Monday, December 26, 2016

Please Hammerhead, Do Hurt Them!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016): written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta; based on characters created by George Lucas and others; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Donnie Yen (Imewe), Wen Jiang (Malbus), Ben Mendelsohn (Krennic), Forest Whittaker (Gerrara), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), and Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso).

Rogue One is better than any of the Star Wars prequel films. That doesn't make it a great movie, but it has its moments. Director Gareth Edwards (with seamless, inset reshoots from writer-director Tony Gilroy) manages some sublime visual moments among the frantic battles and travels.

The first 20 minutes or so are jumpy and in desperate need of streamlining. They play like a series of videogame cutscenes being fast-forwarded through by a low-attention-span gamer. Things then calm down, especially once we've bid a not-so-fond farewell to Forest Whitaker's mumble-mouthed Rebel freedom fighter. 

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna play the two leads, and it's a good thing they've got charisma because Rogue One has no interest in characterization except as it pertains to plot and motivation. Chewbacca and R2D2 playing holographic chess would be a Godsend to this film. There are no quiet moments of humour or pathos: everything serves The Plot.

The visual effects are impressive and sometimes overwhelming. The performances are solid, excepting the eccentrically unintelligible Mr. Whitaker, who also summoned mumble-mouth as a U.S. soldier in this year's Arrival. The climax goes on forever, and features about two too many sub-climaxes. The movies Rogue One pays homage to aren't always old Hollywood classics -- besides the other Star Wars movies, Rogue One nods to Serenity and Deep Impact, The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone

And, in the droid voiced by Alan Tudyk, Marvin the Paranoid Android from all the iterations of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Is it fun? Yeah, once it gets going. One never feels much for anyone -- there are too many characters and not enough lines. But it's a competent, mostly bloodless war movie. Brief stretches are spent trying to convince us that the Rebellion is more morally complex than it appeared to be in previous Star Wars films. These moments never really 'stick.' The Star Wars Universe doesn't play all that well with moral complexity. Love the Rebel Hammerhead Ship, though! Give that ship its own movie! Recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Apes and Avengers

DC Goes Ape Volume 1 (1959-99/ Collected 2008): edited by Bob Joy; written by Otto Binder, John Broome, and others; illustrated by George Papp, Wayne Boring, and others: The story goes that 1950's DC Comics editors noted a sales uptick whenever primates appeared on a comic-book cover. And so primates readers would be given, mostly gorillas and apes (and one Kryptonian super-monkey!). Well, and Detective Chimp.

This volume collects some of DC's finest, freakiest tales of super-apes and criminal gorilla criminals. The material from the 1950's and 1960's shines the brightest, giving us mainstays such as Titano the giant super-ape, the gorilla crime boss of Gotham, telepathic Flash villain Gorilla Grodd, a super-monkey to annoy a young Superboy (or was it Superbaby?), and several others. Wonder Woman even gets changed into a gorilla by an astronaut gorilla from another world. Hoo ha! Recommended.

Avengers: Assault on Olympus (1987/ Collected 2011): written by Roger Stern and Bob Harras; illustrated by John Buscema, Bob Hall, Tom Palmer, and Kyle Baker: Roger Stern's tenure as writer of the Avengers in the 1980's stands as one of two or three high points for Marvel's superhero group. And the art by John Buscema and finisher Tom Palmer was more than solid as well. 

In the aftermath of the epic siege on Avengers mansion story arc, the Avengers find themselves plunged into the world of the magical and mythic. Avenger Hercules got beaten into an unbreakable coma during the siege. Now, Zeus blames the Avengers for Hercules' condition -- and seeks vengeance. It's fun stuff, with one of the more powerful Avengers line-ups when it comes to brute strength (She-Hulk, Thor, and the Sub-mariner). An off-beat standalone story about Avengers' butler Jarvis rounds out the collection. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Past Isn't Even The Past

Scrooged (1988): written by Michael O'Donoghue and Mitch Glazer; directed by Richard Donner; starring Bill Murray (Frank Cross), Karen Allen (Claire Phillips), Bobcat Goldthwait (Eliot Loudermilk), David Johansen (Ghost of Christmas Past), Carol Kane (Ghost of Christmas Present), and Alfre Woodard (Grace Cooley): Bill Murray is on record as being displeased with the choice and work of Director Richard Donner. And he's right. Donner wasn't a comic director. How did he get this assignment? 

