Cover to “Black Widow” #14, Phil Noto, 2014

Marvel Comics.

Just a picture of three American businessmen being strung up by a female Russian spy.  No political subtext here.

 

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A few quick words on “The Rogue Cut” of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

If you are a die-hard “X-Men” fan, then I do recommend checking out Bryan Singer’s non-canonical “The Rogue Cut” of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”  You might enjoy it just for its novelty — it actually is a very different version of the original movie.  It has a lot of scenes that are either entirely new or shot and edited quite differently.  (The most notable difference, obviously, is an entire subplot concerning the rescue of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, which was deleted from the 2014 theatrical release.)

I get the sense that this will come across as a better film to “X-Men” purists.  There is greater attention to a multitude of characters, far more character interaction, and greater detail about the apocalyptic future segments.  (I myself was happy to finally figure out why the dystopian mutants were housed in such a strange looking building.  It turns out they were hiding in a Chinese temple as part of an ongoing global evasion strategy.)  “The Rogue Cut” also has greater continuity with more of the prior films — it feels integral to the films’ ongoing mythos, and less like a standalone adventure.

But “The Rogue Cut” might not be better at pleasing general audiences.  It clocks in at just under two and a half hours, and the overall result did feel far slower to me.  There is a reason why movies are edited down — their unabridged versions have problems with pacing that really can affect the average viewer’s enjoyment.

I will also point out that this version of the film fails to rectify what I’ll reiterate is the theatrical version’s biggest story flaw — why would the shape-shifting Mystique be the key to developing the Sentinels power-stealing technology.  Why not the power-stealing Rogue herself?

Anyway … speaking of what is canon and what is not, there is a damned interesting fan theory floating around about the “X-Men” movies following this year’s release of “Logan.”  That movie stood out for many reasons, but two in particular are relevant here.  The first is the radical change in its tone and storytelling, which makes it feel like it takes place in “the real world.”  The second is its odd, apparently meta-fictional inclusion of the “X-Men” comics themselves within the story.  (Copies of the comic books are discussed by the characters, and even serve as an important plot element; Wolverine complains that they are horribly inaccurate.)

Many fans are having fun wondering if there has, in fact, been only one canonical “X-Men” movie — and that is “Logan” itself.  The brutal, subdued reality of “Logan” alone is “the real world” of the X-Men; all of the fantastical prior films (which occasionally contradict one another anyway) are merely the stories inside the last movie’s comic books.  I thought that was pretty damned clever.

 

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A short review for the pilot of “The Last Ship” (2014)

So I finally got around to checking out “The Last Ship” (2014), and while the pilot didn’t immediately have me hooked, it seems like a decent show.  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’ll probably continue watching it.

I was surprised I’d heard so little about this program … it’s a big-budget, post-apocalyptic military science fiction series, but none of my fellow horror or sci-fi nerds mentioned having seen it.

The plot setup seems like something that would please horror fans — a virus eradicates 80 percent of the world’s population, and a lone American naval vessel elects to remain at sea.  (They’re fortunate enough to be carrying a civilian virologist who was tasked by the fallen United States government to develop a vaccine.)  And there are hints that the show’s writers would do well scripting a frightening TV series — there are a couple of nice flourishes for a serialized horror show right here in the pilot.

But the story’s horror elements are minimized in favor of a more mainstream, safe-for-general-audiences techno-thriller.  And that’s not a bad thing, because it succeeds as a such.  The show is based on a 1988 novel by William Brinkley, and it’s produced in cooperation with the United States Navy.  (The destroyers U.S.S. Halsey and the U.S.S. Dewey stand in for the fictional U.S.S. Nathan James.)  It seems smartly scripted with respect to both virology and how the military works.  I’m barely literate in either of those subjects, but what I watched seemed coolly authentic, and that entertained me and held my attention. So while I might not recommend this to fellow “The Walking Dead” fans, I’d definitely recommend it to fans of Tom Clancy.

The directing is pretty good, the story moves along quite quickly, and the action scenes in the pilot are surprisingly ambitious and effective for a TV show.

The acting, I suppose, is average — though it’s always fun seeing Adam Baldwin on screen, and the square-jawed Eric Dane seems well cast and shows promise as the ship’s commanding officer.

