn to enjoy filing, make copies, answer the phone, and do menial administrative tasks. Maybe she'll live up to her Speedy nickname with how quickly she accomplishes assigned tasks.

Credit Arrow for introducing even more strong, sexy women to its cast. A new detective and an old friend of Oliver's debuted this week as well: McKenna Hall. She ID'd Oliver when Oliver made his drug deal with the Count and called to inform Oliver personally that the SCPD captured the Count when the Hood busted up his operation and drugged him with pure Vertigo. Oliver did this as revenge for when the Count stuck two syringes of Vertigo in his chest when the cops busted up the meet. So now Oliver's been high as a kite on Vertigo and understands what a rush it was for Thea. Only Oliver could have died from the overdose. The Count meanwhile is brain fried from his overdose. (This could be an out for Arrow to give the Count superpowers, which would make him the first character on the show to be more than human.) If you ask me, Arrow should have firmly established the psychotic effect of ODing on Vertigo to be like having the U2 song looping extra loud in your head.

YEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAH

C'mon, if Revolution could afford to buy Led Zeppelin "Kashmir" for an episode, Arrow could have shelled out for U2.

Finally, Oliver's interactions with Felicity Smoak are becoming a regular thing and one of the best things on the show. Oliver lies to everyone, but he saves the extra special ridiculous lies for Felicity, and she's not an idiot, she knows it. Oliver had Felicity investigate the syringes of Vertigo claiming it was a new energy drink, then he met her at Big Belly Burger, i.e. one of Starling City's two restaurants. Yet despite looking her right in the face and saying yes when she asked if she can trust him, he lied right to her face two seconds later when she showed him Moira's copy of The List written in Marauder's Map Invisible Ink. But now, Oliver knows for sure his mom's got lies of her own. Lots and lots of lies. This thing Oliver has with Felicity, though, needs to ramp up. I can't imagine there aren't 'Shippers for Oliver and Felicity. #Olicity

Thursday, January 24, 2013

JJ Abrams Directing Star Wars: Episode VII


JJ Abrams, director of Super 8, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, creator of Lost, Alias, and Felicity, and lifelong Star Wars fan was announced as the director of Star Wars: Episode VII - Subtitle Pending. Live Tweeting what's probably going to be the biggest nerd announcement of 2013.


























Side Effects

SIDE EFFECTS

** SPOILERS **

In the last couple of years, a new winter doldrums that could be dubbed "Soderberghuary" has surfaced. This would be the stark depression that sets in after watching Steven Soderbergh films that are released in January. Last year was Haywire, this year it's Side Effects. Is there a drug for Soderberghuary? After seeing Side Effects, I wouldn't touch it even if there were. 

In Side Effects, Rooney Mara suffers from depression after four years of waiting for her husband Channing Tatum to be released from prison for insider trading. She tries to kill herself by ramming her car into a parking garage wall and falls under the care of psychiatrist Jude Law, who prescribes her a popular anti-depressant called Abixia. Already at her wits end, Mara's behavior grows even more erratic on Abrixia, where she almost throws herself in front of subway trains and starts sleepwalking and setting the dinner table for people who aren't coming. Then, while "asleep", she commits murder, murder most fowl. The movie asks, is someone on such a drug actually culpable for such a crime? Is the doctor prescribing the drugs responsible? And then the movie figuratively throws a vial full of pills in the audience's face, upends the table and storms off!

All of a sudden, Side Effects decides it isn't about any of those things and it never was, nor is it a serious movie tackling an intriguing real-life subject at all. No, it was all a ruse, see. Side Effects is really a ludicrous whodunit non-mystery involving insider trading of pharmaceutical stocks, lesbianism, and Law losing his practice in a desperate bid to prove that Mara was never crazy at all. Or was she? Yes. And no. And what? Law investigates Mara's past psychiatric history, involving her prior doctor Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the three play a confounding cat-and-mouse game over what Mara was making up (everything except the murder) and how long Mara can stay incarcerated in a mental ward.  Many of the supporting characters literally give up and gaze in bewilderment as the final events of the story unfold. Soderbergh compounds the confusion by tilting his camera and even mounting it upside down in some shots. Soderbergh may well have lost it himself. It's a concern, a real, definite concern.

Arrow 1x11 - "Trust But Verify"


Trust, who do ya? The theme of trust is paramount amongst our heroic and villainous denizens of Starling City this week. Can Oliver trust Diggle when Diggle's old commanding officer comes to town and it turns out he's on The List? Can Diggle trust said commanding officer? Can Thea trust her mother when she sees Moira as the recipient of Malcolm Merlyn's busy hands and thus Thea assumes they're having an affair? Can Tommy trust his father when Malcolm invites him out to dinner to get to know Laurel better? On the Island five years ago, can the soldiers trust this new guy who showed up looking for the prisoner Yao Fei? Can anyone trust Thea not to wreck her band new convertible? Why, can the hospital staff of Starling City General trust that a Queen won't end up in their care every other week?

