Shouting Into Darkness

It’s Not Easy Being Green (Goblin)

Posted in Comic Books, Kooky Observations by Chris W. on July 19, 2011

Being a New Yorker (or at least someone who lives here and likes to call himself a “New Yorker” because it scores points with chicks out of town) and a comic book geek, there is a lot to get excited about. The Big Apple is home to several pillars of the comic book world, most of them coming from Marvel. Stark Tower is located in Manhattan (don’t believe that hack movie; Iron Man lives in NYC, damnit!) and is home to the Fantastic Four. Matt Murdock has his practice in Hell’s Kitchen, where he also patrols the alleys as Daredevil. And, of course, there is the hero that Marvel and the rest of the world associates most with New York City, a teenager from Queens. Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is synonymous with New York City. He came from a suburb in the outer boroughs, swings around famous landmarks, and was the character Marvel chose to represent them when tackling the attacks on 9/11. In Spidey’s 40+ years in our culture, he’s touched every bit of media you could think imaginable, including the subject of the video above: Broadway.

I’m not going to give you a detailed history of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’s” troubles, as I’m sure you’re well familiar with them. Cast changes, skyrocketing budget, shitty reviews, and a few high-profile injuries to stuntmen. People who saw the show in this state say it was an unmitigated disaster, and if it ever saw Opening Night, it probably wouldn’t last long out of the gate.

Theater people, as far as I know, are a superstitious lot. Makes me wonder why the whole cast didn’t just walk and “Spider-Man” would become as feared a name amongst theater actors as “Macbeth.”

But the show went back to the drawing board, retooled, and relaunched. The result still wasn’t a critical darling, but people are going. This being the tourist season and all, they’re probably enjoying a bit of a bump due to all the people who want to see it just to say they were there. While I’m normally a cynical asshole and am quick to point the Finger of Doom at a project that doesn’t immediately take off and soar, I want “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” to be at least a financial success. Can’t really put my finger on “why,” though. I don’t have a personal stake in the production, nor do I know anyone in the show or working for it. Could be the fact that it’s Spider-Man and the comic book fan in me is rallying behind one of my demigods. Could be the fact that the show got beaten up in the press and I feel bad that it’s got such a deep hole to dig out of.

Or it could just be this song.

This is video from last night’s “Late Show with David Letterman.” The number features Patrick Page as the Green Goblin singing “A Freak Like Me Needs Company”, the opening song of the second act and far and away the best song on the soundtrack. Now, your musical and artistic tastes may vary from mine, but I gotta say, the song is awesome and seeing the Green Goblin costume/make-up move with the actor lessens some of the fanboy disgust I had with the design. I love the chorus melody, especially when a dozen people are singing and putting everything into it. “A Freak Like Me” is the big villain song in the show, Green Goblin stating his plan to turn everyone in New York into mutant freaks like him, and it helps when the villain’s manifesto sounds like it has a pair of Spaldings. To me, the whole show is worth it for the three minutes of that song.

Now, before you start commenting, yes I’m aware that there’s a lot about that number that can be criticized, especially from a comic book fan’s perspective. While I’m okay with how the Green Goblin looks (and Carnage for that matter, too), there is absolutely no excuse for what they did to the Lizard. They took the villain that fans will come to fear in the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man movie and turned him into Nega-Barney. The choreography can be a little weak at times, but my expertise does not include being able to critique dance. Besides, I’m listening to the dancers, but my eyes are on Green Goblin, strutting around the stage like an evil marriage of Gene Simmons and a pickle.

I hope to see the show sometime soon and have a full opinion. From what I see now, putting my fandom aside, there are the makings for an okay musical here. The soundtrack has some decent moments (other highlights are “Pull the Trigger”, “DIY World”, and “If the World Should End”), the visuals can be both goofy and really cool, and it carries the same tried-and-true Spider-Man themes that carried three top-grossing movies. Plus, the tickets for a really good seat are still less than the crappiest “Book of Mormon” seat.

For the full song, edited to footage from the Spider-Man films, click below:


Review: Sucker Punch

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on March 26, 2011

It’ll come to no surprise to anyone reading this website that I’m a huge nerd. My glasses were replaced with LASIK and my pocket protector for a leather jacket, but my attraction to sci-fi, comic books, and logic theorems hasn’t diminished since I was a teenager. The wrapping may have changed, but the creamy, geeky center is still present. So, when Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch was announced and I saw the trailer full of hot chicks with samurai swords and guns riding mechs made out of fire, I thought it’d be like Do the Right Thing, but for nerds. It was kinda like that, except that when Zach Snyder made this two-hour self indulgence film, he forgot to make it any good.

Sucker Punch is the story of Baby Doll, a troubled young girl committed to a mental hospital at the behest of her psycho stepdad… or so I thought until the scene suddenly switched to Baby Doll being lead by a priest into a brothel. The film admittedly exists on multiple plains of reality, so if you’ve been drinking, you might wanna see Rango instead. Baby Doll is either scheduled for a mind-erasing lobotomy or waiting to be sold off as a sex slave to a “high roller.” Either way, she’s got what mind she has left set on escape.

The draw to this movie are the high-budget action scenes that take place against a variety of different backdrops and feature a bunch of very attractive girls kicking butt and being unfathomably awesome. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it was cool when I saw Baby Doll dodging bullets and doing acrobatic flips that blow up her skirt a little bit. That’s all well and good, but the problem is that these “fantasy” set pieces have little to nothing to do with the “reality” that preceded them. Watching the girls battle Jerries in a WWI setting was boss, but where the hell did WWI come from? It feels like it was decided by a random spin of the wheel, and every single one is like that. They’re all cool, but they all come way out of left field in terms of setting and use in the plot. And we only flash to these fantasy pieces while Baby Doll is supposedly doing a dance that would make the film’s PG-13 rating cry. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have seen the dance.

I also want to touch briefly on the subject of gender in this movie. Sucker Punch earns points for having a roster of protagonists that are all female, and the film takes full advantage of the femininity of its cast. There’s nothing gratuitous (except the action), but I still got the feeling that I was watching an updated version of a 70s sexploitation film. In that film, the girls would just be wearing jail outfits and taking communal showers, while this film has them fantasizing about giant gundams. I love the future…

But on the flip side, all the male characters are painted with a stroke broader than a city bus. I’m never one to cry insensitivity or political incorrectness, but all of the guys in Sucker Punch are the worst human beings you’ve ever seen. They’re power grubbing, abusive, and completely mesmerized by sex. Wave a piece of tail in front of any guy in this movie and you can rearrange him like a store mannequin; he will not notice. It’s like all the guys are this awful hybrid of Adolf Hitler and a thirteen-year-old shut-in who just discovered his dad’s “stash.” This could all be a coincidence, since the film is about the male caretakers abusing the female patients, but I felt it deserved to be pointed out.

What ultimately did the film in for me was its confusing story. Half an hour into the movie, I was left behind and not getting caught up. All the different layers of reality, all the worthless voice-overs, and characters I couldn’t give a tin shit about added up to the perfect storm of apathy. I got the feeling that after the success of 300 and Watchmen, Snyder was given free range to make whatever he wanted. Like a kid wandering through Toys R. Us with a huge gift certificate, he grabbed whatever he wanted off of the shelf, got home, threw it on the table, and then had to make a movie out of whatever was there. To its credit, Sucker Punch does have a logic to it, but it’s certainly not telling you.

Sucker Punch is not a terrible movie; there are a few good things about it. The action, as mentioned above, was decent and there were a few genuinely tense moments in my screening. Sadly, they were buried beneath the weight of an audience-unfriendly story and characters that I cared about as much as my laundry. It’s sad because I could see all the influences working on the movie, from films like Brazil and Kill Bill to stories like “An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge.” On their own, all the elements of the film should work. But in the world of Sucker Punch, the combination of two awesome ideas does not make an idea that’s doubly-awesome.