The dialogue and character interaction are average at best.  This isn’t high art when it comes to human storytelling.  There are some pretty predictable character tropes, and a few exchanges are so cheesily melodramatic that they nearly insult the viewer’s intelligence.  Dane’s commander faces off, for example, against a beautiful, independent, female scientist who doesn’t like following orders … gee, I wonder if we’ll see any romantic tension there?

Still, this looks like a good enough show, if its pilot is any indication.  The good outweighs the bad, and I’m glad I heard about it.

 

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A review of “The Conjuring” (2013)

I feel the same way about “The Conjuring” (2013) as I did about its prequel, “Annabelle” (2014) — it has all the earmarks of a bad movie, but it inexplicably succeeds anyway.

Seriously — this film has clunky exposition, cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plot developments (toward the end), not to mention a plot setup that’s in questionable taste.  (The movie suggests that the innocents condemned by the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials were indeed witches.  This feels a bit awkward to anyone who read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school.)  “The Conjuring” also plays out like a love letter to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the controversial paranormal investigators who are largely the subject of the film (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).  This last offense is forgivable, I suppose — the film was made with the Warrens’ blessing, and Lorraine Warren was even present as a “consultant” during its production.

Strangely, however, these flaws were barely noticeable to me when I watched it.  I had a good time.  “The Conjuring” just happens to be a decent fright flick that delivers on the scares.

I think James Wan’s skilled directing has a lot to do with that; the film works visually.  (I could name specific instances where it works especially well, but I want to avoid spoilers.)

The acting helped a lot too — Wilson and Farmiga are both damned good, as is Lili Taylor as the afflicted family’s mother.  (I’ve admired Taylor’s acting since her long ago 1998 guest appearance on “The X-Files,” and she was equally good as a bad guy in 1996’s “Ransom.”)  Ron Livingston was also quite good in the role of the father — if you have trouble placing his face, as I did, he also played Captain Nixon in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” (2001).  He seems to have a talent for playing the likable everyman — he’s great here as the somewhat feckless father, and functions well as a kind of viewer surrogate.  I should also mention the young Joey King as one of the family’s daughters — she played the role of a terrified child to perfection, and really raised the stakes emotionally.

Despite really enjoying most of the movie, some of my enthusiasm for “The Conjuring” flagged a bit toward the end.  The denouement here includes an exorcism, and those are almost always boring.  There are only so many ways that scenario can play out, and we’ve seen them all — and I shouldn’t even need to name that certain 1973 film that did it best.  Furthermore, we see our story’s demon do some pretty extraordinary things, even by demon standards.  It can apparently transport itself great distances (using an inanimate object as a kind of fax machine?), and can manipulate both the laws of physics and the area’s wildlife.  It was all a little too much for my willing suspension of disbelief.

Again, though — this was a good movie.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good scare.

 

A short review of “The Good Neighbor” (2016)

“The Good Neighbor” (2016) generally didn’t work for me.

My first problem was its premise.  Two teenage aspiring filmmakers play an elaborate high-tech prank on an elderly neighbor by installing hidden cameras in his home and then manipulating his environment: causing his lights and TV to malfunction, causing his windows to break, and even adjusting his thermostat to plunge the temperature so he’s forced to cope with the bitter cold.  They plan to mimic a haunting, and they rationalize it because he actually is a horrible person, well portrayed by James Caan in an understated performance.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense — what the teens are doing is against the law, and they know it.  (One explicitly states it at least once mid-way through the film.)  I count trespassing, criminal mischief and unlawful surveillance to start with, and I’m willing to bet they’d face charges for harassment too.  Yet they fully intend to makes themselves “famous” via the Internet with this cruel prank/documentary.  They shoot lengthy footage of themselves narrating the construction and implementation of their project; this is intended as part of the documentary.

But why would they upload detailed, inclusive evidence of their crimes to the Internet?  If they truly become “famous” with thousands of “hits” for their video, wouldn’t that mean countless people could bring them to the attention of the police?  (And, truthfully, even if they tried to remain anonymous, I’m sure any competent investigator viewing their video would at least count them as suspects.  One lives right across the street from Caan’s character.)

For much of its running length, “The Good Neighbor” actually succeeds at being a serviceable horror-thriller — if you can get past that hole in the premise.

