Monthly Archives: December 2008

Saw V

So I caught Saw V[1] last week, and, y’know, that happened. Which is to say, it had the Rube Goreberg stuff going for it, and the usual test set up where the Jigsaw killer gives you a choice in which you have to do something that is against your nature to avoid certain death. And it had the FBI guy and the local PD guy who looked exactly alike again, but at least this time I knew in advance. And it had a mini-hook for yet another sequel. But the truth is, the first and second movies were very good, each in their own way, yet no entry in the series has matched them since. There’s a lot of information floating around, and each new movie adds pieces to the jigsaw puzzle[2], but it’s just not enough to convince anyone to pick up these sequels, unless you were gonna do that anyway.

At least there’s a lot to ponder about while it’s happening. I’ve watched other horror movies and franchises with far less benefit than the mental exercise these ones give me.

[1] See what I… aw, damn, this footnote ruins it. Nevermind.
[2] And, okay, that’s pretty cool; I can see what they did there!

Transporter 3

It is the rare movie that arrives exactly as advertised. Assuming you’re aware of the Transporter series, I have nothing else to say. But since you might not be, a little more explanation is in order. There’s this guy, Frank Martin. He is an American expatriate who drives things from European places to other European places for people. Specialized things that said people think might have trouble arriving, such as a bunch of mysterious bags in the trunk or a red-headed Ukrainian party girl in the passenger seat. But Frank never cares what the package is, only that he does the job and gets paid. (Will he eventually break this rule in every single movie in the series, and discover that there are layers that might make him change his definition of the job? You betcha, but plot is so far to the side of the point of the movie that it has caught up to the leading edge of the Big Bang.)

No, what is important about Transporter 3 is that it includes the same signature car chases, explosions, sexual tension, and kung fu action that each of the other entries in the series has contained. And a shirtless Jason Statham is probably an important ingredient to some members of the audience; I will not begrudge them it. So, if you want to see a lot of over-the-top action sequences of the types described above, you’ll love it. It is exactly what it pretends to be, neither more nor less. And that’s kind of refreshing, even in a year where I have seen a lot of exceptional films.

Ex Machina: Smoke, Smoke

The Ex Machina series has settled into a predictable pattern wherein three things happen in every volume: 1) Mayor Hundred tackles some kind of political firestorm, usually of his own creation that 2) is reminiscent of an adventure that his superhero alter-ego The Great Machine partook in before Mitchell Hundred ran for mayor, while 3) events transpire around him over which he has little control, such as a crime spree that may or may not relate to the (alien?) oddities surrounding his powers and those of his one-time nemesis or perhaps a behind-the-scenes conspiracy arrayed against him and getting closer step by incremental step.

And if it was not for the fact that the writing is pretty decent and I really enjoy the little drops of information about what’s behind it all, I think the predictability would get me to start losing my interest, by and large. Especially in books like Smoke, Smoke where our hero isn’t even particularly all that likable. But then again, I trust the author by now, too, so that helps me maintain momentum.

In case you were wondering, thing 1 relates to marijuana, thing 2 relates to a vigilante drug bust, and thing 3 mostly involves a firefighter on a crime spree that is, unfortunately, played far more for shocks than for story arc relevance. But there’s some pretty cool stuff going on too, most especially in the stand-alone final issue contained in the book. So don’t believe it’s as dire as I seem to be letting on. But I will want to like the protagonist again by the next book; that’s pretty important.

Ultimate Fantastic Four: God War

51OxcYYylpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_With Skrull and zombie troubles safely behind them, the Fantastic Four can finally turn their attention back to their research and romance and whatnot. Or they could if Manhattan wasn’t being threatened by still more interdimensional travelers, that is. Too many, as it happens; I think this must be what newspaper and NPR movie reviewers feel like when watching science fiction. There were a bunch of humanoids that had no apparent way of sharing a common species, although they might have been engineered instead, which would explain that part. And they had a lot of standard nouns for names[1], but I was only ever able to associate a couple of their forms to names, and only one or two more to character types.

The plot was clear enough, I guess. There’s some kind of war (perhaps a God War?) in progress in this other dimension, and all the unsortable Seed 19 people are on the run from a bad guy named Thanatos, who dies and resurrects regularly, for no clear reason beyond that it maybe fits his name. And they have a friend who they’re trying to save that’s apparently pivotal to the war, again for no clear reason. And Thanatos (plus the good guy, who lives in a giant, world-spanning tree[2]) has a long-standing prophecy about how Reed Richards will help him win, which doesn’t really seem like Mr. Fantastic’s style, but I cannot deny that by the end of the book, Reed was ominously constructing something that looks like it might have been the Cosmic Cube, an original series staple that gave people cosmic powers. That Cube was less inexplicable than anything here only because Stan Lee pretty clearly meant for cosmic powers and transistor powers and radiation powers to be cyphers that allowed his protagonists to do whatever they needed to do, via the scientific power of handwavium. I’m not convinced that Mike Carey has such an excuse here, which is probably what made the book so hard to swallow. Give me my underlying rationales, dammit!