I can’t remember mentally clocking out of a movie as fast as I did on Sucker Punch. I don’t know if this was Snyder indulging himself before he tackled Superman, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a film that was made for an audience. Everything that is unique about the movie only serves to weigh it down and keep it from working. If Snyder had released all the action scenes as stand-alone web videos and charged $10 to look at them, I would’ve plopped down a hundred dollar bill and said, “Keep the change!” But as it stands, I can only recommend seeing Sucker Punch if you have a free pass to the theater and can’t find ANYTHING else you can agree to.

Final Verdict: 1.5 lobotomies out of 5.

P.S. I don’t know why Zack Snyder called his film Sucker Punch. It’s like he’s just daring us to make a hacky joke like “I felt like I got sucker punched when I watched Sucker Punch. Hurr Hurr Hurr”

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Thoughts on The Social Network

Posted in Film by Chris W. on March 7, 2011

I write this at 2:21 AM on Sunday, March 6, 2011 (Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, if you were wondering.) Meaghan and I just got through watching The Social Network, what some critics were calling the film of the social-networking generation. While it was well-made, thought provoking, and had great performances all around, I come away a little underwhelmed by the whole experience. I was expecting The Graduate and got Dog Day Afternoon.

I’ll try to keep this brief because everyone and their pet larvae has heard how good The Social Network is and seen now many awards it was up for. This isn’t a review, just a collection of thoughts I want to get down before the virginal experience of seeing the movie fades from memory.

First, the best thing about the movie are the performances. Everyone from Eisenberg to the sperm-jar co-eds was on the ball. I can’t point to a single person that stood out as being “bad.” Everyone was complex and worthy of discussion. Jessie Eisenberg gave the performance of his young career as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as someone who operates on a different mental plane than everyone else. He’s a brilliant mind, but when it comes to the human stuff, he may as well be another species. Zuckerberg isn’t the usual casting of a geek, where he steps on people’s toes while dancing, makes inappropriate noises in public, and can’t pick up on seemingly obvious social cues. He just doesn’t work the way that everyone else works, and that makes him come off as a serious douchebag. Meaghan characterized him as “Spock if Spock were an asshole.” I agree, but I’d also throw in some of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, a high-functioning autistic whose mind works faster than yours and can see problems in four dimensions instead of three. I was even shocked by how good Justin Timberlake is. I don’t dig his music, but he’s proven himself to be an actor of considerable talent.

I won’t get into the plot because most of it is fiction. The movie is based off of the book “The Accidental Billionaires,” which is a largely inaccurate depiction of young entrepreneurs. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has admittedly twisted people and motivations around to fit the mold of a Hollywood story, since a movie about people sitting at a computer writing code for six years is just as exciting as it sounds. I did want to touch on two issues…

Issue one: the movie is not about Facebook. I didn’t want the movie to be about Facebook because it didn’t need to ride the wave of Facebook’s popularity to be good. I hate it when films try to attach themselves to fads in other areas of the culture in an attempt to prove that movies are still a relevant medium. The Social Network is as much about Facebook as A Hard Day’s Night is about The Beatles. Instead, The Social Network resembles a modern-day Wall Street. You could replace Facebook in that movie with a made-up website and the film would be almost unchanged. This movie is not about the modern social zeitgeist, where we live in a world of status updates, friending and unfriending, and geotagging. Our private business is public all the time, and we’re the ones who put it out there. These issues are not touched upon at all in the film. Instead, this is a “going into business” story. It’s a very good “going into business” story about betrayal, intellectual property, and ambition, but ironically, The Social Network has very little to do with social networking.

Issue two: I didn’t get the accusations made by Leo Laporte of TWiT fame that the film was anti-geek or resisting the change of social media. Like previously said, I didn’t see much influence that social networking had on the plot, so any value judgement that Facebook and similar sites have placed on it is miniscule. The film more concerns itself with the facts surrounding Facebook’s creation, even though most of the “facts” are made up. Also, I think that Zuckerberg is portrayed the way that he is not to stand in for all computer geeks everywhere. The coders that exist in the background to build Facebook as the company gets bigger are characterized as people who know how to code, not as socially inept aliens who code because they can’t speak Human, which is how computer people are usually treated in the media. Saying that Zuckerberg is the film’s statement on all computer people is like saying that DeNiro in The Godfather: Park II is Coppala’s statement on Italian Immigrants to America at the turn of the century. Each director is creating a character, with their own personalities and ways of expressing themselves.

Finally, there is the ending scene, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It shows Zuckerberg being advised to settle the lawsuits and pay out. After being told “You’re not an asshole. You just try to hard to be one,” he gets on Facebook, the site he created, and sends a friend request to a girl he mistreated a few years ago. The film ends with him refreshing the page every few seconds to see if his friend request is accepted. Captions explain how he settled the lawsuits for vast sums of money, how huge Facebook is, how he’s the youngest billionaire in history, and we are played out by “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” by the Beatles. I have no fucking clue what any of this means. At first, I thought it was a double middle finger to all the problems, saying that Zuckerberg is a Rich Man, so who gives a shit, right? Fantastic moral for a movie to have, by the way, especially as the world comes out of a recession. But the more I think about it, I think it shows how his own creation changed Zuckerberg at the end. For someone who didn’t get the social experience and revolutionized how people interact with each other, he ends up being swallowed by his own creation, falling victim to the new social parameters. He’s got all the money in the world and he too is using Facebook as a barometer to see if someone likes him. Like the spinning top in Inception, whether she accepts him or not is inconsequential. Just the fact that he’s doing it shows some type of character change within Zuckerberg.

…Now that I’ve been proven to be a liar (this was not a short post) I’m going to bed. Good night, all.

Review: Easy A

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on September 20, 2010

Easy A was not a film that was on my radar whatsoever. My only knowledge about the movie is that it did the same thing with The Scarlet Letter that Stephen King did with ‘Salem’s Lot and Dracula, which is to say it’s the same story in a modern setting. If given the option, I probably wouldn’t have watched it and left the review for the week blank, given that there are no new movies about middle-aged men who sweat tequila and kill more people in 30 seconds than the H-Bomb. But my girlfriend wanted to see it and I relented since I wanted to make her happy and maybe use it as leverage to get laid that night.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that Easy A was a pretty good movie. It may give off the “chick flick” vibe a bit too much for the average Joe, but underneath its girly exterior is a story with heart that speaks to both sexes, especially if High School is fresh in his or her memory.

The movie belongs to Emma Stone, who stars as Olive Penderghast, a cute 17-18 year old high school student who talks like she swallowed a thesaurus at birth and is, ultimately, too smart for the social scene. After a series of miscommunications with a friend (or what the kids might call a “frienemy”), the rumor starts to spread around school that Olive lost her virginity to a college student. At first Olive shuns the attention, but soon discovers that she enjoys the spotlight and starts to advertise her faux promiscuity to the point where she accepts money from shy misfits to claim she deflowered them. Needless to say, the journey into whoredom is not an easy, smooth one.

There are solid performances all around, mostly by the cast of students, but Emma Stone makes the movie worthwhile. I loved her delivery, the way she made a mouthful of dialogue seem natural and sharp. (Dialogue and English lovers will really get a kick out of this movie.) She was easy to like, not bad to look at, and I found myself honestly caring about her plight. Recently, that’s been a pretty difficult stage for me to get to in the movies I’ve seen. Maybe it’s because I see a lot of the teenage me in her, but I also think she’s an example of archetypes gone right in a movie. Her character is mostly a stereotype: a slightly nerdy teenage girl that doesn’t fit in despite being more attractive than average, but she takes a few steps to the left to make the character feel more real and not just a cookie-cutter insert to the movie. Olive Penderghast is an outsider because she doesn’t fit in to the molds. She’s too cute to be a nerd and yet too nerdy to be popular. If it sounds like I’m back in high school writing a gooey love-letter to a girl way out of my league, it’s because I am.