But then we come to the second problem with this movie.  Towards its end, it takes an unexpected dramatic turn.  It stops being a thriller, and simply becomes a particularly sad drama.  I don’t want to say to much for fear of spoilers, suffice to say it’s a real downer.  But it isn’t frightening at all — or even terribly entertaining.

The only part near the end that pleased me was the movie’s final shot.  It was ambiguous, but it suggested a nice new level of character depth.  I thought it was neat.

Oh well.  Maybe others will enjoy this film more than I did.  I myself can’t recommend it, and I’d give it a 5 out of 10.

Postscript: you can have some fun here trying to figure out where you’ve seen these teenage actors before.  They’re both veterans of horror.  The mild-mannered one is Keir Gilchrist, who horror fans will recognize from “It Follows” (2014).  The meaner, more manipulative of the pair is Logan Miller, who played the goodhearted Benjamin in this past season of “The Walking Dead.”  It’s so weird seeing him play such different characters.

 

 

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A baffled review of “Lucy” (2014)

Everything you’ve heard about “Lucy” (2014) is correct — it’s exactly as trite and nonsensical as its multitude of unfavorable reviews have described it.  Maybe this was intended as some sort of weird, meta, inside joke by writer and director Luc Besson … after all, it’s a movie about increased “brain capacity” that is, ironically, really dumb.

I can’t imagine why Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman would sully their reputations by starring in this film.  Although, sadly, even the wonderful Johansson is not at her best here.  She seems to try to portray increased intelligence by delivering some of her lines like a robot.  (Seriously, she reads some of her lines like a speedy automaton, and it’s a bad creative decision for her performance.)

I could go on and on about the silly things in this movie.  So could you, if you’ve seen it.  But it’s a lot more fun listening to the surly wise-asses over at Cinema Sins.  Their trademark “Everything Wrong With” video for “Lucy” is particularly harsh.  At one point they call it “an aggressive dickhead of a movie.”  Here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3rZmnJ66Po

There is one overriding problem I need to address myself … and that’s how its premise seems to relate so little to the events of the story.  We begin by understanding that the titular Lucy is affected by a drug that increases her brain capacity.  Before the movie reaches its halfway mark, she appears to gain omniscience.  (She doesn’t need to actually learn anything — she simply knows virtually everything already.  This is evinced by her ability to translate foreign languages instantly, with no books or instruction at all.)  She also appears omnipotent by the film’s end.  Her powers become literally godlike.  And I’m not talking about Thor or Odin from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — we’re talking the all-powerful,  Old Testament God of Abraham.

Why?  Why should increased intelligence, no matter how incredibly vast, give her power of matter, space and even time?  If she were as smart as a thousand Stephen Hawkings, she still shouldn’t be able to do the things she does in the movie.

Believe it or not, I’d rate this movie a 4 out of 10.  (That’s far kinder than the other reviews I’ve read.)  I managed to have fun with this movie by rewriting some of it in my head while I watched.  Instead of Lucy benefiting from a drug that increases her brain capacity (which borrows a bit from 2011’s excellent “Limitless,” anyway), I pretended that I was watching a movie in which Scarlett Johansson became God.  (Think of 2003’s “Bruce Almighty.”)  Honestly.  I swapped out the plot device in my head, and imagined a different movie.  That made it fun — watching Scarlett Johansson as a wrathful God was strangely satisfying, especially when she wreaks havoc on the bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys … that is actually one thing that this otherwise clueless movie manages to get right.  No, I’m not kidding — the Taipei gangsters that serve as the story’s antagonists were performed to perfection by their actors.  The villains were repulsive and terrifying, and they aroused more interest in me than the good guys.  Min-sik Choi was terrific as the homicidal patriarch of the Taiwanese crime syndicate.  Even better, though, was Nicolas Phongbeth as the cherubic-faced, vaguely androgynous, sociopathic lieutenant.  If they were vanquished in this brainless movie, it’d be nice to see them resurrected in a James Bond film or a season of Fox’s “24.”  It’s weird seeing a movie so bad do one important thing so successfully.

There are really only two reasons why anybody should see “Lucy.”  One is morbid curiosity.  Two is if they are a learning to be a screenwriter, and are looking for a feature-length example of what NOT to do.

 

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