[1] I honestly can’t remember any of them except Tesseract, now, or I’d give examples. But the book is in another room, so meh.
[2] I mean actually down inside the guts of it, or whatever trees have. Not up in the branches.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Irresponsible

The thing is, Peter Parker has a pretty hard life. Not for a teenager; in general. Sure, some of the things that are hard about his life are a result of his age and relative lack of agency, but these are full-blown causes, not excuses. I wouldn’t want his life, if I were to pause and consider it. Which, okay, I would probably not do, because you can’t tell me it looks in any way non-awesome, what he does. But I should have paused, clearly. I mean, he’s got school and a flexible job, which, no big, but then he’s got this whole tight-rope double life that endangers his loved ones even as it drives subtle wedges between him and them. Plus, you know, fighting crime, already a full-time occupation by itself.

In a way, therefore, it’s like the first half of Irresponsible is a kind of love letter directly to Peter Parker, trying to get him to buck up, take a good look at himself and realize what a great job he’s doing. After all, the alternative is being a foreign exchange student who blows up cars with his mind to be popular! And in another way, the whole book felt a little like an apology to Peter, giving him lots of cool things to do and a pretty trivial bad guy to deal with, and maybe a girlfriend again. And it’s nice to see good stuff happen to Pete, because he’s the kind of guy who deserves it, rare though it be. But then, all this uninterrupted goodness leaves me waiting for the other shoe to drop, and drop hard. Because the individual days might be pretty good, but I would not want Peter Parker’s life. Not if I thought about it.

Dead Witch Walking

I can’t even remember exactly why I picked the book up in the first place. Most likely, there was an internet discussion about which urban fantasies were worthwhile and why, and after the Harry Dresden and Anita Blake books[1], the Rachel Morgan series was the only one that struck my interest. Anyhow, between the amount of time I spend at various Half Price Books around the metroplex and the amount of depth on my to-read shelf[2], I can’t exactly be surprised that I’d bought five books into the series without ever having read the second sentence of Dead Witch Walking quite yet.

Mind you, I have now. It was not bad. There’s this girl Rachel, and she’s a witch. And she has a job capturing the bad elements of the magical world that humanity is stuck with, however unhappy it makes them. But when she decides to get out from under her boss’s oppressive thumb and go into business for herself, things quickly go from bloody to deadly. Soon, she’s caught between her old boss’s hired assassins, a potential and unwanted relationship with her vampire business partner, and a Cincinnati councilman / criminal overlord of unknown lineage and power. And that’s just for starters.

Okay, truth be told, I’m not sure I would have finished the book if I hadn’t already bought the next four. Our heroine took a while to get past whiny to likable. (Honestly, she may not have managed it yet, and it’s more that I got used to her voice finally, complainy-pants and all. She for damn sure isn’t as good to her friends as I would prefer.) The plot took a little while to quite get revved up from a simple problem to be solved into actually interesting events. Most troublesome was the setting, though; the average urban fantasy, in my still-limited experience, works as closely as possible to our normal world, with only limited variation to explain all the fairies and werewolves and ubiquitous vampires roaming the landscape. This one took a different tack, diverging in, I think, the 1960s; and what a divergence! Half the population or better dead in America, far worse elsewhere, and with all the magical people suddenly taking center stage by virtue of not having been susceptible to the deadliness. All of which is fine and good, except that the author kept dropping modern pop-culture references into the mix. It’s not that J.R. being shot or Luke learning about the Force are all that impossible even in a changed history. But when she tossed in another three of four such references that I’ve forgotten, it began to strain the bounds of reason. I don’t want to be yanked out of my suspension of disbelief over such trivial matters, is all; if you want to call the pop-culture, just don’t change your world around that much; that pretty much handles the problem right there.

But in the end, it turned out to be a decent book, and I have enough questions I care about that I will want to see what happens next. My hope is that someone mentioned the wonkiness to her, and I won’t run into these problems by the time book two comes around.

[1] about which I already know plenty
[2] Now officially overflowed, if not quite extending onto a second full shelf yet.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Michael Rennie had no reason to be ill on Friday, The Day the Earth Stood Still. After all, the remake of his most famous role[1] had a lot of cool to it. Nice effects budget, Keanu Reeves in a role tailor-made for him, thoughtful science fiction examinations of humanity. It was, on the whole, a good movie.

Which, in an odd kind of way, is exactly what was wrong with it. I’m not sure if it’s peculiar to me, or if I’m objectively right about this: but it needed to be a great movie, to be successful. And it never reached that level. The acting was all eminently competent without being inspiring. The effects would have looked outstanding five years ago, but they only look pretty cool today. The central questions of the film, does homo sapiens deserve to thrive? and what about at the expense of other species?, are important ones that perfectly fits the sci-fi mold. And if there had been any doubt about what answers the film would provide, then the examination of the question might not have felt quite so shallow as it did.

I don’t know, maybe it is my fault, holding expectations a little too high. All I know is, I wanted to think it was great, the way I thought last year’s sci-fi hit was great. And I only thought it was good. Oh, well.

[1] I mean, as far as I know.