The other performance of note comes from Nickelodeon alumni Amanda Bynes, who plays the school’s not-so-lovable zealot Marianne Bryant. Again, this is a character that is a few steps away from being a stereotype, but keeps a bit of distance from the mold she grew out of in order to feel real. I thought she’d play like the religious wackos from Hamlet 2 or Princess Clara from “Drawn Together”, but her character is closer to Tracy Flick from Election, a young woman who looks prim and perfect on the outside but is hiding pure, barely-contained evil on the inside. Unlike Flick, everyone in Easy A hates Marianne Bryant and her evil is on prominent display. She’s just another one of the mean girls who covers her meanness with religiosity. I expected to hate her character, but came away with just a mild dislike, since she alone doesn’t pose much of a personal threat to Olive.

There’s not much more to talk about with the cast except for the adults. You know how certain shows or cartoons show the children as being more competent and interesting than the grownups? Well, this is another one. The adult cast surrounding the teenagers has some great names on it: Malcolm McDowell, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, etc, but only Thomas Haden Church made me really like him. He’s the English teacher that identifies with the students, mostly Olive. Malcolm McDowell plays the principal, so of course you have to hate his guts. Then we get to some of the gripes I have with the rest of the cast, namely the repeating. Patricia Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow both at different times in the movie have to pad for time, so they just repeat what they’ve said previously until another character jumps in to restart the movie after it stalls. If you think that sounds annoying, it is, so annoying that it makes me wonder if Easy A wasn’t trying to make the adults seem more childish than the children they’re supposed to be teaching.

That wouldn’t be so bad if it were just straight-up satire. I think back to shows like South Park and all the “Peanuts” specials, where the adults are barely a force in the lives of their children. Those work because of they are not meant to be taken seriously. In the case of Easy A, on the other hand, this is meant to be taken at face-value. You are seeing this snippet of Olive’s life, and what you see is what you get. This wouldn’t be so bad except that the parents and authority figures (with the exception of Haden Church) are excruciatingly incompetent in their roles. Olive’s parents are these California neo-hippies who are progressive to the point of being ineffective as parents. They swallow the trend that your parents should be your friend, and it annoys the piss out of me. Those performances would’ve been flat-out offensive if it weren’t for my feeling that Olive wished her parents were a bit more old-fashioned.

I also couldn’t get past the feeling that the movie’s self-referential moments; they felt like a cop-out. Nobody likes Fourth-Wall shattering devices more than I do, but Easy A is filled with clichés and bad jokes that the film references as clichés and bad jokes. I don’t want to point too many fingers, but this feels like lazy writing. The script is trying to have it both ways, using bad clichés in its dialogue and making fun of movies that use bad clichés in their dialogue. Do you remember being in an argument and some says “If I were a lesser man, I’d say…” and then goes on to list all the stuff he’s supposedly not supposed to say? That’s the feeling I get from this movie.

In the aftermath, I could remember something Stephen King wrote about teenage confessional stories in the 70s and the theme of the Three Rs (Rebellion, Ruin, and Redemption). While you could definitely see Easy A as a movie about Olive rebelling against herself, I think that would be too clichéd. Easy A is more of a comment on the public nature of privacy for the youth of today. As much as I love them, social networking sites have made it seem like everyone’s personal goings-on are as important as someone who gets stalked by TMZ. No thought is kept to ones-self. Thanks to the Internet, your business is everyone’s business and information can spread faster than a lice infestation. Olive is a victim of this side-effect of the modern social media zeitgeist, but partly because she played into it. She enjoyed the spotlight; she finally stepped out from the background and took center-stage, even if it was for a bad reason. In today’s world, fame and infamy are indistinguishable.

That’s the main reason why I like the movie. Before The Social Network comes out and starts it’s run for the Oscars, Easy A is a light-hearted comedy that nails the trials of growing up in the world of Facebook and Twitter. It also helps that the movie is not overly crude. In a movie about sex, there’s very little to object to. No nudity is present, the language is a solid PG-13, and even the hanging cloud of Sex over the movie is very thin and transparent. Like Sex Drive before it, Easy A may talk about sex, but it is not about sex. (The only difference is that Sex Drive had a lot more dildo jokes in it.) Easy A has a lot of heart, some great performances and writing, and is very easy to enjoy if you can get past the fact that it almost begs you to bring a date to it.

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Summer Movie Wrap-Up 2010

Posted in Reviews, Summer Movie Wrap-Up by Chris W. on September 15, 2010

I apologize for being a little late with this post. We’re already halfway through September and that means that the Summer Movie Season of 2010 is already cold to the touch. It’s been a better outing this time around then at the same point last year, but that doesn’t mean that some awful films haven’t sprouted up from amongst the pack and needed to be cleansed with hellfire. So, as is my one-year old tradition, I’m looking back at the exemplary and the embarrassing Summer Movies of 2010.

(Note: I haven’t the time or the funds to see all the movies the summer had to offer, so I will do my best to issue a balance between what I’ve seen firsthand and what I’m cobbling together from other sources. An asterisk (*) will mark a movie that I have not seen.)

The Big Splash Award: Iron Man 2
To be honest, I wanted to give the award to Kick-Ass for being an awesome bombshell of a movie that felt like a summer film released in April. But doing so would be disingenuous, as April is way too early to declare as the “start” of the season. So I bumped it up a few weeks and declared Iron Man 2 to be the official start of Summer Movies 2010. And really, what other movie would you pick? Robin Hood? Shrek Forever After? Give me a break. When your movie features two dudes in robot suits fighting in a mansion to the beat of a Queen/Daft Punk mash-up, you know the summer has arrived.

The Weeping Nerd Award: Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 gets major points for being the first blockbuster of the season, but as far as the content itself, the movie is a shadow of its predecessor. With such a huge cast and an unbelievable build-up, we all expected Iron Man 2 to live up to the pedigree. (Granted, a pedigree of only one film, but a damn good one!) For me personally, this movie was a bit of a disappointment, failing to capitalize on the plight of its hero and turning a villainous Mickey Rourke into a surprisingly bland character. Also, if you had the bad luck to check your text messages at the wrong time, you would’ve missed the climatic final battle.

The Not-So Surprising Disappointment Award: MacGruber*
Yes, I didn’t see MacGruber, and neither did anyone else. Yet another addition in the legion of ill-advised films based on Saturday Night Live sketches, MacGruber actually tried to take a character that existed as a MacGyver parody in one-minute vignettes into a character that could sustain a full 90-minute movie. I have seen worse ideas, and for a while, it seemed like MacGruber might break the SNL curse. Free preview screenings happened almost daily here in NYC, and I even spotted MacGruber holding a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I was expecting a stunner when the movie opened, but then Reality came knocking and MacGruber took a beating at the box-office. US gross stands around $8,000,000 for a $10,000,000 budget. Didn’t help that it opened up against the fourth Shrek film, either. While certainly not a flop, MacGruber’s performance told us all what we already knew: the guy may be a freakin’ genius, but his place is on Hulu.

The Vaginas-Only Award: Eat, Pray, Love*
This was a toss up between the eventual winner and Sex and the City 2, but I argue that it is possible, however unlikely, for a guy to enjoy Sex and the City. Eat, Pray, Love, on the other hand, will literally reject you if you walk into the theater with a Y chromosome. I’m not trying to be a misogynist or say that women don’t deserve a movie that caters to their interests, but this movie takes the goal of empowering women and turns it into a two-hour long Oprah episode that, from what I’ve seen, speaks down to its audience. It was also placed head to head with The Expendables, just begging to ignite a clash of the genders with the local multiplex as the battleground. And we all remember who won that battle, right?