The Blackhawks make their Arrow television debut fresh from the pages of World War II DC Comics and other guest starring roles over the years. This time they're not a bunch of flyboy fighter pilots shooting down Nazis over Dinosaur Island but a team of paramilitary types commanded by Ted Gaynor, Diggle's old XO from Afghanistan. They're the Blackhawk Squad Protection Group, suspected of pulling off a bunch of armored car robberies. Oliver and Diggle butt heads over this and Diggle tries to get in good with the Blackhawks, even taking them to Big Belly Burger, but it's soon revealed the Blackhawks are in fact the evil armored car robbers. (Diggle's discovery of this is cemented when he peels off the Blackhawk decal from the humvees to reveal "Evil Armored Car Robbers" written underneath.) Oliver planted Dig with a listening device, but Diggle didn't really need the Hood's help in rescuing his kidnapped sister in law or saving himself. Not when he gets in the bad ass line of the night: "You're forgetting something. I'm the one with the rocket launcher!"

Diggle and Oliver get beyond their little tiff and reaffirm their trust for each other. Why, Oliver even referred to him as his partner. But Diggle joked that with all the people above building the new Queen nightclub, Oliver might consider a side entrance to the "Arrow Cave". Hilarious. Also, makes no sense, since "Arrow" isn't what the Hood or the Vigilante is called within the show. "Hood Cave" would have made much more sense. But maybe Diggle has already worked out what Oliver's code name will eventually be and hasn't clued Oliver in on it yet.

Meanwhile, the odious Malcolm Merlyn has been touchy-feely all episode. Thea eavesdrops on a secret meeting between Malcolm and Moira where she sees him pawing her back, which seems to be his move, and Thea quickly jumps to the conclusion that they're humping, based on her 5 year old suspicions that they were humping even before her dad drowned at sea. Somehow Thea missed the really incriminating parts of the conversation, like when Moira asked for proof of life for Walter from Merlyn. Thea can't trust her mom and Oliver doesn't seem too interested in investigating whatever might be going on in the many rooms of Stately Queen Manor.

This week, however, the event that the late Robert Queen dreaded and able bodied men everywhere tent their fingers for has come to pass: Thea Queen turns eighteen. She's hot, she's rich, her brother's a superhero unbeknownst to her, and she's messed up. Thea is the catch of catches. Thea's been hinting that she wants a convertible (because Oliver got one when he turned 18) and she gets it, along with an expensive looking birthday party full of her hot teen friends giving her presents in clear plastic baggies: drugs. But not just any drugs: a hip, new, designer narcotic called Vertigo, heralding the arrival of "the Count" (DC Comics third tier baddie Count Vertigo) next week. Thea once again misinterprets Malcolm's spirit fingers on her mom's back as their affair, takes her Vertigo like a good little girl, and proceeds to get high and smash up her brand new convertible. Her reaction when she comes to at the hospital with Moira and Oliver at her bedside is about right: "The car--?" Unfortunately for Thea, her bloodwork came back soaked in the highly illegal Vertigo and the cops arrest her. Which means within four months, both Queen children have been arrested. Detective Lance must be loving this.

Tommy gets a personal invitation to dinner from his father, and who says he's impressed that Tommy got a job and started being a responsible person after Malcolm cut him off. Tommy's still resentful about the cutting off part. At a swank sushi dinner with Laurel, the subject of Tommy's dead mother kept coming up and rankling both Merlyn boys. Finally, Malcolm reveals he wants to sell the late Mrs. Malcolm's pride and joy, a clinic she set up, and that sets Tommy off the deep end. Later, Tommy gives Laurel a little backstory, about how when his mom died when he was eight, Malcolm disappeared for two years. We hear this story as Malcolm stands in his own Arrow Cave looking at an old family photo surrounded by his Dark Archer gear and weaponry. If it were me, though, and Malcolm treated me to a sushi dinner like that, I'd sign whatever he put in front of me. Just sayin'.

On the Island five years ago, Oliver, who killed a soldier and donned his gear and hood last week, tries to infiltrate the troops of the evil Edward Fyers and rescue Yao Fei. Maybe the saddest moment of the episode is when Oliver had a tray of food in front of him after not having eaten for who knows how long, and he had to drop it to go take a jeep around the Island. Fyers was onto him from the start, however, and we get a major reveal: Yao Fei was working for Fyers all along! Huh? But how? And why? (One more reveal from Oliver to Diggle, that Oliver didn't necessarily spend all five years he was missing on the Island.)

Finally, there's Felicity Smoak, who probably was the most disappointed of all this week. When Oliver approaches her to decrypt a thumb drive with some cockamamie story about a scavenger hunt with an expensive bottle of wine for her at the end, she uncovers the secret info about the Blackhawks.

Felicity: "So. No wine."

I know. Sucks.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2


"This will be a good life. Good enough."

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 delivers the second half of DC Animation's adaptation of Frank Miller's seminal graphic novel in grandiose, ultra-violent fashion. Ultra-violent cannot be emphasized enough. Exceeding even the graphic violence in The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, this is the most brutal, blood-soaked Batman tale ever depicted in animation, or in live action for that matter, as the epic story of the Dark Knight of Gotham City reaches its definitive conclusion. The animators and filmmakers bravely and boldly made no compromise of what was on the page for this cartoon. 

