Monthly Archives: August 2009

Ultimate Spider-Man: Hobgoblin

Not only am I running out of ways to say that the Ultimate Spider-Man series is fantastic, I’m kind of running out of ways to say I’m running out of those ways. I’m not sure I’m even objective on the topic anymore; it may have turned bad and I simply failed to notice in a whirlwind of fannish obsession. To nobody’s surprise, anyhow, I really liked Hobgoblin. Harry Osborn, son of the Green Goblin, is not having the best few months. His father has turned into a beast that regularly stalks him and killed his mother, and Harry most recently witnessed his father’s apparent (or actual?) death at the hands of the Ultimates and his very good friend Peter Parker. As usual, though, Harry’s return to school and mental state is only a small part of the book’s story. The tragedies that have dogged the Parker household during the same months that treated Harry so badly are finally pushing Peter to the breaking point.

I know things have to turn around soon, since the Ultimate universe apparently has an expiration date that I might be broaching by late this year. But honestly, I’m not sure how at this point. Pete is a pretty moody boy lately, and with good reasons. And the more tightly the inhabitants of that universe are tied together, the more interesting the stories get. Nick Fury’s small role in this book practically guarantees that whatever comes next for Peter Parker, it will not be the sudden positive turn that he really deserves.

The Wayfarer Redemption

Imagine you are a teenager, maybe just starting college. And you’ve been raised in the traditional American Christian mindset, the one that is so generic and ubiquitous that if you tried to imagine a painting of it, we’d have more or less the same painting in mind. But you’re at college now, away from your old life and on your own for really the first time. And your roommate is a Wiccan, and after you get over the exotic amusement, you start talking a lot, and damned if the Wiccan isn’t saying a lot of stuff you’re interested in. A few minutes later[1], bam, you have a full-blown conversion experience, you love Mother Gaia, you worship in the moonlight in the center of the quad, and you’re certainly naked when you do it. You hug trees, not to conform to a filthy hippy stereotype so much as because you genuinely feel connected to each and every one of them. This is for reals the best experience of your life, and it’s aggravating how people are rolling their eyes at you and trying to get you to chill out with all the “We are one” talk, and even your Wiccan roommate feels like you’ve gone overboard.

Okay. Got it?

That person, I think, is who wrote The Wayfarer Redemption. About a thousand years ago, humans got proselytized into cutting down all the trees and plowing the world into flat and perfect order, because the people who hang out in the trees with little horns on their heads and the ones who hang out in the mountains with wings are evil and in fact Forbidden and need to be kept away from humans, and cutting down all their trees is a good way to go about it. Except now there are frozen ghost dudes and a monster-guy named Gorgrael leading them, and there’s a prophecy that says a lot of people have to do a lot of things, like throwing off the shackles of their oppressive religion and teaming up with the Forbiddens, learning to love trees and talk to stags and embrace the Mother[2] and also find each other terribly attractive and fall in love on pretty much that basis alone. It’s fairly generic fantasy pulp that is mostly saved by the bad guys being somewhat cool. On the downside, the writing is iffy and feels like a first book, in that there’s way too much telling about peoples’ motivations instead of showing. Both plot and writing improved as the story progressed, though I’m not sure it got enough better to carry a trilogy.[3] I most likely would not have finished it, except it was recommended to me and I felt the obligation. Still, it was getting better instead of worse, so there’s every chance I’ll read the next one.

[1] Or maybe a few weeks? Things change fast in college, it could be either one.
[2] Sadly, not a euphemism.
[3] P.S. This is the first book of a trilogy.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

Movie genres, you may or may not have noticed, should be sorted by decades as well as types. 1950s screwball romantic comedies, for example, are quite different from 1990s staples such as Sleepless in Seattle. 1970s horror movies are a very different[1] thing from the 1980s slasher-dominated field, which is different again from the 1990s slickly self-aware and post-modern era. (The 2000s, across all film genres, are the decade of remakes.) My point, which may otherwise be lost in an accidental yet wholly predictable digression, is this: if you think that the 1980s comedy genre in which as much ridiculous shit is crammed into each scene as humanly possible and in which, often, the misfits battle it out with their traditionally powerful rivals for control of [the summer camp/the car wash/the campus/the used car lot] is the very best decade for comedy, then you should ought to go see The Goods. Because whoever wrote and/or directed the movie absolutely thinks so too.