The best parts of Scrooged lie in the performances and a sharp script by Michael O'Donoghue and Mitch Glazer, the former a legendarily bleak original member of the Saturday Night Live writing team. But Murray's criticism -- that all Donner knew how to do in comedies was get everyone to 'go' louder and louder -- is valid. Putting the twitchy, adenoidal Bobcat Goldthwait in a role that called for finesse and an ability to generate sympathy really didn't help either. Karen Allen is welcome as always as the lost love of Murray's Scrooge-like TV executive, and Carol Kane also does some violently funny slapstick. Lightly recommended, for it could have been so much better with a lighter, funnier hand on the helm.

Elvis & Nixon (2016): written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes; directed by Liza Johnson; starring Michael Shannon (Elvis), Kevin Spacey (Nixon), Alex Pettyfer (Jerry Schilling), and Colin Hanks (Krogh): Fizzy, funny imagining of just what went on in December 1970 when Elvis met Nixon. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey nail the voices and mannerisms of Presley and Tricky Dick, respectively, despite not particularly resembling them physically. It's funny stuff, with maybe a bit too much sentimentality attached to the friendship of Elvis and Jerry Schilling, the latter being what we in the business would once have called The Narrative Focalizer (TM). But when Elvis and Nixon are in a scene, the scene shines, with Colin Hanks offering capable back-up work as one of Nixon's staff. Recommended.

Arrival (2016): adapted from Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg (Agent Halpern), and Tzi Ma (General Shang): The first half-hour could have used some strenuous advising from someone in the military so as to lose all the military-movie cliches and counter-factual errors that arise. Once we're inside the alien ship, however, things start to sing in this tale of First Contact. 

It's really Amy Adams' show as an actor -- she's great, conveying both intelligence and heartache as the linguist drafted by the U.S. military to figure out the language of the aliens that just parked their giant contact lens in  Montana. More scenes with the aliens would have been appreciated. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve does some nice work with visuals and sound design here, though once again he's made a movie that seems just about 10 minutes longer than it ideally should be. And the sound design occasionally buries the dialogue, suggesting that Villeneuve may be attempting to emulate the sonic garble of Christopher Nolan.  Recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Unstranger Things

Dr. Strange (2016): based on the character created by Steve Ditko; written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Scott Derrickson; starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Rachel McAdams (Rachel Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), and Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius): A bit of a boiler-plate Marvel Movie (think Iron Man with magic instead of technology and you've pretty much got it) enlivened by some ambitiously loopy visuals, albeit some of them riffing on Inception and not anything in the Dr. Strange comic books themselves.

The changes to Dr. Strange's character make him a twin for Robert Downey Jr.'s snarky Tony Stark. That's faithful for pre-magic Dr. Strange, not so much for post-magical-training Dr. Strange, possibly early Marvel's least quippy hero -- even Reed Richards (or Sue Storm, for that matter) got off more zingers than Dr. Strange in the 1960's. Created by writer-artist Steve 'Spider-man' Ditko, Dr. Strange's non-quippy gravitas probably makes him the Marvel character who would most benefit from a trade to DC Comics for, say, the Legion of Super-heroes.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Dr. Strange, and Chiwetel Ejiofor does nice work as a seriously reworked Mordo. Mads Mikkelsen plays the least interesting Marvel Movie villain since Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2. Rachel McAdams is stuck playing Natalie Portman in the Thor movies, only moreso.

The movie's visuals fail spectacularly at the end even as they also succeed admirably in translating Ditko's surreal comic-book visuals of the Dark Dimension into the movie world. To say that the visual redesign of Dr. Strange's greatest foe is regrettable is about the most praise I can offer. The poor bugger has been biggie-sized into a giant floating head that looks an awful lot like what would happen if you painted the Tron visuals for the Master Control Program onto an accordion.

