Tag: Comics (page 2 of 6)

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

I miss pulp adventure stories. I miss uncontrived, straight-forward yarns with two-fisted, dashing heroes working against megalomaniacs to rescue leggy dames. Yes, these stories were simple and could be campy or hammy or just plain boring at times, but their simplicity was a strength, their tales unfettered by an artifice of philosophy or an undercurrent of cynicism. Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer understood that broad, epic tales don’t need a lot of inscrutable layers or nuances of postmodern construction to be interesting, exciting and fun. In their tradition comes Captain America: the First Avenger.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The year is 1942. War is rampaging across Europe and, unbeknownst to the Allied powers, a particularly bent Nazi genius has decided he’s been chosen by the gods to conquer the planet. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, a skinny, asthmatic and somewhat nervous kid named Steve Rogers is trying – and failing – to join the Army. At his fifth attempt, a kindly if somewhat eccentric doctor asks why a kid with his conditions is so eager to kill Nazis. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Steve replies. “I just don’t like bullies.” That doctor gives him the opportunity to become a super-soldier, and the results of the experiments cause Steve to be reborn as Captain America.

So Steve is a nice guy. He’s a scrawny, smart and brave young man who wants to do his part to take down the biggest bully the world has ever seen but his body isn’t living up to the demands of his spirit. Who he is – the 98-pound weakling – is very different from who he wants to be. And every time he tries to face this disconnect, cross his Shadow as it were, he’s slapped down by either the bureaucracy or the closest bully. And then, he gets his chance. He crosses his Shadow. The question is, does this transformation change him?

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Not sure what I like more: wearing fatigues over the costume, or the aw-shucks grin.

It doesn’t, and that’s what makes Captain America at once a failure and a success as a character. In terms of character growth and progression, once the procedure is complete, he’s done. He has to get used to his new proportions, strength and agility of course, but he requires no other growth to be the man he’s always wanted to be and his personality doesn’t change at all. He’s still sweet, still shy around girls, still willing to do his part and still intolerant of blind ignorance and hate. Removing his physical flaws in an artificial way, in lieu of a more gradual and familiar arc, has lead to anything interesting about the character also being removed.

At least, that’s how it should work. He should stand there as a big beefy wish fulfillment fantasy for fat Americans in the audience itching to punch out terrorists, or failing that, the nearest brown person. Yet, Captain America is actually not all that American, when you think about it. Many Americans now are belligerent, loud, violently opinionated and fervently religious folk who are primarily concerned with shouting down anybody who disagrees with the opinions fed to them by talking heads in soapbox programs that masquerade as news, and the world’s perception of the country, for better or worse, has put this greasy face on the country. Captain America, on the other hand, stays soft-spoken, confident without being arrogant, more concerned about the well-being of others than himself and uses the power he’s been given with wisdom and precision. In other words, he is what Americans could have been, and perhaps could still be if they’re willing to look past their own selfishness and strive for something better.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Marvel’s own Band of Brothers.

That is how the character of Captain America succeeds, and Chris Evans does a fantastic job of conveying that to the audience from beginning to end. The best part is he’s not setting out to be a paragon of decency, no more so than he’s setting out to be the guy that punches out Hitler. We get a sense of gentleness about Steve due to Chris’ performance and it’s this feeling that sets him apart from the other Marvel heroes we’ve met. He’s no less heroic, he’s just heroic in a different way. The other characters turn in great performances, from Tommy Lee Jones’ taciturn Army commander to Hugo Weaving’s calculating and cruel turn as the Red Skull. And while Hayley Atwell does a phenomenal job ensuring her character rises above simply being ‘the girl’ in the picture, at least once most audience members (and characters!) will find themselves thinking only “Hommina, hommina, hommina.”

Director Joe Johnston is very much in his element with this sort of film, and the quality of it shows. Granted, these qualities may be considered by some as belonging to throwbacks, to less intellectual fare and stories that don’t have the ‘mature’ sensibilities of the works by, say, Christopher Nolan. However, Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t seem any less intelligent than any of the other summer flicks out there, and in fact goes about telling its story in a clean and straightforward manner without dressing things up too much with effects or spectacles. It’s not a terribly cerebral picture, sure, but it cares about a good story with good characters, and that’s more than I can say for Green Lantern or Transformers 3.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
“Superheroes are the disease… and I… am the cure!”