The That Came Out Already? Award: Survival of the Dead*
Here’s a lesson: Summer is not the most effective time for horror movies. If you’ve got a big installment in the franchise, maybe, but the colder months where the moods are more sour and the competition weaker is the best time for a horror flick. Case in point: Survival of the Dead. I had forgotten that the movie even hit theaters before researching this article on IMDB! It’s a shame, too, because George A. Romero zombie movies should be treated like events, like when the Olympics come to town. It should be a showcase of the best and brightest that the genre has to offer, and instead it got blown away at the box office, failing to make back even a quarter of it’s $4,000,000 budget domestically. Maybe it was because the movie had been available On Demand before the theatrical release (smart) or because the public’s interest in Romero’s zombie stories could be waining. I sure hope it’s the former.

The Oh, Sweet Jesus, No Award: Marmaduke*
I understand that kids need movies, too. I was a kid once, and I watched my fair share of crap during my formative years. I even dragged my parents to see Pokemon: The Movie. So, I propose a new law: any child must, on the 20th anniversary of making their parents see a crappy kids movie, must re-watch that entire movie, alone and stone-cold sober. Maybe then we can teach our kids to think ahead and avoid neutron bombs of Suck like Marmaduke. Pulled – against its will, I’m assuming – out of the Sunday Funnies, Marmaduke was a shameless attempt to cash-in on family-friendly properties with a movie that could be shat out by an intern with a thimbleful of talent. Even worse was the cast that was assembled: Owen Wilson, George Lopez, Christopher Mintze-Plasse, Keifer Sutherland, Sam Elliot, and the Wayans Brothers. That list has to be the most unholy alliance since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Marmaduke also loses major points from me by soiling a MINI Cooper (my favorite car of all time) in one of its posters.

The Completely Pointless Award: The A-Team/The Karate Kid* (Tie)
Remakes/Adaptations are like bullets: they can be used for good or evil. In the case of The A-Team and The Karate Kid, the bullets are used… just because? Try as I might, I can’t see a reason for these movies existing. I guess The A-Team might’ve been eager to catch the tail end of the “TV Show Adaptation” fad before the train left the station and Karate Kid might’ve just been a Christmas present for Jaden Smith, but beyond that, there are no conceivable reasons for these movies to be. Even the addition of big stars like Liam Neeson and Jackie Chan weren’t enough to rescue A-Team or Karate Kid from being what they were born as: projects to keep their franchise alive in the public consciousness. Both movies are still enjoyable in their own right and totally harmless in the grand scheme of things (unless you believe that the new Karate Kid has somehow tarnished the memory of the original).

The Everyone Saw That One Coming Award: Toy Story 3
If you didn’t think Toy Story 3 would be one of the best movies of the summer and rake in more money than Guatemala’s entire GNP, then you probably have some issues with reality perception. Here were the facts: a third movie in a very successful family franchise headed by a studio that hasn’t produced a real clunker being released in the middle of June. Disney could already count the money this project would rake in. And not only that, but the film turned out to be moving, well done, and not insulting for either kids or adults to watch. If Toy Story 3 doesn’t win Best Animated Picture next March, the skies will open up and little devil mice will pour out and attack the streets of Los Angeles. You just wait and see…

The Clear Loser Award: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
This one bums me out, as I really liked Scott Pilgrim and thought it was a good movie despite the critical bashing it got. But I can’t argue with the statistics. Scott Pilgrim was a damned expensive movie that failed to make half its production budget domestically. While it’s not the biggest flop of the summer, it was the most high-profile. Like MacGruber, there was a metric shitload of preview screenings and build-up to the movie’s release, hoping to drum up good word of mouth. But the movie was too quirky and offbeat for the mainstream audiences, who instead went out to see The Expendables and Eat, Pray, Love instead. It feel into the Watchmen trap: fans loved it, but everyone else couldn’t care less. Scott Pilgrim’s cult following is already forming, however, and the movie is scheduled to get a huge DVD/Blu-ray release this November. Perhaps it’s a money grab to recoup some of the losses, but fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World shouldn’t worry too much. This movie is bound to be a cult classic.

The Clear Winner Award: Inception
This is a no-brainer, right? Christopher Nolan returns to screens with a new movie that takes the summer by storm. It doesn’t matter if you thought it was overrated, or if you couldn’t wrap your head around the story, or if Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in it. Something with Inception hit big with audiences to make over $700,000,000 worldwide. Now, I can admit that it’s not really a ground-breaker of a movie and it tries really, really hard to be The Matrix of this generation, but I still loved the mythology, the rules behind it, and how in some weird, twisted way, it all made sense. I loved it in theaters, I’ll buy it on Blu-ray, and in the meantime, I’ll curl up on the couch with the screenplay if I’m in the mood for some light reading. In almost every conceivable fashion, Inception was, hands-down, the best movie of the summer.

The Event Film of the Summer Award: The Expendables
I didn’t like it as much as other members of my gender, but there was no doubt that anyone with even a passing interest in action films wanted to see The Expendables. And we all know why it takes this award: the hype surrounding this film could only be matched by a surprise reunion of the Beatles with the Rolling Stones and Jesus as opening acts. (In my worldview, Jesus would be the roadie.) You got the feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and you would never see this much action talent on one screen again (although that seems to be getting less and less true as the days go on.) The film was sold on the strength of its cast alone and delivered on what people wanted to see: action, adventure, explosions, and Sylvester Stallone slurring his own dialogue.

After this movie, it was pretty much over. We’d seen all the summer had to offer us and we were spent like lovers collapsing onto the bed after a mutually enjoyable ride. Machete and Resident Evil: Afterlife closed the book on the summer and would usher in the new season of films that would probably all be knifing each other for awards come 2011, but for some reason, I’m sad to see it go. This was an above-average summer, and I’ll be glad to revisit a lot of these movies in a few months, when the DVDs arrive and remind me what a pleasure it was to sit through the Summer of 2010.

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Review: Machete

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on September 3, 2010

2010 is the year of the Poorly-Timed Movie. In February, Kevin Smith gave us Cop Out – a film about a straight cop with his goofball sidekick – only to find that, a few months later, Will Ferrel would whack us over the head with The Other Guys, another film about a straight-laced cop with a kooky partner. Later on, in the summer, Warner Bros. released The Losers, a comic-book adaptation about a special-ops group betrayed by the government, and almost got in head-to-head competition with The A-Team, a film about a TV show about a group of mercenaries that gets double-crossed by the government. Sensing a theme, yet? Finally, we have The Expendables, one of the largest action movies ever made with an ensemble cast, and a few weeks later Robert Rodriquez gives us Machete, an exploitation movie with a huge cast and a big budget for stage blood. And they say creativity is dead in Hollywood…

Watching Machete, you do get a sense of dejá vu, especially after seeing The Expendables. The films have similar feels and an emphasis on stylized action over substance. The difference is that where The Expendables felt suffocated by its huge cast, transparent plot, and horrendous dialogue, Machete thrives. I came away from The Expendables just liking it. I walked out of Machete loving it.

So here’s the plot in a nutshell: Danny Trejo plays Machete, a betrayed Federale agent who goes underground and makes money as a day-laborer in Texas. When Mr. Bloom (Jeff Fahey) takes notice, he offers Machete $100,000 to shoot an aspiring senator (Robert DeNiro, giving the worst Southern accent I’ve heard since Larry the Cable Guy) who appears tough on illegal immigration. But, of course, it’s all a trap and Machete must unravel the mystery behind who tried to frame him, all while dodging flying lead and killing more people than cholera.

You want to know why Machete works? I think it’s the humor. Most of the movie is played for laughs, but not in a Naked Gun way where the laughs are put front and center. Machete has plenty of moments of extreme violence and nudity (both things that make it a winner in my book), but when those moments are over, the film allows you to break the tension with a small joke usually caused by winking at the audience. Let me explain: a lot of the cast is there to look pretty/tough, but some of the cast is there because their presence in the roll makes it funny. As mentioned above, Robert DeNiro might want to stop getting scripts that require him to do an accent, because he’s not very good at some of them. Cheech Marin gets a few big laughs because he’s Cheech Marin and that’s what he does. Don Johnson plays a very good bad guy, but every time he drops a racial slur, I have to remember that it’s from the same voice that sang “Heartbeat.” But the queen of unintentional comedy is Lindsay Lohan. She plays April, who is… basically Lindsay Lohan in the context of the movie. She’s addicted to meth, she makes sex tapes, and she’s generally stupid. I’ll bet this is her first Method Acting job ever.

