Friday, October 13, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ennui (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ennui (2015): based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Jim Starlin, Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and others; written and directed by Joss Whedon; starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man/ Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/ Hulk), Chris Evans (Captain America/ Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/ Hawkeye), James Spader (Ultron), and a bunch of other people: 

Marvel Studios interfered with the production of the second Avengers movie so many times that Joss Whedon is now doing emergency surgery on DC's Justice League movie and developing a DC Batgirl movie. Yay! 

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a busy, crowded mess with plot holes one could fly the SHIELD helicarrier through. It's a good time-waster on TV because one can pause it every 45 minutes or so and because, as with the majority of Marvel Studios movies, it looks like the world's most expensive movie to have ever been shot on the same videotape used for 1970's Doctor Who episodes. Jesus, I hate the colour palette of most Marvel Studios movies. Lightly recommended

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spoiler-heavy thoughts on Blade Runner 2049


1) Ryan Gosling's character is called 'K' and then 'Joe', which seems pretty clearly a nod to Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL . But I also wonder if K was chosen for Sir Kay, adoptive brother of King Arthur, with Deckard and Rachel's child being the Arthur figure for the replicants.

2) My meta counter-reading of Jared Leto's character goes like this: he's a parody of Ridley Scott and his belief in the loopy, overcomplicated scenario in which Deckard is actually a replicant in the original movie.

For one, BR 2049 does not answer the question 'Is Deckard a replicant?'

Instead, Jared Leto's character, when he meets Deckard, hypothesizes a ridiculously complicated plot in which Deckard is a replicant who was programmed to fall in love with Rachael and procreate with her, thus creating the first natural-birth replicant who can also reproduce naturally. 

Deckard's look of 'WTF?' during this scene can be read as commentary on Harrison Ford's oft-stated disdain for Scott's belief that Deckard is a replicant. 

And this plot makes even less sense than previous 'Deckard is a replicant' explanations, given that Tyrell could simply, you know, have had the Deckard replicant have sex with Rachael rather than programming it to believe it's a Blade Runner and send it on a mission to catch other replicants (all with the cooperation of the police and gov't) so that in the course of events it would meet Rachael, fall in love with her, have its life saved by her, and run away with her.

So if Jared Leto (whose character is blind and sees with the aid of several flying cameras deployed around him at all times, basically making him the Director of his own film crew) is Ridley Scott, Jared Leto's character makes way more sense and is actually a great piece of commentary on Ridley Scott.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


Intentionally upside down, btw.
But What If We're Wrong? (2016) by Chuck Klosterman: Chuck Klosterman started his public life as an iconoclastic music critic and reporter before branching out into memoirs, novels, and non-music-related essays. He's still best at music, sub-category rock, though. Here, he tries to branch out into futurism (seriously) and cultural criticism (yes, seriously). The results are fun and awful.

Klosterman's central point would be better suited to a book of essays by various experts on the fields he tackles. The overall question in the book is, what will be proven wrong in the future based on how we've been wrong in the past about the future, and what things will survive? 

Impressively enough, Klosterman attempts to answer this question in relation to various fields of human endeavour without once referring to any major predictive (right or usually wrong) written works of science fiction or, for that matter, very many futurists. His construction of how we were wrong in the past is mostly a collection of general assertions, I'm assuming because specific examples would require research time that Chuck clearly had no intention of spending on this book. Or any book, now that I think of it.

When Klosterman stays on music (and, to be fair, sports) , the book's flaws are minimized. Even then, Klosterman's vagueness and indecision about what it is exactly that he's assessing -- popularity or critical 'goodness'? rightness or longevity? -- causes problems. 

To wit: because the general population only 'knows' a handful of classical composers now, Klosterman believes the population will only know of one rock musician a few hundred years from now. Or maybe more. A problem develops in Klosterman's reasoning in this section when he consults an expert on classical music, who sub-divides the classical composers the general public 'knows' into centuries and movements. OK, BUT, the general public doesn't remember any of these composers by century or movement. It just knows classical music as the names of a handful of composers.

OK, BUT, the general public really also knows classical music by familiar pieces and snippets of pieces used in popular works -- ads, movies, and Warner Brothers cartoons. Klosterman doesn't assess the music this way, however. And in treating rock music as if it were one of those classical-music subsets -- 19th-century classical, or Baroque, or whatever -- he's reduced himself to thinking about what one rock musician will still be known by name in 500 years rather than assessing a handful AND a second assemblage of pieces and snippets. So the argument doesn't really hold together.

And this is the best part of the book.

When Klosterman rambles into The World's Most-Remembered Writer and Great American Novels, the results are dire and ill-researched and absolutely blind to genre (Klosterman may have been born a rock critic, but he's a snob when it comes to literature even though he admits to have never finished a work by several major American authors, and even though much of his argument suggests that he may have never finished reading a novel by anybody since he was in high school). 