Stuff I Liked: No modern music, and a fantastic score by Alan Silvestri. All cool gizmos and disposable goons you’d expect from a pulp adventure.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Why are the German characters speaking in English all the time? I also felt Schmidt could have used a bit more in terms of motivation or development other than being the token crazy evil mastermind.
Stuff I Loved: Marvel’s subtlety in its tie-ins – a vast improvement over Iron Man 2. The earnest performances of the cast. The tightness of the screenplay. The clean shots of the action, the sweeping sense of scale and the emotion packed into a few key scenes, particularly the ending.

Bottom Line: Definitely worth seeing and for more than just the lead-up to The Avengers. Speaking of which, stay through the credits. I probably don’t have to tell you to do that anymore but I just did. It’s worth it.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Green Hornet

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/green_hornet.mp3]

Even if you’ve never seen a single one of his films, I’m willing to bet you know who Bruce Lee is. A martial arts master and action movie superstar, he was tragically killed on set in what is technically labelled an accident. His style and presence have informed everything from the main character of Cowboy Bebop to the likes of action-movie successors Kill Bill and The Matrix. Bruce Lee was first introduced to the world in The Green Hornet, a TV series of one season that was inspired by a radio serial of the same name. A modern movie has finally been made of it, and if nothing else, I think Bruce would be proud of his successor.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The movie opens with Britt Reid, son of the owner of a crusading Los Angeles newspaper, generally being an irresponsible and obnoxious brat, even when he’s a grown man. The senior Reid is killed and Britt is left his media empire. Britt discovers his father employed a wickedly talented mechanic named Kato, and together the two of them act out a bit against the deceased’s somewhat caustic behavior. In the course of doing so they foil a mugging. Feeling a sense of accomplishment for the first time, the duo decide to continue this pursuit of vigilante justice, but in the guise of villains claiming their own turf. Britt uses the newspaper to sensationalize the events, and it’s the press that call him the Green Hornet.

The film was co-written by one of its stars, Seth Rogen, giving Britt the sort of bumbling, in-your-face humor that’s mostly defined his career. He’s written to be an arrogant, selfish and glory-seeking egomaniac on a power trip. He geeks out at the drop of a hat, isn’t very good at concealing his secret identity and only scores with the ladies because he’s got a pile of cash. And this is how he acts for most of the movie. It’s only after innocent people are killed just for wearing green that he starts to take some responsibility. In other words, he spends the last 20 minutes or so on the character development that Iron Man spent the entire film building, and the slap-dash nature of it shows. It’s hard to care about our hero when we don’t really like the guy very much.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures
One of the few shots where Britt doesn’t look or act like a bell-end.

On top of that, we have a rich Caucasian man taking all the glory and credit for the goings-on while his minority partner does all of the work. In the original radio serial, Kato was merely the Green Hornet’s driver. It was Bruce Lee that expanded the role to ass-kicking partner. Taiwanese singer Jay Chou plays Kato as something of a drifter looking for his place who finally finds it in fighting crime, but the fact remains that he is building the cars, gadgets and legend of the Green Hornet as well as doing most of the heavy lifting in fights, while his rich white douchebag of a boss is getting all the attention. This does come up in the movie, and it’s certainly a more legitimate basis for the two to bicker and fight than the affections of Cameron Diaz.

Don’t get me wrong, Diaz does a fine job and her character actually helps the guys more than she knows, but the subplot of Britt and Kato vying for her affection goes absolutely nowhere and serves no purpose other than to drive an artificial wedge between the two of them and extend the running time. This is time that could have been spent making Britt more sympathetic, like trying to learn some of Kato’s moves on his own or in showing more appreciation for Kato instead of marginalizing the poor guy in any variety of social situations. I think Seth saw Iron Man and how Tony Stark acted, especially around Pepper Potts, and tried to splice that directly into this flick. However, Tony Stark has a gradual and well-paced character arc, a real charismatic presence, some truly funny moments as he develops himself and treats Pepper with respect and courtesy. Britt Reid, on the other hand, treats nobody with respect, tosses money around in place of showing any sort of humility and is really more the butt of a joke than he is a superhero.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures
This kind of sums it up. Britt looks confused, and Kato looks badass.

Admittedly, the movie is on the funnier side of things and isn’t taking itself too seriously. There’s also the fact that Christoph Waltz is clearly enjoying his turn as the affable crime boss Chudnofsky, and Tom Wilkinson and Edward James Olmos provide some much-needed maturity to counter-balance Seth Rogen’s unashamedly juvenile behavior. The fact that Britt is the least competent person around is kind of the point of The Green Hornet, and this keen self-awareness is one of the things the movie has going for it. We are shown the potential of Britt and we want to see it used well even if we have to kick the jerk’s ass ourselves, and it’s gratifying when it finally does happen. It just happens too late to have any real significance. Instead we see Britt being a dick to just about everybody, and him and Kato behaving like partners in far more than the crime-fighting sense.