As to the white-washing in regards to Asians... yep, one of Marvel's first prominent, 'good' Asian characters is no more. Doc's mentor, the ancient Asian known only as the Ancient One, is now the surprisingly spry Tilda Swinton, a.k.a. The Whitest Actress Ever. And the other tweaks made to the Ancient One's character don't help much either. 

In other areas, the magic training Strange endures now has all the length and rigor of selecting icons off a computer screen. Really, it makes the Harry Potterverse seem like a world teeming with educational rigor by comparison. Doctor Strange just has to make funky Kung Fu moves -- no pronouncement of spells required. And the mystical doodad Strange and friends need to travel through space-time? It's there to be dropped at a crucial moment, as these things always are. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Wind Chill (2007): written by Joseph Gangemi and Steven Katz; directed by Gregory Jacobs; starring Emily Blunt (Girl), Ashton Holmes (Guy), and Martin Donovan (Highway Patrolman): A car-sharing ride from Pennsylvania to Delaware for Christmas Break goes horribly awry thanks primarily to the fact that the driver is a stalkery loner who has a crush on passenger Emily Blunt. 

However, the movie's more interested in the supernatural than in stalkery, slashy real-world goings-on, and that makes Wind Chill worth watching. The generic title doesn't help matters, especially as wind chill isn't much of a factor -- it's really just cold and snow and a crashed car, within which about 50% of the movie's scenes take place.

The writers go a couple of times too many to the Well of Dreams That Seem To Be Real, but things are otherwise quite, um, chilling. Portions of the story play effectively with various Urban Legend tropes concerning stopped cars and sinister cops, with a nod to the movie's Urban Legend qualities coming in the unnamed status of our two principals, who remain simply 'Guy' and 'Girl' for the movie. Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes do decent work as the 'couple,' and the outdoor scenes manage to be sufficiently chilly and forlorn. Recommended.

JeruZalem  (2015): written and directed by Doron and Yoav Paz; starring Danielle Jadelyn (Sarah Pullman), Yael Grobglas (Rachel Klein), Yon Tumarkin (Kevin Reed), and Tom Graziani (Omar): Loopy found-footage film with an anomalous 'Z' in the title. Yes, the 'Z' is there to cater to World War Z fans. But the monsters in this Israeli production aren't zombies. Jerusalem itself is really the on-location star of this film. 

The two Jewish-American 20-something women who visit Jerusalem on holidays have a good time at first before all Hell breaks loose, though not before the protagonist has taken off her footage-filming iGlasses so that we can get a look at her nekkid. Hoo ha! 

The whole thing ends up being a plea for people of different faiths to get along set against a background of apocalyptic destruction. I enjoyed it, especially its non-zombie components. More nudity might have been nice. Recommended.

Quarantine (2008): adapted by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle from the movie Rec, written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo, and Paco Plaza; directed by John Erick Dowdle; starring Jennifer Carpenter (Angela), Steve Harris (Scott), Jay Hernandez (Jay), and Johnathon Schaech (George): Effective Americanization of the Spanish horror movie Rec throws out Roman Catholicism in favour of a more bioterroristic explanation for the horrors that await the cops, paramedics, film crew, and residents in an L.A. apartment building within which they're trapped under quarantine. 

It's another found-footage movie, and as such it plays better on a small screen (or at least less vertiginously). Jennifer Carpenter's character gets annoyingly reduced to screaming, Fay-Wray stand-in for the last third of the film. Admittedly, who wouldn't scream while being assailed by blood-thirsty, super-strong plague victims at every moment? The original was superior, though not by as much as horror cognoscenti like to pretend. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Calling Elvis ... Is Anybody Home?

The Last Detective (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #9) (2003) by Robert Crais: LA private detective Elvis Cole and occasional partner Joe Pike deal with a problem close to home this time after the son of Cole's girlfriend is abducted from outside Cole's house by someone who claims to have a grudge against Cole for something that happened during Cole's Tour of Duty in Viet Nam.

The mystery plays pretty much fair this time out, though the reader will probably know what's really happened before Cole and Pike. As with many Cole/Pike adventures, this one ends with a violent, cinematic, and thrillingly choreographed action sequence. It's Hardboiled Action in the Mighty Crais Manner! It's all fun and diverting, if a bit shallow. Recommended.