The first half is based on the third chapter of Miller's tale, "Hunt The Dark Knight", dealing with Batman's (Peter Weller) final confrontation with his arch nemesis, The Joker (voiced by Michael Emerson), curiously referred to without the prefix "the" throughout the film. Galvanized by the return of the Batman, Joker plans one last murder spree when he's invited to appear on the late night talk show The David Endocrine Show. (In the comic book, this character is drawn to resemble David Letterman, but that's changed to a more generic character in the film, yet Endocrine's voice sounds a whole lot like Conan O'Brien.) The Joker gasses and murders hundreds of people as Batman, once again declared a public enemy by the new female police commissioner replacing the elderly, retired James Gordon, is forced to battle the Gotham City Police. 

Batman and Joker's last battle at a carnival is shocking for its sheer brutality: Joker shoots Batman in the gut and later stabs Batman repeatedly in the midsection. Batman impales Joker's eye with a Batarang and nearly snaps his neck. (Joker finishes the job by snapping his own neck to frame Batman for his murder. Batman responds by spitting in Joker's face.) Joker's rampage includes shooting dozens of people dead and even his henchmen trying to kill Robin (Ariel Winter) meet bloody ends being decapitated by a roller coaster pulley. Both Batman and Joker take turns punching and kicking women who happen to be in their way. Also disturbing is what has become of Catwoman; the aged Selina Kyle is now a rotund madam of an escort service. (Joker tells her, "Selina, the years have not been kind", before tying her up in a Wonder Woman costume.) Miller's withering view of Catwoman, whom he made a prostitute in his prequel Batman: Year One, remains disappointing at the very least. 

The second half, based on Miller's final chapter "The Dark Knight Falls", leads to the ultimate mano e supermano showdown between Batman and Superman. The Man of Steel receives a lot of screen time, toadying up to President Ronald Reagan, who tasks him to personally deal with the "problem" in Gotham City that's embarrassing his administration. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is also steeped in the 1980's Cold War and fear of nuclear annihilation as Superman unleashes his raw power against the Russians in the country of Corto Maltese. Superman nearly dies saving Corto Maltese from a Russian nuclear missile, but the electromagnetic pulse generated by the nuclear explosion blankets the United States in darkness. It's up to Batman and Robin to rally the warring street gangs called the Mutants and the Sons of Batman to maintain order in Gotham as riots and looting sweep the entire United States.

The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 expands on some of the back story in Miller's tale. There's a bit more dialogue between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent touching on what lead the Justice League to disband and why Superman became a government agent while Batman retired from crime fighting. A few extra moments not in the graphic novel are sprinkled in, including a terrific cameo by the Batmobile from the Tim Burton Batman movies. The filmmakers also ably compensate for the lack of the graphic novel's pivotal narration in the final moments of the story by showing a bit more of how the newly undead Bruce Wayne leads his new army in the caves underneath Gotham. There's also a great little moment added between Clark Kent and Jim Gordon at Bruce Wayne's funeral: 

Gordon: "Were you a friend?" 
Kent: "I honestly couldn't say."
Gordon: "Sounds about right."

And yet in a way, the whole of The Dark Knight Returns really comes down to The Fight. Batman versus Superman. Miller's graphic novel was the first time readers truly witnessed a definitive battle between DC Comics' two greatest superheroes, and Part 2 more than does justice to one of the most famous and beloved superhero slugfests of all time. The fight is expanded beyond what's depicted on the page, leaving the confines of Crime Alley where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered as Superman literally throws and punches Batman all around Gotham, making for a much more riveting and satisfying smackdown between the World's Finest heroes. (Robin in the Batmobile tank and the one-armed Green Arrow playing his part with a Kryptonite arrow get more moments as well.) In the end, of course, Batman wins, because Batman always wins. Thus the two halves of the The Dark Knight Returns rise out of the shadows as the proud new standard in Batman animated films.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Arrow 1x10 - "Burned"


"Burned" is sort of the Rocky III episode of Arrow. It's been six weeks since Oliver got his ass handed to him by the Dark Archer and while he's physically healed, mentally he's not quite the hot shot with the quiver he was when he was showing off to Helena Bertinelli. We also get to see a shredded, chiseled and jacked John Diggle training with his shirt off and if Oliver is ever short on cash, he and Dig could probably make a few bucks doing a photo shoot for Men's Health in the Arrowcave.

Oliver spends about half the episode hesitant about getting back into action as the Hood and in his first physical confrontation with this week's DC Universe Guest Villain Firefly, Oliver doesn't even last a full round before getting trounced. Later, he sits and pouts about it, even temporarily sending Laurel on the trail of the guy who sets firefighters on fire, which Diggle admonishes him for. Diggle's really good with the Apollo Creed pep talks, but Arrow didn't go all the way with the Rocky III - Diggle never yelled "There is no tomorrow!" and he and Oliver never ran on the beach together and hugged in the surf. But by God, they should have.