In the end, The Green Hornet is relatively harmless. It’s light-heartedness means it doesn’t touch the depths of X-Men the Last Stand and it plays a lot more like a groovier and lighter play on Sam Raimi’s Darkman. A lot of Britt’s personality and motivations are lifted from other superhero movies, and Chudnofsky feels more like a gang boss from the gritty but hysterical London of Snatch or quite a few of Tarantino’s movies, which don’t quite mesh together perfectly, especially when you add the notion of one of the nation’s last truly independent newspapers, or the mere presence of the hyper-competent and infinitely-cooler-than-his-boss Kato. It’s a bit of a mish-mash, but because it’s having so much fun just hanging out with you and showing off, it’s hard for me to give a blanket ‘Skip It’ recommendation for The Green Hornet. If you can grok that Britt is supposed to be an asshole and get past the unfortunate implications of his treatment of Kato, and everybody else to a lesser degree, you might just catch yourself having a good time. It might also make you really thirsty for a well-made cappuccino, but that could just be my lack of breakfast talking.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Movie Review: Thor

Marvel’s been rolling the dice quite a bit lately. First in introducing characters to one of their more obscure heroes (Iron Man), then in beginning to weave disparate movie franchises together into a single coherent and shared narrative, and now in putting their extremely loose interpretation of Norse myth on the big screen. The law of averages says that sooner or later, their dice are going to come up bad and the whole project’s going to suffer for it. Thor, however, is not their deadly dice roll. Either Marvel’s just having really good luck, or their freaking dice are loaded.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

In the Marvel Universe, Asgard and its inhabitants did and still do exist. They are the pinnacle of the Nine Realms connected by the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and in the past those worlds have come into conflict, most notably Asgard with Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants. When a few of those giants break into the treasure vault of the Asgardian king Odin, his headstrong and short-sighted son Thor takes the fight right back to Jotunheim. With war suddenly on the horizon and his rule defied, Odin strips Thor of his weapon and powers, banishing him to Midgard, or as we know it, Earth. He’s discovered by an astro-physicist who witnessed the Bifrost (to her, it’s an Einstein-Rosen bridge) and is curious of his origins, while Thor only wants one thing: to get his hammer back.

The plot of the movie really isn’t all that complex. Sure, there has to be some mild suspension of disbelief when you see heroes of Norse legend riding to battle on horseback across a bridge of rainbows, but the movie allows for this disbelief. Thor upon reaching Earth acts like a crazy person, apparently suffering from delusions, and is treated accordingly. While every word he says is true, to us it sounds impossible. Yet Jane (the astro-physicist) knows that we have achieved through science what many would have considered impossible just a few decades ago, and her mind is open to the possibilities. Or maybe she’s just smitten with the guy.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

The film is adeptly well-cast and extremely well-directed. Chris Hemsworth completely owns his role, delivering his lines with such earnestness and gravitas that he actually does stand toe to toe with a heavyweight like Sir Anthony Hopkins. Tom Hiddleston makes for a fantastic Loki, here the little brother of Thor filled with ambition and schemes within schemes. Natalie Portman is a refreshingly simple character, smart and straightforward in her beliefs while being nerdy and introverted enough that it’s clear why she’s swept off of her feet by this towering, sincere and charming Asgardian who’s literally been dropped into her lap. All of them are under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, who might be best known for his interpretations of Shakespeare but pulls off this depiction of ancient gods doing battle with incredible monsters like it’s no big deal.

While the Arthurian and almost fairy-tale like aspects of the plot play like out in a simple way, almost child-like in their straightforwardness, there are bits here and there that show that Marvel is growing up. The integration of things like SHIELD, other Marvel characters and bits from elsewhere in the shared universe are far more subtle than they were in Iron Man 2, a couple of moments being so fast you’ll miss them if you blink. A lot has also been said on the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall, and I had to sit back and smile whenever he was on screen because he steals every scene he’s in (take that, haters), as does Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

It’s not a movie without flaws and I can’t say it’s really for everybody. It’s clearly aimed at a universal audience given its kid-friendly simple plot and grown-up sensibilities in execution, but the interpretation of Norse myths and their integration into what was until now and entirely realistic (if somewhat hypersciency) universe might be too much for some to swallow. I felt like Sif and the Warriors Three could have used a bit more exploration or at least screen-time, as much as I enjoyed their presence. There will be people who split hairs over the relationships between the Asgardians and how things transitioned from the comic books or the sheer improbability of the scientific explanation of the goings-on, and there really isn’t anything people can do about that. In fact, Thor‘s response to such things is, apparently, a shrug of some very broad and heroic shoulders.