When he ventures into science, diligently reporting that Neil DeGrasse Tyson seems to be really pissy with him, one wonders the Tyson didn't punch him. In this section, Klosterman sets up a false dichotomy between what Tyson's talking about and what another scientist is talking about. I'll leave it to you to figure that one out. 

Later in the book, Klosterman  notes that he's not going to go on at length about global warming. So he does for three pages instead, glibly and infuriatingly. At one point, Klosterman's discussion of what he thinks will happen with global warming suggests that Klosterman, raised in North Dakota, remains unaware of the Canadian province due North of North Dakota and what its principal crops are.

So it goes. Klosterman reveals in the acknowledgements section that he was unaware hedgehogs weren't native to North America until the book had already been typeset, thus making his anecdote about watching a hedgehog in his yard in Illinois (or maybe Brooklyn) seem a bit... unlikely. Maybe it was a woodchuck, Klosterman notes. OK. This all ties into Klosterman's recurring riff on the old saying that the hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox many small things. Or maybe the woodchuck knows one large thing. Maybe Klosterman needs better editors and fact-checkers. Maybe the hedgehog doesn't know anything at all.

Klosterman also hilariously uses the term "third rail" as if it were a synonym for "happy medium" during his discussion of global warming. What? Does Chuck Klosterman actually know anything? Did anyone copy-edit or just plan edit this book? Should someone tell Chuck to go back to music and the occasional sports piece? Do repeated references to Citizen Kane imply that the Citizen Kane Film 101 class was the only class Klosterman attended in college?  Only recommended for Klosterman completists.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wonder Women, Again

Hidden Figures (2016): adapted by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi from the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly; directed by Theodore Melfi; starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson/Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), and Glen Powell (John Glenn): How does Taraji P. Henson not get a nomination for this? Oscar noms for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) and Best Adapted Screenplay have been given to this fine docudrama. 

Does it play fast and loose with the facts, especially in compressing 15 years worth of events into two years? Well, yeah. So, too, so many other docudramas and biopics. It is a bit of a drag, though, to discover that with a wealth of real-life racist moments to draw upon, the film-makers chose to invent certain incidents and exaggerate others so as to get their desired response. 

Hidden Figures presents the Space Race as a thrilling exercise in math, engineering, and race relations. How great is that? Less great is the hour or so devoted to boilerplate domestic melodrama. We can get boilerplate domestic melodrama from almost any Hollywood film. We can't get realistic space stuff. So it goes. A spoonful of sugar for the audience.

The acting is superb, from Kevin Costner's (composite) team leader of NASA Langley's mathematicians striving to put an American in space and in orbit to the aforementioned Henson as pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician who helped put Americans into orbit and on the Moon. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae also do terrific work as an African-American computer-team leader and engineer, respectively. It's a movie about the thrill of intelligence and lofty aspirations, dominated by women. Recommended.

Wonder Woman (2017): based on characters created by William Moulton Marston, H.G. Peter, George Perez, and others; written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick), and Elena Anaya (Dr. Poison): 

Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg go back to Richard Donner's first Superman movie for inspiration (among other sources). The result is a crowd-pleaser with a female superhero. It may go on just about one climax too many, but overall Wonder Woman is a delight, as is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. A relative unknown, she shows the star power and charm of that other relative unknown, Christopher Reeve. The film-makers even figured out how to make WW's boy-pal Steve Trevor interesting. 

I do miss certain elements of the original (to comics) island of the Amazons, which possessed some pretty trippy 1940's attributes (high technology, invisible planes, giant riding kangaroos called Kangas). Superheroes should be rooted in the fantastic moreso than in the realistic or realistically imagined, though I realize I'm probably in the minority on this. These are children's characters. The more Wonder the better. 

The BluRay has some pretty decent featurettes on it, though none on WW creator William Moulton Marston and unacknowledged (starting with the credit-hungry Marston himself) co-creator, artist H.G. Peter. Shame! Recommended.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Spenser, Dire

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1)  (1973) by Robert B. Parker: The first published novel featuring Robert B. Parker's hardboiled but sensitive PI Spenser (no first name ever given) involves the Mob and... academia? The titular manuscript is an illuminated medieval manuscript stolen from a Boston university (though not Boston University). The administration suspects campus radicals and hires Spenser to investigate. The case turns out to be more complex than that.

Some of Spenser's defining traits are already in evidence, though muted compared to even a couple of books later in publication. He's a good cook, and cooking will get described in detail that suggests at points that Parker was a frustrated cookbook writer. He's sarcastic, so sarcastic that some scenes strain credibility. He loves quoting literature. He can beat up almost anyone. And he's a sexy beast. 

My personal rating of hardboiled detective series seems to now revolve around just how much of wish-fulfillment character the protagonist seems to be, as much for the writer as the reader. The more wish-fulfilly a PI, the less interesting I find the series. And after this first adventure, Spenser was about to become way more wish-fulfilly. It doesn't help that the mystery isn't that mysterious. Lightly recommended.