I’ve already pretty well described the movie exactly, but to give it fair shrift: a failing car lot hires professional traveling car salesmen led by Jeremy Piven to come in on the Fourth of July weekend and move a lot of merchandise. Occasionally offensive[2] but generally funny hi-jinx ensue until[3] an ill-considered bet against a rival car lot threatens the whole team. Looking back, I can’t say exactly why it struck me so, but the Abe Lincoln skydiving scene was the hardest I’ve laughed at a piece of film since the Japanese investors came to Arrested Development.

[1] and, I would argue, more primally evil
[2] again, in exactly the kinds of ways you’d expect a 1980s comedy to be offensive; no surprises here
[3] well, they continue the ensuing trend after the second act turn as well, don’t get me wrong

Inglourious Basterds

MV5BMTk3NDA0NTI3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTUwODQzMg@@._V1__SX1859_SY893_The problem I think with a Quentin Tarantino movie is that it defies categorization. He’s not exactly his own filmmaking genre, not really, but it’s a close thing. And it’s not even that Inglourious Basterds is a multi-genre hodgepodge like Kill Bill was; it’s on the whole a straightforward World War II action movie. All the same, it’s tricky to explain. But here goes: a band of Nazi-killing Jews led by Appalachian Brad Pitt, a Jew-hunting SS officer, and a young Jewish theater owner cross paths in 1944 occupied Paris over an Allied plot to take out the Nazi high command in one fell swoop. …yeah, that looks right.

There’s plenty of stylized violence, over-the-top yet finely-drawn characters, and episodic storytelling; all straight out of the Tarantino playbook. I guess he maybe does have his own genre. But it’s a good genre! Aside from my appreciation for the tropes and for this particular plot and character combination, the most interesting aspect of the film was, for me, dissecting its trajectory. More bluntly: a plan to kill Goebbels and Hitler and etc. is pretty much doomed to failure in mid-1944. I have pretty explicit historical knowledge backing me up on that point. So there I sat, watching and wondering, is this a comedy of errors? A tragedy? An ironic masterpiece in which any of several plans might have succeeded without the interference of competing plans toward the same end? What movie is Tarantino actually making? Obviously I can’t tell you what he made, because, well, that’s the whole movie. But I can say that lens really worked for me.

A Perfect Getaway

I had a fundamental misunderstanding about this movie that completely changed its makeup for me. Luckily, I would say the change was for the better. A Perfect Getaway chronicles the fates of three couples on vacation in Hawaii who, while hiking in the largely unpopulated wilds of Kauai, are constantly dogged by rumors of a man and woman who gruesomely murdered a pair of newlyweds in Honolulu just days before. So, what I thought I went to see was a horror movie, in which the couples face a gradually hopeless game of cat and mouse against the killers. Instead, the movie is a suspense thriller in which each couple suspects the next of being the harbinger of their doom.

I think that’s the most I can safely say, suspense thrillers being what they are. I will add that our main characters shine pretty brightly, Steve Zahn continuing his [largely successful] quest to transform a supporting actor’s looks and general air into a leading actor’s success using nothing but his talent, and Milla Jovovich successfully portraying a bubbly, vivacious, and merely moderately attractive leading actress with talent you would not suspect her knockout looks to be capable of. (If you found that sentence nauseating and impossible to get through: they were good!)

Dead Like Me: Life after Death

One upon a time, there was a television show in which the always enjoyable Mandy Patinkin (as Rube) wrangled a group of grim reapers, those randomly selected dead who remain alive to harvest the souls of the living as part of the cycle of life and death. Think the personification of Death, if it were a worldwide non-profit business organization instead of one guy in a robe, or perhaps girl wearing an ankh and black casualwear. Anyhow, Mandy was the district manager for this group of people assigned to handle accidental deaths in the Pacific Northwest, and the series opens on one such death of a teenage girl and focuses on, in addition to the reaping, Georgia Lass’s slow process of moving on with her life after death, and on her family’s slow process of coming to terms with their dead daughter. It was a good, funny, occasionally moving show.