Firefly, real name Garfield Lynns, was a firefighter who was left to die in a blaze but mysteriously survived ("I was pulled from the building") and lived as a John Doe with his skin melted off until he decided it was time to start killing his fellow firefighters by burning them alive, let's see how they like it. His first victim in the episode, but second victim overall, is the brother of Annie Ilonzeh, Laurel's co-worker, and former Charlie's Angel, who seemingly gets written out of the series here so she can go grieve about her brother and audition for 2013 pilot season. The final confrontation between the Hood and Firefly was kind of a letdown. Oliver offers Firefly some form of help, Firefly instead decides to finish roasting himself alive. But Oliver did manage to save the fire chief from Firely taking the sky from him, which is more than he did for the poor guy Firefly let fall into a flaming blaze while Oliver was leaping around the building trying to get to Firefly.

Meanwhile, Laurel gets her hands on the iPhone the Hood gave her dad Detective Lance. Laurel uses it to contact the Hood and they have a secret meeting in her dark apartment so that Laurel can tell her about Annie Ilonzeh's brother and clue him into the villain burning firefighters. Did the Hood expressly order Laurel to keep the lights in her apartment off for their meeting? Wouldn't he have been surprised if she suddenly flicked the lights on? I wish we'd all gotten to see the look on his face. But Laurel wouldn't do that to the man she once called a murderer. The Hood sure was offended by that. In the end, Detective Lance let Laurel keep the iPhone, which we'll now dub the aPhone. Laurel should keep it in a serving platter with a clear lid in her office a la 1966 Commissioner Gordon. Unknown to Laurel and the Hood, Detective Lance didn't let her keep the aPhone so she could run up data charges sexting the Hood; he can now listen in on their phone calls.

For six weeks, the Hood was missing from Starling City and getting a lot of positive commentary on TV news shows as a hero, but for the same exact amount of time, the CEO of Queen Industries, Walter Steele, has also been missing and presumed dead. Moira knows what happened to him, of course, but has spent the six weeks moping about Stately Queen Manor, refusing her children's invitation to eat Big Belly Burger and watch Oliver learn who Zach Galifianakis is. It's up to Thea to have something to do this week, and that task would be to yell at her mother for being a lousy parent for five years, thereby somehow motivating her to take the CEO position in Walter's absence. When Moira suddenly gets her groove back, Thea is suspicious, because she knows her pep talk was pretty lousy and shouldn't have garnered that desired result.

In other news, Tommy, who once rented out a stadium to play naked touch football with some models (Lingerie Football League his, and my, ass) has transformed into a savvy, cost-conscious manager, although one who has yet to get Oliver's nightclub built. Tommy does throw a low-overhead fundraiser for the dead firefighters' families on the future site of Oliver's nightclub, which then gets burned down by Firefly. Luckily, the Arrowcave is right below so Oliver could do a relatively-quick change to green leather. Tommy was more successful in getting Laurel to give him a drawer in her apartment, which Laurel took the whole episode to deliberate.

Finally, five years ago on the Island, Deathstroke beats up and takes Yao Fei prisoner while Oliver escaped. In hiding out from the soldier tracking him in the woods, Oliver makes what I believe is his first human kill. For his troubles, he gets a cool, black paramilitary uniform and a map of the Island. Now Oliver knows where the pirate ship, the three toed statue and that hatch are.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY

** SPOILERS **

The grim, relentless Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow is the Best Film of 2012, if watching Jessica Chastain look at blurry satellite photos and trying to tell apart terrorists named Abu Ahmed from Abu Faraj is your idea of a cracking good time. In Chastain's defense, she doesn't enjoy it much either, but she's as deep in the hunt for Osama bin Laden as a girl can be. Later, when bin Laden's location in Pakistan is determined, Chastain introduces herself to CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) as "the motherfucker who found him". (CIA brass prefers to just call her "the girl".)

Recruited right out of high school by the CIA, Chastain finds herself in a "black site" two years after 9/11, learning the fine points of torturing terrorists from her spook mentor Jason Clarke. The lessons include how to waterboard and lock naked, sleep-deprived terrorists in wooden boxes. Chastain cringes at the torture at first, but she learns the torturing arts well enough that a few years later, she could teach a Torturing Arts class at Hogwarts. Given the choice, though, Chastain would prefer to cleverly trick or coerce a terrorist into capitulating information. But if that doesn't work, torture, while wearing a lot of dark wigs.

In just a few years after arriving in Pakistan (summing the place up as "pretty fucked up" to station chief Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights), Chastain becomes the point person for the United States effort in locating Osama bin Laden. Chastain lives through such real-life terrorist acts as the 2005 London bombings, the Camp Chapman attack that killed several CIA operatives and soldiers via a terrorist wearing a bomb, and she survives the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing. Chastain's life is also targeted by machine gun toting terrorists in Pakistan; luckily her car was equipped with bulletproof glass. 

The hunt for bin Laden lasts nearly a decade, time Chastain impatiently charts by writing the numbers of days passed in red marker on her boss Mark Strong's window. Spanning both the Bush Administration (curiously George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condeleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, etc. are never mentioned) and the Obama Administration (Barack Obama is seen on television repudiating torture as an American tactic but he's only referred to in dialogue as "this President"), Chastain pursues her primary lead: a courier who has a high probability of working directly for Osama bin Laden. 