The obvious winner in Machete is Machete himself: Danny Trejo. He may not have the best acting chops ever, but the camera loves him. Whenever he’s on screen, your eye is drawn to him, even if he’s surrounded by a wall of boobies and a thick wad of cash in an easily reachable area. Nobody plays a badass as good as he does. I usually like my action heroes to have a personality or ability to relate to me before I’ll respond, but you can show me a picture of Danny Trejo with the caption of “Badass” and I wouldn’t need any more information. In the movie he’s stoic, brutal, and at times, really funny. I don’t want him to succeed because I feel for his plight – the murder of his family by Drug Lord Torres (Played by Steven Segal, I shit you not) is well done in the movie, but you don’t feel that it’s a motivator for Machete’s character – you want him to succeed because it will allow him to keep kicking ass.

Now, you may notice that the style of the film is a bit… extreme. This is another Grindhouse movie, although not under the Grindhouse banner. The opening sequence and credits have the same warm 1970s film look where the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns bring you back to the days of shag carpeting and 8-track tapes. And just like in Grindhouse, the film is scratched and abused to represent age or perhaps bitter memories. It’s a shame that the whole film doesn’t get that treatment, but I can let go of that desire. The rest of Machete looks normal, at least technically, but the heart and soul are still back in the 70s. Blood gags are performed in a visceral, low-budget style that relies more on sound effects and editing tricks than a million squibs and guacamole guns. It may sound corny and low-tech now, but trust me, Machete’s editing and sound effects blow Stallone’s CGI blood out of the water.

Machete himself is a throwback to exploitation cinema characters, specifically characters like Shaft or Foxy Brown. These characters are the alphas. They represent everything that’s good and desirable both in the film and to its audience. Not in an upturned-nose, “take the moral high ground” sense – Machete does everything BUT take the moral high ground – but in the sense that Machete is a vessel for wish and ego fulfillment. You know that line “Women want him and men want to be like him”? That’s what Machete is: a macho, badass, tank of a man who can kill a hundred Navy SEALs with a bobby pin and instantly fuck anyone with two breasts and a vulva (a trait which becomes a running gag later in the film).

The film is also heavily stacked in his favor. You know how some video games have hidden cheat codes that give the player unlimited ammo and health, making the player invincible? Machete’s cheat code is “T-R-E-J-O”. It seems that everything in the movie goes his way just because he’s the hero, like he drew the “protagonist” straw in the cast lottery before shooting. Granted, it’s no less absurd than other action movies and certainly doesn’t reach the lucky streak that Adam West possessed in Batman: The Movie. But for some reason, I could notice it this time around. Maybe it’s how the rest of the cast acts around Machete. Women instantly drop their panties at the sight of him, people rally around him like he dispensed free cold soda, and some bad guys will literally give up and walk away when facing him down. That’s a level of badassery that has yet to be officially charted!

As to what the film “means”? You might be able to find some deep message in the movie if you suck on it hard enough, but that’s not the point. Given today’s political climate, it would be easy to portray Machete as a rallying cry for immigrants everywhere to showcase their influence and worth in modern America. The film almost begs you to jump to that conclusion, but while Machete may have some political/social relevance in the moment, I don’t think it’s making a fist on the manner. The characters are so over-the-top, the motivations so ludicrous, that to draw any parallel between Machete and real life is to lose all credibility. DeNiro’s character is so corrupt that he goes on an Immigrant Hunting Spree with the local Minutemen, even going so far as to have himself filmed while shooting at fleeing illegals. If you can predict how well that will work out, congratulations, you’ve clearly completed third grade.

Machete doesn’t comment on the issue of Immigration in America, but chooses to satirize the hoopla that it generates. Like Kubric taking the piss out of the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove, Rodriguez blows up every aspect of the immigration debate to point out how unimportant the whole thing is to the grand political picture of America, and how easily a non-issue can be made into an issue by those who know how to manipulate. Senator MacLaughlin’s political ads are the slimiest, most despicable things you’ve ever seen, and yet they aren’t that far off from the real political ads of today. The crowds at his rallies swing back and forth faster than a tetherball in a wind tunnel. Machete doesn’t try to serve up a moral or a message amongst the carnage; it gives its middle finger to the whole ordeal and goes back to slicing necks with sharp blades.

With all that I’ve said about the movie, there is also a LOT you can make fun of, the usual absurdity of action movies and how Rodriguez always chooses to cast a caucasian action as a Mexican drug lord. The adrenaline and fun of the movie makes me forget about or fail to notice those things, but I’d be fooling myself if I thought they weren’t there. Also, Machete is not a movie for everyone. If you’re not hooked within ten minutes, I’d recommend walking out and trying to get your money back as it won’t get any better for you. But if you’re a lover of SMFC films with great action and a sense of humor about themselves, sharpen your blade. Machete awaits…

Final Verdict: 3.5 intestines out of 5

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on August 15, 2010

This is a real “love it or totally fucking despise it” movie. Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, “Spaced”) adaptation of the Internet manga comic turned graphic novel has been one of the most promoted movies of the summer. Not a week went by that I didn’t get an invite for an early screening, not to mention that Scott Pilgrim was all over Comic-Con this year with cast & crew panels and another free screening of the movie. Either they focus-grouped the Hell out of this thing, or they wanted a grass-roots swelling of support from the geek crowd and their supposedly nonexistent girlfriends.

I think it has to be the latter, because a movie like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does not get made by committee. It’s style is too extreme. Any random person off the street plopped down in front of this movie would soon be reduced to a smoking pile of ash. Their unvaccinated brain couldn’t take it. So, the very fact that the movie turned out the way that it did is either a testament to how much the studio trusted Wright to bring out the movie’s intended audience and satisfy them, or to how much they weren’t paying attention.

I saw the movie last night with my girlfriend. For disclosure, we’re both video game fanatics. I’m into comic books, she’s into manga and anime. We’re so far in the movie’s demographic that Edgar Wright should’ve hand-delivered a work print to our house. After it was all done, she came away loving the movie. I liked it enough, but the honest critic buried deep within me had to deduct major points for the reasons I’m about to explain…

Meet Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a 22-year-old with no direction at all. He plays in a bad punk band and dreamwalks his way through life. I would describe him as a cross between Walter Mitty and Chris from “Family Guy.” Things are… I don’t know, existing… when in walks Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a girl who somehow manages to capture Scott’s unfocused attention. He becomes smitten with her and tries everything he can to make her go out with him.

This would sound like so many movies, it would be pointless to list them. But, here’s the twist. The world of Scott Pilgrim is a video-game reality, and where most people have to put up with one or two ex-lovers that just harass you, Scott has to fight and defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes in mortal combat.* These battles come complete with life bars, power-ups, and even a Konami-style “KO!” when one of the fighters is knocked-out. None of this is explained; it’s just the status-quo.

This is where we get to the “Love-it-or-totally-fucking-despise-it” aspect. The film’s aesthetic is so far out there that it could easily alienate a lot of people. I’ve heard all sorts of accusations being leveled at the film, things like “ADD, childish, asinine, pointless” etc. To be fair, these critics aren’t really wrong. The aesthetic of the movie isn’t motivated by anything I can see. It’s not like Scott Pilgrim is a die-hard gamer and this is how he sees his reality. It’s just the world that they live in. And If you aren’t already partial to things like that, I’d choose an isle seat close to an exit. The film will literally eject you out of the theater.