In the curse of time, it was canceled, as tends to happen. And then, unexpectedly, a direct-to-video movie was made. Life after Death covers a couple of plotlines, one following Rube’s replacement as the regional boss and one following George’s assignment to reap a teenage boy who happens to be her sister’s boyfriend. The second plotline was everything that I would look for from the show when it was on, funny and moving all wrapped up in one well-written package. The first one, on the other hand, was meaningless from start to finish. There was no good explanation for or resolution of Rube’s disappearance. The remaining side characters all ditched their past motivations, in ways that are slightly believable, but only if I fill in the gaps for myself; the script did not explain adequately. And the resolution felt episodic rather than like its own story; that is, the situation at the end of the story was exactly the same as it had been at the beginning. Which I assume was an effort to leave a space for Mandy to return if another movie is made, because his absence was a glaring hole. But it still made what was half of a good movie turn into half of a good episode and half of a terrible one. The idea of a film doesn’t offend me, but if it’s only going to be a long episode, they should bring the series back instead. And write it the better way it used to be written!

District 9

It occurs to me that really good science fiction movies don’t come along all that often. In this decade, there’s pretty much Children of Men and Serenity. And I mean, those are two great movies, but there’s only two of them, so. Except, I watched another one on Friday. The only problems I have with District 9 are that I have to figure out whether I liked it better than Children of Men and that I have to figure out how to talk about it without actually saying anything.

Because, see, this is a movie that I’m pretty sure is best seen cold. But that makes a weak review, so I’ll give you a little less than I got from the previews, and certainly no more than I got from the first ten minutes. Twenty years ago, a spacecraft carrying insectoid aliens in conspicuously refugee-like conditions appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. Whether this was a true state of affairs or unfortunate human prejudice trumping the facts is neither answered nor even addressed by the often documentary-style film. All that matters is twenty years have passed during which the residents of Johannesburg have become gradually more disenchanted by the slum called District 9 to which all the “prawns” have been relegated after it became clear that their ship wasn’t going anywhere. Nobody wants to be subjected to the prawns’ presence or share any services with them, out of nothing more apparent than outright xenophobia, excepting only enterprising Nigerian[1] businessmen hoping to profit off the suffering and a multinational conglomerate who wants to unlock the secrets of their weapons tech.

So, that’s the setting. The film documents an approximate week during which the prawns are to be evicted from their slum and then moved to a new, designed camp with the bureaucratically original name of District 10, which has been set up 250 kilometers outside Johannesburg, conveniently out of sight and mind of all the disaffected human citizens. That’s about all I have to say, except that it is by turns horrible and deeply moving, has possibly my favorite child character of any movie in history, and did I mention that it is that rare gem of the cinematic experience, good science fiction?

[1] Seriously! They were identified specifically as Nigerians. I snickered.

Condemned 2: Bloodshot

Three years ago and more, I played the original Condemned game. Creepy homeless people, a serial killer, crime scene investigations… fun, scary times! So, anyway, turns out there’s a sequel. Condemned 2 is every bit as creepy, with all the angry homeless people and new bonus extra-creepy people who have bizarre mouth and body-modifications. Not to mention hallucinatory slime people and evil animated dolls and all manner of bad times. The story part of the game is… well, pretty silly? See, the same characters from the previous game are back: Agent Ethan Thomas has turned to the bottle after his successful crusade to take down Serial Killer X resulted in no body, no proof, and a long-term suspension. His lab contact Rosa is doing fine, but the wealthy Malcolm Van Horn is being hunted by… a secret society. That has sinister plans for Agent Thomas.

On the one hand, yay for explaining all the crazy homeless people, probably better than the first game did. On the other hand, changing from a serial killer series to a conspiracy series without so much as a how-do-you-do is just a bizarre choice. One that will work better, I think, if there’s no third game. Really, the story thing isn’t a complaint per se. The game was scary and that’s what I was looking for. My complaint, if one is needed, is that it was entirely too short. Well, and there was maybe not quite enough studying crimes while nervously watching over a shoulder for a well-wielded pipe wrench. …yeah. Okay. Scary enough or not, it just wasn’t nearly as good as the last one. Oh, well.