Chastain locates a heavily fortified safe house compound in Pakistan where she resolutely believes Osama bin Laden is running his entire network. (She accurately dismisses the idea of bin Laden still living in a cave as "pre-9/11 thinking".) Her bosses in the CIA hem and haw about whether bin Laden is there, offering a 60% probability. Chastain is certain: 100%. Those numbers were more than good enough for Obama.

Soon, Chastain finds herself at Area 51, briefing the SEAL Team who will be going out and "killing bin Laden for [her]." The SEALs include a noticeably buff Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation and Joel Edgerton from Warrior, who look like they could be brothers. Outfitted with top secret stealth helicopters (one of which they somehow crash in bin Laden's compound), the SEALs penetrate the safehouse and indeed kill bin Laden in a tense, exciting payoff. Thus, the Most Dangerous Man in the World met his bloody, inglorious end, shot dead by a battle force lead by Andy Dwyer (or Bert Macklin, if you prefer). 

With a decade of her life (and 2 1/2 hours of movie time spent) resulting in the successful execution of the man behind the Worst Terrorist Attack in American History, Chastain enjoys her sweet, final moments of victory in Zero Dark Thirty by tearfully reflecting that when she was Area 51, maybe she should have appropriated the Ark of the Covenant Indiana Jones left there. The SEALs opening the Ark and using it on him is something Osama bin Laden never would have seen coming. 

Les Misérables

LES MISERABLES

** SPOILERS **

When a bunch of French bitches get together and start singing, it's bad news for Anne Hathaway. This was the first lesson I took away from Tom Hooper's Les Misérables, a visually splendid, bombastic adaptation of the Broadway musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel adaptation of stuff that may or may not have happened in France a couple of hundred years ago, give or take. Never having read the novel, nor seen the Broadway musical, nor lived in France in the 19th century might be the best way to experience this Oscar baiting rendition of Les Mis. I mean, of course, no one in Les Mis sings "Uncle Fucker" or "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" but the songs are almost as memorable as "La Resistance" in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

Hathaway is the first and indeed most important casualty of Les Mis; a single mother of a young daughter working in a sweatshop. She's accused of prostitution, fired, and then really showed those singing bitches in the sweatshop by becoming an actual prostitute, at the behest of a different set of singing bitches who are also prostitutes. For no good reason, besides maybe that they're all jealous she's Anne Hathaway, no one in Les Mis seems to like Anne Hathaway. It's a very sad story. She has her head shaved to a buzz cut like Natalie Portman had her head shaved bald in V For Vendetta, and like Portman for Black Swan, Hathaway should probably get the Oscar. Hathaway's performance is lovely and sublime; she sings her heart out in anguish as the camera pushes into her beautiful face and almost conks her on the forehead. Hathaway is already riddled with disease after being diddled by Frenchmen, and though she's dying, she's still sort of saved by guilt-ridden Hugh Jackman.

Jackman is Jean Valjean, aka prisoner #24601, aka Le Weapon X, aka our hero. He once stole a loaf of bread and paid dearly for it - 20 years in prison. Le punishment for le crime is le harsh. Jackman looks totally horrid at the start of Les Mis, but after escaping parole and hiding out in a monastery, a priest saves him from being sent back to le hoosegow and Jackman finds God. Eight years later, prim and proper, he's a Mayor and a factory owner and feels pretty good about how he turned things around. But like Peter Parker ignoring that one thief who ended up killing Uncle Ben, Jackman turned a blind eye to how his employee in the sweatshop Anne Hathaway was fired for the crime of allegedly being a prostitute. Jackman saves her from prison and promises her on her deathbed that he'll also save her young child Cosette. Then Jackman finds out a man was captured under suspicion of being Jean Valjean and will be sentenced to prison. Jackman then decides to save him from prison. Jackman must save everyone from going to prison. Especially himself, because he exposes his true identity and goes back on the lam.

Hunting down Jackman is Russell Crowe as Javert, le supercop maximus de Paris. Javert never liked Valjean, especially detesting his ridiculous feats of strength and his marvelous singing voice, and spent most of his professional life hunting Valjean down. In an odd bit of plotting, Javert ends up working under Valjean for a bit, all the while suspecting his true identity. When Valjean reveals himself, the jig is up and Javert goes back on the hunt, chasing his prey on horseback all over Paris, even indoors where horses really shouldn't be allowed. Javert is kind of like a comical 19th century Terminator crossed with The Rock, in how he will stop at nothing to get Valjean, constantly refers to himself in the third person, and he can't sing. Later, Javert can't get over Valjean doing him a solid and not killing him when he has the chance. When Crowe realizes Jackman, covered head to toe in shit, still sings better than him, he can't take the indignity any longer and hilariously chucks himself into the river, his body cracking in half on the stone. Like the Terminator, Javert learns a lesson about humanity: "I know now why you sing. But it is something I can never do." And then he jumps to his death. In the very end, when all the dead characters are having their Barricade and Flag Party in Paris Heaven, Crowe was noticeably not invited. No way they'll let him ruin their harmonies.