Taken (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #15) (2012) by Robert Crais: LA private detective Elvis Cole and occasional partner Joe Pike again deal with a problem close to home as a kidnapping case suddenly results in Cole himself being kidnapped. Mighty, laconic Joe Pike springs into action with the help of nearly-as-mighty good-mercenary Jon Stone as the clock ticks on the lifespans of Cole and the young couple he was searching for.

The set-up for Taken is really interesting. The logistics and practice of illegal immigrant trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border come in for scrutiny. Real-life horrors are exposed, along with real-life hypocrisies. Pike and Stone make the world's most competent rescue team.

Taken is also Robert Crais' most complex novel from a structural standpoint. Several narratives running at different times and with different POV's converge at the climax, seamlessly. It's really a triumph of plot. Recommended.

Good-Bad Cops

Birdman (1999/ Jack Caffery #1) by Mo Hayder: Glastonbury region police detective Jack Caffery makes his first appearance here in a strong though flawed first novel from Mo Hayder. Caffery is of that ilk of police detectives who really should be private eyes -- like Luther or Jo Nesbo's Norwegian Harry Hole, his ability to stay employed by the police often shreds suspension of disbelief. But not so much here in his first adventure.

Caffery, as wounded a presence as almost any fictional detective I can remember, is, seemingly like all wounded detectives public or private, also the Best Damn Detective on the Force. In his first novel, Caffery faces a puzzling case that begins when a building project results in the discovery of several female bodies buried in a mass grave. They all have similar mutilations and surgery scars. What does this mean?

Well, we'll find out eventually. Caffery has to deal with a racist fellow detective whose beliefs send the investigation careening off course. He has to deal with his unsatisfying girlfriend. He has to deal with what must be the world's largest Scotch bill at the liquor store -- seriously, Caffery drinks single-malt Scotch the way other people drink all other liquids consumed in a normal day. And Caffery must wrestle with the demons of his own past, a brother abducted and never found when Caffery was just a boy. 

Hayder skilfully creates the mystery and its halting solution over the first 90% or so of Birdman. Alas, the perilous stereotypes of the thriller in the age of the Hollywood blockbuster make the climax somewhat disappointing, as it gives us yet another absurdly competent serial killer and yet another sidekick imperiled by the stereotype of the dead partner (See: narratives going right back to Gilgamesh). These things seem rote and boring. But the rest of the novel is very good, and Hayder and Caffery will get better as they go along. Recommended.

The Devil's Star (2003) (Harry Hole #5) by Jo Nesbo. Translated by Don Bartlett 2005: Harry Hole (pronounced HO-LEH) appears in his fifth adventure here. The Norwegian police detective's adventures weren't originally available in publication order in English translation, and the three I've read have lacked any overt explanation of when they occur. That's a bit annoying until one can get onto the Internet and discover publication order. So it goes. I still have no idea how Michael Fassbender can play the gaunt, weathered Hole in the movie of The Snowman.

This time around, Hole grapples with alcoholism, a fellow detective whom he suspects of being a criminal, and his relationship with his girlfriend. Oh, and there's a serial killer. Plot-wise, this is a satisfyingly complex and engaging detective thriller -- and the red herrings really work beautifully and surprisingly. 

Harry remains a somewhat improbable figure throughout. The novel deals with the probability that he will either quit his job or be fired at pretty much any moment, but Harry's superhuman detection skills pretty much ensure that that will never happen regardless of what stupid things he does in the course of an adventure. And boy, does he do stupid things in every novel.

It all fits into what some might call The House Paradigm -- the story in which someone's ability at one's job makes him or her impervious to criticism for other failings, no matter how grievous. That's sort of tiring, though at least Harry doesn't kill anyone in a drunk-driving accident this time around, only to escape all punishment because Everybody Looks Out For Harry.

I've read three of Jo Nesbo's Hole novels now, and I'll note one other problematic recurring plot point: once again, one of Harry's loved ones is imperiled by the killer. If this happened as often in real life as it does in novels, TV shows, and movies, no one would be a police officer. Enough already. Create suspense without the repeated threat of horrific violence to a woman or child. So it goes. Recommended.