God Save the Child (Spenser #2)  (1974) by Robert B. Parker: The Spenser series begins to shift into some serious wish-fulfillment territory, along with some jarringly creepy stuff involving a gay body-builder having a sexual relationship with a teenager who's way below the age of consent. This doesn't seem to particularly irritate or offend Spenser. 

Ah, those carefree days of the 1970's! 

Spenser's investigation of the disappearance of that teenager once again seems to be peculiarly non-mysterious, even with the 11th-hour introduction of a sex ring (also involving underage teenagers!) into the narrative. Spenser's long-time gal-pal Susan Silverman appears for the first time, giving Spenser his own wish-fulfillment figure. And someone to cook for, in detail. Not recommended.

Promised Land (Spenser #4) (1976) by Robert B. Parker: This won the 1977 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel. Was 1977 a bad year? Were no other mystery novels published? On the bright side, there's no creepy references to sex with underage teenagers this time around (or 'Statutory Rape,' as it's also known). 

There is a lot of relatively enlightened talk about feminism and what seems like half a novel devoted to Spenser's relationship with Susan Silverman. Spenser explains how to cook and drinks enough booze to make one wonder why he's still able to function as a PI in his late 30's. Well, really everyone drinks an extraordinary amount and eats a lot of seafood and the occasional spaghetti dinner.

Parker's attention to minute detail as to what people wear makes for a lot of hilarity in these 1970's novels. In today's terms, an awful lot of characters are dressed like garish clowns. So when Spenser himself reacts to one character's choice of clothing as being odd (a white-leather cloak with a hood), one notes that hey, that's actually the most normal-for-now outfit anyone has worn in any of these three early novels!

The mystery is again perfunctory, while not one but two climactic set-pieces occur almost entirely without tension. Spenser's eventual pal/occasional partner Hawk (played by Avery Brooks in the 1980's Spenser TV series starring Robert Urich) makes his first substantial appearance in the series in this, the fourth Spenser novel. He's sort of cool. The novel, not so much. Not recommended.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Freshman (1990)

The Freshman (1990): written and directed by Andrew Bergman; starring Matthew Broderick (Clark Kellogg), Marlon Brando (Carmine Sabatini), Bruno Kirby (Victor Ray), Penelope Ann Miller (Tina Sabatini), Frank Whaley (Steve Bushak), Jon Polito (Chuck Greenwood),, Paul Benedict (Prof. Fleeber), Maximillian Schell ('Larry London'), B.D. Wong (Edward), and Monitor Lizards (Komodo Dragon): 

Classic screwball comedy from... 1990? Marlon Brando gives his funniest, warmest performance in, possibly, ever. As in 'intentionally funny.' He plays the 'real' basis for the character of Don Corleone of the Godfather series, New York 'importer' Carmine Sabatini, aka 'Jimmy the Toucan' ("No one actually calls him that," notes his spitfire daughter Tina to the Godfather-loving film professor played wonderfully by Paul Benedict). 

For some reason, freshman NYU film student Matthew Broderick catches Brando's interest. And after a somewhat slow first 20 minutes, The Freshman rockets off into scene after scene of inspired lunacy and surprisingly affecting sentiment. Broderick and Brando make a terrific team. One wishes for more scenes between them, or perhaps another movie. 

Writer-director Andrew Bergman (writer or co-writer of such comedies as Blazing Saddles, The In-Laws, and Fletch) really should have had a bigger Hollywood career -- when he's good, he's very good. Recommended.

Wind River (2017)

Wind River (2017): written and directed by Taylor Sheridan; starring Jeremy Renner (Cory Lambert), Kelsey Asbille (Natalie), Graham Greene (Ben), Gil Birmingham (Martin), and Elizabeth Olsen (Jane Banner): Wind River Reservation is located in Wyoming, though the state is played by Utah in this movie. Fish and Wildlife Service officer Cory Lambert is our protagonist, drawn into the investigation of a murdered female Native American teenager when the assigned FBI agent (played by a game Elizabeth Olsen) requests help in navigating both the social and physical terrain of the reservation and all its wild landscape.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan (writer of Hell or High Water and Sicario) keeps things terse and taut while also allowing for the Sublime landscape to play a major role in the film. But he's also a sharp observer of human character amongst a variety of laconic individuals and of small moments amongst the landscape. For some reason, a shot of a spider running across the snow caused me to laugh out loud in delight.

The mystery isn't complex. Wind River is more engaged with the sorrow and horror of the murder, and of the plight of the Native Americans in general, and of Lambert's secret (to the viewer) source of sorrow, the last teased out only towards the end of the film. And Jeremy Renner gets to act again. 

And we remember how good Renner was in The Hurt Locker and how misused his talents have been in the Bourne sequel and those three Marvel movie appearances. He's at his best here expressing a sort of stoic pain. Elizabeth Olsen is solid as the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, as are Graham Greene as the tribal police chief and other actors playing police and citizens and oil-camp workers. Wind River isn't a great film, though in a marketplace dominated by bombast and CGI it's refreshing, much like a Junior Mint. Recommended.