Punisher: War Zone

Wednesday movie time! This week: Unexpected Awesomeness Edition! See, there are movies that I know will not be all that good objectively but that will be enjoyable to me, such as Death Race that I intended to see if nobody wanted to join me with better ideas. And then there are movies that I expect to have no enjoyment of even though they’ll get raved about, like Snow Falling on Cedars. And then there are movies that are so blah that I can’t imagine anyone actively wanting to see them, like Epic Movie, or Punisher: War Zone.

There are two things that are lucky for me right now. 1) Ryan picked the movie, and 2) it turned out to be incredibly awesome in every way. You may think you’ve seen over the top before, but I am not convinced you really have. I am not convinced I really had, for damn sure. Examples: the time when the Punisher punched a guy through the face; or the time when the stitch-faced bad guy ripped off Patton to inspire lots of ethnic gangs into a battle royale; or the time when a dude got blown up by a rocket launcher while joyfully backflipping across the rooftops. There is no plot but mayhem[1], and no spoilers but the surprisingly fantastic badness of every frame. I am severely wowed by this movie.

[1] Okay, wait, there is a portion of plot in which our hero tries to rebuild his missing family in the most disturbing way possible. Which just adds to all the rest of the perfected horrible!

JCVD

And then, towards the tail end of the weekend, I headed back to the Angelika[1] to watch another movie chock full of subtitles, JCVD. So there’s this guy, Jean-Claude Van Damme, right? Martial arts movie star from the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s but who has been somewhat less popular of late. And he has kind of a sad life; sure, the Belgians back home all adore him, but he’s losing custody of his daughter and his attempts to revive his career are frustrated at every turn, most recently by Steven Seagal’s willingness to ditch his ponytail in pursuit of a role.

And then, on a perfectly normal day, J.C.[2] runs into the post office on an errand and finds himself locked into a twisted hostage crisis whose events are told several times in parallel, with a little bit more information about the truth of the matter revealed each time. What action there is follows the gritty cop drama formula more closely than the fantasy action you’d expect out of one of his movies, and there’s a substantial amount of comedy along the way. But underneath all that lies a serious examination of celebrity and the many ways that people interact with it that would never have happened if it had been a different man trapped in the post office with the rest of the hostages and criminals. The police and negotiators, the hostages, the criminals, the witnesses to events immediately preceding the crisis, the crowd outside, each brings a spin, and in each case only because they recognize that guy from some movies they saw a few years ago.

Which is kind of the point. Not to judge any particular reaction, but to make us aware of how profoundly differently we do react to our celebrities. Hell, it even happened to me. Knowing full well what point the movie was making, I was still frustrated once or twice that Van Damme didn’t take one of the opportunities to fight back against the armed men, take control of the situation when he was one on one. Intellectually, who cares how good he is at karate? He’s still a middle-aged man with a gun being held on him, and he’s allowed to be scared and not want to be any more involved than he must. But I was still rolling my eyes at him because of my own expectations abut his abilities. All of which to say, it’s cool when something can make you laugh and think both. Plus, there really aren’t enough films in the tragicomic category, and it’s always nice to see one more.

[1] In both cases, there was only this one theater showing each movie within at least thirty, and probably more like hundreds of, miles.
[2] This is probably the only movie I can think of where the lead character having these initials is not a sly reference to a messiah; and then again, the case could be made…

Låt den rätte komma in

This weekend, it has been all about the subtitles. After rolling out of work a little early on Wednesday, I fought traffic and a driving blizzard to get to the Angelika in time for Let the Right One In. (Plausibly, there was no snow of any kind until the movie started; it’s hard to remember?) In any event, there was plenty of snow to be had from the moment the credits rolled. And not just because the movie was set in Sweden, which presumedly is not locked in winter ice twelve months of the year.

Oskar is a bullied 12 year old boy and child of divorce, alone in his apartment most of the time, wishing for the courage to stop his oppressors, and already visibly embittering at his inability to do it. Into that unchanging snowscape arrives a man and a young girl, Eli, who have moved in next door. While Eli and Oskar begin to learn about each other and funble toward friendship, the man is wandering the woods with his serial-killing kit, draining blood from his victims. Oskar’s new friend will turn out to be far more than she seems, and Oskar’s wishes may not be the boons he had always assumed they would. But then again, maybe they’ll be exactly what he wanted.

It was a very quiet movie, light on dialogue in most of the scenes, and I almost think that the ubiquitous snow and cold were characters in their own rights. Symbolically, I mean, as emblems of that quiet, and of the inner coldness of so many of the characters. There was a lot of beauty in that austere trackless white and cold, and, despite everything, in Eli as well. I said to Nicole that the movie was beautiful and tragic, and it was tragic; but it strikes me that it could have been merely tawdry and pitiful without that abundance of austere beauty. I think this marks the first time that I could see why someone would actively buy into that whole vampire obsession that’s so solidly in vogue these days. I’m not sure if it was the cinematography, the acting, or the script, but Eli was downright magnetic in every frame of film, no matter how innocent or brutal the scene.

It’s hard to really explain why I’m still so drawn in by the memory of the movie without going spoiler all over the place. But my estimation of it has only gone upward in the subsequent days, and I’d run off to watch it again upon pretty much anyone’s request. I really am impressed.