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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Total Divas 1x1 - "Welcome to the WWE"


The most surprising thing about Total Divas is that  it wasn't nearly as godawful as I thought it was going to be. Oh sure, it had the reality show manipulation, editing, commercial breaks to juice "tension" and "revelations", and everyone came off as some level of bitchy (except Brie Bella, actually, she came off all right and I guess Jojo since she was mostly a non-factor.) But I really did expect, and dread, much much worse. The backstage stuff, manipulatively edited as it was, still was interesting because I find WWE backstage stuff inherently interesting. Total Divas is actually a slick, occasionally illuminating production about the rarely spotlighted female side of WWE.

Nikki Bella is the top heel on the show, that's clear. Everything negative you can paint a woman to be she pretty much gleefully inhabits: jealous, petty, vindictive, egotistical - yet, all she really truly wants in life is for her perfect man, John Cena, to pop the question. (Cena is recently divorced - it may not even have been finalized as of the filming - and is naturally not eager to leap into another marriage. He's John Cena, not Ric Flair.) Cena was pretty funny with his "I can't even talk to you with your lips and your boobs out there" line, whether or not that was him trying to be funny for the camera crew there for their intimate, private dinner. Brie on the other hand seems to be a part time heel and full time perfectly happy woman in her two-plus-year committed relationship to (Daniel) Bryan Danielson. Bryan was great: every time you saw him, he had a giant grin on his face.

I thought Trinity (Naomi) came off well overall, "married" to Ariane (Cameron) in the Funkadactyls. Trinity is engaged to Jon (Jey Uso) and is the level-headed professional of her team. Ariane is a shrill drama queen and I'm not entirely sure what she brings to the table besides being the other Funkadactyl who can also dance. Brodus Clay apparently reamed Ariane out at their WrestleMania match dress rehearsal for some unspecified screw up the show did not depict, which set Ariane's goombah boyfriend Vincent off. The guy wanted to fight Brodus, completely not understanding pro wrestling locker room etiquette. Or maybe it was all for show for the cameras, who knows?


The show painted Natalya as a whiner and complainer, bitter, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Some of that was just how she was edited, but then again, she did say the things she said and I thought she came off horrendously.  Does she have a point in that she's the most talented in-ring performer in the Divas locker room? Sure. But they made her into a complainer. Or maybe Nattie really is a complainer and the show just captured that and ran with it. Maybe that's why her last best push was the farting gimmick. Plus the whole thing with the blonde hair - as if she has a lock on being the only blonde woman in the company? Nattie Neidhart came off terribly to me. (Jim "The Anvil" got a cameo, though. That was cool.) 

Meanwhile, there are the other two "newbie" Divas no one had ever heard of before this show came into our lives: Eva Marie and Jojo. Eva Marie's storyline is about the company ordering her to go blonde and she instead rebelled rebelliously like the rebel she is and died her hair crayon red. And she got away with it, but with a stern "toe the line" order to go along with it. Otherwise, Nattie had to babysit these two noobs, while Brie and Nikki made a show of "hazing" them by making them get them champagne, not unlike when Wade Barrett asked Nikki's boyfriend to go get him a glass of water when they were in The Nexus. I believe it was Nikki who did have the zinger to the noobs: "You don't need to be taking pictures, nobody knows who you are."

All of this leads to WrestleMania and the untold story of why The Bellas and Team Rhodes Scholars (completely absent from the show, perhaps Damien Sandow wisely opted against signing the E! release forms?) vs. Tons of Funk and The Funkadactyls was cut from WrestleMania 29. The show made it seem like it was because the elderly African American seamstresses backstage were unable to sew the Funkadactyls' sequined bottoms up in time, but no, after manipulative commercial breaks, we learn it was simply because "the match before them" (Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar) went long.

This was a tragedy. No, I'm not being facetious, I remember being pissed because I did want to see that match.

And thus Total Divas ended in crushing disappointment for the Bellas and the Funkadactyls. But there's a whole season of redemption to go...

TOTAL DIVAS REVELATION: Up until the filming of episode one of Total Divas, it seems John Cena had never seen The Notebook.



Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The To-Do List

THE TO-DO LIST

** SPOILERS **

The To-Do List swears by that old chestnut of screenwriting: if you introduce a turd in a swimming pool, it must end up in the main character's mouth. That main character is played by Aubrey Plaza, beloved by we fans of Parks and Recreation, in her first major starring role. It's a damn shame she had to eat a turd, figuratively and literally, to topline a mainstream Hollywood comedy, and that very comedy drowned her endearingly offputting charms like a turd in a swimming pool. Plaza plays a Type A high school senior who's the spiritual successor of Reese Witherspoon in Election, but with a curiosity and desire to become sexually experienced Tracy Flick never showed much interest in. To win over the buff studmuffin of her loins' desires, Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights, Plaza assembles a To-Do List of sexual acts she must perform to gain experience. Complicating matters is Plaza working a summer job at a community swimming pool with Porter and their slovenly boss Bill Hader. The To-Do List assembles a dream cast of young sitcom all-stars, Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development, Donald Glover of Community, Andy Samberg of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, plus Connie Britton and Clark Gregg as Plaza's parents, and squanders them beyond belief with a script that probably seemed hilarious on paper but misses the mark with inept direction and lackadaisical editing that guts the humor right out of the movie. Faring worst of all is Rachel Bilson as Plaza's oversexed older sister. Pretty as Bilson is, there doesn't seem to be a comedic bone in her body; how she was supposed to be funny when most of her dialogue reduced her to spouting "DUH!" and "Loser!" at Plaza is confounding. A few gags work, mostly involving Plaza performing sex acts like a spirited masturbation scene and giving Samberg a blowjob in a shower, but otherwise, sadly, "Be A Funny Movie" was left off The To-Do List's to-do list.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE FLASHPOINT PARADOX

** SPOILERS **

Flash! Ah-ha! Savior of the Universe!

To be fair, the Flash (Barry Allen, voiced by Justin Chambers) is also the destroyer of the universe. Or rather, the "old" DC Universe. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (a mouthful of a title) adapts the 2011 mega-event "Flashpoint" written by Geoff Johns, in which the DC Universe is completely remade and obliterated to make room for the current rebooted "New 52" DC Universe. Story wise, it involves the Flash using his superspeed to time travel and prevent the rather ghastly murder of his mother in her own home, unwittingly upending the universe in strange, significant ways:

The rocket that carried baby Kal-El to Earth landed not in Smallville but in Metropolis, causing a catastrophe that killed thousands and ended with the infant Kryptonian held in captivity for 30 years by the US Government. In Gotham City, the Waynes are mugged by a gunman, but it is 10 year old Bruce Wayne who dies in Crime Alley, leaving behind his grieving father Thomas Wayne. Meanwhile, a peace accord between Diana, Queen of the Amazons and Arthur, King of Atlantis leads to a sexual tryst discovered by Arthur's wife Mera. Which leads to Mera trying to murder Diana, Diana killing her instead in self defense, igniting war between Atlantis and Themyscria that engulfs Europe. Also, Barry Allen discovers he no longer has superspeed and that all of this is his fault. All because he used his powers to save his mommy.

Allen recruits the ultra violent Batman of Gotham City to help him regain his powers (in hilarious fashion: strap Allen and a bunch of chemicals to a lightning rod so he can get struck by lightning). Expecting to find his friend Bruce Wayne in the Batcave, Allen instead finds the Batman is now Thomas Wayne (ably voiced by Kevin McKidd), an alcoholic living like the Unabomber in the caverns beneath the demolished Wayne Manor. Still, they form an uneasy alliance with each other, and with the government superheroes lead by Cyborg (Michael B. Jordan), who works for President Barack Obama (not voiced by Barack Obama)! Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) are about to plunge the world to its imminent end with their war. Meanwhile, Allen discovers the real culprit behind this bizarre DC Universe is his arch enemy Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash (voiced with menace by C. Thomas Howell).