The characters are also a point of contention. The only character that I really liked from the get-go was Scott’s sister, Stacy (Anna Kandrick). She seemed like she had both feet planted on terra firmer, even though she exists just as a voice of reason somewhere in the void. As for the main characters, Scott, taken at face value, is very hard to like. If he were any more aloof, his head would float off his body and never be seen again. It’s also hard to see what any of the women like about him, other than he has no genuine capability to be malicious. He definitely has a Homer Simpson bend to his character, where he might not be very sharp but his heart is in the right place. With Scott, though, I can’t tell if his heart is in the right place or if he just doesn’t know any other way to be.

Then, there’s Ramona. Oh, Ramona, where do I start with you? First of all, she’s cute, so that scores some points with this critic. She also does have a legitimate motivation other than hormones that drives her character: she’s trying to move on with her life and put her youthful indiscretions behind her. But like Scott, I can’t see what the other character sees in her besides her physical attractiveness. From the first time I saw the trailer, one question came into my head. In real life, if you found a woman that had an ex that was too much trouble, you’d dump that person and find someone who wasn’t such a headache. Add to the fact that Scott has to fight seven of these exes and they are all trying to kill him. If he had a working brain in his head, he would’ve said to her, “Listen, I like you and all, but masturbation is way easier and less deadly.”

I think it goes beyond video game clichés, though. Scott Pilgrim incorporates elements of its comic book origin, which frankly, got to the point of annoying for me. Certain moments were cool and gave me insight into that moment’s inspiration (It was almost like I could see the frame in the comic book), but other times it just went overboard, such as when a “RIIIINNNG!” or “Knock Knock” graphic went up every time a phone rang or a door knocked. I’m frankly surprised that Adam West and Burt Ward didn’t make a cameo appearance. The lesson learned: films have a sound track so I can HEAR when a phone rings or a door knocks!

But apart from the video games and the comic books, there are some elements of Warner Bros. here. Even though this is a Universal movie, I could see some Looney Tunes deep within the soul of Scott Pilgrim. In fact, if I had to describe the movie, it would be Hot Fuzz for video games with a side of Wile E. Coyote. I think that’s what tipped it in the direction of “enjoyment” for me. The film doesn’t really take itself seriously, but never winks at the audience. And there is an enjoyment of the action, too. The Expendables tried to find your adrenal gland and squeeze it, but Scott Pilgrim vs. The World tries to find that part of your mind that never grew up past that stage where Power Rangers was the epitome of cool and Tiny Toon Adventures was the funniest thing around. Scott Pilgrim tells the audience, “Relax, it’s okay to have fun with this movie.”

Now for the big news, the movie actually does feel like it’s more than just the random assemblage of pictures and noises. Scott Pilgrim is about moving on, a pretty universal theme given that the aesthetic of the movie is the antithesis of “universal.” Both Scott and Ramona are trying to move on from past relationships and grow up, although with Scott, he might not be conscious of that fact. You might not feel for Scott at the beginning of the movie, thinking he’s too dumb for his own good or won’t get it together enough to deserve a girl like Ramona, but at the end, the painfully obvious journey of self-discovery for both characters should give you hope for their future, a future that will probably take place off-screen.

I had fun with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, enough fun to call it a guilty pleasure movie. I found several moments funny, the action was cool if not a bit too anime for my tastes, and the video game references made me smile. But taking my personal enjoyment of the movie out of it, the film is random, over-the-top, and rather futile given that the average person won’t really give a toss for what happens to Scott Pilgrim or his friends. If I cared a bit more for the characters and their plight, I would’ve happily given it a higher score and called it one of the better movies of the summer. Now though, it’s a film that will delight fans and confuse non-fans, but that’s okay because the non-fans weren’t really invited to the party anyway.

Final Verdict: 3.5 1-UPs out of 5

*I decided to use the proper spelling, since while I’m making an inside reference to the game, I thought it would be stupid and hacky to spell “combat” with a “k” at that moment. Sorry for the konfusion.

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Review: The Expendables

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on August 13, 2010

Okay, boys and girls, let’s have a show of hands for everyone who remembers the supergroup “Damn Yankees”… Hmm, that’s not too many of you, so I’ll refresh everyone. Damn Yankees was a rock group in the late ’80s that consisted of Jack Blades from Night Ranger, Tommy Shaw of Styx, and Ted Nugent of… well, the Ted Nugent Band, I guess. All these artists were okay on their own, and the general consensus was that together, they’d combine into a force of nature, destroying buildings and de-stabilizing small nations with the power of rock! What actually happened? They had one hit single (a power ballad called “High Enough”) and became irrelevant during the death of hair metal.

Believe it or not, this diatribe has a point. Just because things are awesome by themselves, doesn’t mean that the combination of those things is going to be doubly awesome, and that brings me to The Expendables.You know those forums on the Internet that strive to put together the perfect cast for Movie X? Imagine if one of those came true. Every single action star of the last 20 years makes an appearance. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwartzenegger, and surprise picks Terry Crews, UFC fighter Randy Couture, and ex-WWE star Stone Cold Steve Austin are all thrown into a melting pot written by Stallone about an elite crew of mercenaries sent to wipe out a corrupt dictator and his CIA backer. The world then waited and prepared for a tsunami of awesome to wash over them.

The movie is out now, and I’m not as swept away as most people are. The Expendables doesn’t fall into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category, but it does live on that dividing line between good and bad, where niche genius is sometimes said to blossom. For full disclosure, if you go into the movie with the right mindset (that is, not expecting most things a movie will deliver) and get caught up in the action and violence, then you will have a fabulous time and should ignore the rest of the review right now. I even noticed a few people walking out of the theater with me saying that it was “everything they wanted” and they wouldn’t mind seeing it again right away. So there is proof that the movie works on some level. For me, though, I have to look at The Expendables as just another movie, and in that arena, it fails some pretty basic criteria.

Let’s start with the easiest target: the acting. To be fair, none of these guys are known for their ability to emote, so trying to find an Oscar-worthy performance in here is like trying to find trying to find a ham sandwich in a kosher deli. That is what’s so remarkable about The Expendables; you can come in knowing that the acting will suck and still be astounded at how flat it is. It goes across the entire cast, like someone just woke all the actors up from sleep mode and ran the “tough guy” program.

Some actors do shine through. Mickey Rourke plays a tattoo-artist/knife-thrower named Tool who brings some humanity to the table to balance out Stallone’s monotone. Randy Couture and Terry Crews have a few good moments here and there, but the real winner in this cast is Steve Austin. I can’t even tell you what his character name is, but he plays all the great James Bond bodyguard/villain characters rolled into a brick outhouse. Anytime he was on screen, a smile drifted across my face.

Do you want to know why he’s the best in the movie? Because he barely has any dialogue. Eric Roberts may play the villain, but the real villain is the script. Dialogue in The Expendables is inconsequential; they could’ve sang “I’m an Oscar Meyer Weiner” the whole way through and the words would’ve mattered just as much. Couple that with motivations that go freakin’ nowhere. You don’t get the sense that our heroes may be throwing themselves into a no-win scenario, one where they might be expected to not come back – what the title would suggest to you – which lessens the impact when they pull it together and kick ass. The villains (apart from Stone Cold) are weak shells of other, better villains. David Zayas (Angel Batista from Dexter) plays a rather empty version of a military dictator that is barely threatening and Eric Roberts’s character (again, don’t know the name) wayyyyy overcompensates for that fact. He might as well be wearing an eyepatch and stroking a fluffy white cat because he’s Bond Villain Lite. You even see him sip a cup of tea while the female lead gets waterboarded!

As for the leads, there isn’t much to speak of. Stallone feels like an even thinner version of Liam Neeson’s Hannibal Smith from The A-Team (which is an achievement I think deserves a reward). Statham spends most of the movie hung-up on his girlfriend who has been cheating on him. Dolph Lundgren is the whacked-out junkie member of the group (although we never see him using, so we have to assume that his mind has snapped from the years of military action or just take the movie’s word for it). Jet Li is apparently out for more money from the crew because he’s short (???). And finally, Terry Crews and Randy Couture show up in the first act, leave to, I don’t know, go on vacation, and then come back in the final act. There is literally no reference to the characters or their absence anywhere in Act II. I would’ve stayed on vacation just to spite the rest of those a-holes.