Running from the law is a fine time to decide to adopt an eight year old girl, but that's exactly what Jackman does. As he promised the dying Hathaway he would, Jackman finds her young daughter Cosette and buys her for 1500 Francs from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, a couple of sneak thieves running an inn where every guest is robbed blind in the days before you had to pay for wireless in your hotel and you're charged if you even open the fridge in your room. This is the madcap comedy portion of Les Mis, to help wash down and balance out all the les miseries. Baron Cohen is especially jarring, not because Borat is suddenly in Les Mis, but because he's inexplicably the only actor who attempts to speak with a French accent. Never question Sacha Baron Cohen's commitment to the bit.

At this point, les plot holes start piling up: Jackman's first night with Cosette sees him teach her all the old Valjean tricks of running from Crowe; how to escape from getting chased by a horse, how to scale stone walls, and how to hide in monastery. Jump forward nine years, Cosette is now bountifully proportioned Amanda Seyfried, and we learn 1) they're still in Paris for some reason, 2) they're still on the lam, 3) Jackman inexplicably never told her A) who he really is and B) why they keep freaking out and hitting the bricks every time they see Russell Crowe walking down the street. (Jackman makes one mention of booking passage to England, but he never visits his travel agent. Monsieur, leave Paris! It will miraculously solve all of your problems! You would be less miserable.)

One fine French afternoon, Seyfried sees Eddie Redmayne, a rich young ginger who's neck-deep involved in some college-age frat prank of trying to spark a second French Revolution, on the street for a split second and that split second is all they need to fall instantly, head-over-heels, the-rest-of-the-movie's-plot-becomes-mostly-about-them in love. Redmayne knows Borat's daughter, Samantha Barks, who's totally in loin love with him, but he's totally oblivious and asks her to use her sneak-thief ways to find Seyfried for him so they can hook up in a cemetery. This is the 19th century France version of 'hook up', which means seeing each other through a cast iron gate and singing each other your names. But plot machinations keep the young lovers apart and there is la revolution to fight.

The revolution is tragic, by that I mean ridiculous. It's basically Redmayne and his idealistic but dunderheaded frat buddies, plus Borat's daughter and a homeless street urchin, versus the entire French army. The people of Paris didn't rise up to fight a war alongside this university a capella group for good reason - it's suicide - though they did throw their old furniture out of their windows to help them form an easily-scaled barricade. Crowe tries to be a double agent but is captured when it's discovered he can't carry a tune. Jackman ends up joining la resistance after he intercepts a letter Redmayne sends Seyfried and sing-reads it out loud. Mademoiselles, this is akin to your dad taking your iPhone and singing aloud all the texts your boyfriend sent you. During the battle, Jackman decides Redmayne is pretty all right and decides to save his life while the rest of his buddies are shot out of windows and blown pieces in a bloody, spectacularly quick battle. Jackman literally carries an unconscious Redmayne like a sack of shit through sewers covered in shit. Later, when Redmayne and Seyfried decide to get married, Jackman reveals he's Jean Valjean to his new son-in-law and for some reason makes him promise to join him in never telling Seyfried. Redmayne's first act as Seyfried's fiance is to lie to her face about why her stepdad disappeared.

Les Misérables has almost as many endings as Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. After Javert takes a swan dive into the river and Jackman decides to run off, Seyfried and Redmayne get married and their wedding is crashed by Borat and Mrs. Tim Burton. Through Borat, Redmayne and Seyfried discover the whereabouts of Jackman - shockingly, he is hiding in a monastery in Paris! Who could ever have guessed?! Finally, Seyfried gets to find out Jackman is Jean Valjean and he mercifully, happily dies; Jackman is welcomed into Paris Heaven by the Force Ghost of Anne Hathaway. And this is where the whole Force Ghost thing gets as confusing as why Anakin Skywalker is young at the end of Return of the Jedi while Obi-Wan and Yoda are old: Force Ghost Anne Hathaway is beautiful and clean again but still has her hooker boy haircut. Everyone who's dead at the Barricade and Flag Paris Heaven Party looks exactly as they did at the moment they died. Yet Jackman's Force Ghost is him as a grey mutton-chopped old man. If only Jean Valjean's Force Ghost had a mutant healing factor.

In conclusion, I enjoyed Les Misérables but it was very, very long.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED

** SPOILERS **

Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's rollicking, shameless, blood-soaked pulp spaghetti western about slavery, once again delves into the sort of revisionist history Tarantino began with Inglorious Basterds. Jamie Foxx stars as the title character Django, a former slave turned freedman turned bounty hunter, though Foxx, cool and often as silent as the "D" in "Django", almost melds into the background for much of the film. As does the film's multi-act structure, which really more or less breaks down into the following: The Christoph Waltz Show, The Waltz and Jaime Foxx Show, The Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio Show, The Samuel L. Jackson Show, and finally The Jaime Foxx Gets To Kill Everyone Show.