The Flashpoint Paradox is a grim exercise in "what if?" alternate reality storytelling. It's not for young viewers: sex and adultery are key plot points, Batman and the rest of the superheroes swear like sailors, and boy, are these superheroes bloodthirsty. By the end, millions of people are dead, including most of the superheroes, who brutally use their powers to kill each other in cold blood. It's exciting to see such unapologetic bloodletting to a degree, but it also makes for depressing viewing. No one is actually "heroic", no one learns anything of value. The kicker of course is the Flash manages to run at superspeed back in time to reverse all of this so that none of it ever happened, but to do so means he lets his mother get murdered in her kitchen. So yeah. It's also strange that, like in the comics, The Flashpoint Paradox is designed to transition from the previous DC Animated Universe to an animated New 52 Universe, but the previous DC Animated films mostly did not share continuity. Does this mean all future DC Animated films will solely be based on the New 52 comics? That seems unnecessary. Ultimately, so does The Flashpoint Paradox.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pacific Rim

PACIFIC RIM

** SPOILERS **

"We are canceling the apocalypse!"

Guillermo Del Toro's heavy mecha wet dream Pacific Rim hits the sweet spot for anyone who ever grew up watching Japanese cartoons of giant robots defending the world against fearsome monsters. Hits it with a rocket punch. A loving, intricately-detailed homage to "mecha" anime and to the Godzilla Vs. genre of monster movies, Pacific Rim posits a terrifying future of just a few years from now where the Earth is routinely invaded by 500 feet tall alien monsters, the "Kaiju" (Japanese for "strange beast"). "To fight monsters" Mankind "created monsters of our own", giant robots called the "Jaegers" (German for "hunter"). This is all helpfully explained at the top of Pacific Rim in an action-packed Jaeger vs. Kaiju prelude that doubles as a relentless download of information about the concept of the film. 

A "Breach" at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean opened a doorway to another dimension filled with Kaiju monsters. They rise up out of the Pacific and attack our major cities. All of the world governments pooled their resources to create the Jaegers, developing a technology that requires two pilots to mind-meld with each other and the giant robot to control its functions. The Jaegers were an incredibly successful first line of defense until the Kaiju coming through the Breach became more and more powerful. (Kaiju are ranked by category like hurricanes.) The category 4 Kaiju wreaked havoc on the mighty Jaegers until only four Jaegers remained. The world government decided the Jaegers weren't doing the job anymore and inexplicably put all their marbles into building a giant wall around the Pacific Rim, which the Kaiju just tore through like it was the ticker tape at a finish line. (After the wall fiasco, the government has no other ideas and is never heard from again in the movie.) Meanwhile, any attempt to seal the Breach with a nuclear weapon also met with dismal failure.

This is the shit storm Major Idris Elba finds himself in as Commander of the Jaeger program. Four Jaegers, not enough pilots, no more governmental support, more and more Kaiji penetrating the Breach, and the end of the world counting down. His comic relief science advisers, mathematician Burn Gorman, and Kaiju expert Charlie Day, have grim predictions about a double and triple event: two or three Kaiju coming through the Breach together. Sure enough, this is what happens. Elba recruits burned out Jaeger pilot Charlie Hunnam, whom we watched battle a Kaiju in Pacific Rim's action extravaganza opening sequence, losing his co-pilot brother in the process. Hunnam is one of only two pilots who ever successfully operated a Jaeger and kill a Kaiju solo (guess who the other is) but he's still reeling from the trauma. Nevertheless, Hunnam still has all his skills and sure seems glad to be reunited with his refurbished old Jaeger, Gipsy Danger. All of the Jaegers are different and have goofy code names. There's also Crimson Typhoon, the three-armed Chinese Jaeger operated by Chinese triplets, and Cherno Alpha, the Russian Jaeger piloted by a man-woman team of Russian bears. Since they hardly get any dialogue or character development, the fate of these pilots and their Jaegers isn't hard to surmise.

Meanwhile, Day, taunted as a "Kaiju groupie", is the only one interested in the details of why the Kaiju behave as they do, and how they can penetrate the Breach while humanity's weapons can't. So he gets the crazy idea to use the same mind-meld technology humans use with the Jaegers to communicate with a salvaged Kaiju brain. Day seeks out the world's most famous dealer of recovered Kaiju body parts, Ron Perlman, to purchase a complete Kaiju brain. This leads to a hilarious sequence where Day is convinced the Kaiju know who he is because of the mind meld and that a Kaiju is tearing apart Hong Kong coming to get him. Pacific Rim, which spends most of the movie with the Jaeger pilots in their "Shatterdome" base, uses this time in the "Bone Slums" of Hong Kong to intriguingly show how humanity has taken Kaiju bones and debris and built their cities around them. The survival and coping methods of humanity after a dozen years of Kaiju attacks is interesting stuff Pacific Rim only gives cursory examination to. But then, Del Toro is well-aware what people want to see is the robots fighting the giant monsters, which Del Toro delivers after a great deal of human intrigue at the Jaeger base.