But I can already hear the collective whine of readers: “What about the action? Isn’t that what we came to the movie for?” In this case, you’d be right. There’s no reason to watch a movie like this other than watching people beat each other up and blow expensive things to bits. For me, the action only worked about half the time. When I see a movie like this, I want the action to grab me and hold my face to the fire, make it exciting. The really big action beats did work (beginning, ending, a few in the middle) and there were plenty of moments that got cheers and applause breaks from the audience. But the rest I either couldn’t follow or just thought were very ho-hum. Can’t pick out anything wrong with the action, though. Perhaps it was just overload.

And then we get to something that, for me, is inexcusable. The Expendables is modeled after these big movies in the 80s that made all the actors stars. Stallone wanted to transport the audience back to the good-ol’ days of the action movie: fast, dirty, explosive, and cheap. They got most of it right, except the cheap part. According to the IMDb page on the film, The Expendables cost $80,000,000 to produce. In today’s Hollywood, that’s pretty respectable for a big-time summer blockbuster. However, when I see things like horrible CGI blood (or at least blood that looks like it was digitally created), bad ADR, and even a few shots that looked out of focus, I have to take issue. In a movie that cost that much to make, there shouldn’t be issues that would befall a student film.

And that’s the lasting impression I got from The Expendables: it feels like an homage to these great action films that we all grew up on, but not done by somebody of Stallone’s caliber. This movie had the potential to be the greatest action movie ever made and wound up just as good as 60-75% of them.

The best thing about the movie, though? It know its audience and treats them well. Sometimes too well, to the point where it forgets what the ultimate goal is, like when a parent treats their kid so well that they forget that you’re supposed to be raising the child, not befriending him or her.

Case in point: the Cameo of the Year. Every year has one. 2008’s was Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. 2009’s was Bill Murray as Himself in Zombieland. 2010’s is Arnold Schwartzenegger as… I can’t really tell you who. The moment got a huge applause break from everyone (me included) even though it was common knowledge that Ahnuld was going to be making an appearance. The scene was funny, and the sheer joy of seeing Schwartzenegger, Stallone, and Bruce Willis together in one Three-Shot is enough to cause feelings of religious epiphany in some people.

Then, Arnold just walks out of the scene, and subsequently, out of the movie. His character is never referenced again. With the other cameos, there was a feeling that the characters were used by the story. In this case, Schwartzenegger just comes in, says a few lines, and rolls out. The cameo isn’t even all that memorable, except for the people he’s sharing the scene with. It would’ve been just as useful to the story if they cut to some stock footage of Arnold waving at the camera and then cut back to the rest of the movie. Bonus points if they put a graphic on screen reminding us that it’s Schwartzenegger, a la Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

The Expendables does one thing very, very well: it knows exactly what it is and what its audience wants to see. Then, it delivers what the audience wants to see, nothing more, nothing less. In Hollywood, that’s surprisingly hard to do and you need someone of Stallone’s recognition to say, “Screw it, let’s take all these action stars and just see what happens.” Kudos for going there and major kudos for putting together the biggest supergroup of a cast this side of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. But it’s almost painfully obvious that the movie was developed exactly that way. Instead of creating an interesting, memorable character and then finding an actor that can play that character, the producers instead nabbed the biggest action names they could find and then came up with characters as an afterthought. Want even more proof? During the opening of the movie, when everything is being set up and the audience should be plugging into the scenario, almost everyone was watching and applauding the opening credits instead of watching what was going on behind them.

So there you have it. When you spend the money, sit down and prepare to watch The Expendables, know what you’re getting into. It’s an event film that’s heavy on the event and forgets about the film.

Final Verdict: 3 “Where The Hell Was Van Damme?!”s out of 5

Review: Inception

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on August 2, 2010

When Christopher Nolan announced that he’d be putting the Batman saga aside to focus on an original sci-fi story, the echo was a resounding “????????”. I was one of those original nay-sayers. I couldn’t understand the reasoning, or the appeal of the new project. The trailers didn’t hook me and even as the advertising kicked into full swing, I was ready to ignore this movie like the sour stick-in-the-mud that I am. In short, totally unfair to the film itself. But despite suffering from temporary Bat-Withdrawl, I’ve found a movie to love in Inception, one of the most exciting sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen.

The plot of this movie is so dense, it could fill an entire graduate course. So, for the sake of brevity, here’s all you need to know: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dominic Cobb, a man who has mastered the art of dream infiltration. He and his support team can enter a person’s dreams to extract secret information hidden in the subconscious. His talent is slightly less than legal, so he resides abroad to try to figure out a way to get back to his children. Enter Ken Watanabe, who offers Cobb “one last job” in exchange for a clean record and a one-way ticket home. The catch: Cobb and his team must enter the mind of a business heir (Cillian Murphy) and instead of extracting secrets, implant an idea deep within his subconscious, a process known as “Inception.” Cobb must complete this job to go home, while at the same time fighting off his own subconscious memory of his dead wife who threatens to sabotage all his missions.
I’ll give you a minute , at least until the room stops spinning.

The plot is really difficult to get a handle on, even now, a week after seeing the movie. It will probably never click entirely for me, but I don’t care. The ideas that Inception is built upon make for supreme intellectual enjoyment, not the gears of the plot. The fun comes from seeing the mythology, the logic behind this new set of rules and all the potential for drama that will unfold within them. The device that allows Cobb and his crew to access someone’s dreams is never really explained, and it doesn’t have to be. You can see the internal logic and guess how it works, in the same way that a middle school kid can guess that a car’s engine makes it move forward. We also don’t know why you go into one person’s dream but can access another person’s subconscious. To explain would take away the mystery and fun. I’m also a sucker for expositional “This is the plan” scenes, which this movie uses as the foundation for all its exposition. As you can imagine, I was in Heaven.

Visually, Inception is a whirlwind of odd angles, changing perspectives, and CGI. The nature of the movie allows the team of Nolan and DP Wally Pfister to get creative and put the camera and the characters in places they’d hardly ever go, all totally justified by the mind-bender of a concept. Everyone has seen the poster where the street curves up and over the heads of the characters; now that just makes the nerd inside me giddy. Christopher Nolan may not be a comic book fan, but he certainly makes movies for them. Where else can you see a fistfight in zero gravity?

Now, onto what brings the movie down from the glistening alter I put it on and back into reality. First of all, the performances were kind of ho-hum. I could get the desperation of DiCaprio’s character, but that’s about the only definite motivation I could get. Why else does everyone else do this? Money? Fame? An extra six inches? That’s a bit of information I would’ve liked explained to me. The only other motivation that struck me was The Architect’s (Ellen Page). She is painted as the young grad student who gets hooked on the thrill of creation as she designs the framework of the dreamstate. Everyone else is a mystery. To me, the standout performance is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays The Point Man. It’s a huge step up from the last movie I saw him in – the abysmal G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. From his work here, I would have no problem if the next movie he worked on involved the phrase “Riddle me this…”

But the biggest problem with Inception is its length, clocking in at a Kubrick-ian two hours and 28 minutes. Most of the running time doesn’t get noticed; the film paces itself very well and raises the tension to hide from the fact that most films are just getting out and you’ve still got an hour to go. Then we get to Act Three and someone slams the brakes on the movie’s momentum. Hard. When the team finds themselves on snowmobiles in what looks like the opening sequence of a Bond film, I could feel the ending approaching. We were all speeding down the hill towards the climax, only to be told that our climax was in another castle. Compound this agonizingly long sequence with what has to be the world’s slowest, most absurd free-fall ever, and you can literally feel time slow down around you. It works as a ticking clock within the film – and, to be fair, time is literally slowing down around the heroes – but it doesn’t help the feeling that the act has been going on way too long. Chris Nolan is a way better filmmaker than I will ever be, but I could take an axe to that last act, sever 30 minutes of it, and probably make the movie better in the process, at least from an audience standpoint.