Waltz, Tarantino's Oscar winner for his turn as the Nazi Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, dominates the early part of Django Unchained. As slavery-hating German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, Waltz loquaciously frees Django from captivity and indoctrinates him has his new bounty hunting partner. Django, naturally the quickest draw in the West, now "gets to kill white folks and get paid for it". Schultz quickly learns "the kid is a natural". Shultz and Django go about their schemes by role playing "characters", complete with multiple visits to haberdasheries, such as when they pay a visit to Ku Klux Klan leader Don Johnson to collect on three bounties and then massacre the Klan trying to kill them. Slowly but surely, after copious amounts of blood is spilled and corpses of racist white people litter the dusty plains of Texas and Tennessee, the greater arc of Django reveals itself: Shultz and Django make a pact to free Django's beautiful wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only slave woman who can speak German, from the clutches of Mississippi plantation owner and "seasoned slaver" Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). 

Their gambit to rescue Broomhilda is fiendishly over-complicated in its intricacies: involving Schultz pretending to be a wealthy German investor interested in paying a "ridiculous amount" of money ($12,000) for one of DiCaprio's slaves who fights in "Mandingo Games". (The unnecessary complications of this plan is highlighted later when, after DiCaprio and Jackson uncover the ruse, the legal arrangement is simply made for Shultz to buy Broomhilda directly for the $12,000.) The latter half of Django is a battle of wits and sheer acting chops between Waltz and DiCaprio, but the winner is Jackson, who completely steals scenes by hilariously pretending to be DiCaprio's loyal house ni- uh, consigliere, but is secretly the longtime brains and fearsome power behind the egotistical DiCaprio. Finally, after a couple of bloody and explosive shootouts, Django is unleashed and gets to murder all the evil, racist, slave-whipping white people left in the movie, and also Jackson, riding off into the sunset with Broomhilda.

While the N word is dropped constantly throughout (and much ado is made by the white characters who see Django riding a horse), Django Unchained takes a much more withering view of those very racist white people, who all meet inglorious ends, usually via their heads exploding into bloody gushing geysers thanks to Django and Schutz's hand cannons. Quentin Tarantino himself cameos as an Australian slave driver and gets to be personally dynamited into Quentin bits by Django, sharing the fates of the despicable white characters that sprang from his imagination. "Why don't they just rise up and kill us?" DiCaprio muses about slaves over dinner, but that idea had long crossed Shultz and Django's minds, even before DiCaprio launched into a hardly scientific analysis of the "submissive" sections of black people's brains. Characters like DiCaprio are clearly presented as despicable, so much so that the act of shaking DiCaprio's hand is the straw that breaks the camel's back for Waltz, with fatal consequences for everyone involved. If anything, Django Unchained is probably about 20 minutes too long, which would equate to about 11 fewer white folks being dead, but then every single dead white person in the movie deserved what they had coming to them.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

** SPOILERS **

In The Company Of Dwarves

Bilbo Baggins didn't want to leave home. A bunch of swarthy Dwarves showed up at his front door with no explanation, started eating all of his food, and all agreed: they didn't think Bilbo should go with them either. Where are they going? To a mountain full of gold, sort of like that giant safe Scrooge McDuck keeps all his money in, except this mountain is guarded by a dragon. Dragons love gold, you see. The mountain used to be the awesome Dwarf City, until the dragon showed up, blew smoke (and fire) up their asses and took it from them, banishing the Dwarves into the wilds of Middle-Earth. But they're going to get that mountain of gold back, even though there's only 13 of them, and an old wizard. What difference can one little Hobbit make?

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (part one of three), writer-director Peter Jackson deposits us back into the sometimes cheerful, sometimes terrifying world of Middle-Earth, 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a confusing re-introduction at first, with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) narrating the fall of Dwarf City to the dragon while writing his memoirs to Frodo (Elijah Wood in a walk on) on what turned out to be the same morning Galdalf arrived for Bilbo's party that set in motion the events of the previous trilogy, which is actually the sequel trilogy to this. (Can I have some of that weed Bilbo was smoking?) The Hobbit bounces us back 60 years to where Bilbo is a young Hobbit (a terrific Martin Freeman) and that fateful morning when his life was totally upended by Gandalf arriving to vandalize his door, followed by thirteen Dwarves, and a Call to Adventure.

If you ever watched Lord of the Rings, singled out Gimli the Dwarf and thought, "Gimli! I need to know a lot more about that guy and his peeps", The Hobbit is the trilogy for you. The Hobbit is positively Dwarf-centric. The Dwarves, I remind there are thirteen of them, are an amusing and motley lot, but they're a lot less memorable than the Fellowship of the Ring and its assorted characters of Elves, humans, and Hobbits. Or for that matter, the Seven Dwarves in Snow White. Let's see, who showed up at Bag End? There's the Old One, and the Fat One (though they're all kind of fat), and the One With The Bow, and the One with the Slingshot, and... uh, the rest. 