In between being hazed by his resentful fellow Jaeger pilots, Hunnam meets his Jaeger soul mate in Rinko Kikushi, Elba's assistant and right hand. She's skilled in martial arts and obviously capable of piloting a Jaeger but Elba refuses to allow it. (Kikushi embodies the usual Only Woman In The Movie tradition, but in the non-traditional way of being Asian. In fact, no hot Caucasian women seem to exist at all in the world of Pacific Rim. Maybe the Kaiju ate all the hot white girls first?) The gradual reveal of Kikushi's relationship with Elba and the reason for her bond, shown in traumatic flashbacks of Kikushi as a little girl surviving a Kaiju attack on Tokyo, is surprisingly touching and deftly handled. As are the familial bonds of the other Jaeger pilots. Despite plot machinations and setbacks, there's no doubt Hunnam and Kikushi's partnership is a match made in giant robot heaven. For some reason, though, all of the Jaeger pilots are harboring little secrets from each other and engaging in petty rivalries when there are far more pressing giant monster matters to concern themselves with. But then, who are we to question the pressures these Jaeger jockeys are under on a daily basis fighting disgusting giant monsters?

When the Jaegers are deployed and do battle with the Kaiju, Pacific Rim delivers the heavy metal mayhem with aplomb. These battles are awesome spectacles, as the giant robots punch and smash the Kaiju, who rip and tear the Jaeger armor with their horns and claws. Most of the battles take place in the ocean and in the rain, which often obscures clarity but does heighten the tension of not always knowing where and how the Kaiju are attacking. Armored but standing in a wide open control cockpit inside the Jaegers' chest cavities, the pilots rely on imaging screens to "see" what the Jaegers "see", and this seems both limiting and dangerous. Indeed, Jaeger pilots don't live long at all, and as the Kaiju grow more powerful, they seem to have little problem with ripping right into the Jaegers' torsos and snatching the pilots out of their shells. Despite being armed with missiles, plasma cannons and - finally - swords, the Jaegers often seem slow and outmatched, using those weapons sparingly and relying on rock 'em sock 'em robot fisticuffs. Occasionally, Jaegers will pick up ocean liners and use them as clubs. The Kaiju, which spew acid and can even emit an EMP pulse, fight more ferociously with guerilla tactics. The debut of a flying Kaiju really highlighted how ill-equipped and limited Jaegers can be, but this also lead to the single best visual in the movie of Gipsy Danger slashing a Kaiju in mid-air in the best Voltron tradition.

The finale of Pacific Rim is a desperate, last-ditch assault on the Breach personally lead by Elba. A heroic kamikaze in which the last two Jaegers take on three category 5 Kaiju at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. One thing about the Kaiju, they're vicious enemies, but they are also considerate enough to know when to lay back and not attack in order to let the Jaeger pilots' human melodrama play out. The secret of how to destroy the Breach is discovered by Day, but is it too late to save the world? Listen, of course not. Elba goes out like a hero, Bruce Willis in Armageddon-style, while Hunnam and Kikushi's Jaeger falls into the Breach and actually enters the Kaiju dimension to detonate a nuclear weapon. When the Kaiju see the Gipsy Danger Jaeger drop into their dimension, one imagines they were as confused as the aliens in Independence Day were when Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith popped by their mothership. Do the Kaiju, which we learn have a hive mind, ever stop and think how many of their fellow Kaiju have died crossing over to Earth to be destroyed by Jaegers? I mean, their track record for destroying the Earth is actually pretty lousy when you think about it. The Kaiju have a 100% casualty rate. Oh, it doesn't matter. Thanks to Hunnam and Kikuski, the One to Grow On lesson Pacific Rim really imparts to both human and Kaiju is that when a Caucasian male and an Asian female team up, they can truly work wonders.



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