Halo 3

It occurs to me to state for the record that I did finally finish playing Halo 3. A few weeks ago, I guess? I forgot it was a noteworthy event, as it happens. The Halo games, as you may or may not be aware (but probably you are), chronicle a three-way war between humans (led by Master Chief, a genetically improved guy in a big metal powersuit), um… a confederation of aliens that I distinctly recall having a name that escapes me at the moment (led by religious fanatics), and the Flood (about whom the less said the better in the unlikely event that you care about spoilers for a game that is almost a decade old). The war is fought in a variety of places, but mostly on giant terraformed rings called Halos which figure prominently in the fates and histories not only of the aliens and the Flood, but of the galaxy itself.

In this game, a first-person shooter like the others, you control the Master Chief as always, and up to three other players in co-op play, which at the time was pretty new. Other games have made good roads into that space in the meantime, but, that’s how it goes. And you continue to fight against the other two sides of the war and try to save the galaxy and all. Also, there’s some pretty fantastically customizable multiplayer components to the game.

Despite the disinterested tone of the review, it really is a great game. It doesn’t have quite the strength of storyline of Halo 2, but the game play is equivalent and probably improved, so, decent tradeoff. If it weren’t for the fact that the game play in the original game was iffy, I could unreservedly recommend the whole trilogy as a pretty good sci-fi yarn wrapped around finding a bunch of guns and using them to kill things. Which, I mean, they’re aliens. That’s why they’re on the screen!

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

In my halcyon youth, which is to say late elementary school and possibly early junior high, one of my primary goals each day was to get out of school and home to my even then twenty-year-old, cableless, rabbit-eared television and click over to one of the handful of UHF channels[1] and watch back-to-back episodes of Transformers and G.I. Joe. So when the Transformers movie hit, there was a significant nostalgia quotient even though I really didn’t trust it could turn out that well. Because, giant transforming robots just seem more plausible in a cartoon, despite that modern special effects turned out to be up to the job after all.

Surprisingly, it didn’t cross my mind then that a G.I. Joe movie might happen, even though it seems a lot more plausible that one could be successfully made. Still, once I caught wind of the film’s existence, I was pretty excited. And then, over months of previews focused on metallic combat suits that might be better placed in a game of Halo, that excitement gradually drained away to nothing. Which, really, is the way that expectations management ought to work on big budget summer adaptations of childhood memories.

The Rise of Cobra is at least as much about the existence of a secret military organization under UN authority tasked with solving unique problems on the geopolitical stage as it is about the emergence of yet another new terrorist threat. G.I. Joe, says its commanding officer General Hawk, picks from the very best of each member nation’s armed services, by invitation only. They have a secret base. They are, in short, every UN-armed-takeover conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Luckily, instead of making a movie about that, it’s about fan favorites Duke, Scarlett, and Snake Eyes’ fight to stop an (implausibly) Scottish arms dealer from carrying out a plan to bilk the UN of a lot of research money they paid into his nanomite[2] program by stealing the weapons back upon delivery, demonstrating their power, and then selling the remaining warheads to the highest bidder. All while carrying out a second, more sinister plan that will ensure adequate sequel bait if the box office performs as expected.

But you know what? It worked. I’ll watch it again, and I already look forward to that all-but-certain sequel, and if there were a few pieces of dumb to ignore over the course of the movie, well, that never stopped me from enjoying the cartoon either. I am well-pleased.

[1] Maybe channel 39? I guess it doesn’t matter anyway; all the UHF channels either got bought up by the emerging new networks or else went Spanish when cable ate up too much local marketshare. (Also, I’m not sure who I’m kidding when I say I had to click over; why would I ever have changed it away in the first place?)
[2] Nanomites, as you shouldn’t really care to know, are tiny robots that, in this case, are programmed to eat pretty much everything until told by their software to stop. The ability to strip a city bare in just minutes, although insignificant next to the power of the Force, is a pretty potent threat; albeit perhaps a wee bit too easy to lose control of.