The important Dwarf to keep track of is their leader and King, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a dark, grim fellow so named because he once cut off the arm of the fearsome Pale Orc while using a piece of oak as a shield. Thorin's the most interesting Dwarf by default, as the last of the line of Dwarf Kings who really hates Elves and doesn't think much of Hobbits, either. There's a climactic moment when Thorin goes dwarfo e orco with his arch rival the Pale Orc, gets his ass handed to him, and it seems like he's going to be Boromir-ed. You can't Boromir Thorin Oakenshield! He's the only interesting Dwarf! (Hey, I never read the book.) I did enjoy Thorin's method of yelling at Bilbo like he's extra furious for Bilbo saving his life before hugging him, all smiles. That Thorin, he's such a prankster when he survives nearly being murdered.

After a prolonged dinner party at Bilbo's house that was rather reminiscent of holiday gatherings with my family (very loud, a lot of food), Bilbo sets off with the Dwarves on the adventure of his lifetime, signing on as their official Burglar. Oh, what sights he sees! Mountains, Gandalf! Mountains that come alive and slug each other into shattered rocks for some reason. Limitless forests, rivers, and caves, lots of caves, as many caves as a Starfleet Officer in Star Trek: The Next Generation will see in his career. The Company of Dwarves find one cave full of treasure and magical swords (Bilbo acquires his glowing blue blade Sting, "more of a letter opener" than a sword) and find themselves trapped in another, an enormous Goblin City that also sits above the cave where Gollum (Andy Serkis) lives. The geography is iffy. There are also cliffs, quite a few cliffs, where Bilbo and friends find themselves in literal cliffhangers, waiting in mortal peril until whatever Deus ex machina Gandalf can conjure next from his pointy hat comes to pass. 

All the while, our noble heroes are chased by Orcs on Wolfback, led by the pissed off, one-armed Pale Orc. There's also talk of an evil Necromancer living in the ruins of a castle somewhere. They encounter a trio of hungry Trolls (Frodo and friends met a Troll in Fellowship of the Ring, and if you've ever wondered what would happen if these Trolls could talk, bonus), battle legions of goblins, and are saved by giant eagles, who fly them to safety on top of another mountain, maybe a thousand miles across from the mountain they're trying to get to. Couldn't those birds have just taken them all the way? There are also rabbits that pull sleds and a little bird who knows a specific Morse Code that wakes up a dragon from its slumber in gold, sort of like how Daffy Duck swims through all the treasure he found in Ali Baba's cave.

While the humans from Lord of the Rings like Boromir and Aragorn haven't been born yet, many of the more long-lived fan favorite characters make welcome appearances. A brief stop over in the Elf City of Rivendell is a good time to get caught up with Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), she of the twisty white gowns, ethereal beauty, and creepy mind readings. I liked that while Gandalf was busy having His Important Elf Meeting, the Dwarves got bored and took off. The white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) also drops by, and it's disconcerting seeing him try to talk Gandalf out of everything he's up to, knowing how buddy-buddy with Sauron he'll turn out later. Waited in vain for Legolas and uh, Liv Tyler, to show up, but maybe in the next movies. While the Elves look like they haven't aged a day, the same can't be said for the wizards, who look more... wizened... than ever, despite this being 60 years before when we saw them last. Perhaps the wizards age backwards like Benjamin Button.

As far as fan favorites characters go, the whole movie in a way builds up to the first (and only?) meeting between Bilbo and poor, pathetic Gollum (Andy Serkis). Bilbo of course acquires the One Ring from Gollum and plays a riddle game with him. Gollum is the prime example of how far computer generated visual effects have come in a decade; his face has never been smoother or more expressive, his body movements are more lifelike. His loincloth is so... cloth-like. Gollum's facial acting is surprisingly expressive and moving; you really feel for the little freak when he realizes he's lost his precious ring and that jerk Bagginses stole it from him.

As breathtaking as some of the vistas look, the action in The Hobbit is more manic and incomprehensible than ever, especially in the all-out havoc in Goblin City when the Dwarves battle, plummet, battle, and plummet some more. The chaos is reminiscent in the worst ways of the excesses of the Star Wars prequels, when there's just so much stuff on the screen and you completely lose track of characters, logic, reality, and how physics would work. Compare the Goblin City sequence to the similar Mines of Moria sequence in Fellowship, and The Hobbit pales in comparison to how meaningful the action, character beats, and the "death" of Gandalf played. Nothing in Goblin City is as memorable, meaningful, or iconic as the "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" moment in Fellowship. The Dwarves' bodies are apparently made of the stuff inside rag dolls, as they miraculously survive multiple falls of thousands of feet and collisions into stone and wood and rock that should have pulverized their bones and made Dwarf stew out of them.

While the action overwhelms, bludgeons and sometimes outright confuses, The Hobbit succeeds in its many, many quieter moments: the times when Bilbo silently weighs his comfortable, predictable life at Bag End against the possibilities of What's Out There; when Thorin bears the pain of the horrors of what has become of his people and swallows the responsibility of restoring their greatness; the exhilaration when Bilbo runs to join the Company ("I'm going on an adventure!"); when both Bilbo and Thorin question whether Bilbo belongs on their quest; or when Gandalf ponders just what is it about that little Hobbit that makes him stake everything on his potential. "Perhaps I am afraid, and he makes me brave," Gandalf concludes, and that little truth about that little Hobbit is where the magic of The Hobbit truly lays.

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