This is not Shakespeare or a production of the Der Ring des Nibelungen, it’s cosmic fantasy done with a broad brush in bright, glittering colors. It owes more to the aesthetics and spirit of Flash Gordon and Stargate than it does anything more ‘adult’ or ‘serious’, and its sincerity and simplicity make it almost endearing. I won’t say it’s the best comic book movie ever, but it’s certainly better than most, and fits neatly into the picture Marvel is assembling of The Avengers.

Stuff I Liked: Great stuff with SHIELD. Stellan Skarsgaard as the skeptic and Jane’s father figure. The brilliant visuals of Asgard and its juxtaposition with both Jotunheim and Earth. Sif and the Warriors Three – more Ray Stevenson, please! (Yes, that’s the Punisher as Volstagg the Voluminous)
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some aspects of the plot and setting – the Odinsleep, for example – go almost entirely unexplained. I guess that’s to be expected in a story this simplistic, but I felt like parts of the story or some helpful bits of knowledge were missing.
Stuff I Loved: Just about everything Thor does when he first arrives on Earth, and Kat Dennings’ reactions to him. The reversal of the girl being nerdy and the guy being hot instead of the other way around. Thor being smart, charming and heroic even when he’s being a selfish douche. Loki. Odin. Little things like Sleipnir and Gungnir. The little Easter Eggs in Odin’s treasure vault.

Bottom Line: If you’re interested in Marvel’s uber-project, heroic fantasy or seeing a guy like Chris Hemsworth with his shirt off, go see Thor. There’s plenty to enjoy and a little something for everybody. If you’re on the fence about it, though, you can probably wait for the DVD. It’s visuals are big and bold but most TV screens are big enough to give you a sense of scope. Unless you have an old CRT model like I do.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Judge Dredd

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

(apologies to Mr. Poledouris whose name I horribly mispronounce.)
[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/judge_dredd.mp3]

There’s a part of me that’s glad I didn’t get into writing for comic books. More than likely, I’d have had to cut my teeth on an established title, continuing a storyline that’s been running for months if not years. And if I wanted to spread my wings a little, get a bit creative with character beats or backstory exploration? Whoo, boy. That would invite the ire and derision of a group I know well enough to fear for I once counted myself among them: the comic book fanboy. It’s the penchant for exaggeration, lionization of established canon and somewhat skewed expectations that caused such a group to call Judge Dredd nothing less than a cinematic aberration conjured from the depths of their sweatiest nightmares. It isn’t that bad. Then again, it isn’t all that great, either.

Courtesy Hollywood Pictures

In the wake of nuclear near-annihilation, the survivors of humanity with anything resembling wealth or influence huddled together in titanic Mega-Cities, leaving the have-nots in a barren wasteland called the Cursed Earth. Humanity stifles and chafes in close quarters, so law and order collapsed as people fought for every scrap they could get their hands on. This lead to the rise of the Judges, imposing and implacable members of an elite order who served as both police, officers of the court and executioners of the lawless. The most famous, most feared and most implacable of them is Judge Dredd. He doesn’t just serve the Law – he IS the Law.

So much for the premise, taken from the pages of the 2000 AD comics in which Dredd was the biggest star. A British mag with a dark sense of humor and a penchant for violence, 2000 AD wasn’t interested in making their characters shining beacons of heroism or even nice guys. Judge Dredd hunted the bad guys, and when he found them he tended to make the Punisher look like a reasonable, well-balanced fellow. He didn’t smile, or take off his helmet, or give the bad guys much of a chance to try and beg for mercy. As you can imagine, he was pretty popular, which is why they tried to make a movie about him.

Courtesy Hollywood Pictures
“Admit it, you just wanted to do something like Demolition Man again.”

Of course, this was before writers and directors really started to get comic book movies right, so the film adaptation of Judge Dredd plays more like a video game than it does a gritty, post-apocalyptic exploration of a rather extreme version of law enforcement. The humor isn’t dark or ironic but mostly superficial and one-note. In fact, “superficial” is a great adjective for this flick. On the surface, the names, costumes, weaponry and locations are those from the comics, but the attempt to include as much cool stuff from the funny pages as possible results in what would charitably be considered a tangled, nearly incoherent and badly paced mess. It’s pretty clear that we’re not working with high concept art here, nor are we being terribly loyal to the source material. By now I’m sure at least one Dredd fan is wishing I hadn’t brought up the memory of this movie in the first place and is about to knock on my door in their replica Judge costume to tell me how I violated the Law.