Apart from its running time, I would call Inception almost flawless. It combines previously disparate elements (dreamscapes and heist films) to create the most cerebral science fiction film since The Matrix. It probably won’t have the same lasting cultural impact that Matrix did, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Inception will wow us and then sink into the background like Bela Lugosi as Dracula. During the time that it is in our collective conscious, it will stand out as one of the best movies of Summer 2010.

Final Verdict: 4 Kicks out of 5

Review: Naughty Bear

Posted in Reviews, Video Games by Chris W. on July 2, 2010

If you follow me on Twitter or have spoken to me casually at any point since January, then I’ve probably mentioned something called Naughty Bear to you. I apologize if I sounded like sounded like a hyper-excited nerd ejaculating how cool it is that they’re re-releasing Blade Runner, but to be fair, I was really stoked for this game. The premise and advertising alone were enough to hook me. Elsewhere, you can read about how fucked up it was to watch a teddy bear stalk and execute another teddy bear like it was playing out my deepest serial killer fantasies. If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, then you seriously need to re-evaluate your scale of “awesome.”

The game is out now. I’ve been playing it for three days and finished about 10%. I’m nowhere close to being done, and yet I’m writing my review. Why? Because I don’t have to finish playing the game to render my verdict. Awesome, this is not.

*sigh* I’m so fucking bummed to be typing these words. I wanted Naughty Bear to be the little gem that I could trounce out to friends and relatives to show how cool the concept was and the morbid thrill of shotgunning a Care Bear’s face off. The more advertising and gameplay footage came out, the more I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Imagine my surprise and disappointment to find that the scent I’d been following all this time like the wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon had been leading me to an empty room with the word “Sucker” with on a sticky note on the floor.

That’s right, Naughty Bear is Trailer Bait, pure and simple. I was brought in by promises of Tactical Sociopath Action in a teddy bear world, dispatching enemies in a twisted mashup of Assassin’s Creed and The Punisher, but what I got was a shell of that concept that took its “kiddie” aesthetic a bit too literally.

Let’s break down what makes this game feel like a sad clown face. First off, the goal of the game is to exact revenge on the other teddy bears of Perfection Island as their constant scorn and rejection of the titular character drive him too far. That’s all well and good, but really, you the player are trying to rack up “Naughty Points,” a score given by the game whenever you do something bad. Naughty Bear might be out for revenge, but you are trying to get your place on the leaderboard.

Naughty Points are compounded by a multiplier, so the more bad stuff you do on Perfection Island in a short amount of time, the higher your score will be. It’d be too easy to just walk into a room, smash up the joint, and walk out like a douchy party guest, so the game keeps track of your tactics and encourages you to vary your anti-social behavior to keep enemies on their toes. This points system feels robust and has a lot of thought behind it. I’ll give the developers credit for not coming up with a “paint-by-numbers” scoring system, so that adds to the fun of the game.

I’ll also give the developers credit for coming up with a unique character that we feel for. The character of Naughty Bear is someone/thing we can all relate to. He’s an outsider, a person who just wants to fit in but because of the way he is, cannot. When he loses it and goes on a rampage, it speaks to the Superman Complex hiding deep within me. Most geeks grow up wishing they were strong and could take out anyone who tried to fuck with them. Watching him, I wanted to know more about what made him tick, and maybe even experience some of his inner rage and psychosis for myself. Naughty Bear also incorporates a sense of humor that gives the tone a desperately needed shot of serotonin. This is what drew most people to the game; you’re playing a psycho killer in a teddy bear dream world, packaged all up like a Saturday Morning cartoon. Personally, I wouldn’t mind spending more time with Naughty Bear. He’s someone I’d like to get to know more.

But herein we get to the problems with the game. First of all, the story is about as deep as See Spot Run. You are Naughty Bear and you harm everyone and everything around you. Beginning, meet End. From what I gather, you play through six episodes that introduce new, tougher enemies and… that’s it. There is a story there, but it’s just enough to make the events you’re playing through seem connected in some sort of causal relationship. Basically, you play through a bunch of different scenarios with the only reward being a higher score and some in-game costumes to unlock. After coming off games like Bioshock 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Alan Wake, I feel like I need a bit more motivation to keep playing your game and not throw one of them back into the disc sleeve.

Well, what about gameplay? That’ll surely make up for where the story lacks! Not so. It is fun to walk around Perfection Island and wreck the place, but the combat mechanics boil down to attack, scare, and kill. Maybe I’m just uncreative, but I can see only so many combinations that those can create. On the flip side, the AI of the bears is pretty good. The developers touted “distinct personalities for each bear” leading to a different play-through every time, but I say “Nay Nay.” It’s true that the bears of Perfection Island will not all react the same to you, but I have found many instances where a catalyst action will set off a predictable set of chain reactions that would be very handy to speed-players.

For example, one section involved a couple of environment kill zones in a small area: a car, a phone, and a campfire. While the rest of the level might play out differently from other times, I could bet on one bear seeing me destroy the car and then – for who knows what reason – would take shelter by the campfire. Every single time. I could always count on at least two environment kills as I sabotaged the phone, barbecued the looky-loo, and then killed the bear who came out to fix the phone. It’s Arkham Asylum syndrome, where deep AI and unpredictable enemy actions only go so far.

My biggest gripe about the game is that Perfection Island consists of about three zones. Three. Three! That’s the number that sits between two (2) and four (4)! I can understand if a lot of computing time went into crafting individual personalities to your bears, but I need more than the same three exact zones to be entertained. This may be the first action video game to take place in such a small square-footage of space. In fact, I would’ve gladly waited another six months for the game if it meant that I could play more levels and have more opportunities.
Before I move on, I want to bitch about the camera and map system. There is a clever mechanic in-game where certain bears will attempt to either call for help or simply beat tail off the island before their stuffings get used for a sock monkey. When this happens, you have to track that bear down and either scare or kill the offender before time is up. It’s an easy task if you have an icon on your map that would guide you to where you need to go, but since the map and indicator arrow seem hellbent on putting you face-to-face with a brick wall, I’ve stopped caring. Let the cops come; I’ll have just an easy time of dispatching them.

All these signs point to my overall problem with Naughty Bear: it feels like an Arcade Game. Your only goal is to get a high score, the levels don’t change all that much, and each episode advances a bare-threads plot that leads to a “meh” payoff. The only things missing are an Italian dude and a giant monkey. Give me this game for 900 Microsoft Points and I’m calling it the best downloadable game since Plants vs. Zombies. As a $50 full-disc title, I’m calling it lacking severely in some key areas that would make this game a keeper for me.

The replay value comes with multiplayer (natch) and goal-specific replays of the episodes. This is where the game is at its most fun, and most challenging. Playing these missions requires you to fulfill certain criteria (such as “don’t take any damage,” or “drive all bears insane”) before you can clear the area. These missions aren’t bad because they play to the strengths of the game: build a high score, play the game a certain way, and move fast. In this mode, there are a lot of opportunities to be creative to maximize your score to put it over the scores of your friends. We also remove all pre-tense of plot, so the game just does what it wanted to do in the first place: throw some challenges your way.

But that’s why I have to deduct points from Naughty Bear. I can kind of appreciate it for what it is, but I had such high hopes for what it could have been. I wanted a game that allowed me to experience a Columbine-esque burst of violence through rose-tinted glasses, a game that really pushed the envelope of what was decent and commented on the nature of violence in our world. Believe it or not, a game like Naughty Bear could’ve said something, made us think about how we consider cartoon violence as “acceptable.” As it stands, you can find some elements of the sociopathic game I craved within Naughty Bear, but you have to really pan for them. For most people, this game is either a casual rental or a total pass altogether.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more dreams I need to shatter.

Final Verdict: 2.5 Annoying Voiceovers out of 5

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