While the writing is a hot mess and the direction’s pretty turgid, the movie isn’t without merit. Sly Stallone in the title role gives Dredd a practiced stoic distance that erodes as circumstances remove him from the daily routine of shooting block war perpetrators in the face. Max von Sydow and Jurgen Prochnow take the opportunity to have a little fun with their Chief Justice characters, which I suspect is something you have to do when you need to slog through something like this. Armand Assante, however, takes the prize as the actor who took the most bites of the scenery. His portrayal of the ‘perfect criminal’ Rico is delivered with such malicious mayhem and over-the-top physicality that you almost forget how badly this plot rolls over the premise. It pushes Judge Dredd very close to the line of “so bad its good.”

Courtesy Hollywood Pictures
“You mean I can’t just act like a schmuck the entire time? But… that’s hard…”

A rousing score from Basil Poledouris makes this movie sound a lot more grandiose than it really is. Diane Lane gives us a relatively strong female lead who feels like a visitor from a better film, while the ‘Angel family’ in the Cursed Earth takes the flick into the realm of the weird for a moment and are quickly forgotten. I would be remiss, however, if I did not give Judge Dredd what I feel is the greatest compliment I have for it. This film, for all its flaws and blatant disregard for source material loyalty, characterization, plausibility and good taste, is the one time I have not completely loathed Rob Schneider.

And any film that can do that, I feel, is worth at least a cursory glance on your Netflix queue. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a good movie. However, unless you’re one of the aforementioned Judge Dredd fans about to burn my house down, I’d say it may just entertain, even if you just laugh your ass off at how much these veterans of the silver screen ham it up. It may not be the best comic-book action-adventure ever made, but as long as X-Men: Origins: Wolverine is out there, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Judge Dredd.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Powers Cosmic

Courtesy Marvel Comics

I grew up on the old Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica TV series, at least until Star Trek: the Next Generation started. There’s a lot of good science fiction out there to be read, and while I definitely enjoy and appreciate harder sci-fi, from Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye to Moon, the more sweeping and somewhat fantastical epics always find that soft spot in my heart, the place where I’m still twelve years old and believe that I can accomplish anything. Which probably explains some of my more erratic behavior.

Take Marvel Comics’ Annihilation, for example. A series of story arcs collected into graphic novels and consumed by Yours Truly, Annihilation is a war in space involving just about every character from the Marvel Universe outside of Earth (which was undergoing the Civil War at the time). Old characters got modern revamps, hated enemies forged alliances of convenience, Thanos was a canny and manipulative bastard and “normal” folks got some of the best lines. There’s plenty of action and great alien locations, making a Halo campaign look like a day at a firing range in comparison. There’s a sequel (Annihilation:Conquest) and a follow-up series, Guardians of the Galaxy, that had my attention for that short while I was able to afford monthly comic books. I’ll always have Annihilation, though.

Recently my wife and I finished watching the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series. It was her first time watching it, and the first time I’d watched that many episodes back to back. In retrospect, RDM modernizing the “Wagon Train to the Stars” storyline and deepening the mythologies at play was a very smart decision, as it deepened the characters and made the story more gripping. Even the much-maligned series finale plays much better by the light of what goes before it, without weeks of fanboy speculation/rage clouding the issue. However, in watching it again I noticed there were some interesting similarities between it and Annihilation that makes them and their ilk so damn appealing to me.

I’m a sucker for good characterization, and these stories tend to provide a heaping amount of characters. BSG in particular involved quite a few ascended extras. Marvel went back to the barrel and pulled out a lot of semi-forgotten cosmic characters, from Drax the Destroyer to Quasar, and brought them front and center in a variety of ways. Drax goes from a hulking green-skinned joke of a character to something resembling Riddick. It was like seeing Starbuck change from the ladykilling Dirk Benedict to the foul-mouthed insubordinate best-frakking-pilot-we’ve-got Katee Sackhoff. In both cases, the campy old version makes me smile and chuckle, while the updated version makes me smile because the character’s gone from camp to badass in the space of 5 minutes.

Doctor Who probably qualifies under this sort of science fictiony pleasure as well, but that’d be a post in and of itself.

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